Category Archives: Film

What’s past is prologue

by David Romine

Now here’s a little truth, open up your eyes
While you’re checking out the boom-bap, check the exercise
Take the word “overseer,” like a sample
Repeat it very quickly in a crude voice sample
Overseer, overseer, overseer, overseer
Officer, officer, officer, officer
Yeah, officer from overseer
You need a little clarity, check the similarity
The overseer rode around the plantation
The officer is off, patrolling all the nation
The overseer could stop you what you’re doing
The officer will pull you over just when he’s pursuing
The overseer had the right to get ill
And if you fought back, the overseer had the right to kill
The officer has the right to arrest
And if you fight back they put a hole in your chest (Woop)
They both ride horses
After 400 years, I’ve got no choices
The police them have a little gun
So when I’m on the streets, I walk around with a bigger one

–KRS-One “Sound of da Police”



As Alisha and Andy have pointed out previously, a discussion the traumas of the Middle Passage and legacy of slavery resides in many genres of music on both sides of the Atlantic. “Sound of da Police,” one of Bronx-born rapper KRS-One’s (b. Lawrence Krisna Parker)  most famous tracks, articulates the shared plight of African slaves and modern black youth by drawing a continuous line to the past, connecting the violent methods of control utilized on the plantation to that of the police in modern urban spaces. The past here is not a foreign country, but a place where people of color exist every day in a world in which police brutality is an everyday experience. Drawing comparisons between nineteenth century slavery and modern police brutality illustrate the history of African American poverty and oppression. While the forms are different, the results are the same.

Lyrics, however, are not the only connection that music draws with the past. Hip-hop as a musical form provides a unique sonic archive because it is constructed from pre-existing musical samples. The preference for soul, funk, and R&B records in the construction of hip-hop tracks, mostly from the 1950s through the 1970s, is due in part because of trend in those genres to feature songs which contain musical breaks. In mid-century music, the “break” was when a bass or drum-driven rhythm was repeated for several bars without overlaid vocals. This allowed that segment to be isolated and, with the right equipment, to be repeated. That repetition of the break through a mixing unit, functioned to create a new rhythm from the old. When paired with new lyrics or other samples, the finished result emerges as a unique, and new, work of music. This process forms the basis for the earliest examples of modern hip-hop, originating in the Bronx.


(A photo of an early sound system party DJed by one of the founders of hip-hop, Kool Herc)

The appropriation of earlier musical forms through the process of sampling also serves to create new sonic archive that resides on a register distinct from the lyrical. “Sound of da Police,” for instance, is constructed from a break in a song by legendary funk and soul group, Sly & the Family Stone. “Sing a Simple Song,” the B-side to the group’s famous track “Everyday People,” was released in 1968, arguably at the height of the band’s fame. As a song, it would have a great deal of resonance to those of KRS-One’s generation, something that they would have listened to during their childhood or that would have been playing at neighborhood sound system parties. While many casual listeners of the song might not pick up on the sample, other musicians and DJs would notice and mark it. The choice of a guitarist to utilize steel strings or electric pickups, as opposed to vinyl or acoustic, is an artistic decision which affects the construction of the song produced. The choice of sample serves the same purpose.


(Promo shot of Sly & the Family Stone c.1968)

As Russell A. Potter points out, “hip-hop’s continual citation of the sonic and verbal archives of rhythm and blues, jazz, and funk forms and re-forms the traditions it draws upon.” KRS-One’s choice of Sly & the Family Stone was both a recognition of the band’s influence and a testament to its familiarity, but arguably a reference to its politics and philosophy. In its heyday of the late 1960s, the band was politically and socially on the cutting edge. Their songs featured impassioned please for love, peace, acceptance of difference, and understanding among different peoples. Sly Stone consciously and publicly integrated his band at a time which integrated bands were still rare. Similarly, the female members not only sang backing vocals, but played instruments on stage, another rarity in a time in which most female band members were there for stage presence and backing vocals only. KRS-One’s choice of Sly & the Family Stone suggests both his political leanings and illustrates this continual revival and appropriation of past musical forms, based on their perceived value, familiarity, and utility. Early hip-hop was quite literally constructed from the soul, funk, and R&B from the 1950s and 1960s, by a generation who had listened to those records and those artists growing up. The crates of second-hand records became the DJ’s sonic archive, both a way to reference the old and create the new.

