Fugitivity and the Filmic Imagination

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James E Ford III, Guest Editor for Black Camera
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This special issue for Black Camera, titled “Fugitivity and the Filmic Imagination,” ponders whether American mainstream and/or independent cinema—primarily with regard to the current string of films being released that take up chattel slavery—engages or disavows black fugitivity as the imaginative condition for film; a reassessment of the frameworks that are most generative for exploring black fugitivity’s complexities; and a rethinking of how online social media now informs the discourses that shape the filmic imagination.

Frank Wilderson, Saidiya Hartman, Daphne Brooks, and Nathaniel Mackey, among others, have taken up the im/possibilities of fugitive life. Drawing from their work one can define fugitivity as a critical category exploring the artful escape of objectification, whether objectification occurs through racialized aesthetic framing, commodification or juridico-political discipline. As Paul Jeffers and Daphne Brooks assert, “the act of fleeing is an existential act of self-creation.” With “artfulness” one registers styles of life that foster alternative spaces, ethical relations, and structures of feeling in the name of being otherwise. Juridico-political discipline targets such ways of being because they indict current moralities. Fugitivity entails a critique of violence, meditating on the forces sustaining, resisting, or overturning the status quo, and imagining what Hartman calls a “free state, not as the time before captivity” but as an “anticipated future” still to be enacted.

Fugitivity is irreducible to a single genre because it inspires the literary and audio-visual experimentation that founds genres. Scholars have traced such experiments in autobiography, poetry, music, visual art, and performance. The fugitive slave serves as model for later forms of escape and as a heuristic for genres still unformed. Despite how persuasively fugitivity has been examined across these forms, Quentin Tarantino’s Django Unchained has caused debate over film’s aesthetic (in)capability to deal with the historical complexities of black fugitivity on screen. This debate will continue with several other films on slavery slated for 2013 and 2014, including Savannah, Something Whispered, The Keeping Room, Belle, Tula, and 12 Years a Slave, setting the stage for future film criticism. These films urge a return to earlier films on slavery, like Burn!, Sankofa, or The Legend of Nigger Charley and raise concerns about the current sociopolitical climate 150 years since the Emancipation.

In light of mainstream Hollywood and independent cinema’s gloss of the history of black life and agency, are filmic representations of fugitivity necessarily a foregone conclusion because of the deficit in historical knowledge about slavery, the reproduction of auteur fantasies, and the formidable nature of a neoliberal cultural agenda? Do these critical realities necessarily spell the end of a fugitive imagination that has an extensive history? Or do they merely mark the limits of film itself and therefore a disavowal of race and fugitivity at the genre’s overdetermined origin? Or will this string of films avow, even in contradictory ways, the ongoing relevance of fugitivity? What new or previously underutilized concepts, methodologies, and cultural histories must be brought to bear to make filmic fugitivity visible and audible? This special issue also encourages articles that analyze recent films on slavery along with analyses of social media as a new discursive space for engaging with film and fugitivity. What are the potentialities and limits to discussing blackness and film through blogging and/or social media? How has the blogosphere impacted film criticism, the development of filmgoing audiences, and provided new opportunities and hurdles for developing, as bell hooks calls it, an “oppositional gaze”? Topics include but are not limited to:

- Current debates films about slavery privilege historical realism. How does a historical realism counter or complement culture under Neoliberal structures of dominance? Might an expanded genre criticism open up the conversation?

-How do the current string of films on slavery dis/avow their place in the production chain of a mainstream, neoliberal American film industry?

- Since film is a cultural product, emerging from a shared and fraught vision, might a form of ensemble criticism reveal productive tensions within a film, based on the convergent and divergent efforts of several contributors? Or does black fugitivity abide auteur criticism’s limits?

-How do filmic representations of black fugitivity open or foreclose analyses of gender and sexuality? What are its implications today, when women’s rights and the feminist traditions that uphold them are under attack?

- What are the roles of intellectuals in fostering more sophisticated interpretations of slavery and black fugitivity in popular culture?

-Might filmic fugitivity pose new theorizations of class conflict in the US when bare life becomes synonymous with indebted life and individualized risk sparks collective malaise and outrage?

Please contact Dr James E Ford III at filmicfugitivity2014@gmail.com to discuss potential articles and to submit completed articles. Abstracts will be due by April 15, 2014. Articles will be between 6,000-8,000 words and must be completed and submitted by August 15, 2014.

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