The Great Balancing Act

As I have begun to reflect on my studies this past semester, I was struck by how many times this class has popped up in my daily life.  Whether it be a particularly heinous commercial or the release of a new and highly controversial music video, the material from this class proved itself to be an invaluable tool in understanding the complexities of daily life in modern day America.  In this manner, this class has demonstrated the leaps and bounds that media has made in releasing fair and equal representations of the sexes.  It has also demonstrated the importance of film and other media’s presence in academia in that I have been exposed to an entirely different genre of media that I would have otherwise been entirely ignorant to.  The class’s focus on experimental film as means to express the intrinsic connection between gender, media, and sexuality opened my eyes to a niche within the media world that not only defies the normative limits of patriarchal society but also provides a platform for the exploration and discovery of gender and sexuality for those people who would otherwise be confined to a life of unfulfilled passing.  While I believe and stand behind the value that these experimental films hold, I cannot help but wonder the extent to which these films are being disseminated to larger groups and populations, which is to say that I am skeptical that many people outside of the small group of people studying film and film theory at universities and other academic institution are seeing these new and vastly important pieces of media.  My skepticism ultimately  illuminates an inescapable quandary within the experimental film world: can a film or other piece of media be revolutionary and groundbreaking if only a small and isolated group is able to view it?  Additionally, I was also interested in the style and quality of these films.  Some of these works were extremely odd and rather unpleasant to watch, which ultimately leads me to another critique that I had with the experimental film community in that film and other media is meant to be watched and enjoyed.  If a film is not enjoyable and people do not want to watch it, can it really be considered an inspired and revolutionary advancement in the film industry?  I will spend the remainder of this post exploring my personal opinions on these lines of inquiry.

As the title of this post suggests, I believe that experimental film must be created with an adherence to the great balancing act that is form and value, which is to say that I ultimately believe that creators of experimental film must find a balance between creating an aesthetically pleasing piece of media that large groups of people want to consume and creating an inspired and groundbreaking comment on modern society.  In this manner, I am not advocating for a Michael Bay level commitment to pop culture.  I am also not advocating, however, for the jarring and frankly unpleasant sounds released by the band, which the class was introduced to on the final, Monday night screening, that refused to conform to the normative, pop culture sounds of the current music industry.  In other words, I am advocating for a more subtle and tacit exploration of film technique and film theory.  I believe that the limits must be pushed in terms of film and other media, but I also believe that truly impactful work is that which is consumed and spread to different people with different perspectives, races, socioeconomic classes, and education.  A jarring conflation of jarring screams and shouts aimed at challenging the capitalist consumption of media and other forms of expression will not be picked up and spread from one group of people to the next simply due to the fact that people do not want to listen to something that is not pleasant or enjoyable.  Additionally, however, no one pushes any sort of envelope with Michael Bay’s rendition of Transformers, a two-hour series of explosions and battles with no seeming plot or character development.  Where true development and growth occurs comes with people who make work that both challenges societal issues but also conforms to the instinctive desire of humans to engage with and consume that which they enjoy.  In this manner, the works of Childish Gambino and Banksy immediately come to mind when I think of people within the experimental media community that are creating impactful work that pushes the envelope of media.

Dancing as Political Intervention? Comparing “This Is America” and “This Is Me”

In the following post, I draw upon popular works from two distinct genres for analysis of dance as both a narrative form and as a political intervention. Childish Gambino (a.k.a. Donald Glover) released “This is America” in May 2018, the official video for which has received 454 million views on YouTube at the time of this post.[1] In December 2017, Michael Gracey, with assistance from Tony Award-winning songwriters,[2] directed The Greatest Showman—”a kaleidoscopic [on-screen] musical about P.T. Barnum”[3]—which features a track called “This is Me” (Keala Settle).[4] While the blog posts we have written so far have focused primarily on a work we have looked at in class, I would like to do a comparison between “This Is America,” which we watched as a group, and “This Is Me,” which we did not. I believe that contrasting the messages and effects of these two productions strengthens analysis of Gambino’s piece, and was a way of putting into practice critical viewership in my own consumption of The Greatest Showman recently.

The titular similarity between “This is America” and “This is Me” was a determinant for the entrance of these two works into dialogue. It is their likeness only in name that underscores a juxtaposition in form and message, and problematizes white conceptions of individual agency backed by glorified self-reliance. “This Is Me,” despite its performance by a collective of ‘freaks,’[5] obediently projects white (particularly male) expectations of command over his station, positing independence and oppression as mindsets rather than embedded features of institutions. Indeed, Jennifer Lind (Rebecca Ferguson) toasts P.T. Barnum with a summation of his character’s arc: “he is proof that a man’s station is limited only by his imagination.”[6]

This message is far more empowering for some than others. I thoroughly adore this movie, despite the criticism it has received, because a) I think the singing, choreography, costumes, and “celebration of humanity” are wonderful; and b) because I find Hugh Jackman and Zac Efron very handsome. While it is meant to be a fantastic and historically inaccurate montage of anthems, its major shortcoming is not in its depiction of P.T. Barnum and the circus as having positive social power. Rather, it is more the extent to which the movie simplifies (or omits mention of?) constraints on social mobility by persons deemed abject. By overemphasizing the power that an individual’s pride in their own existence has to provide escape velocity from a socially stratified orbit, the power of the musical ensemble—and therein the sociopolitical collective—to “flatten everything within a 50-mile radius”[7] with their voices is unfortunately undermined.

