by Evie Shockley
Middletown, CT: Wesleyan University Press, 2017
111 pp. Paperback
The brutal executions of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and Ahmaud Arbery were just a few examples of the systemic racism that permeates the United States in 2020, but Evie Shockley’s Semiautomatic was putting forward a nuanced discussion about these—and many other issues affecting Black, feminine, poor, and/or abused people—back in 2017, which serves as a poignant reminder that these atrocities of justice have been raging on for much longer than one crappy year. This is a book that showcases heartbreaking moments of hopelessness and frustration. It unflinchingly portrays feelings of claustrophobia, paranoia, and fear—all of which hampers the development and expression of Black joy. It also discusses the commodification and exchange of female bodies, which does warrant placing a trigger warning on this book for those sensitive to prostitution and/or sex trafficking.
However, while much of the text is centered around these unpleasant truths, one of the greatest surprises in this collection is how exceptionally varied the pieces are in their subject, form, and style—which makes each poem feel like a unique aspect of an overarching narrative. From nutritional facts about what “makes little girls,” to disjointed words discussing the Fukushima tsunami, the book never feels bound to a single subject. This may come off as disjointed or unfocused to some readers, but I feel that everything works together to showcase the wildly chaotic nature of the world. There is a voice—or perhaps it is more accurate to say a tone of timeless authority—present throughout, one which seems to stand amongst a surging crowd and sees all the beauty and injustice of the world with unblinking accuracy. In her poem, “supply and demand,” Shockley writes that “most people don’t know how to save black boys. / black boys don’t grow on trees” . . . which is deeply disturbing when one remembers America’s history of cultivating “strange fruit.” While not all of the works featured in this book express sorrow, it is difficult to walk away from the book and not find yourself musing over certain-hard hitting moments. For example, in the poem “keep your eye on” there is this line: “trayvonimartinmjordanpdaviserenisharmcbrideimichaelabrownlism.” At first glance, this may appear as a simple jumble of letters, but upon reading between the lines you’ll realize that the word imperialism is threaded through the names of Black murder victims. The string of letters comes off as initially overwhelming and confusing, but once you open your perception, you begin to see the hidden message beneath, which is a wonderfully clever analogy for deciphering institutionalized American racism. This is merely one of the more straightforward examples of Shockley’s outstandingly clever writing style, a single line pulled from a remarkable poem. There is a density to her work that demands the poems be read and re-read repeatedly.
Shockley also demonstrates a comprehensive awareness of supplementary material and often creates widely intelligent juxtapositions. One of the longest pieces, “Sex Trafficking Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl in the USA (or, The Nation’s Plague in Plain Sight,)” is composed entirely of excerpts from Chapter X of Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, by Harriet Jacobs and from “Sex Trafficking in the USA” by Yamiche Alcindor. It is difficult not to feel that you are being confronted by something larger than yourself, a presence that looms over the world and sees everything with a clarity that can only be expressed through the lens of Shockley’s wit. As is probably obvious by now, I was quite overwhelmed at times and consistently struggled to wrap my head around everything being expressed. These pieces are simply layered with so much good stuff that attempting to take it all in at once may leave you reeling or with a nagging sensation that there is even more undiscovered subtext. This is all to say that Semiautomatic is an utterly fantastic book of poetry, one that jams its fist into America’s chest, yanks out its damaged and corrupted heart, and asks the reader: “why wasn’t this heart filled with love instead of hate? Aren’t we better than this? Will we ever be better than this?” with the answers left for us to decide. Bravo Evie Shockley, bravo!
— Jarred White
California State University, Stanislaus
Directed by Gerard Bush and Christopher Renz
Antebellum was only released in September of this year, yet it’s already made a big splash. Directed by Gerard Bush and Christopher Renz, the film is a commentary on the evils of racism, and its characters struggle with the desire to speak out against their oppression. This movie’s trailer hints at time travel and horror; the film leaves viewers amazed at the impressive visuals and acting and encouraged by its anti-racist message.
The film begins the story on a plantation in Louisiana. We see a young Black woman known as Eden who has found herself working as a slave during wartime as inferred by the sound of cannons in the background and the military unit stationed near the plantation. The audience is unsure exactly how Eden’s gotten there, but they do know that the general of the military unit has taken a special interest in her. She’s forced to share a cabin and bed with him when he visits the plantation, and she and the other slaves are subjected to hard labor and swift punishments for any rule breaking. The most significant rule—don’t speak unless given permission to do so.
The plot takes a sudden twist when Eden wakes up in an expensive apartment in modern time. In this time though, she’s Veronica Henley, a well-known sociologist and American History expert. She travels to a conference where she speaks about her newest book and the lingering challenges for people, especially women, of color. She urges the women at her presentation to be fearless in speaking up for themselves and others, a challenge made that much more difficult when Veronica ends up on the plantation.
