Linda Goode Bryant and Laura Poitras’s Flag Wars
In this exclusive three-week screening, an artist explores the gentrification and preservation of her hometown Ohio neighborhood.
Nov 16, 2022
Linda Goode Bryant has worn many hats during her nearly 50-year career: museum fellow, education coordinator, gallery director, filmmaker, activist, farmer, artist. Her dedication to creativity connects them all. In 1974, she founded the gallery Just Above Midtown (JAM), a self-described laboratory that centered Black artists and other artists of color and their experiments in art. After closing JAM in 1986, Goode Bryant transitioned into filmmaking, including the production of the award-winning documentary Flag Wars (2003), codirected by Laura Poitras. Currently, Goode Bryant serves as founder and president of Project EATS, a “living installation” that transforms vacant lots and rooftops into urban farms.
In Flag Wars, Goode Bryant and Poitras ask what it looks like for two historically oppressed groups to live together. Is gentrification different if the gentrifiers also experience oppression? The culmination of four years of filming, this documentary follows two groups as the neighborhood where they live changes. Olde Towne East, in Goode Bryant’s hometown of Columbus, Ohio, has been a working-class Black neighborhood since the 1950s. Attracted to the large and relatively low-cost Victorian homes, homebuyers, mostly white and gay, renovated and moved into houses previously in disrepair. Goode Bryant and Poitras capture court hearings, dinners, protests, and more, asking questions about the everyday decisions that we make as part of larger systems of exploitation.
Twenty years after the release of Flag Wars, Olde Towne East continues to be gentrified. I recently spoke with Goode Bryant about Flag Wars and her filmmaking practice. Her work and JAM are the subject of the exhibition Just Above Midtown: Changing Spaces, on view at MoMA through February 18.
Join us in December for the next edition of Hyundai Card Video Views, as the series continues its consideration of how artists engage with the technologies that have become central to our daily lives.
—Amber Edmond, Curatorial Fellow, Department of Media and Performance
When you’re in a mode of running and gunning, it’s such a creative, wonderful high because you can’t anticipate what’s going to happen.
Linda Goode Bryant
What was it like to collaborate on the film, and what does it look like to codirect a documentary?
I think Laura and I pretty much understood why we were interested in doing the documentary. Here you have two historically oppressed groups, and we wanted to find out whether a new group moving into an all-Black neighborhood looks different than gentrification. I liked the challenge of trying to do a documentary that unfolded like a narrative film, and that could surpass War Room, the brilliant D. A. Pennebaker film.
Flag Wars doesn’t have narration. It’s chronological, but also loose enough where it feels like you’re making comparisons between scenes because of how they’re placed next to each other. Did you see narratives coming together as you were filming?
When you’re in a mode of running and gunning, it’s such a creative, wonderful high because you can’t anticipate what’s going to happen, and you have to be aware of everything around you. You’re shooting, but you’re looking to see how people are reacting around you. You have to read people’s body language, so you can anticipate—is this person about to explode? Because you want the camera there when it happens. It’s such a wonderful in-the-moment, creative way of making.
In our editing, we made a commitment to ourselves and to the people we were following—our characters—that the story would be told by them. Laura and I decided just to show the people as they are. The audience has to experience that and decide how they respond to these characters.
You know, in filmmaking, you always have at least one shot where you’re like, “Golly, this is the money shot.” And you realize that in telling the story, you gotta let it go. And that’s a hard thing.
Something that stands out to me is that the people in your film are speaking these bigoted thoughts so plainly. It made me wonder how they forgot that the camera was there, and how you gained their trust. How did you come across these people and realize that you wanted them to be in the film?
We looked at, I think, four or five cities, because gentrification was happening everywhere across the country. The last thing I wanted to do was shoot in my old neighborhood. But it became increasingly interesting to me as we researched. We were able to identify some characters from the local news. We met others, like Chuck Spingola and his family, after we got to Columbus. Chuck is the gentleman who pulls down a gay pride flag at the State House.
He was on the news climbing up the flagpole, tearing it down, and, you know, we’re shooting. We shot him when we saw him, but then it was on the news. Then I said, “We got to go meet him. He needs to be in this film.” And that introduced a whole other universe of people who got into the film.
Do you see your filmmaking career as connected to JAM or Project EATS?
I think everything is story. I believe everything we imagine and create is driven by a story. And that story could be a vision that we have in our imagination, or it could be a story of something that’s happened to us or others. So I think they’re all connected that way.
I’m really drawn to filming people being people. My goal is to capture people as we are. Hopefully, as people sit in the audience and see themselves on the screen, they own that.
Do you have any questions you want people to think about as they’re watching Flag Wars?
I want to create an environment where people talk about the film from the perspective of the character they represent in the room. That intrigues me because often the questions that are asked, it’s like people are asking you to tell them what they should see.
And what’s most interesting to an artist—whether it’s a visual artist, a musician, or a dancer—is, did you see what I hoped you’d see? We’re making this work to share. I made this idea that was in my head tangible so I could share it. And, increasingly, it’s harder to have those kinds of conversations because we’re telling people what they should see. I’m not interested in telling anybody anything. I’m interested in learning about me and how I make work, and how it affects the people who are experiencing it.
Can JAM Be JAM at MoMA?
Read an exclusive excerpt from the exhibition catalogue Just Above Midtown: Changing Spaces, about the desire to create a Black cultural “home.”
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