This article analyses the short film and multi-screen installation of America (2019/2020) and the documentary feature Time (2020) by Garrett Bradley as works of radical historiography. The materiality of the gestures of tearing and stitching are a key to understanding Bradley’s methodology as a double gesture of disassembly and reassembly. The use of the lost and recovered fragments of the 1913 Lime Kiln Club Field Day in America and private self-documentation of home movies in Time offer disrupt dominant forms of history. Bradley’s distinctive strategy is a suturing of these archival materials with her own contemporary footage, yielding an aesthetic of fluid black-and-white quilting. Bradley’s abolition poetics function as an urgent contemporary process of recovery that, without ignoring or eliding the traumas of present or past violence, suggests that there can yet be an acknowledgment of the generative potential of the beauty processes of survival that have always been generated alongside them.

America’s country-road scene of generative sabotage.

America’s country-road scene of generative sabotage.

A young black woman dressed to signal a 1920s time frame walks along an empty country road, holding an umbrella. She stops in front of a white man sitting beneath a large tree, slowly kneels in front of him, and removes her hat. We see a close-up of his hand before shifting to hers. She begins ripping his white robe, a garment unambiguously suggestive of a Ku Klux Klan costume. As the image breaks apart into fragments and superimpositions, the sound of ripping gets louder, and the white fabric almost appears as crashing waves. As she stands up to leave, there is a glimpse of her hand holding a needle and white thread.

This is the first contemporary scene in Garrett Bradley’s America (2019), which combines twelve original vignettes with fragments of the film Lime Kiln Club Field Day (T. Hayes Hunter and Edwin Middleton, 1913/2014) into a short dedicated to reimagining a black archive.1 These vignettes trace a chronology from 1915 to 1926 as a way to index black life. The elastic and renewing potential of Bradley’s method is also reflected in the short film’s permutation, two years later, into a four-screen video installation at MoMA.2 Nicole Fleetwood has used the term “visible seam” to describe a visual strategy of mending without erasing the violence of the cut, a suture that still shows the wound.3 In the film’s country-road scene of generative sabotage, the Black woman performs a double gesture of destruction and repair, ripping and stitching back together.

The inventiveness of Bradley’s work and the ways it functions as a reciprocal practice with Lime Kiln exemplify the destructive and creative strategies of her method. If The Birth of a Nation—the paradigmatic example of the virulent antiblackness of early American film—is referenced symbolically by that shot of the lazy white man under the tree, the Black woman’s actions form a disassembling of the traditional US canon of cinema and its reassembly through Black women’s insurgent cultural contributions.

America is both an experimental short film and a multiscreen installation that perform a possible vision of black cinema as a torn and stitched-together fabric, a refusal and radical revision of inherited narratives of US film history. The omission and scarcity of surviving black American film is a starting point for Bradley’s work, catalyzed by a Library of Congress report in 2013 that noted the startlingly low percentage of any surviving silent American features (very few of which included any records of black life).4 With America, Bradley stages an archival intervention as well as a new encounter by reactivating excerpts from Lime Kiln, which is the oldest known feature film with an all-Black cast.5 Lime Kiln itself was long excised from history, discarded by its white producer and never completed.6 It was found in the archives of the Museum of Modern Art and, in 2014, shown in its gallery exhibition “100 Years in Post-Production: Resurrecting a Lost Landmark of Black Film History.”7 This process of erasure and interrupted completion transformed the found fragments and stills into documentary materials, bearing witness to an attempted act of black visual self-constitution.

In Bradley’s hands, the acts of self-representation that constitute black cinema itself can be thought of as a process of tearing and stitching. The fabric of early American film is that of the technologies and ideologies of white-supremacist, capitalist, and imperialist projects of domination. Emergent black cinematic practices worked despite and against these structures.

