‘America for Americans’ recontextualizes images of black life, police brutality

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A screen shot from the short film “America for Americans”

“This prison life right here man. I’m on fire I’m on fire.”

A handful of inmates in at South Carolina Prison smuggled in a cell phone and recorded a rap video. It gets over 5,000 views on YouTube. 

“Been through hell but I made it though.”

The video cuts and words appear on the screen: The people in this cell were sentenced to a cumulative 19.5 years of solitary confinement for recording this video.

ُُThe inmates reappear on the screen, to finish their rap as their fate sinks in to the viewer.

I’m on fire. I’m on fire. Mix. Mix. -Drizzle- Mix. Mix.” 

This scene is from Blair McClendon’s short film America for Americans, which will premiere Saturday at the 55th annual Ann Arbor Film Festival.

Aura Rosser. Eric Garner. Michael Brown. Rekia Boyd. These are just a few of the many names of black men and women killed by police in recent years. But the demands of Black Lives Matter, the struggle to make black voices heard, didn’t begin with Rosser. In America for Americans, McClendon recontextualizes images of black life and protest and police brutality in a way that awakens the audience’s frustration with a system that normalizes tragedy. 

The experimental style was inspired by a scene in a 1976 documentary that chilled McClendon: Jean-Luc Godard and Anne-Marie Miéville’s Ici et Ailleurs, which followed the Palestinian Liberation Organization. “There’s one scene in it where you’re watching a meeting that’s happening amongst some of the leaders of this group in this refugee camp and it cuts for a second to black to this screen that says “all of these people were killed later in a bombing run from Israel” and then it cuts back and lets you finish that scene and so you watch the rest of their meeting.”

This shaped the rest of the Godard video’s format, where the footage is often interrupted by quotes or isolated sounds that allow the audience to let the emotions of what they just saw sink in. McClendon made his film in this format — as opposed to doing a narrative piece — because he felt the footage could tell the story itself. “The reason I made it was less to speak to each of these individual cases and more to speak to this cycling through again and again of history. And I think I the moment that solidified my thinking on it was that when I cut this section that was Jen Jordan reading a poem next to Eric Garner. And the situation that she is describing sounds like Eric Garner but then the says the person’s name and you realize it’s somebody from the ’80s.”

The juxtaposition connects what is being said across contexts. One of the lines repeated throughout the film is “When I first came to America, I couldn’t believe the streets weren’t burning,” which came from a New York Public Library podcast with Zadie Smith. McClendon wanted to highlight how people perceive this statement differently depending on the context. 

“If you sat in the New York public library and say something like that and you were Zadie Smith it becomes this eloquent statement on what’s happening in America and if you scream that in the streets in Baltimore you might get arrested. So I wanted to put those ideas back next to each other and when I started editing this over it became an attempt to honor all of these various voices as intellectuals not necessarily from a certain pedigree of their education, but intellectuals of how they are engaging in the world they’re in …. And that’s what I was trying to get at, how to narrate that what is being said is the same thing because the demand is the same thing.”

McClendon recognizes that some people believe these videos should not be shared, because they can traumatize and re-traumatize people. A lot of people say these videos will not free anyone and began the film with a content warning, “But I disagree that the videos don’t have an effect, because we’ve seen a lot of uprising come from these videos,” he said. “In a perfect world, people would just believe these people, but I’m not going to hold my breath for that.” 

McClendon wanted to find the right place to present his film, after spending over a year putting it together and debating whether the world was ready for it. “I took a long time thinking about whether I wanted to put it out into the world and then what are good homes for something like it, because in one sense it is kind of overwhelming to look at. It’s not a pleasant subject or series of subject. I was concerned about where are the audiences where I could put this where all of the focus won’t be on just the form of it. Which is part of the reason I decided to submit it to Ann Arbor, because it is exactly that, where it’s not just going to be a question of how are the forms obscuring or not obscuring the situation. Hopefully it will be an audience where they can engage with the formal questions and the more political or emotional questions.”

Through making the film, McClendon worked through suspicions that “you’re saying what’s already been being said.”

“It did get me to the other side, which is maybe not where I started, to not only be stunned by history, but then to take that and say ‘isn’t it incredible that in this constant recurrence that people are still fighting?’ Because by any reasonable measure people should just lay down. But they don’t. And they don’t when they have to say the same thing for 10 years or 50 years or 400 years. And that’s what I hope at the end this gets to is that it’s not that the streets aren’t on fire, but that people need to recoup before the streets can be on fire again.”


Rabab Jafri is an intern with The Ann magazine. She follows up on statements and questions raised by ANNtourage participants. She's a student at the University of Michigan.