greetings dear reader,
welcome back to returning to the Source! i’m rounding out the month with the second entry into split screen, my mini-series of movie reviews. i had a lot of fun writing my review of Battledream Chronicle, so def check it out if U haven’t already. the filmmaker Alain Bidard commended me for it so that felt really special!
for part two, i reviewed Compensation, directed by Zeinabu irene Davis, which i came across completely by happy accident last year. as a devout Nina Simone fan, i was first exposed to “Compensation” as a piece in general through her musical rendition. i never questioned whether she came up with the song because the laments of love were familiar grounds paving her discography. i’ve always been stricken by how much mourn(full)ness and resignation she could infuse into just eight short lines; the lyrics were haunting me late last year, so i finally looked them up (this is something i usually do with songs i love, but i hadn’t done it with this one since the words were simple enough to remember.) lo and behold, my research quickly pointed me to Paul Laurence Dunbar as the original author of the poem, and Zeinabu irene Davis’ narrative interpretation of it came up not long after. thanks to This Light, I was able to watch Compensation for the first time last November, and i’ve been deeply moved by it ever since. i recommend purchasing the DVD so U can support the filmmaker directly. just like i expressed in my review of Battledream Chronicle, this movie was one of those refreshing experiences that demonstrates how truly transformative and boundary-defying film can be when all the right elements coalesce.
spoilers ahead, so please proceed with caution!
inspired by the eponymous Paul Laurence Dunbar poem, Compensation is a masterfully woven dual narrative of two Black couples at either end of the 20th century, both featuring a deaf woman and a hearing man. in the early 1900s, Malindy (Michelle A. Banks) and Arthur (John Jelks) cross paths amid a rapidly-industrializing Chicago; over ninety years later, Malaika (Banks) and Nico (Jelks) meet and fall in love in the same city. played by the same actors, each pair contends with class, ability, and difference as they fall in love, lives intertwining until starkly interrupted by the epidemics of their respective times.
first and foremost, Zeinabue irene Davis was among the ranks of the L.A. Rebellion cohort, context that i would be remiss to omit:
"The L.A. Rebellion refers to a community of independent Black filmmakers—which included Zeinabu irene Davis, Haile Gerima, Barbara McCullough, Larry Clark, Billy Woodberry, and Charles Burnett—formed in the aftermath of the Watts riots and a 1969 shooting of two Black Panther Party members on the UCLA campus. The group launched an ethnographic studies program to address the local communities of color being actively imperiled by UCLA. They were also politically aligned with anti-Vietnam mobilizations, the Black Liberation movement, and anti-colonial cinemas globally, such as Brazil’s Cinema Novo and Argentina’s Grupo Cine Liberación. This grounded their cinematic work in the larger Third-Worldist cultural and political sphere. The L.A. Rebellion nurtured a revolutionary imagination, anchored in the particularities of their material circumstances, toward the formation of an independent black visual culture."
like many of her contemporaries, Davis devoted her craft as cultural worker to breathing life into tales that challenged the social order, and this didn’t start with Compensation. her oeuvre is punctuated with stirring short films that paved the way for her trailblazing feature debut. she discusses the filmmaking process at length in this interview, and one thing that jumped out at me is her admitted sadness that the film could not be screened more widely – a similar sentiment stuck out to me in Yasmina Price’s above analysis of Julie Dash’s Daughters of the Dust. it’s always disappointing to learn about the ways that Black women are intentionally pigeonholed or impeded on their creative journeys, especially when they have the range to birth projects like this into being. (i know that i felt personally stricken – maybe even upset – that a movie like this had been kept from my awareness for so long.)
Compensation‘s near-silent structure serves as an effective mechanism for establishing setting, especially for the earlier, silent-film-era timeline. this decision is not as unconventional as it is the recovery of a lost art. lines of spoken dialogue first arrive nearly thirteen minutes into the movie, and they remain sparse thereafter. as an intentional result, expository cues are provided in other ways. for example, Davis’ painstaking archival curation of images from Chicago at the turn of the 20th century is on full display throughout the film to convey space/place. in addition, frequent title cards temporally anchor the viewer within each couple’s world, and their utility continues to reveal itself once the characters make themselves known. beyond setting, the central function of a silent film persists here: it increases the film’s accessibility for Deaf people, actors and audience members alike. Davis’ attention to Banks’ individual needs as a Deaf actress permeate the choices made for this film’s construction.
