Features

Features

The Longest Day

With Tonsler Park, shot in the midst of a polling precinct on  November 8, 2016 in Charlottesville, Virginia, Kevin Jerome Everson continues his ongoing investigations into American disenfranchisement

By Max Nelson

One of the early films Kevin Jerome Everson made in Charlottesville, Virginia, was a short assemblage of interviews and scenes shot in 2005 around Fifeville, a historically black neighborhood in which property values had recently started to rise. Everson had by then been teaching for five years at the University of Virginia, where he is still on the faculty; he co-directed Fifeville with the theologian Corey Walker as part of an advanced documentary class. Like most of the 135 shorts and nine features Everson has finished since 1997, the film comes from encounters with real people in a precise setting but never moves predictably. Spoken testimonies, views of the area, and short interstitial scenes run up against one another; a boom dips into the frame; many scenes begin with one of Everson’s students pulling a clapperboard out of view. Midway through, an older man gives the students a tour in his car and points out landmarks from the city’s past. “Directly in front of me is Tonsler Park,” he gestures. “It became the black park during segregation.”

If Everson’s new feature weren’t named after Tonsler Park, you wouldn’t know it was shot there—or, for that matter, in Charlottesville at all. Over the course of fewer than 20 black-and-white 16mm shots, some brief and others up to 10 minutes long, Tonsler Park shows a series of African-American volunteers at the park’s polling center as they hand out ballots and work the room during the 2016 presidential election. We see their lips move but don’t hear them speak: beyond the film’s two bookend scenes of new recruits taking their oaths, the soundtrack is a collage of chatter and background noise. Quarters are close. People keep passing in front of the camera and blocking our view; the faces of the workers we’re following flit in and out of sight. Matters the movie can’t help evoking—the history of voter suppression and racial segregation in the South, the park’s own history, and the outcome of the election itself—keep ceding priority for the viewer to the movements of these workers on a shift. “I was trying to make a flicker film,” Everson told the Italian art magazine Mousse earlier this year.

When I asked Everson about the new film during an interview in September, he suggested that it didn’t much matter where it had been shot. The polling place in Tonsler Park reminded him of ones he’d seen in Cleveland, where “there would be tow trucks in front of the voting centers, and so folks wouldn’t go vote because they were afraid they’d get their car towed . . . I remember these old black ladies watching the cars, protecting the right to vote.” Nor, even, was the point of the movie exactly that an election was going on. “The film could almost be taking place at a DMV.” Does it matter, then, what state we’re in, or whether the people whose blurred backs and torsos we see crisscrossing in front of the camera are here to cast a ballot or renew their ID? What difference, if any, does it make to our experience of following these people? The film was finished a number of months before a white supremacist rally descended on Charlottesville in August, leaving 19 people injured and one dead, and that recent event will be in the minds of many who watch it now. But in what sense—if any—does it change how we ought to watch what happened on that day, in that room?

Quality Control

Q uestions like these have always drifted around Everson’s films, which with a handful of exceptions all center on black Americans in staged or otherwise manipulated scenes of work and leisure. Everson is in one sense a regional filmmaker: many of his films are set in Mansfield, Ohio (where he grew up and still spends a great deal of time), Cleveland (where his family settled for work in the auto industry after they moved north from Mississippi), and Charlottesville. In some cases they engage directly with the histories of the cities they depict. On the soundtrack of Sugarcoated Arsenic (2014)—one of several movies Everson has co-directed with his colleague Claudrena Harold—a young actor named Erin Stewart reenacts a recording of a speech by Vivian Gordon, the director of the University of Virginia’s black studies program in the late 1970s. In Emergency Needs (2007), another actor does the same for a film of a press conference by Carl B. Stokes, the first African-American mayor of Cleveland. Nearly all of Everson’s movies show people linked to subcultures and lines of work specific to one place or another: rodeo riders in Natchez and Lafayette (Ten Five in the Grass, 2012); copper scrappers in Cleveland (Fe26, 2014); insulation repairmen in Salisbury, North Carolina (R-15, 2017); dry cleaners in Alabama (Quality Control, 2011); Ohio Water Department employees (Sound That, 2014); medical workers in Buffalo (Erie, 2010). They belong to their settings.

