Revisiting Lists in a Time of Rebellion

Source: Daily Hive
What are the potentials and pitfalls of the list in a moment of rebellion? Malini Guha looks at the cultural politics of the anti-racist film list in the context of Black Lives Matter.
Black film must be understood as art, not prescription.1Michael B. Gillespie, Film Blackness: American Cinema and the Idea of Black Film (Durham: Duke University Press, 2016), 2.

It seems like a long time ago now that Elena Gorfinkel’s manifesto, “Against Lists”, had many a film studies academic rushing to renounce list-making culture on social media. In actuality, the manifesto was published in Another Gaze a mere month before COVID-19 made its first known appearance in Wuhan in late December 2019.

In the aftermath of its publication, I shared a number of my favourite films of 2019 with the disclaimer “this is not a list”. Many others did the same. Some mounted a partial defence of the form while being forced to acknowledge that many of Gorfinkel’s assessments of the serious trouble with lists could not be ignored. Contemporary practices of list-making are all too often aligned with neoliberal tendencies to colonize, reduce and contain. 2Elena Gorfinkel, “Against Lists”, Another Gaze, November 29, 2019, As Gorfinkel tells us, the metrics-driven logic of list-making and list-sharing, coupled with its pretensions toward mastery, totality and self-indulgence, often do very little in the way of bringing off-list films into the public domain. Gorfinkel gets to the heart of the matter with this declaration: “Lists won’t create new canons – especially not of lost women, queer, trans, Black, Latinx, global south, decolonial and anti-colonial filmmakers.” 3Gorfinkel, “Against Lists”.

In short, “burn the list to free your ass”, Gorfinkel proclaims. 4Gorfinkel, “Against Lists”. Many of us tended to agree, even if we still secretly felt some joy in the making of our “this is not a list’” lists. But at the start of June 2020, another kind of list was everywhere, growing seemingly by the hour for about a two-week period. This frenzy of list-making dedicated to anti-Black racism emerged close to concurrently with uprisings that spread to 150 cities across the US following the brutal murders of Breonna Taylor and George Floyd at the hands of the police. Solidarity protests have cropped up across Canada. In Toronto, Black Lives Matter organized a protest in honour of Regis Korchinski-Paquet, who fell to her death off the balcony of her apartment building in the presence of two police officers shortly after these murders. 5For a comprehensive history on the policing of Black lives, across numerous registers, in a Canadian context, please see: Robyn Maynard, Policing Black Lives: State Violence in Canada from Slavery to the Present (Blackpoint: Fernwood Publishing, 2017). In the days that followed, several Indigenous people were shot dead by police across Canada, including Chantal Moore of the Tla-o-qui-aht First Nation in British Columbia, who was murdered during a ‘wellness check’ in New Brunswick. The time of the pandemic seemingly gave way to that of rebellion. Before these murders took place, data collected in the US, the UK and in a haphazard fashion in Canada provided evidence of something many of us had already guessed: COVID-19 was disproportionately taking the lives of Black, Brown and Latinx people because it turns out they have carried the burden of essential work long before we recognized their labour in these terms.6For example, see: Maria Godoy and Daniel Wood, “What do Conoravirus Racial Disparities Look Like State by State?”, NPR, May 30, 2020,; “Toronto will start tracking race-based COVID-19 data, even if the province won’t,” CBC News, April 22, 2020,; Angela Saini, “The data was there- so why did it take coronovirus to wake us up to racial health inequalities?”, The Guardian, June 11, 2020, While list-making in this time has concentrated primarily on anti-Black racism, it would be remiss of me if I did not note that anti-Indigenous racism is rampant in both the US and Canada, leaving First Nations, Métis and Inuit communities still vulnerable to systemic and longstanding police brutality in addition to other forms of state-led violence and neglect. In Canada, we would do well to remember what is now known as the Royal Canadian Mounted Police was initially developed as a paramilitary unit to “assert sovereignty over Indigenous peoples and their lands”, as Jocelyne Thorpe puts it.7Quoted in Jane Geyster, “The RCMP was created to control Indigenous people. Can that relationship be reset?”, Global News, June 15, 2019,

