Author: Zachariah Anderson (University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee)
How to Cite: Anderson, Z. (2022) “Necessarily Problematic: Archival Looking in Arthur Jafa’s 'Love Is The Message, The Message Is Death'”, Film Criticism. 46(1). doi: https://doi.org/10.3998/fc.2708
Photographic images – whether captured chemically or digitally – continue to promise a sense of immediate, credible access to a frozen moment in history. Yet, as documentarians, historians, and others use these visual records to support various – and even opposing – visions of the past, they (re)shape images’ evidentiary meanings and values. The digital era’s accelerated pace of appropriation, manipulation, and circulation has only made images’ contingent use values more visible. In short, images still serve as affective and effective evidence, while their rapid circulation in new contexts constantly transforms the kinds of historical evidence they afford. To better understand how twenty-first century spectators, filmmakers, and historians are recontextualizing images as historical evidence and constructing present-day relationships to the past, I turn to Arthur Jafa’s Love Is The Message, The Message Is Death (2016) [hereafter referred to as LM,MD]. In LM,MD, Jafa appropriates images from various twentieth and twenty-first century contexts, including news coverage, police dashcam footage, viral YouTube videos, amateur cell-phone recordings, narrative films, and more. Jafa reactivates these images from various eras and settings to confront their contingent meanings and to construct a non-linear, entangled history of American racism and Black excellence.
Jafa’s methods of image appropriation and reactivation model a process I call “archival looking,” which begins from a recognition that all materials from the past – even the most seemingly vile or virtuous images – are necessarily problematic historical sources. Like historians visiting an archive, LM,MD’s viewers are encouraged to actively discover and use images to construct present understandings of the past. By advocating for this process of archival looking that deems all images necessarily problematic, I signal a return to the term problematic’s most basic definitions: “posing a problem,” “not definite or settled,” and “open to question or debate.”1 This shift toward the unsettled and debatable challenges popular uses of the term problematic, which employ the label to imply images’ false stability and pre-determined dangers or values. I instead approach LM,MD and the concept of the problematic as opportunities to engage with images’ instabilities and the unresolved ways historians, documentarians, and everyday citizens will use these historical sources in (and for) the future.
Since its 2016 premiere at Gavin Brown’s Enterprise in New York, scholars have productively analyzed LM,MD as an immersive, museum-bound video installation, something Isabel Parkes has persuasively linked to an experience of the “indexical present.”2 While my thinking is informed by these museum-specific analyses, I approach LM,MD as an archival film that I viewed digitally on YouTube.3 I privilege the term archival film, rather than LM,MD’s other potential filmmaking classifications (found footage, compilation, collage, etc.), to emphasize the ways Jafa reactivates many different kinds of extant images as evidence to support LM,MD’s vision of American history.4 Inspired by Catherine Russell’s work on “archiveology,” I analyze Jafa’s archival film as an historiographic process that invites new methods for engaging with a wide variety of images from the past and makes twenty-first century image culture and its expanding archives “legible in the present.”5 Because archival films understand images as mutable, conditional, and unsettled, they offer practical spaces for interrogating the ways filmmakers, historians, and onlookers might actively reuse images as problematic historical sources in a variety of settings.
In their production of new meanings through old materials, archival films demonstrate how any source type – diaries, government documents, oral testimonies, newspapers, etc. – can be reactivated in unexpected and conflicting historiographic contexts. As Peter Burke warns, images and all other historical sources “were not created, for the most part at any rate, with the future historian in mind. Their makers had their own concerns, their own messages.”6 To address this tension between present meanings and past contexts or intentions, twenty-first century historians have theorized and practiced many different processes of looking at images as historical evidence. These modes of looking are rooted in diverse methods, including phenomenology, iconography, ontology, reception studies, and more.7 Although disagreements about ideal methods persist, contemporary scholars tend to agree that images should not be reproduced as transparent windows to the past; instead, they demand complex historiographic methods that recognize contradictory use values.8 Unfortunately, criteria for confronting images’ unpredictable meanings and contingent uses are not always met. Even as digital tools make it increasingly clear that images can be easily and quickly repurposed to support various claims about the past, history books, documentaries, teaching materials, social media posts, etc., often still reproduce archival images as uncomplicated, static illustrations of a past reality.
