Media @ McGill

Archival Hauntings: Animating the Histories and Archives of Black Women’s Post Civil Rights Experimental Cinema

Submitted by Media@McGill on


Ayanna Dozier


Support from the Media@McGill Graduate Research Fellowship will enable me to complete my second chapter for my dissertation and revise a version of it for submission to an academic journal. My dissertation examines the formal and narrative aesthetics in Black women’s Post Civil Rights experimental films, arguing that formal and narrative aesthetics intersect with the filmmaker’s sociocultural experience to give an account of what gendered Blackness feels like in the world. My use of experimental practices refers to these directors’ investment in distorting, changing, or manipulating the image of Blackness to present a social reality that does not adhere to realist aesthetics frequently seen in film. The chapter that I will be completing this academic year will examine the crucial role that archives play in preserving the Black radical imagination through Black women’s experimental film. The potential journal article submission will be aimed at publications that foreground critical race studies, media and feminist studies, such as Feminist Media Studies, Signs: Journal of Women and Culture in Society, or Camera Obscura: Feminism, Culture, and Media Studies.

This chapter, tentatively titled “Archival Hauntings: Animating the Histories of Black Women’s Experimental Films,” will build an argument on archival research as an embodied act of remembrance. This is to say that conducting archival research is an embodied practice, which utilizes labor to materialize the past or what was considered lost and unrecoverable. Since there is no public database that lists Black women’s experimental cinema, my research is largely archival-based as I have to search and visit archives to watch this content. The process of archiving one’s history enables the past to be re-animated, where discarded sensations and practices of the past come to life again in the present. I will build upon the scholarship of Frantz Fanon, Sylvia Wynter, and others to argue that the archives, as being what Toni Morrison calls a site of memory, liquefy the past to impart new possibilities and forces of change in the present.

The first chapter of my dissertation will detail cinema’s precarious relationship with Blackness. As race is a social construct, colonial discourses on Black individuals needed images to “represent” what their racist ideologies and discourse stated as “fact” about the Black body. Indeed, the representation of Black individuals is so integral to cinema’s history that the first 12-reel feature film (first two-hour feature film), The Birth of a Nation (1915), is solely about the “negative” impact of granting Black individuals freedom from Slavery as evident through its use of white actors in Blackface assaulting white women and terrorizing the “nation.” Although Black individuals have been well represented in cinema they have not been represented well. As Jacqueline Najuma Stewart’s Migrating to the Movies: Cinema and the Black Urban Modernity (2005) informs us, early cinema is filled with images of white individuals in Blackface “representing” Black individuals (50). White content on Black bodies for white eyes, a concept that plays an integral role in cinema’s infrastructure, temporal movements, and history.

To counteract these dominant images of Blackness, Black individuals have historically created work outside of the “dominant paradigms to explore alternative film forms and narratives … [to] give priority to producing its own expressive paradigms” (Yearwood 2000, 11).  Following this rich, expressive tradition, Black women’s experimental cinema additionally utilizes memory---meaning foregrounding the past and tragedy of social oppression---to drive their emancipation of the image of Blackness from multiple structures of oppression. Although Black women’s experimental films give further evidence to the depth and possibility of the Black radical imagination, they are often miscategorized, and more damagingly dismissed altogether. Seeing their work be erased from cinematic history, Black women filmmakers begin to archive, store, and share their films in an effort to stake a claim in the struggle for Blackness’ representation. In this way, the archives not only hold memory but hold the content of those who would not bend to the will of dominant aesthetics. The archives are where the outliers of cinematic history live. They are a testament to Black women’s ever persistent work to represent social realities not yet seen, heard, or remembered.

Having already benefited from receiving a Media@McGill travel award that allowed me to conduct archival research at the BFI archives in London, I am grateful to Media@McGill for this additional opportunity to pursue, document, and write about this under examined topic. Subsequently, my research marks the first intervention in theorizing and cataloguing Black women’s experimental cinema.