Even though white people no longer make up the majority of the population in vast areas of America, the white body – and the white male body – is still presented by the mainstream American media as the main object of aspiration and the normalised perceptual lens through which the life of the nation unfolds. While that certainly marginalises African-American bodies, it has always tended to marginalise some African-American bodies more than others. For the most part, African-American straight men have tended to acclimatise better than anyone else, at least in cinema and music, just because of the way in which the virile African-American body can be used to exaggerate, emphasise and ultimately outdo the values of self-sufficient masculinity – and capitalist individuality – that tends to revolve around the white straight male body as it promulgates itself through American culture. Sometimes this exaggeration plays as straight competition – a recognition that in a genuinely free market, African-American capitalist machismo can offer everything that white capitalism machismo offers (and more). At the same time, this exaggeration often verges on parody, initially in art rap but increasingly in mainstream rap as well. Given that late capitalism becomes more inane with each generation – and each generation of music has to get more inane to keep up with it and resist it – there is a sense in which the increasing and unavoidable absurdity rap masculinity has become the main subject of gangsta rap, whether filtered through melancholy as in Kanye and Drake or through comedy as in Lil Wayne and Chance the Rapper.
For African-Americam women, however, things have never been so simple. As Steven Shaviro has pointed out in his iconic essay on Missy Elliott and Lil’ Kim, African-American women have always been more or less excluded from the two main musical genealogies used to express African-American autonomy: Detroit techno and hip-hop, along with their various stylistic progeny. While there certainly have been female artists who have broken the mould and found a niche, for the most part these musical fields have been designated as masculine as aggressively as the white male archetypes that they were set up to oppose. As a result, African-American female artists have been forced to fall back upon soul as a legitimate form of musical expression or to instead carve out a position between hip-hop and mainstream pop that often falls short of the militant and emphatic kinds of self-realisation to be found in rap music. Of course, these categories are all fluid, but the fact remains that a great deal of African-American musical developments in the last couple of decades have tended to leave women behind.
The situation is even more emphatic when we consider the position of African-American queer women. While some of the most momentous social and cultural movements in the United States over the last quarter-century have been driven by the push for greater LGBT representation, these movements – as a filmmaker like Marlon Riggs recognised – have tended to be branded as white, not least because they have increasingly tended to converge LGBT agendas with white institutions such as marriage, parenthood and the nuclear family, leading to the emergence of resistance movements within the white LGBT community such as Against Equality, a radical queer collective operating out of Maine. Having faced quite significant challenges as a result of marriage inequality myself I can’t fully share these institutions’ contempt for LGBT people who embrace marriage, but I do respect the way in which they aim to dissociate the LGBT agenda as a whole from the very arbiters of whiteness that were originally so oppressive to it.
For African-American people who also happen to be LGBT the situation is even more complicated and visibility is even more fraught, although it’s questionable whether this is more emphatically the case for men or women, at least insofar as music is concerned. While rap, in particular, may initially appear to be more homophobic and less conducive to queer expression than the forms of music afforded to African-American women, there is nevertheless a sense in which the very homophobic potency of rap music – and its ceaseless, restless efforts to split the difference between homosexual and homosocial communion – already contains and protects the gay male impulse, in much the same way as the football huddle already in some sense contains and protects any kinds of queer impulses that might arise over the course of the game. In that sense, queerness has always enjoyed a certain visibility within rap music – albeit a negative visibility – with many rappers humorously drawing attention to this as a feature of the genre. When Frank Ocean came out as bisexual, it may not have been embraced by every member of the hip-hop community, but there was still a sense in which the community gathered to protect one of its own, a gesture that seemed to culminate with his final fragile appearance on The Life of Pablo – and his concluding appearance at the launch event – earlier in the year.
If anything, some of the most violent responses to Frank Ocean and to LGBT life more generally have come from artists like Iggy Azalea and Azealia Banks, symptoms of a hip-hop community in which queerness is only officially tolerated in the form of quasi-lesbian spectacles put on for the benefit of virile male rappers. In such an environment, the very expression of female queerness is somewhat questionable – at least as a consistent and whole-hearted affiliation – because of the way in which it questions the forms of spectacle and modes of power around which the entire musical industry revolves, both in its abstract principles as well as in the visual arrangements of music clips. Yet while the dispersal of hip-hop into just about every other mainstream musical genre has made that attitude towards African-American women even more commonplace than it originally was, the intensifying racial violence in the United States over the last decade has also placed a peculiar onus on African-American women to stand up and be counted, with Michelle Obama and Beyonce tending to fuse, in the mainstream American media, into a vision of African-American female leadership and self-realisation that needs to be emulated amongst the population at large in order to bring about social change.
