Love Is The Message, The Message Is Death – Reviewed

Arthur Jafa Love is the Message The Message is Death 2016 [09]

Arthur Jafa’s Love Is The Message, The Message Is Death, is a film that needs to be seen, absorbed and understood – by white audiences in particular, says Mike Pinnington…

It’s an almost unseasonably warm day. The sky is a patchwork of blues, bisected here and there by contrails. What cloud there is, is dappled, as if rendered in Microsoft Paint. It’s almost comically pleasant. Weaving around slo-mo tourists and day-trippers on Liverpool’s Royal Albert Dock, I step over this world’s threshold into Tate Liverpool, and on into the ground floor Wolfson Gallery. Immediately, the picture changes, and the breezy carefree mood exits, stage left.

Out of the relative glare of the sunshine, I’m confronted with an almost pitch-black space, the focal point of which is one big screen, and the contrast with the outside could hardly be starker. For the next seven minutes (which fly by, but stay with you long after), you are transported to somewhere else entirely; subject to the seductive, choppy editing of American artist/filmmaker Arthur Jafa’s Love Is The Message, The Message Is Death, a film whose effects are so sudden, it’s no exaggeration to say it’s like being smacked square in the face.

“There can be no doubting this film’s impact”

Truly, you have to experience it for yourself to feel its full incendiary effects, but I’ll do my best here. A montage made up of found footage, Jafa has said that “I want to make black cinema with the power, beauty, and alienation of black music. That’s my big goal.” And, indeed, there can be no doubting this film’s impact. Glued to the seat, you’re hit with wave after wave of imagery, including recognisable celebrities, athletes, an ex-president and figures from the civil rights movement. Beginning with the world of sport, here’s Serena Williams boogieing on the tennis court; a figure of pure delight you can’t help but smile with and for her; other sports stars included are Mohammed Ali and Lebron James: charismatic human beings at the very peak of their physical capabilities. Among the musicians and pop stars I pick out are Lauryn Hill, Michael Jackson, John Coltrane, a prodigious 17-year-old Notorious B.I.G., and Beyoncé, transcendent cultural icons, who have brought joy to people in their millions.

Arthur Jafa Love is the Message The Message is Death 2016 [05]

Interspersed with this footage of inarguable greatness and joyous communal highs, however, are myriad harsh realities, reminders (if any were needed) that all is not well in this world. Obama singing Amazing Grace makes for a beautiful moment, but the circumstances in which he does so are tragic: he is in Charleston, delivering a eulogy to Reverend Clementa C. Pinckney, Democratic member of the South Carolina Senate, one of nine African Americans murdered in church by the white supremacist Dylann Roof in 2015. From the same year, we see rife police brutality: teenage girls are threatened at a Texas pool party, and Walter Scott is shot in the back and killed. Pointing out the degree to which the frequency of these acts of violence are perpetrated and witnessed by anyone with a twitter account or access to rolling news triggers concerns around potential desensitisation.

“It makes for a jarring representation of the currency of blackness”

Here, by delivering us quick bursts of blink and you’ll miss it clips, Jafa is walking a tightrope, almost daring us to lay the same charge at his door. Thing is, you don’t – can’t – blink, and encountering those recent atrocities juxtaposed with black achievement in such fashion is to acknowledge the have your cake and eat it relationship western media, and society at large, has adopted to black lives. As actor and activist Amandla Stenberg asks, “What would America be like if we loved black people as much as we love black culture?” A further demonstration of this point can be found in the Martin Luther King imagery – emblazoned with the Getty Images watermark, it makes for a jarring representation of the manipulation and currency of blackness.

Slightly more abstract is the occasional appearance of extra-terrestrials – from Cloverfield and Alien respectively – stressing, perhaps, the cruel duality of distrust and fascination black Americans face daily. The film, however, is no simple J’accuse levelled at white America. With the inclusion in Love Is The Message… of Michael Jackson, whose personal life dogs him even after death, and sonically driven by the gospel-tinged Ultralight Beam of Kanye West – a maddening figure inspiring awe, ambivalence and confusion – Jafa points to the blurry nature of perception conferred by fame, whatever your skin tone.

Don’t take my word for it, though. While I said I’d do my best to describe the visceral, physical response this film can elicit – the hairs will stand up on the back of your neck, you will jump as a pedestrian is spiked, NFL-style, by an over-zealous cop, and you may weep. But as with any artwork, responses will be personal, subjective, and depend on your own contextual baggage. This important, astonishing film must be experienced first-hand. See for yourself the societal contradictions, the hypocrisies, the highs and the lows, witnessed and presented in bravura fashion by Jafa.

Mike Pinnington

See Arthur Jafa, Love Is The Message, The Message Is Death at Tate Liverpool until 12 May

All images: film stills from Arthur Jafa, Love Is The Message, The Message Is Death

Posted on 01/05/2019 by thedoublenegative