The Comparative Literature Undergraduate Journal

A Premier Humanities Research Journal at the University of California, Berkeley

The Curators of Utopia: Expression in the Urban Space An Analysis of the Visual Performance of “Blackness”

The Curators of Utopia: Expression in the Urban Space An Analysis of the Visual Performance of “Blackness”

 Ozichi Emeziem

 The city of San Francisco is depicted as the bustling hub of the larger Bay Area, with its lucrative tourist attractions, growing industries, and presumably diverse population. Specifically, these claims to multiculturalism, diversity, and tolerance define the city as an inclusive location, or a paradigm for how various cultures and identities can co-habitate. Yet this conception of an idyllic city, proximal to sites of consumption, places of employment, and—most pertinent to this analysis—a working blend of identities, fails to address dramatic changes such as the displacement of native residents as a result of gentrification. In both Barry Jenkins’ Medicine for Melancholy (2008) and Kevin Epps’ Straight Outta Hunter’s Point: A Hip Hop Documentary (2005), the thematic portrayals of dislocation and isolation interrogate the concept of “blackness.” In particular, both films not only evaluate means of defining “blackness” within the context of San Francisco, but capture the manner in which it fades in the face of emerging development that continues to transform the city. This critical perspective nurtures a conversation between depictions of a utopic San Francisco and theatrical productions of “blackness,” an elusive yet necessary marker in the urbanscape. With the aid of theorists including David Harvey, Michel de Certeau, Judith Butler, and Paul Gilroy, this essay will explore how Epps and Jenkins define and locate black figures in the urban space, how these subjects occupy space, and finally, how each piece configures or challenges the utopic presentation of San Francisco.
“We have invented the nigger. I didn’t invent him. White people invented him.”

-James Baldwin


In the midst of gentrification, the landscape of San Francisco is rapidly transforming in order to manifest an idyllic metropolis of the Bay Area. Yet, as researchers of the Urban Displacement Project note, the displacement of low-income residents rises when there is a steady increase in those who are wealthier.[1] In effect, the demographics slowly begin to reflect an exclusive city, with spikes in rent that supplant former homeowners or tenants just as new businesses, homes, or other developments rebuild long-standing neighborhoods. As this shift redefines areas, mapping which locations are prime for growing industries, sites of consumption such as boutiques and restaurants, or central attractions such as the Golden Gate Bridge, it confronts the problem of occupation: what happens to those bodies who suddenly do not fit or might be in the way? These figures evolve into the “other,” a person or a physical place that slips into the hidden, marked boundaries of the map of San Francisco. It is here, in these margins, that the residents of Bayview-Hunter’s Point dwell.

During the Great Migration, the movement of more than six million African/Black Americans from the rural South, [2] Bayview-Hunter’s Point witnessed a rapid transformation as a large number of these migrants found work in the local shipyard and convenient housing in the nearby military barrack-style structures. However, upon the closing of the shipyard, the rate of unemployment steadily rose amidst dwindling government support, which ultimately resulted in a neglected space. Currently, development is slowly gaining ground in particular areas of Bayview such as Third Street, where there is a resurgence in businesses, yet the reminders of a dismal reality still exist throughout the area, particularly on “the hill”,[3] a neighborhood reference to Hunter’s Point. It is on “the hill” that dilapidated temporary projects have evolved into generational confines as the toxins of the nearby waste dump seep into the lungs of the youngest victims, who can only aspire to be the next local rap star. It is this narrative of proximal isolation, as residents within these margins inhabit the city of San Francisco, but exist in a distant, abandoned domain, that raises the concern around the role of race and the state of Hunter’s Point.

As an anomaly in the vision of the utopic San Francisco, the space that constitutes Hunter’s Point seems largely excluded in development projects of the greater city. While the community might not necessarily thrive, as this would disregard the unacceptable conditions of this place, the ability to improvise under such bleak conditions has led to survival, or a resilience within a toxic, forgotten environment. In his acclaimed documentary, Straight Outta Hunter’s Point: A Hip-Hop Documentary (2005), Kevin Epps presents the facts of existence for black residents of “the hill.” In his hometown, he is able to access Hunter’s Point in a manner that offers an in depth perspective of daily life in this part of the City without engaging in voyeurism or in a process of othering. Whether he is capturing conversations with residents or happenings on the streets, he provides historical context and presents an alternative depiction of Hunter’s Point that exposes a rough reality while also chronicling black narratives of a distant, unrecognizable San Francisco. While his work concentrates on the cause and effect relationship of multiple layers of disadvantage on these residents, it simultaneously re-presents “blackness,” a topic which shall be further explored in the following section. In comparison to the greater city, where the “other” includes black subjects who are excluded from the visions of a utopia, Epps explores the means by which this black community establishes its own claim as a piece of San Francisco.