If the trajectory of Lime Kiln points to a fundamental question—how to build a black film history and future when loss and absence are always present—then Bradley’s visual works are a rhapsodic response. America performs a method of recuperation by reorienting the fragments of the past to create a space for new black image making. Bradley’s work sits alongside other practices of archival collaging and speculative reassemblages in experimental black cinema, as seen in the works of John Akomfrah, Ja’Tovia Gary, Christopher Harris, Isaac Julien, Arthur Jafa, and others.

The process of retrieval that unearthed Lime Kiln coincided with another archival impulse of the twenty-first century: the establishment of black home-movie archives in various locations online and in material form.8 Private exercises in self-documentation, home movies have been one way for Black people to intervene in the governing regimes of representation. They can also be seen as active participation in refuting visual structures of exclusion and dispossession, a way to disaggregate the purpose and receptions of moving images from mechanisms of profit.

The informal archive of the home movie is a critical component of Bradley’s most recent work, Time (2020), which won the Directing Award for US Documentary at Sundance and an Academy Award nomination for Best Documentary Feature. In a work that is sure to become a touchstone of documentary filmmaking, questions about black film history are expanded to consider both the intimate stakes of private self-documentation and the explicit ways they can interface with mass incarceration in the United States (particularly when the carceral state seeks to hide its own violence by making certain populations invisible in the public sphere). Time enacts an abolition poetics. It carefully documents the daily tolls of the carceral system upon the Richardson family in New Orleans without romanticizing resilience, and in so doing, it makes a quiet case for abolition.

Resisting strict genre classification, America and Time both mix experimental and documentary strategies to build dazzling displays of Bradley’s particular film grammar. Her accumulative strategy of generating counternarratives to oppose cinematic and state structures by foregrounding an expansive sense of blackness is a filmic approach that hums with playfulness and tenderness.

Bradley stages an encounter between her own images and archival fragments—Lime Kiln in America, and home-movie clips in Time—to create a filmic quilting that finds kinship with the quilting practices of African American women that map onto the New Orleans geography of both films. These textile practices, particularly active in the South, emerged as labors of care, comfort, and survival for enslaved women as well as being artistic practices.9 The renowned Gee’s Bend quilters from Alabama have in recent decades been institutionally recognized for contributions to US visual culture.10 Faith Ringgold and other artists have also used quilting as a particularly black feminist form of material culture, involving expressive strategies that unsettle the hierarchies that separate “folk art” from “high art.” In the same way, Bradley’s America and Time show fragments of forgotten films and excerpts from home movies to be both valid terrains for filmic expression and authoritative renderings of history.

Prison abolitionist Sibil Fox Richardson in Time.

Prison abolitionist Sibil Fox Richardson in Time.

In Bradley’s films, there are no techniques of superimposition or visual enmeshment applied between the different visual sources. The choice to shoot the contemporary footage for America on black-and-white 35mm film ensured that it would match the archival sourcing. Since this created a chromatic and textural alignment, the movement between Bradley’s vignettes and Lime Kiln isn’t divided by a regularized order. African American quilting distinguished itself by rejecting strict order and symmetry in favor of variation and fluid visual polyrhythms.11 Bradley’s process, too, participates in a nonlinear and nonuniversalizing visual structure that serves to remind the viewer that material culture is “illustrative of a particular way of seeing, of ordering the world,” presenting an alternative way of knowing with a potentially liberatory capacity.12

Saidiya Hartman’s concept of “critical fabulation” is helpful for its naming of a speculative technique of counterhistory. Hartman poses an open question about the redressing potential of aesthetic modes, which may “exceed or negotiate the constitutive limits of the archive.”13 Harnessing the past without being bound to any singular, hegemonic version, America speculatively requilts history to open the possibility of alternative futures.