Turning to lists of films, there is a range of examples. Some are more meticulously curated than others. The Centre for Screen Cultures based at the University of St. Andrews compiled a series of themed playlists; one is dedicated to revolution, another to ‘traces of violence’, and a third to documentaries that address policing in a US context. Feminist Media Histories proffered a list of 20 iconic Black-authored films and television programmes from around the globe that explore and honour Black political resistance. Crucially, their list featured films that are (mostly) available to stream for free.8“What to Stream Right Now: Films and Television by Black Directors,” University of Washington Cinema and Media Studies, June 8, 2020, The proliferation of these lists was met by the sudden accessibility of sometimes difficult-to-view films. The Criterion Channel, for example, made films by Kathleen Collins, Cheryl Dunye, William Greaves and other luminaries free to stream for a limited period as an act of solidarity with these uprisings. The pandemic has already laid the groundwork for such a gesture. Many arts organizations introduced virtual programming while their doors remain shut, so that rare moving image work is often available to view at no cost (though donations are encouraged).9For an insightful essay on the complexities and potential hazards of virtual programming in the time of the pandemic, see: Erika Balsom, “A small utopia? Artists’ film and video online”, Art✓Agenda Spaces, June 8, 2020,

But in this same moment, there are examples of lazier versions of both lists and content sharing. The headlines that precede some of these lists are telling: “The 3 movies everyone can watch to better understand the fight for racial justice” or “So you want to learn about racism in America? Stream these 20 compelling movies and TV shows”.10See: Christina Lorey, “The 3 movies everyone can watch to better understand the fight for racial justice”, Channel3000, June 12, 2020,; Rasha Ali, “So you want to learn about racism in America? Stream these 20 compelling movies and T.V. shows”, Newsbreak, June 5, 2020, The same films appear with great frequency across these lists, including Selma (Ava Duvernay, 2014), Do the Right Thing (Spike Lee, 1989) and I Am Not Your Negro (Raoul Peck, 2016), and fiction and documentary are somewhat unceremoniously lumped together. Other instances of lumping together incongruous elements include making ‘white saviour films’ part of these lists, a notorious example of which is Netflix’s initial inclusion of The Help (Tate Taylor, 2011) in their “carefully curated list.”11See: James Hibberd, “Netflix adds Black Lives Matter as a new genre after The Help concerns,” Explore Entertainment, June 10, 2020, Cineplex made 45 Black-authored films available to stream for free on their site in an effort to support “those who are turning to movies to become informed and empowered.”12Quoted in Kevin Jiang, “Cineplex made 45 movies by Black creators free to stream in Canada,” Narcity, June 13, 2020, When asked by Global News if funds will be directed towards Black communities in Canada, Cineplex noted that they are covering all royalty costs.13Katie Scott, “45 movies by Black creators now free to stream in Canada, thanks to Cineplex,” Global News, June 8, 2020, No, they did not answer the question.

These divergent streams of list-making, of which I have only offered a brief sketch, have prompted me to ask a series of questions of my own: what do we make of list-making in this era of “seismic shift”, where a wide range of institutions are being asked to answer for all of the ways they have advertently and inadvertently upheld systemic racism and white supremacy? 14This is a term I borrow from Ella Shohat and Robert Stam, who use it to describe the “intellectual/discursive fallout” of the Holocaust, the end of WWII and ‘Third World’ independence struggles. I use this term in this context as I believe we are presently in a parallel period of “seismic shift”. See: Ella Shohat and Robert Stam, Race in Translation: Culture Wars Around the Postcolonial Atlantic (New York and London: New York University Press, 2012), 61. What is the promise of the list in a time of rebellion and of forced reckoning? What kind of labour is the anti-racist film list called upon to perform in this juncture? And does this renewed period of list-making succumb to its many perils, so fiercely outlined by Gorfinkel in her manifesto? I come to these questions as a settler of South Asian descent living in Turtle Island/Canada. As a faculty member at Carleton University, I mostly reside on the unceded and unsurrendered territory of the Algonquin nation.

