Q&A: Garrett Bradley reimagines a lost trove of African American silent films

Garrett Bradley, America (film still), 2019, Multi-channel video installation, 35mm film transferred to video, black and white, sound, Image courtesy of the artist © Garrett Bradley

The Library of Congress estimates that of the motion pictures made in the earliest decades of the recording medium, more than seventy percent have been lost. Included in this cultural void were movies made for and by African Americans in the early twentieth century. With this vanished artistic trove in mind, filmmaker Garrett Bradley created an installation at NOMA that presents scenes that might have been. Her immersive, multi-channel film America reimagines this lost archive through a corpus of new largely silent films cast primarily with New Orleanians.

On view in a special screening room installed for Bodies of Knowledge, this presentation marks the first major museum exhibition of Bradley’s work in New Orleans, a city she has lived and worked in for the past nine years. In recent weeks, Bradley also worked with ten high schools students on a filmmaking project that will debut during Friday Nights at NOMA on August 2. The screenings will take place in Stern Auditorium beginning at 5 pm. She will also introduce the film Sidewalk Stories on Saturday, August 24, at 3 pm as part of an ongoing Artist’s Choice Film Series.

The artist spoke with Curator Katie Pfohl in an interview for NOMA Magazine.

Your background is as a filmmaker and Bodies of Knowledge will be the first time that you are creating an art installation for an art museum. Can you share why it was important to you that America exist as an art installation? 

From the beginning, as far back as 2015, I understood that part of the power of this project is that it is dealingwith a chronology-specifically, ahidden chronology in American cinema. In addition to honoring a cinematic space—a seated, two-dimensional theatrical experience—there was also room to expand on time in a way that could be physical. I was interested in the possibilities that were presented in being able to move through and inhabit this less visible, hidden history. I was interested in offering multiple experiences … one that could allow for single viewership of one film, while also understanding it’s relationship to a broader context and chronology. Projecting the film onto a semi-transparent fabric allows for this visual chronology to exist both as individual moments, which also collapse and fall into the parts of the film that are before and ahead. For me, this is a way of understanding our relationship between our past and present moment.

Initially, I envisioned something more linear, but eventually I arrived at the idea of projecting the film onto four intersecting white flags, which became an interesting way to connect the film’s subject matter with the physical form of thework. I wanted people — especially young people — to be able to circle the piece, to find angles or sections of a frame or overlapping moments unique to their own experience of the installation, so that moving through the work enacted a level of discovery that was a result of one’s own curiosity and autonomy in the space.

America is structured around your own research into little-known chapters in African-American history, as well as histories of early film. What drew you to these stories, and how did you choose which ones to focus on in your film? 

I think of the project as a cinematic omnibus rooted in New Orleans with the aim to reveal and reinterpret a lost history in black cinema — or American cinema. I came to the project out of a response to the MoMA’s recent discovery of the Bert Williams film Lime Kiln Club Field Day — the oldest known surviving film featuring African Americans — as well as a 2013 survey conducted by the Library of Congress, which stated that 70 percent of the American silent feature films made between 1912 and 1929 had gone missing. America works off the assumption that the stated 70 percent included a breadth of work made by and for black filmmakers, in a context that may also have been socially progressive. America aims to provide contemporary iconography, and does not seek to remake or replace the little that exists, but rather, to reinvigorate an invisible era through the proposition of its continuation in a modern realm. I was interested in challenging ideas of black cinema as a wave or movement in time—proposing instead, a continuous thread of achievement and contribution.

How might a vision of a racially integrated historical identity serve to tease out and resolve tensions in present day American society?  The suppression of this time period, and consequently, its invisibility a century later, posed a unique opportunity for visual recreation. And I was interested in creating original illustrations of an assumed radical past through a showcase of silent performance and depictions of joy or wholesomeness. I was interested in the simplicity of pleasure that can exist in the everyday … and really, the heart and soul of the project asks one to evaluate the role of pleasure, particularly within communities still in some ways barred from that fundamental experience through excessive labor, control, and disenfranchisement.

Garrett Bradley’s short films in America were previously presented at the 2019 Sundance Film Festival.


Why was is it important to create work that looks back at these past histories, and how do you relate America to your other films, which often focus on more present-day issues and concerns? 

