Academic journal article African American Review

Echoes of Africa in to Sleep with Anger and Eve's Bayou

Academic journal article African American Review

Echoes of Africa in to Sleep with Anger and Eve's Bayou

Article excerpt

There are many films made African American filmmakers that have more obvious African resonances than either To Sleep With Anger (1990), written and directed by Charles Burnett, or Eve's Bayou (1997), written and directed by Kasi Lemmons, but both films provide richly textured tapestries that show how African cultural threads have become densely interwoven into the very fabric of African American life. Lemmons actually uses the idea of tapestry as a metaphor for memory at the end of Eve's Bayou: "The truth changes color depending on the light and tomorrow can be clearer than yesterday. Memory is a selection of images, some elusive, others printed indelibly on the brain. Each image is like a thread, each thread woven together to make a tapestry of intricate texture and the tapestry tells a story and the story is our past." (1). Charles Burnett has similarly emphasized that To Sleep With Anger is essentially a film that is "trying to deal with the past and with memory" (Ellison). He has also spoken about his apprehension about attempting to convey essential elements of a collective African cultural memory on screen: "It's a very scary idea for me. I don't know how to describe it--like visiting a sacred ground. You want to go back, because those are your origins--but there's an eerie feeling of touching the soil" (Ellison). In Eve's Bayou, the earth, water, and trees of the titular site themselves seem laden with culturally charged memories that shape the emotions and perceptions of successive generations. The fabric and soil of communal memory in both films are threaded and seeded with non-linear stories and music from an empowering African past. Irony and improvisation play with basic rhythms in these films, just as they do in the original African cultures they represent, but the African American films display an especially American sense of "double consciousness," the concept of "twoness" so eloquently expressed by W. E. B. Du Bois in The Souls Of Black Folk (154-79). This double consciousness encodes an awareness that it is the African elements in African American culture that have created uniquely American musical and behavioral patterns, even though those same African characteristics and colorations have been used to validate socio-political and economic discrimination by white Americans. While generally applied to both of these films, this double-edged concept of the role of Africa gives specific significance to each.

Burnett gained status as a filmmaker with his 1977 UCLA (University College of Los Angeles) project Killer of Sheep, which captured the cultural wealth of poor black people powerfully enough to win the Critic's Prize at the 1981 Berlin Film Festival. So honored, Killer of Sheep became among the first 15 films placed in the Library of Congress Historic Film Registry in 1990. Burnett was a founding member of a group of film students at UCLA who fused their own fresh approaches with those of student filmmakers from Africa and South America. This Los Angeles-based group broke ground with new styles of African inspired filmic vision, with technical competence as well as sociopolitical experimentation based on a Third World sensibility. Influenced by the revolutionary imperative of Frantz Fanon's concern with the inadequate cultural representation and unequal socioeconomic circumstances of people of African origin, this group produced films manifesting a dynamic relationship between race and class struggle. Burnett also wrote and directed My Brother's Wedding (1983). He had already acted as cinematographer for his African co-student Haile Gerima on Bush Mama (1974). His work became the heart of the establishment of a new and remarkable form of poetics. This prepared the way, asserts Ntongela Masilela, for "the storm of a major work of art, Burnett's To Sleep With Anger ... a metaphorical meditation on the central pattern in African-American history ... the dialectical conflict between the old and the new" (112-13). …

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