Speaking With Curator Ashley Clark on BAMcinématek’s Black Power in Cinema Series
Posted by Dominga Martin
August 17, 2018
The Brooklyn Academy of Music Highlights Black Power in Cinema
A candid talk with Curator Ashley Clark about cinema, taking a position and not being neutral in the face of oppression.
“Say It Loud: I’m Black and I’m Proud” released in August 1968 by late, iconic singer James Brown ignited a community at the height of the Black Power movement and became an anthem for the movement. As history repeats itself, our current generation finds ourselves at the mercy of an oppressive administration, wreaking of the Nixon Era and dirty politics, where black activists are labeled as extremists and our freedom of speech is being threatened. It is only fitting that the
Brooklyn Academy of Music, AKA (BAM) would be inspired by an era and a song that sparked a generation for their latest program:
“Say It Loud: Cinema in the Age of Black Power, 1966 – 1981” which launches today August 17th until August 30th.
A powerful line-up of explosive narratives and documentaries made during the Black Liberation movement take center stage. I had a chance to speak with curator Ashley Clark who states that
“It is important to take a position.” BAM is currently setting itself apart and leading the way with programming that is both contemporary with a provocative edge. Programming that will bring the community together as Brooklyn struggles to find it’s identity through gentrification.
Curator Ashley Clark hopes to cultivate an inclusive environment where film enthusiasts can engage with one another through cinematic expression and education. Ashley began his association with BAMcinématek just 3 short years ago — his innovative programming includes the series “Space is the Place: Afrofuturism on Film”; “Behind the Mask: Bamboozled in Focus,” “Major League: Wesley Snipes in Focus,” “Fight the Power: Black Superheroes on Film” and many more. He is also the author of Facing Blackness: Media and Minstrelsy in Spike Lee’s Bamboozled.
As BAM gears up for this exciting new program, Black Film gets inside the head of the influential curator who’s desire is to “put together wonderful programs that speak to each other in various ways…”
Ashley Clark: It’s a big thing for us at BAM. In the past year we’ve been focusing very specifically on films by and about women and people of color, because we want, not to do what everyone else is doing, and make room for voices that have been really underrepresented so we did a program on Chicana Cinema, we have an on-going series called “Women at Work” — we did a program called “Fight the Power: Black Superheroes on Film” which kind of tied in with Black Panther and almost filled in a lot of historical gaps because I think one of the prevailing ideas at the time was, “Oh Black Panther is the first Black superhero movie” and the idea behind the program was to say — actually, let’s look back at the history and prove that, that’s not really the case [and] show some really interesting and rare films and actually look at redefining what a black super hero is and those are all kinds of things that we’ve been looking to do in our programming.
I’ve seen the line-up of what you’ve done in the past, everything is really innovative, it’s smart — so do you allow the culture to dictate what your programming will be or do you look at history and put together a program that you think today’s culture or people of color should be aware of?
Ashley Clark: I think it’s a mixture of being both proactive and reactive and when you’re looking at redressing historical oversights it’s not so much that certain problems whether it’s discrimination or underrepresentation has ever gone away, so it’s not like we’re just plunging into history for history’s own sake. The underrepresentation of women, of queer voices or people of color in cinema is a long running thing so when we do programs that really focus and accentuate that and try to redress that balance, they’re going to appear timely. Black Superheroes was a good case and point because obviously it was tethered to something that was very big in the culture which was Black Panther, so it allowed us to, at once, have a very contemporary conversation that would help us to engage a lot of young people who were interested in Black Panther but also to tel a historical story, so I don’t think it’s so much one or the other, it’s also about having a keen sense of history and how that is manifesting today.
So when did you start working on “Say it Loud”?
Ashley Clark: A very good friend of mine; a lady named Zoe Whitley is a curator at the Tate in London and a couple of years ago, she was planning an exhibition called “Soul of a Nation: Art in the Age of Black Power” which launched at the Tate Modern in 2017 [last year] and as soon as I found out she was doing that, I thought it would be interesting to consider a film series because the museum installation was about visual art, painting, Emory Douglas drawings for the Black Panther publications and it was light on film…and I got to thinking that there’s been some really interesting, recent documentaries made about the black power era, things like “The Black Power Mixtape” and Stanley Nelson’s Black Panther documentary and some retrospective films, but I thought that it would be interesting to take a deep dive in and look at the work that was made specifically in that period, whether it was fiction film, documentary and kind of draw a narrative of film and cinema that was made in the era of Black Power [and] it was very important for me to try to find as much rare and interesting stuff as possible.
