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Narratives that Bind: Black American Diasporic Content, Netflix, and World Cinema

In: Studies in World Cinema
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Miya TreadwellEnglish and Related Literature, University of York, Heslington, York, United Kingdom, miya.treadwell@york.ac.uk

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Abstract

In this article, I argue that recent Black American narratives on Netflix intersect with and can be understood through principles of world cinema. Black American narratives have long existed outside of the Hollywood conventions that often serve as a line of demarcation in world cinema scholarship. Building on Lúcia Nagib’s definition of world cinema () and her concept of realistic modes of production (2020a/2020b), I show how contemporary Black American narratives on Netflix are sustaining a diasporic perspective. Although originating in the US, its marginalized production and preoccupations with colonial dynamics or racial and geographical inequality help to regard this content as a mode of world cinema. Moreover, as In Our Mothers’ Gardens () and High on the Hog () demonstrate, these connections with world cinema have been intensified by Netflix’s production model.

Abstract

In this article, I argue that recent Black American narratives on Netflix intersect with and can be understood through principles of world cinema. Black American narratives have long existed outside of the Hollywood conventions that often serve as a line of demarcation in world cinema scholarship. Building on Lúcia Nagib’s definition of world cinema (2006) and her concept of realistic modes of production (2020a/2020b), I show how contemporary Black American narratives on Netflix are sustaining a diasporic perspective. Although originating in the US, its marginalized production and preoccupations with colonial dynamics or racial and geographical inequality help to regard this content as a mode of world cinema. Moreover, as In Our Mothers’ Gardens (2021) and High on the Hog (2021) demonstrate, these connections with world cinema have been intensified by Netflix’s production model.

Recent content from Netflix has been celebrated for the nuance it brings to Black narratives, such as diasporic connections within Black American culture. In this article, I argue this content is the product of Black American history and aesthetics that intersect with and can be understood through principles of world cinema. Black American narratives have long existed outside of the commercial, Hollywood conventions that often serve as a line of demarcation in world cinema scholarship. These narratives reflect the international scope of a Black diaspora – the African, Caribbean, and Latinx influences underpinning Black American art and culture. The creative aesthetics and political discourses of twentieth century movements, including the Harlem Renaissance, Black Arts movement, and Third Cinema, exemplify this scope and continue to inform contemporary Black American representations. Building on Lúcia Nagib’s definition of world cinema (2006) and her theory about realistic modes of production (2020a/2020b), I show how contemporary Black narratives produced and distributed by Netflix are developing content from a diasporic perspective. Although originating in the US, its marginalized production and preoccupations with colonial dynamics or racial and geographical inequality help to regard this content as a mode of world cinema. Moreover, as the examples below demonstrate, these connections with world cinema have only been intensified by Netflix’s production model.

In her definition of world cinema, Lúcia Nagib bypasses simple paradigms of “alternative” or “other” that center Hollywood conventions and narratives. Nagib argues:

World cinema is not a discipline, but a method, a way of cutting across film history according to waves of relevant films and movements thus creating flexible geographies. A positive, inclusive, democratic concept, world cinema allows all sorts of theoretical approaches, provided they are not based on the binary perspective.

2006: 31

Nagib opens an avenue for the exploration of Black American film as a local or regional cinema within American national cinema, complicating the prominence of Hollywood. Nagib also posits realist cinema as world cinema, locating realism in modes of production. Of streaming platforms, she notes the benefits and drawbacks for world cinema; namely a wider availability versus the potential of titles to be rendered invisible by algorithmic recommendation systems (Nagib, 2020a: 15–35). Therefore, Nagib provides a framework for examining Black American content produced and distributed by Netflix as world cinema by analyzing production processes and the accessibility the platform affords in comparison to traditional avenues (e.g., film festivals).

Rajinder Dudrah utilizes Nagib’s “polycentric” definition of world cinema and inquiries about diasporic cinema by Dennison and Lim (2006) to analyze the historical, political, and cultural particularities of Black British cinema (2012: 114). Dudrah asserts that Black British cinema is both diasporic and British by discussing how representations counter a binary position where Blackness is seen as separate and apart from a British ideal synonymous with whiteness. He concludes:

If a concept of polycentric world cinema is a democratic one which enables us to see, hear and experience the world and its cinemas as interconnected and interrelated (Nagib 2006: 34–5), the Black British diasporic cinema is very much part of this while also striving to extend the intellectual and conceptual configurations of this term and move it beyond its current parameters.

dudrah, 2012: 126

By foregrounding cinema as “interconnected and interrelated,” world cinema becomes a framework to examine depictions that resist boundaries and binaries. I apply Dudrah’s approach to Black American narratives on Netflix to demonstrate how these representations reflect a history and culture that is both diasporic and American. In Our Mothers’ Gardens (2021), directed by Shantrelle P. Lewis, and High on the Hog: How African American Cuisine Transformed America (2021), directed by Academy Award winner Roger Ross Williams, are the continuation of diasporic exchanges in international movements of Black consciousness. These projects also continue visual and narrative conventions established by Black independent filmmaking during the late twentieth century. Each relates to world cinema as narratives that embody “flexible geographies” and the function of Netflix as a site for this to take place.

