Film

An Intimate Film Traces Black Masculinity From Boyhood

In A Drop of Sun Under the Earth, Shikeith positions Black boyhood as a means to interrogate and open up other possibilities for Black masculinity.

Still from Shikeith’s A Drop of Sun Under the Earth (2017) (Courtesy the artist)

Shikeith, a multimedia artist who works in photography, sculpture, film, and installation, first garnered attention for his 2014 documentary #Blackmendream. Running at 45-minutes long, #Blackmendream weaves together interviews with nine Black men to examine and interrogate the repertoire of Black masculinity and sexuality. In the film, each interviewee sits with his back toward the camera, his face kept from view. The men are in varied states of dress: most are shirtless, if not naked, while others wear a plain white t-shirt. Rather than signifying a withholding or erasure, the decision to keep the men’s faces anonymous creates an ambiance of vulnerability, a space where each man can voice clearly, and openly, his emotional interiority. The questions, all of which are posed by Shikeith himself, are variations of each other, their slight differences signaling a shift in meaning and emphasis. “When did you become a man?” follows “When did you become a Black man?” “How would you explain your interaction with other Black males in your youth?” juxtaposes “How would you explain your interaction with other Black males in your adulthood?”

In the five years since #Blackmendream’s release, Shikeith has graduated from the Yale School of Art’s MFA program in Sculpture, taken a faculty position at Carnegie Mellon’s School of Art, and shown his work in group and solo shows across the US and in the UK. During that time, Shikeith’s filmographic work has also become more explicitly experimental, with recent films trading the longer, documentary-style interviews of #Blackmendream for shorter run-times that achieve their effects through allegory, nonlinear and non-narrative structures, or collage and accretion. And while these films still take Black masculinity and sexuality as their main point of exploration — we can almost position these films as answers to the questions posed to the interviewees in #Blackmendream ­— they approach the topic in indirect ways, allowing the visual and sonic to take precedence over personal or testimonial accounts. In A Drop of Sun Under the Earth, which is currently screening online as part of the Museum of Contemporary Art (MOCA), Los Angeles’s BlackStar Film Festival, Shikeith positions Black boyhood as a means to interrogate and open up other possibilities for Black masculinity.

A Drop of Sun Under the Earth opens with a young Black boy, no more than ten years old, kneeling on the floor of a shadowy basement, his hands together in prayer, speaking in tongues. Off-screen, we hear the sound of another boy screaming out in pain. The film transitions to a classroom setting, where the two boys sit near each other. A clip of archival footage, culled from a sociological study, interjects, and a Black boy, also around age ten, speaks to us about classroom behavior. “I used to be a clown,” he says, holding a clown mask in front of his face. “And then I learned to listen,” he continues, setting the mask down. In the context of the opening sequence, the appropriated archival footage provides a context for us to read the boys in the film — and Black boyhood more broadly — as a site of surveillance and regulation. The film leaves the classroom and returns to the basement, where the young boy is still speaking in tongues. Except this time, we see the body of the writhing boy: his stomach is distended — a balloon under his shirt gives the appearance of pregnancy — and he runs his hands across his swollen flesh.

At the moment of climax, where it seems as if the young boy will give birth, the film cuts to a wholly different scene and register. The viewer is in a dimly lit room. Two adult Black men sit together; one’s back is touching the other’s chest. The scene mirrors that of the two young boys: two male bodies, two scarcely lit rooms. But here, rather than pain, is tenderness: the men are naked, vulnerable. Together, they caress each other’s arms while reciting Danez Smith’s “Poem in Which One Black Man Holds Another.”

“I am learning what a brother is / how to touch and not scar or fuck,” one says into the ear of the other. “It’s how we don’t have sex / & never will, how the joy / is love enough.”

The poem complete, the film moves back to the basement, where the young boy sits upright, not as a boy, but as an adult man. The film ends with a split screen: on one half, we watch as the adult man stands up from the basement ground, covered in shimmering glitter. On the other half, the Black boy who was writhing in pain is now on a swing, surrounded by floating balloons.