Similarly, recent trends in journalistic film criticism fail to account for images’ increasingly visible contingencies in the digital era. Many online lists, reviews, and social media posts employ reductive labels that suggest filmic images’ meanings are singular and settled. The term problematic has paradoxically become one of the most prominent static labels in popular film discourse, despite its fundamental link to the uncertain and unsettled. The label problematic is frequently applied to films deemed overtly racist, homophobic, sexist, or otherwise offensive.9 Critiquing and historicizing the specific ways images have been positioned to serve falsified historical narratives or hateful misrepresentations remains an important task for the film critic and historian. However, exclusively affixing a broad, stable classification like “problematic” to specific films suggests a predetermined danger of looking at certain images from the past, despite all images’ contingent use values in the present. The blanket term problematic, when only applied to select films, also implies that other films and their images are somehow “un-problematic” and even politically or morally pure. Often, such thinking leads to labels and lists promoting the problematic’s perceived opposites: anti-racist, progressive, etc. These positive labels frequently appear on watchlists associated with Black History Month, Pride Month, and other celebrations or commemorations.10 Despite intentions, these celebratory labels and lists suggest a fixed educative, ethical, or political value associated with the virtuous viewing of specific images.11
Static labels – “problematic” or “racist,” “progressive” or “anti-racist,” and so on – imply the political awareness or moral high-ground of the film critic, list-maker, and/or social media poster. Yet, these static labels ultimately inspire a mode of viewing (or refusing to view) that dismisses images’ unforeseeable roles in future constructions of historical knowledge. LM,MD’s process of archival looking foregrounds and confronts – rather than dismisses – the problematic, yet-to-be-determined role of all images as historical evidence. For example, as I will describe below, Jafa demonstrates that images from films like The Birth of a Nation (1915) and Killer of Sheep (1977) – works by artists that appear on oppositional lists like “The 50 Most Racist Movies” and “A Comprehensive Watchlist of Black Storytelling,” respectively – will continue to reveal unpredictable evidentiary values in future contexts.12 If static markers, labels, and lists encourage a mode of looking that assumes a film’s meanings are already settled, LM,MD models a look that acknowledges the myriad ways any image might be actively put to use for new personal and historiographic purposes.
In LM,MD, Jafa repurposes an amateur video recording of a young boy desperately yelling at his mother. Jafa follows this footage with Ridley Scott’s big-budget production Alien (1979), low-grade video footage of white police officers beating a Black man, and a video of dancing at a New York City LGBTQ+ ballroom event. These sources are connected – rather than segregated into “high” or “low,” “official” or “popular,” “documentary” or “fiction” – through Jafa’s editing and the propulsive music of Kanye West’s neo-gospel song “Ultralight Beam.” Via Jafa’s montage, no single image is approached as more or less problematic than another. For example, in addition to the video of dancing at a New York City LGBTQ+ ballroom event, many appropriated images throughout LM,MD depict various forms of dancing and/or activism. These images include Beyoncé dancing on a balcony, 1960s protestors dancing like Chuck Berry, amateur footage of a woman twerking, Michael Jackson dancing in a car, Brooklyn dancer Storyboard P, and a shot of the two adult protagonists slow dancing in Charles Burnett’s Killer of Sheep. In Killer of Sheep’s famous dance scene, a husband remains distant from his wife despite the intimate proximity of their bodies (see figure 1). Clifford Thompson aptly describes this husband’s “emotional detachment” during the dance as “a defense against the bleakness and hopelessness of his surroundings.”13 Jafa reactivates these bodies in motion and connects them to decades-spanning records of movement and resistance. By linking Killer of Sheep’s detached dance to images of twerking, celebrities dancing, and the more explicit collisions of dancing and protest in the marchers’ Chuck-Berry-like motions, Jafa does not approach a groundbreaking narrative film, homemade dance videos, documents of protestors, etc., as offering fixed, hierarchical historical values. LM,MD instead provides room to think more critically about the ways moving images from narrative films and elsewhere collectively contribute to understandings of the past – in this case, an entangled American history of dance and political resistance.