With the exception of some new work — AKA, commissioned for the 2019 Whitney Biennial — which does extend this process of looking to the past to re-imagine the present in an explicit way, I think all my other work seeks in some way to always echo the greater context in which it lives. For instance, Alone or The Earth is Humming … both of those films are looking at a specific situation — a woman is love with a man who is recently incarcerated, a country strategizes how to survive under constant threat of a natural disasterI didn’t explicitly talk about the history of American slavery … and the systematic separation of black families in America within Alone, but we understand through the way the camera moves and observes, that this one story is in offshoot of those larger issues which go back 250-plus years. In a similar way, looking at The Earth is Humming … through that same formal approach … we get a sense of Japanese culture and understand within that historical context, how problem-solving is connected to an age old approach to anxiety, to fear, to control … so I think all the work is on some level is compressing time and taking into account how the past is informing the present moment.

The whole cast and crew of America is composed of people from New Orleans, none of whom had acted or worked on a film project before. How did you decide to work in this way, and how did this process unfold? 

Part of the beauty of Bert Williams and the way in which Lime Kiln Club Field Day was made, was that it was an integrated production and clearly employed and engaged a diverse set of communities not all of which were coming from the same experience professionally or personally. As an educator in New Orleans, I have had an opportunity to work with a brilliant young generation that is from here and I feel a responsibility being a filmmaker here, working in an industry that has brought so much money and attention to this city … I think we as transplants, have a responsibility to include people who are from here in that process and not just as the entertainment but as equal partners who are on the crew, who are learning a skill set that can be applied to future, high-paying work. The spirit of generosity which we see in this film from 1913 … during a time when Jim Crow was beginning its grip on society, and technology was offering more opportunity to commune … that spirit was something I also wanted to replicate an embody. Working in this way also allowed us to illuminate the present day brilliance and work that is being done —The Buffalo Soldiers, The Sojourner Truth Community Center, Darryl Reeves, who is a third generation blacksmith — making room for their craft to be documented and included in our understanding of history … also served as an offering, a present day form of archiving…particularly in a city which is under constant thread of being erased- environmentally and through gentrification.

You come from a family of artists, but you are the first to work in film. What drew you to this medium, and how do you think your work in film is informed by other forms of art practice? 

I started making small films when I was 16. My stepdad had gotten me a camcorder for Christmas. At first I think it was just a tool for interrogation [laughing] — something I could hide behind. I made a short film about my mom and dad, who are both artists, asking them why they’d divorced … and I was also interested in their different approaches or perceptions of what abstraction was. That question about form I think I have carried over to my own process — painting is to me, also a time-based medium — it’s impacted by light and the length you spend with it, and in film there is also both literal and non-literal ways of speaking about something. I’ve also always been interested in ideas over stories, and the ways ideas can be explored or illustrated visually. Filmmaking as in industry is rooted in the strength of story and way in which that story unfolds … so that’s actually something I struggle with in a film context versus a more open space as an artist working in film and video.

You have now been working and teaching in New Orleans for over a decade. What drew you to this place, and how do you think this city has informed your work? 

I moved to New Orleans in 2010 with the goal of finishing my graduate thesis film, which eventually became my first feature, Below Dreams (2014 TriBeCa Film Festival). I spent a lot of time traveling on Greyhound buses meeting people my age and asking them broad questions about what they wanted in life and what obstacles they saw in their way of getting those goals. I took these conversations and build a script around them. Unable to find the original people I had met, I went to a casting director in New Orleans … I think Benjamin Button was being made at the time, and there was zero interest in whatever I was doing [laughing]. So, I went on Craigslist and put fliers in parts of town that I thought might attract folks … people whose personal experience might relate to the stories I had heard while traveling. The film was a turning point for me in working with non-professional actors, and putting into practice the importance of building community and genuine relationships with people, and working towards the common goal of making a film. I’ve continued to work this way and find it’s really gratifying to feel that the process is just as important as the outcome. I find that New Orleans, and the South in general, offers a level of transparency to the past … a genesis to the beginnings of our country … and the problems that exist within it. I’m interested in problem-solving … I’m interested in my work functioning as a tool for dialogue and compassion … and so I’ve stayed here for that reason. For the community I’ve found, and for the potential of creative and real-world solution making that can happen within it.

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