Sean Bell, Sandra Bland, Rekia Boyd, Michael Brown, Ricky Boyd, Kenneth Chamberlain, Stephon Clark, John Crawford III, Patrick Dorismond, Shereese Francis, Eric Garner, Ramarley Graham, Freddie Gray, LaTanya Haggerty, Jason Harrison, Kendra James, Ronald Madison, Manuel Loggins Jr., Margaret LaVerne Mitchell, Jerame Reid, Tamir Rice, Aiyana Stanley-Jones, and Saheed Vassell: each a black man or woman who died at the hands of police, each representing hundreds of such cases since 1999, when 22-year-old Amadou Diallo, an unarmed man standing in a New York City doorway, was gunned down by four plain-clothed officers who fired 41 bullets, thinking he had a gun; the officers were charged with second-degree murder and later acquitted.
The year 2016 alone saw 37-year-old Alton Sterling, a father of five, die after being shot in the chest and back outside a Baton Rouge, Louisiana, convenience store, where he was selling compact discs, by officers investigating reports of a man with a gun; 33-year-old Philando Castile was shot in the car in front of his girlfriend and her four-year-old daughter in Falcon Heights, Minnesota, by a cop who pulled him over because his “wide-set nose” fit the description of a robbery suspect; 23-year-old Korryn Gaines, a mother of two, was killed in her home, and her five-year-old son wounded, during a standoff with Baltimore County police attempting to serve her a warrant for failing to appear in court; 43-year-old and mentally impaired Keith Lamont Scott was shot in his SUV while waiting for his son in Charlotte, North Carolina, by a police officer in pursuit of another man; 40-year-old Terence Crutcher, unarmed, was shot by a police officer in Tulsa, Oklahoma, while standing near his vehicle in the middle of a street after his vehicle stalled on the side of the road; and 13-year-old Tyre King was shot multiple times in an alley in Columbus, Ohio, gunned down by police who, responding to reports of an armed robbery, claimed that King appeared to pull a handgun from his waistband when, in fact, he had a BB gun.
Black Lives Matter broadened the conversation around state violence, going beyond extrajudicial killings of black people by police and vigilantes to include other ways virulent anti-black racism has for centuries permeated American society, and became an explosive artistic call-to-arms. There have been myriad gut-wrenching responses, from anger and despair to fear and trepidation, by artists — Carlos Raul Dufflar’s poem “Amadou Diallo From Guinea to the Bronx Dead on Arrival”; Ellisha and Steven Flagg’s “I Can’t Breathe,” the protest anthem dedicated to their brother Eric Garner, who died on July 17, 2014, after being head-locked and choke-held, moaning, “I can’t breathe,” 11 times while lying face down on the sidewalk; the song “How Many” by Miguel, written in reaction to the police shootings of Sterling and Castile, channeling Marvin Gaye's 1971 protest song “What’s Going On”; Jay-Z’s song titled “spiritual,” reflecting the rapper’s disillusionment with police brutality in modern times; the rapper Kendrick Lamar’s songs “Alright” and “The Blacker the Berry,” anthems in the wake of high-profile police shootings of minorities; and most recently, the rapper Childish Gambino’s music video “This Is America,” an explosive commentary on gun violence.
In performance, Between the World and Me, a stage adaptation of Ta-Nehisi Coates’s prize-winning 2015 book, premiered at New York’s Apollo Theater in 2018, conjuring the visceral anger and grief of the September 1, 2000, shooting of 25-year-old Prince Carmen Jones Jr. who, unarmed, was shot 16 times — of the six bullets in his body, five entered from his back — by a Prince George’s County, Maryland, police officer on suspicion of driving a stolen vehicle. In dance performance, Freedom, a 54-second black-and-white video choreographed by Sean Aaron Carmon for fellow members of the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater to the music of Beyoncé’s “Freedom,” featuring Kendrick Lamar, was created three days after the July 5, 2016, shooting of Alton Sterling in Baton Rouge, two days after the Philando Castile shooting in Falcon Heights, and one day after the attack on police in Dallas, Texas. Bemoaning those same July 2016 tragedies, the jazz tap dancer Dormeshia Sumbry-Edwards, 20 minutes into the performance of And Still You Must Swing, a collaboration with her fellow tap stars Derick K. Grant and Jason Samuels Smith and guest artist Camille A. Brown, at the Jacob’s Pillow Dance Festival, stopped abruptly to address the audience. “It’s not easy when your people are getting killed in the street,” she muttered, holding back tears. “I can’t apologize because it’s real, y’all,” launching into a solo that was passionate and fierce.
