The Island of St. Matthews
Some of the greatest resistance to common African American stereotypes in the media exist in noncommercial, experimental art films that are shown in galleries, museums, and cinematheques, whether online or in a theater. Kevin Jerome Everson’s seemingly straightforward and unadorned “fellowship films” picture an epic and extraordinary world of regular black people thinking, practicing their craft, minding their own business, or recounting an event, all in a highly skilled and imaginative way. Everson’s work presents us with films of fellowship and concentration, through his use of long takes and minimal exposition. For several minutes, we watch a man ski on water and later we see a scene of believers entering the water for a baptism, as in the opening sequences to The Island of St. Matthews (2013). Members of a family describe their shared passion for racing cars in Cinnamon (2006). Everson’s non-dramatic and unspectacular films turn out to be radical and refreshing portraits of black fellowship, creativity, and liberation precisely because of their understated yet rigorous witness of the unseen average African American person in thought or in bliss.
The history of African Americans is one of daring actions and agentive imagination toward greater equity and more substantive fulfillment of the United States’ democratic ideals. In U.S. society, African Americans face stereotypes of un-belonging and skepticism over having a solid work ethic as if to directly erase the fact that their labor, forced and unforced, built this country, under duress, in fugitivity, as survival. Portraying African Americans as unpatriotic for their protests demanding justice has long been a tactic meant to obscure the ways in which African Americans lived the contradictory principles on which the unwieldy American project was founded while constantly pushing the nation to be more humane and more just in its policies both on the homeland and abroad.
Along the way a variety of narrative strategies, both of criticism and of art, have emerged, including the double-edged strategy of never directly politicizing African American artwork. On the one hand, historical and political contextualizing can reduce the role of the artist. Yet seeing Everson’s characters as descended from those who left the south during The Great Migration, which saw the movement of millions of African Americans from the rural American South to urban and industrializing locations in the West, Midwest, and North, during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, enhances the viewing experience.
Everson’s blend of humor, history, and sense of place in his work has been carefully researched. At times these elements are rendered in the films in highly specific ways, while at others, such as in Three Quarters
(2015), the subjects of the film appear without introduction and in silence. It’s Everson’s own structuralist sleight of hand. In Ear, Nose and Throat
(2016), Everson's characters seem to represent specific African American histories of middle-class achievement in the wake of violence. The same characters appear timeless, appearing out of nowhere and disappearing into the same. Yet how did the protagonist in Ear, Nose and Throat
damage the cartilage in her vocal cords? Something tells me it’s from screaming. How violence marks us even when it happens to someone else: The labor of witnessing weathers the body.1
The history and representations of Black labor can be excruciatingly paradoxical. The body bent in labor can express a sense of regret and exhaustion, but also the lovely and singular autonomy of absorption in the task at hand. There is relief to be working. The job stands between dignity and social death. But the job can also be an attack on dignity. At issue is a paradox of labor and black self-determination and the fraught history of black people working and overworking. Spicebush (2005) captures this predicament so sharply with a diptych that places an African American man working at brickmaking next to footage of the winning lottery numbers being read. Which is the path to the American dream of life, liberty and happiness?
Everson’s work, exemplified by Cinnamon and Tonsler Park (2017), appears most often in that nebulous zone between long-form narrative storytelling and experimental films, and again between fiction and nonfiction. This hybrid form of Everson’s raises the question: who is the audience for this work? What are the politics of showing this blue-collar African American material within the white walls of the art world? Everson discussed such issues in his Shadow and Act interview with the author on January 21, 2014:
Francis: How does it feel showing Quality Control at the Whitney Museum of Art versus the community where you filmed it?Everson: The community? I don’t know that they would want to sit through it. They would see themselves and that’d be it. They may get down with it though but 71 minutes is a long time to watch ironing. So, it’s a specific audience. People ask me who do I make it for? I make it for myself. And then of course I’m an artist so I can’t —I’m not a documentarian or a journalist trying to change shit or inform. I’m looking for form. That’s the game.
Everson actively works to disrupt conventional and ethnographic expectations of black art and black artists to explain, represent, or document. When Everson returns to Northern Ohio from Charlottesville, Virginia to shoot film, he draws from both his imagined and his lived experiences as an artist who grew up and pursued his art education in Ohio (MFA from Ohio University and BFA from the University of Akron). As happens when a person migrates to a different social and geographical location, the cadences of one’s upbringing become both remote and central, at once abstract and representational. So, it is with Everson’s work. Northern Ohio is at once a geographical and a psychological more-than-location that provides the materials Everson labors over, weathering them into his filmic contemplations of the bodies, tools, spaces, and body-languages of Northern Ohio whose every-day is set to patterns of manufacturing and city infrastructure at the level of the job site and the worker.
How do we think about abstraction and the vernacular in American art, in African-American art? What do Everson’s experimentations with history tell us about film’s relationship to reality—and what’s more, about our own need to have movies index our realities and our identities? What is film’s role in recounting history? What does it mean to create archival footage when African American historiography represents such a vulnerable archive? Everson’s films tend to begin without context, leaving the significance of the images elusive. Where does this leave the viewer? Everson says:
So, the viewer is always a few frames behind. And that’s cool with me. I remember seeing people, I don’t care if they’re calf ropers, they work for the Cleveland water department, film directors, racecar drivers, magicians, that we shot, they’re like ‘do you want us to explain the history?’ No! I mean I'll know, you tell me, but I'm not going to tell the audience. It’s not like… I'm not keeping secrets, but I like the fact that there's a formal distance. It's not a zoo mentality. I'm not putting people on display. Because you don't learn from the sloth in the zoo, you know, it ain't about that. It's about you understanding this intellectual wisdom that people are doing.”2
Speaking of the Island of St. Matthews
Everson has said, “People talk about the past but everything is in the present tense. And then for me it is not about memory but about oral tradition, which I think is historic, developing history. It’s never about memory. It’s about history. It’s a thesis when someone is telling me a story. That’s what this is. I’m not trying to remember something. I’m telling you what’s going on. I’m trying to translate it. I never see it as memory.”3
Everson thwarts our assumptions that participants in his work are merely conduits to the past. In this sense history is both an account of what happened and a comment on the present, a translation between zones of time. Everson’s scripted documentaries, fictional found footage, actual archival materials, actors, non-actors, decontextualized settings, specific locations, features, shorts, and silent and sound films push against neat time boundaries. Everson’s craft of making (up) the work is at the core of his innovation and if we flatten his work to the merely factual we miss his interventions and inventiveness—what it means that he painstakingly re-creates props for his films, that he stages re-enactments, and that participants describing a past event use the present tense. And yet the films speak to the emotional weight of bearing witness to American history.
1. The concept of “weathering” was first used by public health professor Arline Geronimus to describe “a sense of erosion by constant stress” on the body. Arline Geronimus, “Making the Case that Discrimination is Bad for your Health,” interviewed by Gene Denby, Code Switch, NPR, January 14, 2018. https://www.npr.org/sections/codeswitch/2018/01/14/577664626/making-the-case-that-discrimination-is-bad-for-your-health
2. Interview with Corey D. B. Walker, Gather Round: A Symposium on the Work of Kevin Jerome Everson, Winston-Salem State University and Southeastern Center for Contemporary Art, October 2, 2014.