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This is what comes to mind when I hear the word escape: bodice-ripper romance novels, role-playing games, wholesome genre yarns, vacation getaways, fugitivity. To label something as “escapist” is to accuse it of diversion and of an unwillingness to engage with the realities of life in favor of fluff and fantasy. I am reminded of films from the Great Depression—movie studios produced high society comedies and splashy musicals aimed at placating audiences who were being bulldozed by reality’s devastating market crash. Instead of seeing narratives reflecting their situations of unemployment and poverty, viewers were transported through stories of bathing beauties and dashing heroes.
Thanks to the Trump administration’s disastrous management of the coronavirus pandemic, we are experiencing skyrocketing rates of unemployment and financial precarity. As of this writing, over 150,000 people have died of the virus in the United States, with a disproportionate number of hospitalizations and fatalities in Black, Indigenous, Latinx, and low-income communities. The racial disparities that Covid-19 has exposed point to the systemic failures underwriting industries like healthcare, education, and housing. These failures are echoed in the mass uprisings
against anti-Black police terror that have followed the murders of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Tony McDade, and countless others. It’s been disorienting to witness the entwining of two crises (a novel virus and white supremacy) from the isolation of my apartment. I try to stay connected via social media posts, news articles, and check-ins with loved ones, but there’s always a breaking point, when the continual scroll of trauma and uncertainty becomes untenable. I want to disengage. But am I seeking dissociation, the opposite of relation?
Lately, I’ve been rethinking my rigid understanding of dissociation and community thanks to Films for Escapism, a recent online film series curated by filmmaker and DJ Alima Lee in collaboration with the Women’s Center for Creative Work (WCCW). Over the span of four weeks, Lee presented short works by four contemporary Black queer filmmakers: Sarah Nicole François, Rhea Dillon, summer fucking mason, and Jerome AB. As a whole, the series explored themes of cyborg love, surveillance, reconstructive gazes, and community healing. It followed Lee’s first series, Films for Isolation, which screened on WCCW’s website in April and May. While Films for Isolation reflected the shock of a world turned upside down, Films for Escapism tapped into the revolutionary spirit engendered by the Black Lives Matter movement.
The four works wrestle with issues echoed by the protestors in the street, including how to nurture a community in ways that are rooted in transformative love and mutual safety. They also explore our mercurial bond to the internet—a vital point of connection amidst social distancing—and its mix of play, radicalism, support, fear, anarchy, and surreality. summer fucking mason’s Velvet Rain (2019), which they describe as a “conceptual zombie collage,” meditates on the surveilling white gaze. Footage of an acrobatic Black subject with ice-blue eyes is layered over images of white people kissing or running. A clip from Family Feud plays in the background, as host Steve Harvey prompts: “Name something you know about zombies.” A contestant gleefully answers, “They’re Black!” mason’s film asks how to escape a gaze that projects its own monstrosity.
Rhea Dillon turns away from the white gaze completely in The Name I Call Myself (2019), a tender snapshot of queer, trans, and gender nonconforming communities within Black Britain. The work captures the affirming sense of belonging found among chosen families while exploring the alienating effects of colorism and queerphobia. Like Dillon and mason, Jerome AB makes use of multiple screens in his work Masculine Ken on the Secret We Share (2018), replicating the digital spirals that can occur when searching for healing that isn’t based on systems of white supremacy, toxic masculinity, or cultural stigmas. Mimicking the experience of falling down an online rabbit hole, the video splices together clips from a range of sources: among them, Dr. Phil, Sangu Delle’s TED Talk on destigmatizing anxiety and depression, the Fox drama Empire, and cell phone footage of Kanye West melting down during a 2016 concert. Masculine Ken, a recurring performance alias of Jerome AB, interrupts the flood of media clips with shots of his figure, either still or dancing peacefully, contrasting the other footage.
These films zapped me out of my stupor. Escape shouldn’t be synonymous with a flight from community or reality: it can pave the way to communion. I felt less alone while watching the films, buoyed by their defiance and insistence on nuanced narratives of care and accountability.
While the aforementioned films index how mutually supportive communities might function amidst a global pandemic, Sarah Nicole François’ Soft (2019) highlights the need for more orgiastic modes of escapism. Originally commissioned by the underground film platform 4:3 for a series centering femme-focused erotica, the digital animation depicts the metallic intimacies of a transformative threesome. The camera swirls, revealing two femmes wrapped in a delicious embrace. The lovers are Black and brown, big-breasted, and wide-hipped. Their adornments are futuristic: hieroglyphic markings, excessively-long acrylic nails, angel wings. A third femme, silver-haired and lithe, joins the fun, and their three bodies become a puddle of ecstasy and transcendence.
At once trippy and sexy, Soft’s explicitness acts as a restorative, a vision of intimacy absent of the white cishet gaze. François celebrates femme sexuality as expansive and moody—what scholar and writer Saidiya Hartman describes as “an escape or release from the enclosure of the subject.”1 In her books Wayward Lives, Beautiful Experiments (2019) and Scenes of Subjection (1997), Hartman traces the afterlife of slavery in the United States, centering the lives of Black women who have been erased or maligned by historical archives. She argues that after the plantation, Black communities found themselves enclosed in cities that had their own constraining and draconian laws. For Hartman, escape isn’t a distraction, but a matter of survival, a desire for liberation, a mode of rebellion.
Thus, “to escape confinement of a four-cornered world, a tight, airless room,”2 as Hartman writes, is to (literally or symbolically) refuse the logic and conditions of systemic terror and repression. In this way, Films for Escapism is in conversation with other escapist imaginings by Black artists, including Octavia Butler’s speculative fables, the intergalactic spirituals of Sun Ra, and the libidinous acrobatics coursing through Leilah Weinraub’s documentary Shakedown (2018). Lee’s curatorial selections for her Escapism series recover the revolutionary possibilities of the word escape, invoking the improvised flights enacted by Black artists as means of transcending oppression, violence, and death.
Escape relies on imagination. We must depart from what we think we know in order to dream of liberatory worlds where authoritarian power structures are dismantled and absent. The films presented do not deny reality: they enact a rebellious possibility, tracing out flights towards self-determination and unruliness. Films for Escapism sought and envisioned pleasurable zones existing outside of objectification and shame. Each film contained moments of wild movement, a refusal of the confinement that insists we remain meek and docile. Even though the series has ended, I keep having warm flashbacks of Soft, where the 3D models thrust, squirted, and licked with joyous abandon. Amidst the daily onslaught of violent stories that confirm society’s continual disregard for Black women—especially Black trans women—François’ film makes space for radical vulnerability and love, where fantasy is both a revolt and a maroonic space where visions of femme utopia reign. Escapism is a reminder that enclosures can be multifarious—existing in our minds, desires, communities, and healing—but escape can offer us each our own sense of freedom and refusal.
Allison Noelle Conner writes about film and literature. She lives in Los Angeles.
This review was originally published in Carla issue 21.