Featured in
Issue 230

Garrett Bradley’s Cinema Takes a Leap of Faith

The Oscar-nominated filmmaker discusses how she imbues topics relating to race, class and social justice with poetic urgency

BY Allie Biswas in Features , Profiles | 28 SEP 22

'It started in high school,’ reflected Garrett Bradley, following my enquiry into the origins of her life as a filmmaker. As our conversation evolved, the 36-year-old, New Orleans-based artist repeatedly alluded to the all-encompassing fervour that governs her approach. ‘I feel so connected to the people I make films with,’ she said at one point, ‘that I’ve had to ask myself who I am when I’m not working.’

Bradley and I were talking in anticipation of her debut London solo show, which opened at Lisson Gallery in September. The first work she wanted to tell me about – that initial high-school experiment realized on an analogue camcorder – was less an anecdote through which a sense of chronology could be established than a benchmark for understanding the type of filmmaker Bradley has gone on to become. Consisting of interviews conducted with her separated artist parents, the project enabled her to ask questions that might otherwise be off-limits while piecing together a picture of who they were as individuals. Considering this early endeavour some two decades later, Bradley related: ‘I’ve always been really interested in other people. That process of looking outward, being curious and sharing what I see; it’s a methodology that I still use today.’

Portrait of Garrett Bradley, 2021

Since her graduation in 2012 from the University of California, Los Angeles – where she studied directing at the School of Theater, Film and Television – Bradley has forged a body of work in which the personal circumstances of individuals are prioritized. ‘How can their experiences open our eyes? That’s what I’m asking,’ the artist explained. The Black American women who are the focal point of each of her projects are people whom Bradley has befriended in New Orleans and who consti­tute part of her extended community. Cumulatively, their stories speak to Bradley’s interest in issues such as race, class and social justice, which she explores through familial relations. In an interview with Huey Copeland, published in the catalogue for Bradley’s 2019 exhibition at Contemporary Arts Museum Houston, she noted: ‘I would say that, yes, my work is about Black life.’ Rather than pulling in subjects to help construct Bradley’s vision, however, it is the protagonists who determine what needs to be conceived. ‘I think of myself as a facilitator,’ she told Copeland.

In 2017, as part of The New York Times Op-Docs series, Bradley released Alone, a 12-minute, black and white documentary which won a short film award in the nonfiction category at Sundance. It explores the isolation felt by 20-something Aloné Watts – the aptness of her name is purely coincidental – following the imprisonment of her partner, Desmond Watson, more than a year earlier while awaiting trial.

Garrett Bradley, Alone, 2017, video still

Through a series of scenes that build an intricate portrait of the protagonist’s daily life, Alone depicts Watts considering her future. At one point, we watch her try on a wedding dress. Looking in the mirror, she asks: ‘How do I see myself?’ As the camera zooms in on her face, she continues: ‘Pearls, diamonds everywhere. I want to be able to say, “I feel happy.” I want to be able to smile.’ This moment of introspection is rapidly undercut by the next scene, which shows Watts visiting her mother. On hearing that her daughter is planning to marry Watson, she explodes with impenetrable rage. Her volcanic screeches are interspersed by the more controlled dialogue of another relative, who in disbelief exclaims: ‘You got so much going for you. Why?’

The potency of this scene stems from Bradley’s concealment of her subjects: we are presented with the facade of the house that Watts has entered; of the ensuing dissension, only voices are heard. Such disembodiment imitates the alienation felt by Watts, as well as the collective invisibility that Watson represents. ‘Incarceration surrounds all of us. It’s just a matter of being able to see it,’ Bradley told me. ‘And part of its power is its invisibility. The only evidence of it is the people who are serving time outside: the families.’

