Interviews

Revealing Lost Archives of Black Cinema and Creating New Ones

Hyperallergic talks to director Garrett Bradley about gaps in film preservation, her new film America, and the retrospective it’s a part of at BAM.

From America (2018), dir. Garrett Bradley (courtesy of the filmmaker)

Since 2014, filmmaker Garrett Bradley has been deeply invested in archives both lost and extant. It was that year that she first learned about Lime Kiln Club Field Day, one of the earliest feature films with an all-Black cast. It was shot in 1913 but abandoned by its white producers, until years later MoMA curator Ron Magliozzi unearthed its unlabelled, unedited footage from the museum’s vaults. Fascinated by the film, and spurred by a report from the Library of Congress on the tenuous physical state of early cinematic works, Bradley embarked on a years-long project to start filling the gaps that existed in the LOC’s archives of Black cinema. The result is a black-and-white cinematic omnibus entitled America, which currently exists as both a 30-minute short and a multi-channel installation. Composed of 12 silent interconnected vignettes that draw upon Black history, America is deeply rooted in Bradley’s adopted home of New Orleans, where she’s been living and making films for the last ten years.

Yet busy as she’s been with this ambitious, multi-layered project, Bradley’s also been on a roll in other realms. Her 2019 short AKA was included in the Whitney Biennial, and earlier this year she won the Philip Guston Rome Prize. This month, she’ll return to New York to present America as the centerpiece of Garrett Bradley’s America: A Journey Through Race and Time, a film series kicking off at BAM tomorrow.

Having spent the better part of a year assisting with elements of the Lime Kiln project while a fellow at MoMA, I’d been eagerly awaiting an opportunity to see the finished version of America since I first met Bradley on one of her visits to the museum. Fascinated by the film, I reached out to discuss her work in New Orleans, recreating history, and her interest in revealing lost archives while simultaneously creating new ones.

From America (2018), dir. Garrett Bradley (courtesy of the filmmaker)

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Hyperallergic: Let’s talk about what pushed you to first start thinking about making America.

Garrett Bradley: In 2014, which seems like so long ago now, an article had been written in the New York Times about MoMA’s recent discovery of what they thought to be the very first feature-length film with an all-Black cast and integrated production starring Bert Williams, who at the time was making more money than the president and was a performer, a recording artist, and a vaudeville actor. [The film, Lime Kiln Club Field Day] was made in 1913 and had never been finished. It was found basically as a series of assembled outtakes at the museum. Ron spearheaded its restoration; he really took it on and assembled it into the narrative structure that [it has now], bringing in literal detectives to come in and read lips to figure out what the dialogue was. They identified members of the cast and put a ton of resources into understanding why it was so significant, validating it in a lot of ways.

I think, for the first time I had seen in work that early, it was able to be beautiful and depicted these acts of leisure and joy. And it really came to me that [Williams wearing blackface] was actually a bit of a strategy — that he in many ways was sacrificing himself for that purpose and for the visibility. That really attracted me to the work.

From Lime Kiln Club Field Day (1913/2014), dirs. Edwin Middleton, T. Hayes Hunter (courtesy BAM)

Cinematically, it was also just beautiful. There were these incredible tracking shots. One of them was on a merry-go-round, and I just thought it was incredibly formally innovative, given the time period. And Bert himself is incredibly nuanced as a performer, which is not something that I think we’re used to seeing from work that early. 

And then, at the bottom of that article that I’d read in the Times, there was this little survey that the Library of Congress had done that stated that 70% of American feature-length films made between 1912 and 1929 were missing. A lot of them were made of nitrate and not preserved. So [America] is really an assumption and a visual chronology of what it would mean to have all of that work still around. I liked this question of, well if there are 7,500 films that are missing and they found this one film from 1913 and it’s super progressive, what would it mean if all of that body of work was super progressive? How would we understand ‘Black cinema’ as being something that isn’t just a wave or movement in time, but this continuous simultaneous thread in ‘American cinema’? And so I basically was like, well, I’m going to start with 12 films, and I want to start with 1915 because its … an interesting year to begin, because it’s what potentially foregrounded and ended the source material that I’m looking at.

Odessa Warren Grey and Bert Williams in Lime Kiln Club Field Day (1913/2014), dirs. Edwin Middleton, T. Hayes Hunter (courtesy BAM)

H: You allude to Birth of a Nation. It’s a film that looms large in any discussion of cinema, and specifically any discussion of the representation of Black people in cinema [some even speculate that it may be the reason Lime Kiln was never released]. Because [its legacy] has persisted through these really nefarious anti-Black stereotypes in cinema for many decades, I wonder if you could also discuss the importance of mining history, and specifically the role of recreation of that history in your work.

