Cinema Like the Music

“Love Is The Message, The Message Is Death” directed by Arthur Jafa

Arthur Jafa’s unparalleled seven-and-a-half-minute-long video opens and closes with two kinds of Black hero. The first is Charles Ramsey, the man who rescued Amanda Berry in Cleveland in 2013. She and two other young women had been kidnapped, tortured and sexually abused for 10 years by Ariel Castro, a school bus driver. Charles is being interviewed by a television reporter at the site of the rescue and he says, “I knew something was wrong when a pretty little white girl ran into a Black man’s arms. Something is wrong here. Dead giveaway,” and he likes the sound of his assessment enough to repeat it. “Dead giveaway,” he says again. His enjoyment is palpable, and the reporter asks him if he knew whom he had rescued. Just as he’s about to reply, a police siren goes off in the background. Charles stops talking and turns towards the sound, and you can see an expression of fear on his face. In allowing himself to be seen as a hero, he forgot to remember that he is a Black dishwasher living on a gritty street. The siren reminds him of his status.

The hero at the end of the video is more secure. In Jafa’s estimation, James Brown is “the greatest musical performer of the 20th century,” and ending a video in which the actions of “the drop and the ascendent” figure so prominently with the recognized Godfather of Soul is a smart idea. The footage is from the TAMI Show in 1964 where Brown’s performance eclipsed everyone, including the Rolling Stones, the Beach Boys and even Chuck Berry. Brown moves in unimaginable ways and, in his over-the-top dropping, always manages to rise again. In our imaginations his is the unrepeatable, never-ending performance.

Inside this frame is a condensed history of contemporary Blackness in which the effect the heroes, heroines and villains have on us as viewers is disproportionate to the brief time they occupy the screen. Everyone, except the police, is Black and everyone is carefully chosen. Jafa is a collector of images and video, and he has said that the pictures and sequences he chose were like a readymade and that the film almost auto-assembled. In this instance, you should trust the astonishing quality of the tale and not the modesty of the teller.

Love Is The Message, The Message Is Death is the most intense, layered and explosive seven and a half minutes of video I have ever seen. Since first being shown at Gavin Brown’s Enterprise in New York in 2016, it has been exhibited at major museums including the Hirshhorn in Washington and Geffen Contemporary in LA, and copies have been acquired by the Metropolitan Museum in New York and the High Museum in Atlanta. In June of this year it was live-streamed for 48 hours by a coalition of 13 museums around the world. Jafa, who is a director, cinematographer and artist, was awarded the Golden Lion for best artist at the 2019 Venice Biennale. Other critics have called Love Is The Message, The Message Is Death a “masterpiece.” They will get no argument here.

In Jafa’s world the stars in the firmament of music, sports and ideas are no more representative and important to the totality of Black experience than neighbours, witnesses and victims of police violence. The former group is a Who’s Who of past and contemporary Black musicians, athletes, politicians, artists, activists and intellectuals. Consider this list: musicians Mahalia Jackson, who is “intensity incarnate,” Aretha Franklin, Louis Armstrong, Charlie Parker, Thomas Whitfield’s choir, Nina Simone, Miles Davis, Beyoncé, the right hand of Thelonious Monk with its custommade ring; Brooklyn’s dancer Storyboard P (“the most incredible dancer on the face of the earth”) and rapper Earl Sweatshirt; fighter Joe Louis; football players Marshawn Lynch and Odell Beckham; basketballers Michael Jordan and Steph Curry of backward pass fame; Serena Williams Crip Walking on the tennis court; artists and filmmakers Charles Burnett, Spike Lee, Frances Bodomo, Martine Syms and Noah Davis; activists Louis Farrakhan and Malcolm X, both members of the Nation of Islam; Martin Luther King; human rights advocates Ella Baker and Angela Davis; and literary theorists Hortense Spillers and Saidiya Hartman. What is remarkable is the way Jafa necklaces these figures together throughout the video.

It is important to understand that the overwhelming power of Love Is The Message is not who appears but the way that they embody a condition Jafa sees at the core of the Black experience. The “abject sublime” is basically a codification of the idea that “inside the Black continuum it is impossible to completely separate out what is magnificent about it and what is miserable.” He told Greg Tate at the Hammer Museum, 2019, “We are erased if you take out slavery. A fundamental paradoxical conundrum is that our ontological conception is bound up with horror.” He is emphasizing a present condition predicated upon a complicated and inescapable past. His argument is that being Black necessitates finding ways around the limitations imposed by that historical trap: “A double consciousness is the basis of how we think, both inside and outside, almost like a binocular cognition.” This characterization explains the doubleness of his title; the message is love and it is also death. The tidy formulation brackets the message inside a contradictory relationship that determines the rhythm of the video as it toggles between figures who have fallen and those who have ascended. In the first 25 seconds we see Swag Surfin’ at a Howard University basketball game; a sequence of Deborah Johnson, who is eight months pregnant, being detained after Fred Hampton, her fiancé and a member of the Black Panthers, was murdered by the FBI and the Chicago Police; black and white footage of a peaceful civil rights demonstration; a glimpse of Bayard Rustin, the openly gay, Marxist organizer of the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom in 1963; and a sample of Storyboard P’s uncanny mutant flex moves; just before we witness Walter Scott being shot six times in the back while running away from a policeman in South Carolina in 2015. “It’s an emblem of what we know to be true,” Jafa says, “we are always running for our lives.” When we see Cam Newton, the quarterback for the New England Patriots who wears number 1 on his jersey, heading for a touchdown, he emblematizes a different kind of life run.

