Surreal for Real: Black Filmmakers and the Altered Universe
Movies like “Sorry to Bother You” show us that sometimes filmmakers have to bend reality to tell the truth.
In recent years, mainstream depictions of blackness have ventured into new territories, led by the work of filmmakers like Ava DuVernay, Ryan Coogler, Jordan Peele, and Barry Jenkins, but black surrealist films or films that employ surrealist techniques have often ventured places Hollywood was not willing to go. Any filmmaker whose work is outside the mainstream may receive fewer opportunities to make films and those films will often draw smaller audiences. When that filmmaker is black and creates work that grapples with the black experience, they have to hope an audience is willing to engage with both the blackness and the challenging conventions of surrealism. But a new age of black surrealism may be dawning. With the summer release of Boots Riley’s surrealist and satirical Sorry to Bother You, the television audience that loves the mind-bending episodes of Donald Glover's Atlanta, and the widening opportunities for black filmmakers, black surrealism both present and past may finally find the audience it deserves.
Often the surrealist films created by white (and mostly male) directors evoke the dream state as a way to disrupt the audience’s viewing experience. In black surrealism, filmmakers are using surrealist elements to disturb the audience by witnessing the injustice faced by the film's black characters. In a scene from, Sorry to Bother You, African-American call center employee Cassius is literally dropped into the dining room of the white customer he’s called, collapsing his real physical space with the imagined space of the customer. He gets quickly hung up on. His black voice is not allowed into their homes, but when he adopts a “white voice” he is allowed into the ever more intimate spaces of his customers. His “white voice,” disconnected from his body, is not a dream; it is the way that he can survive in the world.
In Terence Nance’s An Oversimplification of Her Beauty (available to stream on Fandor), the narrative is propelled not by the grind of survival but by the exquisite torture of love. Every romantic comedy navigates that familiar topic but in the black surrealist world, even love becomes strange. Nance uses animation, interview footage, and voiceover, among other techniques to construct an emotional universe, one that explores his own unique psychology and puts the viewer into his space. “How would you feel?” the voiceover asks over and over. The question becomes not just about the romantic situation described in the film but also doubles as a question about how someone would feel as a black man in his emotional and physical universe.
Like Riley and Nance, the black surrealist filmmaker does not try to reconcile the real and the unreal, instead allowing the altered universe of the film to remain both ordinary and strange. Filmmaker Arthur Jafa calls this “the alien familiar,” which describes work that “should be both alien because you’ve never seen anything quite like it, and at the same time, it should be familiar on some level to Black audiences.” What would otherwise be illogical becomes a rendering of everyday life for black people.
Haile Gerima, a member of the black film movement called the LA Rebellion, creates his own altered universe in his film Sankofa, in which the past converges with the present. The viewer has to find a way to inhabit this dual reality of the film, one where the main character is an African-American model on a photo shoot in present day Ghana and the other where she is an African woman who has been enslaved and sent to the nineteenth century American South. Place and time are conflated. The audience is given no explanation for the time travel and the movie never concerns itself with how the main character might return to her own time. Instead, the audience is simply in a dream state that is now real. The dream state for this woman is slavery, an experience which was real for her ancestors. This creates a feedback loop for the viewer, forcing them to confront the strange fiction of the film and the troubling nonfiction of the black experience.
Black filmmakers have often used surrealism to highlight the strange state a black person is forced to enter when confronted with racism and the larger incongruities and absurdities of racism as an institution. Melvin Van Peebles took that absurdity to a new level in Watermelon Man, when a white man suddenly wakes up as a black man. In the mirror, he assumes it must be a nightmare and also pretends to rob himself as this new black alter ago. In Wendell Harris Jr.’s Chameleon Street, a black con artist named Doug Street lies his way into a good life, getting into elite schools and high-powered jobs he’s unqualified for, always pretending to be someone he’s not. At one point in the movie, a white man, without cause or reason, approaches Street and his wife in a restaurant. The white man tells Street that his beer is for white men and that white men run this world. He then offers to pay him for his wife. Street looks around bewildered, trying to reconcile the quiet dinner he’d just been having with his wife with this strange intervention. The man uses racial slurs and then curses at him. Street responds with a lesson on the proper grammatical use of expletives. The moment is odd and could easily be an imagined one. It seems incongruous with the racism he’s just experienced and yet the response is also as surreal as the nightmarish and nonsensical initial approach of the white man.
Surrealism gives black filmmakers the freedom to create outside of the confines of traditional film in order to tell not just the stories of black people but to convey the experience of blackness. Contemporary black filmmakers have always tried to show the many facets of black life. Now, perhaps even more people will be given the chance to see the many facets of black filmmaking.