In a 2017 The New York Times article, the artist compared the US prison system to the chronic separation that enslaved people faced through the sale of family members, citing Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave (1845), in which the author describes how enslaved children were deliberately removed from their parents to prevent bonds developing. In Alone, the artist suggests that this onslaught against Black American families continues to be intractable. (A 2021 report by The Sentencing Project stated that Black people are five times more likely than white people to be imprisoned in the US.) Unlike other documentaries which deal with the mass incarceration of African Americans, such as Ava DuVernay’s 13th (2016), Alone offers the perspective of someone who understands the permeating effects of incarceration beyond the prison walls.

Garrett Bradley, Time, 2020, video still

‘This system breaks you,’ says one woman in Alone. ‘It is designed, just like slavery, to tear you apart.’ The speaker is Fox Rich, who would become the subject of Time (2020), Bradley’s first feature-length documentary, which was nominated for an Academy Award in 2021, following a best documentary director award at Sundance. Having heard about Fox’s relentless campaigning for criminal justice reform, Watts consulted with her. This encounter presented Bradley with the opportunity to learn about Fox’s story, relating to the 60-year sentence that her husband, Rob Richardson, was serving at Louisiana State Penitentiary for attempted armed robbery in 1997. Time allowed Bradley to explore in greater detail what it meant to exist as an incarcerated family, from the perspective of a Southern Black woman. While Fox’s story is crippling, moments of desperation are countered by her dynamism as a vivacious community speaker and savvy entrepreneur. Underlying these roles is her standing as an indomitable matriarch who raises six sons while tirelessly fighting for clemency for her incarcerated husband.

To highlight the serendipity that guides the filmmaker’s practice, Alone came to fruition as a consequence of Bradley establishing a friendship with Watts during the making of her first feature film, Below Dreams (2014), in which she had cast Watson. The project saw the artist relocate to New Orleans from Los Angeles while still attending film school. Having spent her summers taking bus trips to the city, Bradley felt compelled to tell the stories of her fellow passengers with whom she would initiate conversations. Below Dreams focuses on three residents struggling to navigate their daily circumstances while aspiring to greater things.

‘New Orleans is a place that refuses to change; that refuses to look to the future in a lot of ways,’ Bradley told me. ‘It makes the genesis of our country visible in a visceral way and I think that’s why I’ve stayed – because I continue to be invested in how we got here.’ She went on to cite American historian Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz’s An Indigenous Peoples’ History of the United States (2014), which she said had ‘totally changed my understanding of what it means when we call ourselves “Americans”’. Bradley read the book while driving through Nevada, and felt a ‘profound reckoning with what it means to restart time’. This awareness saturates the artist’s filmmaking in which linearity is dispelled and co-authorship is implicit. She refers to the latter as a matter of intention: how can a sense of shared purpose with her subjects create an anchor point for transparency?

Garrett Bradley, AKA, 2019, video still

Bradley was consumed by such notions when making America (2019), a multichannel video installation, which honours early 20th-century Black culture as a way of proposing new kinds of iconography. Exhibited at New York’s Museum of Modern Art in 2020, the work consists of 12 sequences shot by Bradley, set to a score by Trevor Mathison of Black Audio Film Collective and composer Udit Duseja. Referencing historical achievements, such as the founding of baseball’s Negro National League in 1920, Bradley interspersed her compositions with footage from the unreleased Lime Kiln Field Day (1913), believed to be the oldest surviving feature-length film with an all-Black cast. ‘It was a challenge to work through this methodology of agreed upon intention,’ Bradley said of America. ‘Bert Williams [the lead actor in Lime Kiln Field Day] isn’t alive. So I had to invoke the spirit of his intention through what he left behind, in a way that felt true.’

Bradley’s use of archival material reiterates her interest in the possibilities of non-linear storytelling. Time likewise moves back and forth between past and present, seamlessly weaving together an extensive archive of home movies filmed by Fox over two decades, allowing Bradley to honour the creations of other authors, while simultaneously building upon them. Reflecting on America, she told me: ‘The big lesson was thinking through how a fixed material could be pliable and expand.’

