IN HIS ESSAY "Black Visual Intonation," the African American film critic and cinematographer Arthur Jafa (he photographed Daughters of the Dust, Crooklyn, and parts of Eyes Wide Shut) wrote that he was "developing an idea that [he calls] Black visual intonation (BVI)." "What it consists of," he elaborated with great enthusiasm, "is the use of irregular, nontempered (nonmetronomic) camera rates and frame replication to prompt filmic movement to function in a manner that approximates Black vocal intonation." What Jafa hoped to create with these irregular camera techniques (irregular by Hollywood and European standards) is a type of cinema that would inspire what the editor of the book Black Popular Culture, Gina Dent, calls "black pleasure, black joy." In a word, Jafa wants nothing less than a cinema that is aesthetically black.
What all of this implies, however, is that there is no such thing as black cinema, yet. There aren't practices, patterns within the system of editing, shooting, directing, that we can categorize as black. If we call a movie a black film, we do so not because of black aesthetics but black content: meaning, the hero is black (The Art of War, Bait), or the themes are relevant to black history and current concerns (Remember the Titans, Men of Honor), or it is set in a black neighborhood or family (Soul Food, Eve's Bayou), or it's a comedy starring black entertainers (Big Momma's House, Nutty Professor II). But nothing about these films is "essentially" (editing, narration, photography) black.
This is a problem. Not for me, but for Arthur Jafa and other prominent New York intellectuals such as Manthia Diawara. To solve it, to arrive at a type of cinema that relies more (if not entirely) on aesthetics rather than being content to distinguish itself from other forms of cinema (namely white American cinema), Jafa turns to black music. Black music is important to him because it doesn't need content to explain its source or its target ("black pleasure, black joy"); indeed, its very sound is defined as black. This is why a pianist such as Bill Evans can be white, and yet the music he plays is identified as black. This has yet to happen with cinema. If a white director makes a black film (for example, Steven Spielberg's Color Purple), it is not aesthetics that determines its category but the content: the characters, location, and social situations.
To solve this problem and create a form of film that will "generate Black pleasure," Arthur Jafa recommends that black cinematographers, directors, and editors employ visual strategies "which can create movement that replicates the tendency in Black music to 'worry the note'--to treat notes as indeterminates, inherently unstable sonic frequencies rather than the standard Western treatment of notes as fixed phenomena." What he means is this: To produce an authentic black film form, black filmmakers must bend/distort the Western standard, or, as he put it in a 1993 article that appeared in Artforum, "[convert] formal reconfigurations of hegemonic norms into conventions and methodologies better suited to African-American expressivity." Examples of "reconfigurations of hegemonic norms" are "exaggerated lens effects" and irregular "camera rates": in a word, to slur/blur standard film figures in much the same way a blue note slurs/blurs a clear note, or "Black vocal intonation" slurs/blurs a white vocal intonation.
There are three significant problems with Jafa's proposal. One, has not all European-based art gradually descended toward such distortion? Even at the end of the 19th century, composers such as Debussy were drifting further and further away from the clear center into the distorted twilight between notes and noise. Even jazz went through these stages, starting with Louis Armstrong's "beam of lyrical sound" (Ralph Ellison), and ending with Cecil Taylor "attacking the keyboard" (A. B. Spellman). Two, Jafa's definition for black aesthetics is inspired by what the late literary critic James Snead described in his book, Figures of Division, as "signifying difference." So, when he speaks of "formal reconfigurations of hegemonic norms," he is asking black art to produce black identity by an "operation of division." Thus the purpose of black cinema is reduced to what film critic Colin MacCabe describes as "a process of differentiation through which we divide the world into identities." But why should the black film aesthetics be a negative reaction to Hollywood? Why can't it deploy "black pleasure, black joy" on more uncertain and uncoordinated terms, on a black aesthetic that is in opposition to nothing, and motivated by a sudden confusion of wills (Schopenhauerian wills) that collide, break, and reform perpetually? Which leads us to the third problem with Jafa's proposal: It neglects to address what I call "the sheer accident of art," or, put another way, the accidents that make art possible.
"In this main portion of Africa [sub-Saharan Africa]," writes the most influential philosopher of the 19th century, Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel, in Reason in History, "there can really be no history. There is a succession of accidents and surprises." It is easy to understand why Arthur Schopenhauer disliked Hegel, his contemporary and university colleague, so much. For Schopenhauer these "accidents and surprises" were not specific to Africans but to be found at the heart of all human experience. Reality, the "world-in-itself," is formed, sustained, and destroyed by "accidents and surprises" and "blind impulses." We can look at something like Gone With the Wind as being stable, recognizable, seemingly the product of white Southerners who were on a grand mission to recover, cinematically, a lost world where everyone knew their place. But that was not the case. It was instead constructed by Jewish immigrants, whose very journey to America and settlement in Hollywood could only be described as a series of accidents and surprises. Accidents and surprises, furthermore, that were defined and determined by the social situations they were thrown into, without say or influence on the matter.