Black Self-Creation

America invites a meditation on the overlapping of self-creation, self-presentation, and self-preservation for Black people. Lime Kiln starred the renowned vaudeville performer Bert Williams, whose presence in Bradley’s film also offers an adjusted look at the uses of blackface in early American cinema. Self-fashioning was a consciously politicized act for Williams, notable for being a black performer who used blackface as a tool of his own performance. The exaggeration of this doubling forced a recognition of a separation between his person and his performative self and worked against the falsified ideas of Black people as innate performers.14 He used blackface with an intent of demystifying the grotesquerie of Hollywood’s visual tools. For Williams, it was a strategic choice, a mask of opacity that also safeguarded his interiority from the white gaze.15

Strategies of self-fashioning are differently presented in the contemporary moments of America. Early in the film, alternating close-ups of a Black woman scout leader and Boy Scouts show both carefully arranging their neckties and caps. The uniforms can be seen as coding for assimilation—which, however fraught, can be motivated by instincts toward self-preservation, toward finding a place in the prevailing order. Combined with the camera’s attention to small gestures of adjustment and attentiveness, the scene gathers a complex consideration of modes of self-presentation, survival practices, and demands for pleasure in one’s appearance.

Bradley’s microtonal cataloguing plays into the broader question of authority over representation, which is shared among performers, filmmakers, and audiences. America aligns with what Jacqueline Stewart has termed “reconstructive spectatorship” to describe the ways African Americans reassembled individual and collective identities “in relation to the cinema’s racist social and textual operations.”16 The critical abilities of Black people on both sides of the screen generated a complex and nonmonolithic set of negotiations of pleasure and antagonism invoked by wanting to see themselves represented, only to have that occur infrequently and in the terms imposed by a white-supremacist visual order. America, then, is an oppositional reading of early American film history that contests its dominant ideological apparatus by foregrounding Lime Kiln’s documentation of black life. By defying the mechanisms that had made the 1913 film disappear, Bradley reactivates the original film within a new register of vibrancy and remembrance to participate in an ongoing work of black visual creation.

Disordering “History”

America contests the governing forms of narration, offering a speculative writing of black film history through an imaginative supplementation. Bradley’s engagement with a long history and possible future of black film works against the rhetorics of unprecedentedness that erase historical antecedents and leave an impoverished sense of legacy. Instead, her work insists on conveying an accruing and contextual sense of black cinema. Bradley’s work is a form of countermythology, a disruptive practice that makes Lime Kiln coeval with the present. America offers an imaginative addition to black collective memory as a set of contestations that work backward and forward in a “queer time of black memory as a shadow archive.17

What is evoked here is a necessary ambivalence, relative not only to archives but to historical narration writ large: that not everything can or should be made visually available. That the fullness of the past, including its horrors, needs to be addressed seems unquestionable. But are moving images necessarily or inevitably the avenue for doing so? The overwhelming desire to see what has been “lost” to certain histories is inextricably entangled with the very same systems of exploitation and commodification that erased them. It can come at an additional cost. America cannot recuperate Lime Kiln or Bert Williams without reproducing the contextual representational violence of early American cinema’s ideological framework. It also signals that those violences have hardly disappeared.

This ambivalence is rendered through the film’s funereal affects, conjuring a sense of mourning interlaced with its joy, veneration, and sacredness. In one scene, a couple walks into a church, an open white space where a large table is populated by Black people seated in front of an extravagant banquet, all wearing white robes and jewels. The scene is staged in a way that conjures the iconography of the Last Supper, here revised as a moment of intimacy and coming together of Black people. One mimics the hand gesture of the god figure in Michelangelo’s The Creation of Adam fresco in the Sistine Chapel, an iconographic citation and revision. This sacral episode and a later baptismal scene activate notions of death and rebirth, orchestrating a process of resurrection that acknowledges the irrecuperability of certain losses while offering a site of generative potential. America grants a new tempo and set of images through which to read the subversive ripples of black visuality from the Lime Kiln of 1913 up to the present.

The continuing evolutions of flexible tempos and rhythms are displayed in the expansion of the short film into the multiscreen installation that showed at MoMA, a stunning illumination of Bradley’s process of historical unfixing and reorientation. The installation featured four screens, descending from the ceiling and arranged in a cross. The screens were specifically made to look like four white flags, multiplying the object featured in America and creating a circuitry between the diegetic space and its outside, wherein an object seemed to emerge from inside the film, materializing outside into a vessel for its viewing. As an installation, Bradley’s formal work of simultaneous temporality is made all the clearer.

