It’s been called the slap heard ’round the world. In 1967, a young Sidney Poitier, playing a forlorn Black cop in the Hollywood race drama In the Heat of the Night, did what was then unthinkable: He slapped a white man onscreen — a bigoted plantation owner (Larry Gates), no less. Many a moviegoer likely clutched their pearls.
Acutely aware of the different cadence with which such an intuitive response to everyday racism may land these days — this was a slap back, after all — Ina Archer isolates this scene to cathartic ends in her installation “Osmundine (Orchid Slap)” (2020). The work forms the centerpiece of her eponymous exhibition, currently on view at Microscope Gallery. A filmmaker and programmer as well as a visual artist, Archer displays a keen interest in framing, bordering the bite-sized projection with painterly botanical illustrations, mirroring the ways in which Black people have historically been studied and catalogued as things rather than beings, to be cultivated and confined rather than regarded as autonomous and equal. The thwack of palm against face resounds throughout the gallery, as the scene loops over and over again — a clapback for the ages.
The nature of framing, and what one may choose to reveal or hide, lies at the heart of “1/16th of 100%!?” (1993-96), Archer’s 22-minute found footage film, installed here on a wide floor monitor. A razor-sharp (if occasionally didactic) rebuke of Hollywood’s penchant for stoking white supremacist fantasies, its title nods to the “racial integrity” laws of the 1920s, which decreed as impure — and thus undeserving of the privileges of whiteness — anyone with more than 1/16th Black or Indigenous blood. Scenes from “Golden Age” films such as Show Boat (1936) and Imitation of Life (1959) brush up against the grotesque cheer of musical numbers like Irving Berlin’s “I Want to Be a Minstrel Man.” Yes, the chorus is as heinous as it sounds, and no, Archer does not pull her punches here.
Nearby, “Hattie McDaniel: or A Credit to the Motion Picture Industry” positions in center stage the Black actor whose history-making, though often maligned, career generally relegated her to the sidelines as a comfortably ignorant servant. The four-channel installation — replete with a delicately folded monogrammed handkerchief and photo of McDaniel in her Oscar-winning role of “Mammy” in Gone with the Wind (1939) — intercuts footage of her Oscar acceptance speech with Halle Berry’s decidedly more animated one in 2002. Archer herself appears in bursts as a horned trickster, laughing devilishly as she calls our attention to issues of continuity in the McDaniel footage — according to critics, proof that the speech was staged by studio elites to appear benevolent in granting her an artificial moment in the spotlight.
Here, and throughout the exhibition, Archer shatters any illusion that conforming to the standards of respectability will ever reward you.
Ina Archer: Osmundine (Orchid Slap) continues through October 11 by appointment at Microscope Gallery (1329 Willoughby Avenue, Brooklyn, NY).