This paper will explore the cultural and political mobilization of James Baldwin’s image in documentary film: images that both authorize and thwart easy access to contemporary discernment of this writer’s continuing significance – thirty-five years after his death – for transforming twenty-first century racial logics. Since #BlackLivesMatter reignited radical movement in 2013 following the death of Trayvon Martin, Baldwin’s prescient “tell it like it is” dictum resonates with activists amid today’s climate of racialized violence and divisive social animosity. Raoul Peck’s bricolage styled documentary, I Am Not Your Negro (2017), remobilized Baldwin’s image repertoire to contemporize this revered – and often criticized – writer and incisive “witness” to renewed effect. Taking into account critiques of Peck’s palpable scenes of black social death, gendered violence, and the surprising dodging of Baldwin’s contribution to LBGTQ activism and queering visuality, the paper examines earlier Baldwin documentaries: Terrence Dixon’s rarely seen, presumptuous film, Meeting the Man: James Baldwin in Paris (1970); and Sedat Pakay’s poetic document on Baldwin during one day in Istanbul, James Baldwin: From Another Place (1973). Offering radically different documentary modes and sensibilities, both documentaries nevertheless provoke question about visual evidence. Indeed, as critic Hilton Als (2017) observed, Baldwin’s life and countenance present “layered narratives no camera can expose or explain, or entirely reveal.” Als’s remark prompts further inquiry: does the labour of deliberation these documentaries demands for grasping sensory possibilities of Baldwin’s uncompromising requirement for social change remain solely a matter of documentary realism?
Foregrounding this issue, the paper’s explicit aim is to problematize easy assumptions that the mere recirculation of Baldwin documentaries is politically transgressive, particularly in contexts of pedagogical practice. Relatedly, the paper will propose conceptual and ethical considerations that inform pedagogical reception of documentaries on the figure of Baldwin.
Dr. Warren Crichlow, Associate Professor in the Faculty of Education at York University Toronto, Canada. His, Baldwin’s Rendezvous with the Twenty-First Century: I am Not Your Negro, appears in Film Quarterly (summer 2017), and he is co-author, A Grand Panorama: Isaac Julien’s Lessons of the Hour, Film Quarterly (Summer 2020). He is a co-editor of Race, Identify and Education (1993 and 2005), and a co-editor of the forthcoming Spaces of New Colonialism: Reading Schools, Museums and Cities in the Tumult of Globalization (Peter Lang, 2020).
In recent academic literature, studies of conservative nonfiction media and its production have largely centered around the rise of right-wing radio programming, debates over broadcast television, and the development of echo chambers via cable networks like Fox News and digital press outlets like Breitbart and The Daily Caller. Fewer scholars have formally studied activist conservative documentaries that are regularly screened at the yearly Conservative Political Action Conference. This presentation seeks to add to the study of conservative populism by investigating its grassroots media production in the U.S.
To do this, I examine two Citizens United documentaries America at Risk (2010) and Battle for America (2010) in relation to their revolutionary narratives about political participation in presidential politics. My paper studies how these two documentaries present a historical reading of the United States that they use to justify a revolutionary sentiment against the Obama administration that becomes later situated in ethnic terms. These activist documentary texts offer windows into the forms of racial resentment, messaging, and identity politics that characterize the after-influences of the conservative Tea Party movement. By analyzing these two films, I explore how the conservative political documentary mythologizes the at-risk nation of the United States to ground its racial critique of the Democratic Party. Drawing on familiar narratives of white imperilment, I argue that the ideologies of historical interpretation that are presented in these documentaries prefigure much of the revolutionary rhetoric observable in the insurrectionary efforts by conservatives at U.S. Capitol in January 2021.
Michael Reinhard is a PhD candidate in Cinema and Media Studies at the University of California, Los Angeles. He researches the ethnic politics and documentary production of the Tea Party movement by the political organization Citizens United. This research will appear in The Oxford Handbook of American Documentary (forthcoming) and has been presented at international conferences like the Society for Cinema and Media Studies and Screen Studies Conference. His work has been supported by the Plitt Southern Theater Employees Trust Fellowship, UCLA’s Dissertation Year Fellowship, and the Kemp R. Niver Scholarship in Film History.
This paper examines digital necropolitics as a concept that refashions both testimony and mourning through the networked distribution of images of the dead and dying. I focus on how digital forums have extended biological death, transforming it into a productive “after-life” that can reanimate the corpse as a constituent part of social identities and political movements. Through a close reading of Diamond Reynolds’ cellular testimony documenting Philando Castile’s death, I situate her individual, political act, as a novel form of necro-resistance that disrupts the historical continuum of images of racialized violence in a US context.
Cellular testimony distinguishes itself from written and oral forms of testimony that have substantiated the term’s historical use, for it is created outside the sphere of legitimate forums and yet penetrates them through the collective momentum created by their rapid circulation throughout digital spaces. Thus cellular testimony originates outside the judicial realm, not to circumvent it, but to anticipate its biases and influence its decisions. Cellular testimonies presume interactivity on the part of viewers and mobilize their affect in order to attain justice. Such testimonies are both self-conscious in that they foreground the producer’s own life and self-reflexive in that they do not rely upon an external authority to legitimate their content. However, cellular testimonies are not intended to be insular testaments but rather a conduit between witness and viewer that recognizes mourning itself as a political act. In essence, cellular testimony is a direct mode of image governance authored by the oppressed and powered by a public that transcends institutional protocols by exploiting digital spaces. Thus, digital necropolitics reimagines death in the digital age not as a point of finality, but rather as a catalyst that produces new networked publics and democratic forms of activism intent on eroding the fortifications of state power.
Francesca Romeo is a Ph.D. Candidate in Film and Digital Media at the University of California at Santa Cruz. Her work deploys visual studies, political theory, and human rights discourse in order to interrogate the nature of information and advocacy in the digital age. Utilizing a theory/practice approach, she analyzes how networked power proliferates in a global context through the production, alteration, and circulation of images and envisions alternative ways of scripting resistance and securing social justice from “below” through the practice of open-source investigations.
Alex Johnston is a documentarian, media maker, and scholar. His award-winning work, including the films Evidence of the Evidence and NOW! AGAIN!, have screened at a wide range of venues, such as the Berlinale, AFI, London Short Film Festival, Camden International Film Festival, and the Miners’ Colfax Medical Center, a convalescent home for retired hard rock and coal miners in Raton, New Mexico. He is an editor of the radical online media journal NOW! A Journal of Urgent Praxis, (NOW-Journal.com) and is an assistant professor of film at Seattle University.