If one were to deal with the pieces chronologically, “This Is America” can be read as a racial-political rejoinder to “This Is Me”—an empowerment anthem within a populist film. While an appealing celebration of visual diversity—along axes of identity like gender, race, body shape, etc.—the non-abject, white viewer is subtly but suddenly abdicated of democratic responsibility to ‘other’ countrypeople as members of the freak collective assert: “I won’t let the shame sink in.”[8] This works as part of a feel-good narrative for a largely white, socially enfranchised audience, as the individuality conveyed by the lyric assigns the marginalized the task of inwardly negotiating terms of their existence­–“who [they’re] meant to be” as individuals. Speaking to the vocal power of the ensemble in The Greatest Showman, one critic noted,  “these are refrains configured to flatten everything within a 50-mile radius.” While sonically the chorus may be greater than the sum of its individual vocalists, depicted are marginalized people merely articulating internal negotiations simultaneously, not collectively interrogating the social conditions that define “who [they’re] meant to be.”

The dissonance between the palatable, familiar message of individualism and the subversive vocal and corporeal performance by a freak collective is shocking. Negotiating shame-inducing experiences and making meaning for oneself—quietly, inwardly—is significant here because of the threatening possibility of its opposite. Collective negotiation, assertion, and action does not look like a bearded lady-led troupe in The Greatest Showman; it looks like Ferguson, Missouri. Baltimore, Maryland, Dallas, Texas. It also looks like Charlottesville, Virginia. Indeed, this is America.

Gambino’s embodiment of America, as “both the caricature and the ring-leader,”[9] acts as a noteworthy backdrop to the political moment in which The Greatest Showman was so well-received. First, dancing functions very differently in Gambino’s work. When done by him, dancing historicizes blackness as other, simultaneously internationalizing[10] oppression of black people and calling to the fore the double-bind of living as black in America (e.g. being held responsible for comparatives shortcoming in a system laden with intentionally oppressive socio-economic and cultural structures[11]).

Violence is not merely a running theme in Gambino’s video, but more so a constant. The jarring execution of the guitar-soloist-turned-shackled-prisoner early on and the massacre of the church choir (both alluding to real incidences of violence against black people) show direct interaction between American [ring]leadership and victims. Between those two flashpoints, however, the video relies on mise-en-scène to create layered relationships, an example of which are the schoolchildren dancing behind Gambino. I read the schoolchildren’s performance as a means of survival in a hostile environment—a metaphor for most marginalized Americans’ patterns of consumption and labor in a socio-racially stratified system. Only possible to grasp with the long shots is the situation of the schoolchildren between [ring]leadership and the violence constantly unfolding in the background; as a collective, they are an enabler of violence caused by leadership’s behavior. Thus, their dancing extends commentary on the aforementioned double bind with which (especially racial) minority groups are faced: survival in an oppressive system renders one complicit in the oppression of other minoritized groups, even one’s own people. As if it were not obvious, “This Is America” sonicizes and visualizes the shattering of individualism as a potentially defiant force (as in “This Is Me”), implicitly calling for a collective politics.

As riddled with entendre as Gambino’s body expressions are, the mise-en-scène of “This Is America” both repeats and varies the meaning of Gambino’s choreography, erecting visual/sonic structures of feeling which recognize societal systems as paramount. With the choreography for “This Is Me” being its only source of meaning, the potency of asserting pride and place is not understood by any on-screen characters beyond those using trying to use it as a tactic. In making the spectacle the only point of emphasis, “This Is Me” actually undercuts the power of pride as a factor in social progress by making it the only one considered. In spite of criticisms that Gambino’s failure to make (black) social dance the point of the video,[12] I argue that it is precisely this choice—deploying dance as a tool of visual interruption rather than as a cohesive research method—that makes the video profound portrayal of blackness in America.

Just as Nguyen argues the “visual logic” of viewer identification with the top (in gay male pornography) is “staged from the bottom’s point of view,”[13] “This Is Me” encourages identification with historically white, individualist agency narratives from the perspective of the minoritized. “This Is America,” through its acknowledgment and recreation of the social conditions under which blackness is lived, confounds the binary of victim and perpetrator. Avoidance of such a binary negates the possibility of existing an inverted privilege/identification scheme (i.e. through the oppressed, the viewer still identifies with the already privileged oppressor). Gambino presents a counterexample to a privilege-reinforcing identification scheme and, therefore, creates an effective political intervention where “This Is Me” does not. The presence of a privilege-reinforcing identification scheme can thus be used by viewers as a litmus test for a failed political intervention in other media.

Popular media, especially that coming out of Hollywood, is dealing increasingly with themes of identity, diversity, and representation. This makes such media inherently political. Like in formal politics, messages must be crafted to address and resonate with varied constituencies. On the production side, the inclination is to interlace visual conversations of political themes with “shared/American values,” which may work to unintentionally reinforce privilege rather than create new spaces for representation of minoritized identity categories. On the consumption side, I call for more widespread use of the previously described litmus test for political intervention effectiveness among media’s viewership, and encourage critics to incorporate such arguments about films’ messaging into discussion of structural elements.

[1] Hiro Murai, “Childish Gambino – This Is America (Official Music Video),” YouTube, 5 May 2018,

[2] David Sims, “The Astonishing Success of The Greatest Showman,” The Atlantic, 22 Jan. 2018,

[3] “The Greatest Showman,” IMDb, 2017,

[4] “The Greatest Showman Cast – This Is Me (Official Lyric Video),” Atlantic Records, YouTube, 11 Jan. 2018,

[5] Sims, “The Astonishing Success of The Greatest Showman,” Jan. 2018.

