At its most fraught, to be Black is to feel as if locked in constant battle with the external forces committed to devaluing your life and interpretation of your experience. Often Black life on film, when Black people do not control their own narratives, is reduced to stories of trauma and subsequent triumph, an American underclass palatably refashioned into an underdog. So when a Black creator like Jon-Sesrie Goff finds himself behind the camera, the result is a piece of resistance filmmaking that can only be described as lyrically emancipatory. His latest work, After Sherman, traces the lives of his father and other Black South Carolinians as they all strive to live fully and honestly within communities freighted with slavery’s various legacies. His film is a multidisciplinary exercise in truth-telling, infusing his expressionistic visual poetry with an ethnographic attention to detail.
When the Civil War concluded, field orders from General William Tecumseh Sherman deeded the low-country lands to the Gullah people, the newly freed Blacks in the region. Of course, subsequent discriminatory legislation and state terror greatly undermined that promise, leading to the intergenerational cycle of struggle and resilience that links the past to the present. But After Sherman isn’t overstuffed with scenes of marches and protests. Living while Black is framed as an act of defiance. Black people farm chickens, weave baskets and nets, reminisce about football games, boil at-home remedies, go fishing, and go to church. There are no blood and tears, but family photographs and friends with wine debating spiritedly. Goff goes for broad strokes, threading together these capsules of Black life without any linear thematic logic, in the hope that this sequence of intimacies will supply the texture, the specificity, in and of themselves. Moments when he trains the focus on his father, Reverend Doctor Norvel Goff, loosely provide After Sherman with waypoints, as do the stylized chapter breaks — each introduced in an eerie whisper as if to invoke the memory of departed souls. It’s quite easy to get lost in all the layers. The lack of narrative direction builds an air of intrigue while discarding any sense of comfortable coherence. Sections that ought to land more impactfully — families attempting to reclaim their land at bidding auctions and activism addressing the Kodak company’s pay inequities immediately come to mind — feel airless. After Sherman beautifully articulates a holistic vision of Black life in its wide coverage, yet would likely benefit from a “less is more” approach.
Jon-Sesrie Goff, who has an MFA in Experimental and Documentary Arts from Duke University, does let his film lean into experimental elements. Moments of subtly frenetic overlapping narration conjure impressions of Black communal experience that is collective but not monolithic. Archival documents briefly spring to life with the help of 2-D animations. Goff plays with filters and framing, whether it’s to add a personal touch to images of the past or underscore sentiments of joy. One scene based in the Allen African Methodist Episcopal Church spotlights speakers at the lectern, their distinguishing features disappearing into silhouette and the setting behind them a roiling blend of water and cloud — a depersonalization that stretches toward the metaphysical, allowing the ordinary to arrive at a level of transcendence. Watching After Sherman involves negotiating issues of format. What seems better suited for a museum installation instead exists in this mode, alternatively — sometimes simultaneously — eclipsing documentary conventions to achieve something freshly revelatory, and failing to meet its own ambitions. Goff’s breadth of interest is fully on display, impressive yet unwieldy to the point of periodically obscuring the meanings of some of the film’s most penetrating artistic conceits.
Noticeably glossed over is what, in different hands, would have been the film’s featured tragedy. Dylann Roof’s June 17th mass shooting at the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church is alluded to, yet neither his face nor his carnage are directly shown. Goff informs the viewer that his parents left that very church twenty minutes before the killings. But this visual omission has a purpose: a marked refusal of turning the ills of white supremacy into spectacle. Aside from a reference to the Ku Klux Klan about eighteen minutes in, whiteness is effectively absent from the film, at best an amorphous “other” existing at the margins. Goff is dedicated to depicting an unabashedly Black space, one where forced migration, disrupted families, and threats of violence do not define the story. They should not. After Sherman richly communicates Goff’s passion for his people, and that should be commended, even if the film elicits more of a detached appreciation from the viewer at best.
Published as part of Tribeca Film Festival 2022 — Dispatch 4.