Historians generally bristle at the over-simplified idea that the past repeats itself. The distinct context of each moment means that nothing ever truly happens twice, but there can be no denying that similarities resonate from past to present. The past of African-American music is not simply the repetition of older forms, but their re-appropriation, revision, and reconstitution such that they are able to serve the needs of people in the time of their creation. In doing so, artists, producers, and DJs leave a sonic archival trail of the musical forms and ideas that they chose to utilize. Tracing this trail backwards not only leads historians on a chronological path, but it also leads those who look on a path that moves in and out of space. “Sound of da Police” as a musical archive originates in San Francisco with Sly & the Family Stone and ends up in the Bronx with KRS-One’s appropriation of the sample, but the trail does not stop there. According to the website WhoSampled?, “Sound of da Police” has been sampled over 88 times in the nearly three decades since it was released. Those samples are mostly from other American hip-hop artists, but the influence of hip-hop world-wide meant that the song moved far afield from its origins in the United States. Crossing the Atlantic, it became a part of the burgeoning French hip-hop scene through its appropriation by French DJ Cut Killer in his track for the 1995 movie “La Haine.”

Cut Killer (b. 1971 as Anouar Hajoui) builds his track from a variety of samples, beginning with KRS-One’s infamous opening “Woop!”. The track also includes a distorted rendition of Edith Piaf’s famous “Non, je ne regrette rien” which the singer famously dedicated to the French Foreign Legion fighting to maintain France’s crumbling colonial empire in North Africa. Piaf’s distant, thin vocals are overlaid by short bursts of angry lyrics from the French hip-hop group, Suprême NTM. NTM, as they are also known, was a product of the Paris banlieues that encircle the city, emerging from Seine-Saint-Denis département. Seine-Saint-Denis, one of the smallest départements at 236 sq. km, also has one of the highest populations (1.5 million), 21.7% are immigrants. [edited to correct earlier mistake citing Suprême NTM as originating from Marseilles]

In addition to the sample from KRS-One and NTM, Cut Killer also includes other samples from American gangsta rappers on the American West coast (N.W.A.’s “Fuck tha Police”) and East coast (Notorious B.I.G.’s “Machine Gun Funk.”) The resulting track lacks a lyrical, linear narrative, but instead of resulting in cacophony, it emerges as pastiche, explicitly referencing the experience of the black Atlantic in the “West” through the interpolation and appropriation of sonic forms and directly connecting them to the experience of blackness in France. The violence that characterizes that relationship and the frustration that generations of young people have articulated at the system in which they live is rendered in sonic form. While many of the tracks that make up “La Haine” have lyrics, they are deliberately distorted and layered atop one another, rendering them less important than the track as a whole.

That this track was made for the 1995 French film of the same title thus seems rather fitting. “La Haine” tells the story of three young men from the banlieue, an impoverished suburb of Paris where immigrants from former French African colonies now live, and their struggle with hate, violence, and the dehumanizing, destabilizing nature of poverty. Their encounters with the authorities result in dislocation, pain, suffering, and death and their recognition that their situation is related to the French colonial past is referenced continuously throughout the film. The film, a commercial and critical success, helped bring more attention to both French hip-hop and the suffering in the banlieues, though the uprisings in 2005 suggest that attention has not been enough to improve conditions in which so many people live.

(Promo shot from “La Haine”)

The legacy of Cut Killer’s track as a pastiche of European and American forms should rather be considered a collaboration across the African diaspora. Hip-hop’s sonic archive offers a way to literally listen to the movement of ideas and shared expeeriences back and forth across the Atlantic. It is both past and present, piled up atop the legacy of the Middle Passage and colonialism, and continuously recognizing the oppression of the marginalized. The present, like the past from which it is contracted, articulates forms of resistance and testimonies of violence, the sonic archive of the black Atlantic is as rich as that of the written.