As Vivian Sobchack explains, in an image-dominant, mass-mediated culture, “one discourse does not ‘undo’ another: the acquisition of what counts as ‘legitimate’ historical knowledge does not ‘replace’ that historical knowledge which is deemed ‘illegitimate,’ ‘mythological.’”14 As LM,MD demonstrates, “our encounters with a variety of historicized images and narratives from a variety of textual sources both layer themselves and sit beside each other as the historical field—and none of them can be completely erased.”15 Jafa’s montage presents no image as more “historic” or “legitimate” than another; each contributes to the historical field in unpredictable ways. LM,MD’s non-hierarchical collision of images from “high,” “low,” and everywhere in between has been succinctly described elsewhere as a process of “aesthetic levelling.”16 Jafa’s non-hierarchical juxtapositions of diverse image types and subjects might also be read as a process of “historiographic levelling” through which spectators are invited to actively engage with each image as an equally meaningful contributor to an historical field.
In one of LM,MD’s many appropriated amateur recordings, a gym full of spectators dances in unison with two basketball teams on the court below. This cell-phone footage presents the athletes and the crowd of sports fans collectively dancing to FLY’s song “Swag Surfin’” at Howard University (see figure 2).17 Jafa jarringly interrupts these somewhat blurry and shaky video images of unified dancing at an historically Black research university with unexpected images from a different era. These archival images present then-pregnant Akua Njeri (formerly Deborah Johnson), whose fiancé and Black Panther leader Fred Hampton was murdered by police before the birth of their son Fred Hampton, Jr. (see figure 3). Jafa non-hierarchically links the celebratory cell-phone video’s dance to this mournful film footage from the prior century. Each of these necessarily problematic historical sources plays an equally productive role in Jafa’s new historiographic context, which constructs an interconnected history of dance, Black excellence, protest, and state-sanctioned murder.
Of course, Jafa – like all historians and/or media consumers – selects certain images to view and reactivate, while excluding countless others. And the film’s chosen images are themselves mediated and selective. Still, LM,MD’s non-hierarchical montage foregrounds the ways historians and other twenty-first century onlookers construct historical knowledge through a wide variety of images without a clear division of sources. Jafa’s historiographic levelling draws attention to the ways all images – despite their seemingly vile or virtuous surface-level content, or their circulation in “high” or “low” settings – are problematic-yet-prominent contributors to individual understandings of the past. In LM,MD’s history of American hate, protest, violence, resistance, and creativity, we are invited to look at each of this archival film’s sources as equally historical, contingent, and ripe for reactivation.
Later in LM,MD, Jafa reactivates black-and-white recordings of Malcolm X (see figure 4), grainy images of 1967 Newark “race riots,” 2015 color video footage of protests in Ferguson, Missouri, police spraying hoses at protestors in 1963 Alabama, and high-definition footage of NFL quarterback Cam Newton (see figure 5). Through the process of historiographic levelling, these diverse production types – from black-and-white film images to both amateur and professional video footage – and subjects – a civil rights leader, three protests spanning more than a half-century, and a professional athlete – are considered equally problematic historical sources. In addition to historiographic levelling, LM,MD draws attention to these images’ own unsettled, unfolding histories (and futures). Ironically, Jafa foregrounds images’ complex, still-developing histories by withholding conventional descriptions of LM,MD’s appropriated images. By omitting typical explanations of the images’ subjects and past contexts, Jafa invites spectators to actively draw their own connections between on-screen images and off-screen experiences, past and present. Static labels and categories suggest that filmic images’ meanings and values are pre-determined, universal, and unchanging. Encounters with LM,MD’s unidentified images insist that because no two onlookers share the same lived experiences or knowledge about images’ past contexts, the construction of present significance is itself historical and deeply personal.