Similarly to Epps, who delves into the periphery to locate the residents of “the hill”, Barry Jenkins’ Medicine for Melancholy (2008) grapples with the question: where can “blackness” exist? In a steady pace meant to recreate the effect of an ordinary day, the film centers itself around two black subjects, Micah and Jo, complete strangers who spend the night together after a party, but reconnect the following day and have adventures throughout the city. The two traverse through space—a museum, the park, a small bar—and gradually learn more about one another through varied conversations about gentrification, interracial couples, and black identity which reveal their disparate politics. Jenkins’ focus on these two people creates a contrasting portrayal of black bodies in the city to that of Epps, whose piece is occupied mostly by black subjects.

This comparative analysis will center on these visual presentations in order to examine the implications of development on the black subject. Throughout, it will explore both the formation of “blackness” and, further, the positing of “blackness,” in order to uncover how it is performed or expressed in relation to the city. It will contend that the visual style of each work configures “blackness” through a paradox of in/visibility, or duality, in the creation of an idyllic space, which locates these subjects on the margins. These social margins emerge as the focal point of the city, as Epps shines a light upon a distant black colony, while Jenkins follows these two isolated figures in the heart of San Francisco. Consequently, these pieces serve as critiques to singular conceptions of black identity and utilize these varying expressions of “blackness” in order to ask who it is that evolves into the “other” within the urbanscape. Further, both track new modes for engaging, and ultimately recreating, a relationship to the space of the city.

Defining “Blackness” in the Dream World of a Utopia

In reference to the essential black subject, Stuart Hall contends that “black,” as a politically and culturally constructed category, “cannot be grounded in a set of fixed transcultural or transcendental racial categories.”[4] This is reinforced by the fact that there is no single definition that could encompass the intersecting nature or multiplicity of identity. Yet the black image that is the product of a Eurocentric regime of representation signifies the intentional use of visual presentation to interpret bodies in an absolutist manner. For example, the notable figure of Saartjie Baartman, a Khoikhoi woman who was exploited in human exhibits throughout Europe, became a central means to universally define the black body as inferior and hypersexual throughout the colonial era.[5] Although this event is of the remote past, the effects of these inhumane display held, and perhaps still hold, implications for the black body. As a result, the visual product of these “machineries” of the regime does not only inhibit and simplify the black subject, but also manifests the subaltern position, the “other,” who is distinct from the white standard.

Thus, the visual styles of both films serve as oppositional projects that mobilize “blackness” through performances of its pluralities, which contest the distortions invented by the exclusive politics of representation. Unlike the stereotypical presentations of the aforementioned regime, which discount intermixture and imply fixity, these portrayals of “blackness” directly combat structural misrepresentation that relegates the black subject to the periphery. As such, the aesthetics of “blackness” present within both Epps’ and Jenkins’ works are not immutable, essentialist definitions of the subject, but rather markers that allow the two films to redefine and locate it in a particular space. Whereas both films locate the black subject on the margins, the same position dictated by tainted representation, these depictions do not understand these bodies as disempowered, marginal subjects. Instead, these performances operate as strategic tools to highlight the erasure of “blackness” and critique the transforming urban space, a potential utopic site.

While the concept of utopia is elusive and multifaceted, in accordance with a portrayal offered by Gordon MacLeod and Kevin Ward, it can pose as an “interdictory space.”[6] This depiction, which offers utopia as a place that authoritatively excludes those who are “unsuitable or deviate from the blueprint of the planned city,”[7] illustrates how these subjects become marked as “other” in some form within each piece. This is not to generalize the black experience in the process of urban renewal. Rather, it is to signify the reality of exclusion, for certain subjects like residents of Hunter’s Point, or isolation, for Jo and Micah, in relation to a utopic, or idyllic, image of San Francisco. Subsequently, the performance of “blackness” is an attempt to reimagine this evolving space as one that might offer inclusion to these black figures.