A generous interpretation might begin by acknowledging that these lists suggest that a broader understanding of anti-racism as praxis is finally taking hold of a public imaginary. The incessant sharing of reading and viewing lists speaks to the possibility that those who have never seriously considered the struggle of anti-racism to be their struggle are gearing themselves toward a practice-centered approach that doesn’t begin and end with an appearance at a public protest. Rather, this practice will be honed and nourished by an expanse of actions and activities. Paul Gilroy, in conversation with Ruth Wilson Gilmore, situates this period of list-making as an indictment of entrenched educational models that have traditionally kept ‘race’ at bay, while Gilmore speculates that this newfound “hunger for lists” may contribute to turning this period of uprising into a large scale movement. 15See: Both observations add credence to my suggestion that a practice of anti-racism, as a mode of both learning and building, is gaining traction within a much larger public sphere. And finally, to round out this line of thinking, the making and sharing of these lists could be viewed along the lines of a deeply powerful observation made by Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor during a Haymarket Books teach-in titled “The Fire This Time: The New Uprising Against Racism and Police Violence”. When discussing both the multi-racial character of these uprisings in the US and their proliferation across regions with smaller Black populations, Taylor says “Black Lives Matter has been successful as a social movement. It has transformed the ideas about race, about policing… in effect, it has made Black lives matter to millions of white people.” She goes on to say that many people have answered the call of the movement in their efforts to do something to address and combat anti-Black racism, even if it’s not always in the most effective way. The sharing of these lists is an illustration of doing something and more significantly, yet another sign of how Black Lives Matter has achieved one of its central aims.

If it is the case that lists contribute to a practice-centered approach to anti-racism, we also know that lists may be active agents in its undoing. Gorfinkel has already warned us that lists of films will not do the work of dismantling old canons nor building new ones in their stead. As she asks, “Who will ask Barbara Hammer, Kathleen Collins, Kira Muratova and Sara Gómez for their lists?” 16Gorfinkel, “Against Lists”. The lazier versions of these lists are mired in the logic of sameness and display a complete disregard of genre distinctions. In her essay, “What is an Anti-Racist Reading List For?”, Lauren Michele Jackson observes a similar tendency across reading lists where, as she puts it “genre disappears, replaced by the vacuity of self-reference, the anti-racist book, a gooey mass.” 17Lauren Michele Jackson, “What is an Anti-Racist Reading List For”, Vulture, June 4, 2020, But Jackson points to a second implication of the “gooey mass” approach to lists in a literary context. As she observes about Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye, a frequent item on the anti-racist reading list, if the novel is taken up as an investigative tool to root out one’s implicit racist leanings then what is missed is the language of the text, its syntax, its form.18Jackson, “What is an Anti-Racist Reading List For?” This is a method of reading that pushes aside questions of form and style in favour of ‘what can this book do for me?’ For those primed precisely for this form of extractive consumption, Jackson writes, “Anti-racism reading lists fail such a person, for they are already predisposed to read black art zoologically.”19Jackson, “What is an Anti-Racist Reading List For?” Instead, “if you want to read a novel, read a damn novel, like it’s a novel.”20Jackson, “What is an Anti-Racist Reading List For?”