America renders time through a rotational logic, taking the form of circularity and repetition, enacted by its characters and the moving material of the film itself. The technological apparatuses shown in the film—phonograph, telephone, automobile, and cinema itself—were all crucial to a change in how space and time could be experienced. The installation created a 360-degree rendering of America, extending an invitation to walk around the film and physically participate in its fluid circularity. In this move to an exhibition space, Bradley further undid the fixity of the coordinates of time and space, refusing historical linearity as well as normative cinematic spatiality.

America’s baptismal scene activates notions of death and rebirth.

America’s baptismal scene activates notions of death and rebirth.

This movement was also clear in America’s earlier iteration as a short film. In one scene, the young woman from the side of the road is shown emerging and reemerging from a rotating glass door. Immediately following is a roller-rink scene in which skaters marking time through circular trajectories are echoed in a reverse shot of a ceiling made into a constellation of spinning disco balls. These chronicles of black time on an axis of rotation, as with an earlier series of reappearing objects, frustrate the expectation of linear forward movement, exposing “the ways the study of blackness can rearrange our perceptions of chronology, time and temporality.”18

Chronology play occurs most distinctively at the seams between Lime Kiln and Bradley’s contemporary footage. In one vignette, runners propel themselves on a track. Bradley’s montages of these images alongside the Lime Kiln footage of a cheering group of men render the latter as a temporally disjointed audience for the race. Close to the film’s ending, a contemporary orchestra is similarly aligned with archival footage of Black people dancing, offering a second performance in the present for an audience that is in the past. This quilting gives the impression that Lime Kiln constitutes a set of watchful black images. They are not just being passively absorbed by Bradley’s film but are also acting on it. Narratively functioning as spectators to both the race and the musical performance, the audiences within Lime Kiln are positioned to engage with the contemporary performances on inverted terms. The past and the dead are not just objects to a present gaze, but themselves look back, in a haunting impression of revivification. In both its film and installation versions, America refashions time and space into flexible and renewing assemblages, recuperating minor keys of black sociality into counterimages to correct prevalent notions of American film history.

Quiet and Ordinary

America plays with US nationalist and patriotic symbols. Icons of assimilation and incorporation that cannot absorb blackness are destabilized. These occasions of incomplete absorption serve as reminders that the US national imaginary relies on racial exclusion and dispossession as a stabilizing force. Bradley uses icons that are directly or indirectly shorthand for white supremacy or nationalism (a white sheet, the Boy Scouts of America) to suggest that their symbolic attachments can be disrupted and animated to reveal a fuller picture.

Aspects of Bradley’s work align with José Esteban Muñoz’s concept of disidentification as a process that “scrambles and reconstructs the encoded message of a cultural text in a fashion that both exposes the encoded message’s universalizing and exclusionary machinations and recircuits its workings to account for, include, and empower minority identities and identification.”19 The double movement of disassembly and reassembly that animates the black feminist practice of America defamiliarizes formerly dominant cinematic grounds to open up an entry to an alternative.

Muñoz describes a particular iteration of disidentification as “a mode of recycling or re-forming an object that has already been invested with a powerful energy.”20 For Bradley, one of the most charged and recurring objects is a white sheet. When first seen draped and then ripped off the white man sitting under a tree, it offered a relatively stable symbolic resonance with the Ku Klux Klan. Throughout the first half of the film, however, the white sheet as icon of racial terror continues to circulate and transform its signifying potential. In a shot that opens with the camera moving through tall grass, accompanied by a voice-over repeatedly murmuring “America,” the white sheet floats independently toward the sky. As it then descends, the accompanying sound changes to the laughter of Black children, who play with the sheet as it moves above them. The symbol of horror, now an object of play, then lands on a drying line, seemingly domesticated. The white sheet next appears lying in the dirt. A group of Black cowboys are milling around and petting their horses, while one pauses to look at it. The camera stays focused on the white sheet as they ride past and around, until another picks it up with their stick: it becomes a white flag, carrying the multiple connotations of triumph, surrender, and peace.