Just six minutes long, and reportedly inspired by forlorn dismay of the police shootings of young black men, Color of Reality will be counted as one of the seminal anthems of the Black Lives Matter movement. Offering an articulate, empathetic, and encapsulating response to police brutality, the film has attracted (at last count) some 335,000 views on YouTube, and is mesmerizing, in large part, for the striking visual scenography of the painter Alexa Meade. In the opening scene, we could be looking at a colorful still life, a domestic scene — the interior of a living room painted, in the broad strokes of a Vincent Van Gogh painting, in calming shades of blue, cream, and purple, conjuring the image of a bright blue sky. In it, two men, sitting on a couch, watch a news broadcast from a television set, listening to a news anchor report on the murders of unarmed black men at the hands of police. A broadcaster describes the “graphic body cam and dash cam video of an officer-involved shooting, where an unarmed black teenager was killed by police.” It is not until the camera zooms in on this still life and into a close-up of the men — their brown skin and glazed eyes peering through the thick strokes of paint — that we discern how Meade is challenging our visual senses. Are we looking at a two-dimensional painting or a three-dimensional performance work?
Meade’s color-soaked body-painting, a technique she calls “Reverse Trompe L’Oeil” — trompe l’oeil being a visual illusion that tricks the eye into perceiving a painted detail as a three-dimensional object — recalls the work of Carolee Schneemann, the visual artist/collagist who used her body to examine the role of female sensuality in connection to the possibilities of political and personal liberation from predominantly oppressive social and aesthetic conventions. As a painter, Schneemann extended the visual principles of the canvas in her inquiries about sexuality, simultaneously investigating taboo realms of corporeality and the liberating possibilities of the female body by using her body as the primary medium to exercise women’s agency. Schneemann’s 1963 Eye Body, for instance, was a series of 36 photographs of the artist in an environment she created with various objects — broken mirrors, dress mannequins, plastic tarps. To become a piece of the art herself, Schneemann covered her nude self in various materials, including grease, chalk, and plastic, creating 36 “transformative actions” in a setting in which she was photographed, with one action for each frame of film. She described the series as integrating the artist’s self as image and image-maker, melding the two through an improvisational collage in space and time.
Like Schneemann, Meade began her career as a painter and then turned to finding more unconventional painting surfaces — bodies and inanimate objects — and using them in a way that collapsed depth, making her models appear two-dimensional when photographed. “Your body is my canvas,” Meade explained in a Ted Talk about her work, Your Body Is My Canvas. “There is more to this painting than meets the eye,” she explained. “It is an acrylic painting, but I didn’t paint it on canvas, I painted it on top of the man. […] I skip the canvas altogether, and if I want to paint your portrait, I’m painting it on you — physically on you. That also means you are probably going to end up with an earful of paint,” since she is painting an ear on the ear. Everything “gets covered in a mask of paint that mimics what’s directly below it, and in this way, I’m able to take a three-dimensional scene and make it look like a two-dimensional painting.” Turning people into paintings, the “mask” of paint on body and objects reverts the portrait into a two-dimensional experience, flattening bodies into walls. “It was about shadows. I was fascinated with the absence of light and I wanted to find a way that I could give it materiality and pin it down before it changed.”
After experimenting with painting, or masking, corporeal subjects, Meade ventured further with the idea of creating “paintings” on more unusual surfaces. In The Milk Project, collaborating with the actress and performance artist Sheila Vand, Meade immersed Vand, whom she had body-painted, into a pool of milk. The erasure of the paint, due to the washing of the milk, ended up creating images that were, as Meade described, “far more elegant,” a lesson in what lay beneath the surface. “What will you make of me?” Vand asked, in the text of the installation work that premiered at Galerie Ivo Kamm in Zurich, Switzerland, in 2012. The symbolic metaphor of immersing a female body into the nourishing mammalian substance of milk is obvious — it is an erasure of the female into the primal substance of female nourishment, therefore yoking form and substance. “I am disappearing into that space between us, but the first step of transformation is to erase oneself. Identity is a disease, and today, I prefer to blend in with my canvas,” Meade wrote at the premiere of Milk. Unlike the erasure of identity that Vand succumbs to in the Milk series, Meade’s body-painting of Boogz and Lil Buck in Color of Reality is so materially oppressive as to challenge its living-and-breathing subjects to reclaim their corporeality. The power of the body, the black body, prevails over the suppressive acrylics that attempt to smother it.