The production and acquisition of these projects by Netflix and the streaming platform’s international reach facilitate the transmission of Black American screen content in a manner not previously achieved. These narratives about Black Americans are imbued with international explorations, detailing intrinsic and varied worldly ties. In analyzing a documentary and docuseries, I draw parallels to the historical and political significance of Black documentaries and aesthetic depictions of Black life by Black independent filmmakers such as Charles Burnett. Nagib invites an expansion of world cinema to include documentary filmmaking by theorizing “measurable” cinematic realism derives from modes of production, which include: “the physical engagement on the part of crew and cast with the profilmic event; the near-identity between the cast and their roles; real location shooting; the audiovisual medium’s inherent indexical property; and the engagement with works of art in progress” (2020a: 30). These modes of production align with documentary filmmaking, particularly interactions with the “profilmic event,” “real location shooting,” and “engagement with works of art in progress” in documentaries revolving around cultural interviews and explorations. Further, I contend that the documentary and docuseries are indicative of Netflix content par excellence. Since 2013, Netflix has dedicated considerable resources to producing original programming, including numerous documentaries and docuseries, shifting how viewers watch nonfiction films and programs (Sharma, 2016). These original documentaries and docuseries are characterized by high-quality visuals and audio comprising sociopolitical and cultural narratives that entice viewers to watch and binge.

Netflix, despite being an American media institution, is the technological embodiment of what Nagib calls “flexible geographies.” The platform’s catalog design has the capacity to place a multitude of titles alongside one another based on algorithmic categorization. As such, Black American film and titles demonstrative of other geographies can physically co-exist, allowing viewers to make connections beyond the binary of “the West and the rest.” For example, the Strong Black Lead category includes Lupin (a French production starring Omar Sy, 2021) alongside The Harder They Fall (a British and American production directed by Jeymes Samuel and produced by Shawn Carter, 2021). Black narratives, in opposition to Hollywood stereotypes, can exemplify how geographies relating to a Black diaspora are always in a state of fluctuation, with migration and immigration patterns establishing new configurations that are then reflected in artistic, cinematic collaborations. Essentially, this newspaper stand layout is illustrative of “flexible geographies” and of diasporic perspectives available on Netflix.

By analyzing depictions of Black womanhood and survival in In Our Mothers’ Gardens and Black American culinary traditions in High on the Hog, I illustrate how Netflix is expanding the concept of world cinema to include documentaries and docuseries exploring historical, cultural, and spiritual links to a Black diaspora. I compare the documentary and docuseries to their literary source materials and analyze production processes to demonstrate realism in the depictions of African and Caribbean bonds in Black American culture – most aptly, the representations of race and class struggles in America that correlate on an international scale. Lastly, I consider how Netflix’s expansion of Black content is an undeniable business strategy, and therefore, more radical content could be diminished in favor of profit.

Diasporic Influences: Black American Art and Culture

The concept of a Black diaspora equates to the mass movement of Black people and the resulting interconnectivity across communities, cultures, and countries. Colonialism and the Transatlantic Slave trade dramatically shifted social demographics through enslavement and westward expansion for nearly four centuries. Shona N. Jackson explains how “modern, chattel slavery” began in 1510 and resulted in “the transportation of 24.7 million blacks across the globe, with 10.7 million to the Americas” (2018: 53). Subsequently, the notion of Blackness in the twentieth century was transformed by international movements, constituting diasporic exchanges through mass migrations of African, Black American, and Caribbean people. The Great Migration of Black Americans from the American South to urban centers in the North and vast lands in the West also includes the movements of immigrants from Africa, the Caribbean, and South America. Food historian Dr. Jessica B. Harris, author of High on the Hog: A Culinary Journey from Africa to America (2012), uses the commonality of food to explore how cooking facilitated some of these exchanges and how African produce continues to be integral to the western, American diet and has been since before the nation’s founding.

Harris’s book is the source material for the 2021 Netflix docuseries and chronicles this mass exodus from the South to cities in the North through specific foods and recipes. Harlem becomes one of many northern neighborhoods steeped in cultures and food staples from Africa. “By the 1920s,” Harris writes, “the true mecca for many heading north from the sharecropping fields of the South was New York City, with its growing beacon for the black world: Harlem” (2012: 173). The migration and immigration patterns of the early twentieth century and the ripple effects from generations of colonialism and enslavement comprised this “black world.” Harlem, an epicenter for Black American culture on an international scale, was also the site for the emergence of the Harlem Renaissance or New Negro Renaissance, a Black cultural movement where artists proclaimed a sense of pride and welcomed international collaborations. “Seen from an international perspective,” writes George Hutchinson, “the Harlem Renaissance was part of a global phenomenon in which cultural nationalisms […] were mobilized against imperialisms economic, political, and cultural” (2007: 4).

The wider impact of the Harlem Renaissance is evident in the international and diasporic movements it inspired. The literature emanating from Harlem began to resonate with Black students in 1930s Paris, as prominent Black Americans traveled to Europe to escape racial discrimination in the US. The writings of Martinican poet Aimé Césaire, French Guianese poet Léon Damas, and poet-theorist, later Senegalese president, Léopold Sédar Senghor, sparked the Négritude movement, which spanned into the 1960s and later informed the Black Arts Movement. Influenced by the Harlem Renaissance, Césaire, Damas and Senghor attended “salon(s)” in Paris frequented by prolific Black American writers including Langston Hughes and Jamaican-American poet Claude McKay. Souleymane Bachir Diagne discusses the significance of the Harlem Renaissance, these international intellectual exchanges, and concludes, “[w]ith the writers of the Harlem Renaissance movement, they (Cesaire, Damas, Senghor) found an expression of black pride, a consciousness of a culture, an affirmation of a distinct identity that was in sharp contrast to French assimilationism” (Diagne, 2018). As Harlemites explored Blackness outside the limits of America, the architects of Négritude were inspired by “an expression of black pride” and applied it to wider cultural contexts in opposition to colonial ideologies. In this sense, Blackness in the twentieth century, through these international exchanges, evolved into cyclic movements across a Black diaspora, including Black Americans and constantly informing one another.

