In the past, I have loosely touched on what makes an auteur an auteur. It’s a tricky title to nail down due to the subjective nature of what it means to have complete control over the vision of your art. It becomes even trickier when you try and apply the same theory to something outside of the practice of film. Like, for instance, when we apply such a label to musicians and performers who cross over into different realms of media and expression, or whose personas and reoccurring themes permeate so strongly through their body of work. Or who 20 or 30 years ago may have stepped into the realm of traditional filmmaking but are alive in a time where that prospect seems overly daunting when you have so much more control of your voice on smaller but widely available screens. During the months of April and May of 2018 I’ve been pleasantly overloaded with incredible visual and musical media from three of our best currently practicing auteurs. They all just happen to be young black musicians.
Take, for example, Janelle Monáe, who, more so than anyone else I mention here, has had such a clear idea of her voice, themes and aesthetic since the beginning of her career. Since 2007 with the release of her first EP Metropolis: Suite I (The Chase) she had already envisioned a world for her art to take place, a world inspired by space operas, Afrofuturism and sci-fi textures courtesy of Philip K. Dick and Fritz Lang. She had an alter ego named Cindi Mayweather, a mass-produced android who had committed the crime of falling in love with a human. Metropolis: Suite I (The Chase) didn’t sound or look like anything else that was getting video and radio play in the late ‘00s. It was contemporary R&B that had sonic references to The Doors, Bernard Herrmann, Claude Debussy and OutKast. It was all swirled around to produce something that other (mainstream) pop artists weren’t attempting to do outside of the occasional foray into the weird. For Monáe this wasn’t (and still isn’t) a gimmick. When it comes to the visual component, her music videos play out closer to short films than visual representations of her songs. In her first single “Many Moons” the video is a journey through the narrative of black women as simultaneously reviled yet commodified entities all set in a decadent dystopia. There are flashes of the past and warnings of the future, and not least of all electrifying showmanship.
And this is just the beginning of a narrative that swings between tightly-woven and plot-driven to more expressionistic and thematically focused. Metropolis: Suite I (The Chase) is the first of a four-movement epic that moves through her second album The Archandroid and concludes in The Electric Lady. Now, what does this have to do with cinema? Well, in addition to the wonderful catalogue of music videos that deserve their own write-up (the video for the song “Q.U.E.E.N” is often cited as essential mainstream Afrofuturism), Janelle and her creative team finally decided to make a movie to accompany her latest album Dirty Computer, an album that goes deeper into the idea of “the other” (a theme in all her work) and her own, now public (as opposed to previously alluded to) relationship with her bi and pansexuality.
Note: This is 48:00 minutes long, so I’m only putting this here for those wanting to take the journey.
To me the movie shares similarities with French electronic duo Daft Punk’s Interstella 5555, a sci-fi anthology of short films all exploring the vast universe of ideas in an abundantly sincere manner. It also reminds me of what the late, great Prince did when he was given the ability to make movies about his own personal narratives. Purple Rain, Under the Cherry Moon, and Graffiti Bridge are all movies directed by different people but are so rigidly within his raw hyperstylized and abundantly sexualized aesthetic. As film critic Armond White (I’m not excited to mention him, either, but he’s got a point) pointed out on an episode of the podcast The Canon with Amy Nicholson, Prince functioned like David O. Selznick when it came to his onscreen forays. He had journeymen directors and technicians come in to help realize his vision but everything that was put on the screen came almost entirely from Prince’s own vision and psyche. All were explorations with his relationship to fame, women, carnal desires and eventually faith, which in return are all things his music had been exploring from the word “go.” Monáe’s own career seems to be taking on a similar trajectory but instead of the persona of a genius gigolo, she’s an android exploring her own identity in a society that wants to stifle that very thing.
But if Janelle Monáe is following a trajectory mapped out by Prince then Beyoncé has ended up in a place where The Talking Heads were over 30 years ago.
If there was any pop cultural event that took over social media that wasn’t a Marvel movie or the other artist I’m going to mention a little later, it would have to have been Beyoncé’s presence and performance at this year’s Coachella (dubbed by a disembodied DJ Khaled to be now known as “BeyChella”). Much was being hyped up about Beyoncé’s return to the stage. She had given birth to twins (her pregnancy being the reason she had to miss Coachella the previous year); she was the first black woman to headline Coachella (she acknowledges the absurdity of the title by declaring to the crowd “Ain’t that a bitch?”); but more importantly this was her biggest showing since her album and movie Lemonade had dominated conversation less than 2 years ago. What she brought to the stage was not only the highest level of spectacle, a tour down her greatest hits and a recontextualization and amplification of her deepest cuts (her most underrated album 4 got what felt like its own mini showcase), but also a celebration of black music and culture. The whole theme of her performance was scored to the sounds of a black HBCU (Historically Black Colleges and Universities) marching band doing second line arrangements of her own music and everything from The Jackson 5’s “Can You Feel It” to Kendrick Lamar’s “Humble” to “Lift Every Voice and Sing” — also known as “the black national anthem.” Beyoncé was also seen adorned in clothes that referenced Nefertiti, step teams (there’s a straight reference to Spike Lee’s screed on colorism School Daze) and the Black Panthers.