 Tracing “Blackness” Through Visual Form

Both films conceive aesthetics of “blackness” in an attempt to display the impact of urbanization on the black subject. However, if there is no essence of such, how do the visual cues of each film communicate the incommunicable? This portion will explore the overarching themes of invisibility and visibility within the visuals of each project in order to examine their critique of the urban space. It will focus primarily on the major motifs of movement versus isolation as well as insider versus outsider status, and ultimately, the conception of the utopic or the dystopic space, in order to observe how these subjects subvert imposed definitions generated by their spatial location. 

Movement vs. Isolation

As David Harvey proposes in “Space as a Key Word,” the abstract concept of space holds many layers that can be lost in translation. Therefore, it is useful to analyze it through the “tripartite division of the absolute, relative, and relational.”[8] Harvey defines absolute space as that which is “fixed where inhabitants record or plan events within its frame,”[9] whereas the relative aspect implies synergy between different structures, such as bodies or geographical locations, which depends upon the “frame of reference of the observer.”[10] This further impacts relational space, which Harvey interprets as an indication of a subjective experience with a place. Michel de Certeau’s concept of the planner in the metaphorical city offers a means to interpret how these subjects become active agents within the space of the City. As he explores the concept of the City under definable features of a “threefold operational concept”, de Certeau suggests that the final state that produces a universal subject of the city simultaneously constructs the “other”. This seems to displace bodies who do not adhere to particular definitions, as this formation of the city relegates deviants, or those who are in opposition to the set standard—typically, the standard of “whiteness”—to the margins.

Take, for instance, one of the initial scenes of the Epps’ piece, which is a sequence of shots that feature different black men who each claim their relationship to Hunter’s Point. The first frame is of a black man who states that Hunter’s Point is the place where “homeless” people come. The chain of shots then progresses through old, middle-aged, and young male residents. Most of these men are dressed in baggy pants and large shirts, and are positioned on the outside of porches, street corners, or in front of dilapidated projects. In each shot, the subject(s) throw up various signs to indicate their affiliation to the space. In the background, an instrumental rap beat plays as the subjects state phrases only insiders would know, all claiming “Hunter’s Point, Killafornia.”[11]

If Harvey contends that a relative space extends to physical locations, Hunter’s Point as an appendage of the larger San Francisco embodies a dislocated, separate, forgotten part in relation to the larger city. It is this proximity to the city, coupled with its clear remoteness, which seems to suggest an invisible boundary that circumscribes this area. As this gendered scene documents absolute space, such as the porches, storefronts, as well as the bounds of “the hill”, it illustrates fixed structures within the territory, but also delineates the boundaries of the neighborhood. The shots of these men further signify relational space as these residents fill the area inside of these isolating borders with their own memories and associations. Their claims to the neighborhood allude to their interaction with this space of experience, or as Harvey refers to it, of the “material elements.”[12] In effect, material objects such as the shabby projects, the toxin-omitting closed PG&E plant, and the numerous liquor stores which can be found in the space become notable, memorable, and infused with meaning or recognition.

In light of the initial statement that “the hill” is for the homeless, these subsequent shots are moments of ownership and belonging which demonstrate the significance that is attributed to the experience of this space. These shots, which feature overt claims to this territory, directly reference the largely unnoticed movement through this space that manifests alternative routes or abilities to engage in a space that is neglected and forgotten. As de Certeau states in reference to re-imagination of the city, the naming of space “[articulates] a second, poetic geography on top of the geography of the literal, forbidden, or permitted meaning.”[13] As such, these claims to “the hill” do not only reflect ownership, but refer to modes of survival that recreate “the hill” as a place that exceeds beyond the definitions of “abandonment” or “violence”; instead, this is home, or in a larger context, a piece of San Francisco. These proclamations denounce the perceived illegitimacy of Hunter’s Point and exemplify improvisation within a condemned space. For instance, not captured in this scene, these improvisations include the streets where car shows take place, or storefronts that evolve prime spots for playful water fights on a hot summer day, and even garages which become home studios to record music. It would seem that in this moment, despite the isolation within the bounds of “the hill,” these subjects display their agency to reject external definitions that surround the space and inflate it with their own identifiers or markers.