Why did BAM choose to focus on people of color and revolutionary movements of the 60’s because it seems as if this is an on-going theme with a lot of the work that you’ve curated. Is it because of the current climate that we’re in right now, or is this just a specific topic that you interested in?
Ashley Clark: It’s a mixture of both. I am interested in Revolutionary History — the first program I did at BAM was a film series based around the thinking and writing of Frantz Fanon, from everything from revolutionary politics to double consciousness. These are ares that interest me but specifically in the case of the black power film program, all you have to do is to look at the extraordinary parallels between somebody like Colin Kaepernick and Tommy Smith and John Carlos, which is exactly 50 years ago now — you know a lot of the films in the program deal with cointelpro and state suppression of black activists, precisely the same thing is happening with Jeff Sessions and the current administration and the idea of Black Lives Matter activists being termed “black identity extremists” so a lot of this old racist and oppressive policy is manifesting in new forms, and the films while both being very interesting and absorbing historical documents, quite clearly speak to what’s happening today and I don’t think there’s any need for us to overstate that programming.
In terms of the overall ideas behind our programming, I think it’s really important for us to take a position and not be afraid to say, who we want to be — we want our programming to be progressive and have a political angle and not just be neutral. We are fortunate. I am supported by a great team and a great boss who allows me and my other colleague in programming to be very open about the things that our programs are deliberately intended to address racism and sexism and historical inequality.
I think it’s brilliant what you guys are doing. I watched a few of the films, a few that I haven’t seen and what I’ve realized is, not only is it topical but they’re educational and it almost felt as if we have to dig into the crates of history learn about the past so that we can get through what we’re going through right now, and to understand what is happening — so what do you want audience members to get from the program, the projects and visual artists that you chose for the screenings?
Ashley Clark: There’s something really important — first and foremost for me, that we are cinema and I think there’s something really galvanizing about the idea of seeing these films in a communal setting so people can discuss things afterwards and hopefully there will also be diverse audiences so there can be an intergenerational exchange: older audience members speaking to younger audience members — people who weren’t there at the time…and I agree, I think it’s really important to look at these as potentially historical educational documents
At the same time, a lot of these films are wonderful pieces of art as well, so I’m always keen on the films that we show to be seen as pieces of art and to be engaging with them, not just as ideological statements but also examples of an art form that is still struggling sometimes to be recognized as an art form. You know, I think film still struggles to be seen at the level of theater or dance or opera [so] that’s always a fight for us as well to even make sure that film is being seen as an art form and there’s amazing films in this program by the likes of William Greaves and Horris Ove and Med Hondo — these are great film artists and very creative and experimental and interesting, so that is very important to me as well.
I saw that you had a few film projects from LA Rebellion, were there any other films that you wanted to feature that didn’t make the cut or were on your wish list?
Ashley Clark: This is pretty much as I wanted it. It’s not alway the case. It was a very deliberate move on my behalf not to include Blaxploitation Cinema or what is known as “Blaxploitation Cinema” — Shaft, Superfly, Foxy Brown, Cleopatra Jones — one reason for that is because we screened a lot of those films in February in the “Fight The Power: Black Superheroes on Film”, but also because I think that they might be the first thing that come to people’s minds when you think about film in the age of black power. I wanted to do something a bit different. You know films of that era because they have a very particular style and view of sex and powered representation and I think these films do something a little bit different.
If you don’t mind, I’d like to speak to a point you made a little bit ago about history — and at the moment we’re showing “BlacKkKlansman” by Spike Lee which in the very context of the film itself — the film opens with the clip from “Gone With the Wind” and later on in the film there’s a clip from “Birth of a Nation” so Spike Lee in his most mainstream film in many years, probably his most mainstream audience friendly film since “Inside Man”, so that’s 12 years ago now and he’s explicitly engaging film history in that [and] I think what he’s doing in that film is actually quite similar to what we’re trying to do with our programming: to be both relevant and accessible but also make sure we’re in constant dialogue with film history so we don’t forget where this new material has come from.
Right. Very engaging. Do you think that movies like BlacKkKlansman and Central Park Five coming up will set the tone of what people need in art moving forward?
Ashley Clark: It’s a tough question because I sometimes worry that conversations center too much, solely on representation and are people being represented [rather than] what is being said in the art and how the art is being made itself, but I am hopeful that anything…Bradford Young for example is shooting Central Park Five, anything that he’s involved in…[you know] the recent Black Star Film Festival in Philadelphia Bradford Young had a great conversation with a moderator about what black cinema is and what it isn’t — is there a such thing of black cinema and how do we define it? And it was already a fascinating conversation. I think that’s available on You Tube if you want to have a look, and what I’m really interested in is pieces of work that complicate and challenge us and force us to ask those questions about what black cinema is and what it needs to be and I think at present it seems like Central Park Five and BlacKkKlansman can only really help fuel that conversation along.
