Ulysses Jenkins b. 1946
Two Zone Transfer (1979)
Two Zone Transfer follows closely in the footsteps of Mass of Images, with Jenkins zeroing in on blackface and minstrelsy’s effects on black Americans. The video, also staged as a performance at Otis College, opens with Jenkins boarding a city bus, where we witness white riders’ suspicion of him as a black man. Jenkins drifts off to sleep, and a figure in a dream says, “You know why you can’t sleep; it’s the same old problem that every black person in this country has had.” Jenkins replies: “You mean the misunderstandings I encounter, or the same old, basic image problem?”11 The “image problem” spoken of is the career-defining conundrum of black representation.
However, Two Zone Transfer marks a shift in Jenkins’s approach to the image problem, away from the traditional inquiries of first wave black filmmaking and film theory—described by Frank Wilderson as an intense preoccupation with “identifying and critiquing the recurrence of stereotyped representation in Hollywood films,”12 and exemplified in the writings of such critics as Don Bogle, Thomas Cripps, and Gladstone L. Yearwood. Instead, Jenkins looks to the source of the problem, interrogating the history of early twentieth century vaudeville. On screen, Jenkins is joined by three actors—Kerry James Marshall, Greg Pitts, and Ronnie Nichols—who wear masks in the likeness of presidents Nixon and Ford. In a strange layering of whiteface and blackface, the masks are smeared unevenly with black paint. The men brag about the history of minstrelsy in the United States and how they have, for years, manipulated and misused African-Americans’ images and culture in order to distort society’s understanding of black life.
Here, Jenkins recognizes blackness itself as an image rather than focusing on its inaccuracy when contrasted with what might be posed as an authentic black life, once again departing from the efforts of black art and cinematic theory of the time. “The image problem” is not that the image fails to correspond to reality, but that the image has partly crafted reality, inextricably linking Jenkins’s own experience—as exemplified by his earlier interaction on the bus—to popular images of blackness and black people. The developing line of thought here resonates with Frantz Fanon’s realization of blackness as some “impure product.”13 As Fred Moten reads Fanon’s “The Fact of Blackness” (in Black Skin, White Masks), blackness has always been and always will be “a function of a making that is not its own, an intentionality that could never have been its own.”