Oddly enough, in the same short essay mentioned earlier, Arthur Jafa remarks on the "thrownness" or the accidental nature of black art. He writes: "Black American culture... developed around those areas we could carry around in our heads--our oratorical prowess, dance, music, those kinds of things. There are other things not so easy to carry. Architecture, for example." What he realizes (and what ultimately contradicts his attempt to impose a black aesthetic on cinema) is that black artistic production comes out of circumstances that are often out of black control. One of the many reasons we have such a thing as black music is it just so happened that Africans could "carry it in their heads" across the Middle Passage. This means the very sound of black music is not the product of calculation but of sudden circumstances, an unexpected turn of events. Such "accidents and surprises" abound in black music. Duke Ellington, the most prolific black jazz composer, for example, wanted first to be a painter ("In 1911, Ellington's piano lesson faded into memory, and he was now showing a flair for art"--John Edward Hasse), but due to abnormal limitations imposed by white racism (the social situation he was thrown into), he turned to music because it happened to "be there" (to slightly bend a Heideggerian term).
If you want to find black cinema, don't look at Hollywood, but at hiphop. Hollywood is not the locus of black innovation--hiphop is. So if the accident of black cinema is to occur, it is more likely to happen in hiphop, whose very existence, by the way, is the consequence of a civic structure that's frequently clogged with accidents, the expressway. (Tricia Rose points out in Black Noise that an expressway built by the legendary city planner Robert Moses tore through the Bronx in the '70s and forced blacks and Hispanics to relocate to the South Bronx, where, deserted by the city leaders, they invented, from scratch, the profound pleasures of hiphop.)
Now, when I speak of locating black cinema within hiphop, I'm not referring to films made by hiphop artists (like this summer's Turn It Up) or about hiphop culture (Beat Street, Wild Style). These types of films are not black cinema by their aesthetics but, again, by their content. To find black cinema in hiphop, we must radically change our whole concept of cinema, which means abandoning the Hollywood model altogether and redefining the meaning of cinema in such a way that the visual/aural dialectic is resolved into one form: the aural. Cinema, as we understand it, emphasizes light, not sound. Sound is secondary, and not really necessary; one can make a movie without sound. But if we throw cinema into the dark and place emphasis on the sound, then we will have a new type of cinema: a sonic cinema.
Somebody's Gotta Die
A lightless cinema is possible--in fact, it has already been done in hiphop. It happened four years ago on the second track ("Somebody's Gotta Die") of the Notorious B.I.G.'s posthumously released CD, Life After Death. True, we have heard hiphop music that is cinematic, such as Dr. Dre's work with The Firm (the spy thriller), or Lewis Parker's Masquerades & Silhouettes (Lawrence of Arabia in all its wide-screen splendor), or MC Solaar's "Nouveau Western" (which makes references to the references that French New Wave cinema made to Hollywood studio pictures). But "Somebody's Gotta Die" does not reference cinema--it is cinema; indeed, it's possibly the purest form of cinema, a cinema that has melted ideas and emotions into thin air. The dandy/book collector/Marxist Walter Benjamin once described cinema as "the orchid in the land of technology," meaning that it's an illusion--or better put, a "reality"--that is produced by "mechanical equipment." "Somebody's Gotta Die" is also an "orchid in the land of technology," except that this time it is generated by powerful computers programmed by black artists.
The song/movie opens with a rap star chilling in his home, when suddenly the doorbell rings (we hear the actual doorbell). He answers the door and finds a stranger he barely recognizes with "blood up on his sneakers." The stranger explains that their mutual friend, C Rock, has just been gunned down by a drug dealer named Jason. The rap star is stunned by the news. C Rock is dead! No! He lets the stranger into his house, and after getting the lowdown, the rap star prepares to murder the man who murdered his close friend. His alibi for the crime? "Any cutie with a booty that done fucked Big Pop." His choice of weapon? "An Uzi with a silencer." And in the middle of all this stormy violence are the "innocent kids." Excellent stuff!
What distinguishes this moody rap narrative from other attempts, like Dr. Dre's "Phone Tap" or Lewis Parker's "Crusades," are three things: One, it is a complete story, with a beginning, middle, and end. Two, it is not metaphorical, meaning the rapper is not using the tropes of a spy thriller as a metaphor for his "smooth like James Bond" rhyming skills. (In "Somebody's Gotta Die" we hit the "ground zero" of cinematic narrative.) And three, the Notorious B.I.G. not only stars in the movie itself (which is composed of muffled dialogue and sudden sound effects like a soaring jet plane, automatic gunshots, footsteps in the rain, and distant thunder), but also stands outside of it and narrates the plot to the listener in much the same way that a Japanese benshi did during the silent-film era. (The benshi was a man who stood next to a movie screen and explained the plot to the audience.)
The connection between silent film and "Somebody's Gotta Die" is relevant in another way: This form of cinema (hiphop cinema, black cinema) is in its infancy, with lots of room for improvement. But, sadly, it seems these improvements may never occur, because since the death of the Notorious B.I.G., no one has picked up from where he left off. It's possible that sonic cinema may never break out of the severely limiting confines of Big Pop's last CD. But if it were to be taken seriously and to explode into "the new thing," then imagine the possibilities! Ten years from now, inspired by greater and greater demands for spectacular sonic movies, sound technology progresses to such a dizzying point that it can effortlessly produce thunder-loud, exceedingly detailed, multi-dimensional aural images. To accommodate this new monster technology, which at this point has relegated the hiphop benshi to history, there are hi-tech theaters equipped with super surround-sound speakers. In one such theater, which is thickly padded like Proust's bedroom, you and I enter and take a seat. When the lights are dimmed to nothing, out from the dark emptiness there appears before us the sound, the beat, the crashing waves and laser beam wars of an art that can only be described as black cinema.