The ‘zoological’ approach is manifested in very specific ways when cinema is the art under discussion. This is what film scholar Michael B. Gillespie refers to as “the belief in Black film’s indexical tie to the Black lifeworld”.21Gillespie, Film Blackness, 2. While reality and cinema are words that can be used in conjunction with each other once again, a feat beautifully elaborated upon by Erika Balsom, it still remains the case that cinema’s privileged relationship to reality has often had a more insidious effect on the reception of films both authored by and featuring Black, Indigenous and other non-white peoples within a Euro-American context.22See: Balsom, “The Reality-Based Community”, e-flux journal 83 (June 2017), This is a history with many sharply contrasting trajectories. Take the example of Black Audio Film Collective in Britain, a collective that made films and other mixed media works squarely in the vein of the avant-garde.23Essays as well as workshops were also part of Black Audio Film Collective’s praxis. As John Akomfrah, a founding member of Black Audio, notes during a discussion of the collective’s landmark film, Handsworth Songs, it was very hard for some to comprehend that Black filmmakers could make avant-garde cinema intentionally and not ‘by accident’ 24Akomfrah makes this argument in an interview with Coco Fusco. See: Coco Fusco, Young, Black and British (Hallways/ Contemporary Art Centre, 1988), 54.. A filmmaking practice grounded very deliberately in aesthetic and formal experimentation was perceived to be out of reach for Black filmmakers. While this line of thinking is not as pronounced as it was in the 1980s, it remains demonstrative of the crushing power of the ‘reality effect’ that not only assured Blackness and social realist aesthetics were somehow synonymous but also that social realist cinema could somehow speak in an unmediated fashion to the reality of Black lives and experience.25John Akomfrah, “Black Independent Film-Making: A Statement by the Black Audio Collective,” in The Ghost of Songs: The Film Art of the Black Audio Film Collective 1982-1998, ed. Kodwo Eshun and Anjalika Sagar (Liverpool: Liverpool University Press 2007), 145. This is the ‘zoological approach’ par excellence and one that finds a disturbingly apt cinematic counterpart in the history of ethnographic filmmaking, especially within colonial contexts. While this history is far too complex to do justice to in this short essay, figures including Fatimah Tobing Rony, Ella Shohat and Robert Stam, and Trinh Minh-ha, among many others, have all produced their own critiques of the form while outlining the conditions of reception for those inclined to view ‘zoologically.’26See: Ella Shohat and Robert Stam, Unthinking Eurocentrism: Multiculturalism and Media (London and New York: Routledge, 2014); Fatimah Tobing-Rony, The Third Eye: Race, Cinema and Ethnographic Spectacle (Durham: Duke University Press, 1996); Trinh Minh-ha, “Documentary Is/Not a Name”, October 52 (Spring 1990): 76-98. Rony puts it bluntly when writing about films featuring Indigenous peoples in the introduction to her canonical text The Third Eye: Race, Cinema, and Ethnographic Spectacle: they are … “taken for real.”27Rony, The Third Eye, 5. This story continues as much as it shifts. In a recent issue of Film Quarterly, Laurie Ouellette revisits what she terms “the cultural archive of collaboration” between law enforcement and reality television kickstarted by the American show COPS, which was cancelled by the Paramount Network shortly after this period of uprising began.28Laurie Ouellette, “Canceling COPS”, Film Quarterly, June 17, 2020, COPS counts as among the more perverse examples of how the reality effect of moving image work has been violently mobilized against the interests of BIPOC communities.

It is worth returning to this fraught history in its myriad manifestations, even though the carefully curated version of these lists tap into the most productive ways of conceiving of the relationships between cinema and reality. They are inclusive of vibrant traditions of activist and militant cinemas in a global context but also of scholars who have claimed that cinema has assumed a reflexive or pedagogical function for eras marked by upheaval and profound transition.29Ben Singer and Miriam Hansen immediately come to mind in this context, influenced by the writings of Frankfurt School scholars Siegfried Kracauer and Walter Benjamin, but also, in a more romantic vein, Susan Sontag and her ode to large screen viewing where one watched films and learned how to live in the same moment. See: Ben Singer, “Modernity, Hyperstimulus and the Rise of Popular Sensationalism” in Cinema and the Invention of Modern Life, ed. Leo Charney and Vanessa R. Schwartz (Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1995), 72-102; Miriam Hansen, “The Mass Production of the Senses: Classical Cinema as Vernacular Modernism”, Modernism/modernity 6 no. 2 (April 1999): 59-71; Susan Sontag, “The Decay of Cinema”, New York Times, February 25, 1996.

