Visual Liberation

‘A way of watching’ and making movies by decolonizing the eye of both Artist & Spectator enabling mini-revolutions on screen and a glimpse of freedom in real life.

Visual Liberation is an umbrella term for the study and understanding of a cinema that is at once personal, political and radical in both and style and content. It is a pedagogy and approach to filmmaking that tries to contextualize Third Cinema – a cinema that tries to eradicate the capitalist and imperialist tendencies of Western cinema – in an American context.

The liberation I refer to is that of the mind: freeing oneself from the definitions and mental shackles imposed by American hegemony, capitalist values, racism, sexism, or Hollywood stereotypes. Period. Think of Robert Kramer’s Ice, Haile Gerima’s Ashes & Embers, Ivan Dixon’s Spook Who Sat by the Door. These are glaring examples.

These are simply movies made as “Protest Films” the way protest music had once been made, even casually in the West. Protest cinema (or “rebel cinema”)  has a distinct underdog POV and is staunchly anti-Hollywood in its ideas and aesthetics. It’s not a “well balanced” movie in a journalistic sense — it must be dialectical or instructive or possess a unique way of thinking about something, right or wrong. It does not have to shout, it can whisper. But it must be concerned less with winning approval and more with expressing the thoughts and feelings that keep us imprisoned.

It is not important for the film to illustrate a specific political doctrine – rather it must decolonize both viewer and creator; it must shatter all gazes and attitudes imposed by authority or ruling class tradition and, above all, it must illuminate the pathologies of oppression.

The first Visual Liberation program was held as a film festival at the Brecht Forum, a Marxist Adult Education organization and once a vital part of the American Left. My film 2001 film As an Act of Protest, at the time the most crystalized example of a revolutionary drama, closed the festival (I was still known as Dennis Leroy Moore at the time).
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A pedagogy I have been developing for twenty years, the genesis of it all began in the script and introductory manifesto for As an Act of Protest, both an immediate response to the rising Fascism of Mayor Rudolph Giuliani and an artistic camaraderie with the Danish Dogme 95 movement. Puerto Rican anarchist filmmaker Vagabond’s Machetero is another genuine example of a radical cinema that sought to wrestle with colonization literally and aesthetically.

This introductory podcast is a decent place to start to get a deeper and more intimate understanding of where I am coming from.

The Films Themselves – Examples and Parallels

Protest Cinema is a revolutionary cinema that disavows and diametrically opposes capitalist values (Hollywood) and regards socially conscious cinema as a combination of radical acting, writing, directing, editing, etc.  Similarly, when specified as Rebel Cinema – I mean films that exhibit rebellion on screen, so one can learn how to rebel in actual life.

Aesthetically or politically, these movies should be subversive to the normally accepted definitions of what a “movie” is and it should follow no formula other than the instincts of its author. This is not always the case as there are prime examples of standard movies (Force of Evil, Dog Day Afternoon, The Great Dictator, etc) that show rebellion in more traditional ways and often simply through the behavior or performance of the actor.

Visual Liberation is an ever-changing list of films and discussions about movies that could potentially be regarded as literal “protest” films in the sense that early 1960’s anti-establishment/pro-human and ‘civil rights’ folk music was labeled “protest music.”  While the most radical of these films were made conscientiously to be radical and disrupted acts of “cinematic terrorism” for lack of a better phrase, some mainstream films could even lend themselves to this genre, casually.  It is vital to constantly reference the transformation and social consciousness of pop music in the 20th century and to keep this as stable compass when entering the tricky realm of “radical cinema.”   Nearly two decades after the formalization of American folk protest music was the aftermath of the punk revolution and the New Black Renaissance of independent music that became what we know of as “rap” and Hip Hop.  When it creeped out of the Bronx in 1977 the mainstream didn’t understand or know what it was.  Ten years later and lingering into the early 1990’s in the midst of the Rodney King crisis – Rap music was still threatening to the establishment because there was a truth being uttered and tossed like a Molotov cocktail: What were and are cinematic equivalents?
While this is a hard question to answer, the burden of which I often put myself through daily, it is important to remember or ask yourself: “Who made this movie?  And why?  And are they speaking truth to power or merely flattering their audience and exploiting crisis instead of trying to heal and salvage?”  The more you ask yourself these questions, the more you will be suspect of popular movies that are “socially conscious” or films that Sundance deems “important.”                                                                       

This workshop/lecture series I offer delves into defining mainly American-made radical films in the same vein as American Protest Literature, specifically Black American Protest Literature/drama as created by mid-twentieth century writers such as Richard Wright, James Baldwin, Lorraine Hansberry,  LeRoi Jones/Amiri Baraka, and equating a “Protest Cinema” with the 20th century Protest Music movement – specifically politically pointed folk music and later jazz developed music that conspicuously took a political stand or addressed social issues by its very approach to the music and to how it was presented. 

These Protest Cinema discussions lean heavily on Black consciousness and radical politics, etc.  but it is NOT specifically a Black genre.  Michael Roemer and Robert Kramer are excellent examples of White American filmmakers whose films, however different in style, are or were in some way linked to radical liberation politics.  (A side note: Malcolm X once stated that Roemer’s Nothing But a Man was his favorite film.  The seminar begins with this statement.)  

 Artists & Activists Crossing The Bridge

“When the artist and the activist come together it is like a Lennon & McCartney way of feeling; like a Miles & Coltrane way of being & akin to a world where Van Gogh and Romare Bearden are seeing…or in between the chinks where someone like Frantz Fanon and Frida Kahlo are blinking.”                                                                       

The “protest artist” is like the ice upon a body of water; it’s the frozen lake – enabling the Activists (realizers of the vision) to carry themselves OVER the water to the other side, the artist is the bridge the crossing is the activist, the arrival is the fight (revolution).You can’t have one without the other. The artist receives the prophecy, the activist must decide what to do with the prophecy. The artist is the seer the activist is the doer (the actor…is somewhere in between)     
 “Revolutions are not fought in, of, or by poems,” as Umar from the Last Poets concedes in As an Act of Protest.  But it certainly helps to have those poems go up into the sky like fireworks, hoping that their residue settles onto a willing recipient before the final axe falls or before the final step of the American gestalt is taken. You can’t clap with one hand. But you can still wield a sword.  Or a pen.  

* Text of presentation prepared for special program, succeeding a screening of As an Act of Protest at Raleigh Underground in North Carolina, July 15, 2017.  

If you are interested in having a lecture or learning more about Visual Liberation as a concept, do not hesitate to contact me.

Visual Liberation: Protest Cinema

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