The emergence of the Black Arts Movement during the mid-1960s was one result of these kindred cultural relationships across a diaspora. Amiri Baraka (then LeRoi Jones), influenced by Négritude and the writings of Césaire, named and founded the Black Arts Movement by opening the Black Arts Repertory Theater in 1960s Harlem (Traylor, 2009: 62). The Black Arts Repertory Theater became an institution dedicated to reconfiguring theater, music, poetry, and performance outside of a white western standard by showcasing the work of poet-theorists Larry Neal, Askia Mohammed Touré, and other Black artists of the period. Expressions of Blackness, specifically tracing Black American heritage back to African roots was one of the movement’s focal points, from incorporating rituals and spirituals to spoken word poetry and Bopera (Black opera). Discussing the impact of Négritude and Césaire on Baraka, Eleanor W. Traylor draws parallels between Baraka’s hopes for the Black Arts Repertory Theater and Césaire’s Return to My Native Land (1939). For Traylor, Baraka “is signifying the international consciousness and reach of his generation” by invoking Césaire’s “black consciousness as subject and as stylistic prosody in French poetry” (2009: 62–63). Therefore, an international scope was built into the fabric of the Black Arts Movement from its inception, and this is continued through the movement’s impact on contemporary Black artists exploring global lineages.

Furthermore, the prominence of Black women writers within the Black Arts Movement reimagined the concept of femininity, countering definitions that foreground white womanhood, and redefined dynamics between Black men and women, countering patriarchal social norms. There was a new focus on expressing the realities of Black women in their attempt to occupy space in a white supremacist, capitalist, and patriarchal society. In an anthology publication, In Search of Our Mothers’ Gardens: Womanist Prose, Alice Walker expands on her initial 1972 theory about Black womanhood and creativity in the face of oppression, naming it “womanism” to define a feminism inclusive of Black women (1984: xi-xii). Likewise, there was an expansion of Black documentary filmmaking during this period, coinciding with public arts funding and grounded in historical discourse. Clyde Taylor, comparing Black documentary filmmaking from the 1960s and 1990s, argues that “[t]he available pattern suggests that the pronounced themes and strategies in black documentaries in one period or another demonstrate an intellectual response to a specific call from history, and to current challenges of filmmaking possibility” (1999: 126). I argue that In Our Mothers’ Gardens (2021), where Lewis continues a discourse initiated by Walker, and High on the Hog (2021), where Black American culinary history is inclusive of a Black diaspora, similarly respond to a historical moment and challenges in media production, including the Covid pandemic, heightened racial divisions, and the prevalence of docuseries on streaming platforms.

In addition to Black expression and documentaries, a cohort of African and Black American student filmmakers at ucla, known as the L.A. Rebellion, were developing an independent filmmaking practice. From the 1960s to the 1980s, the L.A. Rebellion challenged conventions of narrative, setting, and characterization in realist representations of Black life with a myriad of influences, including Italian neorealism, British documentary, and Third Cinema (Field et al., 2015: 4). The L.A. Rebellion of African and Black American filmmakers was demonstrative of a countercinema, a politically radical response to blaxploitation images and prescriptive narratives of the classic Hollywood model. Paula J Massood, analyzing Charles Burnett’s Killer of Sheep (1977) set in post-Civil Rights Watts, Los Angeles, writes that the film’s “polyphonic combination of documentary and fictional modes” amounts to “the formulation of an aesthetic that dialogued with and refracted a unique set of cultural conditions” shared by Third Cinema and L.A. Rebellion filmmakers (1999: 40). These filmmakers used a range of techniques – fiction, nonfiction, or a combination of the two – to distinctively represent their culture and communities. In Our Mothers’ Gardens and High on the Hog continue this dialogue and refraction with Netflix as a mechanism for wider visibility and international distribution.

The aesthetic influence of Third Cinema on the L.A. Rebellion and subsequent Black independent filmmaking also solidifies a link between world cinema and Black American film, which becomes explicit through Nagib’s vision “of cutting across film history according to waves of relevant films and movements” (2006: 31). Established in Latin America during the late 1960s and later expanding to Africa and Asia, Third Cinema utilized historical, social, and economic narratives with the goal of awakening a political consciousness in which “[t]he world is scrutinised, unravelled, rediscovered” (Solanas and Getino, 1969). In their account of the L.A. Rebellion, Allyson Nadia Field, Jan-Christopher Horak, and Jacqueline Najuma Stewart argue: “Third Cinema provided a model of activist filmmaking that posited film as a medium that can bring about meaningful change in the minds and lives of its audiences” (2015: 3). By following Third Cinema’s “model of activist filmmaking,” films by the L.A. Rebellion connect social, political, and economic issues both specific to Black subjects and with ties to “global anti-imperialist fights” (2015: 23). The L.A. Rebellion filmmakers highlighted the struggles of poor and working-class Black people, using film as a social practice, to advocate for social change and shift away from a focus on integration and the Black middle-class that dominated the Civil Rights movement.

Field, Horak, and Stewart note the contributions of Teshome Gabriel, the late ucla professor and Third Cinema scholar, who worked closely with these emerging filmmakers. Gabriel, in Third Cinema in the Third World: The Aesthetics of Liberation (1979), outlines the principles of Third Cinema in terms of “an aesthetic of liberation: to decolonize minds, to contribute to the development of a radical consciousness, to lead to a revolutionary transformation of society, and to develop a new film language with which to accomplish these tasks” (qtd. in Field et al., 2015: 23). The L.A. Rebellion imbued Black American film with a “new film language” grounded in social activism and cultural reflection by visualizing social and economic disparities in alignment with international struggles. James Chapman demonstrates how Third Cinema as a movement “flourished during the period of greatest Third World militancy,” but owing to conservative political shifts in the 1970s, was relatively short-lived. Chapman asserts that the movement’s overall brevity has led some western scholars to attempt to “extend the Third Cinema paradigm to include oppositional films in non-Third World countries” (2003: 319). However, the tangible impact of Third Cinema on the work of L.A. Rebellion filmmakers demonstrated by Gabriel and the cohort’s ensuing influence on Black American filmmaking reveal the perpetuation of an international and politically radical outlook.