A Drop of Sun Under the Earth is immediately notable for its echoing of earlier collaborations between Black queer filmmakers and poets, such as Marlon Riggs and Isaac Julien’s featuring of Essex Hemphill’s poetry in the experimental films Tongues Untied (1989) and Looking for Langston (1989). In Danez Smith’s line “I am learning what a brother is,” we can hear resonances of the opening chorus of Tongues Untied — Riggs’s exploration of Black gay male life in the late 1980s — where a group of Black gay men chants the phrase “brother to brother.” And in Smith’s poems, there is an emphasis that the love learned between Black men is not necessarily, or only, sexual or romantic, but rather a joy found in mutual recognition — a reverberation of Joseph Beam’s famous line, made popular by Riggs and Hemphill, “Black men loving Black men is the revolutionary act of the 1980s!”

Still from Shikeith’s A Drop of Sun Under the Earth (2017) (Courtesy the artist)

In a Drop of Sun Under the Earth, Shikeith harnesses the power of Smith’s poem, in conjunction with the tenderness of the second scene, to model an ethic of care between Black men. Crucially, both the possibility and achievement of this ethic are materialized in the figure of the balloon, an object which appears across Shikeith’s work. Whether it’s in the sculpture piece “undreamed,”  a glass-blow balloon filled with “oxygen and dreams,” or the photograph used on the cover of Smith’s National Book Award finalist collection Don’t Call Us Dead,  in which a Black boy is buoyed upward by a balloon, the balloon appears as an object of imaginative possibility, the physical manifestation of a dream that may remain permanently deferred if not protected. In A Drop of Sun Under the Earth, the balloon, in its most basic sense, appears as an object associated with childhood. In the final scene, in which we see a happy Black boy surrounded by balloons, the viewer is given an important visual assertion of the Black boy as boy, a symbolic corrective in a white supremacist society that often refuses — as was the case for Tamir Rice and Michael Brown — Black boys the category of child.

But the release of the balloon at the end of Smith’s poem also points to the use of the balloon, and through it, Black boyhood, as a way into rethinking Black masculinity. The mirroring of the two scenes — the boys in the basement, and the men in the dimly lit room — points not to a chronological relationship in which we are to read the men as the adult versions of the children, but rather one that accrues meaning through juxtaposition. By positioning scenes of Black childhood pain next to tender scenes of Black adult men, Shikeith frames boyhood as the pivotal period for Black masculinity, a time in which Black boys can learn to either love or hate each other in response to pressure from a world entrenched in racism. The balloon as an object of pregnancy — of potential life —  becomes a site of recovery, where expectations of Black masculinity can be interrogated and reframed, where they can “learn what a brother is.”

While Shikeith’s use of the balloon may have started on a personal note (he once said that the balloon began as a recurring dream), the balloon as a figure of Black imaginative possibility reminded me of recent work on climate and race by scholar Christina Sharpe. In her book In the Wake, Sharpe calls the “totality of our environments,” the “weather”— a place in which “anti-blackness is pervasive as climate.” By drawing on analogies of climate, Sharpe is attempting to name the saturating experience of white supremacy. However, at the same time that Sharpe asserts the inescapability of the weather, she also argues that there are those who “produce out of their weather their own ecologies,” other ways of “relating to one another and their physical surroundings.” In other words, the weather becomes both a place of oppression and the site for generating resistance to that oppression.

In A Drop of Sun Under the Earth, the balloon serves a similar metaphorical function, as it becomes the physical manifestation of the “other ecologies” Sharpe references.  Usually relegated to scenes of childhood and imaginative play, the balloon is here taken up by Black male adulthood as a means to, as Sharpe writes, find a new way of “relating to one another.” Through the balloon, Shikeith thus offers love between Black men — a possibility, but one that is fragile and must be protected — as a way to remain upright, even during the worst pressures.

Shikeith’s A Drop of Sun Under the Earth is available to stream through June 6 as part of MOCA’s BlackStar Film Festival.

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