LM,MD’s viewers likely bring some prior knowledge about many of the film’s unnamed images. For example, in the sequence described above, I recognized Malcolm X without the need for typical documentary description due to my prior exposure to other images of the iconic civil rights leader. Although I did not recognize the provenance of this Malcolm X footage, I experienced what Jaimie Baron calls the “archive effect” as I immediately interpreted the black-and-white images as belonging to a past setting.18 Another viewer, though, might identify the images as part of a specific speech. Only later did I track down a digital copy of the original footage in which Malcolm X explains: “Black people should realize that freedom is something that they have when they’re born. Anyone who stands in their way of freedom is their enemy. Anyone who stands in the way of your and my freedom – our human dignity – is a cold-blooded, blue-eyed enemy.”19 My prior knowledge about Malcolm X inspired generalized thoughts about race, civil rights, etc. Yet, knowledge of the specific speech would alter a viewer’s personal understanding of these images’ meanings in Jafa’s new historiographic text.
In other cases, LM,MD’s viewers bring a total lack of pre-existing knowledge about certain images’ subjects or prior contexts. In this archival film’s flood of unidentified, repurposed images, onlookers often draw connections and construct ideas about the past despite only vaguely grasping the broader historical themes or events that certain images suggest. For example, in response to LM,MD’s appropriated footage of Ferguson protests, I drew broad connections to past encounters with similar images of militarized police surrounding protestors on the streets of many American cities, including my current home: Milwaukee, Wisconsin. And due to the video quality, I immediately read the images as depicting a more recent past than the Malcolm X footage. However, due in part to my own limited experiences and Jafa’s refusal to offer identifying information about the protest video footage, I did not initially recognize the images’ surface-level subject: the specific city of Ferguson in 2015. Other viewers, such as residents of St. Louis County, might have identified this specificity, whereas my encounter with these unidentified images pointed to general historical themes and events. When viewing LM,MD, my understanding of the past was constructed through personal connections between unnamed images and the specific protests I most immediately recalled.
Most individual viewers will quickly recognize the subjects and prior contexts of certain images in LM,MD, despite a lack of identifying information. For example, some viewers will be very familiar with LM,MD’s opening video. This footage originally aired as part of a television news interview in Cleveland, Ohio on May 6, 2013. The interview then widely circulated on YouTube and other online platforms. In this clip, Charles Ramsey describes his rescue of three kidnapped women and a daughter who had been born during her mother’s imprisonment (see figure 6). Jafa trims this viral interview to isolate Ramsey’s most infamous lines: “And she says, ‘Call 9–1-1; my name is Amanda Berry.’ I knew something was wrong when a little pretty white girl ran into a Black man’s arms. Something is wrong here. Dead giveaway. Dead giveaway.” Many of LM,MD’s viewers will have already encountered Ramsey’s interview in one or more of the widely-circulated appropriations that followed the original news report.
By opening LM,MD with this well-known clip, Jafa immediately invites viewers to consider their personal experiences with the video’s many prior uses. Some viewers will be familiar with screenshots of the interview in popular memes. Others will recognize the images from Ramsey’s book, in which he attempts to regain control over his own story in the wake of a “media circus.”20 Many LM,MD viewers, though, will recall that parts of the interview were made viral again in the form of an auto-tuned song and accompanying music video produced by popular online content creators The Gregory Brothers.21 As Baron argues, this comedy group’s “songification” – like various memes containing stills from the interview – emphasizes Ramsey’s class status and reproduces elements of the Uncle Remus “pre-established stereotype, which certain audiences may be predisposed to find funny.”22 By attempting to produce humor through an emphasis on racial stereotypes and the class status of a Black resident that has recently encountered a dangerous situation, these acts of appropriation contribute to what Aisha Harris refers to as the twenty-first century’s regrettable Internet trend of the “‘hilarious’ Black neighbor.”23
The prominence of the Ramsey video specifically and this Internet trend broadly led to later appropriations and intertextual connections. For example, The Gregory Brothers were hired to produce a new song that mimicked their successful “songification” of viral clips like Ramsey’s interview. This new song serves as the opening theme to the Netflix series Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt (2015–2019). The theme song involves lyrics from the perspective of a Black neighbor who witnessed the emergence of white women previously held captive – much like in the real Ramsey situation. The theme song builds upon Ramsey’s video and many of the stereotypical elements associated with the so-called “hilarious” Black neighbor trend, but the television series has appropriated this popular trend for its own comedy about white women. Beyond the television series itself, a longer version of this theme song also circulates online.24
So, LM,MD’s viewers might be familiar with one or more of the Ramsey video’s prior uses: circulating copies of the ABC interview, related memes, screenshots in Ramsey’s book, the first music video, the Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt television theme song, the online extended version of that theme song, etc. In LM,MD, Jafa does not identify this interview clip or attempt to contextualize the perceived historical and cultural significance of its later appropriations. Instead, Jafa inserts the unidentified Ramsey clip within a broader historical field that includes other appropriated images related to Black culture and/or violent reactions to it. And by withholding conventional identification or contextualization, Jafa invites us to think critically about the ways present understandings of this (re)appropriated clip will be rooted in personal pre-existing knowledge of these images’ own problematic, unfolding histories.