(KRS-One in 2002)

Roll Jordan Roll: A Community in Song and Sound

After watching Lupita Nyong’o win the Oscar for Best Supporting Actress and the film itself, 12 Years a Slave, win Best Picture a few weeks ago, I couldn’t help but return to the film for a second viewing. I happened to find the time on a 11 hour transatlantic flight, and while somewhere over that big open expanse of water, I watched and listened to the now famous scene where Chiwetal Ejiofor, playing Solomon Northup, first seems to embrace his fate, joining in song with his co-enslaved peers. The scene is haunting, and I recommend watching it here.

Topsy Chapman – (feat. Chiwetel Ejiofor and moviecast) “Roll Jordan Roll” From the movie “12 Years a Slave” (2013)

(Adapted by Nicholas Britell)

The lyrics themselves are simple, and the chorus repeated numerous times.

Went down to the river Jordan,
where John baptized three.
Well I woke the devil in hell
sayin John ain’t baptise me
I say;
Roll, Jordan, roll
Roll, Jordan, roll
My soul arise in heaven, Lord
for the year when Jordan roll

Well some say John was a baptist
some say John was a Jew
But I say John was a preacher of God
and my bible says so too.

A quick google search for the song provides the viewer/listener with some historical context. The song was originally written by an English Methodist preacher, Charles Wesley sometime in the 1700s. The song became popular in the United States sometime during the Second Great Awakening of the 1800s, and eventually reached Black slaves as a means to Christianize them, in the hopes that doing so would make them more cooperative in their slaved condition. (1) But the song ultimately had the opposite effect. Ann Powers described the song as “a primary example of slaves’ claiming and subverting a Christian message to express their own needs and send their own messages…Songs like this one, speaking of rivers, often sent coded messages about the hope for escape – passing over the Mississippi or the Ohio and northward.” (2) Powers claims that the song, and Northup’s joining in during the middle of a chorus, is further affirmation of Northup’s statement upon being captured, “I don’t want to survive; I want to live.”

I can’t help but question that conclusion, or at the very least, to read more depth into the simple claim that Northup is asserting his intention to “live” rather than “survive.” Though I’m far from an academic film critic, I think the scene warrants a closer reading, and that through just such a reading, it becomes clear that while Northup (and the director McQueen) may be signaling rebellion, the lyrics along with the setting of the song signify a community dynamic that is both hopeful and resigned. Northup’s joining is then more complicated, and demonstrates both a joining to that community, and one can’t help but hear his hopelessness as well.

The setting of the funeral is key to this reading. The man who died was another slave, one who simply dropped dead in the middle of the cotton fields, assumedly from exhaustion. While the song may have been meant to signal a hope that those enslaved singers would find some freedom, the freedom in this scene is not to another land where they are no longer enslaved, but to death and perhaps an afterlife. There is a certain macabre rebellion even if one reads this as a hopeful escape through death; in a way the dead man himself has robbed his owner of something by making further labour an impossibility. One can’t help but hear the respect for the man in the voices of the other singers; there is a resolution in their expression and the generally upbeat nature of the song that would seem to signify their standing proudly at this man’s graveside, saluting his ability to leave the fields.

And while the song is lead by the more elderly woman, the sense of community is not a hierarchical one. There is no preacher standing in a position of power, and the men and women are scattered equally through the small group. They clap in unison, bound together by the repetitive sound of flesh meeting flesh, perhaps ironically reversing what would usually be a violent contact of master-slave and turning it into one of community. All these factors might suggest a sort of egalitarianism worthy of praise; even in an enslaved state these African-Americans are able to preserve human dignity and respect for one another by coming together in a way that shows no more respect for one over another. But the rest of the movie itself provides a different reading. We do not know any of these other slaves standing around Northup. They haven’t been introduced to us, and we don’t know their life stories at all. The community has at the most basic level only one thing in common, their enslaved state. They did not choose to come together, there is not sense of family units within the crowd. They are simply together because there is no one else with whom they could be. The community then is forced, in much the same way as others have stated that the creation of African American culture in the early slave period was simply an amalgam of all the different cultures the Africans brought with them, so too are these individuals struggling to find connection, and triumph, in horrible circumstances.

