barry jenkins on the black gaze

The “Male Gaze” and the “Female Gaze” have been discussed to death in film circles, but what about the “Black Gaze”? That’s something that even Barry Jenkins, Oscar-winning director of Moonlight and the upcoming Amazon series The Underground Railroad, has rarely been asked about, despite the prevalence of Black talent and Black perspectives in his works. And sensing the dearth in that subject, he decided to explore it himself.

In a 40-minute video featuring The Underground Railroad background actors, Jenkins examines what exactly the “Black Gaze” is, and what it means to him and Black audiences. Watch the video below.

“In all my years of doing press, I’ve been repeatedly asked about the white gaze. Rarely have I been set upon about the Black gaze; or the gaze distilled,” Jenkins wrote on Twitter, introducing the video, which he clarifies “is not and should not be considered an episode of The Underground Railroad.”

It’s “all gaze,” Jenkins continued. “An Epilogue. Or Prologue? Whichever, it flows both ways.”

The video is a tableau of Black people in the early to mid-1800s at various locations — plantations, train stations, burnt cabins — simply standing and gazing at the camera as the camera gazes back. People, and smoke, and life moves behind them, but the subjects of this “gaze” is frozen in place — and in time, to an extent. Jenkins, in his short essay accompanying the video wrote:

Early in production, there was a moment where I looked across the set and what I saw settled me: our background actors, in working with folks like Ms. Wendy and Mr. and Mrs. King – styled and dressed and made up by Caroline, by Lawrence and Donnie – I looked across the set and realized I was looking at my ancestors, a group of people whose images have been largely lost to the historical record. Without thinking, we paused production on the The Underground Railroad and instead harnessed our tools to capture portraits of… them.

What flows here is non-narrative. There is no story told. Throughout production, we halted our filming many times for moments like these. Moments where… standing in the spaces our ancestors stood, we had the feeling of seeing them, truly seeing them and thus, we sought to capture and share that seeing with you. The artist Kerry James Marshall has a series of paintings of ancestors for whom there is no visual record but for whom he has supplied a visual representation of their person. For me, most inspirationally, “Scipio Moorehead, Portrait of Himself, 1776.”

He concluded, “This is an act of seeing. Of seeing them. And maybe, in a soft-headed way, of opening a portal where THEY may see US, the benefactors of their efforts, of the lives they LIVED.”

It’s a beautiful statement piece accompanied by a brilliantly articulated statement from Jenkins. I’d expect no less from a filmmaker who loves films as much as he does.

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