The historical and artistic interconnectivity across a Black diaspora is now converging in recent projects by Black creators. Traces of the work from filmmakers like Haile Gerima (Sankofa, 1993) and Julie Dash (Daughters of the Dust, 1991) inform contemporary documentaries exploring Black American culture through a diasporic lens. The limited avenues of distribution for the L.A. Rebellion and Black independent filmmakers have, to some degree, been alleviated by the advent of streaming platforms and the international reach of digital technology. Since Netflix’s expansion into original programming in 2013, documentary filmmaking and content creation have boomed for niche, local markets around the world. Sudeep Sharma evaluates documentaries as part of Netflix’s original programming and observes:

It [Netflix] has made feature-length documentary a core pillar of its service, both as a way to highlight its connection to quality cinema and to distinguish its catalog from more mundane forms of television programming. This emphasis on documentary has been a major factor in the growth of Netflix […].

2016: 143

This investment in documentaries expanded to embrace a proliferation of docuseries as well. Netflix, combining tenets of television and cinema, has produced content that is a hybrid of cinematic quality visuals and episodic narratives about real people and events (e.g., Chef’s Table (2016), Street Food (2019), The Last Dance (2020). The docuseries format by Netflix embodies Ramon Lobato’s definition of the platform as a “hybrid tv-cinema-digital media distribution system” and reinforces the practice of binge-watching that is specific to digital streaming (2019: 44). Further, Netflix’s marketing initiatives, such as Strong Black Lead, both highlight connections across a spectrum of content and demonstrate cultural and geographical distinctions.

In Our Mothers’ Gardens

How simple a thing it seems to me that to know ourselves as we are, we must know our mothers’ names.

alice walker, quoted in In Our Mothers’ Gardens (2021)

The documentary In Our Mothers’ Gardens, directed by Shantrelle P. Lewis, builds on the literature of Black women authors such as Alice Walker, Toni Morrison, and Nikki Giovanni, among others. The film takes its title from Walker’s 1972 essay “In Search of Our Mothers’ Gardens,” in which the author speculates about how Black women, confronting both racial and patriarchal oppression, were able to express themselves even while having their innate creativity stifled in comparison to white counterparts (1984: 231–243). While Walker unearths the complex interiority of Black women, Lewis takes it as a given in a reflective and celebratory work.

Lewis creates a curated aesthetic to spark curiosity within the viewer. In an interview following the film’s release, she contends that: “[e]very visual aspect of the film functions to bring people home, make people feel comfortable, and to then leave the theater, their computer, their television in their living room, and call their mother, or journal, or reflect” (Hunt, 2021). Inflected with Black American spiritual customs, a mixture of traditional African religions (e.g., Vodun, Yoruba, Santeria, and Igbo) and Western Christianity, the documentary recognizes an inextricable link between Black American, Caribbean, and African cultures. Interviews with mothers and daughters represent dynamics between a migrant parent and a first-generation child and illustrate tangible African and Caribbean cultural touchstones. With stories about families from Chicago and New Orleans to South Africa and Sierra Leone, the interviews encompass a Black diaspora. Critically, the documentary applies a spiritual approach to exploring the intricacies of Black womanhood through ancestral knowledge and lineages.

To bring the garden into focus, Lewis conducts a series of interviews with notable Black women across arts, culture, and academia. Interviewees include Tarana Burke, founder of the #MeToo movement, Brittney Cooper, professor and author of Eloquent Rage: A Black Feminist Discovers Her Power (2018), and Dr. Koko Zauditu-Selassie, professor of African spirituality and Black American literature. The documentary aligns with Christina N. Baker’s concept of the “womanist artistic framework” (2018) and Bill Nichols’s expository and participatory modes of documentary filmmaking (2017) through its interview structure. Each interview functions as evidence countering conventional narratives and is supplemented by Lewis’s participation, in front of and behind the camera. The revelatory interviews invite sociopolitical and cultural reflections within the viewer coinciding with world cinema discourses about the possibility of film to instigate a “political consciousness” and the use of film as activism that underscored Third Cinema’s impact on the L.A. Rebellion.

In Contemporary Black Women Filmmakers and the Art of Resistance (2018), Baker draws from Alice Walker’s theory and the literature of Patricia Hill Collins, bell hooks, Kimberlé Crenshaw, and others “to best capture the unique relationship between race, gender, social context, and creativity involved in the work of Black women filmmakers” (2018: 10). Outlining how filmmaking becomes a method of resistance within the “womanist artistic framework,” Baker writes:

Whereas dominant cultural ideologies historically and presently represent Black women as hypersexual Jezebels, emasculating Sapphires and matriarchs, welfare queens, or subservient mammies, Black women filmmakers create nuanced images and narratives that draw from their histories, experiences, and perspectives.

2018: 16–17

In Our Mothers’ Gardens is indicative of this framework in its most direct form. Lewis is drawing specifically from her experience and those of her contemporaries to present a narrative about Black women in opposition to “dominant cultural ideologies” of Jezebels, Sapphires, and mammies. These women are allowed to speak for themselves on camera and counter stereotypical representations. A nuanced and complex characterization of Black women is rendered in moments of vulnerability and the lessons learned across generations. In this sense, the documentary also resembles the generational reflections of filmmaker and L.A. Rebellion alum Julie Dash in her seminal Daughters of the Dust (1991).

