At the heart of Barry Jenkins’s extraordinarily moving new film is “the Black gaze; or the gaze distilled.” The Oscar-winning director shot the standalone project while filming the TV adaptation of Colson Whitehead’s The Underground Railroad, which premiered on May 14. Notably titled The Gaze, the parallel project isn’t an episode of the series but rather a compelling collection of non-narrative portraits captured spontaneously alongside the show.
Early on in production, Jenkins says in a statement, “I looked across the set and realized I was looking at my ancestors, a group of people whose images have been largely lost to the historical record. Without thinking, we paused production on The Underground Railroad and instead harnessed our tools to capture portraits of… them.”
Presented in the same order as the series which moves from Georgia to Indiana, the vignettes spotlight both principal and background actors who wear striking period costumes by Caroline Eselin—the designer also collaborated with Jenkins on his lauded films Moonlight and If Beale Street Could Talk. Each shot is an intimate and evocative portrayal of imagined kin. “We halted our filming many times for moments like these. Moments where… standing in the spaces our ancestors stood, we had the feeling of seeing them, truly seeing them and thus, we sought to capture and share that seeing with you,” the director says.
Jenkins writes that he was inspired by Kerry James Marshall’s “Scipio Moorhead, Portrait of Himself, 1776,” which is an earnest rendering of the African American artist who actively painted throughout the 1770s while he was enslaved. Marshall’s homage secures Moorhead’s legacy in an urgent and necessary act of visual documentation that Jenkins replicates:
We have sought to give embodiment to the souls of our ancestors frozen in the tactful but inadequate descriptor “enslaved,” a phrase that speaks only to what was done to them, not to who they were nor what they did… This is an act of seeing. Of seeing them. And maybe, in a soft-headed way, of opening a portal where THEY may see US, the benefactors of their efforts, of the lives they LIVED.
Jenkins notes that The Gaze contains only abstracted scenes so it won’t spoil The Underground Railroad. Watch the entire film above, and read the director’s essay describing the project on Vimeo. (via Kottke)