But what struck me about the performance that took it from telecasted concert (well, live streamed) to cinematic experience was not only the scale (it’s a shame this wasn’t live streamed into theaters across the country) but the staging and unfolding of a kind of narrative. The concert began as a celebration of where she is as an artist now (selections from Lemonade), how she got there (selections from 4 and B-Day) and the joy of where she began (Jay-Z collaborations, Destiny’s Child reunion). It bears resemblance to the all-time best concert documentary Stop Making Sense, which has a similar format, although the progression is much more linear.
While “BeyChella” doesn’t have as many fun intimate moments as that film or someone as singular as a Jonathan Demme behind the camera, Beyoncé herself is kind of (but not exactly) a David Byrne type, someone who is quiet and enigmatic until it’s time to perform and put on a show, at which point they become extroverts expressing an almost bottled sexuality. Also, while Stop Making Sense is taking cues from Japanese Noh theater, “Beychella” is borrowing the theatrics of a halftime show and a musical with very little libretto. Either way, both exemplify musicians bringing a cinematic theatricality to the screen that’s an expression of their passions and their long, fascinating careers.
And then there’s Donald Glover.
When I originally was planning on writing this, this was going to just focus on the two aforementioned artists, but on the night that Glover hosted SNL he also dropped what is the most talked-about music video and semiotically dense short film in a long time called “This is America.”
(Note: contains graphic and violent content. Viewer discretion is advised.)
There’s a resounding narrative about the genius of Donald Glover and his alter ego Childish Gambino that he’s a jack-of-all-trades and nearly a master of every single one of them. Forget triple threat — Glover is an actor, comedian, writer, producer, director, rapper, singer, and dancer (septuple threat?). His surreal and arthouse-influenced television show Atlanta is already being heralded as a singular vision akin to Twin Peaks, but to me what gets lost in the conversation about Glover is the that he’s a misanthropic artist who took a long time to grow into his vision. He was immediately celebrated in his early career as the standout of Derrick Comedy and in his role as Troy on the television show Community.
What took longer, however, was his persona as rapper Childish Gambino which started off as somewhere within the realm of nerdcore hip-hop with his album Camp (pointedly about his insecurities as a black man with a “white” interest and fanbase) before starting to transition to a more sardonic exploration of his persona in Because the Internet. His latest album Awaken, My Love! felt like a welcome detour into an R&B homage but after “This is America” and Atlanta it seems like Glover has finally struck an idea and completely run with it. The idea is that being black in America is contradictory, absurd, and downright insane. As a comedian he’s found a pitch-black joke and expanded it to its outer limits. In a wonderful profile in The New Yorker, he explains this dichotomy in Atlanta:
“I want them to really experience racism, to really feel what it’s like to be black in America. People come to ‘Atlanta’ for the strip clubs and the music and the cool talking, but the eat-your-vegetables part is that the characters aren’t smoking weed all the time because it’s cool but because they have P.T.S.D.—every black person does. It’s scary to be at the bottom, yelling up out of the hole, and all they shout down is ‘Keep digging! We’ll reach God soon!’”
That very notion is simultaneously nauseating and painfully true but so dark it circles back to being funny again if presented in the right light, the same way repression and bureaucracy does in the movie Brazil. With “This is America” Glover and frequent collaborator Hiro Murai have taken that idea and boiled it down to a 4-minute microcosm similar to something like the third act climax of mother!. The video has been dissected and read in a multitude of different ways but the prevailing idea of black culture being a distraction from the very ills that black Americans suffer every day is a popular one. I’d even take it one step further and argue that Glover isn’t criticizing black culture as a distraction, but highlighting how fun and beautiful it is and the absurdity that it is USED as a distraction. It’s a myopic viewpoint but one that has colored Glover’s vision for the past couple of years. It can’t be mistaken for anyone else’s.
And that’s what’s exciting and fascinating about these artists. They each have a clear, distinct vision of themselves and their take on black culture, politics, and sexuality are unlike what each are talking about. Sometimes, black art can frustratingly be seen as a monolith of ideas instead of the individuals they come from. It’s also great that in a time where the lines of creativity are blurred there are artists within the zeitgeist embracing and subverting cinematic convention to express themselves. I’ve seen people engage with all three of these people’s creations the same way cinephiles engage in things that end up in arthouses and cineplexes and if that’s what the future of creativity and auteurism looks like, then sign me up.
If you haven’t, you should take some time to visit Indiana University’s Black Film Center/Archive to learn more about black auteurs and cinema.
David Carter is a film lover and a menace. He plays jazz from time to time but asks you not to hold that against him. His taste in movies bounces from Speed Racer to The Holy Mountain and everything in between.