I recently came across an essay written by Arthur Jafa, the cinematographer on Crooklyn, and the director of photography on Malcolm X. The essay, titled “The Notion of Treatment: Black Aesthetics and Film” appears in a collection of essays focused on Oscar Micheaux titled African-American Filmmaking and Race Cinema of the Silent Era: Oscar Micheaux & His Circle, by Pearl Bowser, Jane Gaines, and Charles Musser. Jafa’s essay in particular discusses two terms I love and find particularly useful when thinking about Spike Lee as a black filmmaker.
The first term is what Jafa calls this “notion of treatment,” which refers to Jafa’s proposition of how we might begin to more adequately assess films made by black filmmakers. Jafa speaks of black films as a “space of treatment rather than [as a] space of material.” (xxv). Jafa reasons that “when we were brought to the Americas as slaves we were generally seen as material ourselves. You don’t really have the leeway to go out and select your own materials. So a lot of our creativity coalesced around the notion of treatment, that is, transforming in some meaningful fashion given materials.” (12) To understand Jafa’s argument, and extrapolate it through time a bit (remember, he’s discussing critical treatments of Oscar Micheaux’s films from the silent era and the 1940s), we might think about some of our conversations around Spike Lee and his films’ relationship between aesthetics and narrative. Certainly, we noticed a difference narratively between She’s Gotta Have It and Do the Right Thing, but what about the difference between, say, Mo’ Better Blues and Red Hook Summer? One of the most visceral things about either of these films, in my opinion, are the overtness of their aesthetic tone: the color saturation and aural foregrounding in Mo’ Better versus Lee’s obvious (some argued distracting) reliance on the iPad in Red Hook. I think that Jafa’s notion of treatment simultaneously makes that distinction easier to make and opens up further avenues of critical inquiry once we’ve done so. Which is not to say the the material production of Lee’s films is not an important way into them, but rather the opposite–we should think of his films’ material instantiation as a way into Lee’s films explicitly for the way such considerations allow us to talk about these films in their entirety.
Jafa’s second notion is something he calls the “alien familiar.” As he discusses Oscar Micheaux’s filmography, which I will risk and say was widely panned for a degradation in quality that critics attribute to flagging genius, insufficient funds, and lack of time. To explain Jafa’s “alien familiar,” I’d like to just quote him at length a few times, because I think there’s something significant in his voice and the way he expresses what it means for one’s work to take on this quality.
J. Hoberman points out, in a classical piece on Micheaux and Ed Woods, that if Micheaux was, as some have claimed, the baddest filmmaker of all time, then what’s remarkable is that over a thirty-year career he got badder and badder. (14)
When they asked Armstrong what he thought of bebop, which was really just an extension of what he had started to do–a more pronounced conclusion, he said that it was ‘Chinese music.’ Now it’s up to us to interpret what he meant. On a certain level its clearly intended as an insult. But what he was really speaking to when he said ‘Chinese’ is it seeming Orientalism, its ‘alienness.’ Now Armstrong’s music was the apotheosis of one of the most radical artistic breakthroughs of the century, so in essence he’s saying, ‘Look, I’m out, and this shit is too way out for me, so as far as I’m concerned, its some Oriental, some non-Western shit.’ But his work epitomizes this kind of alienness, so I don’t think people have to necessarily articulate their work in the same terms in which we discuss it. (17)
I want my films to get worse and worse the farther I go on. The work should be less and less like film, and more and more like things. It’s like having somebody draw you a picture; they turn it around and it is what it is. I want it to have something my friends and I call ‘the alien familiar.’ (18)
The alien familiar, in my opinion would really have served many of our conversations well if we had gone into Spike Lee’s more commercially successful films, which I don’t think get badder and badder over time, so much as further and further (in some ways) from his early work. Really, I think that the longer Lee’s career goes on, the more we can see how sophisticated his return to certain themes are.