I could make out a bit of what he was sayin, but like I said, I never was good at foreign talk.Henry Dumas, ‘Ark of Bones’
Most of these writings often originate from conversations with friends and family. I want to express gratitude in how none of what happens here or within us occurs in a bubble. Many of these thoughts meander without foundation for weeks at a time until something comes along and creates a string of sorts connecting these interests into some idea-mesh.
For this, that string was Arthur Jafa and his concept of Black Visual Intonation. BVI or “worrying the image” as so deftly put in Aria Dean’s write-up on Jafa and his 2017 work, ‘Love is the Message, The Message is Death‘, speaks to the hurdles he sees Black cinema and its language will continue to grapple with for the foreseeable future. Unlike other art forms such as dance, poetry, or the most matured of the Black arts in Jafa’s eyes, music, Black cinema has long applied the structure, tools, and language of white supremacy resulting in a sum of predominately mediocre output in modern history. Without naming names, something that has become a bit of a recurrence is the Black community’s cyclical rebukation of the “black movie” of the moment. Although these works may be executed the right intention, these movies result in an internal dissonance within black audiences primarily because you aren’t speaking our language. Poet Dionne Brand speaks to this conundrum writing, “We are people without a translator. The language we use already contains our demise and any response contains that demise as each response emboldens and strengthens the language it hopes to undermine”. Brand assumedly speaks to the English language, but other language is not absolved from this prison such as Eurocentric methods of song progression, tonality, frequency, formality in dance, poetry, and yes, film structure. This prison also as a bi-product of dictating not only viability, but normalcy. Is something abstract because it may not follow a three act structure, is something “off” because of how the protagonist is speaking, “why is she talking like that?”. These are the forms we should confront at every level.
When someone asks “what is blackness?”, it’s a moot point; not because there’s no answer, but it is something to feel as we no longer-never have-had the language to describe it. An idea like this may seem a little squirmy as a response but there are tons of words in various languages of which there are no direct translation. Emotions that cannot be understood without being nurtured in certain environments. If language is how we see the world, our perspective becomes immediately limited as we only gain understanding of what we can comprehend.
Thankfully, there are clues to this undefinable blackness in other forms currently outside of cinema. Jafa looks at the blue note or “worrying the note” as his Polaris in searching for whatever BVI ends up becoming. A “worried note” in most Black music is a note played at a sightly different pitch than standard scales in Western society. In my mind, this blue note is the heart of whatever many call Soul. This worried note rears its head in all forms of Black music: House, Techno, RnB, Soul, Folk, Gospel, Blues; chopped and screwed music is one long worried note. As a radio host in New Orleans, one of my favorite things to do is slowing down the pitch of the record a hair where it feels that much more sultry, that much more soulful. By disregarding western-Eurocentric formality wholesale, we can begin to resonate with something many cannot give vocal language to. Putting ‘stank’ on certain inflections in speech, slowing down a ‘lean wit it, rock wit it’ (showing my age/shout out to Renegade/Tik-Tok/Vine/meme culture (also an inherently black art)) to look up in the sky only to catch the beat again after two bars have passed, poetry that grips you in an incomprehensible way but instinctually causes snaps to pour out your fingers? All blue notes. But what does that looks like in film?
Bradford Young chimes in for the search of the visual blue note. He arrives to no answer, but does lay thoughts to which we can all begin to arrive at a context to frame ourselves as we see ourselves on film. In a talk with Liquid Blackness, Young relates back to his time working in his family’s funeral home in Kentucky. The humidity, the framing of loved ones in the Reception Room, the color scheme that reflects bittersweet remembrance for the family, the reverence, and most importantly the procession in which all of this is done. To look at how we can begin to deviate towards our own production and away from how whiteness views production, we must look at our own process; the process of our ancestors. Film critic James Snead speaks to this dichotomy, while western culture destroys the old for the sake of the new, black culture highlights repetition, circulation, and flow. This is no more greater seen than in techno. This cyclicality promotes a form of growth that looks nothing like nor pays no mind to the “formal” chord progression or the way European chromatic scales find their way home. Why would we need to find our way home in our songs? We’re already there. Our stories might find a resonance in ourselves if we begin to take these cues. Not just whose stories are being told, but in how are stories being told? Do they sound like a story and structure of an ancestor or an agent? These ideas can be applied in providing our own structure to finally tap into our lost language of blackness that other art forms have decoded for generations.
And have some of us already found pieces of BVI that filmmakers can use as waypoints to find their own worried images? Absolutely. Julie Dash’s Daughters of the Dust (a film in which Jafa himself was the Director of Photography), Charles Burnett’s Killer of Sheep and To Sleep with Anger, Larry Clark’s Passing Through (+ most if not all of the LA Rebels filmography), Spike Lee’s Do The Right Thing, Black Audio Film Collective’s Handsworth Songs, James and Eloyce Gist’s Hell-Bound Train, Sun Ra’s Space is the Place, and the forerunner of black cinema itself Oscar Micheaux all speak to this uncoded visual blackness from not just the stories but in the form.
Whatever this future looks like for Black film, I’m excited to watch an intentional exploration in however it and its form resonates for a people without a tangible language. As Jafa speaks to, “Black people figured out how to make culture in free fall”; let’s see if we can make it look like flying at the same time.
Since we’re stuck inside for the an indefinite amount of time, what are some of your favorite blue notes across art? Comment below! Mine’s currently Ark of Bones by Henry Dumas.
Louisiana-born Ryan Clarke is based in Louisiana. He’s currently studying for his doctorate in coastal geology at Tulane University. Knowing intimately the ways in his home is at great risk of physical and cultural erasure, he finds way to not only quantitatively document this loss in his research, but also qualitatively with works that try to personally unpack the plethoric connections Black people have with the Mississippi Delta and its tributaries. Through the lens of Jazz, New Orleans Bounce, Detroit Techno, and Chicago House, he views the progression of technology and culture at-large as byproduct of Black innovation under the theory known as “Southern Electronics”.