A Black person emerges from the water shirtless, wearing a gold chain, their eyes closed.

Issue 003 Fall 2021 Essays

The Inexpressively Expressive Cinematic Image

Quiet and the Black Interior in A Screaming Man and Bless their Little Hearts

by Koyejo Abudu

Un homme qui crie (2010) dir. Mahamat-Saleh Haroun. Film still courtesy of Pili Films, Frank Verdier.


“Quiet is the expressiveness of the inner life, unable to be expressed fully but nonetheless articulate and informing of one’s humanity.” 

—Kevin Quashie, The Sovereignty of the Quiet: Beyond Resistance in Black Culture

 

“Quiet is a modality that surrounds and infuses sound with impact and affect, which creates the possibility for it to register as meaningful.” 

—Tina Campt, Listening to Images


In one of the many captivating, quiet scenes in Mahamat-Saleh Haroun’s Un homme qui crie (A Screaming Man, 2010), Adam, the middle-aged Chadian protagonist, sits outside a security post, frontally positioned towards the camera. He lures the viewer’s attention with his penetrative gaze. The camera moves slowly, and smoothly, as it closes in on Adam’s visage. Centered perfectly within the frame, Adam barely moves or speaks. Seemingly overcome with deep melancholy, he stares blankly just beyond the screen. The viewer may notice the lulling sounds of whistling trees and passing cars (otherwise resigned to the film’s sonic background) or the thin, teary line beginning to build in Adam’s eyes. 

In another remarkably quiet scene, this time from Billy Woodberry’s Bless Their Little Hearts (1984), the viewer similarly observes a character lost in inward contemplation. Andais, the wife of the film’s protagonist, Charlie, rides the bus alone from work to her home in Watts, Los Angeles. Andais stares out of the window for the scene’s entire duration, moving her hand from supporting her chin to tightly gripping the handrail in front of her. The bus’s motion gives rise to the handheld camera’s bobbing movement, the resulting vertigo suspended by Andais’s emotive silence and corporeal stillness. 

In both these scenes, constructed and acted with deceptive simplicity, the viewer bears witness to the layered interiority of Black being, the presence of which necessarily troubles, escapes, and exceeds the camera’s technological capture.1 The pervading quiet that saturates Haroun’s and Woodberry’s scenes bespeaks the existence of an inner life: a dimension to Black being that is not beholden to constant surveillance, negation, or regulation by an anti-Black world, and which too often escapes the notice of discourses concerned with (overtly expressive) significations of Black resistance. Drawing on Kevin Quashie’s formulation of the “sovereignty of the quiet,” I propose that the still quality of these scenes deploys the formal approaches of vérité and minimal cinema to attune viewers to the lower ontological frequencies of Black existence, to the quiet of the Black interior.21 The quiet is the “inexpressible expressiveness” of the Black interior, a paradoxical idiom of Black expressiveness that eludes visual and discursive representation. Rather it makes itself known indirectly through absence of speech, subtle gestural movements, ambiguous emotive significations, and poetically choreographed cinematographic a/effects. 


A Black person seems to be asleep in a bathtub, shirtless, shot in black and white.
Bless Their Little Hearts (1983). Film still courtesy of Milestone Films.

The interior needn’t be conceived of as an indulgently apolitical space, however, but one that resides parallel to, and in surplus of, the “political” (if by political, we are referring to a space that is necessarily social and therefore, to some degree, public). Neither Haroun’s nor Woodberry’s film plays down their characters’ thick immersion within a political and historical situation—far from it. Rather, these quiet films consistently forego directness and legibility in favor of poeticism, abstraction, and, dare I say, beauty. Shot on two different continents a quarter of a century apart, the films are connected by their male protagonists’ existential navigation through systems of quotidian structural violence imposed by the global neoliberal/neocolonial order.3

Set in postcolonial Chad, A Screaming Man focuses on the relationship between Adam and his son Abdel, the prestigious hotel they both work at, and the ongoing civil war, against which the film’s episodic narrative unfolds. Completely enamored by his son, whom he fondly calls “dark stallion,” Adam soon finds himself in a parental dilemma. As a result of the hotel’s privatization and the ensuing imperative of efficiency that follows, Adam is demoted from his long-held position as the head pool lifeguard to the more age-appropriate role of the security guard. Meanwhile his son—young, attractive, and fit—is hired to replace him. (The disparate audiences that populate the pool and its environs—white tourists and settlers, white generals and Black soldiers, Black children and white children, Black young adults and white young adults—at once renders visible the confluence of luxury, capital, and militaristic discipline within the African postcolony and points to the neocolonial collusion between indigenous elites and Euro-American security and financial interests.) Prior to Adam’s demotion, he is interviewed by the hotel’s new, Chinese owner, who bluntly asks him why the hotel needs two lifeguards instead of one (the other lifeguard is Abdel, then his assistant). Adam simply states “the pool is my life,” going on to mention that he was the Central African swimming champion in 1965—the reason he is referred to as “Champ” by the other characters in the film. Adam’s affective attachment to the pool and to his titular nickname spectralizes (renders present through its melancholic absence) the bygone utopic era of early post-independence, a short-lived emancipatory dream traumatically interrupted by ensuing decades of civil war and global financial domination. 

