Writer and film programmer Nzingha Santiago Kendall and filmmaker Madeleine Hunt-Ehrlich are participating in the inaugural UNDO FELLOWSHIP, a UnionDocs Center for Documentary Arts and JustFilms initiative to expand and research radical filmmaking practices. They will be sharing dispatches from their collaboration with ARTS.BLACK. This is Dispatch #1.
MADELEINE HUNT-EHRLICH: I’ve found myself in my recent research spending time with Phillis Wheatley’s correspondence with fellow enslaved woman Obour Tanner. Tanner was brought from Senegal, similar to Wheatley, to be enslaved in New England. At some point the two women became friends. There’s much we don’t know, but this we do: Phillis Wheatley writes to Obour Tanner until the end of her life.
NZINGHA SANTIAGO KENDALL: I recently read the beautiful series of exchanges between Pat Parker and Audre Lorde that are collected in Sister Love. I love the way their conversation unwinds and meanders over the course of twenty-plus years. Lorde offers guidance to Parker as she navigates insecurities both creative and financial; they gossip about lovers; they discuss healthy diets appropriate for fighting cancer. In any case, I’m excited that we have our own opportunity for exchange.
MHE: I love that. I wanted to share some of the ways I’ve been considering Wheatley and her work as a way to think through the history of Black women’s intellectual life and artistic production in the Americas. There is no reason to believe that the letters exchanged between Phillis Wheatley and Obour Tanner were not surveilled, and you sense that the women are guarded with their language and references. But it is also possible to glimpse in the letters veiled or coded meanings. I am thinking about what their dedication to one another signified for each other (at one point, Tanner asks for a supply of Wheatley’s books to distribute them at her church) and also what forms that support may have taken in the text of their letters. They read as several layers of communication, some of it visible and some of it not. That really interests me: counter-dialogues beneath the surface of a text.
Turning to our own recent correspondence, I want to chat with you today more specifically about Black female spectatorship, artistic production, channels of distribution, and criticism as a unique history and conversation that can take place across generations.
NSK: Can we go back for a moment to this idea of dialogues beneath the surface of the text? I’m revising an essay about love — primarily romantic love, but maybe also platonic as well — in Kathleen Collins’s Losing Ground and Sara Gómez’s De Cierta Manera. Both films deal with relationship woes between men and women and I think that both Collins and Gómez were grappling with these questions in very personal ways. They gave us films that opened up other possibilities for understanding how relationships work and could work. They weren’t formulaic in their filmmaking and they experimented with their screenplays and the film form to explore the complexities of Black life.
There’s that story of Kathleen Collins’s attempt to get distribution for Losing Ground. In the footage from her 1984 master class at Howard, she talks about a private screening for (white) distributors. They were very uncomfortable about the film and asked Collins what the “racial angle” was. It was so crazy to hear her recount this story, as though all films by and about Black folks needed to consider our position in relationship to white people. Like we couldn’t — and can’t — live lives outside of their gaze. As we know, it took over two decades for Losing Ground to finally get theatrical distribution. In Losing Ground, Collins offers us myriad messages that go deeper than the film’s surface. Not only do we need to understand the code, we also need to come to the film with generosity.
Anyway, both of these women contended with anti-Black gatekeepers, but they made their films nonetheless. That’s my takeaway: They made their films nonetheless. And there were other Black women who made sure that these films were seen.
I guess what I’m concerned with is what happens when we, Black women, witness other Black women. What happens when we train our own careful gaze on the artistic works crafted by Black women? I feel that’s definitely what you’re doing in your own work right now, for example, with the Composer’s Trilogy.
MHE: The Black Composers Trilogy, my trio of short films about Black women artists and desire, is personal for me. All art is in some way personal, and for me this is a way to honor my mother and grandmother, as well as my many artist mothers. In an era when we have begun to achieve widespread visibility for Black art, I’m thinking about giving care to the legacies of the labor of these women, and women like them. Personally, I am not interested in “Black firsts.” I am interested in the work of being a part of a dialogue.
NSK: Yes, there is an exceptionalism inherent in the notion of “Black firsts” that goes back to the kind of individual success that I think both of us are resistant to. This idea of your work being part of a dialogue also speaks to the idea of spectatorship. So while we might think about how your work is in conversation with other films — and perhaps written texts as well — your work also opens up a dialogue with the viewer. This is a generous stance in that you’re not imposing a singular meaning for your audience to understand your films, but you’re offering us an opportunity to build meaning together in a kind of community. I don’t want to be overly essentialist, but maybe this is a “feminine” or “womanly” move?