In many ways, Beyonce’s “Formation” – and the film clip for “Formation” – exemplifies and enacts this central tension between the continuing and constitutive invisibility of African-American female bodies and the ever-intensifying demand for visibility and autonomy. Taking place as a series of tableaux relating to the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, the clip for “Formation” traces out an abstracted and stylised vision of the post-Katrina diaspora, taking us through a number of figures and scenarios who might be expected to have been touched by the disaster in some way or another. Sometimes the connection to New Orleans is quite direct – as in the opening and closing shots of Beyonce sinking beneath the floodwaters in a NOLA police vehicle – while sometimes it feels as if Katrina has become the pretext for a wider vision of the African-American South and an argument for the centrality of African-American women to Souther culture as Beyonce liberally quotes from a whole number of iconic Southern images – most of them white – to affirm her identity as a Texan born of Louisianan and Alabaman parents.
At the same time, however, these naturalistic and immaculately crafted tableaux – most of which are shot in a highly cinematic style – are offset by Beyonce’s body language and dance movements, which are pointedly incongruous with the stately photographic backdrops against which they occur. To some extent that is simply because of the unexpected intrusion of twenty-first century postures and gestures into a series of historicised mise-en-scenes, as well as the way in which Beyonce deliberately blurs and blends different historical media, with some of the best sequences shot on what appears to be a 1990s camcorder. At the same time, there is an inherently jarring quality to the dance moves themselves, which draw from – and arguably culminate – the drill movement that has become so popular amongst African-American female dance communities over the last half-decade. If only because it tends to be conventionally labelled feminine, dance has always been a privileged area for African-American female artists to perform the impossibility of inhabiting their bodies in mainstream American society, leading to increasingly contorted and constrictive dance movements that – as Steven Shaviro has noted – often serve to position the African-American female body as a cyborg or science-fictional entity amidst a world of naturalised male bodies, African-American or otherwise. While there is no doubt that African-American male artists have contributed their fair share to dance culture, it’s no coincidence that the most canonical and contorted moves have come from people like Little Richard, Michael Jackson and Prince, all of whom have sought out and inhabited the very fringes of what might be thought of as conventional or canonical African-American masculinity.
In many ways, drill music feels like the evolution of this cyborg dance impulse for a post-Ferguson generation, since while it is undoubtedly one of the most punitive, punishing and contorted dance styles in some time, it is also one of the most militant and militaristic. Indeed, what makes drill so powerful – as the name might suggest – is the way in which it both enacts the militant pressure on African-American women to render themselves invisible, or to subsume themselves into a broader male and white dominated society, but also the way in which it transforms the process of militarisation and standardisation itself into something perverse and strange. Both an exercise in immaculate self-discipline but also a transformation of discipline itself into a kind of erotic frisson, it performs the demand to assimilate and the impossibility of assimilation in a single moment, making it an extraordinarily powerful vehicle for expressing dissent and solidarity amongst African-American women, which is presumably one of the reasons why it has become such a critical part of dance communities across the nation. At the same time, however, there is a profound protest in this rhetorical double-move, especially insofar as it relates to police brutality, since in one and the same breath it resists the rhetorics of militarised security, sanction and protectionism but also internalises those rhetorics and denatures them in the process. For Americans who feel that African-Americans simply need more white discipline, there must be something singularly unsettling and uncanny about the spectacle of a well structured drill formation.
For me, that rhetorical double-move must be the reason why “Formation” has received such a backlash from the police – and from the Houston police in particular, who threatened to boycott Beyonce’s home concert – since as far as the actual content of the music video goes there is very little that we haven’t seen before in terms of protest. Apart from the spectacle of a little child (it is not clear whether it is a boy or girl) dancing before a line of police there is almost nothing in the way of direct anti-police sentiment in the clip. Indeed, that image of the child dancing off against the police is fairly benign on its own terms, and wouldn’t be out of place in the kinds of sanitised protest clip typical of Macklemore or Fundamental. What gives the clip such a kick – and what invests the child’s dancing with such potency – is the rhetorical gesture of drill music itself, as well as the way in which Beyonce takes its internalised and twisted version of American militarism to a kind of logical conclusion. To me there is something queer about that extremity, insofar as queerness tends to draw our attention to the way in which characteristics that seem to be natural or essential are in fact performed. By exposing the myth of white paternalistic protection as a performance of extreme and concentrated aggression – and by inhabiting that myth from the inside as an African-American woman – Beyonce unleashes a queer sense of possibility and provisionality that collapses the distinction between real and performed selves, individual bodies and collective masses, and music and cinema.
