Artist and filmmaker Garrett Bradley speaks about her re-envisioning of Black history.
Thelma Golden, Legacy Russell, Garrett Bradley
Nov 19, 2020
In conjunction with MoMA exhibition Projects: Garrett Bradley, Thelma Golden, director and chief curator of The Studio Museum in Harlem, and Legacy Russell, associate curator of exhibitions at The Studio Museum in Harlem, spoke with Garrett Bradley about what it means to re-image and re-imagine film, art, and the world, right now.
At the height of the pandemic, we met artist and filmmaker Garrett Bradley in the desert. On a Zoom call the three of us managed to transcend space and time, spending several hours at the impossible intersection of Garrett’s Joshua Tree, Thelma’s Harlem, and Legacy’s Brooklyn, where each of us were respectively sequestered. Despite the distance, we came together with joy, care, and concern, reflecting on the politics of the present moment, the nation we share to shape and hope toward, and the importance of actively narrating and archiving hidden Black histories as we celebrate them.
America. 2019. Directed by Garrett Bradley
Legacy Russell: I was meditating on conversations Thelma and I had about you, Garrett, wherein we discussed what presence America (2019) might have at MoMA. Thelma, you felt strongly about the urgency of this piece on the heels of the election in November. Given all that’s happened since the start of the year, those early conversations seem even more prescient.
Garrett Bradley: For me, the creation of America made new space for the creation of art, but also new possibilities for seeing. What I loved about watching Bert Williams’s Lime Kiln Club Field Day (1914), which is featured in America, was witnessing an early example of an integrated effort in support of a Black vision. This is part of what made the film so special and I think propels us even now, as individuals, communities, and institutions, 107 years later.
There were two things that struck me about Bert’s film. One was the experience of both joy and pleasure, an authentic foundation for the film. We see this in the casting, the choreography, the costuming of characters surrounding Bert—the centrality of Odessa Grey. Secondly, this was shot just 17 years after Plessy vs. Ferguson, at the beginning of Jim Crow. I was interested in the structure of the production itself. The making of the film, the inherent dynamics of an interracial production became a second narrative unto itself, one that you could see in-between frames.
Thelma Golden: Can you reflect back on seeing this original footage from Lime Kiln Club Field Day? As we sit in all that we are navigating—this idea of a larger, longer-term Black experience tied to histories that are repetitive and persistent—I’m curious how you saw those images and thought about them.
GB: My relationship with the original footage evolved the longer I worked with it. At first glance, I was drawn to the images for their technical sophistication, for what was achieved on a formal level. Movies hadn’t been invented until maybe 25 years prior to the making of this film and midway through, the camera is locked onto a moving merry-go-round. Bert and Odessa are both fixed and in perpetual motion—very similar to what became Spike Lee’s signature double “dolly shot” (a camera technique that creates tension between movement and stillness in a single frame) almost 80 years later. I fell in love with the camerawork. It offered this rare intimacy that I hadn’t seen in films from that time. There is a palpable sense of commune, a sense of collective knowing that what they were making was monumental.
Excerpted footage from Bert Williams’s Lime Kiln Club Field Day. 1914
The original footage was also crucial for developing a visual language around what I planned to shoot. Because America is rooted in the possibilities of evocation, I wanted to create a connection that was literal. Something that would offer a space for weaving, that might expand the possibilities for collapsing time, that could be playful. Over the course of the project, the country’s leadership had transitioned from Obama to Trump. In my mind, the framing of the footage needed to be approached differently as we entered a new era—an era identical to the one which thwarted Lime Kiln Club Field Day’s progress 103 years earlier.