MHE: Historically, so many Black women have been community builders, salon holders, editors, publishers, archivists, and facilitators who have enabled some of our most important intellectual and artistic movements — all forms of contribution that are not commodifiable. As you have noted before, Kathleen Collins worked as a translator for the film journal Cahiers du Cinéma. I think about Camille Billops who was a filmmaker, but whose salons and archives are also important. Filmmaker Madeline Anderson was Ricky Leacock’s producer, and she gave filmmaker William Greaves his first job on the television show American Black Journal. In more recent times I think of how important Black women film programmers like Terri Francis and Maori K. Holmes have been in the cultivation of new generations of Black filmmakers. Simone Leigh is a master sculptor and filmmaker, and her practice also includes convenings of black women artists and intellectuals in dialogue and performance. Growing up, my mother, poet Erica Hunt, always had writers and artists in her kitchen of all ages, in community with one another. That left a big impression on me.
For me, this thought is particularly inspired by the work of the Black women of Negritude. Paulette and Jane Nardal’s salons in Paris in the 1930s are the setting for the early discourse of Negritude. Suzanne Césaire is an important voice in that conversation as well. (I am currently working on a feature film about her and her work.) Her concept of camouflage is in the conversation that culminates in Edouard Glissant’s opacity, but she is rarely mentioned in relationship to the theory. Something I’ve been questioning is: Are the narratives and labor we historicize skewed towards traditionally male and white kinds of accomplishment, predicated on a privileged material access and support? What do stories about facilitation look like? Can a film mirror that work of facilitation at some level?
NSK: I definitely understand the collaboration between you, Simone Leigh, and writer Kaitlyn Greenidge with regards to the United Order of the Tents as facilitation. For me, Spit on the Broom plays with mediation and the gaze in really inventive ways so that we get an understanding of the history of the Tents. But it’s a suggestive history, not an authoritative one. There is a dreamlike quality to the film, where you give us these fragments of information. It is up to us as viewers to fill in gaps in order to create a fuller, more complete story, but in a perverse way there will never be a fully integrated “whole.”
MHE: My work with the Tents was collective. In fact, much of the scholarship that has been done on the Tents has been structured this way. My first visit with the Tents was at the invitation of Simone.
The Tents are a collective as well, and with the exception of Annette M. Lane who incorporated the Tents’ first district in 1867 (its network of women can be traced to 1847), few names are known of the group’s original founders. What is known is found in written summaries of the group’s history that are repeated, condensed, and passed down over generations. For much of their history, the Tents have operated with secrets, in the tradition of their founding.
Over the course of two years, I attended half a dozen of the group’s conferences and conducted close to twenty oral histories. I later brought in National Museum of African American History and Culture curator Teddy Reeves and began a process to hopefully have the Tents’ archives acquisitioned so that historians can do important work using the group’s preserved ledgers. In addition, scholarship on the Tents has been undertaken by groups of students and faculty at Brooklyn College in New York and Weeksville Heritage Center.
NSK: This can all be considered the work of facilitation. I love that it’s a collaborative process where each of you can play to your respective strengths. How do you see the film production piece? How did you approach the construction of the film?
MHE: In my own work, the Tents became teachers in film form. The audio spine of the Spit on the Broom is composed of excerpts of newspaper articles and advertisements beginning in 1888, where the Tents have decided for themselves how to represent their story to the public. The film is narrated in the words of members of the Tents from the past, as read by Annette H. Richter, the great-great-granddaughter of Annetta M. Lane. Visually, the film takes more liberties. It embraces its own evasion and takes the audience on a journey of suggestion, the surreal, and imagery inspired by the Tents’ history.
I work with crews (as many collaborators as I can afford) which makes me a filmmaker who does have to raise money for projects. And while I work with non-fiction research and scripted content, I also work collaboratively with other artists and practitioners on my sets. Spit on the Broom was lensed by my partner Jon-Sesrie Goff, who I’ve worked with on several projects. We shot in Savannah with a number of local performers including dancers Muriel Miller and Mikeisha McPhaul.
When Ms. Richter saw Spit on the Broom and I asked her what she thought, she said to me, “Well, you didn’t give away any of our secrets.” That was important to me. To reveal on a set of terms that played with being seen without exposing. I’m inspired by the Tents to think of representations of Black women this way. Such a small percentage of images of us have been made on our own terms.