What is ultimately so affronting about “Formation,” then, is the way in which it finds a certain queerness in the very forms of militaristic regulation that are designed to normalise everyday life in America and to render African-American women, in particular, invisible and disempowered. In many ways, that connection makes intuitive sense – life in the army, or the police force, or any other militaristic institution, is highly performative, based on promiscuous and tactile affiliations and connections, and invested in subsuming the will and desire of the individual into a looser, broader and more ambient sense of enjoyment and pleasure. Rarely, however, has the connection been made as pointedly as it is here, at least within the drill music canon, and there is something about the way in which Beyonce continually deforms and reforms the militaristic structures oppressing her and other African-American women that is defter and more artful than a direct protest or denunciation could ever be. At the same time, it gives the clip itself an incredible fluidity, from the opening shots of a pointedly androgynous African-American male back gyrating in what appear to be “feminine” poses to the closing images of Beyonce and her crew of dancers moving seamlessly between fluid and staccato dance positions, continually collapsing and reconstituting the line that signals their obedience and organisation.
While Lemonade has been billed as a visual album, it is notable that “Formation” has been left off the feature-length experience. Although it has been slotted into the YouTube mix, the proper visual version of the album – at least as I have experienced it – doesn’t contain the most iconic single and clip, which is undoubtedly at some level a marketing decision, but also speaks to the self-containment of “Formation” as a stand-alone cinematic gesture in itself. Over the course of her career, Beyonce has dabbled in this kind of multiform cinematic extension of her musical oeuvre – most extensively in her Life Is But A Dream documentary for HBO – but “Formation,” in particular, seems to be a challenge to cinema and music video as much as it is a challenge to American values. As a result, after watching “Formation” for the first time I found myself wondering – what would it take to create a film with the same sense of urgency and purpose, as well as a film that managed to tap into and explore the kinds of innovative bodily reconfiguration and organisation on display here? Clearly, the short format of music video – even the kinds of sustained and connected music videos that comprise Lemonade – allows for a more compressed and abstracted bodily language, but surely there has to be a way to translate something of that impulse into a feature-length cinematic experience.
Of course, that’s precisely what Beyonce has tried to do, in some sense, with Lemonade. Nevertheless, another recent film has tapped into the same impulse so completely that I have started to think of it as a kind of unofficial sequel to extension of “Formation,” or – at the very least – a complement and companion piece. Playing at this year’s Sundance Film Festival after being funded through the Venice Biennale, Anna Rose Holmer’s debut film The Fits follows a young girl, Toni (Royalty Hightower), as she pursues a boxing career at her local high school in Cincinnati but increasingly finds herself distracted by the school’s resident drill squad. From the very beginning, this is framed as a somewhat queer fascination, as we’re taken through the quotidian rhythm of Toni’s days, which typically feature training with the boys in the gym only to gaze, somewhat covertly, on the girls as they perform their trap routines. Of course, queerness in this context isn’t merely a matter of sexual orientation, nor of any straightforward or conventional distinction between male and female, since Toni’s queerness is arguably heightened and intensified once she decides to study drill alongside dancing and sets herself the challenge of establishing her body as a common denominator between these two punitive and demanding physical regimens. In one of the most extraordinary sequences in the film she breaks out of a run to start a fake boxing workout on a highway walkover, only for her boxing to gradually segue into a drill performance and to then morph back into boxing again, until we’re faced with an amorphous bodily and kinaesthetic presence – part boxing, part dancing – that is somehow militaristically disciplined and queerly unconstrained at the same time, not unlike the uncanny ebbs and flows of physiological focus and constraint that pervade “Formation.”