These latter historical episodes, and the atmosphere of violence and precarity they engender, structure Adam’s postcolonial disillusionment. For instance, throughout the film, the sounds of helicopters hum behind spoken conversations, although they’re never seen, further contributing to the deathly climate of the “postcolony,” as theorized by Achille Mbembe.4 Adam also listens intermittently to radio news broadcasts, which provide updates on the civil war, particularly the war crimes committed by the rebel groups. Like most other male citizens, Adam is coerced into offering part of his income as war contributions to mitigate the rebel incursion. When Adam is no longer able to pay his contribution, he is threatened by the fee collector, Ahmat, who warns that Abdel will be forced to join the army and fight on the front lines. Initially reluctant to follow through with Ahmat’s suggestion, but now driven by his desperation to return to the pool—literally and figuratively functioning as an oasis—Adam ultimately decides to surrender his son to the army. The slow zoom-in scene described earlier occurs right before Adam, dressed in his new, badly fitted security uniform, walks by Abdel cleaning the pool, leading Adam to simmer in envy, embarrassment, and despair. 

Clearly, the homogenizing violence of capitalistic globalization shapes Adam’s world and subtends his emotional turmoil—his demotion, the eventual loss of his son, the continuous physical harassment by Chadian soldiers, the perpetual threat of a rebel attack. Yet Haroun leaves space for the quiet, a sovereign space from which the inner lives of Adam and his fellow characters “speak,” albeit illegibly. We see this when Adam’s wife, Mariam, sensually feeds him watermelon while they silently watch television news depicting dead corpses from the war; when Adam shares a laugh with, and softly grasps the hand of David, his ill friend and the hotel’s former cook, as he recovers from a weakened heart at the hospital; and when Abdel’s pregnant Malian girlfriend, Mimi, sings a song (notably not subtitled) and sheds a tear after she listens to a tape recording of Abdel, specially sent to her from the front line, as Abdel talks about his fears and hopes for their future child. 


A Black person fixes a motorcycle outside under a large tree
Un homme qui crie (2010) dir. Mahamat-Saleh Haroun. Film still courtesy of Pili Films, Frank Verdier.
A Black child looks down at something in a close-up still, shot in black and white.
Bless Their Little Hearts (1983). Film still courtesy of Milestone Films.

Bless Their Little Hearts similarly leads with an insistence on the quotidian, the interior, the quiet. Like Adam, the main character, Charlie, falls into a listless existence as he is unable to secure full-time employment. Shot in black and white in Watts by Charles Burnett (who also wrote the screenplay), the filmic geography is marked by the wreckages of American industrial decay, urban relics of neoliberalism’s weakening of trade unions, and exportation of manufacturing jobs. Hollowed-out factories, rusting train tracks, and empty transport carriages litter the cinematic frame and, in one short extraordinary scene in which Charlie rides silently in a car, serve as a ghostly window backdrop, visually punctuating his downcast expression. 

A predominantly Black neighborhood at the time of the film’s production, Watts is the product of racial segregationist policies that concentrated Black working-class labor in the 1940s to fuel the growth of defense industries. The area erupted during the Watts Rebellion in 1965 in response to police brutality, social alienation, and systemic poverty. The film’s setting in Watts thus speaks to an anti-Black past that refuses to pass, of an embattled zone in which racialized residents perpetually lie prone to structural unemployment, physical injury, and unhygienic settlement—in other words, are forced to endure a “slow death”5 or “social death.”6 This climate of anti-Black violence, which is curiously diffuse and necessarily eludes visual representation, seeps into Charlie’s life and affects his interactions with others. At the beginning of the film, he wanders about in a job center—unsurprisingly full of Black and Brown individuals—while filling out a bureaucratic form. He stops by a wall sign that reads, “Are You Interested in a Casual Labor Job? (Half Day, One Day, Two Day, Three Day-Only Jobs).” Charlie takes note of the contact number provided on the sign and finds himself performing a myriad of odd jobs—painting a house, cutting weeds, fishing, and so on—giving rise to the film’s loose, irregular rhythm.

Meanwhile, his wife, Andais, works a full-time job and comes home to Charlie and their three kids, whom she must cook for and look after. The expropriated labor power Andais sells at work and the unremunerated reproductive labor she performs at home take a toll on her body and psyche. Riding on the bus from work, she struggles to stay awake; while arguing with Charlie, who begins to cheat and gamble, she repeatedly utters, “I’m tired!” When Charlie tugs at her arm late at night in their bed as he smokes his cigarette, she refuses his advances by appearing fast asleep. Near the end of the film, after one of their daughters breaks her arm, Charlie breaks down crying at the dinner table, wishing that the family “lived in a better neighborhood.” Andais gently walks across the table, massages Charlie’s shoulders and consoles him, telling him that it’s going to be OK. While Andais does seem to care for Charlie, the viewer is left wondering whether her act of consolation is a performance of affective labor, one that begrudgingly serves to manage Charlie’s failure to live up to the patriarchal ideal as a breadwinning father. The desire for patriarchal normalcy is depicted in an earlier scene when, without any dialogue at all but merely through an exchange of gazes and gestures, Andais stealthily hands over cash from her wallet to Charlie in the corridor. Charlie walks into the living room and gives each of his three children the cash, as church offerings, as if the money were his. Woodberry’s remarkable direction thus works to reveal the nuances between Charlie and Andais’s inner lives, which inevitably are modulated but not determined by the differential of gender. 

