A Dark Cinema

Film plays an important role in Tavia Nyong’o’s Afro-Fabulations: The Queer Drama of Black Life and offers a kind of historical starting point in the 60s and 70s for the contemporary span this book covers. Nyong’o introduces his project via The Queen (1967), a legendary document of drag history, and returns to a cinematic archive again and again, attending to the antebellum melodrama Mandingo (1975) and key works by the deeply original filmmakers Shirley Clarke and Melvin Van Peebles. Having previously written The Amalgamation Waltz: Race, Performance, and the Ruses of Memory (2009), which is firmly rooted in nineteenth century American studies, Nyong’o threads Afro-Fabulations with a subtle cinema studies that allows for the picturing of a different kind of modernity. There, on film, blackness appears without referent, but proliferates wildly, and for decades. In these complicated and sometimes frustrating films, we find one of the many angles Nyong’o brilliantly assembles into his complex sociality: a tangent of flickering, reproducible images that offer such remarkable instability that, curiously, rather than permanently confining their subject/objects, they change every time they are seen.

A chapter on Shirely Clarke’s 1967 film Portrait of Jason offers both the intimacy and distance proper to this fabulational situation. Clarke’s body of work is itself characterized by the collapsing of such contradictions. A Scary Time, for example, a 1960 UNICEF commission, begins with spookily costumed US American kids cutely scaring each other at Halloween, until the mise-en-scene is overtaken by documentary footage of impoverished and despondent children of color, juxtaposing the festivity of capitalist life with the abjection its abundance leaves elsewhere uncovered. Complicating UNICEF’s familiar fundraising device, Clarke’s montage undercuts the artfully framed with the realism of documentary, the intentional with the accidental, the pleasurable with the painful, and vice versa, drawing out the boundaries of each of these categories. Relatedly, Clarke’s 1961 feature film The Connection also interrupts a standard filmic order, placing a representation of the viewing apparatus inside the narrative space of the film. An adaptation of The Living Theater’s play, the film follows a film crew as they follow a group of jazz musicians and other heroin users waiting for their drug dealer. The white filmmaker interviews and investigates his subjects with a kind of anthropological interest, nevertheless entwining himself within the scenario until he himself becomes one of the heroin users waiting for that connection.

These are examples of a cinematic oeuvre where disciplinary boundaries are transgressed and forms merge, rendering the inside and outside of different locations indistinct. The field of images and actions depicted extends to the other side of the camera, the screen, into the viewer’s world. Subject and object are confounded. This filmic porousness also describes the ground where Nyong’o picks up Clarke’s work with A Portrait of Jason. The film, re-released in a restored version in 2016, offers a bizarrely original and unexpected interview with Jason Holliday, a performer and demimonde denizen who is a gay black man. Clarke’s off-screen prompting facilitates Holliday’s colorful and sometimes brutal speeches, offering both specific signs and various affects of a fabulated life. Nyong’o details the mechanisms of this fabulation: multiple subjectivities, the force of objectification, and, importantly, the material assembly and transmission that carries Holliday’s image across time from then to now, diminishing and enhancing its exposure and clarity as media formats decay and advance. All of this is to say that to see Holliday through Clarke’s lens is not to know an authentic being, but to perceive the limits of a relationality that continuously reproduces an important fabulated life. Generously, Nyong’o frames Clarke’s encounter—despite its evident racial and sexual power problems—as an attention that might be understood as a qualified, provisional, and intentional act of love. “[T]his love, like any affect, is situated within the duration of an antagonism that its effect is to extend and differentiate, rather than to resolve. It is in this duration that love works to repair, not the subject, but the world” (74). In Nyong’o’s own reparative reading, all of the difficulties of this encounter contribute to its remarkable “fabulationality,” which is itself a world-re-making project (5).

Fabulationality offers close proximities and unprotected exchanges. Categories are left contaminated. At a book event, I joked that Nyong’o and I share the question of what it means to write black theory when one has a white mom. This joke might be serious and while I don’t wish to overly personalize the writing or unduly emphasize biography, I am reminded that the personal and the biographical have long been offered in the place of absent and prohibited histories within black studies and expressive culture. In this case, the familial situation offers a primal scene that disallows racial authenticity. The popular contemporary questions of who is demonstrably black, who is non-black, and who is anti-black, are answered with hypothetical footnotes. Nyong’o’s work reflects this problem, offering the Afro- as a mode rather than an ontological category. And resembling Clarke and Holliday’s co-production of a black queen, Nyong’o’s sweeping citational span offers a widened field of scholars whose textual encounters with each other offer the kind of “angular sociality” that this research identifies in black performance (18).

Nyong’o offers fluency in black scholarship, duly centering Saidiya Hartman’s mode of “critical fabulation,” while observing exchanges between black feminist thought, what the author calls the “dark Deleuzian” work of writers such as Fred Moten and Kara Keeling, and Afro-pessimism (17). But Nyong’o won’t stop short at the too-easy redress of offering all-black representation when the production apparatus is anything but. For example, in his chapter that focuses on Clarke and Holliday, Nyong’o situates a form of “negative repair” in the work of José Esteban Muñoz that attempts to re-make the world with incommensurable differences intact, applies to that structure a mode of unromantic redress found in Hartman’s work, and completes the formulation with queer theorist Heather Love’s reminder that an historical archive is not always available for repair (60). This suite of theoretical moves is an indication of Nyong’o’s approach throughout Afro-Fabulations, one that aligns queer and black critical ideas without demanding that they always comply with each other as they mutually address historical negativity and the raw exposure of presence. This desegregated thinking, offered by a queer black scholar, in the end points to what is queer in black thought and vice versa. Nyong’o concludes his book with Hartman, reminding us and himself that “it is important to remember that blackness is defined here as social relationality rather than identity” (203). It is in this space, apart from identity, that Afro-fabulationality can perform all of that violence, but also potential modes of repair and redress that offer powerful ways to see ourselves being seen.

You cut up the clothes in the closet of my dreams

You pulled off the sleeves and ripped out the seams

I got me a needle and I got me some thread

Got me a thimble and I’m moving straight ahead

Joshie Jo Armstead sings this moving ballad of redress and repair in Melvin Van Peebles’ stage musical and 1973 film Don’t Play Us Cheap. The particularly campy story follows a group of people having a Saturday night house party in Harlem, which a couple of Satanic demons attempt to destroy, but everything they do to “break that party” ends up making the party better. In her ruffly polyester dress and crown of fake yellow flowers, Armstead gives life to this black-owned-and-operated show tune, drawing realness from the most theatrical of conditions. An act of Afro-Fabulation is a new way for me to describe what’s long been a favorite movie of mine, following Nyongo’s explications of other Melvin Van Peebles works that are also queerer than one might think, including his radical 1971 adventure film Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song. Nyong’o’s archival choices make the most sense through the lens of performance studies, where the encounter with art, literature, dance, and even artificial intelligence are all understood as we practically apprehend them, as parts of life, rather than disciplinarily discrete objects. Still, the darkness of the cinematic space offers Afro-Fabulations particular opportunities for projection and reflection that allow identifications to radiate beyond the materials that hold them.


Cover image: Joshie Jo Armstead sings “You Cut Up the Clothes” in Don’t Play Us Cheap (1973; directed by Melvin Van Peebles).

Malik Gaines

Malik Gaines is associate professor of performance studies at NYU's Tisch School of the Arts, a member of the performance group My Barbarian and of other collaborations, and author of Black Performance on the Outskirts of the Left: A History of the Impossible (2017).