The documentary resists and deconstructs stereotypes of the “mammy and strong Black mother” by exploring Black motherhood and the legacies therein (Baker 2018: 82). It offers a space to unpack personal histories representative of greater cultural practices, including the traumas pushed aside while basic survival took precedence. Segments titled “the grandmothers,” “their daughters, our mothers” – among others – profile maternal lineages of at least three generations and reveal an interiority through reflection that is absent in reductive depictions of Black women in Hollywood narratives. In defining modes of documentary, Nichols describes the expository mode as a direct address of the viewer “with titles or voices that tell a story, propose a perspective, or advance an argument” (2017: 121). I contend that Lewis tells a diasporic story regarding Black American culture and womanhood. Therefore, the documentary provokes an analysis rooted in world cinema through Nagib’s framing of realist cinema and by expanding on Dudrah’s approach to diasporic cinema.

The collage aesthetic throughout the documentary also functions to illustrate a diasporic perspective inherent in Black American culture and narratives as well as Lewis’s background as an art curator. To trace the lineages of the interviewees, each names where their family originated and where they grew up, and a picture of a diaspora begins to emerge. In some cases, a collage of flowers, landscapes, and family photos is the background for a picture frame in which the interview footage is enclosed. Yolanda Sangweni, Senior Director of Programming at npr (National Public Radio), recalls her mother being a political prisoner in South Africa: “My mother was a political prisoner in South Africa, and we came here (America) because of a letter-writing campaign by Amnesty International that freed her. It was the 1970s, South Africa apartheid. People like Steve Biko were in her world, and she got politicized” (2021). A photoshopped collage of colorful flowers, the South African coast, and a photo of Sangweni’s mother is the background for a picture frame in which Sangweni’s interview is projected. As Sangweni details being detained with her mother when she was a child, the digital and filmic apparatus is revealed. Footage of the actual photoshop process shows how the final collage was created, bringing attention to the documentary’s mode of production with various artistic processes comprising the feature.

Lewis describes the collage aesthetic as a collaboration with Kenyan artist Bouba Doula, and an innovation resulting from restrictions imposed by the Covid pandemic. Lewis states, “I was limited by covid, I couldn’t get the cinema verité footage that I would have loved to get. So, I ended up working with a young graphic designer based in Kenya, Bouba Doula. On her Instagram page, she has what I call mortises. She does a lot of collage work using historical photos” (Hunt, 2021). Lewis’s collaboration with Bouba Doula informs, in part, the diasporic perspective of the film’s narrative and realist aesthetic. In deconstructing the photoshop process, the documentary exemplifies “the inclusion of artworks in progress within the film” in Nagib’s concept of realistic modes of production (2020a: 27). Further, the collage aesthetic combined with the “Black Barbie Moses” and “Nap Ministry” interludes – artistic commercials about Black culture and the importance of self-care for Black women, that are set in-between interview segments – reflect Lewis’s art curation and experimentation with the production process.

From the interviewees to the collage aesthetic, In Our Mothers’ Gardens demonstrates a diasporic culture and realistic modes of production. The most direct correlation between the documentary and Walker’s essay as well as Nagib’s theory is evident in the extended interviews and sequences with Zauditu-Selassie in her home, in her garden. Nagib further defines realistic modes of production, asserting that “[…] the illusionistic fictional thread (if it exists) interweaves with documentary footage and/or approach, as well as with crew and cast’s direct interference with the historical world, aimed not only at highlighting the reality of the medium but also at producing, as well as reproducing, social and historical reality” (2020a: 30). Sequences with Zauditu-Selassie include the voice of Lewis behind the camera prompting questions or responding as well as the initial set-up and maneuvering of the crew to adhere to social distancing requirements regarding Covid-19.

Zauditu-Selassie, surrounded by a multitude of houseplants, family photos, and heirlooms, removes her face mask to begin exhibiting her handcrafted jewelry with each piece correlating with a personal, family anecdote or her extensive knowledge about African spiritual symbols and customs (shown in Figure 1). Holding a metal replica and describing the significance of the Duafe symbol, Zauditu-Selassie explains:

Everything that I make, I kind of channel what kind of energy that I want to represent me and express me […] Even if they’re a knock-off of a traditional style like the Duafe, the comb that the Akan people used to assign the idea of the proverb of femininity and women’s beauty […].

2021
Figure 1
Figure 1

Dr. Koko Zauditu-Selassie, surrounded by Black diasporic art and family photos. In Our Mothers’ Gardens. Frame grab.

Citation: Studies in World Cinema 2, 1-2 (2022) ; 10.1163/26659891-bja10014

These sequences bring the viewer face-to-face with an immense source of knowledge and wisdom. Zauditu-Selassie becomes the anchoring mother figure of the documentary, offering the moral “[…] the ax forgets, the tree remembers. You can’t have a short memory and be Black. You open yourself up for attack. You gotta have a long memory cause you’re singing a long song” (2021). In a media interview, Lewis reflects this paradigm by detailing her relationship with Zauditu-Selassie, addressing her as “Mama Koko,” and expressing that “they (our mothers) made sacrifices for us, so now we’re standing squarely in the garden, trying to excavate and figure out what’s there […] And what steps do we have to take to plant our own. So, I think that’s where this film enters the conversation and picks up where Walker leaves off” (Hunt, 2021). These statements connect the sentiments of Walker’s essay with Nagib’s theory, examining the creative capacities of Black women and the social progress achieved across generations. Lewis also shows the realities of the filming process by showcasing the historical moment of the Covid pandemic and its impact on the production process. Walker concludes her essay with a statement of purpose, declaring that “[g]uided by my heritage of a love of beauty and a respect for strength – in search of my mother’s garden, I found my own” (1984: 243). This is the guiding principle of Lewis’s documentary; the viewer becomes empowered with the tools to excavate their own gardens based on a realist representation cultivated through modes of productions.