I knew that Bert was required to wear blackface, and I did not, even in my initial introduction to the material, feel that it took away from his brilliance. But it became critical to prove that, and to prove it using what already existed within the original footage. That is one of the exciting challenges in working with archives—the prospect of revealing a new dimension of something that appears fixed. How could I make it clear that Bert’s power and creative genius were not confined to his performance alone? His vision extended far beyond our immediate gaze as audience members, and could be seen in-between the scenes themselves. It could be seen in a simple portrait, unmasked and still. I wanted to open America with these moments that made clear who he was, separate from the character in the film and outside of the narrative. It was important we saw him giving direction and in negotiation with the surrounding power structures. It became all the more critical that we had a moment to sit with certain frames—certain truths—that are less discernible at 17 frames per second.
LR: Having Bert himself in blackface is a thing to really slow down and read. By adhering to the conventions of minstrelsy of that period, mandating he perform in blackface, even as a Black person, he allowed the rest of the cast to go without blackface. This generosity and sacrifice on behalf of a collective brings forward Black joy, which feels really important, but also painful. It’s also interesting to talk about the speed of the film—things are moving so quickly that slowing down, the close observation of the material, watching it again and again, allows us to focus on some of those details and intimacies.
GB: Yes, exactly. It is the moments in-between. That is a relevant idea for contemporary actors as well. That it isn’t exclusively about the dialogue, it’s actually what happens in between the dialogue that creates as much meaning. When you look at the L.A. Rebellion movement and Julie Dash, Billy Woodberry, Charles Burnett, Haile Gerima…there were not always explicit explanations of the role that the violence of American history played in the narrative or the individual lives of characters in their films. And yet, through the movement of the camera and the way in which it navigated space—neighborhoods, interior spaces, and intimate conversation—we understand that there is a broader, universal context to any one scenario unfolding.
The same is true in thinking about the Western historical value of linearity as a true and pure form mimicking reality. When that standard is broken, when it’s mixed up and played with, we, in some cases, get closer to reality. That nonlinearity was part of the Rubik’s Cube of Lime Kiln Club Field Day, of it being disassembled and MoMA assembling and naming it based on what they thought and understood. Having to mine through all of that, to then link it to something that evokes something that felt true, that we didn’t even know or have proof of, was a huge challenge.
Lime Kiln Club Field Day
TG: When we look at those fragments from Lime Kiln Club Field Day in your work, with the history that comes after it, we understand that what is projected does not continue in a forward line through history. There’s nostalgia for the existence of that film and all of the aspiration in it, but also a nostalgia for what Lime Kiln Club Field Day predicts that doesn’t happen historically. Can you talk about this idea of nostalgia in relation to the fragment, and how the fragment becomes the narrative of the film?
GB: Part of the beauty of Lime Kiln Club Field Day was witnessing, as you say, the creation of nostalgia for things unseen. America is also attempting to do this—to honor that effort and extend it forward, presenting a continuous thread of achievement which is not broken in moments in time. Thinking about the fragment as an incomplete film and the fragments within the film itself propose a nuanced understanding of what progress can look like. The possibilities around this idea of an untethered nostalgia, a re-creation of nostalgia, became a really exciting framework for the aesthetics of the whole project.
I was also interested in exploring the idea of being wholesome—that, in an American context, could be challenged in a way that was also timeless. A new aesthetic that maintained its ability to be classic. The idea was to be able to pause the film at any moment and have it just as easily be an image on a billboard, a cereal box, an advertisement for something we should want. A good part of Lime Kiln Club Field Day is doing that, offering moments that we would want to experience and that we, in this current moment, could imagine we came from.
Lime Kiln Club Field Day
LR: Can we talk about the historical events you chronicle throughout America, what you’ve called the “inventory of facts?” The inventory of facts is an incredible map of the archive you’ve built, and shows us how you navigate it by making certain things visible that otherwise might not exist within collective memory or have a nostalgic association. Your archive traverses monumental moments, like the death of Bessie Coleman, and moments that now feel familiar, like the first-ever Macy’s Day Parade. How do you amplify certain facts and, by doing so, bring them to a shared volume?
GB: The inventory of facts outlines the chronology and narrative for each image in America. I have to ask myself a lot when I’m working on a film about what facts are, how people need them, and in what form. To what extent, as a filmmaker, am I interested in clarity as a consequence of being explicit? So much of making a film, the actual work behind what you see, is mired in the comprehensibility of clear, unobscured expression.