[6] Michael Gracey, The Greatest Showman, 20th Century Fox, 8 Dec. 2018.

[7] https://wMichael Hahn, “The Greatest Showman was derided by critics. So why has its soundtrack shot straight to No 1?” The Guardian, 7 Feb. 2018,

[8] Michael Gracey, The Greatest Showman, 20th Century Fox, 8 Dec. 2018.

[9] Alana Yzola, “Hidden Meanings Behind Childish Gambino’s ‘This Is America’ Video Explained,” Insider – YouTube, 9 May 2018,

[10] In addition to many viral dance moves appropriated by the video, the schoolchildren and Gambino perform the Gwara Gwara, a South African dance move, on several occasions, creating room to liken racial hierarchies persistent in the U.S. to Apartheid South Africa. See Yzola, “Hidden Meanings,” Insider, 2018; Additionally, in the final bridge, Gambino says: “You just a black man in this world,” thus broadening the scope of discourses around racism, which typically focus on the features of one nation’s political system, to the international.

[11] As in “Get your money, black man (black man).”

[12] Thomas DeFrantz, “b.O.s. 7.3 / This is America,” ASAP Journal, 27 Aug. 2018,

[13] Nguyen Tan Hoang, A View from the Bottom (Duke University Press: 2014), 10.

Sex and Self-Expression: How Dirty Computer Unravels Expectations

As a 46 minute compilation, Janelle Monae’s Dirty Computer often bears greater similarities to a science fiction film than a modern music video; as an “emotion picture”, the piece uses dystopian, futuristic brainwashing to pull at our heart strings and relay the importance of memory in a world that is constantly propelling forward.

Artwork from Dirty Computer

One of the most initially striking takeaways I had from Dirty Computer was Monae’s ability to send expertly intertwined messages of liberation, love, diversity, sex, individuality, and creativity through the familiar pop rhythms we more frequently hear pumping in the background of soulless summer anthems. From the start, the video’s first song “Crazy, Classic, Life” celebrates the individual and puts a twist on consumer expectations. The song begins with a recording of a sermon delivered by Dr. Sean McMillian*, blaring that “You told us, We hold these truths to be self-evident: That all men and women are created equal…” before diving into the first sung lyrics: “Young, Black, wild and free/ Naked in a limousine/ Riding through the hood real slow/ I love it when I smell the trees.” These opening seconds set the tone for the entirety of Monae’s Dirty Computer memory sequence, as her limp body, dressed in white and surrounded by a whitewashed space, lay at the hands of dystopia. In contrast to the cold “computer” world, her memories explode with color, movement, and the reflection of her lyrics—illustrations of youthful exploration and self-expression. She reflects on her own experiences and shows no hesitation in making her racial identity known to the listener. The setup tells us who Monae is singing about, but doesn’t restrict who she is singing for. In all of its personal and political storytelling, placing marginalized and rule-breaking groups at the forefront, Dirty Computerhas the same flowery-catchy beats that we might expect from any pop album. Monae’s forthright self-ownership does not exclude those who cannot immediately relate to the lyrics’ content, but allows listeners to easily sing along as they determine what makes them a dirty computer. By reconstructing the traditionally whitewashed pop narrative to convey the perspective of a young, black, queer woman, Monae breaches the comfort zone of commercial music while still maintaining the genre’s accessibility and joy. What’s more, in being fearless with her own self-expression, Monae liberates marginalized audiences to engage directly with the mainstream.

The convergence of commercialism and marginalization has been a central theme in our discussions this semester. Whether it be Carmen Miranda’s commodification as an economic and cultural bridge between Latin and North America, or the commercialization of the AIDs crisis which silenced suffering communities and spread vast misinformation, our material this semester has oft demonstrated how capitalist society misuses the marginalized and denies these groups self-expression on a wide platform. Dirty Computer, on the other hand, represents a mass reclamation that has been occurring since bell hooks wrote her first sentence or Martin Luther King Jr. gave his first sermon. In her music and video, Monae gives her voice myriad names and faces, all working in pursuit of art that can be both genuine and successful.

Monae further subverts our expectations through her use of the erotic, reminiscent of Audre Lorde’s essay “Uses of the Erotic: The Erotic as Power”. Throughout Dirty Computer, sex tells a tale of the past and future. In the modern computer world, everyone is cloaked in white, signaling purity, and their wiped memories leave the characters void of past sexual and romantic relationships. Monae’s character, Jane 57821, who is a “Dirty computer”, is cognizant of her former relationship with Tessa Thompson’s character Zen, who is now “Mary Apple 53”, a memory-wiped puppet of the dystopian world. As the film progresses it becomes clear that there is a particular type of memory that must be erased from the “dirty computers” to make them acceptable in the new world: sex., further illustrated through the videos. “Screwed”, for instance, is lyrically about casual sex as a reaction to the world’s political and violent chaos. “Pynk” is both visually and lyrically about vaginas, as well as an ode to the color that is internally ubiquitous among humans, regardless of what’s on the outside. Like Lorde, Monae uses the erotic as a source of power in her lyrics and in her video, and the erotic is not necessarily always contingent on sex itself. As the video shows, “Screwed” might be more about finding confidence and determination in one’s erotic being than about actually being screwed. Likewise, Pynk is not about a physical act, but the reclamation of the vagina as a woman’s source of pride and power. Even Jane and Tessa’s relationship is not necessarily all about sexual tension and consumption, but the vivacity and beauty that can emerge from the erotic.

