Jeff Scheible (KCL), currently in London but raised in Philadelphia, reflects on representations of Black lives in this diverse city– lives often erased from mainstream representations of the city, but clearly visible and vibrant in the list he offers.
Black Lives in Philadelphia
Philadelphians tend to have a distinct pride in their hometown. This loyalty is surely shaped by many factors, beyond pretzels, water ice, Wawa, and cheesesteaks: its historical significance as the birthplace of the nation (where the Declaration of Independence was signed in 1776); being eclipsed by its proximity to New York City (a friend calls Philly an “armpit city”), probably compelling those who live there to advocate for its recognition; and its vibrant immigrant, ethnic, and Black communities.
The city of brotherly love of course has a rich cinematic history too: Fredrick Wiseman’s High School (a landmark work of direct cinema from 1968 documenting Northeast High School—my neighbourhood high school growing up); The Philadelphia Story starring Cary Grant, James Stewart, and Katharine Hepburn (Hepburn herself studied at the all-women’s Bryn Mawr College in the suburbs); Tom Hanks’ Oscar-winning performance in Jonathan Demme’s 1993 AIDS message movie Philadelphia; and perhaps most famously of all, Sylvester Stallone’s run up the Philadelphia Museum of Art’s steps in Rocky’s training montage. Yet these films overwhelmingly focus on the stories of white protagonists, more suggestive of patterns of representation in film history than they are of the city’s actual diversity.
It is striking that two of the most famous fictional Black Philadelphians are both conspicuously removed from Philadelphia: The Fresh Prince and Mr. Tibbs. Although the Fresh Prince of Bel-Air was set in southern California, the familiar, catchy lines in the popular 1990s sitcom’s opening credits rapped by Will Smith (“In West Philadelphia, born and raised…”) coded Philadelphia’s Blackness as dangerous every week to television audiences watching at home from the safe shelter of their living rooms. Smith’s street-smart character in the series aligned Philadelphia with racial authenticity, which in the show’s comedic formula, clashed with the upper-class stiffness of the Banks family with whom Will was sent to live.
Philadelphia is also a racially-tinged structuring absence in In the Heat of the Night (Norman Jewison, 1967), where Sidney Poitier’s Philadelphia-based police officer Virgil Tibbs begrudgingly finds himself involved in helping solve a murder case while passing through a small town in Mississippi. After Tibbs examines the deceased body and rules out the prime suspect, instead of showing gratitude for his forensic expertise, the local sheriff (Rod Steiger) calls him a “n***** boy” and asks what they call him up north. “They call me Mr. Tibbs!” Poitier responds, in one of American cinema’s most quoted lines. If in the South, Tibbs is dishonored, in Philadelphia, people show him respect.
James Baldwin’s trenchant analysis of In the Heat of the Night in The Devil Finds Work takes it to task for what he refers to—delightfully subversively—as its “fade-out kiss,” a metaphor for the final reconciliatory handshake between Tibbs and the Sheriff. The film’s narrative resolution, for Baldwin, is insidious; it abandons the messy, uncomfortable work of staying with racial tension. “[W]hite Americans,” he cautions, “have been encouraged to continue dreaming, and Black Americans have been alerted to the necessity of waking up.” Yet the film’s Hollywood ending does not lead Baldwin to dismiss it entirely; he knows better than that, and he knows that in the film’s ideological and aesthetic convolution, there is room to read with resistance: “Blacks know something about Black cops, too, even those called Mister, in Philadelphia. They know that their presence on the force doesn’t change the force or the judges or the lawyers or the bondsmen or the jails.” Baldwin’s description of his spectatorial encounter with In the Heat of the Night recognises the systemic nature of racism in ways that resonate with demands in today’s Black Lives Matter protests for widespread, structural, anti-racist change.