The danced solos of Jon Boogz and Lil Buck add profound tragic depth: soliloquies on the pain of prejudice, injustice, and mass incarceration that are articulated through styles of street dancing derived from hip-hop culture. Still, Meade’s visuals, in coordination with the movement art, produce the initial arresting moments in Color of Reality that propel the film to its final tragic moment, compelling the viewer to yearn for the end of predatory policing. In the opening scene, under the yellow-painted title, Color of Reality, the camera frames a brightly painted interior of a living room and the figures of two men, seated on a couch, watching television. Above the escalating elegiac chords of an electronic score by DBR and WondaGurl, we hear sound bites — “Yes, it’s a graphic video … everything from shots to blood … an unarmed black teenager was killed by police … These people were involved in his murder.”
The camera zooms in on the men, panning the painted, blue-streaked wall, side table, lamp, stack of books, plastic snack wrappers, and a can of soda, settling on a paint — streaked brown-skinned hand, placed on the armrest of the coach; and cuts to the television screen where a black anchorman (CBS news correspondent Vladimir Duthiers) describes “a video showing the deadly officer involved in a shooting in Louisiana.” A reaction shot closes in on the attentive faces of the men, their slow and steady breathing barely perceptible, with a cut back to the television where a female anchorwoman reports “a graphic body cam and dash cam video of an officer-involved shooting where an unarmed black teenager was killed by police.” In a startling reaction shot, Boogz’s arm involuntarily shoots up from the armrest and, with remote in hand, flips off the set. The camera cuts to an extreme close-up of Lil Buck, breathing heavily. Behind the painted mask we see his glazed, large brown eyes peering through the thick yellow and green strokes of paint. In an infinitely small movement, he downcasts his eyes, signaling despondence, and sighs deeply, his head rotating from side to side. It is a riveting, heartbreaking moment that encapsulates a sobering state of being alive, thus breaking the two-dimensionality of the narrative. The camera cuts to a long shot of the men, seated side-by-side on the couch, estranged and isolated in thought. The score begins to pulsate as each man rises in turn from the couch to soliloquize upon their state of mind through their personal movement language.
Popping, a late-1960s style of street dance originally from Fresno, California, is the movement style that Miami-born Jon Boogz honed as a performer on the streets of Venice Beach. The dance, based on the technique of suddenly contracting and relaxing muscles, produces a jerk in the dancer’s body, often called a pop or hit, and is done continuously to the rhythm of a song. Unlike locking in hip-hop movement, which contracts or tightens the body into certain shapes, popping forces the body parts to explode outward, the rupture followed by a contraction, leading to a relaxation of the muscles. The abrupt tensing and releasing of muscles creates the stop-motion illusion of animation; the movement is robotic — moving at a steady pace and suddenly coming to a clean halt without shaking or reverb — and creates a tenseness in the viewer, not knowing what body part will next explode.
Jooking, often referred to as Gangsta Walking, is a style of movement that began in Memphis, Tennessee, in the 1990s, usually performed to crunk music — up-tempo, drum machine-based hip-hop music from the early 1990s. Jooking is recognized for the “bounce” in the beat and the corresponding movement dancers make to keep up with it. Gangsta Walking is said to have “originated” by the group G-Style and the release of the video “G-Style Gangsta,” in which performers Romeo, Wolf, and Hurricane rapped while performing movements consisting of heel-toe footwork, hopping, and sliding the foot along the floor with accentuated prompts in the upper body. The group landed a production deal with Dallas Austin, the producer behind the groups TLC, Boys to Men, and Another Bad Creation; their success opened doors and gave way for other dances in Memphis, such as jookin, buckin, tickin, and choppin. In 2007, the Memphis rapper-director-producer Young Jai released the DVD Memphis Jookin Vol 1, which featured several G-Style young bloods, among them the 19-year-old Charles “Lil Buck” Riley (born May 25, 1988). Gangsta Walking requires the dancer to take quick steps, stomps, and twists, throwing arms around while moving to a beat. The style evolved by taking pieces from other street dance styles, such as two-step locomotion and spinning or walking on the tips of the toes. Jooking took the classic G-Walk steps and combined them into a smoother look, caused by changes in music during the 1990s, and was most noted for its smooth, agile footwork and dancer’s creative variation in stepping and sliding.