Davis’ reverence for Blackness is palpable as well, and it’s reflected on the macro and micro levels. scarce are the representations of dark-skinned Black people falling in love onscreen, so this movie establishes an aesthetic terrain that challenges typical trends of desirability. because Banks and Jelks deliver such tender, captivating, and complex performances, they make Compensation that much more noteworthy in that regard. Davis also disperses easter eggs as odes to the African diaspora: consider her inclusion of Adinkra symbols, copies of The Crisis, Orisha worship, her brilliant re-interpretation of The Railroad Porter (1915) during Malindy and Arthur’s date at the cinema, to name a few.
the film even opens with the veve for Papa Legba, guardian of the crossroads and facilitator of communication between the human realm and the spirit realm. he is the ultimate Waymaker.
naming this spiritual intermediary up front is an indication that worlds will soon collide in significant ways, and Divine forces must align in order for all parties to traverse the tumultuous waters of compounded difference. Malindy & Arthur and Malaika & Nico converge with the staticky gray expanse of (presumably) Lake Michigan providing their backdrop; hesitancy, suspicion, confusion all flare during the initial meetings once the couples hit their first barrier: communication. blessedly, Malindy’s and Malaika’s deafness is immediately centered, and it’s Arthur and Nico who must adapt to how she interacts with the world.
from this point on, burgeoning intimacies are more freely shared between the pairs. Arthur and Malindy regularly stroll through the park as he pushes her bicycle along, Nico and Malaika flirtatiously choose a movie they can both enjoy. authentic misgivings come up as well, like Malindy’s concerns about other people watching her dance, or Nico’s close friend giving him a hard time for dating a disabled person. quarrels aside, the promise of forever seems to stretch between the lovers. destiny has clearly brought them together, but of course, it cannot remain this simple. Black life don’t work that way. the telltale signs of Arthur’s increasingly-ragged cough and Malaika’s withdrawal from Nico portend bigger issues, but this should have been expected considering the film’s namesake.
after its source material, Compensation is an evocative exploration of love’s redemptive power, as well as how that power may recede within death’s encroaching presence. Arthur is an emblem of the real-life Black migrants who fell victim to unsanitary, predatory working environments in the early 1900s. he steadily moves towards the crosshairs of raging anti-Blackness, industrialization, and economic depression until finally immobilized by his contraction of tuberculosis, the same illness to which Paul Laurence Dunbar succumbed in 1906.
after much deliberation, Malaika finally divulges her secret to Nico: she’s been living with HIV for years. there are no further details about the conditions surrounding her diagnosis, nor do there need to be. what matters is that she’s taken a chance on love and understands what she might lose in the process, likely due to the rampant stigma ascribed to the virus. in both timelines, illness is communicated through letter, certainly as a bridge of correspondence between the hearing and deaf worlds that our protagonists straddle, but also as if to emphasize that the magnitude of what needs to be expressed is simply too much.
“i love you.” as in, i love you from over here. i love you, and that’s why we may never meet again. i love you from now until my lungs give out. Arthur’s “faltering breath” is not his choice, yet he is rewarded with death all the same. like i discussed in April’s issue, breath is political, and Black folks are robbed of our breath, often by conditions out of our immediate control. it strikes a distinctly resonant chord to witness Arthur’s masked sorrow when the world is currently battling a different lung-based pandemic. (art imitating life imitating art…)
the storylines collapse and separate once more: after some time away from each other, Malaika and Nico reunite and continue their relationship, with the beach as a familiar backdrop. (another instance in which Davis upends desirability and stigma as she allows a person living with HIV to find and keep love) where their predecessors had “just” endured rupture, Malaika and Nico enjoy reconciliation, thus allowing the viewer some refuge in the knowledge that all is not lost.
made popular by Miriam Makeba, the song “Malaika” is told from the perspective of a lovesick person who cannot afford his beloved’s bride price. a parallel within parallels, this is just like how Arthur, the forbear to Malaika’s lover in the film, recognized that his love would not be currency enough to keep him at Malindy’s side. yet, an altar to their love is erected in the sand as an acknowledgement that what they shared deserves to be venerated even after Arthur is physically gone. as a concept, “compensation” is a question of whether one has received what they are promised. etymologically, it is also a process of both “weighing together” and “weighing against.” with her magnum opus, Davis asks the viewer: how can we share the weight of what we bring to relationships? and will it be possible to withstand the external pressures, that which weighs against our lives?
appearing right after the camera captures a lone Malindy gazing inscrutably over the water, the veve for Ayizan, loa of initiation, appears onscreen to close the circuit that Papa Legba opened at the beginning. perhaps the initiation here is an arrival into the true immensity of what it means to exchange love and hold the fullness of its consequences, especially in a hostile world. though shot entirely in black and white, Compensation is a luminous marvel, and it is a testament to the timeless ingenuity of Black women who make film. may Zeinabu irene Davis get her flowers, along with the bread she deserves too.
U have my utmost gratitude for making it through another issue of returning to the Source! please let me know your thoughts via email, especially if U end up watching the movie! <3
catch U in june,