In comparison, an earlier scene of Jenkins’ film captures the main characters, Jo and Micah, as the two of them bike in the middle of the street with cars parked along the sides. A soft, fragmented song accompanies the washed-out subjects as they pedal through the street in silence. The shot zooms in to their feet, a focus on the cycling motion that propels them forward and transports them throughout the City. The next shot centers on their faces as Jo leads, then Micah, then Jo once again. It then turns to pan across the places that they are passing, reverts back to the two as the front yard of the homes, trimmed and manicured, become blurs against their clear and visible bodies.[14] As Harvey contends that absolute space is a reference to boundaries, limits, and borders, the movement of Jo and Micah on their bikes highlights the fixed bounds of San Francisco, particularly as a controlled or planned city. Hence, as Jenkins’ sequence captures the clean streets and private property of homes, the two remain within the city as the shot locates the viewer in a well-tended area of San Francisco. However, Jenkins blurs the background in comparison to the clear, relative embodied figures of Jo and Micah, which privatizes this moment, but also heightens the visibility of these black figures, as if they are the only two people in the city. Yet Jenkins also stirs a sensation of alienation, as this relative isolation also marks them as invisible subjects, present in another world that is separate from the external landscape.

Although these two scenes have very little in common, each illuminates the concepts of movement and isolation. The former scene presents the geographical isolation of “the hill,” which is most apparent through the absence of the markers of the known San Francisco, while the latter illustrates movement, which instantly allows the viewer to experience multiple areas of space. The “walking rhetorics” which de Certeau introduces in his spatiality practices frame the stylistic tool of the synecdoche as a means to “amplify the detail and miniaturize the whole,”[15] or as a means to incorporate the whole by using less. In Epps, the synecdoche functions through this small sequence of multiple men that represents the larger part of Hunter’s Point, which operates as allusion to the improvisations on “the hill” that exemplify movement. This mobility is not necessarily a sign of progress or interaction with the larger city, but rather a reference to the operation of a space that defies the planned movement of a pedestrian in a defined and tended city. For instance, the occupation of these temporary homes, which Epps notes have long been overdue for renewal, depicts a reorientation of a place that has been deemed unfit or unusable. It must be understood that this is not done to glorify these circumstances, but instead to highlight the means by which these residents reform and engage with this space that remains marginal. On the other hand, de Certeau marks the asyndeton as a cut that “undoes continuity and undercuts its plausibility,”[16] which presents itself in the scene where Jo and Micah bike through the City. As the scene cuts to different parts of their bodies, essentially dismembering these bodies as they traverse through the street, it seems to set the ongoing theme of the fragmentation of the black subject in this urban space.[17] While these figures are able to move across space in a manner that Epps’ subjects cannot, these cuts tighten the frame and seem to constrain the two characters to these bounds of the city.

 Insider vs. Outsider

The ability of the subject to move throughout space informs the role of the outsider versus the insider; one who is locked beyond bounds versus one who operates within those bounds. Yet, the positionalities of the insider and the outsider are not solely indicative of physical location, but also of the notion of belonging and otherness. In light of Judith Butler’s interpretation of the “racially saturated field of visibility,”[18] a visual realm that is filled with preconceived racial schemas, the construction of the “other” in these spaces also becomes racialized. Consequently, this concept of a field of visibility, when placed in dialogue with the aforementioned politics of representation, deliberately conceives “blackness” in opposition to “whiteness” as another form of insider versus outsider. This field constructs the arena of sight that influences the interpretation of bodies in space. Further, if it is already tainted with a prejudicial schema, a figure that is presumed to reside outside of the normative bounds transforms into a threat of violence, or simply a threat to the narrative of post-racialism.

A scene from Jenkins’ film serves as a useful point of departure in examining this dynamic: as the day spent together evolves into evening, Jo and Micah arrive at a punk club. They have just engaged in a conversation around the disappearing black population, where Micah comments on the negative effects of gentrification. A disagreement unfolds around black identity, which brings the two to a punk club where they can dance and escape. The opening shot of this sequence cuts to a white DJ who is playing a punk song, then to a shot of the partygoers who are all visibly non-black, and finally, to our main characters, who are isolated in the back. Shots of Jo and Micah dancing and taking pictures are then juxtaposed with shots of the crowd, thus creating a stark contrast.[19]

In this portrayal, Jenkins transforms his subjects within this scene of a mixed, black-less, population through an alternative image of “blackness.” The choice of space and music offers this counter-presentation, as both defy fixed assumptions of “black” music, opting for a genre that is commonly associated with white listeners, and instead proposes a new place, a punk concert, that black bodies can occupy. The multiple moments that display the two moving through the venue—on the dance floor, at the bar, in the photo booth, on the couch—heightens their visibility in a relatively non-black space. In addition, the washed-out aesthetic visually transforms Jo and Micah. Although the viewer is aware of the race that is ascribed to the main subjects, this alteration of visual composition almost erases any markers of skin color so as to signify an element of blending. It is as if the two are melting in with the crowd and, with the rejection of a venue choice that would typify “blackness,” this moment symbolizes integration. Hence, Jo and Micah are not read as the immediate threats, as could be the case in the proposed racial field of visibility.

