The Locarno Film Festival in Switzerland finds itself refreshed in its 72nd edition, with a new artistic director, Lili Hinstin, in place with a new film programming team. Why does this matter? If you’ve ever been excited to hear the announcement of the lineup at Sundance, or Cannes, or your local festival; if you’ve seen something marvelous or horrid at this festival or that, it’s because the programmers chose it. Large events like these have millions of moving pieces and sometimes no personal presence, and it’s sometimes easy to forget—or even not realize—that behind the scenes choices are being made that shape your experience. And it’s good to refresh those choices, for institutional inertia can easily settle on such organizations. Locarno’s previous director, Carlo Chatrian, ran it for six years and was hardly curating a calcified event—he has left, along with many of his programmers, to take over the Berlin International Film Festival next February, itself the definition of a model in need of an update, or upgrade, or, even better, a ground-up re-think. Still, a new perspective here is welcome, especially considering how in recent years Locarno has supplanted Rotterdam as the festival that best epitomizes, for better and for worse, the hype of so-called festival films—movies whose primarily life is in being shown around other festivals, rather than distributed in local cinemas. With an energetic woman in the lead and a team that, getting on stage at the opening on the Piazza Grande, seemed startlingly young, chances are good for something different here, whether we see it in the new team’s first edition or, more likely, once they hit their stride next year.
But there is good news already: the retrospective of the festival, always a Locarno highlight and a major, united curatorial effort that differentiates the festival from some of its more famous brethren like Sundance, Cannes, and Toronto, is a bold one this year: cinema of the black diaspora. A broad theme, to be sure, but a necessary one, especially considering that three of the last four Locarno retrospectives have been devoted to classical Hollywood auteurs—terrific series showing many great films in rare context and even more rare 35mm prints, but certainly all from the most prominent side of film history.
Black cinema is de facto a more eclectic a subject, and that seems the central point of curator Greg de Cuir Jr.: the multiplicity and mutability of black cinema makes it impossible to narrow down to a single actor, director, genre, or time period. Thus we stepped back 100 years to Within Our Gates (1919), the first existent feature by a black director, Oscar Micheaux. A boldly bifurcated story, complexly told using flashbacks, cut-aways, memories, a North/South geographic divide, and dreamed visions of nightmarish reality, the film tells in its first half a melodrama of romance and jealousy, and in its second half, revealed in a long flashback, it narrates its heroine’s backstory involving family lynching and incineration, attempted rape, and secret miscegenation. Already at the birth of black cinema it is impossible to separate storytelling from the oppressed and terrorized existence of African Americans: Micheaux pointedly dramatizes caricatures of different types (progressive Southern black teachers, a criminal lech, a hypocritical preacher, a racist dowager, a black policeman, an exploitative landowner) to make the film’s melodramatic affect united with its social import, critique, and message. This is already the case in the film’s first half, which sees its schoolteacher heroine (Evelyn Preer) travel north to secure funds for black education in the South, but explodes in the second half, when we learn the tragedy and trauma that lays behind her mission for personal happiness and social change.
Surprisingly, the program is hardly restricted to black filmmakers, and recognizes the power and progressivity—as well as flaws—in trailblazing films directed by white men. This range includes such left-field choices as Kenneth Macpherson’s Borderline (1930), with Paul Robeson silent but overwhelmingly handsome and emanating powerful calm within an interracial “ménage-a-quatre” (in Swiss Cinémathèque director Frédéric Maire's description) melodrama. What Robeson is doing in a small mountain town in Switzerland is hard to say, but to see him onscreen with imagist poet H.D. is something incredible. So much of black cinema had (and has) to be made outside of normative film production contexts that Robeson’s presence in a feature of the European impressionist avant-garde evokes just how far away—literally but also industrially and aesthetically—from the mainstream black artists frequently had to go to work and to be seen.