The power of A Screaming Man and Bless Their Little Hearts lies in their striking ability to balance sociopolitical decay and existential ennui with the open-ended suggestion of otherwise possibilities. These are possibilities encased within the moving image that are unlocked through poeticism and abstraction, both formal techniques and sensibilities that are better suited to attuning viewers to the lower frequencies of the quiet.7 For example, although Charlie performs a variety of jobs throughout Woodberry’s film, these scenes of aestheticized manual labor take the viewer out of linear time, encouraging alternative modalities of perception that strikingly speak against Charlie’s narrative struggle. In one quiet, meditative scene, Charlie carefully removes the graffiti from a wooden shed by painting it white. Alternating between distant and close-up shots, the viewer observes Charlie at work, the beauty of his solitary physical exertion leading one to imagine that this could be Charlie’s house, that he is engaging in a leisurely, nonalienating act of maintenance on his own property. In another scene without dialogue, Charlie works on a field with a few other Black men. Burnett’s camerawork transforms the field’s extensive branches, which fill the entirety of the screen with glinting lines. The lines obscure the men’s laboring bodies, forming a defamiliarized abstract composition enabled by the interplay of light, shadow, and movement. 

In Haroun’s film, the cinematographer, Laurent Brunet, invites viewers to feel and think by nondiscursive means—where interiority resides—via his careful handling of color and light. In the last scene, dripping with pulchritude, a shallow lake appears and fills the frame, its almost silvery surface tinted with the ochre haze of the Saharan sky. Adam walks into the frame, causing greater ripples in the water, his figure entirely backlit like a wandering shadow. The camera moves patiently with Adam’s reserved steps, the illumined surface of the lake changing from ochre to a pinkish sienna to navy blue and, finally, fading into pitch blackness. The destination to which Adam’s quiet walk is directed remains undisclosed, not unlike Charlie’s concluding solitary walk in a grass field. The articulate inarticulateness of these two films evidences their critical engagement with the reticent aesthetic of the Black interior, of an inner life that can only ever be “approximated, hinted at, implied.”


Footnotes:

1. As has been forcefully argued by various scholars over the last three decades, photography and film bear a complicated and typically fraught relationship to non-white subjects from Africa and its diasporas. Products of the world-historical space-time of “modernity,” these world-capturing technologies have been constitutively shaped by colonial orders of knowledge that seek to dehumanize, flatten, and objectify Black subjectivity. See Rizvana Bradley, “Picturing Catastrophe, The Visual Politics of Racial Reckoning,” The Yale Review, Summer 2021: https://yalereview.org/article/picturing-catastrophe; Mark Sealy, Decolonising The Camera: Photography in Racial Time (London: Lawrence and Wishart, 2019); Kobena Mercer, Travel & See: Black Diaspora Art Practices since the 1980s (Durham: Duke University Press, 2016); and Teju Cole, “When the Camera Was a Weapon of Imperialism. (And When It Still Is.),” New York Times, February 6, 2019: https://www.nytimes.com/2019/02/06/magazine/when-the-camera-was-a-weapon-of-imperialism-and-when-it-still-is.html. 

2. Kevin Quashie, The Sovereignty of the Quiet: Beyond Resistance in Black Culture (New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 2012). 

3. By neoliberalism, I am referring to a diverse set of political and economic practices that came to the fore in 1980s, including the privatization of state assets, financial deregulation, tax cuts for the wealthy, corporate tax cuts, public spending cuts, and corporate control over the masses via debt. By neocolonialism, a related practice to neoliberalism, I am referring to the continued domination of Global South economies by Euro-American (and now Chinese) companies, institutions, and nation-states via raw material extraction, exploitative labor practices, the levying of high interest rates on national debts, and intelligence-led interference in local governance and policy making. 

4. See Achille Mbembe, On the Postcolony (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2002). 

5. See Laura Berlant, “Slow Death (Sovereignty, Obesity, Lateral Agency),” Critical Inquiry, Vol. 33, No.4, Summer 2007, 754-780. 

6. See Orlando Patterson, Slavery and Social Death: A Comparative Study (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1982); and Christina Sharpe, In the Wake: On Blackness and Being (Durham: Duke University Press, 2016). 

7. Haroun has mentioned the influence of directors from around the world on his observational, minimalist style, including Yasujirō Ozu, Michelangelo Antonioni, and Robert Bresson. Woodberry has also cited Ousmane Sembène, and Third Cinema more broadly, as influences. Haroun’s and Woodberry’s films thus make evident the embeddedness of migratory logics of cross-culturation, translation, and adaption within the reception, production, and distribution of international art cinema. 

8. Quashie, Sovereignty of the Quiet, 22.