In relation to this black-less club scene, the parallel scene where the two have a conversation around the small black population in San Francisco heightens the representation of invisibility, which once again transforms the main subjects. Initially, this moment at the dance club registers just as a counter-response to cultural nationalism, a direct retort to presupposed understanding of “blackness” in terms of a cultural expression such as music. However, Jo and Micah do not necessarily interact with the other subjects of the space, nor do those other subjects really interact with them. There seems to be an invisible boundary that encapsulates them and causes the two to stick out just as much as they blend in. This could support the argument that they are choosing to create their own world, as is seen in the earlier bike scene, or as an intentional action by Jenkins that allows the viewer to focus on the relationship between these two subjects. Yet, it could also infer a sense of erasure, as if they are unseen ghosts in the space, which would heighten Jenkins’ attempts to trace “blackness” in a transforming urbanscape that pushes former inhabitants beyond its boundaries. This evident disconnect from other participants of the space connotes the sentiment of isolation, dislocation, and invisibility, which reverses the notion that these black bodies might be perceived as threats in a visual racial schema. Instead, as processes such as gentrification displace black residents, it presents their own existence as one that is in danger. While the scene dismantles presumptions around “blackness” in order to critique the impossibility of concisely and fixedly defining it, it also considers how to capture these changes in the larger space of San Francisco. Especially concerning their earlier conversations, in which Micah explicitly voices his discomfort with the city’s demographic changes and with Jo’s apparent indifference, Jenkins seems to grapple with the matter of what could possibly define “blackness”—simply the presence of a black population? If so, then this scene at the concert reflects its disappearance.

In comparison, the field of visibility positions the hypervisible subjects of “the hill” as threats. In a scene from Straight Outta Hunter’s Point, there is a sequence that begins with teenage boys discussing how often they see the police, with one commenting that they are always on the block. The next shot follows a police car driving through the street as a group of young men stand around. One states, “This is what we go through everyday, what is we doing that is that wrong that you have to roll through that many times?” It then cuts to a stopped police car from which an officer leans out the window and directly addresses Epps, who is walking up to the patrol car. The officer asks, “You haven’t seen any criminal activity going on here, have you?” Epps replies, “Criminal activity? Why would there be criminal activity?” and the officer responds, “Just asking.”[20]

This illustration emphasizes how Hunter’s Point is constantly under surveillance, as structural pawns of the larger entity physically separate and contain this space. It is in this scene that the field of visibility, which is racially skewed, according to Butler, hails, interpolates, or identifies these particular bodies and this space under stereotypical perceptions of “blackness.” In comparison to Jo and Micah, whose bodies seem to be in danger of erasure, the bodies of the men in this scene are visibly perceived as threats of violence. In addition to their physical appearance, which is understood to represent the “other,” the compact, largely uniform space of Hunter’s Point serves as a site of fear and white paranoia that must be monitored. Its relative distance from San Francisco is perhaps enough to maintain a proximal, disconnected relationship; however, this particular scene captures the policing and thus reflects the maintenance of this detachment.

As previously mentioned, Michel de Certeau contends that naming also marks a place on an alternate map, while “rumors and representations inform its perception.”[21] If this is the case, just as “the hill” denotes a claim to the neighborhood, this nickname, along with the name of “Hunter’s Point”, holds specific meanings or associations that warrant a hyper-policing of the area. While Hunter’s Point does have high rates of crime, the “othered” interpretation of the space is not a new development, but rather has been the state since the relocation of African/Black Americans who came to work in the shipyard. Thus, in the contemporary era, as Epps documents the multiple patrol cars that surveil these streets, it should be understood that these bodies have long been understood as the “other.”