Janelle Monáe plays the lead role(s) of Eden and Veronica. As the movie progresses, we slowly realize that the two are one and the same. The plight and abuse Veronica and the other slaves experience on the plantation already elicits a visceral reaction from viewers. It is magnified once we realize that Veronica is experiencing these horrors with the foreknowledge that there’s a better world out there somewhere. By juxtaposing this strong female character as she is in modern Louisiana, speaking out against racism and to promote Black women’s empowerment, with her time as a slave on the plantation, the movie makes a clear statement about how outdated and ugly the racist worldviews are of the soldiers and plantation owners. Monáe does an excellent job portraying Veronica, seamlessly shifting between the outspoken and strong sociologist and activist, and the abused but fearless slave determined to rebel even in a system built to keep her down. Janelle Monáe has even made comments in interviews saying that she was drawn to this role because of her character Veronica and the movie’s agenda to combat racism and start a dialogue.
The one complaint viewers could make is for the rapidity with which the film passes through Veronica’s time on the plantation to when she makes her attempt at escape. There is not a lot of build up or signs that time has passed; the audience must make that assumption. Even so, the film’s pacing stays balanced between scenes filled with action and those that allow us to slowly understand the upcoming plot twist.
Though this film expects such work from its viewers, it more than makes up for that with the vibrant images that both take your breath away and inspire a dialogue about racism and inequality. There are a number of striking shots in the film, one being a slow shot of Veronica marching with a lit torch while walking away from her defeated tormentors. Viewers will find themselves in awe of the strength and grit Monáe’s character displays to overcome her situation, and will hopefully find themselves discussing with friends and family the remnants of racism still haunting our country today. This movie opens up a dialogue desperately relevant in our present moment. It’s an excellent film for anyone looking for a movie that keeps its viewers captivated, inspires them to reflect and challenge their opinions and understanding, and showcases a talented cast that highlights Black female actors.
— Hannah Neeley
California State University, Stanislaus
Mudbound (2017): The Inescapable Quagmire of Racism and Post Traumatic Stress Disorder
Directed by Dee Rees and co-written with Virgil Williams
Mudbound is a drama written and directed by Dee Rees, with Virgil Williams acting as a co-writer. Based on the novel of the same name by Hillary Jordan, this film explores the relationship between two Veterans, one black and one white, returning from World War II to rural Mississippi. The narrative arcs are split four ways, two broad and two narrower. One of the main plot lines focuses on the McAllan family, a white family that buys a farm in rural Mississippi with tenant farmers, an evolution of the sharecropper in which the poorer families do not own the land they are working. The other family is the Jacksons, tenant farmers on this same farm. The subplots follow Jaime McAllan, a man who becomes a pilot, and Ronsel Jackson, who becomes a tank commander. This sets the tone of dual narratives inside dual narratives which, creatively, creates a duality that the characters themselves experience.
Rees starts the film with a grave digging followed by a burial, and the film cuts back from there. This style of direction, having one of the last scenes appear in short in the beginning of the film, causes the viewer to question how they arrive at that scene, acting as a fantastic plot hook. Throughout the film, we cut between the families when they are facing similar woes. Both Ronsel and Jaime return from the war and experience rejection, Ronsel from the city of Marietta and his landlords, and Jaime from his racist father. Conversely, the town seems to accept Jaime at first, and Ronsel’s family is thrilled to have him back. Ronsel and Jaime meet in town after a car backfires, triggering a Post Traumatic reaction from Jaime which Ronsel witnesses; Ronsel offers platitudes to console Jaime, thus starting their budding friendship. The film follows their growing friendship based on mutual respect and shared trauma all the while their families are at disparate odds. The Jacksons want to move off of the property and become landowners, escaping from this unfair and racist situation by being independent. The McCallans, specifically Henry, the Husband of the family, and Pappy, the excessively racist grandfather, constantly clash by making demands of the Jacksons’ time and services outside of the typical tenant-landlord relationship. By framing the conflict this way, Rees showcases a growing respect between unlikely friends while also documenting the growing discontent between the two families, which ultimately comes to conflict. When we finally return to the penultimate grave digging scene, we can feel a tension between the two groups of characters that was only hinted at before.