And perhaps therein lies the beauty, and satisfaction, present in this scene. Though Northup is joining that community through his singing, he is not just joining the hopelessness (though he certainly seems to be accepting that as well). He joins a tragic community, one bound by circumstances yes, but also through their combined dignity of rebelling, at least through song and sound, against their oppressor. The repetition of the lyric, “roll, Jordan roll,” itself suggests the unstoppable power of water, and eventual freedom, as a force. Though traveling over that water first enslaved them, so will it free them, whether in crossing over a physical river to freedom, or perhaps, as the dead slave, passing over the river Styx into death. Again, though it may be rooted in the dark hope that freedom must come eventually, even in death, Northup’s joining is a signal that he finally identifies with those enslaved around him, no longer differentiated by his previously free state. The scene is haunting, and Chiwetal Ejiofor’s portrayal of Northup, joining in song with a look of triumphant defeat, warrants the more complicated reading of rebellion. And while McConaughey doubtless gave a great performance, Ejiofor could just as easily have won for this scene alone.

  1.  See Calt, Stephen (2008). I’d Rather Be the Devil: Skip James and the Blues Chicago: Chicago Review Press.
  2. Ann Powers (2013). ’12 Years a Slave’ Is This Year’s Best Film About Music. NPR.

“Toussaint: The Heartbeat of Freedom”

By Sasha Panaram

For more than twenty-five years, Danny Glover has graced the entertainment world as an actor, producer, and humanitarian.  While Glover is most recognized for his role in Lethal Weapon (1987), he has also acted in much smaller films and produced projects of his own including his two latest documentaries, Concerning Violence (2013) and We Are Many (2014).

Glover’s first passion is acting, however, he has never limited himself to only one career. Instead, he leverages the attention he receives from the entertainment world to steer his fans towards meaningful social justice organizations.  Today, Glover is a UNICEF Ambassador and a former Goodwill Ambassador to the United Nations Development Program.

US Actor Addresses Press Conference on Millennium Development Goals Awards

Glover’s interest in social inequalities led him to co-found Louverture Films with Joslyn Barnes in 2005, which is committed to supporting films “of historical relevance, social purpose, commercial value, and artistic integrity.”[1]  Inspired by Haitian Revolution leader, Toussaint Louverture, Louverture Films supports progressive artists, especially those from the global South, and helps train people from communities of color interested in pursuing film as a career throughout the United States.

Glover and Barnes’ Louverture Films organization is all the more inspiring in light of Glover’s deep appreciation of Louverture.  In May 2012, Guardian reporter, Stuart Jeffries published an in depth interview with Glover entitled “Danny Glover: The Good Cop.”  “When I talk about Haiti, it breaks my heart,” Glover told Jeffries.  “Yet when I think about the Haitian people’s resilience, it heals my heart at the same time.”[2]

According to Jeffries, for more than thirty years, Glover has tried to make a biopic about Louverture.  In 2006, even after assembling a cast and receiving $18 million dollars from Venezuelan president, Hugo Chávez, the film never reached completion.  Part of the reason Glover wants to create a film that honors the Haitian Revolution is because he believes that previous tributes to the revolution including C.L.R. James play that featured Paul Robeson and the French TV series that starred actor, Jimmy Jean-Louis, did not capture the magnificence and full impact of the Haitian Revolution.

In searching for other filmic representations of the Haitian Revolution, I found a fifteen-minute video about Toussaint Louverture that was created three years ago for the Museum of the African Diaspora.  Glover narrates the short video while Glenn Plummett plays Louverture.  Dr. Cornel West and Wyclef Jean are also interviewed as part of this project.

The fifteen-minute tribute includes original music by Wyclef Jean that calls Louverture the “heartbeat of freedom.”  Weaving together paintings, acting, and interviews, the tribute not only seeks to make the claim that Louverture was the primary leader of the Haitian Revolution, but also suggests by the very nature of its composition that any worthy filmic representation of the Haitian Revolution must utilize different forms of narrative expression.  Most of the history is narrated from the prison cell where Louverture was confined during the last years of his life.  By having Plummett, who plays Louverture, reflect on the leader’s life retrospectively, the filmmaker indicates that even when Louverture is physically at his weakest moment, his heart and mind are both still strong even as his body succumbs to death.

