Film: Worry the Image

Two pages from Arthur Jafa’s notebooks. Courtesy Gavin Brown’s enterprise, New York.


EVERYTHING ARTHUR JAFA produces is aimed at the articulation of a black cinema that, as is his mantra, “replicates the power, beauty, and alienation of black music.” 1 The artist, writer, and filmmaker asks: what could black philosophy look like if given the space to manifest visually? What is the black thing? How does it feel? It matters little to Jafa what material form the inquiry takes, whether essays, films, or his work as a producer and cinematographer on other directors’ projects. Jafa, in all that he does, wants us to see and feel blackness as a way of knowing and being in the world.

Jafa attributes his conceptually driven approach, in which “ideas precede the thing,” 2 to his training in architecture at Howard University in the late 1970s. Architecture, he says, was his first love, because it’s about putting ideas into practice. These origins shed light on the work he has produced over the last two decades. When you watch his films, read his writing, and peruse his notebooks, you get more than a glimpse into the mind of an artist. You see part of the blueprint for a master project. 

Jafa is not concerned with the house so much as its foundation: how the walls are built, not what adorns them. A truly black cinema, for Jafa, is not just one populated with black people and black narratives made by black filmmakers, but one that is structurally and theoretically black. His approach is a departure from the attitudes that have dominated black cinematic theory and practice for most of its history, attitudes that tend to prioritize the pedagogical power of the medium. marked by slavery in the Western Hemisphere.” Frank Wilderson III, Red, White, and Black: Cinema and the Structure of U.S. Antagonisms, Durham, N.C., Duke University Press, 2010, p. 59.’]3 There are good reasons for this preoccupation. Representation of black life in the media has long operated as a mechanism by which white America maintains social control, by creating and disseminating anti-black stereotypes and engineering telling absences. In the eyes of many throughout the twentieth century, it fell to black filmmakers to offer correctives––positive images that could counteract the racist ones already in circulation. 

Jafa saw this conversation up close at Howard, when he first drifted from architecture toward film. The black filmmakers who were teaching at Howard at the time––Haile Gerima, Alonzo Crawford, and Abiyi Ford––had moved beyond considerations of representation, focusing instead on working outside the Hollywood system to realize their production goals and foster an economically independent black cinematic circuit. Jafa sympathized with their position, but, as he writes in “Black Visual Intonation,” his most programmatic text on cinema, he “thought we had to ask more sophisticated questions about what Black cinema was and, in fact, could be.” Why, Jafa wondered, did the work of Gerima, Crawford, and Ford “use what is essentially strictly classical Hollywood spatial continuity,” and why must it exist in “binary opposition with Hollywood?” 4 By posing the question of what black cinema can or could be, Jafa engaged two different, but interlocking timelines, not only asking what black cinema has always already been––even if it was not seen as such––as well as what it can be in the present and in the future if it is nurtured and cared for. 

Jafa turned to music, the most fully articulated ecosystem of black creative expression that we know, as a ground for exploring the potential of black cinema. Black music in the Americas, Jafa argues in “Black Visual Intonation,” is a system that exists independently of Western thought’s obsessions with progress. 5 As film critic James Snead writes, where white Western culture built into itself a desire for growth and ceaseless development that destroys the old for the sake of the new, black culture––and especially black music––highlights repetition, circulation, and flow. 6 Jafa builds on Snead’s and others’ recognition of the way that blackness bends or disregards the assumptions that undergird Western thought. Most specifically, he focuses on black music’s tendency to “worry the note.”

Jafa has worked to translate this idea of “worrying the note” into cinematic practice. The term is a mutation of “worried note,” a synonym of “blue note,” a note played or sung at a slightly different pitch than is standard in Western scales and notation. Worried notes are common in blues, jazz, and other black musical genres. They evince black music’s tendency to treat sound as unstable, unlike the exacting constructions of Western harmony. Jafa found an analogy in cinema’s treatment of motion. In the early days of cinema, cameras had to be hand-cranked, and the passage of time on-screen depended on the operator’s whims and the steadiness and strength of his arm. As in most other industries, standardization took over cinema as the twentieth century progressed. As a technique, Jafa’s Black Visual Intonation (BVI) seeks to undo regulation by using nonmetronomic frame rates, or digital editing that emulates that effect. Jafa thinks of BVI as the cinematic equivalent of worrying the note. If black music treats sound as unstable, so black cinema treats time as inherently unstable as well. 

Jafa uses BVI throughout his work. Most recently, he has employed it in Love Is The Message, The Message Is Death, which debuted at Art Basel in 2016 and is now on view at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles.[pq]If black music treats sound as unstable, so black cinema treats time as inherently unstable as well.[/pq]The video comprises a symphony of clips and still images, found in historical archives, popular music videos, and viral content on YouTube. Unsteady digital footage of a nighttime city street from Getty Images gives way to a clip from a silent film featuring black vaudeville comedian Bert Williams, which in turn yields to Michael Jackson dancing in the backseat of a car, followed by cell phone footage of a black crowd wilding out. Edited according to the specifications of Black Visual Intonation and set to Kanye West’s “Ultralight Beam,” Love Is The Message resonates on the same frequency as the blues, gospel, or even grime. For viewers without knowledge of Jafa’s systematic process––the details of which he keeps shrouded in mystery––Love Is The Message feels simply cosmic. Every time I’ve watched the video, I’ve found myself unable to get through it without slipping into confused tears at some juncture––not tears of sadness, in retrospect, and not some knee-jerk reaction to Jafa’s invocation of the tragedies that have befallen us as black Americans, but rather tears of recognition. The closest I can get to adequately describing the feeling is as something like an erotic of the black crowd, demolishing boundaries between ourselves and others, ourselves and our strongest feeling, as it demolishes distance and time.