Shot from Pynk

As a whole, Dirty Computer is authentic and unapologetic. Its moral tells us that we might all be a little “dirty”, and there’s nothing wrong with that. Instead, this difference is what injects our art, music, and life with color and movement. Janelle Monae serves as a pop renegade for both the marginalized and the mainstream, and her commercial success demonstrates how far we’ve come from the days of Carmen Miranda and Bo’s n Whistles.



The Music Video: Audience, Labor, Performance

I wanted to think more about the discussion we had after our last screening as a class as well as the specific selection of music videos we watched. In particular, I keep returning to our brief conversation about Beyoncé’s brand of feminism comparison to Janelle Monae’s brand of feminism, especially as they were invoked in their respective visual albums/music videos. We talked a bit about the different existing debates and criticisms regarding Beyoncé’s form of feminism in contrast to Janelle Monae’s; in their music videos, the differences can be found in their style of music, visual aesthetic, wardrobe choices, lyrics, themes, artistic direction, and so on. I find myself thinking of Alexandra Juhasz’s visit, during which we watched one of her earliest films that she made as a student. In reference to the film, which presented various facts and myths about AIDS, Juhasz said that the film wasn’t for everyone, and that it was okay that it wasn’t for everyone. The idea that certain forms of cultural production simply aren’t intended for everyone raises questions concerning audience and respectability politics that seem particularly relevant and even contradictory when applied to explicitly mainstream content like music videos.

Both Beyoncé and Janelle Monae can be categorized as mainstream artists (perhaps Beyoncé more so), and so it’s interesting to think about how their music is supposed to appeal to a wide audience in order to maintain a fan following and generate revenue, yet sometimes still presents more niche aesthetics that are not necessarily palatable to everyone. Take for example Beyoncé’s politically charged imagery of herself lying on top of a police car in New Orleans (“Formation” music video) or her use of Warsan Shire’s poetry elsewhere in Lemonade. Similarly, Janelle Monae’s Dirty Computer incorporates aspects of Afrofuturism, queerness, and alternative forms of kinship. Both artists also unapologetically address their identities as black women in their visual albums, emphasizing a position that not every viewer can relate to. But if some things aren’t and don’t have to be for everyone, then an interesting problem that arises is whether audiences who do not resonate with Monae or Beyoncé’s work should accept their disconnect or rather make an effort to recognize and question their own discomfort in order to figure out why a particular work isn’t “for them.”

I also wanted to bring in Racquel Gates’ Double Negative, specifically the section on labor, work, and performance. Gates points out that the issue of labor, both performative and invisibilized by production, is entangled in the world of reality television. Gates points to two types of labor common amongst women who appear on “trashy” reality T.V. shows like the Real Housewives or Love & Hip Hop franchises: “The women’s labor takes two forms: the women as employees of the production company, and the shows as platforms for business opportunities (Gates, 152).” Gates goes on to underscore how women on reality T.V. shows are still able to assert a certain degree of agency and “break the fourth wall” in terms of acknowledging the show as a performance/orchestrated production, despite the efforts of producers and editing that attempt to portray the events of the show as entirely “real.” I thought this was applicable to some of the music videos we watched, most notably Frank Ocean’s “Nikes” and Beyoncé’s Lemonade. In the music video for “Nikes,” Ocean acknowledges his conflicts with his record labels. Similarly, Beyoncé’s “Don’t Hurt Yourself” alludes to rumors about her husband Jay-Z’s infidelity. For both artists, the music video is a medium through which they comment on aspects of their personal lives, blending the personal with the professional (what they create as working musicians). Like reality T.V. stars, in their respective videos, Beyoncé and Ocean execute a performance that is choreographed, edited, and ultimately produced, but it is also their real lives that undergirds their onscreen labor.


Theatrical Capital Without Theatrical Meaning in This Is America

Childish Gambino’s music video This Is America comes as an immediate shock to anyone who sees it. From the guitarist shot execution-style at the beginning to the chorus getting mowed down at the hands of Gambino with an assault rifle, mirroring the mas murder at a Charleston church, the video very deliberately focuses on the constant violence against black bodies while awkwardly juxtaposing it behind entertainment and black art. Gambino’s point is shocking and provoking, but provoking of what? The video has many many layers of imagery to focus on the objectification of black bodies, from the fact that the entire video is shot within a warehouse (referencing the direct commodification of all that are trapped within the warehouse), to the confederate pants that Gambino wears, to the (referencing the close proximity to the end of slavery), to the Jim Crow-era exaggeration of black features that Gambino portrays in himself, black objectification is pervasive awkwardly throughout the entire video, to show that the facts of reality when laid bare are very awkward. However, where does the theme go beyond this?Image result for this is america

The video portrays blatant violence against black bodies, obviously as a point to provoke and shock the viewer, but further than that, where does it go? Gambino also uses the dancing of himself and black children as an awkward juxtaposition of two things that we are wildly saturated with: violence against black bodies and entertainment from black bodies. Both being strong forms of objectification that he is highlighting. The main relation being that the entertainment ironically overshadows the violence. Is the use of violence as a creative tool by Gambino complicit, or the point itself? Whatever direction that critiques of This Is America go, they all seem to converge at the possible analysis that this is the point; he’s his use of tactics that are common in popular media, though exaggerated, is the point he is trying to make. A critique of this overall creative method lies in a difficult space between Raquel Gates’s point, “[…] this focus on the alleged impact of reality TV on young people is a coping mechanism aimed at alienating feelings of helplessness or frustration in a world where structural racism still has material and political effects by assuring black people that the end of racism and oppression is as close as one “good” black character on television.” and Audre Lorde’s statement, “The master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house”; that is to say that the critique of Gambino’s theatrical toolbox being in bulk violence and objectification could simply be grasping at a portrayal that has negligible effects, or it could be validly pointing out a poor performance that could otherwise get across the same themes without using the same tools of sterilized black culture and bodies and the violences against them as theatrical capital. As a perspective of where similar themes are being portrayed, but in a very different emotional light, we’ll look at Flying Lotus’s Never Gonna Catch Me feat. Kendrick Lamar.