What these films don’t do, in most cases, is announce where they’re set. I pieced together the above locations from festival program notes and stray incidental details in the movies themselves. These are films that stay close to individual people as they go about their business, activity that Everson nearly always orchestrates in advance. (Quality Control, he told me, was the one case in which the movie’s action would have “still been going on” without him; for Tonsler Park, he asked the polling center to bring in more African-American volunteers.) Everson’s movies won’t be easily enlisted to make an argument or prove a point about the places and people that gave them the occasion to exist. Even as they linger on what it looks like to live and work in specific cities or towns, they rebuff any attempts to situate their subjects in a broader context. “I get people who always say that my films make them alienated,” Everson told me. But it needn’t be that way:

When I look through the viewfinder, I’m just filling in the backstory from my experience. So you fill it in with yours. With Erie, I thought, here’s a heterosexual guy who gets married and then gets a second job, a third job. He’s working in a factory. That’s the backstory. The second-to-last shot shows a guy packing up surgical instruments. That’s the new economy in the North, and also the South. I think the main industry in Birmingham is clinics. A lot of people in Cleveland and Buffalo work as health care professionals. People like that are invisible. With Quality Control, folks just thought their clothes would be magically washed. They don’t see nobody working back there.

If there’s a single preoccupation that runs through Everson’s otherwise eclectic and sprawling body of work, it’s with concentrating on black civil servants, service industry workers, city employees, and manual laborers to whom his white viewers might not otherwise pay much mind. His own line of work is turning their labor into objects. (“Every day I gotta put in eight hours,” he told the scholar Terri Francis in 2014.) And so the emphasis in his movies is always on what’s materially present and readily at hand.

Fifeville

Films were not always Everson’s objects of choice. He was born in 1965, trained initially as a sculptor and a street photographer, and made his first major museum appearance in 1994, in the Whitney’s influential group show Black Male. That piece, “Mansfield, Ohio End Tables,” consisted of a set of wooden tables on which had been laid photographs of unidentified black men. Nowhere was the viewer told that Everson had made the tables himself or that the men were prison guards from his hometown, where incarceration had become a major industry. “The subject is compelling and poignant,” the critic Michael Kimmelman complained in The New York Times, “but you wouldn’t know it from his deadpan sculptures.” It was unintended praise.

Surprisingly, Everson did layer his first film, Eleven Eighty Two (1997)—in which he appeared in lieu of the mother of his son to evoke her day job at the local prison—with text specifying a guard’s hours and wages. He almost never repeated that mistake. The point of his work wasn’t to make “compelling” or “poignant” pictures but to produce physical things redolent of specific life-styles and milieus. “Anytime I go to the movies,” he told me, “I wonder what the [characters] do for a living, how people acquire the things in the frame.” In 2003 he worked as a set designer for a friend of his named Jeffrey C. Wray, who was making a film for television, China:

We were going back and forth. The guy’s a mailman, I said. What would they acquire? Then Jeff paused and said, “they need things that are nice.” And that clicked it. I’m from Mansfield, and I know exactly what “nice” means. “Nice” means new. And so I immediately went and got things that looked new. 

“I guess my films are kind of about what people did to fill those homes,” he said. They go about that job discreetly, eliding much of the background and context on which they depend. We never learn in his movies that Everson handcrafts many of the objects we see his characters handle and use, from manhole covers to billboards to cast-iron bells. A pair of gorgeous silent films he made of this summer’s solar eclipse, one in color and one in black and white, both end with a small, fleeting dedication to his late grandmother. Yet neither Shadeena nor Ears, Nose and Throat, the two films he made last year in which a woman describes a fatal shooting she witnessed years earlier, mention that the victim was Everson’s son, to whom many of his films are dedicated.

No two of these reticent objects have exactly the same texture and tone. They skip back and forth from 16mm to video and black and white to color. Most last less than 25 minutes, but two—a portrait of a factory that makes bowling alley supplies (Park Lanes, 2015) and a film of a house in Cleveland (8903 Empire, 2016)—run eight hours. Even a pair of films as twinned as Everson’s recent studies of the Carr family’s insulation business in Salisbury, North Carolina, could hardly be more different. Carrs Down South is a three-minute triptych of interviews with a father, his son, and one of their employees, all shot in tight close-ups. R-15, on the other hand, is something closer to a dark, seductive science-fiction movie. In the middle of the day, one of the company’s workers climbs into an attic from a sun-streaked porch; we follow him into a nocturnal field of insulation materials that looks like an Alaskan hinterland or the surface of another planet. What is for him a daily sight will strike most of us as otherworldly, and Everson’s camera accentuates this response, bringing the bright window at the far end of the space in and out of focus while insulation swirls around in front of it like stardust or snow. (Within a year of shooting R-15, Everson also made Rough and Unequal: Oceanis Procellarum, a 20-minute vision, shot at UVA’s McCormick Observatory, of the surface of the moon passing in front of a telescope lens.)

