Watch now at The New Yorker.
We made this film before the pandemic. Before our larger cultural reckoning with white supremacy and racist power. In lieu of a traditional press release, Uzoamaka Maduka wrote an essay delving deeper into what this moment means by way of overlaps with our film.
by Uzoamaka Maduka
“But the most terrible thing about evil thoughts is that evil minds grow soon familiar with them.”
— Alexandre Dumas, The Black Tulip
“I do not lend myself to the wrong which I condemn.”
— Henry David Thoreau, Civil Disobedience
Truth, beauty, justice — these are not only ideas, but intimate ideas that map onto their sacred counterparts — faith, hope, and love. They are intimate because they are realized and attained to only by way of a real, interior journey. They are objectives of the true, creative self that, as Donald Winnicott suggested, stands opposed to a false self or selves. False selves are the identities we form for the public consumption that make us feel protected, worthwhile, viable, and un-ridiculous. One of the tragedies of life is how the self that we perform becomes so habitual, so comfortable, that we extend it indefinitely into what should be our most private, intimate moments. Sacred moments. Moments where we might have discovered something or been redeemed, moments where we might have been or become ourselves. Moments where we might have connected past the cold, colloquial surface of notions like truth, beauty, and justice, encountering in them, instead, the warm, intimate, living dimensions that connect their abstract-ness to an urgent radicality — the moments wherein the concept loses its thing-ness and becomes itself by being realized in a contingent, real psychology, a contingent and real soul.
Blaise Pascal has said that all of man’s problems arise from his inability to sit alone in his own chamber. Yet the performative self never even locates its own chamber, much less rises to the challenge of sitting alone in it. Performance is an evil habit with which we have grown familiar. We have been brainwashed by social media, cable news, et al., into seeing ourselves not as distinct and blossoming souls, unfolding in the heat of our noblest concepts, but rather as 24-hour news streams into which followers, consumers, viewers — those we once referred to as neighbors, family, friends — can and might and should tune into at any time. And we also tune into ourselves: policing our every action, judging them against some vague, profane meter stick of approval by and obedience to a dominant social and cultural order. This order has it roots not in the sacred, but in the obscene — capital, power, position, wealth, status. Sartre wrote ‘we do not fight fascism because we’re going to win. We fight fascism because it is fascist.’ In response, the modern liberal remix: we do not fight fascism because it is fascist; we perform anti- fascism so we will not lose friends.
Indeed, our protests now, emptied of the sacred, are primarily performative. And so the ‘justice’ we seek is, fittingly, realized in platitudes — white women “share the mic” with black women who already have a mic; grandstanding film companies give millions to civil rights organizations and ignore the literal black filmmakers in their midst whose projects they could just quietly fund; Nancy Pelosi kneels in a kente cloth color- coordinated to an orange pantsuit, an appropriate coda to a career architected on ignoring the poor and jobless in favor of her true constituency, the wealthy and the corrupt; to learn how not to be racist, companies insist their employees read a puerile, self-obsessed HR manual written by a white woman (and insipidly titled White Fragility), meanwhile, the explorations of American racism by sophisticated black thinkers bell hooks and James Baldwin go uncommented on (it’s ok — they saw If Beale Street Could Talk); civil rights rallies have corporate sponsors; months ago, at an LGBT film festival, a friend and I witnessed an announcer, lavishly praising the festival’s underwriters, refer to the car company Hyundai as a person. And why not? Isn’t it, finally, the corporations that we are fighting for? Their lives? Their nebulous bodies? Their insatiable appetites? In this time of sorrow, we are Citizens United, indeed. We join hands with corporations, with fascists, with avatars, emptying ourselves in the name of something smaller than ourselves. Graffiti on the streets commands passersby to “Stand for Something.” And this something goes unnamed... All that matters is that you stand, and smile — the picture is being taken. Woe to he who is not a part of the great, and final image. What this amounts to is nothing less than a destruction of Martin Luther King, Jr.’s dream — but it is a strange, and sinister destruction. The destruction of values, the destruction of meaning. By what real meter stick can we judge others or ourselves, or measure our progress as a nation and as separate souls? There is no longer any content of our characters — alas, there is only content...and characters.