In this music video, the scene shifts shots by way of subject-to-subject transitions, all within the same scene, but giving the viewer a sense of omnipotent viewership of the scene of a small church, where a funeral of two black children is being held. As expected of Hiro Murai, the scene is surreal, by omitting sounds of the scene itself, but only using the sound of the song; there is no ambiance. The scene breaks its solid mood of mourning when the two children wake up. They start dancing, in an awkward juxtaposition of the moods of dancing, happy children, in a church full of family and friends mourning their deaths, where the mourners are completely unaware.

Hiro Murai Flying Lotus Never Catch Me The children shift from dancing to running, as they run from their own caskets, in a way like children running from an obligation, like a normal church service, rather than their own funeral. They’re having fun, celebrating their lives, giving the viewer an unexpected emotional experience out of this normally grim scene. As the children run away from the funeral, the scene opens up to the outside of the church, where they’re able to dance and enjoy the sunlight, with other black children, in a normal, happy neighborhood setting. The scene is now completely happy, with no reference to the previously grim scene that the children were just in, that is until they run to steal the hearse that was meant for them. As they steal the hearse, they’re still happy, celebrating their lives, and triumphing over the death that just loomed over them. The last shot, highlighting this the most, is the boy in the passenger seat of the hearse that was meant to transport him to his grave, feeling the wind in his face and smiling as he rides away.


Obviously, Flying Lotus’s music video has a much more uplifting, freeing overall message than Gambino’s video, however still juxtaposing the same elements, but in very different ways. The theme is still there: we must reconcile constant, unnatural deaths of innocent black bodies, but how each artist copes with the deaths are very different. Gambino’s video is full of shocking depictions of the deaths themselves, inciting discomfort and even rage, whereas the Flying Lotus video highlights the triumphs over death, or even specifically despite death. Flying Lotus gives us a celebration of life, and Childish Gambino gives us a disavowal of the environment that allows the death to happen in the first place, both being different stages of grief. Flying Lotus, however, gives us more to the theme than just simply the injustice of these deaths while children can have fun and dance. Flying Lotus’s music video is a celebration of life and the beauty that freedom in culture and life can create, all while using the same method of juxtaposing death with dance. Does Gambino have a point? Yes, of course, just as rage at a funeral can be just, but dwelling on this rage and going no further in the theme than simply highlighting fear and injustice is further perpetuating the injustice that has been done to the people that are being mourned and the more who will be mourned. Gambino shows us the deaths that must be mourned, thus being complicit in the mass bombardment of exposure to violence against black bodies, whereas Flying Lotus highlights the obvious injustice (simply in the form of the deaths of children) and pushes us further to celebrate the freedom  and beauty in life to triumph over death.

Religiosity and Dystopia in Dirty Computer

Even if Dirty Computer never specifies the intricacies of sociopolitical identity in Janelle Monae’s created world, there is visually no question who holds and abuses power in an oppressive system. In “Pariah and Black Independent Cinema Today: A Roundtable Discussion” by Kara Keeling et al, the roundtable explores the portrayal of black queerness. Pariah addresses black queerness (and queer blackness) in a far more straightforward and realistic way. Neither method is more or less effective inherently, and oftentimes comparing media in an already underrepresented genre functions to impose unachievable expectations on any piece of media that endeavors to bring a new voice in. That said, using analysis of Pariah to examine Dirty Computer is, indeed, interesting. Jennifer DeClue says, “The visibility of black women attracted to one another in Pariah produces witnesses who see loving black lesbians who do not lose their blackness even though they may be threatened with losing their families”. We see this in Dirty Computer. The bond between Monae and Tessa Thompson feels tangible onscreen, even though neither one was explicitly out at the time of release. They aren’t threatened with losing their families in the traditional sense as explored in Pariah, but they are threatened with having their minds wiped and their personalities erased at the hands of an oppressive, totalitarian state.
Another common thread that we can apply to Dirty Computer is Pariah’s overarching religiosity. Religion is a primary antagonist in Pariah, because it is a primary antagonist in the real world. Religion has consistently been weaponized against marginalized identities. Dirty Computer has no recognizable religion, but the overtones are unmistakable. Towards the end of the film, Thompson’s character meets with a matriarchal figure called “Mother Victoria”, whose religious connotations cannot be missed. Mother Victoria also cuts her off immediately the second that she suggests she and Monae were in love. Mother Victoria shuts her down and Thompson chillingly obeys, “yes, Mother”. DeClue’s entry in the roundtable discussion also references the religious antagonism in Pariah and the representation of “pathological sexuality”. The “dirty” of “Dirty Computer”. In erasing Monae’s sexuality in the eyes of the church and state, one erases her entire being.
In Pariah and Dirty Computer, we see two very different stories of the intersection between queerness and blackness in a state where religious authoritarianism is rampant. In Monae’s dystopia, a religious institution tries to strip dissenters of their identities and repress any instinct that threatens their hierarchy, and it somehow doesn’t feel a whole lot different from the real world represented in Pariah.

