American Pictures - reviews




No black and white



by Håkon Harket,

Aftenposten, Norway, September 21st, 1995

Original Norwegian text


Jacob Holdt has visited Oslo with his American pictures.

His anti -racist shock therapy should benefit the whole people

Context: Jacob Holdt was hired by the Norwegian Immigration Department to try to counter the rising racism against immigrants. Students from schools all over was literally forced into the Black Box (a theater)  as well as high schools in the rest of Norway for a whole school day to go through his therapy. Afterwards the students were often interviewed about the impact on them. In Hönefoss some Nazis said in the media that it had changed them away from their Nazi sympathies.



When you get out at the other end of Jacob Holdt’s American presentation in the Black Box Theater, you don't go out in the light. This is not because the clock is approaching midnight and that the daylight has long since taken the evening. This is because you have spent an uncertain number of hours in the company of night-black prejudices. You probably came in voluntarily, but soon understand that you are forcibly committed with the diagnosis "racist" of a therapist who knows all the escape routes before you seek them.

He has returned to Oslo now. In the last possible moment, one could be tempted to say. For a long time, he thought it was of no use to show the pictures in Europe. These are American images, but it was never anti-American feelings Jacob held in his heart. And when he experienced that it was "the other people's" racism we Scandinavians experienced in his gloomy epic in the late 70's, he once again packed the American suitcase and moved it all over there, where he has since toured with his Socratic show. Finally, he felt he had to come back anyway to thematize our own racism.


Slaves and debt slaves
The pictures and black music rinse you in a stream of pain and misery that lasts. We hear the latest slave tell his story. Charles Smith said he was 134 when Jacob met him. At the age of 13 he was lured on board the white ships. He never saw his mother again.

We meet Woody who talks freely about all the niggers he has dispatched with his brothers Sammy and John. How many? Asks Jacob Holdt. More than he has fingers and toes, Woody replies.

We see pictures from the Immokalee, where the slave camps are run as in antebellum time, and from the tobacco plantations where the landlords' palace is erected over the living corpses of the poor debt slaves. Freedom can be purchased, but already the price level in the ruler's monopolized grocery store makes it a thought flight. Debt binds the workers to the ancestors' slave fields, and all attempts at unionizing them are beaten down with brutal hand. Or with bullets, as was the case with Jacob’s friend, Popeye Jackson, who was murdered in his struggle for the rights of the poor.

It is only on the surface a journey between hell and heaven Jacob takes us on when commuting between the black underclass and the white upper class. In reality, we are constantly in the purgatory, now to speak a little medieval. We meet the wealth of the poor and poverty of the rich, but without getting the chance to seek refuge in the fantasy of poor happiness. It is the common human despair in the violence of racism that again and again is exposed. We see how the black despair is connected to the white, where the children lives trapped in luxury for fear of the wrath of the poor. In a society where the virus of race hatred has been ravaging for generations, no one goes free of infection.

Not even the liberals. We liberals. When Jacob Holdt exposes the mindless fury in the white lower class, you know your own rage in your stomach. And thus, the liberal racist is revealed in your guts. We make the noisy racists into scapegoats for our own xenophobia and arrogance, while we make the screams of the black despair into art and entertainment. It is a strange experience. The pictures and music go in your body, while you are trying hard to
polemize against the concepts "Repressive tolerance", "Structural violence". Isn’t this a well-known language? Leftist litany and power language. That is precisely what is intended. The therapist closes the intellectual escape routes, while bombarding you with impressions that lead you right into the trap of racism. As an audience, you are oppressed by images, text and sub context where “the others" carry the word while you sit locked up in the shame.

Urgently current and important

If there is a way out of racism, it is Jacob's claim that it goes through insight into your own racism. Therefore, his American account is also so intrusive for us. While the racism debate has been characterized by mutual accusations and attempts to circle in the actual sources of infection, Holdt teaches us to take in the term without force; Take it easy. We are racists. All of us.

That's not where the distinction goes. The distinction goes between those who want to resist their own xenophobia by opening their homes and minds to the encounter with strangers, and those who choose to join the black mass of racism. And both spokesmen carry the word in most of us, not so often in the newspaper columns and in the square, perhaps, but in the quiet life of the chamber.

Racism has come to stay. Therefore, it becomes crucial that we learn to live with it as the disease it is. The Directorate of Immigration is wise to bring Jacob Holdt back and involuntarily commit the Norwegian people on his divan. We know that there is a life-threatening virus in circulation that we are all infected with. There is hardly any better vaccine than an evening with Jacob Holdt. Should anyone oppose, we can just tell them that there is nothing to be afraid of. Remember, they do it in America.


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