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Reflecting on “Screening Politics”

This year’s FSGSO conference, “Screening Politics: Affect, Identity, and Uprising” addressed a number of critical and emerging issues in both film studies and related fields of inquiry. The panels and keynote that comprised the conference were all characterized by thoughtful research and dialogue on the role of scholarship in understanding identity, affect, and moving image culture. For me, one of the most striking panels was “Us vs. Them: (Re)appropriating the Narrative,” which included a group of presentations that critically engaged with the relationships among race, gender, sexuality, and political power. These presentations particularly focused on how power’s ability to manifest in the moving image is reliant on the historical and cultural contexts in which production happens. I want to briefly reflect on some of the work that the panelists presented here, and begin asking questions about what their work might mean for future understandings of the field of film studies and its ability to engage meaningfully with activism and advocacy.

Anthony E. Jones’ “Tongues Untied and Brother to Brother: A Political Filmic Kinship” examined the two eponymous films and their respective “descriptive” and “prescriptive” functions. Jones identified the ways in which the different genre conventions of documentary and narrative film helped to shape the distinctive functions and political approaches of Tongues United and Brother to Brother. Particularly interesting in relation to Jamicia Lackey’s work in this panel is the question of how the films are in historic dialogue with one another. How do the moments of 1989 and 2004 manifest here in relation to their particular meanings for the black gay community, and is there space for the “temporal affection” that Lackey describes in the “kinship” that Jones identifies? How does Tongues Untied gesture to the future even as it is haunted by the past, in a manner similar to Deja Vu, the film that Lackey discusses? More broadly, what does our reading of relationships among films separated by time mean for a greater understanding of the political potentialities imbued in this type of work?

Matthew Durkin’s “Affect and Martyrdom: The Case of David Kato in Call Me Kuchu” used Call Me Kuchu as a case study for understanding the ways in which formal features of documentary film can lend themselves to an “embodied martyrdom” that serves the primary function of simplifying the life of a political activist to their body and death. In relation to Jones and Lackey’s works, this presentation asks why we retroactively project necessity onto martyrdom, death, and political sacrifice. Durkin’s critique opens up new ways of reading genres that often engage with the rhetoric of martyrdom, much as Lackey’s work asks us how we might instead engage with the body through intimacy and “radical hope.”

Jamicia Lackey’s “(Neo)Liberal Feeling: Postcolonial Nostalgia and the Mattering of Black Lives in Deja Vu” reads Deja Vu as engaging across time with the “problem space” represented by post-Hurricane Katrina New Orleans. Particularly important to an understanding of future possibilities in film studies is Lackey’s argument about the function of “affective floodgates” in “countering neoliberalism.” How can academics engage more deeply with the “mattering of black lives” that Lackey discusses? What does “radical scholarship” like that described by Avery F. Gordon (2005) look like when it prioritizes the type of affect that Lackey describes? Finally, how might we read the scholarship of Jones, Durkin, and Lackey as opening up future possibilities for the continued development of methods and theory in film studies?