One of the most compelling scenes in this video features Dr. West juxtaposing descriptions of Napoleon Bonaparte and Louverture.  By emphasizing Bonaparte’s limited vision and Louverture’s strong connection with his black brethren, West makes the case that the fundamental difference in the leadership styles of Bonaparte and Louverture result from their social positioning.  To put differently, since Louverture was born a slave, he could identify with those enslaved and mobilize more support in a way Bonaparte could not.

While the video composed for the Museum of the African Diaspora provides a glimpse into one critical actor in the Haitian Revolution, it runs the risk of oversimplifying the revolution.  For example, by not referring to Jean-Jacques Dessalines and his interactions with Louverture, the video – especially the remarks by West – make it seem like Louverture always wanted all blacks to have freedom from the start, while C.L.R. James and other historians have suggested that this was not in fact the case.  Moreover, by only having one principle actor in the video, even though West and Wyclef reference the thousands of slaves who participated in the revolution and show paintings of these slaves, viewers are still left to believe that one man was responsible for the revolution.

My concerns with this short tribute to the Haitian Revolution and Louverture, in particular, lend themselves to speculations I have as to why the Haitian Revolution has not been made into a movie even though there are people, like Glover, who eagerly envision such a project.  First off, there are too many people involved in the Haitian Revolution and too little space in a film to represent all of the necessary participants.  Inevitably someone or some group of people would not be fully represented and this could change the way we choose to understand the Haitian Revolution.  Secondly, since the Haitian Revolution lasted from 1791-1804 it is likely that some portion of the revolution would be excluded in a filmic representation and this exclusion might devalue the full weight of this historic event.  Finally, as the short tribute to Louverture indicates, it would be very difficult to determine how to film a movie on the Haitian Revolution.  How might a filmmaker best weave together different forms of media and art to represent the drama inherent in the revolution is a question that could not be taken lightly in this endeavor.  I might supplement what I have just written by mentioning that even though a filmic representation of the Haitian Revolution might be difficult to produce this does not mean that it should not be attempted.  When I reference the difficulty of determining how to represent the Haitian Revolution, my concern is less that it cannot be done someday but more that I am not sure if film studies itself has developed its capacity to represent such an intensely dramatic event.  In other words, producing a film about the Haitian Revolution that actually does this moment in time justice might take several trials and errors.

In spite of my worries, a filmic representation of the Haitian Revolution would be an exceptional undertaking, because it has the possibility of resonating with so many different individuals.  By having West, a university professor and activist, and Wyclef, a musician, mediate the short video, the filmmaker suggests that the Haitian Revolution’s reach is widespread and unending.  If a film about the Haitian Revolution was constructed in the twenty-first century, then it could take a hint from the short video and utilize different mechanisms of storytelling to best represent the story at hand and attract as many viewers as possible.

Whether or not a film about the Haitian Revolution will be made remains to be seen.  What the tribute to Louverture from the Museum of the African Diaspora makes very evident is that whatever production results will have the challenge of teaching a group of viewers about an event that both demands and deserves more attention.



12 Years a Slave and the (third) Middle Passage

By Sandie Blaise

I went to the movie theater on Wednesday and finally saw “12 Years a Slave.” For those of you who haven’t seen it yet, it is the story of Solomon Northup, a free black man working as a musician in the state of New York, who got kidnapped in Washington D.C. in 1841 and sold into slavery in the southern states.  The movie is an adaptation of Solomon Northup’s memoirs, 12 Years a Slave, written in 1853. You can see the trailer here:



Beyond the actors’ performances and the movie itself – I hope they will win Academy Awards for such achievements – I wanted to talk about one of the points touched upon in the movie; the free black men abduction, and the way it reiterates the Middle Passage experience with the Mississippi River as an echo of the Atlantic Ocean.

After the Middle Passage and its circular trans-Atlantic trajectory bringing slaves from the coast of Africa to Brazil, the Caribbean or the United States, before circling back to Europe with goods and then Africa to start over again, the Second Middle Passage refers to the domestic slave trade as a second forced migration within the United States.