Like break dancing, which originated during the mid-1970s in the Bronx, primarily among Puerto Rican and African-American adolescents, many of them former gang members, and Krumping, an aggressive style of street dance created in South Central Los Angeles around 2000 that uses such moves as arm swings, chest pops, and stomps, Popping and Jooking are forms of self-expression — relief from the hardships of living in the inner city and aimed to release anger and frustration positively and nonviolently. Rarely choreographed, these street dance styles are almost entirely freestyle, danced most frequently in battles or sessions, rather than on a stage. Though myriad moves in hip-hop have become codified and are meant to display the virtuosic prowess of the dancer, the movement vocabulary of Boogz and Lil Buck in Color of Reality demonstrates a highly evolved personal and idiosyncratic expression that addresses contemporary social-political ideologies of the Black Lives Matter movement.
The onslaught of news about violence against and the murder of black men both pains Boogz and Lil Buck and awakens them to action. Boogz bounces from the couch to stand erect, his knees shimmying, arms flailing, shaking his body to attention. A burst of energy emanating from the base of the spine travels up through the torso, sending his arms into a windmill of deflections, and propelling his sneakered feet to nimbly heel-and-toe sideways. He sinks, wide-legged, into a deep and jagged kneebend that resembles the metatarsal of a tarantula, and then draws himself straight up into staunch verticality: alert, inviolable, and with a fixed jaw, he struts in slow and steady motion back to the couch, challenging Lil Buck to the floor.
Lil Buck rises from the couch to perch precariously on the tip of one sneaker. Extending the free leg to waver in the air, he dwells in a long moment of reflection. Teetering in balance, he cups both hands to his heart, as if extracting it from his chest, and tosses it into the air, setting his body into a slithering disarray of crisscrossing arms and legs.
Buck’s solo is all about how the body retains equilibrium after it has been thrown out of whack: an invisible jab to the chest causes the torso to fold over, only to be flipped into a backbend; an uppercut to the jaw causes the body to twist into a succession of turns. Arms undulating, Buck has his feet take on a furious dialogue, sliding, gliding, tip-toeing as if walking through a minefield. Turning on the tip of the toes, descending, as if being swallowed up in a well; sliding across the floor on one knee, falling backward and bouncing back: it is a narrative of fall and recovery, descent and resurrection that simulates a battle with invisible foes, in which he always recovers. Lil Buck’s recovery, the call to restitution, is so corporeally powerful as to again retrieve Boogz from the couch. Together, in slow motion, they walk single file toward the door.
The unpredictable explosions of energy; the alien forms of locomotion such as freezing body parts while carrying oneself around the floor; the intricate footwork — lifting the slide of the feet off the ground to create even higher glides (bucking); sliding with one foot while gliding with the other to give the illusion of ice skating (icing) — these elements in Boogz’s and Buck’s solos combine to narrate a personal landscape not only of pain and suffering, their bodies absorbing and deflecting the relentless cruelty bestowed upon black bodies, but also of an insistence on survival. This summoning of courage motivates the men to leave their paint-streaked sanctum for the world outside.
At the three-minute mark, the men walk out the door and onto the street with newfound consciousness and determination, dance fueling and expressing their activism. The visual clash between the dreamy quality of the painted set, faces, and clothes inside and the cold exterior of steel, brick, and concrete make the harshness of the outside world more vivid. The two make their way down the isolated street, stumbling over their feet, gazing up at the brick buildings with steel grates, and the few pedestrians — white and brown-skinned men and women — shove them, refuse their handshakes, pass them by, render them invisible. As isolated as they were in their paint-streaked room, they are more so on the cold, gray sidewalk. Suddenly, two gun shots ring out, making the men stop short in their tracks. A close-up on Boogz’s face, a cut to Lil Buck’s face, then back to Boogz, as the camera moves slowly down his chest to settle on a pool of red-soaked liquid (paint? blood?) gushing from his heart into his cupped hands. The men, cupping the blood that spills from their gut, crumble to the ground, their legs collapsing like a deck of cards. We are left with two brief close-ups on the faces of these stricken men, their large brown eyes wide open, gazing into fathomless space; the camera flies up and away, rendering the scene of men, sprawled on the street in a pool of blood, into a two-dimensional image that is abstract. The message is simple: senseless violence must come to an end.