Hence, the documentation of the multiple police cars within this scene depicts the regularity of surveillance in a hypervisible black space, while the reference to “criminal activity” suggests a preconceived reading of these bodies. In fact, this is perhaps one of the few signifiers that the documentary takes place in San Francisco, as the San Francisco Police Department emblem, ostensibly here to protect and serve the community, taunts residents of “the hill.” If Butler’s concept of the field of visibility is utilized as a lens to observe these particular bodies, it requires vigilant measures to ensure that “the virgin sanctity of whiteness [will not] be endangered by [their] proximity.”[22] This racial schema identifies the black male body in particular as a threat to the commonly feminine portrayals of land—in this case, of the idyllic San Francisco—which rouses historical depictions of the black masculine figure as a subject that must be watched. Therefore, this scene infers that the re-developing urban space further oversees not only subjects within, but also those located outside of its bounds to keep deviants or threats to its purity locked out. It illustrates the transformation of the hyper-visible black subject into a dangerous object. Ultimately, both films reflect the nuances of the insider versus outsider position, as the subjects occupy these spaces at different times throughout each piece. Yet these scenes are just as much a reflection of those positions as they are an attempt to wrestle with “blackness” as one or the other.

Envisioning Tomorrow: Utopia or Dystopia?

As mentioned earlier, the concept of utopia incites much debate, particularly around whether or not it can exist purely or whether it is inherently dystopic. However, if we define it here as a reference to the emergence of “alternative desires, social relations, and modes of association”[23] between racialized communities and the oppressors, Epps’ piece situates “the hill” within a semi-utopian framework. If the connotation of utopia as an ideal is momentarily discarded to examine it as a mere abstract reference to an alternate reality, the recreation of the space of Hunter’s Point by its inhabitants reflects just that. It is not utopian in the sense that there is always peace or that the residents flourish in perfect conditions, but rather in the sense of the reconstruction of a condemned space, which fosters new interactions between subjects in that particular area. If utopia is an imagination of the unreal, these residents have inhabited an unreal space within these extreme conditions on “the hill.” However, their improvisations within these bounds have constructed another “real,” which Epps makes visible.

In one disturbing scene, Epps documents the chaotic moment of a young man getting shot in a drive-by, capturing a stark reality for those located within the bounds of Hunter’s Point. The sound of gunshots while a car screeches away fill a pitch-black screen. In the background, Epps’ heavy breathing implies that he is running somewhere as someone asks, “What happened?” and he responds, “Hold on, man!” As images return to the screen, Epps gives hurried orders to call the ambulance for a young man who has just been shot. He reaches the victim on the porch, who is laying on the ground in pain and shock, as a woman states, “They came through and shot through my window.” The camera switches to the next shot of police running to the scene as Epps claims that “his young nigga” has been shot. People, the police included, stand around the body until the ambulance arrives and, as the man is taken away, other men state, “That’s just another day in the life of the mob nigga, that’s real nigga.” The last shot is of a TV screen as the local news covers the story that same night.[24]

This scene of disorder would appear to designate Hunter’s Point as an anachronistic space that delineates an atavistic and irrational image which contrasts with the presumed Western ideals of progress and modernity.[25] The neocolonial discourse of modernity in its need to identify difference reconstructs the image of “the savage” in order to justify its exclusionary practices. It employs time, which becomes a “geography of social power,”[26] as a marker of social difference to denigrate places that could not progress in a similar fashion or rate. Ultimately, this method establishes the space outside the bounds of memory as well as outside of the developing urban landscape. This interpretation denotes the area of Hunter’s Point, as well as its residents, as primitive, and this visual of senseless violence would determine it to be a place of irrationality in opposition to modernity. It would fault the residents who could not keep up with the imposed modes of progress in order to explain the geographical and temporal isolation of this anomaly, which would justify a transformation or a renewal of the space. Further, the news coverage engages the mass, the voyeurs, in this spectacle of violence, which negatively figures residents of “the hill” in a distant dystopia.

However, this analysis does not serve the purpose of perpetuating that discourse of social difference, but rather of recording the reality of this urbanscape and offering a social critique of modernity. It is indeed a violent, scary scene, but interpreting it as an anachronistic space places blame upon residents rather than upon the lack of support in the transforming city that perpetuates othering. Instead, Epps’ motive is to present the violence that is the result of the modern project that upholds the roles of insider versus outsider. This scene is a disheartening yet valid element of Hunter’s Point, but it is not meant to erase the earlier scene of those men who take ownership of their neighborhood or Epps’ concern for this young man despite not having familial ties with him. It might reflect some sense of disorder, but it does not invalidate the significance of “the hill” as a transgressive space of escape for these residents who were, and are still, not included in the modern city.[27] Therefore, while the space might not necessarily be a complete utopia, its residents have transformed the space, implemented new meanings as well as alternatives, and continue to manifest a new reality.

