In Conversation with Kevin Everson

A rare visit to the UK by the prolific filmmaker and professor

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Kevin Jerome Everson, fresh from a mid-career retrospective at London’s TATE Modern, travelled up to HOME to screen a selection of his short films with producer Madeleine Molyneaux. Viewers were treated to multiple UK premieres as well as a Q&A, hosted by HOME’s Artistic Director Sarah Perks.

Born in Ohio and based at the University of Virginia, Everson is an award-winning artist and filmmaker and is regarded as one of the most important and creative filmmakers currently working in the USA. Despite this though he remains humble, ‘I’m just from a small town, I just make things and I’m fascinated by people who want to see what I do.’

Art as an opportunity only caught his attention at college. There he studied photography, printmaking and sculptures, before that he was ‘just a big dumb jock’. Since then his films have screened at festivals such as Sundance and Toronto International Film Festival and are praised for their unique style, combining scripted and documentary elements with an obvious formalistic approach. The focus is almost entirely on the African-American experience within the working class whilst abstaining from any generic socio-politcal commentaries.

The 1996 Guggenheim Fellowship winner exhibits a strong sense of labour in his work, ‘I’m very privileged to be an artist, so I try to find artistry in the everyday lives of workers.’ One film in particular, Company Line (2009), centres around a group of city employees battling the snowy conditions to grit the streets.

‘I make films for the subject matter not the viewer, so I’m conscious about how they look and what they say. I find the people who are the best at what they do, and capture them doing it.’ A large section of Company Line is riding along with a particular snowplough driver, watching him at work. There are deeper remarks about 20th century African-American migration to the northern US present here too, depicting a class seldom mentioned let alone seen on film.

The town shown, Mansfield, Ohio, is Everson’s home town and the film was used as part of a trilogy about the first three black neighbourhoods in America. In the early 1970’s the land they lived on was purchased and all the residents in that neighbourhood were scattered all around.

There are more unusual films in his catalogue too. For example Rough and Unequal is a 16mm project where he used a telescope to capture the moon and stars. Commissioned specifically for an exhibition at the Franklin Museum of Art, it was designed to have an effect on the art space as a whole, changing the audiences perceptions of all the pieces on display throughout its runtime.

More recently his 2017 work Brown and Clear that was shown at TIFF divided audiences. It takes place in a bar and shows a man filling up empty bottles with alcohol for the whole 7 minutes and 40 second runtime. Naturally this would immediately turn off a subset of viewers but the variety of techniques utilised make this an intriguing watch.

The story behind the film is similarly intriguing. Everson was visiting a relative and came to the pub he ran. Instantly he was looking at his surroundings for potential subjects. He noted that ‘it was all of questionable legality’. After going back home he decided to drive the eight hours back to film the relative at work.

Medium to close shots are intentional to mask the location and identity to avoid any police trouble. There are numerous interpretations to the underlying meaning of Brown and Clear, one member of the audience suggested that it ‘was a comment on alcoholism’. Everson himself agreed with this adding ‘where I’m from you didn’t get all the fancy alcohol choices you guys have, it was either brown, like bourbon or brandy, or white, like vodka or moonshine.’

Working with a colleague at the University of Virginia, he also makes period films about the history of African-Americans. ‘When we show them in front of the school where there are people of European descent they get upset but they’re not in it. Whether it’s positive or negative they want to be at the centre of it’

Although his art is focussed on the African-American experience, it is unavoidable that it would be primarily shown to white audiences, whether that be at a film festival or a gallery. The main objective though is to spark discussion about the social, political and economic condition present. ‘I never know what people will think when they watch my films but I just try to be consistent. If not then fuck it, i’ll just film more tomorrow.’

Review: The Birth of a Nation

A powerful reminder of Nat Turner’s slave rebellion and issues still relevant today

Burning with rage and revenge, Nate Parker’s directorial debut The Birth of a Nation is immediately powerful through his choice of title, the same as D.W. Griffith’s Klu Klux Klan glorifying film from just over a century ago. However, it is a great shame that Parker’s questionable past of alleged rape has detracted from how the film has been received.

This story is the biopic of Nat Turner (Nate Parker), an African-American slave who initiated the pandemonium that was the 1830s rebellion he and his followers spread in Virginia, terrorising the pre-civil war South. As a child, Turner is taught how to read from the Bible and is made a house slave, a much less onerous form of slavery and essentially the lesser of two evils. Early on in the movie, the cotton plantation runs into financial problems when the owner dies leaving his wife Elizabeth Turner (Penelope Ann Miller) in charge. Due to this turn of events Elizabeth reluctantly transfers Nat to work in the cotton fields. We see the emotional turmoil young Nat experiences on his first day of labour; he can’t quite grasp why he is being forced to do this, yet he knows something is basically wrong.

The film next picks up Nat’s personal journey through slavery two decades later, the plantation is now owned by the son of Elizabeth and childhood friend of Nat, Samuel (Armie Hammer). He appears to have survived as well as any slave could, in spite of being a white man’s personal property and bearing that man’s surname which erases his own identity.

Nat’s knowledge of the Bible has put him in a more comfortable position compared to other slaves, made to deliver sermons for the neighbouring plantation slaves which ironically widens his first-hand experience of slavery. It is painfully clear that the basic human rights promised by the Constitution were in fact not intended for this lost population, uprooted and forced into a life devoid of meaning. The key moment in The Birth of a Nation is the shift in mind-set of Nat Turner. A more than heated disagreement occurs between himself, his master and a white reverend (Mark Boone Jr.), in which Nat attempts to reason with quotes from the Bible, only to be put down by the reverend’s choice of other biblical quotes. The argument ends in the kind of violence that is particular to the mindset of the white supremacist. It is in this moment Nat comes to the realisation that the Bible on its own is not going to change a thing. As a slave, this is an argument he will never win — he needs to act.

The rebellions that follow are of a raw vengefulness, unfiltered and violent. However, they are doomed to fail, lacking structure, organisation and most of all, power. We must not overlook that it is still only 1831, we’re still a long way even from Emancipation and the Civil Rights movement for equality of the 1960s. Nat Turner’s rebellion was an isolated first-step towards dealing with what was to become the biggest problem for 20th century America — the Color Line.