During my first viewings of Color of Reality, I had been mesmerized by the bold, attention-grabbing visual qualities of the film — the schizophrenic back-and-forth of two-to-three dimensionality; the brash brushstrokes on skin, furniture, and walls, and Meade’s claiming all of these as paintable surfaces; the final tableaux in the hauntingly predictable ending of the film, which restores the blood-and-gore “reality” of the murder into a more cooling abstract image.
After studying the work over time, I resisted the immediate visual gratification, trying to discern the elements of the work that motivate the deepest compassionate response to the fatal shootings of these “men of color.” Meade’s visual contribution to the film’s core emotional experience skims the surface — as, no doubt, it is meant to do, as the mask of paint, the thick brush strokes of color that suffocate the pores of Boogz’s and Buck’s black skin, acts as the oppressive element to which the men must succumb, or from which they must escape. The piece does its work by quite literally moving out from under its astounding surface.
Behind the acrylic mask, Boogz’s and Buck’s warm eyes and expressive faces propel us to see the whole body — the flesh and bone of the movement so filled with pranic energy that it bleeds through the confines of the cracked acrylic paint — and feel the powerful throb of life. Meade’s visual manipulation of two-and-three dimensionality materializes the dilemma that W. E. B. Du Bois so urgently articulated about black identity and double-consciousness. As long as Boogz and Lil Buck remain two-dimensional in the painted room, they do not bring danger to themselves and are relegated to invisibility; they are about as harmless as a picture postcard. As soon as they break out of artifice of two-dimensionality to the factuality of three-dimensional aliveness, they are in dire danger.
Ultimately, neither space offers solace or safety, which is the underlying reality of the film, as these men are either relegated to the intimate internal space of living color, where the deepest emotional utterances of pain and suffering can be articulated, or can be left to the insufferable fate of existing in a colorless, terrorizing urban landscape. Inside, imprisonment; outside, prey to be hunted in the urban jungle. What, then, is the color of reality? What are the means of survival for these young black men who breathe through the suffocating confines of the mask, embodying stealth and subversion — slipping, spinning, gliding, tip-toeing nimbly through a mine field; ready to explode unpredictably from behind a mask of cool?
Color of Reality is a eulogy for all black men who dare step into three-dimensionality: Amadou Diallo in a New York City doorway; Alton Sterling outside a Baton Rouge convenience store; Philando Castile off a highway in Falcon Heights; Keith Lamont Scott in his SUV in Charlotte; Terence Crutcher standing in the middle of the street next to his stalled vehicle in Tulsa; Tyre King in an alley in Columbus. However confident they are when they venture into the world, the sobering “reality” is that no one gives a damn or wants to hear from them. Meanwhile, their deaths confirm that nothing changes, or has changed, from the time of Amadou until now. The saddest reality is that it has always been this way for people of color since the beginning of America — that is the reality of color.
Where Color of Reality makes its most original and enduring contribution to the Black Lives Matter movement is that Jon Boogz and Charles “Lil Buck” Riley have created an artistic language of movement — poetic, elevated, enduring — to give expression to black struggle in the millennium.
Constance Valis Hill is a dance historian and choreographer, and a Five College Professor of Dance (Hampshire College). She is the author of Tap Dancing America: A Cultural History (Oxford University Press, 2010), which won the de la Torre Bueno Prize for the best book in the of dance studies; and Brotherhood in Rhythm: The Jazz Tap Dancing of the Nicholas Brothers (Oxford University Press, 2000), winner of a 2001 ASCAP Deems-Taylor award. She has composed a chronology of tap dance for the Library of Congress in “Tap Dance in America: A Twentieth-Century Chronology of Tap Performance on Stage, Film, and Media by Constance Valis Hill,” a 3,000 performance record database with 180 biographies of twentieth-century tap dancers.