'Politics of the Black Body' series to feature film that questions identity

Saturday, November 16, 2013 | 4:59 p.m. CST; updated 1:51 p.m. CST, Sunday, November 17, 2013
"Sometimes I see Myself in You" by Hank Willis Thomas and Deborah Willis

COLUMBIA —The film "Question Bridge" begins, fittingly, with a question.

A black man asks, "What does it mean to be a black male?"



• 6:30 p.m., Windsor Auditorium, Stephens College — The "Question Bridge" film reception will begin at 6:30 p.m, and the film will screen at 7 p.m. Thomas and Willis will host a question-and-answer session after the film.


• 9:30 a.m., Mark Twain Ballroom, Memorial Union, MU — Thomas and a panel of scholars and Columbia activists will host a panel discussion about black masculinity in contemporary culture.

• 1 p.m., Mark Twain Ballroom, Memorial Union, MU — Willis will present "Unruly Politics: the Black Body and the Lens," a discussion about the display of black people in the media.

• 3 p.m., Lee Hills Hall, Room 109, MU — Thomas and Willis will "meet and greet" guests and host an informal presentation.

• 6 p.m., Fisher Auditorium, Gannett Hall, MU — The final screening of "Question Bridge" will be followed by a book signing and another question-and-answer session with Thomas and Willis.


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Once the dialogue starts, it doesn't stop for 75 minutes.

About 160 black men share their lives and experiences, one after another. One man poses a question, and the next answers. Question. Answer. Question. Answer.

"We have soul," the last man says. "You know, that's what we have."

The film will be screened Sunday and Monday in Columbia as part of the series "Politics of the Black Body." Hank Willis Thomas, one of the film's four filmmakers, and his mother, Deborah Willis, executive producer of the film, will be in Columbia for the event. 

The series will also feature a question-and-answer session with Willis and Thomas, a panel discussion with Thomas, a lecture with Willis, and a meet-and-greet session with both artists.

MU Chief Diversity Officer Noor Azizan-Gardner, who has been involved planning the series, said she is excited for all of the events but most excited to see the film.

Berkley Hudson, the MU associate professor who organized the event, said he hopes to start a conversation about how people represent one another visually.

"I'm hoping this will be the start of a meaningful conversation in the academic community in Columbia, and not just at the university level," Hudson said.

Examining visual representation

Thomas, an artist and photographer, created "Question Bridge," a 2012 Sundance Film Festival selection,with fellow filmmakers Chris Johnson, Bayeté Ross-Smith and Kamal Sinclair to "get to the core, if there is one at all, of black male identity in America," Thomas said in an email.

"I was really motivated to expose the reality that there is as much diversity within a demographic as there is outside of it," Thomas said.

Thomas' work focuses on questions about identity, history and popular culture, according to his biography.

He has exhibited his work in museums across the U.S. and in several countries and is preparing for a solo exhibition in Johannesburg.

Willis, Thomas' mother,works as a professor and chair of the department of photography and imaging at Tisch School of the Arts at New York University. She has written several books examining the photographic representation of the black female body.

"She's really redefined how we see African-Americans in photography," Hudson said.

Willis, who was a MacArthur fellow in 2000 and Guggenheim fellow in 2005, focuses her research on how the display of the black female body affects Americans' interpretation of the world.

"As an artist, photographer, educator and African-American woman, I, too, grapple with ongoing oppression associated with images of black women," Willis said in an email.

Hudson met Willis while he was a student at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, where she was a photography professor. He said Willis is one of the professors who changed his life.

"She's very good at helping you push the boundaries of how you see and how you think and how that connects with the visual world," Hudson said.

Willis said she is proud of her ability to work closely with her son to ask difficult questions and create art collaboratively.

Aiming for impact

Each member of the filmmaking team approached the project with different intentions, but all four filmmakers wanted people to "have trouble saying, 'black men are...' in a reductive or absolute manner," Thomas said.

"I don't approach creating art projects with a fixed agenda, but seeing that most people still believe that 'race' is real, I think we have a long way to go," he said.

Thomas said that most people who have seen the film have said they felt "deeply touched or impacted" by it.

"I think it has reach and the ability to start a dialogue," he said. 

"Politics of the Black Body" is sponsored by five MU departments — the Chancellor's Distinguished Visitors Fund, the Chancellor's Diversity Initiative, the Missouri School of Journalism, MU Libraries and Mizzou Advantage. All events are free and open to the public.

Supervising editor is Margaux Henquinet.

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