Spencer Bell, Nobody Knows My Name
Over the past years, academic practitioners of the video essay have been searching for ways to defamiliarize films. Inspired by a text by Jerome McGann and Lisa Samuels, deformative strategies have become very popular. Applying arbitrary (and often far-fetched) transformations to image and sound is used as a way to look at old films with new eyes. At the same time, another kind of defamiliarization is making headway in broader society. Cancel culture can be interpreted as a way to defamiliarize ourselves from problematic art by banning it from view. Both these strategies use defamiliarization as a critical tool (or as a tool to facilitate and inspire criticism).
And then there’s this incisive and forceful piece by Liz Greene. In her video essay Spencer Bell, Nobody Knows My Name, Greene decides to take the opposite direction. (You can also watch it and read the abstract on the website of the Open Screens Journal). The object of this videographic study is the first feature length film version of The Wizard of Oz (1925, Larry Semon) and its racist depiction of the Cowardly Lion, a character played by the Black performer Spencer Bell. Rather than giving this silent film the silent treatment and relegating it to the dungeons of film history, Greene decides to tackle its reprehensible representation of the African American actor head on. The tone is calm and composed, even though Greene uses her own surprise and indignation while learning more about the movie as one of the ways to structure the video essay. She lays out how this silent movie further silenced its Black character by not granting him any intertitles, and how lighting and staging strategies often obscure him from view.
One particularly ingenious intervention is that the video essay uses all sequences featuring Spencer Bell in reverse order. That sounds like a deformative strategy, but it is anything but. Deformative criticism starts from an almost dogmatic protocol of which the outcome is left up to chance (and post factum interpretation). Greene’s chronological reversal however was a premeditated rhetorical choice. As she puts it, “Rather than ending my audiovisual essay on a positive, heroic moment, it allowed me to slowly disclose the levels of racism displayed within the film. By reversing the film, I was able to discuss many elements that are problematic within the film, allowing the audience time with Bell before his character is so explicitly racially stereotyped.”
The result is another elegant video essay – as Greene’s always are – that still manages to hit home hard. Here, re-familiarization with a forgotten film proves the better strategy to critique problematic racial representations (that persist to this day).