Rees masterfully crafts the relationship between Ronsel and Jaime, both of them bonding over stories of their fallen friends. At first, Ronsel is suspicious of Jaime, as in Marietta, Mississippi, it is very out of character for a white man to befriend a black man. Ronsel, however, knows he cannot be too contrary and so slowly builds up to questioning Jaime. Throughout this film the racism of the characters is explicit, and so overcoming not only an absence of racism but even a growing respect between two characters who, contemporarily, should have been unfriendly at best is a hard feat to pull off, but Rees manages to do so. You witness throughout the film a genuine friendship form, and this friendship supersedes the pressures put on the characters by the culture within which they exist.
Rees’s film evokes strong emotions and is very relevant in today’s political and cultural climate. Recently, the political divide in the country has seemingly gotten worse, and this film can be said to mimic this divide. By showing two characters overcoming this, specifically characters from opposing families in a tenant-landlord relationship based on sharecropping, Rees promotes a powerful message that we are not defined by our families or cultures. Mudbound seems to say if these two men from such diametrically opposed backgrounds can overcome hatred, maybe the rest of us can as well.
— Bo Locke
California State University, Stanislaus
I Used to Know Her (2019)
Released by singer-songwriter H.E.R.
The 2019 album of singer songwriter H.E.R. I Used to Know Her combines music from prior E.P.s, expanded interludes, and added songs to make up this 19-song full-length project. With an album cover consisting of her holding up a frame of a polaroid of her adult self looking over the shoulder of herself as a child, the album's storytelling even flows through its cover art.
The album opens with the track “Lost Souls” featuring DJ Scratch, and the fact that Lauryn Hill is a writer on it can be distinctly heard stylistically through the beats and backing vocals underscoring everything, along with the rapping and singing performance. The message of the song resonates as well from lyrics such as “what you gonna leave with your legacy, it’s like we don’t believe in longevity” and “a lost soul can’t lead the people,” reflecting the time it was released while continuing to stay relevant.
Next comes “Fate” with a slower R&B style that holds a more haunting melody from the piano. H.E.R.’s strong vocals are drawn to the forefront along with the church choir like backup vocals in a manner that reverberates like the strings early on. This song reflects in a more personal manner as she questions herself and what she controls.
“Carried Away” bounces back to upbeat guitar riffs and a chilled-out tone giving more lines listeners can easily connect to about being carried away in relationships. The next song “Going” feels like it could be a continuation as she goes into all she can really give when focusing on her own life.
Flowing down into the song “Be On My Way,” the echoes in the backdrop of the music produce a sense of not just leaving, but leaving an empty space behind. The lines “I’ll be on my way / I’m no good if I stay” echo in the same way. The transition from this song into “Can’t Help Me” drives those stresses home as she sings about not recognizing herself in the moment.
Entering the song “Something Keeps Pulling Me Back,” the track is back to more solid beats being tapped out behind the lyrics. There is a steady pumping drawing the listener into the song and pulling on their senses. Building up on that style comes “Feel A Way” which fades more tones into those beats while folding in more sensation from H.E.R.’s lyrics.
“21” carries on the 90’s R&B style from the opening track and combines with the style of the other songs of the album, once again mixing more of a rap, singing style. H.E.R.’s contemplation of herself at 21 fits in well with the album's representation of her story. “Racks” featuring YBN Cordae keeps up the tale of that time mixing with the introduction of fame and money.
As the album slides into the song “I’m Not OK,” slow piano is reintroduced into the beat-based backing drawing out the emotion of separation and slipping away. The follow up of “Against Me” re-affirms her sense of feeling lost internally. The airing of the issues is drawn forth once more in “Could’ve Been” featuring Bryson Tiller as she almost reminisces and contemplates what was done in the past and possibilities that were not the reality. From there comes “Good To Me,” one of the longest songs on the album at a little over 7 minutes as the lines of questioning come forward. The end of this song has her speaking out about her thought process and where things are taking her back to as she writes.
“Take You There” layers her voice over itself, making the lyrics reverberate in the listeners mind and taking them into the sensations being painted, almost like they are being put into the place of another. Then “As I Am” raises the tempo back up as she feels herself in the song in a way that the listener cannot help but to move along with.
As the album begins to close out with the last three songs, “Hard Place” leaves the listener just as absorbed in H.E.R.’s experiences as she herself seems to be. “Uninvited” backed by strings carries an intimacy into the song that provides a sense of listening in that couples incredibly well with the way the album exposes more and more how H.E.R. communicates her thoughts and life. Closing out the album lies “Lord Is Coming,” featuring YBN Cordae whose opening comes across almost like slam poetry, directly expanding on the message of the time introduced in the opening track. As she starts singing, the music reflects the biblical imagery of trying to come out over the damage building up in the country. The storytelling of this album beautifully exposes in detail how she sees the world and her life with a musicality that resonates wholeheartedly with the listener.
— Essence Saunders
California State University, Stanislaus