As Sharon Willis notes in her book The Poitier Effect, for viewers of In the Heat of the Night at the time of its release, Philadelphia would have also conjured a much smaller southern town–Philadelphia, Mississippi–where three voting rights activists were murdered by the KKK in 1964 (a story framed problematically by a white-saviour narrative in Alan Parker’s 1988 film Mississippi Burning). After the men’s “fade-out kiss” at the train station, Baldwin writes, “Virgil Tibbs goes to where they call him Mister, far away, presumably, from South Street.” Philadelphia remains offscreen, relegated only to the movie’s past—and now at the film’s end—its future. Ironically enough, the film’s 1970 sequel, They Call Me Mr. Tibbs, displaced Poitier’s character yet again, to San Francisco.
If most popular representations of Philadelphia keep Blackness offscreen, then I would like to share the following playlist of films that offer onscreen visions of the city, capture its spirit, and tell stories about African Americans living and making history there. These films don’t encourage white audiences to buy into fantasies of racial harmony through Hollywood mythology but instead, much as Baldwin was demanding of American cinema, centre Black lives and histories.
Legacy of Courage: W. E. B. DuBois and the Philadelphia Negro (Amy Hillier, 2011)
W.E.B. DuBois is often remembered for writing in The Souls of Black Folk (1903) that the “problem of the twentieth century is the problem of the color-line” and for developing the concept of “double-consciousness” to describe the extra, inescapable cognitive work required of Black people to always be self-aware but simultaneously aware of how society views them. Four years earlier, however, he published a revolutionary book that clearly shaped his views on the disenfranchisement of Black people in America: The Philadelphia Negro. Having been the first African American to earn a PhD at Harvard, he was commissioned by the University of Pennsylvania to do a study of Philadelphia’s Black population in what was then called the Seventh Ward, stretching across a few streets in Center City between the Delaware and Schuykill Rivers. The book’s centrepiece is a map DuBois made, which you can view here. There are entire books written about this book; it is based on door-to-door interviews with over 5000 Philadelphia residents, which DuBois conducted while living in the neighbourhood with his wife for two years. It is the first major study of a Black community in the US, and it is also a crucial work in the intellectual history of sociology for its integration of statistical methods. Legacy of Courage is a 20-minute documentary filmed and edited by high school and college students, overseen by Amy Hillier, a professor at University of Pennsylvania, about DuBois’s trailblazing research in Philadelphia.
Standing at the Scratch Line (Julie Dash, 2016)
Julie Dash is known for being a key figure of the L.A. Rebellion, along with filmmakers like Charles Burnett, Haile Gerima, and Jamaa Fanaka who studied filmmaking at UCLA from the late 1960s through the late 1980s. Her 1991 film Daughters of the Dust was the first feature film theatrically released in the US and received renewed attention recently for influencing Beyoncé’s Lemonade. Despite the film’s remarkable achievements, Dash struggled to get projects financed for years and has made frustratingly few works. In 2016, she was commissioned to make this short film for the Scribe Video Center’s Great Migration Project, overseen by Louis Massiah and Charles Hardy to commemorate the centenary of the Great Migration, when in the middle of World War I, Black people in the South began moving North to fill gaps in the industrial workforce, more than doubling the population of African Americans in the city. Dash’s short film combines archival photography, live-action footage, and poetic voice-over narration, focusing on Mother Bethel AME Church, the oldest African Methodist Episcopal congregation in the US.
It is available to stream on VIMEO: https://vimeo.com/180110116
[Ed: Meanwhile, Americans are lucky to have her wonderful film Illusions, available on Kanopy: https://www.kanopy.com/product/illusions-0]
Eason (Kevin Jerome Everson, 2016)
This was another film commissioned with Dash’s for the Great Migration Project. It is a loose reflection on James Walker Hood Eason, a preacher born in 1886 in North Carolina, who moved to Philly in 1916, joined the UNIA while there, and was elected the “Leader of American Negroes” at the UNIA’s first International Convention of Negro Peoples of the World in August 1920. He had a financial dispute with Marcus Garvey, and was murdered in New Orleans in 1923, allegedly by Garveyites. This 15-minute film includes present-day footage shot of a basketball team in half-time at Livingstone College in North Carolina, which Eason attended, alongside footage of employees at a SEPTA bus depot in Philadelphia. It’s currently not available online, but worth looking out for if it becomes accessible. Video Data Bank distributes many of Everson’s other shorts, and I have an essay exploring Everson’s “athletic aesthetics” in the recent issue of World Records on documentary and Blackness, which doesn’t even cover this film despite the fascinating way it depicts young athletes and black history: https://vols.worldrecordsjournal.org/03/03.
