Blackstar Film Fest Review: 'Dreams Are Colder Than Death' Is a Haunting Exploration of the Contours of Present-day Blackness
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Blackstar Film Fest Review: 'Dreams Are Colder Than Death' Is a Haunting Exploration of the Contours of Present-day Blackness

null"Dreams Are Colder Than Death" screens tonight at the Blackstar Film Festival in Philadelphia (July 31 – August 3), starting at 6:30pm. Here’s our review of the film.

“Black people 200 years ago didn’t have a

prayer. Beat our skin off our bodies, kill and rape our mommas in front of us.

We didn’t have a prayer.” -Hortense Spillers

There’s a very telling scene in Arthur

Jafa’s documentary "Dreams Are Colder Than Death," where

a young black woman walks down a residential street in a work uniform and pin

curls, listening to earphones when two young black men begin to approach her.

The image is obscured as she walks forward but they continue to harass her,

pull her arm, and touch her. Once out of their reach, she appears peaceful.

It’s an interesting look, maybe a smile of relief, of possibility, maybe even a

passing memory despite what just happened. This scene is paired with

musician Melvin Gibbs’ thoughts on black people as puppets- how black people have been expected to play a role for so long that the role

becomes unfamiliar and uncomfortable.

I have been this woman before, finding a way

to live outside of an immediate circumstance, expected to act in ways I find

foreign, looking from outside of a well-sculpted image when I am seen through a

dominant gaze that I never consented to, just as this woman doesn’t consent to

being harassed. But her simple act of walking, and continuing with her day

represents something that this film explores in depth- the presence of black

life despite hopelessness, despite brutality, and horror; the survival of

people in and amongst these barriers, the birth and love that takes place in

“the hold of the ship,” to quote Frank Wilderson. Ultimately, the

film asks the question, “What does it mean to be black in America In

the 21st century," at a time when we have a black president and black advancement, but major racial disparities in wealth, health, and prison sentences still plague us greatly.

Jafa attempts to answer the question through

the voices and images of acclaimed poet Fred Moten, artist Kara

Walker, filmmaker Charles Burnett, professors Hortense

Spillers, Saidiya Hartman, Magic

City dancer Portia Jordan, and b-roll footage of everyday black life. Commissioned by ZDF German

TV for the fiftieth anniversary of The March on Washington,

"Dreams Are Colder Than Death" is a haunting

audio- visual exploration of the contours of present-day blackness, black

studies, and black people, examining our relationships with early and frequent

death, violence, with movement, with love, and with one another. In one of the

most moving interviews, Hortense Spillers speaks of her sister who never

stopped crying after the early death of her daughter, and footage of a salty

tide fills the screen, like a deluge of mourning and remembrance.

Throughout production, Jafa and a team of

cinematographers including himself, Hans Charles and Malik

Sayeed, shot footage and images separate from the audio interviews, which were paired together during editing.

What this allows for is an extended freedom in both sound and image where

subjects are not confined to talking-head roles and do not produce “survival

modalities” onscreen- a term used by Jafa to denote the ways that black people

have been conditioned to act or appear in film- to sit, stare or talk in a

certain way, or to be assessed by a white gaze. 

Jafa avoids the imposition of the camera

during interviews and instead follows his subjects closely in non-audio

segments. In extreme close-ups, the very physical contours of black skin, lips,

kinky hair, and eyes are able to interact with flares of light beautifully and

candidly, without being overtaken by an interview structure. A black dancer

named Storyboard P. contorts and pops his body on a dark

street as police cars light the background, and Moten discusses legality and

criminality in relation to how Miles Davis and John

Coltrane made and broke laws in the generative process of music. The

merging of these elements is a statement on the continuation of Miles Davis in

the body of this dancer who is breaking the laws of motion on this street.

Jafa spoke of his

investment in the term "abnormativity," which is the

reversal of accepted aesthetic qualities of art, music, film, and life, by

seeing things that have been deemed “bad” as good. He used the example of James

Brown who built a movement of music by defying what was commonly

celebrated in America. His comments on this inform a through-line in the film,

where present-day blackness defies common acceptance and celebration, but still

survives. The film moves, affects, and evokes more than it settles into neat

structure. A welcome change to the programming and discussion at the festival,

"Dreams Are Colder Than Death" revives a conversation that tends to

get lost in falsities of post-racial equality. Hortense Spillers says at the

beginning of the film, “We are going to lose this gift of black culture

unless we are careful.” This film is cinematic preservation.

Nijla Mu’min is a writer and

filmmaker from the East Bay Area. 

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