America. 2019. Directed by Garrett Bradley
The inventory was the blueprint, first for myself in determining what to shoot, then for everyone else who helped make the film: the crew and the cast. And then it became obvious that it was something that everyone should have access to, whether it’s connected to what they see or not. Some people may only remember the images and in some way that memory becomes fact and vice versa. We might not remember exactly who Bessie Coleman was, but we’ll have an image in our minds that might possibly last for a very long time. There’s something about a visual chronology that I think opens up possibilities for many age groups, and different ways of understanding.
It was about how we can create something that we believe in our bodies, beyond what we learn to be true. When you look at Glenn Ligon’s work, it brings this very question into focus for me. “America” as a sign, “America” as a reflection—the fact and the symbol, what we recognize and what is given meaning.
America. 2019. Directed by Garrett Bradley
TG: Glenn’s use of the word “America” is exactly as you say: His genius has been to make an image out of words, and to allow us to populate those words with multiple meanings and images. Titling your work America gives us yet another way to think in its presence about all that it is populated with historically. What prompted the title, America?
GB: When it came down to really making a decision, what felt the best was thinking about the way in which things are indexed online. This was just as a conversation was percolating about monuments being removed, at least in New Orleans, where I live. I was really trying to think about new symbols, new iconography, and how algorithms work. If I titled the work something so large, I ran the risk of being embarrassed—I’d certainly thought about that quite a bit—but I was willing to take that chance if it meant that when someone Googled “America,” new images could pop up. That’s why I think about it as, hopefully, an extended project that many people can create in their own iterations, in their own way, and repopulate the algorithm.
TG: Garrett, in reflecting on your film, I’m thinking back to some of those early moments of bringing people together around Lime Kiln Club Field Day, which remains central to that work. Can you speak to some of those early genesis points for America and how they drove your process?
GB: It was Byron Kim who sent me the article about MoMA finding Lime Kiln Club Field Day. And at the bottom of the article was this link to a Library of Congress survey that found 70% (approximately 7,500) of the films made between 1912 and 1929 were missing; after the introduction of speaking films, a lot of the studios threw out their silent films. I remember thinking, “Okay, well, there’s this huge gap in time. They found this one film in 1913 that’s extremely progressive. What if we just made an assumption that those 7,500 films were equally progressive?” That feeds into this idea of simultaneous realities and how we think about memory as proof of what exists and what doesn’t exist.
I said, “If there are 12 films [that will comprise the structure of America], what year am I going to start with, within the confines of 1912 to 1929?” 1915 felt like a critical year, because it opened up doors in much the same way that we talk about Glenn [Ligon]’s work—of being able to reveal alternative dimensions to familiar things. 1915 was the year The Birth of a Nation was released, which reignited the KKK and is cited as being the reason Lime Kiln Club Field Day was never finished. I liked the idea of starting with one source of the problem.
Angela Davis talks about abolitionism being something that is less about violence and more about the act of reimagining. 1915 gave me the opportunity to reimagine and play with the many iterations of the white sheet; this seemingly mundane object that changes in meaning depending on who is holding it and how it is assembled. I could play with the many different narratives evoked by that simple reassembling. Knowing where I wanted to start then paved a legible path 12 years forward, ending in 1926.
What I would like to make happen one day is to enable people of all ages to go back into history and create their own visual interpretations. To the point where we ideally have made 7,500 films that we then put into the archive. And so, there’s no longer a gap. It’s been refilled with our own eye and with our own intention. Right now, 12 of those sit at the Library of Congress, which means there are 7,500-minus-12 that still need to get made.
America. 2019. Directed by Garrett Bradley
LR: There are many layers to America, including the score, which is this incredible component of the work and an intimate collaboration in its own right. How did the score come together? What did that process look like?