In addition to historiographic levelling and a refusal of identification, LM,MD suggests that the kind of evidence that any film’s images might afford remains an open question, rather than a pre-determined value. In the case of the Ramsey interview, LM,MD provides space to look again and think critically about prior appropriations’ tendency to treat this video as a source of humor – a humor often rooted in lucrative stereotypes that serve historical myths of white supremacy. In Jafa’s new context, I recognize a different evidentiary value. I see and hear anew Ramsey’s clear critique of America’s social construction of Black masculinity as a threat to white women – except only, perhaps, when a Black man might offer protection in literal life-threatening situations. Ramsey’s succinct quote has been laughed at and co-opted to fit memes, songs, and more. Yet, looking and listening again to Ramsey’s few words accomplishes the work of countless pages of academic writing about race and gender in America. Within LM,MD’s historical field, the Ramsey clip meets and speaks to more “intellectual” sources describing racial relations in America. For example, Ramsey’s words are linked to the appropriated images and words from Martine Syms’ “The Mundane Afrofuturist Manifesto” and Amandla Stenberg asking: “What would America be like if we loved Black people as much as we love Black culture?” (see figures 7 and 8). Within this new context, Jafa draws attention to the ways Ramsey’s interview is not inherently vile or virtuous; it is a problematic source waiting to be reactivated for new purposes, including as evidence in support of broader political, cultural, and historical critiques of American racism.
Jafa also reactivates shots from twentieth-century narrative films, including D.W. Griffith’s The Birth of a Nation. Despite its record-breaking popularity and widely praised formal techniques, The Birth of a Nation sparked immediate protest upon its 1915 release for glorifying the Ku Klux Klan. In the twenty-first century, The Birth of a Nation frequently tops lists like “Shame on Hollywood: These are the Most Racist Films of all Time.”25 Critics have argued that the film perpetuates a still-powerful racist stereotype of Black men as a violent and sexual threat to white women (the same stereotype that Ramsey summarizes in his viral interview).26 Some have even suggested that The Birth of a Nation might belong to “a small handful of historically significant films that, nevertheless, might be so toxic that they are better consigned to study by film scholars, rather than being widely rebroadcast.”27 According to popular present-day linkages between the terms problematic and racist, then, The Birth of a Nation might be the problematic film par excellence. But labeling the film uniquely problematic or removing it from broadcast schedules often encourages viewers and critics to dismiss the film, the unsettled questions it raises in relation to past wrongs and current issues, and the future contradictory ways its images will be used to construct understandings of film history and America’s past. Undoubtedly, the film has – and will continue to – cut channels of deep pain. But while there are valid arguments about when to show (or not show) this film, Jafa’s acts of reactivation insist that The Birth of a Nation’s unpredictable and yet-to-be-discovered evidentiary values emerge when we look at this necessarily problematic historical source in new ways.