As an independent project, In Our Mothers’ Gardens was acquired by array, director Ava DuVernay’s film distribution collective. The documentary premiered simultaneously in select cinemas and on Netflix on May 6, 2021, through a partnership between array and Netflix. array, invested in exhibiting independent content from marginalized voices, partnered with Netflix in 2016 and has released numerous projects including They’ve Gotta Have Us (director Simon Frederick, 2018), Justine (director Stephanie Turner, 2019), and Residue (director Merawi Gerima, 2020). The array website describes the collective as “dedicated to distributing and exhibiting independent films made by Black artists, people of color and women of all kinds” (2022). The stated mission of array and the global markets that inform Netflix correlate with an impetus to distribute content as varied as an international base of subscribers. However, the nature of features acquired by array is decidedly niche and Netflix’s algorithm that recommends content to subscribers can prioritize original programming and licensed Hollywood offerings. Viewers who are already inclined to seek out this type of content will be able to navigate Netflix’s library, but the platform is not curated in a manner reminiscent of art house cinemas or independent film festivals.

On Netflix, documentaries such as In Our Mothers’ Gardens are simultaneously visible – available in various countries – and invisible – at the mercy of selective algorithms. Of the streaming platform’s “hybrid business model,” Kevin McDonald argues that it’s “[…] one that synthesizes the technological savvy of an internet company with the leverage of a vertically integrated media company, combining the control of programming content with favorable access to interlinked distribution and exhibition networks” (2016: 204). While Netflix can be said to be expanding the perception of world cinema, it still promotes conventional narratives and has simply relocated the vertical integration (production, distribution, and exhibition) of the classic Hollywood studio system to a digital space with both global and local influence. This model does not ensure that Netflix will habitually seek radical content or shield the platform from appropriating independent aesthetics to align with mainstream sensibilities.

High on the Hog

We are a race that never before existed: a cobbled-together mixture of Africa, Europe, and the Americas. We are like no others before us or after us.

jessica b. harris, High on the Hog: A Culinary Journey from Africa to America (2012)

While In Our Mothers’ Gardens explores ancestral lineages and self-reflection as the basis of identity and interpersonal relationships, the Netflix original docuseries High on the Hog: How African American Cuisine Transformed America, directed by Roger Ross Williams, uses food to evaluate historical, sociopolitical, and cultural aspects of America often obfuscated by conventional narratives. The host of the docuseries is Stephen Satterfield, a food writer, chef/sommelier, and founder of Whetstone media company. High on the Hog builds on and is named for the work of culinary historian Dr. Jessica B. Harris. As a journalist, professor, and author, Harris has written extensively about the connections between African foodstuffs and Black American cuisine, tracing a culinary lineage from Africa that begins before the Transatlantic Slave trade and includes contemporary Juneteenth celebrations, a holiday marking the official end of chattel slavery in the US on June 19, 1865. Comprising four episodes that follow the chronology of Harris’s book, the first series of High on the Hog makes clear that Black Americans are fundamental to American food staples and, therefore, the nation itself. In this endeavor, the docuseries distinguishes itself from other food and travel programs where typically a white host acts as a tour guide in a foreign place (e.g., Bizarre Foods with Andrew Zimmern, 2006–2018). It also aligns with world cinema discourses in its depiction of Satterfield’s self-discovery through explorations of food culture.

The series attests to the wealth of America being founded on the agricultural acumen of enslaved Africans and the produce of the African continent (e.g., varieties of rice). High on the Hog draws on various aspects of food and travel media such as a host traveling to numerous locations, sampling staple dishes, and interviewing local chefs and vendors. The series also adopts a diasporic perspective, documenting a pilgrimage of self-discovery with Satterfield engaging with aspects of his history and heritage. The first episode, “Our Roots,” begins at the source, Africa, and is demonstrative of a Black American desire to rediscover African roots – a desire illustrated throughout Black movements and that is palpable throughout the episode. In this sense, Satterfield is a potential surrogate for the Black American viewer, investigating a previously little known but undeniably impactful history. Crucially, High on the Hog relates diasporic concepts of Black Americans journeying to the African continent to rediscover a decidedly strained ancestral connection. The docuseries adheres to themes of community and ancestry present across Black cultural movements like the Harlem Renaissance, Négritude and the Black Arts Movement. The sense of shared cultural connections across a diaspora and the exploration of a marginal subject, Black American food traditions, is in accordance with world cinema scholarship about realist narratives and countering western normativity in media representations.

Although the docuseries does not invoke the same sense of realism as Nagib observes in Joshua Oppenheimer’s groundbreaking The Act of Killing (2012), in which the director immerses himself among dangerous individuals and learns Indonesian over an extensive period, High on the Hog adopts a comparable realism in its modes of production (2020b: 87–106). The first episode takes place in Benin, West Africa, and highlights the sights, sounds, and tastes present to explain the significance of African foodstuffs, the lasting legacies of colonialism and chattel slavery but also the cultural preservation that exists. Beginning at the Dantokpa Market, Satterfield is joined by Harris and recognizes familiarity in his surroundings (shown in Figure 2). Satterfield remarks:

It was strange to come home to a place I had never been. Fragments of a lost memory were everywhere. In the sounds and smells and tastes. Deciding to trace the origins of the food that had come to define America was one thing, but being on the continent and feeling it? That was completely another.