NSK: You’re right. What you’ve mentioned is key: striking a balance between revealing and exposing. I use a similar approach in my videographic criticism work. I also rely on suggestion when I analyze other films in my videos; I want the viewer to think with me, but also to feel with me. While making video essays allows me to carefully look more closely at films by Black women, I also want these videos to serve as a catalyst for people to re/watch these films. Right now, I’m thinking specifically of the films by Sara Gómez. I understand the body of Gómez’s work to be both explicitly and implicitly about Black life in Cuba. Going back to your disinterest in Black firsts, there are ways that Gómez is being recuperated now as a “first” who we should look up to, but I want to understand her work in a context that is much more capacious than just as a “first.”
When we take the time to look carefully at her work, we can see how daring and intentional she was. I wonder what it must have been like for her to work at ICAIC (Cuban Film Institute), this place run by white men, and in turn, produce all these films about Black life on the island. One of the earliest “successes” of the Cuban revolution was the eradication of racism on the island. This meant that the “problem” of race as depicted on-screen was often relegated to Cuba’s past, or as existing elsewhere. Gómez’s films are striking to me because she insists on centering black people in Cuba’s contemporary, revolutionary present. As a black woman, she navigated a complicated position within the structure of ICAIC, and a number of her documentary films ended up being censored.
Going back to the idea of white validation, I think of how Julio García Espinosa called Gómez’s De Cierta Manera one of the best examples of “imperfect cinema.” There’s something about De Cierta Manera as a “perfect” imperfect film that seems off to me. Especially because we know that García Espinosa and Tomás Gutiérrez Alea supervised the final edit of the film because Gómez passed away while it was being cut. I’ve read that Gómez intended for the film to be longer than the 79-minute running time, which of course makes me wonder what was left on the cutting room floor. Not only that, Gutiérrez Alea basically remade the film with whites in the principal roles a few years later. So much for perfection!
In my research on Black women who make independent films I extend García Espinosa’s theory of imperfect cinema to consider how Black films —or indeed, Blackness in general — is imperfect. I’m pushing myself to understand imperfection as an advantage instead of a disadvantage. There’s such richness to be had within a space of imperfection that isn’t limited by the finality of the perfect. In this way, through the imperfect, there is space to keep going. I’m thinking about your work and the kind of ellipses you offer as a kind of imperfection as well.
MHE: I love this idea of imperfect Blackness — as an aesthetic that maybe is the result of a limited set of resources or in the case of working with historic material, a limited set of information — but that also produces something of value. In film, I feel this acutely in how the texture of some films feels so removed from the labor of the film. like I have no way to access them, and then, of course, in the way we talk about films as the product of a single genius author as opposed to the collaboration that produced it. It’s worth asking if straight continuity can achieve anything new or innovative for us at this point. What does a Black women’s liberatory aesthetic look like? I think it lies in context and acknowledging the dialogue or community around a work of art. It’s worth asking as we have John Shields mapping Phillis Wheatley into the Romantics as one of the first Romantic poets: What forces kept her out of that conversation this long? For me, a way of challenging these systems of erasure is saying, for instance, that Obour Tanner may have distributed Phillis Wheatley’s poems at her church, and that that was meaningful.
NSK: That seems like a perfect way to end this conversation. We’ve come full circle and returned to Phillis Wheatley and Obour Tanner, while also returning to the problem of claiming the designation of “first.” But since we’ve also been talking about imperfection, is it appropriate to reopen the circle so there’s a gap in the continuity? Like the gaps in time that mark intervals in Wheatley and Tanner’s and Lorde and Parker’s correspondence? Let’s pause here then until the next dispatch.
ABOUT THE AUTHORS
Madeleine Hunt Ehrlich makes work about the private lives and worlds of Black women. Her practice is rooted in archival research and field research, which then gets translated through a writing process, and then finally a filmmaking process that includes narrative, documentary and experimental film techniques. This means working closely with archives that until recently did not preserve or respect Black voices and thinking about how to represent histories that have been neglected.
Nzingha Santiago Kendall is a film scholar and programmer. Her work focuses on moving images by Black women from across the diaspora. She has a PhD in American Studies and is currently a postdoctoral fellow at the Carter G. Woodson Institute for African American and African Studies at the University of Virginia.