At first, it’s easy to view “An Act of Seeing: Barry Jenkins’s The Gaze” as a walk-through experience of a Blu-ray special feature. The Museum of the Moving Image’s exhibition is largely made up of supplemental materials related to the director’s recent miniseries adaptation of Colson Whitehead’s The Underground Railroad, featuring costuming sketches, concept art, snippets of historical photography, and works by artists such as Kara Walker and Kerry James Marshall. It’s an interesting, if somewhat expected, snapshot of the show’s aesthetic forebears — iconic painters, tintype photography, and the soft-hued landscapes of the Antebellum South all make sense as components of the expressionistic Jenkins formula. But the exhibit’s titular centerpiece, the short film The Gaze, moves it beyond a mere promotional event, exploring and complicating readings of both The Underground Railroad and Jenkins as a filmmaker.
Over some 52 minutes, The Gaze unfolds as a series of shots of Underground Railroad characters situated in the timber shacks and marble stations that make up its wide-ranging settings, all while Nicholas Britell’s score swells and rattles in the background. The formula for each scene is nearly always the same, beginning with a wide shot that pushes slowly in on the still cast members, all of whom look directly into the camera. Then the shot pulls focus and moves slowly back out. There’s no sense in framing this review around a recommendation of the work itself — either you are the type of person who enjoys nearly an hour of wordless structuralist exercises or not — but thinking about The Gaze is a way of thinking about Jenkins, his subject matter, and his camera.
When The Underground Railroad premiered this past spring, there was a tenor of unease in its reception. The series depicts the horrors of living through, and escaping from, slavery in an alternate, quasi-allegorical version of 1800s America. But despite its prestigious pedigree, there was a question of necessity. Why another work on the spectacle of Black trauma? And why Jenkins, our era’s great humanist and chronicler of love, at its helm? The conversation around noxious works like 2020’s Antebellum or the Oscar-winning short Two Distant Strangers made clear the limits of didactic trauma plays, which aim for shock-induced empathy but land instead in what Alison Willmore called “an indulgence in the brutality of the moment.” Jenkins is a more considered craftsman, but when his camera revels in whip-ripped and burning flesh in the very first episode of Underground Railroad, it’s hard not to have questions like these.
But The Gaze, in its contemplative long shots, seems to ask those same questions, deepening them and turning them back on the audience. There is no narrative, no dramatic action — only people whose gazes are held at the viewer. That title becomes reflexive, a question of who’s watching who. Can the audience give these unmoving characters the same rapt attention as when they are embroiled in violence and spectacle? Can you handle being on the other side of an implacable historical gaze? After all, whose gaze motivates Amazon to fund an adaptation of The Underground Railroad? Who are they hoping is enticed by its premise? Jenkins described The Gaze as an attempt to give embodiment to the characters beyond the phrase “enslaved,” which he says “speaks only to what was done to them, not to who they were nor what they did.” In stripping away all dramatic signifiers of trauma, The Gaze asks viewers to commune with its subjects as people, not divine sufferers or allegorical ciphers.
The word “gaze” also applies to the camerawork itself — one of Jenkins’s great strengths as a filmmaker and the engine that animates these lofty historical inquiries. In Moonlight, the camera is a tidal pool eddying around Chiron in his search for family. If Beale Street Could Talk has a similarly subjective lens, occupying the middle distance between lovers Fonny and Tish as they reach out longingly across the gulf of incarceration, homing in on small memories of dress and touch. The Gaze’s push-and-pull camera has both the tidal force of Moonlight and Beale Street’s feel for texture. It uses Jenkins’s signature shot of a face staring down the lens not as a tool of subjective intimacy but of historical distancing, a bulwark against voyeurism instead of an invitation. Movement and eyesight, the tools with which Jenkins crafts his poetic humanism, are distilled to pure imagistic storytelling, used to ponder who trauma narratives are meant for and why. In the short’s meditative non-narrative compositions, there is a granting of agency, through depth and dress and demeanor, to people usually relegated to the background of history. The stage is completely theirs.
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