GB: I was really interested in thinking about what a modern day silent film could be, and thinking about the history of sound in films. When filmmaking began, there was just accompanied music that went with pictures—often a live score. Then, when dialogue was introduced, it was often just dialogue with music. The third stage was dialogue, music, and foley. So modern films can be quite noisy. With America, I liked the idea of trying to deconstruct that.
I didn’t get to work on the score until about a month before America had to be finished. I had been listening to Florence Price, the first Black woman to be recognized as a symphonic composer, and the first to have a composition performed by a major orchestra. There is a section dedicated to her in America, and during production we played it loud, on speakers, on loop. But when it came to creating a soundscape that would encompass all 12 years, I was still unclear and was feeling down about it. I just couldn’t hear it. Almost everything I do starts with music. Glenn Ligon gave me a DVD of Isaac Julien’s 1989 film Looking for Langston. I was awestruck, and also embarrassed that I hadn’t seen this work in the five years that I was making America. Trevor Mathison was one of the composers of that film. I emailed Mathison, and he wrote back to me! I met him at a café in London and just embarrassed myself, oohed and aahed. I talked about the project in loose terms. He went away, watched America, and when we got back together again he said, “Well, it’s interesting. I’m also thinking about similar ideas of how to address the archive right now.”
The next part of the process was with sound designer Udit Duseja, who works quite a bit with John Akomfrah. It became this trifecta of me in New Orleans, Trevor in London, and Udit in Bombay. Together, we created another kind of sonic space that is both sound and melody.
LR: Let’s talk about your recent film Time (2020). This is a documentary presentation of the real life of a woman named Sibil Fox Richardson and the journey of her family through, and beyond, systems of carcerality. It’s embedded in a contemporary lived experience, but also a collective sharing of that experience. America makes this possible, too, but in a different way, yes?
GB: When we were cutting Time, I remember getting feedback that Fox’s strength may alienate audiences. That it would make her less “likable” and less “accessible,” and that it would only be speaking to the choir. Their point was that a successful film is one that’s universal. America is trying to evoke the universal nature of an integrated effort and the beauty of that, the possibilities of that with the cross-pollination of multiple institutions and showing the work in that context. But, at the same time, I asked myself, how much do I really care about its universality? I took that as a prompt to do the work to underscore that a Black perspective, in its diversity of approach, is also a “mainstream” one: We can see ourselves on the screen and we belong there.
Time. 2020. Directed by Garrett Bradley
Time and America address performance as a form of both oppression and resistance. Both understand this truth as an inherent and constant negotiation of what it means to be Black in America. Both works celebrate a kind of victory over that history, they celebrate the ability to maintain a sense of individuality amidst a system that works actively to take that away. Both films in production were forced to confront the problematic goal of commercial accessibility. Bert [Williams] clearly had to negotiate his own brilliance with the requirement of blackface and I think overcame that negotiation of power, participation, and access successfully.
TG: Can you talk about presentation, installation, and the way that you’ve been working between the spaces of cinema and art? About your sense not only of working between them, but the ways in which these two categories need to be rethought, reinvented, repopulated with new ideas? America touches on the different ways you work, and the different spaces that you work in.
GB: When we talk about art versus film…maybe there is a fundamental difference in the role that questions play. In a more traditional cinematic space, there is the expectation of having a thesis and protecting it throughout production. Working in a different kind of space, a huge amount of the process is about asking questions, with curiosity as the leading force, with the expectation of change. With America, there was an inherent challenge in creating a visual chronology that would illustrate the relationship between the past, the present, and the future. Two-dimensional space forces you to work though ideas one frame at a time, one scene at a time. Developing something that people could move through, something that would reveal itself through one’s own questioning, curiosity, and spatial proximity, felt far more intuitive—even necessary—to our understanding of how history is created and perceived. The flags that hang in the center of the space and through which the images are projected are a literal illustration of how all three phases of time—past, present, and future—can collapse and fragment simultaneously. I’d always thought of America as being presented this way because space, in this case, really was the place in which history could take material form in the present.
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