That range of movement, with its attendant falls and risings, permeates the video, and its measure can be both exhilarating and devastating. In a conversation with bell hooks, Jafa said, “I push into everything that disturbs me,” and he told the Louisiana Channel that “I don’t do uplift. I’m against highs and lows.” Jafa offered an example of that aesthetic levelling in a discussion with Saidiya Hartman. (He regards talking as another way of making work and as a consequence he is a frequent and compelling interview subject.) “The sister twerking is as virtuoso as any LeBron James dunk,” he tells Hartman in explaining why that image was included. “That’s why it’s there. In Black virtuosity there is no hierarchy.”

Jafa’s narrative moves are subtle and impeccable. They are matched by his choice of Kanye West’s “Ultralight Beam,” a brilliant hybrid of hip hop, R&B and gospel, as the music track for the video. The lyrics amplify the meaning of the video so fully that they seem to have been written as a mirror to his image assembly. Jafa told Interview magazine in 2017 that he wanted “to make Black cinema with the power, beauty and alienation of Black music …, a cinema like the music.” Love Is The Message is that cinema.

Jafa’s video is an unequivocal indictment of white supremacy and a celebration of Black cultural resistance and achievement. Every image sequence is a mini-narrative, a representation that in its full viewing is either profoundly moving or equally unsettling. A little over halfway through the video, there is a sequence of three events that focus on interactions among parents, children and figures of authority. In the first, an unidentified young boy reaches out for and calls to his mother as his arm is twisted behind his back by a cop; then at the 1992 Barcelona Olympics, a British runner named Derek Redmond pulls his hamstring and is joined on the track by his father, who rushes from the stands to help his agonized son cross the finish line. The song lyrics that we hear under these sequences are from the second verse where gospel singer Kelly Price looks to the light and sings, “I know that you’ll make everything alright / And I know that you’ll take good care of your child.” In questioning that protective claim, the third sequence shows a 15-year-old bikini-clad girl named Dajerria Becton attending a pool party in McKinney, Texas, in 2015, where she is thrown to the ground by a policeman who draws his weapon and then places both his knees on her back. What Jafa includes in his video is startling enough; if you watch the entire video on YouTube, it is terrifying. The policeman is dangerously out of control and Love Is The Message provides the distillation of the encounter. All the brief incidents Jafa includes resonate outside the frame of our watching. It’s as if each image is surrounded by a kind of narrative nimbus, the tone and form of which can be luminous or dark, a halo or a cloud.

These moments question the viewer’s awareness of what we are seeing and address our responsibility to find out more. Jafa has said in numerous interviews that he is not making work for white audiences. “My secret weapon is that I am addressing Black people,” he said at the New School in 2014. “Everybody else gets to listen in.” My guess is that Black viewers don’t have to search out the source of these encounters with police; in seeing a reduction of what has occurred, they already understand the whole story.

There are generally harrowing incidents: a pair of Texas policemen pull over a Black woman and instruct her to back towards their cruiser with her hands up. Given the history of police actions in the US—and in Canada as well—it is advice well taken. What is most telling about this sequence is what happens when one of her two children gets out of the car; he also walks towards the police with his arms in the air and you hear the mother’s protest, “What are you doing?” and then her maternal concern, voiced off-camera, “Why are you terrorizing my children?”

It is significant how often children turn up in the video, most often with weighty consequences. In one particularly wrenching sequence, a four-year-old boy with eyes the size of planets looks up at his father, who says, “That’s what the police do to you,” and then he tells his son to “put your hands up against the wall.” The section from the song we hear is from the outro by preacher and singer Kirk Franklin, whose prayer is “for everybody that feels they’re too messed up / For everyone that feels they’ve said ‘I’m sorry’ too many times.” When the boy looks back with tears streaming down his face, you don’t know if the apology in the prayer is meant to criticize the father or to imagine the future encounters the boy will have with police.

As if in answer to these violations, Jafa uses West’s “god dream” refrain to play off the idea of the dream as a zone between the fall and the ascendency. The video moves from a shot of Martin Luther King sitting like a beauty queen in the back of a convertible to IceJJFish singing “I been dreamin” (“my favourite atonal R&B singer from the future”), then shifts to a gentle sequence of Arthur’s child sleeping under the shadow of a passing cell phone, and finally rises to the solar flares that Jafa regards as cosmological equivalents to the heat and intensity of Black art and culture. “The sun is the proper scale to imagine Black Americans’ lives,” he told Greg Tate. “Our shit is some epic shit.”

One of the most searing questions in the video is posed by the actress Amandla Stenberg. “What would America be like,” she wonders, “if we loved Black people as much as we love Black culture?” The answer to that question would take us all out of this world. But if Arthur Jafa is playing a god game (with a little help from his extraordinary friends), then he pulls it out of the realm of solar flares and brings it back to earth, where its beauty and wonder are no less incandescent. Down here in the everyday world, in seven minutes and 23 seconds, Love Is The Message, The Message Is Death tells us all we need to know. As the song says, this is everything. ❚

Volume 39, Number 3

This article originally appeared in Border Crossings #155, published November 2020.

Border Crossings looks at contemporary art with interest, passion and thoroughness. Subscribe to Border Crossings today for as little as $24/year.