Relationships between women are a focal point in Alone, Time and AKA (2019), her work for the Whitney Biennial, which centres on Hollywood depictions of interracial families that the artist watched as a child. Films like Imitation of Life (1934) and Pinkie (1949) – which dealt with femininity and race ‘in a way that was clearly very limited by the time period in which they were made’ – left the artist wondering how to explore such narratives in the present day. Having initially attempted to adapt an existing 20th-century race film, Bradley realized that she needed to speak to those who might feel ‘directly connected to or reflected in these narratives’.

Garrett Bradley, Below Dreams, 2014, video still

She interviewed three mother-daughter couples from New Orleans whose subjects described themselves as belonging either to a mixed-race household or to a family whose members had distinctly different skin tones. ‘What did these older films get right or wrong? Upward mobility and ideas around self-perception were at the foundation of our earliest conversations,’ Bradley told me. ‘I pulled dialogue out of these exchanges and proposed visual scenarios that illustrated each woman’s answer.’

The artist recalls one daughter continuously asking her mother: ‘Are you colour struck?’ While the term has historical resonance, used by African Americans to denote prejudicial treatment of Black people based on their complexion (Zora Neale Hurston unpacked the concept in her eponymous 1926 play), it resulted in Bradley constructing a so-far unexplored aesthetic. ‘I saw spectrums of colour,’ she said. ‘I realized that the entire visual landscape could be shaped from that one expression.’ Each scene in this eight-minute, largely wordless sequence is flooded with light. Multicoloured clouds permeate the opening and closing sequences. A hallucinatory quality prevails when several subjects in turn are depicted as though seen from underwater, their faces slowly oscillating as they look down at the camera. ‘How could I work with analogue filtrations,’ Bradley told me, ‘so that, when the light hits the lens, you’ve got rainbows and stars across the screen, layered over every-day spaces?’ The result is ‘this really trippy, weird little piece’.

From the outset, Bradley envisaged AKA as part of a trilogy and the second iteration, Safe (2022), forms the centrepiece of her London show. While the underlying premise of a feminist dialogue has been retained, the artist has turned her focus to the matter of safety. This feels inevitable given the global context of the last few years. (During our conversation, Bradley cited the shooting in May at Robb Elementary School in Uvalde, where 11-year-old Miah Cerrillo covered herself in another student’s blood to trick the shooter into thinking she was already dead.) Safe developed from a discussion between Bradley, Watts and Donna Crump (an actor who appeared in America) about how intuition functions in their daily lives as a personal safety mechanism. This led to Bradley devising questions for Watts and Crump to respond to, such as: what does instinct feel like? ‘Donna described it as morse code all over her body – something that feels sharp – whereas intuition is more of a slow burn,’ Bradley said. ‘They’re inherently poetic responses.’

Garrett Bradley, Safe, 2022, video still

As with AKA, the imagery in Safe has been generated through a process of interpretation, with the artist visualizing her collaborators’ thoughts. ‘It’s an uncomfortable place to be,’ she admitted. Nonetheless, Bradley’s latest work not only elucidates the collectivity that directs her vision, but cements her role as a facilitator whose films help to realize the vision of a community. ‘What could be more valuable than this thing that is so important to me and to the people around me?’ Bradley asked, as we came to the end of our conversation. ‘I’m taking a leap of faith and maybe my work is doing that, too: it’s making an assumption that these things are important to other people, as well.’

This article first appeared in frieze issue 230 with the headline ‘Profile: Garrett Bradley’.

The exhibition ‘Garrett Bradley: Safe’ is on view at the Lisson Gallery, London from 23 September to 29 October 2022.

All images courtesy: © Garrett Bradley and Lisson Gallery, London; photograph: blvxmth

Main image: AMERICA, 2019, video still

Allie Biswas is a writer and editor. She co-edited The Soul of a Nation Reader: Writings by and about Black American Artists, 1960-1980 with Mark Godfrey, published in June 2021. She is based in London, UK.