Can I get an Amen?
From the start of Critical Reflections, my Truth and Reconciliation project, I envisioned ending the long-form essays on the idea of bearing witness. I have addressed being seen and being heard, both in the essays themselves and as part of the podcast. There is great meaning, currently, in the merging of witnessing and representation. Think about the old Virginia Slims tagline – you’ve come a long way, baby – and how it applies to the images and narratives presented to audiences today.
We – specifically Black folks – see a fuller spectrum of our shared experiences on every screen available. No longer are we merely content with the coded representations of ‘urban’ thrillers or the subservient magic Black supporting characters who have been used to redeem White heroes without having any sense of agency of their own. Our righteous indignation can be exercised in the service of our own strivings for love and self-worth, rather than being embodied in the form or notion of some baton we’re passing on to a White protagonist who gets to cross the finish line after we’ve borne the burden for most of the race.
For this concluding essay, let’s go on a journey; a couple in fact, that seem to run parallel to one another, despite the fact that the filmed narratives were created decades apart.
As an adult moviegoer, I have had a love/hate relationship with Steven Spielberg. When I was younger, I, like every other wide-eyed kid, marveled at ET and the Indiana Jones movies. I watched them repeatedly, eager to see something new in his ingenious execution of action and his appreciation for corny humor. He was updating the heroic television serials of his youth for a new generation that was living through a unique series of cultural and social changes. Separated family dynamics. A dawning technological age that would evolve faster than anyone could have imagined.
I see now, how these issues have impacted his work around the early 2000’s, right around the time he started to draw my ire. With AI (Artificial Intelligence), a film passed on to him from Stanley Kubrick, Spielberg picked up on and explored what on the surface is a contemporary-to-futuristic retelling of Pinocchio, the story of a wooden toy that longs to become a real boy.
Set in a future-scape where the melting polar ice caps has submerged larger chunks of the planet underwater and scarce resources have stunted population growth, despite our technological advances, humanity (which means mainly white mainstream society) needs replacements for children. The desire is for something that can love and be committed without depleting already decreased basic resources.
A gathering of scientists and academics listens intently to the call of Professor Hobby (William Hurt) who has been leading a robotics team seeking to push and extend the boundaries of creation. Not merely focused on creating machines that can beat humans at chess, the goal is to build a more perfect beast, if you will. One that not only looks like them (again, mainly white) and has a conceptual understanding of feelings and sensory responses, but also possesses a beautifully formed and functional mind (a lovely paraphrasing of the Ralph Ellison quote from the beginning of Invisible Man). It is not enough to know what love is, the professor posits; instead, he wants his creations to truly experience love, not so much for themselves, but for the objects of their imprinted affections (you guessed it again, white folks).
I am constantly amazed by the opening sequence of this film, not so much for the pontificating of Professor Hobby, but for the comments from one of the attendees, a black woman sitting towards the front of this collegial group. She has taken in the professor’s philosophical musings and recognizes a deeper conundrum than her other (male and white) colleagues.
To be loved, she points out, is not the heart of the issue. Humans can certainly make a robot that loves their creators and serves as a substitute for the children we are unable to procreate naturally, but what matters more is whether or not we humans can find it in our hearts to love these new robots as unconditionally as we expect them to feel towards us. Professor Hobby astutely frames the notion by reminding her, his gathered experts, and the audience that this is the oldest dilemma, one that goes back to God’s creation of Man. Because didn’t God create Man to love Him?
As true an intellectual argument as this may be, I believe Professor Hobby and Spielberg may have missed a larger and far more obvious point. This woman wasn’t necessarily limiting her assessment to the dynamic between God and Man. She, as a black woman (and more specifically, one of the only black characters in the film given a voice), is commenting on the peculiar relationship seen in race in America.
The Founding Fathers and the white social order they created was built on a bedrock notion of exploiting a group of people – defined as inferior, to guarantee their servitude. Black folks worked the land, cooked meals, cleaned homes, and raised white children, when they were unable to do so for themselves (beyond procreating to produce more workers to maintain the upkeep of the plantation system). Most stories from that period present an idealized version of the relationship between slaves and their masters. Slaves love and protect their owners, if not unconditionally, then certainly out of a sense of fear and obligation.