Now speaking of conversations, what I found fascinating was in American Revolution 2 were the “Young Patriots”. I did not realize as the film was moving along that the young patriots were white street kids until they were shown [and so] I found it really insightful and fascinating — the conversation they had with middle class whites, and it made me wonder, and I’d like to know if you think that’s what’s missing in today’s culture?
Ashley Clark: You mean cross racial communication?
Not just cross racial communication, but conversations within your own race and class, as well as inter-racial because I don’t know if our allies who are also white are also talking with one another about what’s happening today, it feels like just a black or immigrant fight to me — with what’s going on with Trump and what he’s doing to people of color, and I am wondering if you think the conversations between whites with each other in addition to different classes is missing?
Ashley Clark: Possibly. I wouldn’t want to comment on that with too much authority but I guess I’d say one or two things in the very aspect of class is often what’s missing from any protest oriented conversation. I think an engagement with class is really important and that’s often lacking. I’d also say that it tended to be when the likes of Fred Hampton or Martin Luther King or Malcolm X started talking about power to all the people — that’s when they rally started to get in trouble and that’s when you knew that they didn’t have long left…so yeah, that’s what I’d say about that.
Well, what is next for you?
Ashley Clark: Where are we now? August. This job is funny because I’m on 6 different timelines all at once. What’s next for us in September, directly following the end of “Say it Loud” black power program, we are doing a one week run of the new restoration of “Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song” (Melvin Van Peebles), so the program closes with his 2 films “Story of a Three Day Pass” and “Watermelon Man” and that segues into a week’s run of Sweet Sweetback…directly following that, we’re doing a run of an incredible British Zambian film called “I am Not A Witch”, which premiered at Cannes I believe last year and then after that we’re doing a week run of a film called “Hale County This Morning, This Evening”, by an African American basketball player, turned photographer, turned filmmaker, called ReMell Ross, so we’ve got 3 week long runs; then for the rest of the year we’re gonna be continuing our “Women at Work” program. We have a different edition of that. We’re doing a program on contemporary Arabic Cinema…a small series on Chinese American Filmmaker Wayne Wang as well…lots that we’re really excited about.
Well everything that you’re doing is really revolutionary as it relates to what people call “artivism” today. Merging art with activism. Do you consider yourself an activist in art?
Ashley Clark: I am always weary of giving myself any particular label. How can I put this? I would be happy if our film programming was described as having an activist streak to it, without question because I am not ashamed of the fact that we take a position on what we’re saying and the film programming doesn’t pretend to be neutral. We’ve identified things that we don’t like about certain aspects of film culture terms, of the way that Canon is built or the way that — as I said before, certain films and filmmakers are underrepresented. Crucially how certain films and filmmakers are over represented and we’re not ashamed of taking a position and saying that we want to redress that and turn the conversation in a different way, and have that relationship with our audiences. If our audience sees us as doing activist programming, that’s great because that shows that they know we are trying to do something a bit different which is absolutely what we want to do.
Yes, you guys are setting yourselves apart with this kind of innovative programming and it’s really great. I’m excited.
Ashley Clark: And also I should say, it’s also about who’s in the audience…I’d like to have people coming in to contextualize the work. I like to have people come in and do introductions and branch out to different communities whether it’s academics or activists, journalist. I think it’s really important to open things up and the individual arts world, as well, for example. And just try to broaden who we’re speaking to because I think film is for everybody and it can sometimes feel that this world can sometimes feel a bit exclusive rather than inclusive and i think it’s very important that we make sure that we show that film is for everybody, even the challenging stuff and having people come in to contextualize the work is really important o me.
This certainly is a program that can galvanize people and educate people and that’s really important — to make people realize things. Oh my God, now in 2018, this isn’t the first time this has happened. You know a lot of these things haven’t been addressed. They’ve been dormant or disguised in certain ways and they have a different face today, and a lot of these films that we’re showing in this program is kind of shocking in this respect, they show issues that are 50 – 60 and beyond years old and they haven’t been addressed.
No they haven’t and it’s time to unpack. Listening to you, your energy you kind of remind me of who the Young Patriots may have evolved into…I wonder what happened to the 16 year old?
Ashley Clark: Yeah…I’ll have to do some more research myself…on what became of the Young Patriots. Maybe they became film curators.
Say it Loud: Cinema in the Age of Black Power runs at BAM in Brooklyn until August 30th. It is the companion to “Soul of a Nation: Art in the Age of Black Power, opening at the Brooklyn Museum (September 7th).
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