In 1974, Toni Morrison was an editor at Random House when she thought of publishing something “that’s really popular and is about African-American life.” Consequently, she became the uncredited compiler for The Black Book, a scrapbook-style visual directory chronicling the African American experience. “All I had were these pictures and newspaper clippings and sheet music and postcards,” Morrison said. What emerged was a work that was both a somber reminder of lynchings and the slave trade and a celebration of Black excellence, genius, and entrepreneurship. Morrison’s idea was to show that Black people were “busy, smart and not just minstrelized.”
Kahlil Joseph’s BLKNWS, which featured in the 2019 Venice Biennale and has been screening at the Sundance Film Festival, comes across as an extension of Morrison’s ambitions. While The Black Book was made for a time when the whitewashed publishing industry needed an intervention, Joseph’s “news-creation machine” is an assertion of Black identity within the news media, which has more often than not depicted Black stories and bodies through a deeply racist and one-dimensional gaze. This unending newsreel creates an eternal visual register for Black excellence, lest anyone forget.
BLKNWS is a continuous collage of videos featuring Black Americans interspersed with originally produced segments from Joseph’s utopic fictional news channel, which broadcasts a version of news not filtered through a white gaze. It features Georgia county commissioner Mariah Parker taking her oath with her hand resting on a biography of Malcom X, Snapchat videos celebrating the love of Black grandparents, shots of Kara Walker’s A Subtlety, or the Marvelous Sugar Baby, excerpts from Christina Sharpe’s In the Wake: On Blackness and Being, Nike commercials, clips of Julie Dash’s Daughters of the Dust, and much more.
“News is anything that you didn’t know before you knew it,” Joseph said in a Q&A following a screening of BLKNWS’s 50-minute version at Sundance. Since news cycles are both eternal and ephemeral, it is natural that he tinkers around with time. There is a finite 50-minute “film” version, versions that play in multi-screen installations on loops, and shorter clips that are curently being shown in select theaters around the country. The larger goal of BLKNWS’s heteroglossia is to establish a singular language of a popular culture and consequent news cycle that is defined by Blackness. Joseph’s aim is to not create long and short versatile art pieces, but a Black news machine that will be a piece of art in itself. “If anything can be art, with context, we are yet to establish a business that is in itself a work of art,” he added at Sundance.
In The Souls of Black Folk, W.E.B. Du Bois wrote, “we black men seem the sole oasis of simple faith and reverence in a dusty desert of dollars and smartness.” Kahlil Joseph’s faith is not simple, and he has very little reverence for the larger system. But as the desert grows dustier with dollars, fake news, and post-truths, BLKNWS is a persistent interjection of the real and true into a popular consciousness too used to being fed lies.
The following theaters will be playing segments from BLKNWS ahead of select screenings in the coming weeks:
Belcourt Theatre—Nashville, Tennessee
Cinema Detroit—Detroit, Michigan
The Loft Cinema—Tucson, Arizona
Michigan Theater—Ann Arbor, Michigan
The Museum of Fine Arts, Houston—Houston, Texas
Nitehawk Cinema—Brooklyn, New York
Northwest Film Forum—Seattle, Washington
O Cinema—Miami, Florida
Parkway Theatre—Baltimore, Maryland
The State Theatre—Ann Arbor, Michigan
Texas Theatre—Dallas, Texas
IFC Center—New York, New York