America demonstrates how, in Gayatri Gopinath’s words, the “materiality of the everyday—small, antimonumental, inconsequential—is closely linked to this project of excavating the past.”21 The return to vision of these small tokens of the mundane is a visual refrain and motif threading throughout the piece. Through her movements of objects, Bradley demonstrates the ability of repetition to elide hierarchies of events, to flatten and elongate time, utilizing the accumulative power of the everyday as a way to think historically.

Drawing from and building upon Lime Kiln, Bradley fashions America as an experiment in how to create a contemporary silent film, allowing for different considerations of the sonic beyond the terms dictated by historical parameters of technological availability. Rather than re-create silence, the film operates through Kevin Quashie’s notion of quiet: defined not by a lack of sound but rather by the vastness of inner life beyond its public demonstrations. Working against assumptions that black expressivity is necessarily emphatic or loud, Quashie theorizes the political and ontological potential of black quietude as an “expressiveness of the interior.”22

With a rhapsodic score by Trevor Mathison, a founding member of the Black Audio Film Collective, its soundtrack is filled with murmurs, swishes, creaks, and muffled words. Throughout, the quiet of America is mobilized for a temporality of process that refuses the strictures of teleology. The early minutes of the film, beginning with stills and with the hum of the synthesizer-heavy audio track, give the impression of an object being assembled, a loom threading in preparation for the work of stitching a black visual cosmology. This hypnotic and meditative opening formally accents the work’s commitment to process over product.

This emphasis on the conceptual quiet, a sort of hum of blackness, serves as Bradley’s accenting of ordinariness. America is invested in exploring an antiexceptionalizing, expansive, and intergenerational scope of black life. The commitment to interiority and ordinary life, consistently present in Black women’s independent cinema, counteracts the spectacularity that historically, as now, has been too often strangled by profit and libidinally driven demands to see black suffering; it marks, instead, a form of openness and care. To address the absences in the scaffolding of black film history is to resituate works that were lost, without being overdetermined by a completist desire for recovery. Loss and incompletion can be engaged in ways that are more patient and elastic, accepted as occasions for pause and reflection, without needing to be “fixed” or entirely filled in.

Conceptual quiet in America.

Conceptual quiet in America.

Time

Bradley carries on this luminous black-and-white visual grammar and counternarrative impulse in Time (2020). It furthers her consistent aesthetic and thematic that began in 2017 when she made a thirteen-minute short, Alone, as a tender recording of her friend Aloné Watts’s fraught process of deciding to marry her boyfriend, Desmond Watson, while he was incarcerated. The short portrays Watts’s grace and seriousness as she negotiates the choice of a future that has in a way already been foreclosed by the carceral state.

Time follows Alone in considering the time stolen through incarceration, here through the Richardson family of eight. The documentary focuses on Sibil “Fox” Rich and her relentless efforts to be reunited with her husband, Robert (“Rob”). The film is a gently textured but forceful indictment of carcerality, assembled not just from Bradley’s footage but also from eighteen years of home movies made by Fox, starting with Rob’s imprisonment when she was three months pregnant with their twin boys. Fox’s documentation of herself, independent of and far preceding Bradley’s film, is a testament to a desire to keep a record of her own, to mark the time of Rob’s absence as autonomous from the legal and carceral technologies of the state. Fox is not singularly an object of Bradley’s camera. They are collaborators. It was Fox’s decision to share her archive of home movies that changed Bradley’s initial vision of the work from that of a short film and sister project to Alone into its much more expansive form.

Time is a film that argues for repair and against enclosure. It is porous, proceeding cinematographically with a sense of liquid connection and relationality. The invasiveness of the carceral state and its ability to extend itself beyond the physical perimeter of the prison, which lie at the heart of the film, show how the incarceration of one person is a damage done to an entire community. Fox described the cruelty of mandated measures, of how much time she could spend with her husband during the two permitted monthly visits. Speaking about her own time behind bars when they were first arrested, she connects the violations of body searches to the horror of family separation. Particularly when considering the violent social fragmentations created by incarceration, America can be seen as a reparative gesture in its effort to participate in the family’s piecing itself back together.

