Arthur Jafa brings ‘White Album’ and unique take on race to Berkeley
By Lou Fancher
During a phone interview about “The White Album,” his acclaimed new 30-minute video on race relations commissioned by the Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive (BAMPFA), the artist and filmmaker Arthur Jafa is asked about a full-screen image that appears, at least on a computer screen, as blood red.
“It’s actually orange,” he says.
The clarification doesn’t ease the implications of violence that permeate the work, amid an evocative collage of found-footage images and video clips addressing race and white privilege in America. But the distinction adds context for a subsequent clip involving the protagonist of Stanley Kubrick’s “A Clockwork Orange’s,” his piercing blue eyes and black lashes evoking violent malevolence; his frozen gaze carving into viewers’ consciousness.
When it comes to Jafa, 58, and the transformative films that are earning the African-American filmmaker raves in the arts world, color is an unavoidable topic.
The museum’s MATRIX program is presenting “The White Album,” along with several Jafa films and a gallery installation that includes facsimiles of the artist’s archival notebooks, through March 24. Jafa will be on hand for two screenings and Q&As in late February.
A highlight will be Jafa’s acclaimed seven-minute 2016 video, “Love is the Message, The Message is Death,” set to Kanye West’s song “Ultralight Beam.” The work depicts with sometimes unsettling images black life in American and is in the collections of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Smithsonian, the Museum of Contemporary Art and Hammer Museum in Los Angeles, among others. BAMPFA Curator Apsara DiQuinzio calls the video “one of the most significant artistic statements on American race relations.” The follow-up “White Album’s” timely and timeless exploration of whiteness from the perspective of an African-American filmmaker is similarly groundbreaking.
The film opens with famed guitarist John McLaughlin warming up with the jazz-rock fusion band he formed, the Mahavishnu Orchestra. Jafa cuts immediately — employing his signature editing effect known as “affective proximity” — to an video of composer Daniel Lopatin’s “The Pure and the Damned,” a song from the soundtrack of the film “Good Time” that features a ghostly turn from singer Iggy Pop. During the next 30 minutes, music and visual elements collected from YouTube, news broadcasts and other sources or filmed by Jafa, often closely shot portraits of white people, meld in a montage of unexpected and almost always provocative or poignant pairings.
Jafa says the term “affective proximity” was coined by a colleague, the British artist and filmmaker John Akomfrah, to mean that visual elements are positioned for maximum expressivity.
And what’s being expressed are Jafa’s piercing views of “whiteness,” which is not the same thing as saying they are views against white people. Rather, he sees it as a damaging mindset that he has compared to patriarchy and homophobia.
The notion is that whites fear retribution for centuries of black slavery, so as they encounter blacks, they lock doors, clutch purses, disproportionately imprison people of color and turn their backs on police violence toward African-Americans. “Getting out of the now,” Jafa suggests, means becoming “unstuck” from judgment and indifference and requires experiencing counter-bias and facing the truth about what American society has become.
Half-way through the film, a white man shoves clips into an automatic rifle, another taunts a black police officer who remains stoic despite the obscene, racist chant directed at her. Black people do appear, in one scene joyous while dancing and singing. A clip of O.J. Simpson at a parole hearing features a comic voiceover by actor Justin Hires suggesting the prisoner’s fictional, salacious thoughts. Movingly, a video shows a young black boy after his favorite football team performs poorly succumbing to tears under the gentle teasing of his family.
“In some ways the film is trying to navigate these ideas I have of generalized whiteness,” says Jafa. “As a non-white person I can’t abandon these things that I ‘cannot not know.’ Black people have a privileged understanding of blackness. White people have the same thing about whiteness. I’m trying to make a thing that allows you to parse the difference.”
That means the story must include references black people’s humanity, as demonstrated by the family who comforts the disheartened young boy, or in the “super funny” humor Jafa sees in Hires’ “verbal X-ray” of Simpson’s internal thoughts.
Jafa also explored race in the 2013 films “Dreams Are Colder Than Death” and “Apex,” both of which are part of the BAMPFA exhibit. He has also shot a variety of music videos and was the chief cinematographer of Julie Dash’s “Daughters of the Dust” (for which he received an award at the Sundance Film Festival) and Spike Lee’s “Crooklyn.” He feels that films made outside of mainstream Hollywood are bound to be more timely and visceral, especially when he has constant access to equipment, materials and inspiration.
“The more I can put my hands on the tools on impulse, the better the results,” he says.
Still, Jafa says he is anticipating increased leadership opportunities for people of color in the film industry — slowly.
“I saw Jodie Foster on Charlie Rose a long time ago,” he says. “She said, ‘When I pitch ideas to studio heads, 90 percent of the time I’m looking at a white guy, older than I am.’ She realized films get made because people giving the greenlight recognize the person as a version of themselves. The reason black film is underdeveloped is because outside of music and athletics, you don’t have black people in the structure giving the greenlight. I see that changing.”
Pressed to answer a question presented in the “Love Is the Message” video (“What would America be like if we liked black people as much as we like black culture?”), Jafa hesitates, then responds. “I don’t know. I don’t have answers. It would be radically different than what we have. It would have to be better than it is.”