Color and painting in Zama

I was especially intrigued by the use of color in Zama, especially how color is used on the body. The beautiful scene at the start of the film shows a group of women covering their bodies with mud, rendering their skin all a similar shade of grayish-green. There are still differences between the women in how they embody different racial identities and speak multiple languages, emphasizing the multiethnic makeup of the population. The mother of Zama’s child is seen dyeing fabric, and during one conversation with him, we can see that her arms are dyed a dark greenish color. Later, when Zama and the group of men he is with are captured by a group of indigenous men, their skins are all tinted red. This attention to color reinforces the overall painterly quality of the film and the bodies it captures. There is such a depth to each image, with each frame having figures in the foreground and background that demand your attention (like the llama wandering around the office). Slavery is also extremely present, though often an unspoken topic, as characters like Malemba command our attention without a single word. Even with the shallow focus of some scenes and the semi-blurred backgrounds, Zama himself is almost an afterthought, at least visually, just a single person in the rich landscape.


I admit to not know much about the possible cultural significance of the indigenous tribe painted red, but I am also interested in the racial implications of painted bodies. Don Diego embodies an anxiety about what it means to be an “Americano,” versus a European having been born in Spain; in one of the interviews we read, Martel talked about the “nostalgia for our true land: Europe” in how many Argentinians believe Europe is where they belong. The dyed skin or mud can be contrasted to other more unnatural instances of body painting. At the party where Zama first encounters Luciana, we see her garish blush and lipstick. The wigs that the colonial magistrates wear, along with the gaudy clothes and makeup of the men and women (I noticed both Don Diego and the governor wearing red nail polish?), contrast with the beauty of nature—the colonial society is semi-grotesque. They perform some version of “Europeanness,” though Zama was born in the Americas and Luciana admits having little memory of Europe anymore. In the final shots of the film, Zama is drained of color and stripped of all this artificiality—he is missing his arms, and his skin is clammy and a sickly shade of gray. Yet the vegetation on the river is a shocking, vibrant green. It almost looks like a surreal painting, but a painting that we must remember is still moving. While the colonial figures may paint themselves to remain static, and render themselves pinnacles of some European identity, the indigenous peoples’ paintings are living ones, organic parts of their lives.

“Life, Not Lifestyle”: Framing the closet, AIDS ACTivism, and Empathic Response

“[W]hat we want the right to exist—not the right to privacy; the right to a life, not to a lifestyle.”[i] I read this line of Maxine Wolfe’s from Women, AIDS, and Activism many times over. Usually I reread to break down—to take stock of what I know and what blanks must be filled in later. For this singular line, though, I reread to accumulate—to develop new feelings and to imagine under what conditions people were living to feel compelled to articulate a threat to life.

Notwithstanding my own attraction to the excerpt’s message, it raises a critical question of whether we define life as something higher than the ways people live it, and whether the answer to that question is circumstantial, as it would have been for, say, a queer black male during the height of the AIDS epidemic.

The onset of the AIDS epidemic in the 1980s and its height in the 1990s is a source of great fascination for scholars in fields ranging from medicine to feminist and queer theory, for producers of culture, and, most importantly, for those who survived it. All told,  I’m none of these; I’m neither a medical professional nor recognized sociological authority, still trying to figure the best way to take a good selfie, and was born in 1997. That said, our unit on HIV/AIDS activism and memory in this course has provoked quite a bit of thought over the last few weeks.

The most intense period of the (ongoing) HIV/AIDS epidemic seems to be such a unique chapter in American history because it existentialized differing identities in a way that had not been done so overtly before. For example, urban housing crises have disproportionately affected communities of color for our the entirety of our nation’s history, resulting in conditions that threaten health, and thus undermines the possibility of achieving longevity parity between people of color and white people. As sad as I am to say, however, there are enough dots one has to connect in this example that some do not bother thinking through its intersectional oppressions, and the physical harm that socio-economic stratification eventually causes. While I wish not to entrench the myth that the queer community was or is the only affected by the HIV/AIDS epidemic, the fact that queerness (particularly male homosexuality) was so commonly associated with AIDS, and that “AIDS = Death” was not an opinion, meant that the epidemic created two Americas in the American imagination. One was queer and the other was straight. In the former, people were dying and in the latter they were not. In the former, life was lucky. In the latter, life was a right. The gulf between the worlds was (is?) a traumatic one, and oftentimes seemed non-traversable from either side

As Thomas Keenan notes in “The AIDS Crisis Is Not Over,” there is both the catastrophe of death, especially within networks formed around identities, “[a]nd then it happens again, when the value of the witness in the testimony is denied, and there’s no one to hear the account, no one to attend or respond.”[ii] The beauty of activism, the most renowned of which was done by ACT UP, was not just the light it shed on the “shrouding of information” by institutionalized authorities, but also that it produced information relevant to the “convenient populations” within which the epidemic was most rapidly spreading.(3)[iii] “People are hungry for information that respects their lives,” Diana Diana wrote.[iv]

This hunger, however, can empower groups of varying motivations. As stated, it empowered activists to force truth through whatever cracks in mainstream media and insulated politics they could find. But for those that viewed homosexuality as a (poor) choice, and who viewed homosexuals as evil, duplicitous, and cowardly,[v] queerness disrespected their lives (hey, @mike_pence). So there developed a craving among those who possessed this ideology for information that respected their prejudices. The precise size of this base is not determinable and only somewhat relevant, for it is the intensity of the demand, in this case for information, that defines the force and quantity of the supply. “The biggest problem with even thinking about audiences is that one usually begins with some completely absurd fiction of generality,” Bordowitz said. “The general public is a market, a [phantom] market,” Crimp extended.[vi] Invalidating the identities of those who bore witness to the catastrophe, those who are associated with the AIDS community, necessitated their replacement with those who were not connected to it—witnesses from the phantom audience.[vii]

I do not feel compelled to dwell on why I think problematic the substitution of actual witnesses to the AIDS catastrophe with those who could parrot back headlines about the public health crisis it produced. Deserving of more analysis is the allocation of empathy and the firming of identity politics. In moments when queers were given airtime, their “characters” were discredited (I ask out of genuine curiosity: Was there another possible result?). In conceiving of a phantom audience-market, the invalid witnesses’ “characters” were substituted out for valid “witness” identities so audience members would recognize themselves in the “authorities” on issues at hand of life or death. But for whom, really, was this life or death?