As we commit ever more assiduously to our performative selves, placing their enactment and valuation above anything real, we should note that these performances, seemingly harmless, actually serve to empower and embolden a diabolic capitalist system that seeks to devour souls by first devouring meaning. When we insist on meaning, and on our real, creative selves, we confuse and reject a corrupt system — a system that depends for its life on our willing obeisance and interest. There was never a modern fascist system that came to pass and succeeded without the consent and obedience of its most powerful citizens. By being ourselves, by allowing for a sacred silence — a cessation of worldly, pointless noise and compulsions — we open ourselves up to the potential of true, productive communion. And it is only in the space of real communion that all the false and man-made signifiers will fall away. This communion, arrived at by way of a fullness of the idiosyncratic self and a developed conscience is, as Thoreau asserted, the soil of Civil Disobedience. “We should be men first and subjects afterward,” he wrote. He might have written that we must be men first, if we wish to be subjects — to be citizens, to be in fruitful community— afterward. The realization of the true self is the prerequisite to revolution. And the system knows that — that is why it is so desperately afraid of what would happen if we ever heard ourselves think. This is why the government and corporations and the hedge fund class invest so many resources in the production of noise and of distraction. To be your true self, to re- connect with meaning and disconnect from the temptations of performance — nothing could be more frightening to the existing order. If you want to threaten power — first, go quiet. “Let your life,” Thoreau instructed us, “be a counter friction that stops the machine.”
Trump stood in front of a church with a bible. It was another empty signifier in an American culture full of them. But what did that Bible contain? A condemnation of performances. A condemnation of our standing in front of our various synagogues telling everyone just how good and woke we are, or just how American and God-fearing we are — pick your poison. Both performances kill. Both performances eat the soul. Real work is done in silence. After months of quarantine, do we still not know how to win a moment for our true, creative selves? How deep, then, has the performance gone? We could snap out of it — we could leave this obscene garden of performance and unmeaning and consumption. But do we dare to? Do we even know how?
Outside of the obscene garden, outside the machine, is a justice that transcends platitudes and performance. Outside, also, is truth, beauty. Their sacred counterparts — faith, hope, love, will, if we choose, greet us there...and embolden us.
Andrea Longacre-White asks: The last few weeks felt like a tear in the matrix, where the voices of black artists, thinkers and activists were centered and amplified, glitching the algorithm and making a new generative space. People shared resources and were galvanized around specific actions while also normalizing broader ideas like defunding the police with such lightning speed it felt like a potent and powerful moment that might mark a larger turn in the possibilities for social media as part of the revolution. What do you make of this blow to business as usual on social media where the incessant lifestyle/influencer/brand noise screeched to a halt and fully did not know what tf to do. Sadly business has begun to return to usual so I might have my answer….
Uzoamaka Maduka replies: Massive social and political movements, larger than the ones we've seen in our lifetimes, have swept the world without use of these platforms. I feel confident that large-scale coordination and activation can take place without surveillant platforms. I think corporations have convinced us that we need them to connect, to create, to survive. But if IG was gone tomorrow, I think massive, radical movements would still happen. I'm especially troubled by IG and Twitter since they are such a part of the ruling order. To me, it's like capitalism - there are great stores, great small businesses, etc. But that doesn't change the fact that capitalism is corrupt. I think about what you said the other week, Andrea - what's the alternative IG? The alternative Twitter? That isn't owned and surveilled by Facebook, et al? Because no matter how seemingly innocent on the surface, I ultimately distrust anything that is curated and disseminated by these surveillant, State-endorsed corporations. I think the capacity to control and co-opt these platforms calls into question what we see and interact with on them - the question always remains, is this the conversation I am organically and authentically having? Or is this the conversation that, through carefully coordinated algorithms, the State wants me to be having and is insisting I have? My friend, the writer Jordan Tucker, raised an important question - shouldn't we be suspicious when the System we are marching against has absolutely no problem marching with us? When capitalism links arms with those who resist it, keep in mind: nothing is actually being resisted. Above all, resistance. And resistance is only resistance when it is hard to do. Resist the temptation to say what Power wants you to be saying. Resist the temptation to have the conversation that Power wants you to have. Resist the temptation to rest where Power has placed you.