I saw this film at the recent Sydney Independent Film Festival where it was followed by a question session with Holmer, and one of the most interesting revelations was that the film was never originally about the drill scene, let alone the Cincinnati drill scene, which is one of the most iconic in the country. Instead, Holmer initially envisaged the story as centring on cheerleaders, only to realise that cheerleading didn’t quite seem to capture the heightened bodily states for which she was aiming, and which make up such a critical part of the film. Nearly every scene unfolds with a plethora of bodies in the background, which – not surprisingly – creates an intensely embodied and visceral sense of space, but also seems to somewhat defiantly render African-American bodies visible as well. Of course, being invisible can be oppressive, but always being visible can be oppressive as well, and the continual presence of African-American torsos, limbs and bodily extremities at every point in the mise-en-scene speaks to a certain contradiction regarding the nature of African-American embodiment; namely, that African-Americans, at least as far as the mainstream media are concerned, are denied the luxuries of both visibility and invisibility, since their bodies are at once more conspicuous than white bodies in American society but also more restricted and constrained in terms of how they can articulate and announce themselves. That enormous sense of constraint – and the accompanying sense of barely-repressed potentiality – is part of what gives The Fits such an incredible sense of dynamism in the way in which it establishes its mise-en-scenes. As with “Formation,” it feels like the legacy of a social situation in which “visceral” impulses as a whole are attributed to African-Americans, but African-Americans are themselves not permitted to coordinate or coalesce those impulses into a socially visible unified front.
In The Fits that sense of brooding bodily potentiality is all enhanced by Holmer’s background in cinematography, with most of the shots set up so that all the horizontal lines in the space are flush with the floor, making for one of the most visceral and physiological uses of deep focus that I have seen in some time. Conventionally, deep focus is perceived as liberating space from any single human agency, but in this particular instance it is precisely that alienation of white, rationalist, protectionist space from the African-American body that is the cause of constriction in the first place. As a result, everything expansive about deep focus in turned in upon itself, while it tends to be the most amorphous and autonomous spaces – especially the luminous gymnasium – that feel most constrictive in terms of the characters’ movements. Indeed, the fact that the drill sessions occur in the gymnasium sets them directly against its massive, cavernous sightlines, while the way in which they distribute Toni’s tomboy fascination with the drill squad amongst the rest of the dancers at large is also part of what makes the film’s spaces feel so curiously and eccentrically queer as a whole. In both cases, there is an energy and activity that seems to exceed the original cheerleading narrative, and it was interesting to hear Holmer discuss the various dance style she considered before finally settling upon drill as the best choice, at which point she flew to Cincinnati to scout of locations and actors for the film, most of which are drawn from the city’s actual drill scene.
Even if Toni’s story were the centre of the film, drill music would feel like a logical backdrop but the narrative actually takes a quite unusual turn that makes this musical milieu feel even more apposite. As Toni becomes more and more involved in the dance class, a number of girls start experiencing fits – seizures that take them by surprise, usually in the midst of a routine, and debilitate them enough to take them out of contention for the upcoming dance competition. When the first of these fits occurred, it seemed like a fairly one-off event in the narrative, and in fact it’s only by the third or fourth that it starts to be clear that there is some kind of sinister pattern at play, creating an eerie and emergent sense of suspense that seeps into the gritty realism of the film in quite a subliminal and surprising manner. As they proceed, Holmer tends to shoot the fits in a style that is increasingly incongruous with the rest of the film, jettisoning the camera from its deep focus reserve for a mobile, handheld frenzy that breaks the calm geometric coordinates that characterise the rest of the mise-en-scenes. In the process, the fit sequences generate an increasingly hallucinatory and fantastic atmosphere that culminates with the extraordinary final sequence in which Toni herself experiences a fit that transports her into the midst of a perfectly formed drill troupe whose moves unfold across a number of different spaces from throughout the film, all of which centre on an empty and abandoned swimming pool that feels like a direct quotation from “Formation,” even if it was filmed some time before. As in “Formation,” too, it’s the dreamlike discontinuity of the backdrops that gives the contorted continuity of the dance moves themselves such an intensive and plosive power, as all the residual bodily energy hanging below the threshold of the film’s deep focus backdrops constellates into something resembling a jagged music video before the final credits roll.
Several critics have interpreted these fits psychologically, as an indication of Toni’s mindstate, and there’s considerable evidence to suggest that that is the case, since the girls always seem to be stricken whenever they are watched or scrutinised by her. At one point, I actually wondered whether the film might actually go in an explicitly supernatural direction and segue what initially appeared to be a study in gritty urbanism into a genre film about child possession, in a kind of latter-day descendant of the Candyman franchise. While that never happens, it still feels as if the fits in some sense represent Toni’s efforts to calibrate her body and her femininity against those of the girls at the head of the troupe – it is these girls who tend to fall victim to the seizures first – and that those efforts in turn represent some way of coming to terms with a queer potentiality that is glimpsed but never fully articulated over the course of the film. At the same time, however, I’m resistant to any psychological or depth-oriented interpretation, since precisely what is so astonishing about these fits is that they take the contorted embodiment of drill music to its absolute logical conclusion. In a kind of perverted paradox, inhabiting drill entirely comes to mean debilitating yourself to the point where you can no longer actually perform as a drill artist, with nearly all the fits coming at the conclusion of extensive dance-offs or warm-up sessions. Indeed, part of what makes the full significance of the fits emerge so gradually is that they initially play as extreme exhaustion and fatigue, a condition that has arisen as a direct result of the dancing rather than – as the school administrative board suggests – as a result of some kind of contamination of the water supply or other environmental factor.