Night Catches Us (Tanya Hamilton, 2010)
Anthony Mackie plays Marcus, a former Black Panther, who returns home in 1976 to Germantown to attend his father’s funeral. (Germantown is a Northwest Philadelphia neighbourhood considered the birthplace of the American antislavery movement with the circulation in 1688 of a Quaker petition.) He reconnects with a fellow former Panther, Patricia (Kerry Washington), and her daughter, Iris (Jamara Griffin). At the time of the film’s release, Melissa Anderson of the Village Voice wrote that the rapport between Iris and Marcus “is the most touching adult-child relationship in a film this year.” Despite a great score by Philadelphia hip-hop band The Roots, this is a quiet film. It’s an understated, under-appreciated masterpiece that delicately balances a local, everyday story with the broader strokes of history.
Available to stream on Amazon in the US.
Sun Ra: A Joyful Noise (Robert Mugge, 1980)
If Night Catches Us tells a fictional story set in Germantown in the late 1970s, Sun Ra: A Joyful Noise presents documentary footage of the same neighbourhood in roughly the same time, where the Afrofuturist jazz musician Sun Ra and members of his “Arkestra” relocated in 1968. The film intersperses observations of music performance and rehearsal with interviews. New Yorker critic Richard Brody published a re-appraisal of the film in April 2020, calling it “one of the most satisfying musical portraits” he’s “ever seen.” Sun Ra’s captivating persona, music, and performance style compellingly model an alternative politics and aesthetics for our current moment.
Available to stream on Amazon in the US and the UK.
The Bombing of Osage Avenue (Louis Massiah, 1986)
MOVE is a Black liberation organization founded in Philadelphia in 1972. In 1978, a violent police siege of their house resulted in the shooting of a police officer and nine members being sentenced to 100 years in prison. In 1981, they moved into 6221 Osage Avenue, in Cobbs Creek, West Philadelphia–a mostly middle-class African-American neighbourhood. Their alternative lifestyle and rejection of the establishment caused frictions with the city. This hour-long documentary broadcast on national TV, directed by Louis Massiah (founder of Philadelphia’s Scribe Video Center) and narrated and written by Toni Cade Bambara, explores Philadelphia’s devastating intervention when, on 13 May 1985, the city’s police department coordinated an airstrike on MOVE’s rowhouse, killing 11 residents (including 5 children) and leaving 250 neighbors with homes burned to ash. There’s a more recent documentary, Let the Fire Burn (Jason Osder, 2013), detailing the event, but as Karen Redrobe (formerly Beckman) points out, it overshadows the significance of Massiah and Bambara’s 1986 documentary, which spends time with the West Philadelphia community whose lives were scarred by the incident and “refuses to present the police attack on the MOVE house as a singular, sensational event.” Filmmaker John Akomfrah has noted how this film, which he came to because of Bambara’s involvement, changed the way he thought about documentary: “Before seeing The Bombing of Osage Avenue, I had not questioned the standard type of narration, where the narrator serves to describe the visual and tells you through their eyes what is being viewed. Toni’s narration provided space for the viewer to walk with Toni and see people and events with their own eyes.”
