The Art, Race, Activism series came to Brandeis at the perfect time. As the sit-in took place in the Bernstein-Marcus administration building, Tavia Nyong’o’s presentation on “The Fugitive Present: Sweet Sweetback and The Mythic Being” provided students with his perspective on the intersection between blackness, feminist theory and queer theory through the lens of two very different artists. Nyong’o is an associate professor in the Department of Performance at New York University. He also writes on art, music, politics and culture.
In his presentation on Nov. 19, Nyong’o focused on radical black experimentalists Adrian Piper and Melvin Van Peeble and their reconfiguration of the relationship between blackness and temporality in 1960s cinema. Dr. Nyong’o also commented upon the performance of the sexist representation in Sweetback, especially in regards to its title. “Sweetback” refers to the rape of one of the characters of the movie, who was a small child when the women who abused him referred to him having a “sweet back.” The “sweetback” is also a term used to describe an ambiguously gendered and sexualized queer black body, a body that transcends the materiality of the “I” and becomes something else entirely.
The full movie title, “Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song,” refers to the American independent drama film written and produced by Melvin Van Peebles. It recounts the story of a poor African American orphan working in one of the Los Angeles brothels. The movie mostly focuses on the violence and assault that Sweetback goes through. In the end, the stereotypical projection of a black man’s fate is revealed: He falls into the hands of the police.
The point of Dr. Nyong’o’s critical theory is to provide context and reveal the influence that other art has on the definition of blackness. Tavia repeatedly emphasized that the point of movies like “Sweetback” is to get rid of the boundaries inherently defined in the term “blackness,” as the best way to transcend such categorical labels is through art. This also relates to gender and queerness in the way that sexuality and gender is not easily defined.
In an interview in The Weekender, Professor Nyong’o’s says, “I am interested in how blackness can be more than one thing while still being interconnected. What cinema attempts to do is engage us in the moment by refocusing and reshaping the way we view history as well as in categories of difference, which include race, gender, nationality and sexuality. Especially with the growing campus conversation around diversity of Black Lives Matter, the biggest question is to ask how queer people and feminists, especially those taking part in the Black Lives Matter movement build upon these principles.”
Nyong’o also referenced poet and activist Audre Lord: “As we become more in touch with our own ancient, black, non-european view of living as a situation to be experienced and interacted with, we learn more and more to cherish our feelings and to respect those hidden sources of our power from where true knowledge and therefore lasting action comes.”
This comes from Lorde’s essay “Poetry is not a Luxury,” which advocates for women writing poetry, claiming that poetry is not a luxury but is actually necessary for women. The essay also tackles the connection between womanhood and blackness, especially in regard to the arts. The best way to remove barriers, create community and create productive, intellectual dialogue that promotes new perspective is through art, whether it be cinematography, poetry, painting, music and the other countless forms of media that speak up and speak out against injustice and discrimination.
Even though “Sweetback” got mixed reviews, Professor Nyong’o posits that it is one of the most representative films of the black experience that not only records violence but actually portrays the characters as three-dimensional, with emotional powerfulness, poignancy and realistic character flaws.