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'How Power Looks' — MiamisFF Review

Praising Black representation and condemning the power structures that suppress it, a mother delivers an impassioned speech to her distant son.

By ditching a traditional narrative structure, How Power Looks (directed/arranged by Phineas Alexander and written/performed by Nia Williams), selected for competition in the Miami Short Film Festival, frees itself from the constraints of short film conventions in order to convey a swift and powerful message. The film consists of an elegiac poem performed over images of Blackness in conflict with the pressures and powers of assimilation into White colonial culture. It is an emotionally moving film, unfolding over a tight three and a half minutes, that exhibits the characteristics of a video installation investigating Black representation that would not be out of place in a modern art museum.

Following a brief preamble in which an unseen voice laments the loss of a unique African cultural identity in the face of forced conformity, a woman recites an impassioned speech, a letter addressed from mother to son and directed toward the viewer, begging her son to recall his history and ancestry and wear it proudly. The emotional propulsion exuding from the mother’s speech stems from the painful contradictions she pinpoints in her son’s identity crisis. She views her son from afar as a person torn between two realities: the one from which he has been removed, and the one to which he is currently bound. The mother—who appears in colorful African dresses, her face unadorned, and, alternately, with her face powdered white with a pompous wig atop her head, indicative of the colonial class of whites partially responsible for the dissociation the mother identifies—asks her son to come home, reminding him in the final lines of her recital that “America should house/but Africa should home.”

Liberated from the confines of a narrative film, How Power Looks is free to approach its subject matter in much more creative, artistic, and impactful terms, embodying the freedom of identity praised its content praises. Layered audio creates a harmonizing effect of simultaneous messages; a hymnal homecoming underscores the quicker-paced bars of the mother reasoning with her son. The majority of the film is made up of close ups of Black faces, often coated in white powdered makeup, edited to the rhythm of William’s spoken words, a truly poignant use of cinema’s most basic components, moving images and sound.

The film is reminiscent of Ebony G. Patterson’s “…three kings weep…”, a video installation previously on view at the Brooklyn Museum, as well as Ngozi Onwurah’s 1995 dystopian afro-futurism classic Welcome II the Terrordome. All three investigate the trans-generational traumas of a people torn from their roots and the stark juxtaposition that results from assimilation into an oppressive society. How Power Looks is a powerful distillation of the results of this power structure at work. It is a call for cultural reclamation, a condemnation of unjust subjugation, and an impassioned speech dedicated to Black representation, dignity, and resilience.