In The Birth of a Nation, an opening intertitle dubiously positions Griffith’s film as an anti-war effort. The next intertitle states: “The bringing of the African to America planted the first seed of disunion.” This opening intertitle articulates The Birth of a Nation’s historical argument: African-born slaves are to blame for the American Civil War. According to Mychal Denzel Smith, each Black filmmaker working in the wake of The Birth of a Nation, “starting with Oscar Micheaux and his 1920 film Within Our Gates, has been charged with combating these lies.”28 Critiquing this hateful narrative and its off-screen consequences remains a meaningful duty for contemporary film scholars, cultural critics, and historians. However, rather than applying static labels or implying that viewing this controversial film’s images is an inherently detrimental act, it is important to consider the ways these images might be looked at anew to reveal additional evidentiary values.
For example, The Birth of a Nation’s contentious images have been appropriated and re-evaluated in a variety of twenty-first century artworks, including Christopher Harris’ archival film Reckless Eyeballing (2004), DJ Spooky’s multimedia “remix” Rebirth of a Nation (2007), and Spike Lee’s narrative feature BlackKklansman (2018). As in these and many other reuses, depending on spectators’ prior knowledge, LM,MD encourages viewers to consider the ways The Birth of a Nation’s images have served racist historical arguments, including Griffith’s original narrative about the Civil War. Yet, by non-hierarchically juxtaposing The Birth of a Nation with a variety of unexpected images – including those that depict both joyful children and deadly violence – Jafa also illustrates the unpredictable evidentiary values that emerge in new contexts, even with conversations assumed to be settled.
To illustrate further: LM,MD appropriates three shots from The Birth of a Nation’s second scene. In Griffith’s original film, an intertitle describes this scene’s action: “The Abolitionists of the Nineteenth Century demanding the freeing of the slaves.” This intertitle is followed by a wide shot of a meeting room filled with seated white onlookers. Next, a medium shot presents a white man making a plea – in front of a portrait of George Washington – presumably for the freedom of slaves, while two Black men sit in chairs positioned beneath him. Then, in another medium shot, an elderly white woman watches on. The film cuts back to the scene’s initial wide shot; the white audience members begin to clap as a young boy, presumably a slave, is led down the aisle toward the camera. Griffith cuts to a two-shot of the young boy staring at the lens while a white man rests his hands on the boy’s shoulders. An iris effect masks the edges of the frame and further emphasizes the young boy’s stare, which is aimed directly at the lens (and audience).
Jafa reorders and positions three of these shots immediately after high-definition, color video footage of Black feminist scholar Hortense Spillers. Then, Jafa presents The Birth of a Nation’s wide shot of the young boy being led through the seated crowd of white onlookers. This flickering 1915 shot is interrupted by colorful widescreen images of then-president Barack Obama singing “Amazing Grace.” Those familiar with this video will recall that the singing occurred at the 2015 funeral of South Carolina State Senator Clementa C. Pinckney following the Charleston church shooting. Through a near-match cut, Jafa then juxtaposes Obama’s singing from the pulpit with The Birth of a Nation’s white orator in front of the George Washington portrait. Next, we see Griffith’s two-shot of the child staring directly at the camera as a white adult stands possessively behind him. This image from The Birth of a Nation is followed by a digital, slow-motion color video of a young boy jumping through the air (see figures 9–14).
By inviting connections between Spillers, The Birth of a Nation, the first Black American president’s singing, mourning in response to a racially motivated mass shooting, and an anonymous boy in the twenty-first century, viewers might begin to raise new questions about what this widely critiqued film from 1915 can contribute to a critical, layered history of American slavery, Black excellence, gospel music, cinema, and deadly violence. Viewers familiar with the unidentified shots from The Birth of a Nation likely recognize that the young boy’s direct stare at the (diegetic and non-diegetic) white audience was originally positioned as supporting evidence for The Birth of a Nation’s historical claim: African-born slaves were responsible for division between abolitionists and the Confederacy. Even if viewers are unfamiliar with The Birth of a Nation’s original context, its black-and-white, faded images and outdated filmmaking techniques (i.e., the iris effect) – in combination with white adult characters’ possessive gestures over this young boy – still likely inspire a general recognition of American cinema’s role in upholding false historical myths. Through LM,MD’s connections between this media representation and images of Spillers, one might consider the ways Griffith’s historical myth of white supremacy has been met by innovative Black theory and scholarship. And by interrupting these images with Obama’s eulogy, one might begin thinking through historical connections between Reconstruction-era myths defending slavery and those that led to recent gun violence like the 2015 Charleston church shooting. These will be deeply personal connections for each viewer. Yet, the point is this: each of these juxtapositions and individual responses demonstrates that the potential evidence afforded by the images of all films – even The Birth of a Nation – remains unsettled.