Available to watch (and apparently not geoblocked!): https://www.pbs.org/video/whyy-specials-bombing-osage-avenue-1986/
Watermelon Woman (Cheryl Dunye, 1996)
This film stars Dunye who plays a fictional version of herself—a Black lesbian filmmaker who works at a Philadelphia video rental store (the TLA, which ran a chain of four stores in Philly and one in New York). While not renting out videos, Cheryl works on a documentary about a (fictional) forgotten black actress from the 1930s named Fae Richards. There are endless layers to this light-hearted take on the serious issues at its core about representation, Black lesbian identity, and the racial and racist legacies of film history. An essential film of the New Queer Cinema in the 1990s, it caused a stir when Jeannine DeLombard wrote in the Philadelphia City Paper that it contains “the hottest dyke sex scene ever recorded on celluloid”; a Republican Congressman then filed a complaint with the National Endowment of the Arts–who had partially funded the film—about taxpayer money being spent to produce and distribute “possibly pornographic movies,” leading the NEA to restructure its grant-awarding procedure in response.
It is available to stream for viewers in the US via Criterion Channel and for viewers in the UK on BFIPlayer,
Recorder: The Marion Stokes Project (Matt Wolf, 2019)
From the Iranian Hostage Crisis in 1979 until her death the day of the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting in 2012, radical black Communist activist turned affluent recluse Marion Stokes recorded multiple local television station broadcasts 24 hours a day from her home in Rittenhouse Square, one of the wealthiest urban neighbourhoods in the US. This documentary about Stokes and her obsessive, domestic archival project—with 70,000 VHS tapes that are now being digitised–tells a fascinating story about a Black Philadelphian that also invites us to think about cultural value and our televisual heritage. Its focus on archiving could make it a strangely appropriate companion film to Watermelon Woman, which poses some similar questions through a very different story.
It’s available to watch on streaming platforms in the US (including on PBS through 14 July 2020) and will be available to watch through Violet Pictures in the UK in July 2020.
Quest (Jonathan Olshefski, 2017)
This is debut documentary by white filmmaker Jonathan Olshefski follows a single family—the Raineys of North Philadelphia—over the course of eight years, bookmarked by the Obama presidency. Christopher, the father, works a paper route in the morning and is a hip hop producer in the evening, hosting a weekly gathering, “Freestyle Fridays,” where local artists stop by to rap and hang out. His wife Christine’a, nicknamed “Ma Quest,” works shifts at a homeless shelter. They have grown children from previous marriages but together have a daughter, PJ, who we see as a young child and then as a teen. Following the Raineys as they pull through hardships, the film deals intimately with sensitive material. It is committed to the details of quotidian life (though their lives are far from ordinary), without being didactic or abstract. As Jonathan Romney writes in Film Comment, “Quest doesn’t set out to make the Raineys represent Black America, or even North Philadelphia, but they do come to indirectly embody a community, given the challenges they face and the ways in which they struggle against them.” Quest played at several film festivals, where it won over a dozen awards, but beyond these festival screenings, I don’t think it had extensive theatrical distribution.
Creed (Ryan Coogler, 2015)
The only Hollywood film included on this playlist, Creed is director Ryan Coogler’s follow-up to Fruitvale Station (2013 and available on Netflix in the UK). Here we follow Adonis Johnson (Michael B. Jordan), the son of Apollo Creed, from the cycle of Rocky films. If Hollywood is going to insist on revisiting in the 21st century stories that were already told multiple times in the 20th century, Creed is my pick for how to do it right. This film centres black characters, revealing the whiteness of the lens that filmed Rocky Balboa the first six times around. I couldn’t agree more with Amelie Hastie’s assessment of the film: “Coogler has taken everything good about Rocky and made it better. Moreover he takes what is troubling about the original film and remakes it. … Philadelphia isn’t shown primarily as a haven for working-class white men; it’s revealed to be a city thriving with bBlack culture, as it is offscreen.”
Available to watch on multiple streaming platforms.
Jeff Scheible is from Philadelphia and currently is Lecturer in Film Studies at King’s College London, where he teaches on contemporary cinema, American culture, television, and new media.