“Hello Stranger”: Moonlight, Fences and the Musical Disruption of Black (Digital) Visuality
By Mark Anthony Neal | @NewBlackMan | with thanks to NewBlackMan (in Exile)
Tuesday, January 17, 2017.
In a historical moment of Blackness, that is perhaps most powerfully articulated in the hegemony of Black Visuality, Black sound -- music and other discourses of Sound culture -- seemingly no longer functions as the singular lingua franca of the Black American experience. The utility of Black music was most pronounced in its accessibility -- as a live community based form, as recorded media, and via radio. With the emergence of relatively inexpensive hand-held digital technology, which was revolutionized more than a generation ago with the personalization of the listening experience with the Walkman, the ease in which the visual can be placed in the service of Blackness -- as archive and live-action -- might be unprecedented.
This contemporary era has been defined by acts of Black self-documentation -- the selfie as the new mode of communal and aspirational Blackness -- where as art historian Krista Thompson observes, “technologies facilitate a shared visual literacy and spectacular visibility, which is manifest in the way diasporic subjects engage in shared performances of visibility -- practices that involve staging the act of being seen and being seen in the act of being seen.” (Shine: The Visual Economy of Light in African Diasporic Aesthetic Practices, 10).
To this, we might also acknowledge the use of handheld digital technology as a means of counter-surveillance of The State, particularly in the instances (many as they are) of police malfeasance against Black and Brown bodies. This latter role mirrors that of photojournalists -- Black and White -- who captured many of the iconic and everyday moments of the Black liberation movement of the 1960s and 1970s, though with a caveat.
In his book North of Dixie: Civil Rights Photography Beyond the South, historian Mark Speltz notes “Photojournalists made hundreds of photographs during the civil rights era, but only a small percentage ever made it to print. Many of these beckon us to look past the most dramatic scenes.” (25). In contrast, we are witnessing both the crowdsourcing and sharing of content that transverses the political and editorial constraints faced by photojournalists in the 1960s.
Additionally, with mainstream media platforms and cultural institutions in need of content -- first as a response to the so-called Obama era and then as gesture to obscure the lack of real racial equity in the face of rebranded White Supremacy -- there has been a proliferation of high and middlebrow Black visual culture via highly publicized exhibitions such as Kara Walker “A Subtlety, or the Marvelous Sugar Baby,” the Carrie Mae Weems retrospective at the Guggenheim, Kehinde Wiley’s A New Republic to name just a few, and cinematic efforts such as Steve McQueen’s 12 Years a Slave and Ava Duvernay’s Selma.
The sweet spot, if you will, of contemporary Black visual culture has been in the arena of music based short film -- a form beyond the simple music video. There has been, of course, a palpable relationship between Black visuality and Black sound -- thinking here of the role of Black commercial music in the framing and promotion of the Blaxploitation genre in the 1970s. What was often the case in these films was the privileging Black music as product -- the Soundtrack recording as the most viable mode of promotion -- over visual concerns.
What we are witnessing now is a more symbiotic relationship between music and visuals in Black cultural production, particularly in short form film. Though a project like Beyonce’s Lemonade, has legitimately helped define the possibilities of the form -- think how it influences Common’s Black America Again -- earlier iterations might be found in the work Lemonade director Kahlil Joseph via FKA Twig’s “Video Girl”, the critically acclaimed “Until the Quiet Comes” for Flying Lotus, and Joseph’s homage to L.A. Rebellion filmmaker Charles Burnett’s Killer of Sheep (1977), with Shabazz Palace’s "Belhaven Meridian."
Charles Burnett’s Killer of Sheep provides useful evidence of the strategies that some Black filmmakers have used to leverage Black music as a disruptive force in the context of long-form cinema. As Morgan Woolsey notes in her essay “Re/soundings: Music and the Political Goals of the L.A. Rebellion,” filmmakers like Burnett, Julie Dash and Larry Clark sought to “depathologize the wide range of musics of the African diaspora” and “expand understandings of what ‘Black’ music could sound like.” (L.A. Rebellion; Creating a New Black Cinema, 176)
Specifically, in the case of Burnett, Woolsey cites his oft-stated desire for Killer of Sheep to function as a “history lesson” in Black music. In a film that so brilliantly exploits the archive of Black Music for the purposes of illuminating the exteriorities and interiorities of Black working class Los Angeles in the 1970s, the most striking musical occasion occurs with the use of Dinah Washington's “This Bitter Earth” in a moment of intimacy between the protagonist Stan (Henry Gayle Sanders) and “Stan’s Wife” (Kaycee Moore).
Embodied in their slow drag, which abruptly ends when the music does, as Stan leaves the frame, “This Bitter Earth” offers a quiet disruption to the drudgery of Stan’s life and a glimpse of possibility for his wife. Indeed, “Stan’s Wife” memorably reflects on that moment as “memories that just don’t seem mine, like half-eaten cake.” As Kevin Quashie writes, quiet is “often used interchangeably with silence or stillness...quiet, instead, is a metaphor for the full range of one’s inner self -- one’s desires, ambitions, hungers, vulnerabilities, fears.” (The Sovereignty of Quiet: Beyond Resistance in Black Culture, 6) This moment of quiet, a decidedly analog disruption, is recovered in two recents films, Barry Jenkins’s Moonlight (based on playwright Tarell Alvin McCraney’s In Moonlight Black Boys Look Blue?) and Denzel Washington’s cinematic treatment of August Wilson’s pulitzer prize winning play Fences.