GB: Yeah, with America in particular, it was such an exciting, and for me at least, very rare opportunity to both recreate history and also work with communities and individuals who are actively building history in New Orleans. Blacksmithing, for instance, and iron work in general, was a huge part of the industry in Louisiana for hundreds of years, and it’s less so now, but there are families that are still actively doing this kind of work and who are less visible. So being able to document them in the shop and the types of work that they did … and working with some of the Buffalo Soldiers, which is a historically Black social aid and pleasure club, a horse riding club. (They’re not so much cowboys, but really more connected to a sort of militaristic history.) Being able to work with the Sojourner Truth Neighborhood Center, which is a place where I taught for a long time and opens its doors to a wide range of students who are looking for stuff to do after school and keeps them off the street … being able to work with those communities in the process of re-illustrating history was this great opportunity to both document and archive at the same time.

From America (2018), dir. Garrett Bradley (courtesy of the filmmaker)

H: I’m actually glad that you bring up New Orleans, because I know the film is really anchored there. You’ve lived there for 10 years now, and I know a few of your other films have also revolved around the city, like your first feature [Below Dreams] and your 2017 short Alone, among others. Could you discuss what first attracted you to the city, and the ways it continues to influence your practice?

GB:  I’m from New York originally, and I was going back during my summer break [from school in Los Angeles], and I started taking these Greyhound buses between New York and New Orleans and became kind of addicted to it. I was meeting a lot of people my age from many different walks of life and taking their photos and then recording them with my little tape recorder, asking them broad questions about where they were going, what they wanted in life, what they thought was preventing them from [getting those things].

And around that same time, there was an article published — it was the New York Times Magazine, actually — called ‘What Is It About 20-Somethings?’ And it was this really beautiful layout of mostly kids from Brooklyn who were our age who just looked amazing, and it was like, ‘Oh my God, everyone’s so overeducated and can’t get a job. Isn’t that shitty and unfair?’ And it was such the antithesis of the narrative I was directly experiencing, of the people I was meeting who were also very much part of this generation. And so that became my first film, or my first film that other people saw. 

[Both laugh]

From Below Dreams (2014), dir. Garrett Bradley (courtesy of Milena Pastreich / BELOW DREAMS)
From Below Dreams (2014), dir. Garrett Bradley (courtesy of Brian C. Miller Richard / BELOW DREAMS)

GB: And it premiered at Tribeca.

H: This was Below Dreams.

GB: Yeah. And in the process, I decided to leave school, leave Los Angeles and move to New Orleans specifically to make that project, because I had actually tried to find the people who I had met to be in the film and couldn’t. I also didn’t have any money or resources to hire a casting director. And so I moved there … I went on Craigslist and cast people from there. Everyone in the film, I met through Craigslist. After about six months of rehearsing with them, shooting, and rewriting the material, I stayed in touch with a lot of them. Desmond [Watson] was one of the guys in the film. I became very close friends with his girlfriend, who seven years later was in Alone. And [in that film] we see that Desmond’s been arrested and [sent to] a private prison for about a year and a half, and that was the beginning of that short. 

And so my work, it’s all kind of tied together. If you watch any of it consecutively, you see a lot of the same faces. And I stayed in the South because I’m interested in the beginning of our history. I’m interested in the genesis of America, and I find that New Orleans has been a place that has allowed me to both be in commune and community with people, and also in observance of the problems that exist there. And that’s what my work is about, trying to sift through the past and through these problems from a contemporary point of view. It’s harder to do, I think, in cities like New York or LA, where it’s all very focused on the future.

From Alone (2017), dir. Garrett Bradley (courtesy of the filmmaker)

H: That brings me back to America again, and specifically to the way you’ve framed it, as a sort of ‘challenge’ to a dominant and often very belittling conception of cinema from the African diaspora. You propose it instead as a way of refuting ‘cultural amnesia’ through the lens of achievement. I’m curious to hear more about your decision to emphasize achievement when it comes to representing blackness and what you’re hoping that will do.

GB: Yeah, that’s a really good question. In some ways it’s an opportunity for me to make a distinction between proving achievement and just kind of showing it and documenting it. I’m definitely understanding the world, and myself, through images more than anything else … One of the insecurities and challenges that I’ve always had as a filmmaker — when I was in film school, for instance — was that I’ve always believed in beauty as something that does actually incite action. And so a lot of the time I would lose the narrative arc of things or the structural elements of traditional narrative cinema. It sometimes made me feel that I wasn’t a good filmmaker or that I shouldn’t be making films, because I wasn’t good at telling stories in this more linear way. But images were always where I felt like I could say everything that I needed to say.

So working on this project was an opportunity for me to tell history in a way that anybody who was watching it could push pause at any moment, and that image would have everything in it. We would have all of history in it, and that would include achievement, you know? It could be on a cereal box, or a billboard, or on a family table. And so that was a goal, to be like ‘Fuck it, this is what I can do.’ This is how I can offer something in this space, you know?

From America (2018), dir. Garrett Bradley (courtesy of the filmmaker)

H: Definitely, and I love the intimacy of what you’re saying, this idea of any still frame of America acting almost like a keepsake for a Black family, which we don’t think of with arthouse cinema. 

All of this brings me to another question that I had about the film. You shot it on black and white 35mm film, which is the kind of stock that was used for old Hollywood films, much like the ones you’re referencing at various moments. While you later transferred it to video, this ends up producing a vision that, to me, blurs the line between the contemporary and the archival. I’m wondering if you could talk about some of the reasons behind your choice to shoot on physical film.

