Art Doc of the Week | Colored Frames
“The art world was just closed to black artists, period. White people would look at you with so much hate, you’d wonder, ‘Are they looking behind me?’” – Howardina Pindell
The opening credits of director Lerone D. Wilson’s 2007 documentary Colored Frames immediately lay out the film’s visually compelling approach. Names and titles of the filmmaking crew scroll against screen-filling backdrops of the paintings whose African American creators are the subject of Frames. As a piano-driven score plays, the camera holds and lets the viewer spend time with each piece of art before switching to the next image, and the effect is hypnotic.
Wilson’s basic framework is conventional. He films artists and art experts speaking to the camera, and supplements their spoken words with cutaways to the art itself. What distinguishes his film from so many art documentaries is that he cuts to the art even as his subjects are speaking, comes back to the speaker, smoothly cuts back to the art – back and forth, back and forth. There’s a seamlessness and thoughtfulness to the editing that pushes the tack beyond perfunctory documentary filmmaking. It gracefully underscores the symbiotic relationship between the art and black life (and dreams), whether the work is abstract and formally challenging, or more conventionally representational. Emotional and critical weight comes from what the speakers reveal of their lives and career trajectories for the camera.
The viewer is given succinct history lessons on the racism of the 20th century American art world as well as the larger social and political canvases whose bigoted attitudes were mirrored in arts institutions. Ed Clark shares an anecdote about how his very fair-skinned father showed up to work at a steel mill and found himself standing in the line for prospective white workers. After going to stand with his fellow black workers instead, he was told by a supervisor, “N*gger, you just lost half your salary. We pay n*ggers half what we pay white men.” Ghanaian artist TAFA and Kenyan artist Wangechi Mutu outline how they were racialized once they moved to America, moved from the position of centrality in the countries and cultures of their births, to marginality in the U.S. John Ashford and Marva Huston recall the demoralizing attitudes that greeted their efforts to include black bodies in their work at art school. But the film also captures the exuberance of Clark and Michael Singletary as they discuss how going to Europe (Clark on the G.I. Bill) reconfigured their notions of art and possibility, with Singletary also making many salient points about the effect that jazz, with its embedded political critiques and gestures of resistance, had on visual artists.
What’s astonishing is how much information is given to the viewer without the film ever drifting into dryness. History, insights on individual arts practices, the interwoven relationships between cultural production and race and business – some of it familiar information, some of it less well known – is all doled out in ways accessible to the layperson without being dumbed down.
All art courtesy Colored Frames/Boondoggle Films. Top image by Gustave Blache III.