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Review: Black women refusing to be silenced. That’s the sound of this ‘November’

A scene from the film "November."
New York art center the Shed and Tribeca Studios present “November,” a film by Phillip Youmans from the play “Help” by Claudia Rankine.
(Paul Tucker)

“How many times have I been told not to be angry at my own murder?”

The questioning voices of black women meld into a sociological poem in “November,” a film by Phillip Youmans in response to Claudia Rankine’s play “Help,” which was in previews in March at the New York arts center the Shed before the COVID-19 pandemic scuttled live performance.

The stage’s loss has turned into the screen’s gain in this beautiful mixed media homage of words, bodies and images. Commissioned and produced by the Shed in partnership with Tribeca Studios, “November” is available for free through Nov. 7 on TheShed.org.

The timing with the election isn’t accidental. As the nation decides whether to reelect a president who has stoked racial division as a Machiavellian political strategy, the poetry of Rankine, best known for her prize-winning collection “Citizen: An American Lyric,” confronts the assumptions and prerogatives of white men through chance public conversations.

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The role of the narrator, a Black woman who refuses to be silenced by “the mechanism of manners,” is shared by Zora Howard, Tiffany Rachelle Stewart, Crystal Dickinson, April Matthis and Melanie Nicholls-King, each of whom brings a distinctive style and vocal timbre to the text. The effect is that of a “choreopoem,” the designation chosen by Ntozake Shange for her landmark theater piece, “For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide/When the Rainbow is Enuf.”

Rankine’s lyricism, however, is as orderly as a town hall. The poetry, which blends academic buzzwords such as “negotiate” with more personal utterances, stays rigorously on message.

Standing in an airport line next to a bold white guy, Narrator 1 remarks, “You shouldn’t have voted for him.” Something about his ownership of the queue tipped her off. She knew he’d be defensive, but she couldn’t resist articulating the unspoken between them.

After learning that Narrator 5 teaches at Yale, another white interlocutor remarks, “My son wants to go there but wasn’t accepted during the early application process. It’s tough when you can’t play the diversity card.” Momentarily speechless, Rankine’s surrogate can’t decide whether this stranger’s words just slipped out before he could catch them, or was he “snapping the white privilege flag” in her face?

The tone of these reported colloquies is publicly introspective. The desire to challenge and call out isn’t separate from the longing to live in less segregated realities.

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Narrator 3 puts the matter more desperately: “Why do I have to die in order for you to live?” Is there another way to make space in the world? Must one group always be forced to “swerve” out of the way of the historically dominant power?

The film moves from the stage to the city and back again. Taibi Magar’s stage direction assembles the performers into configurations that occasionally evoke a modern-day Greek chorus, especially when the women sing in rapturous union.

Youmans’ cinematography wisely doesn’t try to compete with Rankine’s language. The visual accompaniment functions as a dreamy underscore, existing in parallel rather than in illustration. A Black woman shaves a white man’s head. Black swimmers revel in the freedom of their bodies in the water. A pickup basketball game yields casual virtuosity.

“November” embraces the prospect of difficult dialogue. Of parsing through shame and guilt, of bringing out of the shadows fear and menace. Love flickers in the distance, but first comes reckoning.

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“The analysis of our murderer, and of our murder, is so we can see we are not murdered.” Narrator 3 speaks for her fellow questioners in wondering whether it’s “possible for all of us to live and be in relation?”

‘November’

When: Streaming on demand through Nov. 7

Tickets: Free

Info: TheShed.org

Running time: 50 minutes


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