Paige Taul’s films cohere in a multifaceted portrait of Black identity and class mobility

Mills Folly Microcinema presents a swath of Taul’s work at Arts + Literature Laboratory on June 14, followed by a virtual Q&A.
Three Black women turn their gaze towards a camera filming an event at Tau Theta Chapter of Zeta Phi Beta.
People look on at a performance by the Tau Theta Chapter of Zeta Phi Beta in Paige Taul’s “DiviNation” (2016).

Mills Folly Microcinema presents a swath of Taul’s work at Arts + Literature Laboratory on June 14, followed by a virtual Q&A.

Chicago-based filmmaker Paige Taul has been working prolifically over the last six years, putting out over a dozen deceptively simple shorts. Similar to the more well-known experimentalist Kevin Jerome Everson (whom Taul studied with at University of Virginia), Taul’s films form a sort of corpus wherein similar ideas are approached from different angles, creating portraits greater than the sum of their parts. Where Everson often applies this approach to questions of Black labor, Taul is more interested in Black identity and lineage in a way that usually sees her turning the camera toward her own family.  On Wednesday, June 14, Mills Folly Microcinema will be presenting All Told, a collection of 10 of the pieces in Taul’s vital and ever-growing body of work, at Arts + Literature Laboratory. A virtual Q&A moderated by local poet and activist Grace Ruo will follow.

Taul’s newest film, 71 (2022), anchors the program as her longest and most explicitly intertextual to date, borrowing sound and images from William Greaves’ 1968 film Still A Brother: Inside The Negro Middle Class. Greaves’ film is a panoply of Black Americans in flux, all with different relationships to the then-recent victories of the civil rights movement. Offering reflections on being Black and middle-class (and most pointedly, wondering if someone can truly be both in America), Greaves’ subjects provide explicit discussion. In 71, Taul quotes elements of Still A Brother and submerges them into contemporary portraits of her aunt and mother, who are both residents in a suburban housing complex. Compared to Greaves’ freewheeling interviews fraught with disagreeing counterpoints, Taul’s interviews are quiet and comfortable. There are fewer questions in the context of 71 about whether the middle-class lifestyle is materially possible or sustainable, and Taul’s family members seem pretty firmly set in their ways. Thus, the broader realities of Black life beyond the suburban complex, laid out with geometric precision, are in some sense “out there,” while the subjects still carry it within themselves.

An older Black woman, Paige Taul's aunt, stares at Taul's camera. She wears a turtleneck sweater with thick-framed glasses.
Paige Taul’s aunt Pamela Patterson discusses her feelings on the suburban housing complex she lives in in “71” (2022).

Those who attend this program will see Taul’s mother pop up in three of the other nine films, often telling stories from her past and fleshing out this image of a middle-class Black family. Elsewhere, Taul trains her eye on other objects, symbols and rituals, and the way that a cultural identity is both embodied in and inherited from these. Goat (2021) does this with an Air Jordan shoe. To Taul’s credit, she understands the ideology behind the shoe more thoroughly in three minutes than a certain recent capitalist bedtime story did in an entire feature. When its subject points out, “It’s a question of, ‘does it wear you? Or do you wear it?’” Taul presents it as an entendre describing both the practicalities of putting together an outfit and the perils of finding the contours of the self in an object.

The most enlightening of Taul’s films show the dissonance in the way these things are received, like the fantastic DiviNation (2016), which trains its eye on rituals of two of the Divine 9 Black Greek organizations at University of Virginia. As the camera drifts between performers and others observing, the observer/performer binary is complicated further by call-and-response and other participatory aspects of the scene. As a voiceover interview by student Tyneeka Dyson explains, the Black community can feel lost, especially in Greek life, where tradition and legacy status can create hierarchies as exclusionary as anywhere else. It’s this schism, the feeling of being both within and without, that colors Taul’s observations on the Black middle class and class mobility, which are present in 71 as well as Transit and I Am (both 2017). It’s this sort of recurrent quality that makes Taul’s filmography one of the most exciting in experimental film today, and what makes this collection in particular essential.

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