Belhaven Meridian is the first video Kahlil Joseph directed for Shabazz Palaces. Shot in Watts, on 35mm black and white footage, it is an homage to Charles Burnett’s Killer of Sheep (1977). It begins with the roar of a car engine over a black screen, then a side shot of a car. A young man is at the wheel and a young woman is sitting on top of the trunk. There is no diegetic dialog but a caption, instead, appears:
HIM: IT’S TIME.
HER: WHERE ARE WE GOING?
She gets into the car—the car that Killer of Sheep’s protagonist Stan could never get to work—and they quickly ride away. The camera follows the car until it disappears behind a row of houses. Now the camera stares at an empty street as an attractive woman enters the frame from the right strolling confidently in the middle of the street. Quickly, and predictably, a young man approaches her and tries to make small talk. They are young and brash and at home. As if by chance, tilting to the right, the camera picks up the shooting of a (re-enacted) scene from Killer of Sheep itself, which took place on the front steps of Stan’s house as two of his “buddies” attempt to lure him to a more facile life of crime as a way out of his predicament: the perverse cycle that entraps him as both the killer and the sheep he routinely slaughters in his day job. This precious glance into the “making” of Killer of Sheep—a labor of love and respect, and patience and community, if there ever was one—is enough to cause the camera to rotate on its axis and turn upside down. In this new world, where the bottom is the top and the top is the bottom, the silhouette of a young man appears walking confidently down the same street. Juxtaposed to it there is also an African mask seemingly floating as if lulled by ripples in the very surface of the image. But not for long: the young man inexplicably grabs it and rushes through a group of boys who are trying to tackle him, like a running back going for a touchdown. The camera remains upside down and the long take continues as we see him eventually passing the mask to a bike rider from a group of motorcyclists who suddenly ride through the same street. The music settles on a quieter register and the camera follows them gliding through streets progressively filling up with traffic, moving freely and almost floating effortlessly away. The answer to her question finally comes here:
HIM: WHEREVER WE WANT.
This is one of Joseph’s earliest films but suspension is already central to it. Temporally, as the film seamlessly travels from 1977 Watts to 2010, while it gathers signs of a Afrocentric past as well as a cinematic past: the mask that Diouana—the protagonist of Ousmane Sembène’s La Noire de—gifts to the French family that effectively abducts her, which reappears in the streets of Watts over the face of Burnett’s own daughter, reinterpreted but still connected to it source, both gesture toward origin and index to the child’s eyes that Burnett so extraordinarily adopts to look at his world in the 1977 present. Suspension in the sense of a “world turned upside down” as my students so commonsensically and poignantly remarked while they were also pondering the inscrutable repercussions of that fact, which is not a simple reversal but rather a radical re-imagination of the very coordinates that sustain our World. Suspension features here also in the sense of a weightlessness that this upside-down-world affords to the bodies that move in it, but not as an ungrounding—not a severance form home, experience, intimacy or truth—but rather as an unmooring. Indeed, here lightness, as Lauren Cramer discussed at the Symposium dedicated to Joseph’s work liquid blackness hosted last weekend, is an effect of architectural structures that disperse mass across multiple grounding positions. In other words, in Joseph’s films lightness is never divorced from gravitas. How then to understand the sense of suspension produced in his films?
I am grateful to Jim Tobias for so eloquently bringing to focus how Joseph’s achievements defy language. Joseph edits all his films and, he told us during the Q&A, that he would never be able to describe to someone else what needs to happen in terms of pace, movement and rhythm. Editing, he said, comes from the nervous system.
I am grateful to Sarah Cervenak’s poetic meditation on the complexity of Joseph’s engagement with “always already surveilled black movement” and to Chip Linscott’s powerfully evocative rendering of the “imaginative conjunction” of conventionally opposed concepts, such as “life and death, inside and outside, pleasure and pain, past and present and future.” The ekphrastic temptation is strong—what word can I use to describe what I am seeing?—indeed, almost irresistible, but I know my words cannot give Kahlil’s work justice.
Thus, I ask my students – undergraduate students like those whose extraordinary perception and eloquent descriptions three years ago gave rise to the very concept of “liquid blackness”—to help me describe the role of motion, or suspension (if they are so inclined) in Joseph’s films. Without making a distinction between camera movement or movement within the frame they insist his films glide. Someone else say they float. Finally, someone else says: well, they are truly liquid, they are liquid blackness.
She says it and she is done. She can’t elaborate. And neither can I.