As in America, Bradley deftly applies a technique of dynamic quilting. There is a particular connection between Bert Williams and Fox: both perform small gestures of self-presentation that resonate as larger claims to autonomy. Time consistently shows Fox as a woman who is aware, intentional, and directive in terms of her appearance. Bradley has frequently referred to her as a codirector, and she takes on that role within the film, as is made clear in an early scene of Fox making a video advertisement for Rich Motors of New Orleans. The first shot shows her standing alongside the cameraman. Fox directs how she wants to be shot, making indications about zooms and camera movements: “What I wanted to do to was be able to see what I look like, hair-wise, lip-gloss-wise, . . . and see what the shot looks like real quick.”

Fox is incredibly attentive to her self-presentation, establishing a visual register on her own terms. It is an attention to appearance that operates on multiple levels. Filming the commercial is one of several segments in which Fox is shown doing her makeup—an action inflected with a desire to present herself in a certain way but also to hold herself together. The intimacy of Bradley’s cinematography shows these as moments of care and pleasure, while also suggesting they are part of a broader survival strategy.

The context of legal settings brings in a relation between self-fashioning and self-preservation—a distinction clarified by Fox’s mother, who appears several times in the film. Sitting at a table in one scene, she relates the advice she gave to her daughter: “And see, I told my child, ‘What you need to do, is pin your hair up on your head like you half crazy, put you on a dress or a pair of pants, some flat shoes and go on down to that courthouse, to court.’ She pressed her hair out [she flips her head from side to side] and fling it all in them white folks’ faces, okay.” She warns her daughter away from doing that, saying: “Them white folks already don’t like you. Wouldn’t listen.”

Fox’s mother alludes here to the disciplining of personal appearance, which is one of the incalculable measures of control applied to Black people, particularly charged in the context of interfacing with the state. There, the politics of respectability dictate a smaller scale of the violation of autonomy that accompanies carceral structures. What is notable is Fox’s refusal to cater to the white gaze of the law.

Between Fox’s early years of self-documentation and the parts of her life filmed by Bradley, the film tracks a back and forward chronology that is similar to America’s circular temporality. Time traces Fox’s personal evolution, marking her resilience and her blossoming over the years of maintaining her and her children’s connection to Rob (including a heartbreaking cardboard cutout of him they keep in the house) while advocating for his release.

The film is filled with quiet scenes of waiting. In one, Fox silences the Muzak of a phone call regarding Rob’s case with the automatic speed of an action taken too many times. She waits on hold, only to be told that there is nothing new in Rob’s case, her urgency met with a frustrating bureaucratic stalling and repetition. Fox speaks about their family’s New Year’s ritual of being sure that each year will be the one that will see Rob’s release and the deflation of its endless deferral.

The long sense of time documented by the home movies—which show the kids growing up and Fox growing into herself—is handled with patience by Bradley. She also highlights Fox’s transformation over the years into a magnetic public presence, seen speaking to audiences about her family’s knowledge of the carceral state and adamant calls for its end, infused with what abolitionist organizer and educator Mariame Kaba has termed a discipline of hope.

Bradley’s and Fox’s visual and verbal registers honor the hope that carries the Richardson family forward to Rob’s eventual release without masking the exhaustion and difficulties of its punitive process. Time’s view into Fox and Rob’s reunion is extraordinary. The couple allowed themselves to be filmed in their intimate reunion in the car, accompanied by the hushed sounds of the car’s movement. When they arrive at their house, Rob hugs each of his sons, having recovered, finally, the proximity he was denied for twenty years. Bradley’s documentary closes by running itself backward, replaying the opening home-movie clips of the boys as children in reverse, closing on a shot of the young Fox and Rob kissing in their car. This sweet ending is also acknowledgment of the devastating length of time that was taken away from this family and the boys’ childhoods.