On the other hand, Jenkins’ portrayal unravels the image of a utopic San Francisco as the transformation it undergoes includes a process of elimination within the threefold operation explored by de Certeau. In the only colorful scene of the film, Jo asks Micah why he still lives in the city if he hates it so much. As he responds, the shot cuts to a scene of the city with a rainbow in the foreground as soft, happy music plays in the background. Micah’s voice-over states, “I mean the hills, the fog…” and, as the scene switches to a downshot revealing a different view of the city, adds, “I mean, you may even find yourself a street corner that has a view.” As another shot of the city reveals a park with extremely green grass, Micah comments, “San Francisco is beautiful and it’s got nothing to do with privilege….” As the camera pans through the cable wires of downtown with the Pride flag flying, he continues, “It’s got nothing to do with beatniks, or hippies, or yuppies, it just is….” The last shot pans across a beach as he concludes, “You shouldn’t have to be upper class to be a part of that.”[28]

This scene magnifies the sense of invisibility and erasure of the black subject in a transforming utopia through the parallel visual aesthetics of the whole film. In comparison, the dim coloration present throughout the majority of the film is a representation of a bleak reality that creates a melancholy state. The sense of stagnation also reinforces this solemn mood of the city as there is no climax, no real plot, and no resolution. These aspects insinuate disappearance, as it would seem that the two characters are washed out and fading away, just as black bodies in the city are being pushed to the margins. While it is clear that they do identify as “black,” the loss of color forces the viewer to look past physical markers of “blackness” and become attentive to the representations of “blackness” that Jenkins includes in the piece. It is not just the conversations that expose the disparate politics of these two black individuals, but also the spaces of representation that propose where “blackness” can exist in the urban city. For instance, Jo and Micah visit the Museum of the African Diaspora, which represents an archive of “blackness” that is supposed to display the experience of the black history for those, particularly non-blacks, to somehow attain complete knowledge on it. Yet it also isolates “blackness” within the confines of absolute space, as if to measure how much of it can actually occupy space, which seems to further interrogate the desire of the entire project to capture “blackness” without placing limitations while also understanding the simultaneous loss that arises without the ability to do so.

This colorful scene that suddenly appears suggests a moment of recovery. Through Micah’s experience of relational space, Jenkins further explores the politics of belonging in the urbanscape. The return of color is symbolic of Micah’s subjective experience in another San Francisco and further signifies the melancholic mood of the film as he recounts what the space is—or at least was—for him. As his voice is superimposed over the shots that display parts of the city, it not only exposes the exclusionary politics of the concept city, but also implies that this place as he knew it can never return. This moment highlights the space of experience as the simple things, such as the fog and the view, come to symbolize the simple, impartial components of the city that do not alienate or isolate subjects; rather, these are pieces, attributes, and moments of the city that should be accessible to all, including those who are being pushed out. The reference to the “beatniks, the hippies, or the yuppies” is another claim that the history and the space of San Francisco has been assigned to particular identities which excludes others, including himself—the black punk indie kid. Hence, the visual palette of this scene isolates a specific memory in order to contend that this space has become inaccessible and alienates those who still linger. This would seem to be the moment that the utopian city defines its participants while simultaneously eliminating the “other.”


“This is not a counter-discourse but a counterculture that defiantly reconstructs its own critical, intellectual, and moral genealogy in a partially hidden public sphere of its own.”

-Paul Gilroy

Both Kevin Epps’ Straight Outta Hunter’s Point: A Hip Hop Documentary (2005) and Barry Jenkins’ Medicine for Melancholy (2008) grapple with “blackness” so as not to reproduce exclusive representations that ignore the multiplicity of identity. As Epps locates residents of Hunter’s Point on the peripheral bounds of the city and Jenkins places his two subjects in intimate proximity to the city, the two pieces seem to completely differ. However, as presentations of countercultures, each directly challenges the modern urban space and its relationship to the black subject. The visual documentation communicates that “blackness” occupies an in/visible space, or holds a dual relationship to being seen and unseen in a transforming urbanscape. However, this discovery is not meant to constrain “blackness” or black subjects to the realm of marginality. Rather, the visual form illuminates the manner in which these subjects transfigure their realities, curate new modes of existence, and exceed the strict definition of an exclusive utopic landscape.



