Tuesday, August 18, 2015 at 7:30pm
Why Couldn't She Have Two Lives?

155 Freeman Street, Brooklyn

Illusions, Julie Dash, 1983, digital restoration of 16mm, 34 mins
Sapphire and the Slave Girl, Leah Gilliam, 1995, digital projection, 18 mins
Free, White and 21, Howardena Pindell, 1980, digital projection, 12 mins
Chronicles of a Lying Spirit (by Kelly Gabron), Cauleen Smith, 1992, 16mm, 7 mins

A conceptually taut period piece set against the backdrop of wartime Hollywood in 1942, Julie Dash’s early work Illusions centers around two African-American women, Mignon Duprée, an ambitious studio executive passing for white, and Ester Jeeter, a singer brought in to dub the voice of a blonde starlet à la Singin’ in the Rain. Each woman must maneuver through an industry that, while somewhat diverse by the standards of its time, still retained a de facto segregation and remained firmly under the control of white men. Dash renders her scenario in the visual style of the era in which it’s set, recreating the mis-en-scène of another age with remarkable precision while dramatically revising the received history of that moment. Illusions is a classical Hollywood film of a kind that classical Hollywood could never have made about itself, providing an incisive critique of the role that showbusiness played in the representation of race and gender by surveying its operations at a granular level.

Leah Gilliam’s Sapphire and the Slave Girl might also be understood as a period piece, though of a very different stripe. As artist Tammy Rae Carland has described it, Gilliam’s video is “a sort of scratch-mix riff tape somewhat based on the 1959 feature film Sapphire, which is a fictional story about the murder of a black woman who had been passing for white. Referencing everything from Marlowe to Shaft, this tape situates itself in the persona of the hard-boiled detective story." Deploying a dizzying array of found images and audio combined with original footage, Sapphire and the Slave Girl explores the concept of passing on a formal level as well: the present-day puts on its best historical drag, and the past collapses into now. In keeping with Gilliam’s overarching obsessions, Sapphire is also an analysis of urban space as a social technology, detailing the many ways that the color line has been built into the modern city.

And whereas Gilliam considers the pivotal nature of identity by having a number of different women play the part of Sapphire, Howardena Pindell casts herself in a dual role for Free, White and 21. Using the still-new technology of color video, Pindell’s piece depicts the artist relating experiences of racism she and her mother had endured over the years in school, at work, among artists, and in other settings. She explains how her mother was abused by a babysitter; how Pindell, as a student, was punished and held back by teachers; how employers openly denied opportunities to her and others; and how even at dinner parties, an air of casual racism prevailed. Each story displays the intransigence of white supremacy, and how its rule is policed by the interactions of everyday life. Responding to her own statements, Pindell dons cat-eye glasses, blonde wig, and whiteface to portray another character who reprimands her at every turn, disbelieving her stories and discrediting her memories. “After all we’ve done for you...You really must be paranoid,” the character avers. “I’ve never had an experience like that,” she adds, smirking, “but then of course I’m free, white and 21.”

Cauleen Smith’s rapid-fire Chronicles of a Lying Spirit (by Kelly Gabron) likewise concerns the multiplication of personae. With dueling narrators, scrolling text, and collaged photographs, Smith blends autobiography with fantasy, fashioning a character based on the artist who nonetheless seems to exist across centuries, from the Middle Passage to surf-punk California. Even though the film is repeated twice in its entirety, the experience still overwhelms—there’s so much to see, to hear, to unravel, to feel—raising questions which animate the entire screening: When charting your course through a totalizing matrix of oppressive representation, what should you pay attention to? How do you craft your own identity when systems like Hollywood, urban planning, or the art world attempt to define you on their own terms—not yours? And if you’re forced to live a double life, why not use that shifting selfhood as a tactic?

Tickets - $7, available at door.

Please note: seating is limited. First-come, first-served. Box office opens at 7pm.