Even more so than “Formation,” then, The Fits performs the impossibility of fully articulating an African-American female body in contemporary American society but also – just as importantly – the impossibility of not making an effort to effect that articulation at the same time. For what makes The Fits so immersive – and gives it so much of its rhythm and momentum – is the fact that these seizures never seem to throw the status of the drill troupe itself into question. Even when seven or eight people have fallen victim to the fits and the school has had to temporarily suspend training, there is still an expectation that the dancers will practise in their own time. In a kind of extension of the internalised militarism of “Formation,” then, the drill culture of The Fits seems fully aware of the fact that each dancer who fully embodies the drill ethos may in turn become a veteran and a casualty whose burden then has to be transferred to and absorbed by the rest of the group. If “Formation” internalises militarism, then the drill sequences and community of The Fits internalises both militarism and its putative targets, with the result that we never really need to see the troupe’s postponed standoff with their rivals since that conflict is already absorbed by the structure of the group itself. For all those reasons, The Fits plays like a feature-length film that has absorbed the logic and rhythms of music video – clocking in at just over seventy minutes in length, it finds a kind of queerness in the spectacle of impossible bodies taken to their impossible conclusion, creating a kind of foreclosed and foreshortened narrative space that works perfectly within a seventy-minute framework, just the right amount of time to make you feel things have ended too suddenly.
In that sense, The Fits plays as a kind of feature-length extension of “Formation” and yet in this case the composer is a white woman living in New York rather than an African-American woman from the South. As a result, during the interview session with Holmer, there was something of an elephant in the room: how did her own background affect her authenticity and authority in delivering this vision of African-American impossibility? To her credit, Holmer answered the question well, pointing out that a great deal of the action was collaborative and improvised, while the script itself was written with two other women, neither of whom was white. In both cases, I felt that she was embracing an ethos of what Lily Loofborouw has described as “promiscuous protagonism” into relation to contemporary television – a movement towards narrative structures and working conditions that favour open, emergent and improvisational modes of collaboration between people working at all levels of a filming project, a scenario that Loofborouw identifies as facilitating a new generation of female, trans and queer artists to make their voices hear in mainstream venues.
At the same time, however, the fact remains that it is Holmer, rather than any of her cast and crew, who has been assigned primary authorship for the film, just as it was Holmer herself who appeared in person at the festival event. In that sense, the film is very much an appropriation of African-American dance subcultures, as much as it might also be a gesture of collaboration with those subcultures at the same time. Yet that also made the film more powerful for me since it meant that the very act of making the film had been a kind of gradual unlearning on the part of its director. Starting out with the white dance styles par excellence – cheerleading – and moving along the spectrum to one of the most contorted and militant African-American dance styles – drill – there was a sense in which Holmer’s gradual apprehension of the difficulty of African-American embodiment had found it way into the pointed embodiment of her mise-en-scenes, which often felt like a certain kind of indie auteurist white cinema coming to terms with how many bodies its perfectly and tactfully crafted moods, modes and atmospheres were actually excluding. In that sense, the very process of making the film, as well as the way Holmer discussed the film, felt like a coming to terms with her performance of the role of auteur in ways that I felt were distinctively queer, as if the film had effected a kind of unravelling of the very assumptions that she had initially brought to it. Put more simply, The Fits seemed to turn into a completely different kind of collaborative venture from the one she had originally anticipated, which presumably was part of what gave the film itself such a surprising and original trajectory – so surprising, at times, that I wondered whether the entire cast were fully apprised of how each scene and sequence was likely to play out. At a time when both music video and indie cinema are increasingly torn between intensified experimentation and intensified standardisation, that kind of surprise – present in both “Formation” and The Fits – is utterly exhilarating, and perhaps what it takes to truly create protest art in an era in which the protest impulse has itself been utterly colonised and sanitised from the inside out.