Beauty In Hardship: The Works of Kevin Jerome Everson

Company Line

For over a decade now American artist Kevin Jerome Everson has created unique and racially thoughtful ethnographies about life in the South and Midwest with wholly unique and admirably stripped down approaches. This Thursday and Friday, Everson will be on hand at Toronto’s TIFF Bell Lightbox as part of their cinematheque’s Free Screen programme to show some of his stunning and undeniably humane work to Canadian audiences who might be otherwise unfamiliar with it.

On Thursday at 6:30pm, Everson brings a showcase of his shorts from the past several years, which range from straight-faced documentary to abstract performance art, but all of which hold undeniable power and dramatic truth in his looks at and everyday life that he’s keenly attuned to.

In the silent, 16mm filmed short The Pritchard, a young black man from the titular Alabama town tirelessly and silently pushes a broken down car. Everson follows close behind, almost too close as the young man’s expression sometimes makes it look like he’s questioning the filmmaker’s true motives in not helping him push the car, almost questioning Everson’s privilege at times. The viewer never knows the circumstance or the purpose for the journey, but they can openly understand the futility of it. It’s essentially a single 12 minute take looking at hard work and exhaustion, but through the lens of the filmmaker and the world around this man. It’s a world of overgrown grass, abandoned homes, and cars dangerously passing them in both directions.

Thematically rhyming quite nicely with The Pritchard is the shorter, but equally silent counterpoint, Undefeated, where a young black man simply shadowboxes on the side of the road while his buddy looks under the hood of their broken down ride. Where The Pritchard showcases the ability of people to ambitiously pull themselves up when times get tough, Undefeated cheekily shows the flip side of that; what happens when the put upon simply stops caring. Both shorts are perfectly indicative of the slices of inner city life Everson thrives upon. (The destruction of cars – and by extension progress by way of mobility and transience – also plays a part in the almost balletic Century, where a junkyard crane cruelly breaks down an automobile past its prime instead of merely tossing it on the scrap heap.)

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While the previously mentioned shorts showcase Everson’s eye for understanding and love of setting, the more experimental Emergency Needs provides a look into the artist’s political and social leanings, with a piece that suggests that the more things change, the more they stay the same. Opening with actress Esosa Edosmwan recreating a speech given by former African American Cleveland mayor Carl B. Stokes in the wake of the infamous 1968 Glenville Shooting and the ensuing riots, Everson cuts back and forth between the recreation from a female perspective and the uncomfortable rawness of the primary footage. The point of the recreation gets hammered home when someone in the 1968 press gallery asks if the city having a black mayor made any real difference in racial tensions. The answer – that it would have happened regardless – combined with Everson’s remounting of the same speech word for word in a modern setting shows just how little progress has truly been made across the American racial divide.

The masterwork of the programme, however, might just be the 30 minute documentary Company Line, a film that explores the history of an entire region through the eyes and memories of the people who keep it running. Everston – utilizing every stylistic and thematic gambit in his arsenal to beautiful degrees – goes to the snowbound town of Mansfield, Ohio, often following plow drivers around on their daily routes. A town made up of people who left other cities, townships, and various jobs and familial backgrounds, Mansfield is a melting pot of a different kind. Economically, it isn’t necessarily made better or worse by the people who now call it home, but it offers a different kind of opportunity for those who live there. It’s also a place where everyone can still speak fondly of things that the neighbourhood couldn’t sustain. It’s wistful for both the past and future, and yet staunchly working class. Combining first person accounts with his love of gorgeously close cinematography, it’s an excellent ethnography and his greatest achievement across his two night stand at the Lightbox.

Equally intriguing, and screening on Friday night at 6:30pm is Everson’s undeniably personal feature The Island of St. Matthews. Returning to his hometown of Westport, Mississippi – itself a section of Columbus that was cut off from the rest of the city following a devastating flood in March of 1973 – Everson furthers his love for first person sourced memories as residents look back on the flood, how the town used to be, and the construction of the dam that would ultimately strand them in a sense of urban isolation. Like The Pritchard and Company Line, it’s a testament to personal resolve (and faith thanks to a large use of church imagery here), but it’s played out on a grander scale this time out.

Few artists are capable of capturing the strength in the marginalized in their own words without resorting to didacticism. Everson never has to because everything he captures and very lightly and skilfully edits together is already there in the daily lives of his subjects. It’s kind of fitting that his works are being shown for free. Not because they aren’t worth paying for because they most certainly are, but because if anything Everson’s work has the power to make people take a look around and realize the beauty showing through hardship in the world around them.

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