Everson’s collaborations with Harold—all centered on the history of UVA’s African-American students and administrators—are equally varied. We Demand (2016) offered a fictionalized retelling of the day James R. Roebuck, an undergraduate from Philadelphia, drafted a set of nine anti-war and anti-racist mandates for the university’s president in 1970. That movie was filmed in fiery color; it ended on a gliding shot of the tail of Roebuck’s red convertible. The pair’s most recent collaboration is shot in sensuous black and white: a blissful re-creation of a visit Sly and the Family Stone made to the college in 1973 called How Can I Ever Be Late. To a cover of Sly’s “If You Want Me to Stay,” the camera glides around the group of actors Everson and Harold recruited to play the band and their hosts, mingling and dancing and lolling around. It’s one among a handful of Everson’s films that feel as if they could go on forever.

Tonsler Park

To concentrate on any subset of Everson’s many films is bound to seem arbitrary and personal. I grew up in Charlottesville, and Everson’s movies from that city can’t help but make an especially powerful impression on anyone who considers it home. They testify in their elliptical way to its long history of segregation and racial oppression, both on and off the university’s grounds. On August 12, Everson was at his apartment downtown, overlooking the outdoor mall where hundreds of white supremacists harassed bystanders and incited violence into the afternoon. He told me he didn’t want to comment on it.

Those white supremacists had refused to move their rally from Emancipation Park, a small plot of land just off the mall, to McIntire Park, a much larger one six minutes away by car; but the site they rejected had not historically represented any opposition to white supremacy. When the philanthropist Paul Goodloe McIntire donated the park in 1925 that came to bear his name, the city promptly restricted it to whites. (The statue of Robert E. Lee that became the excuse for their rally, too, was McIntire’s commission.) He set aside a much smaller plot of land for what would become Washington Park, a recreation area “for the colored people of Charlottesville.” As a teenager I often spent time in a triangle of streets that between 1920 and 1960 had been a central black neighborhood called Vinegar Hill. Nearly all of the area’s homes and businesses were demolished in 1964 due to an “urban renewal” referendum; the poll taxes in that election were high enough that few residents could vote to save their homes. “My vote didn’t mean anything,” one said.

Tonsler Park was established in 1946, some two decades after McIntire bestowed his park to the city. It lies on part of Fifeville’s western edge, not far from the former Vinegar Hill. Its namesake Benjamin Tonsler, an African-American civic leader and teacher with close ties to Booker T. Washington, had lived nearby in his day; here was another instance, like Washington Park, in which the city’s racial history was inscribed self-consciously on its public spaces.

All this is part of the background from which Tonsler Park emerges. Watching the film now is an unnerving experience. We spend up to 10 minutes at a time studying the faces of these volunteers at a moment of nervous excitement, before the returns came in and the city became still more of a staging ground for violent spectacles of white dominance. “I wanted it to be almost like 2008,” Everson told me, “because I still remember voting for Obama that day… I remember the enormous pride on everybody’s faces. All of a sudden my brother was putting up an American flag at his house.”

Few of Everson’s films give such a clear view of his political sensibility, which might be called a kind of radical materialism. Any possible symbolism is undercut, any opportunities to generalize about what the election spelled untaken, any references to Charlottesville’s shabby local history of electoral politics left out of the movie’s world. What remains is the ongoing drama of people sitting behind desks and standing in front of them and floating through rooms. “I like the idea of civil servants because they become apolitical after a while,” Everson said. “They try to get their job done, and you don’t really pay attention to the people who check your name or the people who work there. You’re focused on voting.” What Everson has been developing, you realize as you watch Tonsler Park, is less a fully articulated politics than a way of cutting through political obfuscation and cant—of recalling us to the concrete labor on which what we call politics runs.

That labor looks more or less the same wherever you go, Everson’s movies suggest. What matters, for most of these films, is the doing of it, not the implications of how, say, the prison industry took over Mansfield or the medical economy boomed in Buffalo or racial segregation played out in central Virginia. Such questions do seem to preoccupy Everson, but figuring them out is far from what his films are meant to do. The movies themselves concentrate our attention on particular people and keep us focused on their work. What we extrapolate from what they show us—about the industrial economy, the Great Migration, or the legacy of Jim Crow—is little of their business.

This is a difficult line to maintain as a filmmaker, and Everson keeps to it with great agility. In the last shots of Tonsler Park, a young volunteer takes her oath of service in voiceover while we watch an American flag at the polling station get folded up for the night. Bursts of light keep flooding the surface of the film until it’s entirely suffused, at which point the credits roll. The folding of the flag could be seen as a bitter gesture of disaster and defeat, but Everson encourages us to see even this supremely symbolic scene as a mundane record of a task. It’s as if it was the last thing someone had to do before they went home for the day.


Max Nelson is an editorial assistant at The New York Review of Books and a frequent contributor to Film Comment.