Time’s closing shot of a young Fox and Rob kissing in their car.

Time’s closing shot of a young Fox and Rob kissing in their car.

Abolition Poetics

Bradley’s kaleidoscopic interventions into cinematic history and documentary exploration are deeply attached to New Orleans. In America, the scout uniforms are clearly emblazoned with “Louisiana,” scenes of blacksmithing are linked to an important industrial history, and horse riders specifically reference the “buffalo soldiers,”—“a historically Black social aid and pleasure club.”23

A baptismal scene, a stunning technical flourish, presents another index of cultural specificity, which merges with America’s oneiric texture of resurrection and its interest in distinct forms of spectatorship. In this scene, the image is fractured: a mirror placed in the top half of the shot is slightly angled, rendering a doubled oblique. In the bottom half of the shot, three men dressed all in white participate in a baptism, marking a return of the white sheet. Two other participants stand and watch on either side, followed by a low-angle shot of three older Black women peering down, dazzling in their hats and jackets and jewels. The recurring figure of a young woman ripping and stitching appears in a watery reflection—another instance of repetition, which here quilts the different spaces of the film together into a moment of prayer, of “dreaming and self-assessment, wild motion rapt with possibility and ache, a self-conversation that is driven by the abundance of imagination.”24

America is perhaps a form of prayer, enacted through a contained and infinitely open space of imagination and reflection, a gesture toward, for, and from unevenly documented histories. Across its multiple vignettes, America is a cumulative rehistorization of American film that centers black life, modeling how archives can and should be rebuilt in a way that by necessity also puts into crisis what archives cannot and should not do.

With her methods of fabric and thread, of ripping apart and stitching back together, Bradley is making cinematic alterations in the “always-embattled counterconstruction” of the historical record.25 Bradley’s film suggests that black subjectivity and forms of collectivity are in part nurtured in spaces of quiet and absence. The intricacy of Bradley’s visual grammar across sets of visual materials that occur simultaneously issues an invitation to think flexibly about the fluid temporal and spatial coordinates of black cinematics. Black filmmaking can serve as counterarchive and also a way of imagining archiving otherwise. Rather than merely using archival footage as proof of black life, Bradley formally allows the viewer to enter a more self-reflexive practice, gesturing to the living-along-sidedness that always indexes the relationship between the past and present. America is a film that imaginatively engages with the fraught task of reanimating archives, always piecemeal and accumulative, while it demonstrates how omission can also be a generative beginning.

The director’s adopted home of New Orleans is a place that carries a particular, anguished charge in the aftermath of the catastrophic Hurricane Katrina.26 Bradley creates a fulcrum for the long history of black filmic visuality in a place where it has been violently instrumentalized. Visual history is a history of codes of representation that have illuminated as much as they have concealed, maintaining structures of power to perpetuate legacies of disavowal and dispossession.

Fox’s mother, shown in an intimate close-up, says: “It’s almost like slavery time, like the white man keep you here until he figures it’s time for you to get out and that’s what this situation is, a personal vendetta. A personal vendetta.” Later in the film Fox says something similar, when she declares: “Our prison system is nothing more than slavery and I see myself as an abolitionist.” There is a clear intergenerational echo.

Just as Hartman offers storytelling as possibly the only available form of “compensation or even reparations,” I would offer Bradley’s films in this spirit.27 As a documentary, Time is a corroboration that what has been marginalized as a minor experience is actually a witnessing and counternarrative of illuminating the whole. Bradley’s abolition poetics function as an urgent contemporary process of recovery that, without ignoring or eliding the traumas of present or past violence, suggests that there can yet be an acknowledgment of the insurgency and beauty that have always been generated alongside them. What is illuminated and inserted into film history through this work is a complex, vibrant, unclassifiable, and uncontainable black lifeworld.