At times, LM,MD’s rapidly-passing unidentified images overwhelm my ability to consciously think through specific meanings or connections. For me, though, the brief moment of this young boy’s isolated stare in The Birth of a Nation exemplifies what Christina Sharpe describes as LM,MD’s invitation to slow down and really sit with its images in our minds. According to Sharpe, “though we are moved through these images on a timeline, there is still something about them that asks us to linger; that requires that we linger.”29 On one hand, this lingering opens space to confront the ways this image has been employed as evidence in support of false historical claims about national division. On the other hand, by asking me to linger and look again at The Birth of a Nation’s isolated image of the young boy’s stare – and then cutting to another boy’s slow-motion, high-definition jump – I am also invited to consider the ways Jafa is repositioning a child’s staged stare for alternative evidentiary values.
In the boy’s direct stare from The Birth of a Nation, I now perceive a plea for recognizing his own humanity, rather than his responsibility for breaking up an imaginary harmony between southern and northern whites. This mode of archival looking at The Birth of a Nation’s images might also be evaluated as an instance of what Courtney R. Baker describes as “humane insight” – a mode of looking that “seeks knowledge about the humanity” of the image’s subject.30 As Baker reminds us, humanity is a not a given; it is a constantly redefined “ideological construct.”31 Staging unexpected encounters with disturbing images – even those produced with hateful intentions – to construct a sense of humanity is not a new idea. Baker explains, for example, that while lynching photographs were widely shared – often via postcards – to support historical myths of white supremacy and to produce terror in the present, the anti-lynching movement took advantage of these same photographs’ “ambiguity” to construct historical narratives of immoral cruelty and to demand a present fight for human rights.32 Similarly, The Birth of a Nation’s images will likely continue to support dehumanizing historical myths, but Jafa’s deliberate reactivation of these images stages an encounter with a young boy – and others in LM,MD’s surrounding images – as human (see figure 15).
Static labels and illustrative uses of archival images grant a sense of stability and comfort. In contrast, LM,MD’s insistence on looking at all images as necessarily problematic historical sources is unsettling. Yet the destabilizing effect of engaging with images’ contingencies can be productive. As Walter Benjamin argues, looking to materials from the past helps us recognize the present’s failures and insist that nothing is inevitable; the future is always up for grabs.33 For Benjamin, collecting and looking at now-discarded objects can counter historical narratives of inevitable progress, reveal clues about past futures that failed to materialize, and expose the contingency of the present.34 Unfortunately, fixed labels and uncritical slippages between images and the past itself often shield us from images’ contingencies and their productively destabilizing effects in the present. Reducing films to single-word descriptions or lessening images to mere illustrations in support of linear, enclosed historical narratives falsely satisfies our desire to fully and certainly know the past. As Hayden White explains, the “value attached to narrativity in the representation of real events arises out of a desire to have real events display the coherence, integrity, fullness, and closure of an image of life that is and can only be imaginary.”35 LM,MD resists this comforting-yet-imaginary coherence and closure. Jafa’s processes of historiographic levelling, foregrounding personal historical connections, and seeking alternative evidentiary values emphasize the unpredictable and the fragmentary. LM,MD’s non-hierarchical montage of unidentified images depicting violence, political resistance, and cultural creativity does not produce clear causal links or a naïve teleology of inevitable violence and reactionary innovation. These appropriated images and the histories they are employed to tell remain deliberately unresolved and open-ended.