Butler, Judith. Reading Rodney King, Reading Urban Uprising. New York, NY: Routledge, 1993.

de Certeau, Michel. The Practice of Everyday Life. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 1984.

Epps, Kevin. Straight Outta Hunter’s Point. Directed by Kevin Epps. 2003. San Francisco, CA: Windline Films, 2003. Web.

Gilroy, Paul. The Black Atlantic: Modernity and Double Consciousness. Cambridge, MA:   Harvard University Press, 1993.

“Great Migration.” 2010. Accessed December 04, 2016. .

Hall, Stuart. Critical Dialogues in Cultural Studies. London: Routledge, 1996.

Harvey, David. Spaces of Global Capitalism. London: Verso, 2005. Jenkins, Barry. Medicine for Melancholy. Directed by Barry Jenkins. Performed by Wyatt Cenac, Tracey Higgins, Melissa Bisagni. 2008. New York, NY: IFC Films, 2008. Web.

MacLeod, Gordon; Ward, Kevin. “Spaces of Utopia and Dystopia: Landscaping the   Contemporary City”. Geografiska Annaler Geografiska Annaler: Series B, Human Geography 84 (2002): 153-170.

McClintock, Anne. Imperial Leather: Race, Gender, and Sexuality in the Colonial Contest. New York, NY: Routledge, 1995.

Misra, Tanvi. “Mapping Gentrification and Displacement in San Francisco.” CityLab. August 31, 2015, accessed December 02, 2016,

Sargent, Lyman Tower. “Authority & Utopia: Utopianism in Political Thought”. Polity 14 (1982): 565-584.

[1] Tanvi Misra, “Mapping Gentrification and Displacement in San Francisco,” CityLab, August 31, 2015, accessed December 02, 2016,

[2] “Great Migration,”, 2010, accessed December 02, 2016,

[3] Reference to Hunter’s Point.

[4] Stuart Hall, Critical Dialogues in Cultural Studies (London: Routledge, 1996), 443.

[5] Anne McClintock, Imperial Leather: Race, Gender, and Sexuality in the Colonial Contest, (New York, NY: Routledge, 1995), 78.

[6] Gordon Macleod, Kevin Ward, “Spaces of Utopia and Dystopia: Landscaping the Contemporary City”, Geografiska Annaler: Series B, Human Geography 84 (2002): 162.

[7] Ibid.

[8] David Harvey, Spaces of Global Capitalism, (London: Verso, 2005).

[9] Ibid, 121.

[10] Ibid, 122.

[11] Kevin Epps, Straight Outta Hunter’s Point, directed by Kevin Epps (2003, San Francisco, CA: Windline Films, 2003), web, 3:44- 4:40.

[12] Harvey, Spaces of Global Capitalism, 131.

[13] Michel de Certeau, The Practice of Everyday Life, (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 1984), 105.

[14] Barry Jenkins, Medicine for Melancholy, directed by Barry Jenkins, performed by Wyatt Cenac, Tracey Higgins, Melissa Bisagni, (San Francisco, CA: IFC Films, 2008), web, 26:07-26:40.

[15] De Certeau, Practice of Everyday Life, 101.

[16] Ibid.

[17] Ibid, 101.

[18] Judith Butler, Reading Rodney King, Reading Urban Uprising, (New York, NY: Routledge, 1993), 15.

[19] Jenkins, Medicine for Melancholy, 1:10:43-1:14:58.

[20] Epps, Straight Outta Hunter’s Point, 54:15-56:10.

[21] De Certeau, Practice of Everyday Life, 104.

[22] Butler, Reading Rodney King, Reading Urban Uprising, 18.

[23] Paul Gilroy, The Black Atlantic: Modernity and Double Consciousness, (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1993), 37.

[24] Epps, Straight Outta Hunter’s Point, 59:58- 1:07:18.

[25] McClintock, Imperial Leather, 78.

[26] Ibid, 76.

[27] MacLeod, Ward, “Spaces of Utopia and Dystopia”, 164.

[28] Jenkins, Medicine for Melancholy, 46:20-46:60