More legible are several American choices, chief among them Robert Downey Sr.’s cracklingly subversive, borderline anarchic satire of American corporate consumerism, Putney Swope (1969), wherein an underestimated black ad man (Arnold Johnson) is unintentionally made head of the entire firm. It’s a scathing, joke-a-second fantasy of instant corporate revolution and the comic fallout that follows. The new CEO sacks all the white men and installs a myriad of black comrades—revolutionaries, suck-ups, and phonies alike—and makes bank, all the while cutting deep into the absurdity of advertising, corporations, consumerism, capitalism, and corporate benevolence with its sketch-like, anecdotal structure, slang-heavy non-sequiturs, and brutal Eastmancolor send-ups of modern television commercials. (That Downey Sr. dubbed Johnson’s voice with his own is the pinnacle of this film’s zaniness, creating a dialectic as uncomfortably silencing as it is hilariously disjunctive.) But despite the company’s new personnel and style, using an approach that blends the exploitatively cynical with the supposedly moral (no advertising guns or cigarettes), little goodness results and we soon discover the distressing resilience of modern white capitalism to radical cultural change. Conclusion: transformation from within may be impossible.
Another gesture towards impossibility was Pier Paolo Pasolini’s ingenious Notes Towards an African Orestes (1970). Ostensibly a filmed production pitch, it both explicated and shows the fruits of research in Uganda and Tanzania for a planned feature by the Italian director setting Aeschylus's Greek tragedy Oresteia in modern Africa. Both tantalizing in its broad and deeply political ideas of adaptation and problematic in its generalized allegorical use of Africa, the project is brought under proper scrutiny by having Pasolini bring his project before the African students he was teaching at the University of Rome, asking them different questions related to the project in a manner following Jean Rouch and Edgar Morin’s landmark Chronicle of a Summer (1961). The feature was never made, effectively leaving this documentary as a different kind of speculative fiction, a “ruin film.”
And speaking of updating, Jules Dassin’s Uptight (1968) is an adaptation of the same book that John Ford’s The Informer (1935) was based on, but transposed, by co-writer and star Julian Mayfield, to a black Cleveland in rebellious throes after the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. The drama is hardly convincing—it is difficult to make a compelling protagonist out of a sniveling, self-pitying wreck of a man, a challenge Victor McLaglen was also unable to conquer—but the enterprise is vividly pitched on the precipice of the end of the studio era, legendary cinematographer Boris Kaufman shooting a Technicolor mixture of soot-black, neon-lit locations and exquisite sound stages. It is truly remarkable to see a major studio release visualize the discourse of secretly organized black revolutionary violence (represented by commanding performances by Raymond St. Jacques and Dick Anthony Williams) overtaking peaceful protests in the immediate, disillusioned wake of spring 1968.
In fact, this late sixties halfway point between Micheaux’s astounding achievement and today’s cinema is a key moment shared with other crucial films by black filmmakers shooting in Paris around the same time, Ousmane Sembène, with La Noire de… (1966, also known as Black Girl), and Melvin Van Peebles, with La permission (1968). Also known as The Story of the Three-Day Pass, Van Peebles’s first feature tells of a black soldier (Harry Baird) on an American base in France given a lengthy leave in conjunction with a new and, it is underlined by his white commanding officer, precarious promotion. Spending the first day aimlessly wandering Paris, exchanging awkward waves with black Frenchmen, he heads to a bar, entering it and floating in the atmosphere—quite literally, in a shot that must have inspired the famous “signature” shot of Spike Lee placing an actor on a moving dolly. Eventually finding a French woman (Nicole Berger) who will dance with him—all the women at the bar are white—the soldier and the girl spend the rest of the evening together—and the rest of his leave. Clearly made independently and thriftily, the film nevertheless channels the raw productions, easy plotting, and location shooting of the French New Wave through the anxiety of self-doubt and loneliness of this man, a black man in a white society, an American abroad, and a soldier exposed to civilian freedom and prejudices. Throughout his leave he faces the casual racism of the French, but is never so insidiously treated as by his own superior, nor as cruelly betrayed as by his own white American comrades in the army. He is able to carve out his own sojourn of happiness, but one that is constantly threatened, an existence forever on the edge of total failure.
Another kind of double awareness is evoked in its own way in the audience of the retrospective: that in watching black cinema, it is difficult, if not impossible, to not be aware of the blackness of a film. Whether constituted behind or in front of the camera, the rarity of black creative voices means a meta-consciousness and processing of the movies before us. The remarkable existence of each of these films, wrought despite of and in resistance against lack of funds, cultural marginalization, and industrial racism, offer a powerful sensation of transgression and victory against all odds. Each one is the result of a fight against hegemonic norms, and in the successful completion each is weaponized by nature: more black artists, more black experiences, more blackness, seen, accepted, and encouraged. If only more new films were inspired by and overcame institutional prejudices and impediments and thus emerged, when projected, as specific occurrences of collective, collaborative resistance.