Spotlight, Moonlight... The New Grammar of Black Visual Culture

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Last year Jay-Z released the music video for the song "Moonlight" from his album 4:44. The video is an almost eight-minute spoof of the sitcom Friends starring the biggest names in black entertainment today: Tessa Thompson, Lakeith Stanfield, Tiffany Haddish, Issa Rae, Lil Rel Howery, Jerrod Carmichael, and Hannibal Buress. The video is an over-the-top display of black excellence that seems to perfectly illustrate this exciting moment in black expressive culture, where black artists are becoming increasingly visible and telling unique and interesting stories. [1] One of the pleasures of watching the video is recognizing the impressive list of films/TV shows these actors, writers, and comedians have been a part of and how those works connect to each other. For example, Tessa Thompson stars in the upcoming film Sorry to Bother (Riley, 2018) with Lakeith Stanfield, who was in Get Out (Peele, 2017) with Lil Rel Howery. In its most recent season, Howery joined the cast of Insecure, the HBO show created by Issa Rae, and before that, The Carmichael Show with Tiffany Haddish, which was created by Jerrod Carmichael. Finally, Carmichael co-starred with Hannibal Buress in the animated series Lucas Bros. Moving Co. I cannot proceed without a disclaimer: one reason these artists are such frequent collaborators is the sad fact that the space for black creators is still limited. Yet, a video like Moonlight shows that black artists are making something of this interconnectivity—I argue it is a grammar of black visual culture that intentionally turns away from post-racial politics and instead formalizes the blackness as the connective force of this visual culture. 

In addition to this horizontal connection among contemporary artists, the influx of TV shows and films focused on black lives has created opportunities for these young creatives to look back to the work of black artists that preceded them. The result is a striking aesthetic lineage—see the long-term research of the liquid blackness working group that has traced the politically-charged, but rarely seen, films of the LA Rebellion in the 1970s to wildly popular productions by Kahlil Joseph (Beyoncé’s Lemonade in 2016) and Bradford Young (Ava DuVernay’s Selma in 2014 and Denis Villeneuve’s Arrival in 2016). First, this lineage brings attention to the history of black visual culture; specifically, it draws attention to films/TV shows that did not receive much aesthetic consideration in the past because they were mired in representational politics. Second, the complexity of this multidirectional lineage codes blackness (a topic I’ve discussed here), expressing it as a logic of connectivity that exceeds any singular work. As a result, the mainstream popularity of films like Black Panther or Get Out is not moving toward a generalized “multiculturalism;” instead, these objects exist within a dynamic conversation about visualizing blackness on screen. For example, in a recent episode of Atlantathe show created by rapper and comedian Donald Glover, the main characters wear brightly-colored silk pajamas to a college party. For some audience members, it goes without saying that the costumes are a visual reference to the music video for TLC’s “Creep,” in which the singers T-Boz, Left Eye, and Chilli wear the same monochromatic outfits. Of course, the narrative construct of the “pajama party” at a predominantly or historically black college is something familiar audiences have seen in the other black films like House Party 2 in 1991 and in Spike Lee’s School Daze in 1988. In Atlanta, this connection is only established in the characters’ costumes and therefore does not provide the legibility that “diversity” discourse, multiculturalism, or post-racial rhetoric demand in their insistent erasure of racial specificity. 

The non-hierarchical, fluid exchange between a television show, a music video, and film is an example of how contemporary black media that appears in the mainstream engages in the political praxis of earlier black art, the works that were “too black” or “too challenging” to gain a wide audience. The media archeology performed by Donald Glover and Issa Rae is ultimately part of the citational practices that social media and other platforms have made popular and accessible to the producers and consumers of black images. It feels akin to the hashtag #CiteBlackWomen or to the social media space (and a personal favorite of mine) The Very Black Project. The latter uses Instagram to turn the grammar of black visual culture into poetry by juxtaposing images like a picture of Sammy Davis Jr., a screenshot of the dictionary definition of “American,” and a close-up of peach cobbler. Again, a massive media platform is used, not for legibility, but for an aesthetic play that is distinctly black. Black popular culture may be extending the lineage of black expressive culture, but that does not necessarily mean it only moves forward. 

  

[1] I am considering "Moonlight" as illustrative of the visibility of black stars in the contemporary moment, but for a brilliant consideration of the video’s surface politics or “plasticity,” see Warner, Kristen J. “Plastic Representation.” Film Quarterly71, no. 2 (Winter 2017). https://filmquarterly.org/2017/12/04/in-the-time-of-plastic-representation/.