Black film matters. From the oldest conserved feature-length film directed by a black film-maker, Oscar Micheaux’s Within Our Gates (1920), to Arthur Jafa’s frenetic contemporary pieces in Trump-era America, this series sets in motion a journey through independent Black film from the US, doing so in an anthological-style retrospective organised by the Museo Reina Sofía and Filmoteca Española and gathering, for the first time, a century of films directed solely by African-American film-makers.
With this imperative, the series sets out to avoid the racial stereotypes of representation that have previously characterised the work of legendary Black actors and actresses. Across thirty sessions inside a two-month programme, these films call for and narrate another great history of the medium in the USA, placing the subordinate and resistant gaze of Black minorities front and centre. This history arises from one of the most urgent and necessary desires spanning the series: the struggle for life. Just as film-maker Arthur Jafa and philosopher Fred Moten remind us, Black film can be made with the same power, beauty and alienation as black music, and on the same common ground: not abiding by the rules, taking them apart and recombining them with the same impromptu logic that flavours blues, jazz, hip-hop and house, and the images and sounds in Black film.
Therefore, this particular journey cannot be traced chronologically or linearly, but rather as a type of spiral, jumping back and forth in a syncopated composition that governs dialogues between screenings in both venues. The programme, removed from canon and emblem, puts forward a narrative based on cinematic manifestations which do not externally or observationally spotlight the Black population, but are made by this same community, portraying their way of life and unique experience. BLACK FILMS MATTER (1920-2020) is more a series of unique films with interconnected reverberations and confluences than a theoretical programme, comprising different sessions which, as units of meaning, give an underlying form to this filmic beat. Consequently, it constructs an archaeology of film pioneers, including those pictures made by the first African-American directors in history, Oscar Michaux and Zora Neale Hurston, the so-called race films from the early twentieth century and an alternative industry developed in the silent film era and still unknown due to its massive potential to destabilise. In this sense, Oscar Micheaux’s Within Our Gates is an anti-racist response to the aberrant xenophobic monumentality of D.W. Griffith’s The Birth of a Nation (1915), a landmark of orthodox film history.
Following on from this period we connect with the emergence of Black awareness and the civil rights movements in the 1960s and 1970s, characterised by the insurgence of the Black Power movement and LA Rebellion, collectives in which film greats Charles Burnett, Melvin van Peebles and Billy Woodberry are prominent. Equally, the politics of difference unites feminism, Blackness and queer identities in the work of Julie Dash, Cheryl Dunye and Cauleen Smith.
The film season also makes room for street and popular cinema, which looks at neighbourhood as territory and battlefield, for instance in the films of Spike Lee, Gordon Parks, Michael Schulz and John Singleton that are made for a new, specifically black mass audience, a “counter audience” which transforms North American blockbuster cinema.
Sessions by contemporary artists, featuring Kevin Jerome Everson, Arthur Jafa and Kara Walker, work as counterpoints — outside chronology — which return to foundational times in Black film, such as the origins of the pioneers or riots in the 1960s and 1970s.
The programme looks to reintegrate these historical genealogies in a contemporary Black awareness that incorporates the past and which, at the same time, is capable today of demonstrating unity with one of the biggest social movements and hopes of our times, Black Lives Matter, and the film-making which inhabits these lives.