The Middle Passage


Slave auction in Alabama


Out of the 12 millions of slaves taken from Africa, about 250,000 were transported to the U.S.. After the slave trade ended in 1808, the U.S. was the only slave society in which slavery continued to develop naturally; slaves’ children were automatically enslaved when they were born, which increased slave population to 4 millions. The growth of the cotton industry led to the internal migration of slaves from the upper South to the lower South; indeed, from 1.5 million pounds of cotton produced in 1790, the country jumped to 35 million in 1800, 331 million in 1830 and had reached 2,275 million before the Civil War (see Ronald Bailey, “The Other Side of Slavery: Black Labor, Cotton, and Textile Industrialization in Great Britain and the United States,” Agricultural History, vol. 68, No. 2. Spring 1994).

This domestic slave migration dictated by the growth of the cotton industry shows how slavery cannot be separated from capitalism. Indeed, since cotton was an incredibly wanted good in the world; the cotton tended by slaves allowed planters to make money, so the more cotton planters wanted to grow, and the more slaves they needed to hand-pick it. Slaves were used as commodities by planters, but were also part of the Northern industrialists’ desire for profit too since by planting, tending and harvesting cotton, they were the first link of the industrial chain. They were the labor used to fulfill both planters and industrialists’ desire for profit. By moving down from the upper to the lower south where goods produced by slaves were sent to the north, the slave trade trajectory of the second Middle Passage reveals to be almost circular, too.

In “12 Years a Slave,” the abduction of free black men turns into what I would call a third, or an additional Middle Passage experience. After the slave trade officially stopped, and with the industrial growth of the cotton industry, slaves became a valued commodity. Slaves who had escaped slavery or former slaves who had bought their freedom and their descendants in the Northern states, like Solomon Northup, were considered free as long as they could show proof of their freedom. However, in 1793, the Fugitive Slave Act that had given effect to the Fugitive Slave Clause of the U.S. Constitution guaranteed the right of a slaveholder to recover an escaped slave. Therefore, any black person unable to show free papers could be considered a fugitive, and the person supposedly bringing them in would receive money. In 1850, a second Fugitive Slave Law was enforced, stating that fugitives could not testify in their own behalf, and that no trial by jury was provided.  As an effect of capitalism serving personal profit, one can easily see why the abduction of free black people developed in the Northern states. Here is an example of a poster warning free “colored people” against kidnappers in Massachusetts:


“Effects of the Fugitive-Slave-Law.” New York : Publ. by Hoff & Bloede, 1850.



“Kidnapping a free negro to be sold into slavery”


There were several cases of African Americans who had escaped slavery and lived as free men before being kidnapped and sold back into slavery; Thomas Sims, Shadrach Minkins, the Garner families, Anthony Burns, among too many others. Even though Solomon Northup was born a free man and never had to work as a slave, his story identifies him as one of them.


In the movie,  one of the scenes that struck me – among many others – was when, after kidnapping Northup and other African Americans, they board a ship and sail on the Mississippi towards Louisiana. Their journey on the Mississippi River strongly reminded me of the trans-Atlantic one that their parents or ancestors had lived. Both generations experienced a brutal separation from their families and land and a manifold process of dehumanization. The presence of chains around their ankles and wrists, and sometimes even muzzles on their faces turned them into commodities, and changing their names – when sold into slavery, Solomon becomes “Platt” – denied them agency through identity, further turning them into the planters’ property.

Scene from 12 Years a Slave

The abducted free men also had to experience traumatic conditions on board, and the murder of one of them followed by the decision to drop him into the water while they kept sailing towards an unknown destination strongly reminded me of the trans-Atlantic journey. At their arrival, they were exhibited naked or showing their talent (playing an instrument for instance) to future buyers who could examine them like animals or objects, hence repeating the experience they or their parents had lived at their arrival in America. This “third” Middle Passage, however, was somewhat different from the trans-Atlantic one in that even though African Americans on board probably did not know exactly where they were going, they still knew what they were going to do there. They had no illusion that slavery was what awaited them.