Not all lists are made the same and the differences between them matter. Gorfinkel readily acknowledges this point in her manifesto: list-making is a historically meaningful activity linked to practices of archiving and remembrance. At the time of writing, however, Gorfinkel argues that “the recirculated compulsory form of the list” is largely drained of these associations. 30Gorfinkel, “Against Lists”. ‘Recirculated’ and ‘compulsory’ are the two words that strike a nerve. I will advance the claim, perhaps controversially, that all versions of the anti-racist film list speak in varying degrees to an anxiety to do something, no matter what that something is. This anxiety was crystallized for me during a Zoom session hosted by Lisson Gallery where Tina Campt identifies a significant shift from empathy to an acknowledgement of complicity in the response from white and, one should add, other POC communities to these uprisings. While recognitions of complicity are precisely the kind of reckoning that might lead to profound structural and material change, this compulsion to do something might override a broader imperative to ensure that some critical thinking concerning the mechanics of representation is taking place, as Gillespie urges.31Note his example of how to go about analyzing Clockers from the point of view of narration and style. Gillespie, Film Blackness, 5. It may also override a long overdue acceptance and celebration of Black film as art in the public domain.32Gillespie, Film Blackness, 2. But another kind of reckoning is in order, which involves a frank recognition of the limits of cinema and of art more broadly to do the work of anti-racism. As Gillespie asks, “What if film is ultimately the worst window imaginable and an even poorer mirror?”33Gillespie, Film Blackness, 5. This question probes two central propositions, propagated by numerous scholars, concerning cinema’s relationship to reality. Recent social media posts that have flooded newsfeeds with toolkits, resources, charts, weekly plans and guides on ‘how not to be racist’ rest on a fantasy that reading/viewing necessarily leads to ‘becoming’. This is the flip side of the ‘zoological approach’ and is no less dangerous in its claims.

Films, to channel Gorfinkel, are not here to save you and they are certainly not here to save anyone from themselves. It is high time that the ‘zoological approach’ to Black art is abolished, much like everything else in need of abolition. In place of lists, there are of course public syllabi that do the work of connecting reading material with screening material. There are articles such as Samantha N. Sheppard’s Atlantic piece, “The Films that Understand Why People Riot”, where she provides a short analysis of how films such as Do The Right Thing provide critical insight into the causes of rioting, ones that sometimes might only be discernable to Black critics and scholars.34Samantha N. Sheppard, “The Films that Understand Why People Riot”, The Atlantic, June 9, 2020,

As I write this essay, list-making and list-sharing appear to be running their predetermined course, though the uprisings continue unabated. A frenzy, after all, is usually short-lived. What next? Black Canadian writer and activist Desmond Cole offers some important advice, directed at those engaged in conversations on social media channels about police abolition, but his observations have a wider applicability. Despite being pleased that police abolition is now a topic that has catapulted into mainstream media, Cole urges people to continue the conversations on a smaller scale “among friends and family and neighbours, in places where we can listen, challenge each other, disagree, and have space to think.” How wonderful would it be to follow film viewings with just such an approach, one that envelops moving image work into praxis? The inherently compressed and finite character of the list could be circumvented in just such a way. I hope it happens, at least for some.

I conclude this essay with something of a double ending. In the midst of writing this piece, Christina Sharpe’s essay, “Beauty is a Method” came into my thoughts more than once. I have linked to the piece here, both as an illustration and a reminder of the great potential of the list and the reading that follows to act as a catalyst for world building. One should not consider her story as a model for appropriation but rather as an occasion for witnessing. During this period of writing, I also found myself haunted by an Instagram post by filmmaker Cauleen Smith. This post consists of an image of a list compiled by Brook Marine for W magazine that includes Smith’s groundbreaking film, Drylongso (1998) among other classics such as Kasi Lemmons’s Eve’s Bayou (1997). Smith makes two sobering observations about her inclusion in this list. Firstly, that it is an incredible travesty that the very production of this list rests upon “an eight minute and forty-six minute snuff film”. And secondly, she does not hold out much hope that these lists will ensure that Black artists will continue “to get this kind of press for the decades of work we have done to illuminate the lives of Black folk”. Lists are rightly viewed with suspicion by those who are usually kept out of them.



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