What to broadcast urgently: “Compensation”, a modern classic saved
Streaming movies should be approached with a sense of urgency, due to the risk that a newly available great movie could become unavailable again. Although Criterion Channel, which recently made its ever-so-admirable lineup even wider and artistically ambitious, typically re-releases films that have already hit theaters, its offering of the 1999 film “Compensation,” by Zeinabu irene Davis, could be considered as a new release – as far as I know, it has only screened in festivals and specials, and has never been in theaters for a week in a row. This fact alone makes its streaming availability all the more essential and constitutes a vehement criticism leveled at the film industry as a whole: “Compensation” is one of the greatest independent American films ever made, and its presence on the site. Criterion should be a prelude to its canonization (including on DVD / Blu-ray in the Criterion Collection) as an enduring classic.
The title is borrowed from a poem on love and death, by Paul Laurence Dunbar, which serves as a preface to the film and also features strongly in the drama. The film is the story of two black women who are linked by the echoes of history. Malindy Brown, who emigrated from Mississippi to Chicago in the first decade of the 20th century, is a writer and activist who earns her living working independently as a dressmaker. Malaika Brown, who lived in Chicago in the 90s, is a printer and graphic designer. (Although the film premiered in 1999, production began in 1993.) Both women are deaf (played by deaf actress Michelle A. Banks), and both meet and fall in love with hearing men. —Malaika with Nico Jones, a librarian, Malindy with Arthur Jones, a meat packer and another migrant from Mississippi. In a poignant scene from the latter couple’s first meeting, Malindy writes to Arthur, on a small board, which she cannot hear, and he replies that he cannot read. (Both meetings take place on the same beach, by the lake; the two men are played by John Earl Jelks.)
The film, interspersed with scenes from Malindy’s era and the modern world of Malaika, is shot in black and white and connects them both tonal and thematic. Davis’ dramatization of Malindy’s world is surprisingly detailed and rich. In essence, it endows the past with a multitude of well-researched references that bring the black culture of the time to life. On the form, she draws on a technique already trivialized by Ken Burns but which she transforms into a form of spiritual devotion and aesthetic daring – she gathers a treasure of historical photographs and films them by moving the camera, to reproduce the crane and traveling shots, and does it with a sense of place, tone and texture that evoke the inner life of the past. The dramatic scenes from Malindy’s life – her Mississippi debut, her friendships, her writing, her advocacy, her gracious relationship with Arthur – blend with the style and manner of the photographs through the posed and composed performances of the actors, as well as the physical styles of clothing and settings. A haunting soundtrack blends music, effects and speech in a way that is neither entirely naturalistic nor entirely unreal, but which hovers above the action with the power of collective memory.
A scene from primitive cinema, in which Malindy and Arthur attend an exhibition of nickelodeon work from a black film company, matches, with ominous irony, a scene of Malaika and Nico trying to find something to see in a multiplex where none of the offers are made by black filmmakers and debate between “Sleepless in Seattle” and “Last Action Hero”. Malindy, as a deaf woman, is relatively isolated, while for Malaika, deaf identity is both a matter of community and civil rights. For both women, the possibility of a lasting relationship between a deaf woman and a hearing man is called into question; Davis films these romances with warmth, tenderness and humor that reflect (in performances and images) their spiritual greatness. Above all, the two women’s hard-earned romances face the relentless agonies of the iconic medical crises of their respective times, which overshadow women with “the blessing of death,” as Dunbar puts it, in the conclusion to his poem. Cinematically, Davis takes on the challenge of portraying the metaphysical dimension of death in life with a noble, lyrical sequence that brings African art and music into the practical struggles at hand. She does not content herself with adding an expressly aesthetic story to the action; on the contrary, it derives and extracts this aesthetic history of action, like a creative unconscious. Thursday June 3 would have marked the ninety-ninth birthday of the late French director Alain Resnais, whose entire career has been devoted to the aesthetics and politics of memory and history. No American filmmaker has followed in his footsteps as original or as satisfactorily as Davis in “Compensation.” The film’s lack of a release is just one of its own historical tragedies – the other is that Davis didn’t get a chance to make another feature film.