2017-18 Gardner-FSC Fellow: Kevin Jerome Everson

Film Still from Erie

The Film Study Center at Harvard University Announces 2017-18 Gardner Fellowship to Filmmaker Kevin Jerome Everson

It’s a lamentable truth that those seeking fair-minded representations of Black life within the annals of American cinema necessarily have to swim upstream against the mainstream current, burrowing into forgotten crevices or sometimes forcibly dug holes. It’s also true, historically, that when there’s a dearth of representation pertaining to a particular group of people, sympathetic commentators are often moved to hyperbole and cultural generalization when faced with an artifact made by and about those whose daily lives and labor have been hidden in mainstream representation. Such a tendency leads critics to hail, for example, Charles Burnett’s Killer of Sheep as a summative statement rather than an evocatively specific dramatization of a unique pocket of Black life.

Enter Ohio-born, Virginia-based artist Kevin Jerome Everson (b. 1965), a fierce original whose plentiful body of work—over 144 films ranging from under a minute to eight hours long—simultaneously represents delicious bait for such anthropologically-minded exegeses and a nifty, sustained rebuke to the very idea of seeking fixed cultural meanings in artwork. Rooted so firmly in African-American settings that any appearance of a white person comes as a surprise (in itself a substantial political act), Everson’s films obsessively fixate on the everyday, offering immersive depictions of people working, passing time in their neighborhoods, running errands, going to the doctor, fixing their cars, and enjoying brief respites of leisure. These slivers of quotidian activity stand on their own as “complete” cinematic subjects, not mere fragments of larger narrative scaffolding, and the plainly descriptive titles of Everson’s films speak to his unwavering conviction in the seemingly undramatic minutes and seconds that mainstream cinema—or, for that matter, even a wide swatch of documentary and avant-garde cinema—routinely passes over as unworthy of prolonged attention.

With that said, the titles and synopses of Everson’s films are deceiving insofar as their directness and specificity gives an expectation of expository comprehensiveness that is utterly belied by the abstraction of his approach. While the employment of handheld camerawork, the regular uses of 16mm, and the embrace of material defects in the footage all give the strong impression of on-the-fly actualités left untouched in the editing room, Everson, a professor of art at the University of Virginia, Charlottesville, is never less than profoundly self-aware in crafting this aesthetic and generating its associated baggage. The patina of verisimilitude is actually a ruse in Everson’s films, which take the stuff of life, and specifically the experiences and communities familiar to the director, and restage it as a dead-ringer facsimile in order to draw out certain truths, patterns, rhythms and gestures that might go unnoticed in more traditional documentaries. Indeed, while the willful hybridization of documentary and fiction modes of filmmaking has come into fashion in recent years, Everson’s work has thrived on such mutability for over a decade, forcing viewers to calibrate to each work without assumptions.

The subtle manipulation of reality on display in Everson’s films—which extends even to the director’s creation of utilitarian props that he inserts into scenes alongside real objects—is especially beguiling given his oeuvre’s recurring preoccupation with historical realities that would certainly benefit from conventional elaboration. Of special importance in Everson’s work is the post-WWII Great Migration, which found large quantities of African-Americans migrating from the South to the Midwest in search of new and better opportunities, a resettlement project undertaken by Everson’s parents and others in his extended family (The Island of St. Matthews is the rare film to focus on those who didn’t make the move). Everson communicates the complexity of this topic not with direct discussion of it but through sustained scrutiny of the individual lives affected by the displacement generations hence. Films such as Quality Control, Company Line and Park Lanes center on work environments, labor rituals and the precise forms of expertise accrued within industrialized work. Meanwhile, films such as Emergency Needs, The Reverend E. Randall T. Osborn, First Cousin and Sugarcoated Arsenic, all of which incorporate and then intervene with archival audiovisual material, look at a different form of labor, specifically that which occurs in constructing a persona for the general public.

Everson’s interest in the processes and procedures dominating his characters’ lives is echoed by an obsession with the form and practice of his own cinematic work. Working in the tactile medium of photochemical film, which is sometimes employed for its disorienting aesthetic resemblance to the found footage Everson uses, already bonds him closer to the handicraft on display in his films. When he leverages the full material capacity of the medium, pushing its limits in eleven-minute shots that expend every last frame of a 400-foot roll, the act of filming becomes a full working metaphor for the manual toils of his subjects, who are equally limited and liberated by their resources. This dynamic bond between form and content distinguishes Everson’s work from his antecedents in the avant-garde (durational filmmakers like James Benning, Sharon Lockhart and Andy Warhol). Trading static, machine-like surveillance for engaged, responsive handheld work, Everson moves the emphasis away from the fixity of time and space to the evolving role of the human within the mise-en-scene.

Evolution, after all, is an essential concept in Everson’s work. The films consider Black life within America on a continuum in which old inequities are repackaged as “sugarcoated arsenic” (to borrow a film title) but perseverance ultimately wins out. Images of resilience flood his body of work: a man shadowboxing to stay warm in Undefeated, two clashing music rehearsals continuing in full force side by side in Erie, African migrants describing their turbulent paths to Italy in Rhino, a plethora of factory specialists masterfully sculpting metal and plastic to compose bowling alley parts in Park Lanes, and even a pair of petty thieves on the hunt for Cleveland’s copper parts to feed their families in Fe26. The seeming offhand simplicity of Everson’s films is what most strongly registers on first exposure, but the running subject matter, motifs, themes and formal strategies are impossible to miss once detected. This is an artist with a monomaniacal commitment to his particular niche, and though he asserts that he makes films for his subjects rather than for any perceived audience, the rewards on this side are plenty. – Carson Lund, Harvard Film Archive

A selection of Kevin Jerome Everson’s films are screening at the HFA in February. More information here: http://hcl.harvard.edu/hfa/films/2017decfeb/everson.html

The Gardner Film Study Center Fellowship was established in the name of the pioneering filmmaker Robert Gardner, founder of the Film Study Center and faculty member in the Visual and Environmental Studies Department at Harvard University. This fellowship was established in 2014 and is awarded annually to outstanding filmmakers around the world.