Like Killer of Sheep, the soundscape of Moonlight is over-filled with a gorgeous score by Nicholas Britell, as well as more contemporary music from Goodie Mob and the obscure classic “Every Nigger is a Star” by Boris Gardner, which gained new cultural capital as a sample on Kendrick Lamar’s To Pimp a Butterfly. On two occasions in the film, Jenkins draws on the analog Black musical archive, to enact moments of disruption, not unlike Barnett’s use of “This Bitter Earth.” Many viewers have casually remarked on Jenkins’s use of Barbara Lewis’s “Hello Stranger” during Moonlight’s penultimate moment. From a narrative standpoint the song brilliantly animates memory and nostalgia, for the adults “Black” (Trevante Rhodes) and Kevin (André Holland) -- characters whose real emotional connection likely occurs in an off-screen future; in this way “Hello Stranger” recalls histories not yet experienced.
Less remarked is “Paula’s” (Naomie Harris) seemingly stimulant induced shimmy to Aretha Franklin’s “One Step Ahead.” Though Stephane Dunn correctly argues that Harris’s character is “typical” within the canon of Black women in film with “addiction issues,” “One Step Ahead” offers a brief glimpse into Paula’s interiority; she is the embodiment of the “half -eaten cake” that “Stan’s Wife” conjures in The Killer of Sheep. That Franklin’s song is likely most known to contemporary audiences as source material for Yasiin Bey’s (Mos Def) “Ms Fat Booty” (“ass so fat, you can see it from the front”), only highlights “Paula’s” own unspoken recollections of her former self: younger, clean, voluptuous and without child.
In his book Film Blackness: American Cinema and the Idea of Black Film, Michael Boyce Gillespie highlights what he describes as Jenkins’s “quiet tonality” as it functions in his first full-length film Medicine for Melancholy (2008), which is set in San Francisco. As Gillespie writes, Medicine for Melancholy, “organizes quiet as interiority force, an affective arrangement of the films pulsing speculation on black capacities...the film’s quiet conjures the politics of black becoming, fantasy, and the cultural geography of San Francisco” (120). Jenkins notes that “Hello Stranger” was in the film because “when I lived in San Francisco, there was this soul night that happens on Tuesdays where they would play only vinyl 45s. It was for grown folks...Every time that song came on, I just got this feeling, you know? It was overwhelming. And I wanted to give this feeling to the audience.” (Complex, October 24, 2016)
As a director Denzel Washington utilized music differently in Fences -- a cinematic rendering of a stage production that was devoid of music. In this way Washington stays true to August Wilson’s “single shot” -- and a quick shout to legendary Pittsburgh photographer Charles “Teenie” “One-Shot” Harris -- of Black life Washington’s depiction of mid-20th century Black Pittsburgh, countering cinematic recollections of that era in which music (and dance) was one of the prominent features. Washington’s directorial strategy is both a commitment the integrity of Wilson’s artistic vision -- where language functions as the musical default -- and a concession to the prominence of the visual of contemporary Black culture, where his capturing of the city of Pittsburgh is perhaps Washington’s most pronounced contribution to Wilson’s vision.
One of the other important contributions that Washington makes to Wilson’s vision is the use of Jimmy Scott’s “Day by Day” as a mode of “narrative disruption” that sonically captures the interiorities of many of the film’s main characters in ways that language fails to. Originally recorded in 1969 and appearing on the album The Source, Scott’s phrasing on this rendition of “Day by Day’ is impeccable, yet there is also the issue of the quality of Scott’s vocals, which are emotive and “ungendered” (my own concession here to the confusion that Scott’s voice has historically generated regarding his “gender”). Beyond its ungendering Scott’s vocals could only be read as disruptive in the context of a film that is devoid of what might be described as commercial Black music.
Yet Scott himself becomes a metaphor for the challenges of the commercial for Black culture, whether it be the economic viability of interpreting a Black stage classic as a narrative film or the economic exploitation of Scott, that for long periods of time kept his music -- his voice -- out of commercial circulation. Indeed The Source is one of the few available examples of Scott at the peak of his skills; he would not record on a consistent basis until he well into his 60s, and “discovered” by a generation of hipsters in the 1990s. As such Jimmy Scott is the embodiment of the disappointment felt by Troy Maxson, who can only gesture -- in recollections and bitter rants -- to the potential athletic greatness that segregation robbed him the opportunity to fully realize.
Scott’s performance of “Day by Day” -- and how interesting would have been for Washington to have used Scott’s “The Folks Who Live on the Hill,” given the historical significance of Pittsburgh’s Hill district and the fact that the song remained shelved for two decades -- allows Washington to add a layer to Troy Maxson’s trauma, and that which he visits upon his wife Rose (Viola Davis) and his sons Lyons (Russell Hornsby), and in particular Cory (Jovan Adepo). In this regard Jimmy Scott’s voice provides the space for a disruptive interiority, for all those who are largely reacting to Troy’s self-inflicted malaise.
Considered within the context of contemporary Black filmmaking and visual culture, songs like “Hello Stranger” and “Day by Day” function as analog hauntings of the digital era -- something akin to a nostalgia and remembrance that’s not unlike a ghost in the digital archive.
Mark Anthony Neal been conjuring analog for a digital world for a minute; Check him at @NewBlackMan + @LeftofBlack + BookerBBBrown on the ‘Gram + and the homebase at NewBlackMan (in Exile).