But did white society back then (or even now) truly ever consider loving Black people?
The film moves on from this theoretical debate to focus on the story of David (Haley Joel Osment), a new experimental robot child “borne” from the earlier discussion to become the robot model. He is gifted to the Swintons, Monica (Frances O’Connor) and Henry (Sam Robards). Henry works for the robotics company and is considered a prime candidate to accept David because the Swintons are struggling to deal with the loss of their son Martin (Jake Thomas). Martin is not legally dead but has been in a medically-induced coma/stasis due to a viral infection that cannot currently be cured. He has been unresponsive for the last five years and the Swintons, Monica in particular, have refused to give up hope, which also means they haven’t moved on.
Monica is initially resistant to accepting David into their home and lives but cannot overcome the exterior presentation. David is for all intents and purposes a young boy, close in age to Martin, and eager to learn and love. Before long, it is obvious that David, as a surrogate of sorts, is an emotional slave. Perfect, in that, he will never get sick, grow old, or stop loving the Swintons, even once Martin miraculously recovers and begins to manipulate his parents into pushing David aside.
David, abandoned by Monica, begins a journey to discover how he can become a real boy and earn back his place in the Swinton household. Becoming real equates with freedom and a sense of belonging.
I want to transition from David and his quest, which by the end of the film has spanned thousands of years, to another, more recent exploration of a character discovering their life path in the midst of historic trauma in a speculative world.
Talk about bearing witness. That is what Barry Jenkins and his adaptation of Colson Whitehead’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel The Underground Railroad demands of the audience. More precisely, the Amazon Prime original series places that responsibility on us to a far greater extent than the novel itself. The act of reading takes us on a journey – the epic odyssey of Cora (Thuso Mbedu), a young woman enslaved on a plantation in Georgia – burdened by history, but freed from fact-based shackles by the narrative’s fascinating alternative framework, unbound by direct considerations of time and historical accuracy. What if the “Underground Railroad” had been a literal network of rail-lines built underground with trains staffed by free and escaped people, with support from white sympathizers? What impact would this subterranean system have had on the Southern states it burrowed through?
Cora is, in many ways, like David. She feels abandoned on the plantation; her mother escaped but left Cora behind. We imagine the difficulty of such a decision, the questions about whether or not they could survive the journey together – a mother and child – or if once freedom has been found, Cora’s mother could somehow find a way to extract Cora later. Yet, for Cora, all she feels is a sense of abandonment and the sad resignation that comes from knowing of no other option.
Jenkins uses Cora and the background Black characters as our eyes and ears into the harsh realities of life during this time. During the first episode, Jenkins presents multiple attacks on Black bodies that must have been simply daily rituals on plantations, but he builds in a distanced perspective, a necessary remove to prevent the presentations from wallowing in tortuous pornographic displays of Black suffering. He starts with wider shots, sometimes at night, and never zooms in to show whips breaking skin or splayed blood. But more impactfully, in these moments, Jenkins shifts from the acts of violence themselves to the faces of the other slaves, the silent witnesses who beyond seeing and hearing, understand the trauma inflicted on those bodies because it is searing their Black psyches as well.
These scenes from the first episode break through Cora’s depression and resignation, fashioning the resolve that leads her to join Caesar (Aaron Pierre) as he seeks to follow the Underground Railroad to freedom. For Cora, much like David, this journey is about reconnecting with her mother, the spirit of a woman whose longing for freedom might not have ended in the promised land, but who certainly came to inspire Cora in some of the darker passages of the trek.
Cora traverses a landscape re-imagined, historically remixed by some twisted lab cabin production genius intent on holding up a pitch-black carnival roadshow of racism. Individual states have determined their own rules for the status of Black folks. In some instances, Black people are not accepted within the borders at all; in others, a seemingly vibrant Black cultural life exists (education, employment, and a sense of enterprise), but below the surface, Black bodies used for medical testing and subjected to sterilization. At other stops, Cora finds the uneasy tension between Black communities that have grown into seemingly sustainable economic and social haven and the surrounding White enclaves that fear the rise of this Black empowerment.
