[26 February 2009]
PopMatters Film and TV Editor
“When you’re different, especially with children you’re different.” Growing up, Maya Rudolph remembers, she never quite felt she “fit in.” Even as an infant, apparently, she found ways to express her dissent and her effort. She was a noisy baby, she recalls, and has been told since that her parents, black singer Minnie Ripperton and Jewish composer Richard Rudolph, wrote “Loving You” at least in part to quiet her. “La la la la la, la la la la la”: Rudolph imagines her mother cooing her feisty child to sleep.
It’s a lovely memory, however circuitous its route to the present, and as Rudolph tells it, she smiles. As she learned to “morph and transform” into various characters throughout her childhood, meeting and eluding the expectations of others, Rudolph discovered her own gifts, turning her discomfort into another sort of performance as an adult. “Sketch comedy,” she says, “became the manifestation of what my brain was already doing.” Resisting labels, she says, is her own norm: “I don’t feel black, I don’t feel white, I feel like me. There is no thing for that.”
You want to hear more—about her experience, about her thoughts on “passing,” about what it was like to live with these parents at the time when she did. But then Rudolph’s interview in The Black List, Vol. 2 is over. And, much like in the first volume, both assembled by interviewer Elvis Mitchell and director Timothy Greenfield-Sanders, this film moves on to the next subject. The brevity of the interviews creates a kind of rhythm: each subject leaves you with a brief, most often intense self-reflection. The rhythm is part exhilarating, part frustrating: the snippets of recollection are left undone, fragments soliciting wonder. And yet the format is ultra polished, the sober gray backdrop and flawless framing suggesting portraiture, posed and finite.
As in the first film, this effect is a function of Greenfield-Sanders’ experience as a photographer (the interviews yielded a multimedia product, including a photography exhibit and a book of portraits as well as the documentaries). Certainly, the sheer beauty of the images creates its own sort of narrative, a visual demonstration of the original impetus, to recover the typically “negative” denomination of the “black list” and reframe it as positive and inspiring. But as enthralling as the artifice may be, as much as it articulates questions concerning construction and oppression, the ways that signs are wielded within a culture, the actual limits of the interviews leave you wanting more.
It helps that each interview subject is so interesting in his or her own way. Rudolph, for example, is followed by Melvin Van Peebles. Of course, it is great to hear from him, remembering the choices he made during his career. Though he was courted by Hollywood following the critical success of his first film, Story of a Three Day Pass, he chose to remain an independent artist, to produce and distribute Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song himself. “I felt if I took a job” with a mainstream company, he says, “They would have the one black person who would have a chance under wraps.” And so he went his own way: “I was just your basic upstart loner.”
Many of the interviewees speak to this sort of experience, feeling alone or isolated or restricted, in ways that led them to push back, to seek release and self-expression. Kara Walker, whose silhouettes brilliantly evoke a range of pasts (individual and collective) while communicating present complexities of living with and through those memories, suggests that it’s time to push on. “How much am I still interested in the conversation about the stereotype?” she asks. “I think there’s a series of narratives I’m more interested in.” Walker sees her art—reclaiming so-called “women’s work” and “craftwork”—in multiple contexts. “There was something about the history of image making that had cast me out, that cast me as an object to be viewed or coveted, or seduced or killed or something other than what I wanted to be or what I thought of myself as.”
RZA has his own version of this story of the search for forms, a means to express his rebellion against the “lack of history” granted to those “growing up black in America.” It felt like, he says, “Our history was ‘slavery’—‘ghetto,’” with noting in between or before and after. He found in the 36 chambers another possibility. “The Asian history was remarkable, special, and also a history of oppression,” in which self-sacrifice and self-making were means toward another end. “My presence, our presence as a people, has always been there. It was just buried under a lot of sand.”
Interviewees who follow RZA are also sifting through sand, from Charlie Pride (who, as a young ballplayer, saw Jackie Robinson as a model for his own “way out of these cotton fields”) to Deval Patrick (his move from the South Side of Chicago to Massachusetts, he says, was “like landing on a different planet”) to Suzanne De Passe (thankful for the “protective umbrella of Motown” as she faced the enormous “barrier to entry to the entertainment industry”). Laurence Fishburne looks back on his own evolution as an artist and icon with some sense of irony. His work with Francis Ford Coppola, he says, beginning when he was 14 years old on Apocalypse Now, was crucial. It was his role as Furious Styles in Boyz N the Hood that forever altered his career and public image, as “father to a generation of fatherless children.” He reflects, “I was not close to my father and I think my father hunger has played out in this way.”
Angela Davis describes her own significance in equally cogent, completely different terms. While she serves as a counter-example to most everyone, it is especially provocative and smart in this film’s structure that she follows Fishburne here (that is, she surely does not evoke any sort of “father hunger”). Looking forward and back, she smiles at Richard Nixon’s clumsy efforts to track her down when she was underground: he wrote a letter to her brother, then playing for the Cleveland Browns, presuming that a football player would never support a “terrorist,” as Nixon and others named her. Now, she says, she embodies other sorts of fantasies for other sorts of observers. She is struck, she says, especially by those who are “excited” to meet her. She suggests that the thrill is not in her, but in you. “What is so exciting for you right now,” she says, “Is not that you’re meeting me. You’re thinking about your youth, you’re thinking about that whole period that had so much promise. We knew we were gonna change the world. It’s that excitement that comes back to you. I’m just a vehicle, I’m sort of a vehicle for time travel.” It’s an apt description of how the many icons in this film work—past, present, or future-looking—that they allow you to imagine what can be, still.