If worrying the image––as one might call Jafa’s adaptation of the concept of the worried note to the art of montage––is a bending of regulated time, then the presentation of hundreds of years of diasporic blackness on one screen in seven and a half minutes bends time until it’s nearly doubled over and about to snap. His approach to image-sourcing results in moments that manifest what he calls “affective proximity”––a term borrowed from fellow filmmaker John Akomfrah––but that often feel more like small collisions. You’re reminded that history had to be invented from memories and other traces, that somehow everything has always been happening all at once. As in Love Is The Message, Jafa pays no attention to the integrity of linear time in compiling his notebooks, the countless thick volumes filled with neat collages that he has kept since the early days of his career. Recent volumes juxtapose printed posts from Jafa’s Instagram account with magazine clippings and pages torn from art books. In one instance, photos of rapper Tupac Shakur and a vintage illustration showing Sarah Baartman––the “Hottentot Venus” who was displayed as a sideshow attraction at nineteenth-century European carnivals––appear side by side, adhered to a backdrop of photographs of mutilated bodies and snapshots of skinheads.[pq]Jafa treats art and images not as ends in themselves but as tools for proving a concept.[/pq]The notebooks feel like a visual counterpart to the analytic for the experience of time laid out by Christina Sharpe, who describes black being and consciousness as “living in the wake of slavery and constantly encountering a ‘past that is not past.'” 7

Jafa treats art and images not as ends in themselves but as tools for proving a concept. Love Is The Message was an experiment, as was Dreams Are Colder Than Death (2013), a longer documentary that meditates on black life in America through a number of different on-screen speakers, such as artist Kara Walker, filmmaker Charles Burnett, musician Flying Lotus, and academics Fred Moten, Hortense Spillers, and Saidiya Hartman. The film is a study of what it means to be black today, setting recorded testimonies from his contemporaries to mundane footage of their daily lives and other images, some produced by Jafa, some collected. Like Love Is The Message, this work also experiments with processes that subvert conventional filmic practice. Here, Jafa records audio and video of his subjects separately, gesturing toward the kind of black fugitivity and escape that his interviewees speak of, which in the context of the film means an escape from regimes of visibility, from the camera as an agent of the white gaze. In the final edit, the audio is out of sync with the footage, creating a non-indexical relationship between language and image.

Jafa’s exhibition opening at the Serpentine Sackler Gallery in London this month includes experiments as well: a site-specific installation at the gallery as well as performances, screenings, and other events throughout the city in locations that Jafa has cryptically identified as “black sites.” The format of the exhibition returns his art to the world of things. On many occasions, Jafa has claimed to be more interested in “things” than in “art.” 8 Dissolving the space of his work’s display into the city reflects how black art always exists in the world beyond the white cube. When I asked him about what exactly will be featured in the show––will we see more video? will the notebooks be there?––he answered vaguely. Jafa told me that “the questions precede the context.” Here, as in most of his work, the question is not so much what, but how. What we build is less important than how we build it. 


JAFA SAYS THAT a black way of knowing the world, being in it, and moving through it has already been implemented on-screen, if you know how to look for it. It can be found in the works of the first major black American filmmaker Oscar Micheaux, which will reach their centennial in the next few years. Jafa has described Micheaux’s directorial style as matching the rhythms of Thelonius Monk, treating time like putty, and demolishing linear composition. Though it was taught to him as an example of “what not to do,” he argues that it is actually an early example of BVI. As Jafa says: “His shit is not bad Hollywood. It’s his own thing.” The work is a deliberate, thirty-year intervention into the conventions of cinema. 9 This black way of knowing is implemented in now canonical works like Charles Burnett’s Killer of Sheep (1978) and Haile Gerima’s Bush Mama (1979). It is implemented in Julie Dash’s 1991 masterpiece Daughters of the Dust––shot and produced by Jafa––which tells the story of three generations of Gullah women on the southeastern coast of the US at the turn of the twentieth century as their family prepares to migrate to the north. The film weaves together the family’s past, present, and future; the film’s narrator is the unborn child of one of the women, but the child speaks from a perspective influenced directly by ancestral memory. Dash described the film’s narrative structure as impressionistic and fragmented, “the way an old relative would retell it, not linear but always coming back around.” 10 Daughters of the Dust was made just before the golden era of hip-hop music videos, which themselves are a sonically driven cinema that speaks to the world of black aesthetics and philosophy at the turn of the millennium. Today, we find a similarly powerful array of narrative, artistic forms in the raw in black vernacular cinema circulating online, particularly on social media platforms like Twitter, YouTube, Instagram, and the defunct Vine.  

Jafa’s practice is thus an act of care. “We aren’t the Wright Brothers,” he told me. 11 Black people can’t just make something and hope it flies. The system has to be tended to. We can talk about creating the “conditions of possibility” for a black cinema, but it’s a whole other task to “construct and engineer” these conditions. 12 Jafa, it seems, has an endless backlog of blueprints ready to see the light.   


CURRENTLY ON VIEW “Arthur Jafa: Love Is The Message, The Message Is Death,” at the Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles, through June 12.

COMING SOON Arthur Jafa’s solo exhibition, “A Series of Utterly Improbable, Yet Extraordinary Renditions,” at the Serpentine Sackler Gallery, London, June 8–Sept. 10.

ARIA DEAN is a writer, artist, and curator based in Los Angeles.