And yet, there is actually a third path, a far more radical departure Jenkins put forth after the release of The Underground Railroad. Dubbed The Gaze, Jenkins culled together scenes of those largely seen, but unheard Black characters I mentioned earlier who populated every state along Cora’s journey. The folks who had been our eyes watching and witnessing.
The Gaze, available via Vimeo, is possibly the most thrilling perspective of all. As a non-linear document (that is not truly documentary), it allows those who have been relegated to the background to step into the spotlight and actively witness something more than the suffering and trauma of their time. The Gaze creates a Meta-moment, a period of reflection where those characters from the past get the chance to look ahead, to see us, the Black folks of their future and maybe even catch a glimpse of what they sacrificed their lives for. Is there even a sense of joy in their eyes, seeing a world they could never have imagined and our current stop on the long road to freedom?
In interviews and pieces written about The Gaze, so much time is spent dissecting the differences between the White Gaze and whether or not Jenkins has boldly chosen to explore a Black Gaze to replace the tired notion of White vision and revisionist histories. There are certainly valid points in such arguments, but those debates failed to capture my attention.
Instead, I watched The Gaze, focusing primarily on that notion of these characters looking at me, sizing me up, as I pondered their lives and stories. I wanted to know more about them, especially since Jenkins had allowed them to break free, even if only for a moment, from their day-to-day existence.
And personally, I found myself unable to escape the feeling that, in those faces and the reflective witnessing taking place between us, I was communing with one of my own ancestors. Within my shared family history, I have always known about Solomon, my maternal grandmother’s grandfather, who was the first freedman in our line. I soaked up stories about him from my Nana when I was young and could barely contain my excitement the day we stumbled across a series of old family photos with him and my great-grandmother.
Among that trove of pictures, we discovered a sepia-toned shot of Solomon alone, dressed in his finest, staring out at us. Having a face to go along with the name and the stories transformed the sense of history and the world for me. Solomon became a real, increasingly more living link to that time and a touchstone to help me define myself as a Black man and an American.
Over the course of this project, I’ve spoken about the creative muscle I have exercised throughout phases of my life. I’ve had to watch stories on film and television (and even to some extent via streaming services now) where I wasn’t represented through an authentic reflection and I have found ways to rewrite those narratives and insert myself in those frames. It is sometimes a tricky proposition due to the complexities of race and the inherent realities of invisibility. I still flex this muscle, although I am heartened by the fact that there are far more narratives illustrating the dynamic spectrum of Black experiences.
But The Gaze, what it did for me, I’m still trying to wrap my head around it. Jenkins foregrounded generations of Black people (not just characters, but what felt like representations of real people) and in some vital way, he helped me to breathe a little extra life into Solomon. While gazing at those faces, I found a space for Solomon too, a place where he took on a bit more shape and definition. And maybe, in that shared gaze, Solomon got to see me too.
David’s long and winding roadshow, while a pure science fiction fantasy is propelled by a speculative idea that, unconsciously, creates a future where the lone and discarded child (people of color), in the end represent the last remaining example of lost humanity. Hundreds, if not thousands of years in the future, after Man has completely succumbed to the ill-effects of global warming and our inhumanity, David is found by aliens, re-animated, and serves as a time capsule, a record of his long-gone age. He becomes the face of the past and possibly a means of building a future for humanity. His unending and undying love could redeem human life.
Is that the endgame for Black people in America? Could we, in some distant future, represent the best of the American experiment?
I wonder where Cora goes at the end of The Underground Railroad. She is finally free from the slave catcher who has pursued her like a hellhound across the fragmented landscape of the narrative. She has loved and lost along the way. Curiously, she has seen the inhumanity of everyone, both Black and White, endured the scarring of all these encounters and re-emerged with purpose.
She’s not concerned with loving white folks. Cora’s future is about finding a space where she can truly love herself. Reconciliation starts at home.
Can I get an Amen?
Note: This is the fifth in a series of long-form pieces based on my 2021 “Truth & Reconciliation” project. These essays and the Critical Reflections podcast would not be possible without the support of ArtsWave, the City of Cincinnati, Duke Energy, Greater Cincinnati Foundation, Fifth Third Bank and the Arts Vibrancy Recovery Fund.