I miss poetry. Ephraim Asili gets his title Fluid Frontiers from a 2016 book A Fluid Frontier, a book of essays exploring the legacy of slavery. One of the Western world’s worst sins permeates past the Emancipation Proclamation. This short shows the descendants of Afro-Atlantic slavery and the communities they built. These interviewees, Black prople from both sides of the Detroit river, read poems from what looks like 1960s and 1970s era zines. Poems about respectability politics, prisons, and other issues affecting Black people in recent history.
Blackness is an umbrella of different voices, a mosaic multiplicity that Fluid Frontiers shows. It’s interesting to listen to the way the readers recite the poems that Asili assigns to them. There’s the occasional person who reads it deadpan, or someone who lets out a mild scoff after finishing a poem. Most readers, however, embody the spirit of what they’re reading because in fairness, the poems lend itself to specific ways of reading.
There are some scenes in Fluid Frontiers with audio of Margaret Walker reciting a poem about Harriet Tubman in the eyes of her overseer and of Tubman herself. It juxtaposes that audio with cityscapes of the locales on both sides of the Detroit River. The Detroit scenes have a particular emotional effect for personal reasons. Detroit is an underdog city. Even in its emptiness, the blocks have the energy of people who don’t surrender.
Although sometimes, the shots without people don’t have the similar fighting energy. Sometimes, like with shots of a bridge across a river, is there to make its viewers contemplate what Free States and Canada meant to people like Tubman. The river’s relative serenity feels, subjectively, like a place or rest. This perception of the North is a layer, one of many that comes in constantly changing places.
Fluid Frontiers is a dynamic short film. There are sections when the screen turns to black and all viewers hear are Walker’s words, her poem now inhabiting the soul of someone mocking Tubman, telling her to run. Others have the readers and the occasional busker performing on the street, he and the drums taking up space. Fear and life coexist like the past and the present here. And it shows that coexistence in Fullscreen, absorbing the places’ textures.
The short film’s mix of cityscapes and recitation, in a way, shows something its viewers. It shows what still stands in places despite their certain reputations. In a Canadian standpoint, it’s a testament to Black community. These communities strived since this country became a stop at the Underground Railroad. Fluid Frontiers is part of MUBI’s celebration of Black cinema.