Unless you were born radical (hint: you weren’t), we have all, at some point, used identity to decide what information is important to us, and information circulation facilitated by technological evolution has only automated this tendency. Thus, we use our identities, or relational identifications, as Crimp would say,(8)[viii] to learn the information that exists and is most relatable. I’m guilty; I’m using my own queerness as a guide in reading these texts, watching United in Anger, and in writing this response.

Because identity is that thing of which we imagine ourselves to be most certain ,and because “it [was] difficult to maintain an identity in this crisis,”[ix] identities operated as stand-ins for understanding. The result? Many a conversation that would otherwise have moved beyond identities to shared values was aborted. Witness replacement described by Crimp and Bordowitz[x] during the height of the AIDS epidemic went a step further. General audience witness surrogates utilized identity as a means of creating information that was not there before through an entitlement to narration. “[T]his phantom—the general public—is the most traumatized of all. It’s having the nightmares, suffering from the flashbacks, uncertain about what has happened to it…but it can’t identify the event.”[xi] Just as most identities are formed through negation, so, too, are the narrations by those who hold the right to narrate. The implied for the replaced witnesses becomes: [Queers and POCs and any other group most heavily hit by the epidemic] are causing the nightmares, responsible for the suffering, and know what is going on. The right to narrate gives license for abdication of responsibility.

ACT UP, and other AIDS advocacy organizations, were right to identify the need to narrate based on the stories of authentic witnesses and subsequently inject those narrations into the veins of the phantom audience—to expose the cover-up. I don’t think that the rapidly identified need to control the narrative nor the deft deployment of strategies to do so is coincidental in the slightest. The closet is discussed primarily in relation to the AIDS epidemic as a site of tragedy, and correctly so. The shame induced while in the closet and the emotional harm inflicted by outings of people on their deathbeds killed spirits before the disease killed their bodies.

But the closet, from an activist standpoint, was also highly productive.  While in the closet, one doesn’t simply imagine a life with privilege, but lives one until their moment of reckoning—when they step or are forced out of it. Every queer person that became part of the movement, regardless of race or class, knew what it was like, at some point, to live a life where they had felt entitled to a narrative and, with hyper-caution, manipulated it. The collective familiarity among activists with navigating the dark space of the closet fostered dreams of a world where HIV/AIDS seropositive friends could live, where queer witnesses to the catastrophe could live authentically, and where they could participate in narrative formation after having been forced to choose between that right and living their living lives.

Losing privilege, and oftentimes health and sometimes life, for living an authentic life answers the question begged by Wolf’s one-line manifesta: under the circumstances of the AIDS epidemic in the 1980s and into the 1990s, rights—including that to life—were granted based on lifestyle. As a society, claiming to uphold a shared set of principles, we are still in desperate need of therapy to process the traumas we have wrought on and still cause one another. Even as wars being fought over narrative control only intensify on some fronts, other modalities of media may present opportunities for both individual catharsis and collective, cross-identity healing.

[i] Wolfe, Maxine. “AIDS and Politics: Transformation of Our Movement.” In Women, AIDS, and Politics. Boston, MA: South End Press, 1998.

[ii] Caruth, Cathy and Thomas Keenan. “‘The AIDS Crisis is Not Over’: A Conversation with Gregg Bordowitz, Douglas Crimp, and Laura Pinsky.” In American Imago. 48:541. 1991.

[iii] Hubbard, Jim and Sarah, Schulman. United In Anger: A History of ACT-UP. YouTube. Directed by Jim Hubbard. United In Anger, Inc. 2012.

[iv] DiAna, DiAna. “Talking that Talk,” In Women, AIDS, and Politics. Boston, MA: South End Press, 1998.

[v] Crimp, Douglas. “Right On, Girlfriend!” In Social Text. 33: 8. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 1992.

[vi] Caruth and Keenan. “‘The AIDS Crisis is Not Over’: A Conversation with Gregg Bordowitz, Douglas Crimp, and Laura Pinsky.” 545.

[vii] Ibid. 546.

[viii] Crimp. “Right On, Girlfriend!” 12-13.

[ix] Harris, Gail. “AIDS and Politics: Transformation of Our Movement.” In Women, AIDS, and Politics. Boston, MA: South End Press, 1998.

[x] Caruth and Keenan. “‘The AIDS Crisis is Not Over’: A Conversation with Gregg Bordowitz, Douglas Crimp, and Laura Pinsky.” 547.

[xi] Ibid. 547.

White Brotherhood: The Privileged Control of the Past and Future of Collective Memory

United in Anger: A History of ACT UP can be views as the same coin upon which the two sides of Notes of a Signifyin Snap! Queen by Marlon Riggs and Forgetting ACT UP by Alex Juhasz lie. One tells the story of a gay black man’s journey through life and into academia and journalism, only to be rejected by a societal brotherhood that he’s realized only wishes for his to conform or die, while Juhasz’s work shows a similarly somber view of the act of archival of ACT UP and the remembrance of ACT UP itself. At the center of both can lie this documentary of what happened in the span of time covered in the film’s lens.

