Darius James and Oliver Hardt’s film The United States of Hoodoo has a deceptive quietness with a hidden power underneath it. But then again, it is just another variation of the film’s themes of the trickster and the crossroads.
Returning home to Connecticut, the film follows James’ coping with his father’s recent death and his collection of masks. Looking at his father’s collection, James decides to go on a journey into the world of voodoo and its relation to American culture. Although James’ father liked masks. he always attributed it to aesthetic interest and not the deeper spiritual history behind those masks. But James wants to start scratching beneath the surface.
Opening with a reference to The Wizard of Oz, he is introduced into this world through Haitian musician Val Jeanty (who he compares to Glenda), whose drumbeats seem to reverberate through the rest of the film. It leads him into a journey circling the United States from New York’s African Burial Ground to Robert Johnson’s grave site, and interviewing several people who are knowledgeable about Afro-diasporic spiritual systems or whose work references them, including the Caribbean Cultural Center’s curator and Lucumi practitioner Shantrelle Lewis, artist Danny Simmons, educator Kanene Holder, professor Sylvester Oliver, New Orleans expert Hassan Sekou Allen, writer Ishmael Reed, artist Nick Cave, vodou practitioner Sallie Ann Glassman, curator Ingrid LaFleur and musician David “Goat” Carson.
Not only is the film about James own self-discovery through learning about vodou, but also uncovering the African and Caribbean bloodlines that run through American culture, but are often hidden under the guise of a Christian culture or disregarded as only art. Simmons discussed how many of us are afraid to dig into these Afro-diasporic cultural threads. For example, Holder and James spoke about how education about slavery is given little importance in school textbooks even though slavery formed the basis of American capitalism; the irony made more clear as they stood in the African Burial Ground, which is near Wall Street in New York City. Or how African descendants cultural themes are found in various popular American entertainment, such as the influence of Papa Legba/Br’er Rabbit/trickster on Bugs Bunny, the Papa Legba influence on the story of Robert Johnson at the crossroads, the rituals influence on music like blues and jazz. Or in contemporary art like the influence of masquerades on Nick Cave’s sound suits and food, like gumbo.
One of the controversial aspects of the documentary was the voodoo ceremony with Sallie Ann Glassman. Some of the audience, including myself, felt conflicted by a group of white people performing the ceremony. One woman felt as a Haitian woman slighted by it. However, the ceremony did appear genuine and as James said in the interview, continued in the theme of the trickster, showing the intersections of our histories and that identity is complex. James comment about his travels in the documentary summed it up, that parts of American culture was Europe bathing in African waters of the Caribbean and that he did not want to find the tributaries that lead to the mainstream. Basically the invisible world living within and surrounding the visible world. And James’ documentary is a good starting place into it.
Read an interview with James here.
Check out the trailer for the upcoming Nick Cave show in New York City