GB: Well, first and foremost, I wanted to shoot on film because it has the highest lifespan of any format that exists. I think it’s like 500 years, which far surpasses any hard drive or disc or anything. And so I think that starting with something that I knew would be preserved and saved was really important. The project itself is in very close alignment with the Library of Congress. We built an archive there called ‘America,’ and its purpose was to then take the negatives and have them stored there.

The intention was always that when we screened the work — whether as an installation in a museum or in a theatrical space — we’d tie it to an educational component. At the New Orleans Museum of Art, where I did a big installation [for Bodies of Knowledge], [we did] a free film workshop where young people got an opportunity to learn about making their own films. [Those films] then went into the archive with the 12 films that I made, with the idea being that we’ll fill this gap of 7,500 films with work that’s been made not just by me, but by many, many other people, and specifically young people, with the focus being on kind of anything they want. 

From America (2018), dir. Garrett Bradley (courtesy of the filmmaker)

Shooting on film was also an important way of constraining myself to the formal limitations of this time period that we were working in. I liked having to be as precise as possible with my shot lists. I drew out every scene and then gave that to the camera person. Every image you’re seeing came from a drawing, and that was my way of making sure we weren’t running through film right away, but also a way of bringing two things I love together [filmmaking and drawing].

H: I want to pick up on what you said earlier about your casting process. In America, there are a few moments where children play a really big role. I’m thinking of this one beautiful scene, where a group of boys are huddled and laughing together. Could you talk about why that was important for the film?

GB: There were several different reasons that came to be. The kids we see are ones I had relationships with as an educator at the Sojourner Truth Center. My job there was to teach them video, and so after school, we would do these classes that were really about just allowing them to create a visual language that was free and not necessarily bound by limiting expectations of what it means to make ‘real’ or ‘good’ film. It was very much about them finding their own aesthetic, and they also happened to be Boy Scouts. So for me it was just a great opportunity to include them in a project that I was working on outside of the classroom. They could see what I did for my other job and have an opportunity to see what they could be doing one day if they chose to keep making films. I also just loved the idea of having Black and brown Boy Scouts, in cinema on celluloid, archived and documented in a way that we don’t typically see. I wanted to give them an opportunity to see themselves with an American flag behind them, to have the camera be looking up at them as if they were new icons, you know?

From America (2018), dir. Garrett Bradley (courtesy of the filmmaker)

H: Absolutely, and this idea of creating new icons and specifically positioning Black children with an American flag behind them strikes me as a way of reinforcing the fact that Black Americans are ‘American’ too and have the right to claim that identity, regardless of what others say, similarly to what you do with the title of the film.

GB: Yeah, to be honest with you, [the title] was something I was a little bit shy about, giving my project such a huge weighted name. But I think for me, it was twofold — reinforcing this idea that you just beautifully articulated, which was to make a case for inclusivity and the beauty of that, and it also was something I thought of in terms of the way in which projects live in the world once they’re made, with the internet and these marketing and outreach campaigns. And so it was a great opportunity to think, ‘Okay, well why don’t we use a really common word?’ In the same way that we’re trying to create new images, new icons.

H: I do want to discuss your upcoming film series, which starts October 11 at BAM. For a full week, America is going to be screening every night as the centerpiece of a program that will pair it with classics like Stormy Weather, and also more contemporary films like Hale County This Morning, This Evening, some of Julie Dash’s trailblazing shorts, and of course, with Lime Kiln Club Field Day. I’d love to hear from you about some of your hopes for what viewers will take away from the film by seeing it in these different contexts.

GB: [pauses]

H: It’s a big question.

From America (2018), dir. Garrett Bradley (courtesy of the filmmaker)

GB: Yeah, it is, and I really appreciate it because it offers an opportunity to go back to the heart and soul of what the project is, which for me was always about generosity, and about inclusion and discovery. And I learned so much in the process of doing research to make this film and watching hundreds of films who had no credits associated with them. And then I think about Julie Dash being the first Black woman to ever get major distribution for a feature film in the ’90s and having not made another feature since then, despite being a genius.

And so this trend [of exclusion] continues, but I think that for me, it’s less about having a conversation about what’s wrong and more about an opportunity to just start doing [the work]. And I really credit Ashley [Clark] for spearheading this, for just starting to include people and talk about what’s been missed while simultaneously breaking trends. I think that America is a pretty abstract short black-and-white silent film about Black history, about American history, and how that history shows. It’s aiming to both reveal a lost archive while also creating a contemporary one. And I hope the whole program, as a riff on that spirit, offers a meditation on what we’ve missed, but also how to make up for it simultaneously.

Garrett Bradley’s America: A Journey Through Race and Time screens October 11 through October 17 at BAM Rose Cinemas (Peter Jay Sharp Building, 30 Lafayette Ave, Brooklyn). The series is curated by Ashley Clark, Senior Programmer of Cinema at BAM. 

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