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Under the Black Light

Retrospective: Black Light

Under the Black Light

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© Courtesy of The British Film Institute

If cinema is a matter of perception, the theory of cinema could only be confronted, during the course of its history, with the fundamental question: whose perception? To answer this question means to become aware that cinema has been created under the predominance of specific eyes: eyes for which the centre of the world would inevitably coincide with the figure of the white heterosexual man, bearer of the one and only "normal" perspective with respect to which all the "other" perceptions – of other cultures, other genres, other sexual orientations – would represent only an endless series of exceptional cases.

Compared to other arts, even if marked by this distortion of perspective, cinema has an advantage: when it was born at the end of the nineteenth century, it found itself in a context where anti-racist, anti-classist and feminist tensions were already simmering and that, during the twentieth century, would put this perception of things in crisis. So, from the very beginning of cinema, the "other" perspectives outlined their own paths, first underground, then illuminated by the spotlights.

The 2019 Retrospective is heading down one of these: Black Light follows the same path of Black cinema, going back from 2000 (with the experimental film still/here by the artist Christopher Harris) to 1919 (with Within Our Gates, by the pioneer Oscar Micheaux); in the middle, 45 works that formulate a (re)definition of the category. "Black cinema cannot be defined easily, any more than Black people can be defined easily" notes the curator of the section, Greg de Cuir, Jr. "There are geographic, political, aesthetic differences, and more. Probably the main characteristics are an engagement with black culture in an international sense, the channeling of a black sensibility. Certainly, black directors are the primary contributors to Black cinemas. But not all black directors are making Black cinema. Definition and classification are knotty prospects. Quoting Racquel Gates and Michael Gillespie, in their manifesto on black films, "Perhaps, ambivalence might be a good place to start."

So, in the selection we find films that differ in origin (from Africa to Europe, from the United States to Latin America), genre (documentaries, experimental videos, onslaughts of blaxploitation, Hollywood hits, queer phantasmagoria and revolutionary posters) and the background of the directors (from Pasolini to Spike Lee, passing on to discreet pioneers like Sara Gómez, who with De cierta manera made the first film of an African woman in the Americas). The result is a painting of Black cinema consisting of a fragmentary composition of many "Black cinemas", characterized by "a plurality of voices and styles. The picture that emerges should be a collage, a historical collage, an inclusive historical collage. The aim is to challenge and expand notions of what Black cinema is, what it was, what it can be."

And so, in GranRex and its surroundings Jackie Brown meets Nola Darling, the enigmatic illusionist of Daïnah la métisse (1931) descends to the underworld alongside the Orfeu negro of the homonymous musical (1959), the heroine of Coffy (1973) crosses weapons with the drug dealer of Super Fly (1972). All those figures, by appearing on screen, marked the escape from the established roles for black actors and showed that other perspectives, other views were possible. "Allow me to paraphrase Stuart Hall: 'the vocation of modern Black cinema is to allow us to see and recognize the different parts and histories of ourselves to construct points of identification and positionalities that we call cultural identities'."

Sara Groisman

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