Like other archival films, LM,MD draws attention to the unpredictable ways images from the past might be put to use for new historiographic purposes. As Russell explains, “In archival film practices, the image bank in its fundamental contingency and instability becomes a means by which history can speak back to the present.”36 The specific tactics employed in an archival film like LM,MD might seem impractical, though, when one imagines transposing similar modes of looking to the fields of film history, film criticism, and spectatorship more broadly. Archival filmmakers are afforded a different set of tools for appropriating, juxtaposing, and reactivating images than instructors, critics, filmgoers, etc. Still, archival looking’s fundamental insistence on the recognition of images’ contingent use values can productively unsettle these other fields and discourses. This article’s analysis of what I have called LM,MD’s archival looking is offered as an invitation to explore methods of teaching, critiquing, discussing, and viewing films that confront the ways we actively use their images. How might we write syllabi, reviews, lists, etc., that inspire students, readers, and cinephiles to think critically about using films’ images in the present, rather than implying that these images’ values have already been decided elsewhere?
Scholars have debated the degree to which an image’s meanings are determined by the discourses or narratives that surround it.37 While these debates are not easily resolved, LM,MD’s process of archival looking demonstrates that its images will continue to take on new meanings as they are reused to support new historical claims. In this sense, archival looking at images from a film like The Birth of a Nation – or even actuality recordings of real-life violence against Black bodies – begins from an insistence that these are necessarily problematic, rather than inherently racist, images. To be clear, archival looking does not downplay the role of images in supporting hateful or racist narratives, as in Griffith’s original historical argument. Also, archival looking does not attempt to separate the aesthetic innovations of a film like The Birth of a Nation from its hateful themes, which, as Clyde Taylor explains, are inseparable. For Taylor, “Griffith’s film confronts us with the possibility of a work being powerfully persuasive, affecting and aesthetically rewarding, while at the same time saturated with noxious conceits and ideas: beautiful yet evil.”38 I agree. However, Griffith and the original structure of his beautiful yet evil film no longer control these images’ future reactivations, especially in the digital era. As LM,MD illustrates, looking anew at these images as necessarily problematic historical sources opens space for critically reconsidering the kinds of historical claims they might alternatively support.
Similarly, archival looking at Killer of Sheep’s images – or those of Malcolm X, Akua Njeri, and other civil rights activists – begins from the understanding that these are also necessarily problematic, rather than inherently anti-racist, images; they can be reactivated in unexpected ways. For example, while Jafa appropriates images of many 1960s activists to support LM,MD’s complex, layered vision of American history, similar images of the same civil rights leaders have been reactivated elsewhere to support racist narratives. Notably, as Justin Tinsley explains, during the height of protests in response to the murder of George Floyd, social media users circulated a meme “featuring a photo of Martin Luther King Jr., Coretta Scott King, Ralph Abernathy and other civil rights marchers with the caption ‘This Is A Protest’ atop a photo of looting in Minneapolis reading, ‘This Is A Crime.’”39 In this case, archival images of past activists were reactivated and shared to support a false narrative about the history of the American civil rights movement – and to promote racist narratives about twenty-first century protest movements. The challenge, then, is how to look at all images not as if they already are one thing (like racist or antiracist), but to look for what one can do with these historical images (like support racist or anti-racist actions in the present).
Of course, as in the case of the reactionary protest meme mentioned above, what one does with an image will not always aid a search for historical truths or present and future justice. The powerful spread of disinformation, hateful rhetoric, and false historical narratives online is often supported by the appropriation and recirculation of images. We as viewers, critics, historians, and teachers must recognize that our own uses of images will have a variety of consequences in our constructions of historical knowledge, the kinds of looking we provoke in others, and the present actions we take. Ibram X. Kendi argues: “‘Racist’ and ‘antiracist’ are like peelable name tags that are placed and replaced based on what someone is doing or not doing, supporting or expressing in each moment. These are not permanent tattoos.”40 This article’s polemical response to popular uses of the term problematic, then, is an attempt to shift away from permanent labels and toward re-imagining images’ moment-to-moment uses. To seek processes of archival looking is to insist that images’ historical and evidentiary use values – like the present and future – are yet to be determined.
Zachariah Anderson is a PhD candidate in the Media, Cinema, and Digital Studies program at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. His research explores twenty-first century archival filmmaking practices and the role(s) of image-based media as historical evidence.