Riggs’s piece gives a histrical-biographical account of the 90s and living as a black gay man. As he recalls the experience of entering Harvard, studying history, then going on to realize journalism, and seeing around him black men, gay men, but no black gay men to speak of. This develops his sense of alienation from the culture of Harvard, having to don a mask of the “Silent Black Macho” to get by as what he can pass as by his appearance alone: a “hidden” intellectual, within a black body, using this stereotype as a defense to not be branded as something worse than what is already labeled in his skin.

Riggs’s experiences of academia was further alienated as he pursued journalism, hoping to study “the evolution of the depiction of male homosexuality in American fiction and poetry”, but was told at every turn by professors that they were “not experts” in the subject, and therefore did not want to touch it. He could only find a graduate student willing to work with him in his interests, and thus realized that there were levels of “allowance” in academia to which you could go against the grain of academic conformism, and he was too far out at the margins, for those with academic power to want to touch his intellectual curiosities. This discovery, or rather rediscovery of the brotherhood of academia that is a brotherhood of whiteness that he saw anyway mirrors the work of ACT UP, such that the bureaucratic levels of the FDA, CDC, and the federal government generally had levels of “allowance” to what they could pay attention, and dying gay people were too far outside of the brotherhood of business as usual, so suddenly everyone tasked (as were their jobs) with treating the AIDS epidemic were “not experts”, where the people at teh center of the issues had to become the experts.

Juhasz’s piece on the remembrance and misremembrance of ACT UP serves as a similar discovery of the actions of the white brotherhood intelligentsia, in the opposite direction in time; where Riggs’ experiences illuminate the actions of the brotherhood to preserve the past, Juhasz’ work illuminates the work of the brotherhood to maintain a hold on the future. In Forgetting ACT UP, Juhasz illuminates the perspectives of ACT UP (mostly in the sense of their past actions) and shows that many representations of ACT UP not only forget the more grassroots level work by activists (the smaller actions like community education), but also forget the actions of people of color within the movement. This collective lack of archival of the work of activists of color is of course heavily coupled to the fact that grassroots actions were heavily carried out by people of color, whereas the “sexier” (=whiter) actions of protest and ACTing UP were far more representative of white activists. Juhasz even from the beginning shares a perspective that veteran activists often did not recognize the majority of people at ACT UP meetings when the movement gained heavy traction. The exciting, emotional work was very often done by white, educated, gay activists, whereas the more grassroots, dangerous, possibly even less consequential work was done by people of color, and was thus forgotten in the eyes of documentaries like United in Anger, where most of the representation of activism was activism in the form of these more heated, controversial demonstrations, rather than smaller actions of education or civil disobedience. In the wake of the upheaval of the makeup of activism, fewer veterans appeared at ACT UP meetings, and the movement a the superficial, but most visible level was overwhelmingly privileged.

Music as community in Pariah

From the very beginning, Pariah establishes itself as a film with bold soundtrack choices, and the music is inextricably linked to the social context it is heard in. The film begins with “My Neck, My Back” playing at the club, while Lee and Laura watch a dancer and try to get women’s numbers. The explicit music booms over the speakers, and the energy is felt throughout the club. Music is an undeniably social experience— people share songs with one another, sing and dance along to the songs at the club. If a person is not familiar with the song or not into the vibe of the music, the sense of exclusion is palpable. Lee is frequently seen with her headphones in, listening to her own music, and music functions as both an isolating force and an escape into a world where she feels comfortable. But with Bina, that world starts to open up a little, as she finds someone who she can talk music with. Music is one of the major things they bond over – it is their shared language. Bonding over music also becomes emblematic of their apparent compatibility or comfort with one another. When Lee goes to the club with Mika, feeling awkward and fidgety while wearing the strap-on, she brushes Mika’s request to dance off, and says she is “not feeling the music.” This is contrasted to Bina’s later invitation to a party—she entices Lee by saying that it’ll have her kind of music.

Musical taste becomes a key point of conversation and in important signifier that Lee has found someone like her. In Bina’s bedroom, while Bina flips through CDs, Lee denies liking Jay-Z or Fifty Cent; they are too “commercial.” Instead, she likes “conscious stuff” that she doubts Bina has heard of, like “Roots. Black Star. Asheru and Blue Black. Pharcyde.” Of course, Bina does recognize some of these artists, and then asks if Lee has heard of Tamar-kali, which she hasn’t. They then listen to a Tamar-kali song. Tamar-kali is, of course, a composer who contributed songs to the film, and is a frequent collaborator with Dee Rees. She also provided the song for the closing credits – “Fire with Fire,” a cover of a song by Gossip. Tamar-kali exists within the film as a source of bonding, reinforcing the importance of finding communities through music; Alike’s discovery of her music may very well be the viewer’s first introduction to the music as well. In the interview with Tamar-kali we read, she connects her interest in punk rock with starting to question authority. Resisting the mainstream musical tastes, and asserting your own choices via what you listen to over your headphones, is an act of self-expression. As the credits roll, we hear the lyrics: “It ain’t the end of the world girl / You’ll find your place in the world girl / All you gotta do is stand up and fight fire with fire.” Even if Lee hasn’t exactly found her “place,” she’s found Tamar-kali and her songs…. Giving her the confidence in herself to move forward.