Figure 2
Figure 2

Stephen Satterfield and Dr. Jessica B. Harris at the Dantokpa Market in Cotonou, Benin. High on the Hog. Frame grab.

Citation: Studies in World Cinema 2, 1-2 (2022) ; 10.1163/26659891-bja10014

Satterfield perceives the magnitude of being in Africa as essential to drawing parallels between African and Black American cuisines and cultures. Of starting in Benin and Satterfield’s perceptions, Osayi Endolyn writes “[h]is sentiment echoes the experiences of many Black Americans who have traversed the Atlantic in search of connection and insight on the African continent, putting back ancestral pieces that were displaced centuries ago” (2021). The camera and ambient sounds affirm this piecing back together of history by capturing their interactions in the market while encountering okra, true yams, and an assortment of rice varieties. Their impact on the “profilmic event” becomes evident as customers and vendors react to both their inquiries and the filming apparatus (Nagib, 2020a: 16).

The docuseries uses graphics and archival images to illustrate the historical movements of African foods and people to the new world, emphasizing the way Satterfield’s journey follows the same pathways Harris outlines in the source material. Satterfield travels to Abomey to learn about the Dahomey Kingdom, of the Amazon women warriors, and its role in the Transatlantic Slave trade. He observes: “I felt as though I was stepping back in time in Abomey. I mean, this is a place where you can still walk the actual road the enslaved walked. It was a vile march. A march that ended in a city called Ouidah, where so many of us left, never to return again.” Aerial and tracking footage show Satterfield walking a long road of red clay dirt, placing him into the historical context and ultimately connecting the sanguine dirt of Abomey to that of Georgia, USA. Satterfield speaks with historian Gabin Dijmassé, who explains how the journey progressed and the extent to which there was cooperation between Africans and Europeans during the slave trade, stating “we have to go down this road because it is a very important part of our history. And to ignore it is to ignore a part of ourselves.” Again, Satterfield’s engagement with the environment reveals the realism of the docuseries and creates a nuanced understanding of Black American cultural history that is inclusive of a diaspora.

However, the docuseries’ nods to the horrors of the middle passage pale in comparison to the detailed history Harris provides in the source material. Harris, discussing the environment where the enslaved were held before being shipped across the Atlantic, writes, “[c]aptains cajoled and bribed African rulers, traded with middlemen and factors, and bought foodstuffs from locals while they waited for enough slaves to fill the holds, which were like voracious maws gobbling up human lives” (2012: 29). The continuity of foodstuffs still impacting diets on both sides of the Atlantic brings this history into the present, while the rendering of capitalist competition and “voracious maws” invoke a clear image of brutality. The use of re-enactment could re-create this reality; however, the docuseries upholds the diasporic connection between African and Black American culture by centering Satterfield’s journey to retrace the possible path of his ancestors.

In addition to retracing ancestral links, the docuseries also demonstrates tangible connections that exist between cultures. At one point, Satterfield visits the capital city Porto Novo for a communal meal of traditional dishes that predate the Transatlantic Slave trade, hosted by Benin artist Romuald Hazoumé. Along with Harris and French Beninese food blogger Karelle Vignon-Vullierme, Satterfield and Hazoumé discuss commonalities in practices that originate in Africa and are reflected in contemporary Black American culture. While there are commonalities in the preparation of dishes, there are also similarities in the significance of community. Satterfield and guests are served kan kan (ground corn) and ayiman (fish with spicy sauce) which has its Black American counterpart in cornbread, fried fish, and hot sauce. The meal was prepared by women in the community, and it is revealed that Vullierme’s grandmother lives nearby, to which Satterfield notes a similar collectivity in his Georgia community where “[…] everyone on my block and in my church, they all raised me […].” Hazoumé affirms the connection and Satterfield concludes: “[a]nd that’s unique to our culture. It’s not just metaphorical […] And so, this connection is so magical because I’m now seeing you all as partners […] We are home.” By comparison, High on the Hog articulates an impactful cultural sojourn and not the cultural curiosity, near exoticism, prevalent in so much travel and food media.

In Ouidah, Satterfield joins Harris and visits the Door of No Return, the memorial for the lives lost to the slave trade. Harris describes “slabber sauce,” a mixture of flour, palm oil, and pepper that was fed to the enslaved, and the “speculum oris,” a device used to force-feed those who refused, their only form of protest. Satterfield emotionally concludes: “And when we talk about the unspeakable voyage so much of that story is the gruesome details that you just provided. But the latter half of that story, for me in this moment, is the one that I’m choosing to center on. And that is the story of our resilience.” Choosing to focus on resilience, Satterfield aligns himself with international Black movements of the twentieth century and a notion of Black pride based on art, protest, and liberation. Satterfield has an emotional reaction to standing at the memorial for the enslaved, including those that didn’t survive to be loaded on ships. He begins to cry while reflecting on his experience and is comforted by Harris. The camera continues to film the intimate moment and its inclusion in the episode solidifies the docuseries’ realism as well as a diasporic lens underscoring the narrative and Black American culture at large.

The docuseries, particularly the first episode, exemplifies content that counters what Kristen J. Warner defines as “plastic representation” (2017: 32–37). Recent calls for diversity through viral social media campaigns (e.g., #OscarsSoWhite, #RepresentationMatters) have led to responses in the form of sheer visibility or more people of color on screen rather than actual substantive representations. Warner writes, “[p]lastic representation operates as a system that reifies blackness into an empirical system of ‘box checking.’ It is a mode of representation that offers the feel of progress but that actually cedes more ground than it gains for audiences of color” (2017: 36). As a collaboration between Netflix and an all-Black creative team, the docuseries allows space for the telling of Black stories without foregrounding palpability for a white viewer. However, Netflix has not escaped criticisms of “plastic representation.” In 2021, Netflix faced criticisms for a succession of cancelled television shows featuring predominantly poc characters – One Day at a Time (2017), On My Block (2018), Grand Army (2020). With Grand Army, there were also accusations of racism levied against the white showrunner by a writer of color over appropriated and exploitative storylines in a series about teenagers of color (Puckett-Pope, 2020; Corry, 2021). These criticisms call into question both Netflix’s commitment to diversity and the creative power structure of a television series versus a documentary or docuseries – is there more agency with historical narratives?

