“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.
After the screening, 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.