The choreography of images in America and Time reveals how the interplay between different temporalities can be a site of potential change. The temporal disruptions and circular movements of both films and of the installation refuse an uncritical acceptance of state chronologies. With its dazzling intimacy, America punctures the naturalized fabric of dominant American history. Bradley offers a visual language that moves beyond any acceptance of present circumstances in its refusal of fated stasis, of staying here, and an insistent indication of an elsewhere that comes into being through action. The abolition poetics of Time function as an artistic corollary to the practices of community organizing, mutual aid, and co-survival, all drawn from history and pointing toward a future, all contributing to the material and imaginative effort of communal world making.

Notes

1.

Lime Kiln Club Field Day premiered at the Museum of Modern Art in New York in 2014. See www.moma.org/collection/works/306509.

2.

The installation of America was exhibited at the Museum of Modern Art in New York from November 2020 through March 2021. See www.moma.org/calendar/exhibitions/5221.

3.

Nicole R. Fleetwood, Troubling Vision: Performance, Visuality, and Blackness (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2011), 9.

4.

Library of Congress, “Library Reports on America’s Endangered Silent-Film Heritage,” December 4, 2013, www.loc.gov/item/prn-13-209/endangered-silent-film-heritage/2013-12-04/.

5.

Museum of Modern Art, “T. Hayes Hunter, Edwin Middleton: Lime Kiln Club Field Day, 1914/2014,” www.moma.org/collection/works/306509.

6.

Museum of Modern Art.

7.

Museum of Modern Art, “Bert Williams: 100 Years in Post-Production,” www.moma.org/calendar/events/558.

8.

In 2005, Jacqueline Stewart launched the South Side Home Movie Project out of the University of Chicago to collect, preserve, and exhibit amateur films from Chicago’s South Side neighborhood. In 2014, the African American Home Movie Archive was established as a digital resource to gather, organize, and provide access to home movies made between the early 1920s and mid-1980s. Currently, the National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington, DC, operates the Great Migration Home Movie Project, a digitization and dissemination service that has also contributed to public-facing efforts to catalogue home movies.

9.

Maura Callahan, “Recharting America’s Origin Story through Quilts,” Hyperallergic, April 27, 2018, https://hyperallergic.com/439778/recharting-americas-origin-story-through-quilts/.

10.

Souls Grown Deep, “Gee’s Bend Quiltmakers,” www.soulsgrowndeep.org/gees-bend-quiltmakers.

11.

Elsa Barkley Brown, “African-American Women’s Quilting,” Signs 14, no. 4 (1989): 923.

12.

Brown, 929.

13.

Saidiya Hartman, “Venus in Two Acts,” Small Axe 12, no. 2 (2008): 10.

14.

Camille F. Forbes, “Dancing with ‘Racial Feet’: Bert Williams and the Performance of Blackness,” Theatre Journal 56, no. 4 (2004): 614.

15.

Forbes, 623.

16.

Jacqueline Najuma Stewart, Migrating to the Movies: Cinema and Black Urban Modernity (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2005), 94.

17.

Tavia Nyong’o, Afro-Fabulations: The Queer Drama of Black Life (New York: NYU Press, 2018), 11.

18.

Nyong’o, 4.

19.

José Esteban Muñoz, Disidentifications: Queers of Color and the Performance of Politics (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1999), 39.

20.

Muñoz, 39.

21.

Gayatri Gopinath, Unruly Visions: The Aesthetic Practices of Queer Diaspora (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2019), 125.

22.

Kevin Quashie, The Sovereignty of Quiet: Beyond Resistance in Black Culture (New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 2012), 21.

23.

Dessane Lopez Cassell, “Revealing Lost Archives of Black Cinema and Creating New Ones,” Hyperallergic, December 6, 2019, https://hyperallergic.com/522026/garrett-bradley-america-bam/.

24.

Quashie, The Sovereignty of Quiet, 116.

25.

Kimberly Juanita Brown, The Repeating Body: Slavery’s Visual Resonance in the Contemporary (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2015), 11.

26.

Cassell, “Revealing Lost Archives.”

27.

Hartman, “Venus in Two Acts,” 4.