In tracing African foodstuffs, the wealth founded by enslaved labor and mass migrations, and the culinary traditions that remain as evidence, High on the Hog revises American historicity outside of a white gaze and realizes an “organic representation” of Black American culture. Aymar Jean Christian and Khadijah Costly White utilize Warner’s definition of “plastic representation” as a framework to theorize “organic representation” as a solution (2020). Christian and White write, “[o]rganic representation begins when systems and institutions empower those who have been historically marginalized not only to appear in their stories but also to own and fine-tune narrative, marketing, and distribution” (2020: 144). I argue that Netflix, in partnership with Satterfield and producers Fabienne Toback and Karis Jagger, is such an institution and is empowering the “historically marginalized” through its production and distribution resources. Nonetheless, “organic representation” remains contingent on Black creatives maintaining a degree of autonomy to tell stories in an unapologetic fashion.

From its inception, High on the Hog was envisioned to exceed conventions of food and travel media to be historically and culturally significant. In a review, Lucy Mangan writes, “[t]he programme’s producers, Fabienne Toback and Karis Jagger, came across Harris’s book when they were looking, in the wake of the 2014 police killing of Michael Brown Jr. in Ferguson, for material more personally meaningful to them” (2021). The docuseries counters stereotypical and one-dimensional portrayals of Africans and Black Americans, and related cultural products as unsophisticated or uncivilized. In this sense, the docuseries continues the aims of Third Cinema as adapted by the L.A. Rebellion and contributes to world cinema by destabilizing and opposing conventional narratives. Endolyn notes the uniqueness of the docuseries and its host, asserting that “[h]e is also an urgent seeker, with something at stake in the journey – a level of palpable, emotional vibration that most network executives overlook in an industrywide tendency to get in the way of Black people telling their own stories” (2021). Crucially, the distribution of the docuseries by Netflix allows for a greater reception of this rigorous narrative than that feasible through independent avenues or a solely American broadcaster.

Conclusion

In this article, I discussed two Netflix projects that demonstrate how the platform accentuates links between Black American narratives and world cinema. Historically, Black American cultural movements have been international in scale, due to the very nature of Black American identity and history. Encompassing African, Caribbean, and Latinx ancestry and heritage, Black American culture is inherently diasporic and reflective of interconnectivity among numerous cultures, customs, and continents. Viewing Black Americans and their cultural products as solely American overlooks this historical complexity. In Our Mothers’ Gardens and High on the Hog: How African American Cuisine Transformed America invite world cinema approaches in their explorations of Black American culture, with narratives and aesthetics that emphasize and evaluate historical and ancestral lineages.

While produced and distributed by a US-based company, I have argued that these projects can be read through Nagib’s expansive definition of world cinema and theorizing of realist cinema to attend to their extensive historical and sociopolitical influences. These productions are prime examples of work that would benefit from calls in criticism for moving beyond the “West and the rest” binary that has dominated world cinema scholarship. Meta Mazaj and Shekhar Deshpande argue for a more inclusive sense of world cinema as a political imperative, declaring that “[a]ware of its trappings, we insist on the importance of totality in world cinema as a method of mapping that accounts for divergent perspectives, traditions and positions, but always through charting their interconnectedness and relationships” (2020: 41). This vision of world cinema allows Black American narratives to be examined for “divergent perspectives, traditions and positions,” while also connecting the dots to consider international “interconnectedness and relationships” including the reach of Netflix as a platform.

Further, Masha Salazkina asserts, “serious scholarly engagement with critical race theory, ethnicity, and Indigenous studies in particular will hopefully produce both exciting and proactive tensions with World Cinema scholarship” (2020: 21). Tracing the diasporic elements of Black American culture in concert with advancements in digital media must be an essential part of this critical turn. The evolution of Black American screen narratives and the trajectory of related cultural movements throughout the twentieth century continue to influence contemporary productions by Black American artists. The advent of digital streaming as a method of production and distribution provides an opportunity to bypass restrictive avenues with the potential to access a wider, international audience.

Through Nagib’s definition of world cinema and Dudrah’s approach to diasporic cinema, the multiplicity of Black American narratives becomes visible among the offerings on the platform. Netflix becomes a site to demonstrate how these narratives are both diasporic and American. While the choice of a documentary and docuseries is unconventional, Nagib’s theory of realistic modes of production coupled with Netflix’s hybridity as a platform opens an avenue for such explorations. Additionally, Netflix’s partnership with array, Whetstone, and a range of Black producers illustrate what Christian and White theorize as “organic distribution” which “can repair media systems through platforms, networks, channels and publications for women, queer people, indigenous communities […],” naming DuVernay’s collective as an example (2020: 147). While these collaborations are culturally significant, the question of the commodification inherent to Netflix remains. What are the metrics for Netflix’s investment in Black projects and what happens if these begin to wane? How does diverse representation and investment compare on other streaming platforms like Amazon Prime, Disney+, Hulu? We can assess the tensions inherent in these productions as we continue to critically assess the wider role of Netflix in world cinema.

Acknowledgments

I would like to thank Dr. JT Welsch and Professor Andrew Higson for comments on the manuscript.

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