Anna Deavere Smith’s Notes From The Field begins abruptly, presenting its establishing theme and pattern, explored with burgeoning intensity in her one-woman show: the connective circulatory machine that is America’s education and prison systems. NAACP Legal Defense and Education Fund head Sherrilyn Ifill (via Smith) refers to it as the “school-to-prison pipeline,” which evolves into the film’s omnipresent motif, explored through a dramatic array of different voices tumbling from the body of one woman, a theatrical mellotron playing sampled Americans. The multitude of ways this pipeline has abandoned, frustrated, challenged if not doomed the young people of color in this country, inspiring revolutionary violence, freedom fighters, and a social response the likes of which reverberate history-forward and into the present paradigm are all examined through a variety of perspectives, from those embedded deep in political protest and action, to those doing their best to protect the sanctity of young people of color’s lives at any cost.
I have to admit being unfamiliar with Smith or her tactically layered creative philosophies upon first seeing the film, despite CNN commentator Van Jones introducing her at a 92Y event on Monday evening as a “national treasure.” A theatrical performer/monologist-of-sorts whose ability for imitation and precise mimicry changes what, in one instance, may have served for an effective pulse-taking documentary, becoming an essentially different device in her hands. One by one, Smith phases through real people (or do they phase through her?), adopting mannerisms, vocal tics, tonal and body language similarities like weathered, favored clothing. Personally, I found it immediately jarring, maybe even off-putting, on first blush, but this didn’t last; by her 3rd or 4th character (which is to say, “actual life-and-blood people.” I’m using the pronoun as an insufficient shorthand) I was completely given over to her thesis and idiosyncratic methods. That being said, I can sort of understand someone having more trouble grasping it effectively, it’s such a pronounced affectation that it’s going to be do or die for the viewer.
Through 18 voices (maybe that’s a better pronoun?) sourced from over 250 interviews, Notes From The Field rambles through individuals positioned at the stress fracture points of the modern American experiment. One moment she is a pastor eulogizing Freddie Gray, in another she is a Yurok tribe member with a troubled adolescence (this one greatly affected me, for reasons I’m still unpacking). Later still, a Yurok council member. The specific divisions between these souls is not always clean, either; certain conversations don’t conclude so much as drift on to the next, don’t arrive to their climactic lines cleanly or as dramatically-arched as you’d expect. It’s a living investigative theater, and I don’t presume most characters were edited for content, with all their ums and ahs and stammers captured intact, frozen in Smith’s pacing amber.
Is this all a snapshot, by which we are meant to glean the tragic ramifications of our most immediate and pressing confrontations as a society? If so, what do we hope to take away from these photographic interludes? Is something more mercurial at play, some aspect of poetic symmetry, a fantastical symmetry, a construct which seats the great James Baldwin next to the great Congressman John Lewis as if they were members of the same classroom asked to read their reports to the rest of us in sequence? Where are the grommets and seams in Smith’s applied engineering, and how much of her design inhabits this performance aside from its sequenced lineup?
The main collaborative element in Notes From The Field, joined along with a set of projected screens adjusting for each character, is jazz musician Marcus Shelby. While a small audience appears to have been amassed for Smith’s performances recorded here (in other words, she isn’t performing to an empty room of cameras), Shelby’s pocketed presence becomes a call-and-response confederate. His hands massage the bass like a work-tired neck, looking for miniscule blues flourishes and murmurs, and he’s rarely made center stage. Still, Smith is conversing with him all the same, which deflates a little pressure from the at-home audience; someone is always listening to her.
The film prompts an emotional response, clearly and precisely. And yet there were times when I found myself crying, but barely able to explain the exact reason for it. Tapped into the bloodshed of decades of disintegration my defenses withered, and I drifted a lot, flailing in the wake of educators whose hugged children cry in their arms, of the beaten, of the dead. I wanted to thank them, I think. I wonder how many of Smith’s presented characters were nervous in their interviews, worrying about getting the words just right for capture.
Returning to John Lewis, his story is the final one. It’s both articulate and inarticulate, drastic, rare, tormented, but energetic and tireless. It’s a little optimistic and raggedly hopeful, unexpectedly drawn out. A hat is very quickly handed to Ms. Smith by a stagehand, for the audience to learn that she has borrowed this rather rarified prop to complete her presentation of a klanmember’s proverbial apology in Lewis’ memory. Even in sharing this vignette, she can’t help but sneak other characters in, to put stories within stories, people within people.
Notes From The Field communicates a potential where the machine doesn’t just grind us through its gears—it fuses us together. That is its weakness. That is our strength.
Notes From The Field debuts tomorrow on HBO. Join Black Girl Nerds tomorrow, Sunday February 24th, for the livetweet—more information here.
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Leonardo Faierman is the senior film editor at Black Girl Nerds. Born in Buenos Aires, raised in Queens, Bar Mitzvah'd at Young Israel, buried under student loans. He writes video game, music, film, and movie reviews, as well as poetry, comic books, bad dreams and good copy. He's 1/5th of the comics podcast #BlackComicsChat and 1/2 of horror film podcast The Scream Squad.