Passing Through: The Arts and Politics of the Jazz Ensemble

Curator's Note

The video to the left is a excerpt of an interview with director Larry Clark by liquid blackness, a research collective focused on blackness and aesthetics. The interview discusses Clark's 1977 film Passing Through, a complex film about a jazz musician on a search for artistic freedom and political power, that has consumed us since we first organized a public screening of the film in Fall 2013. As Clark explains in this portion of the interview, Passing Through is one piece of a larger network of Black political action in the post-Civil Rights era.

The film is such an interesting work because that network crosses inside and outside of the diegesis. For example, the film follows Warmack (Nathaniel Taylor) as he contemplates an artistic practice for his jazz ensemble that progresses their political interests. Warmack is influenced by two powerful forces on his quest: his girlfriend, Maya (Pamela Jones) and his wise grandfather, Poppa Harris (Clarence Muse). In addition to supporting the self-reflexive approach to Black politics and aesthetics embedded in the narrative, these actors embody the collectivity being embraced in artistic circles at the time. Jones appeared in and worked on the production of other films that were part of Clark's artistic collective, the "L.A. Rebellion." Muse began his acting career in vaudeville, was part of Black theater movement's in the 1920s, and made hundreds of films in Hollywood while negotiating complicated issues of labor and dignity for African Americans in cinema. This is a film about the need for collective political action and artistic production that visualzes those modes of production for audiences.

This theme week brings together a variety of topics including Passing Through, black cinema, and jazz. Taking their cues from Passing Through, this week's curators take different approaches to these topics that ultimately helps us understand how to approach these topics. Writers consider the often forgotten personal side of radical politics, the ways improvisational jazz provides models for the collectivity that Clark discusses in the interview, and the need for the combination of archival work and close analysis for texts like Passing Through. In many ways, liquid blackness is looking for the questions for a work like Passing Through. Here is our list--please, share yours.

  • What is the role of the archival impulse in African American cinema?
  • How can we consider (and visualize) the geopolitics of black independent cinema?
  • What are the ethics of black film study?
  • What is the ideal form of collective study?

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