An Interview with James Benning about Allensworth
By Sam Bodrojan
James Benningâ€™s Allensworth is the story of a ghost town. Founded in 1908, the first self-administered Black town in the United States would be swiftly incapacitated by systems of white oppression, from redirecting the nearby railroad to a drought caused by kneecapping the townâ€™s water supply. By the end of the first World War, the town was basically abandoned. As it stands currently, Allensworth is now a state historic park of California in an ongoing process of historical reconstruction.
Benningâ€™s film, which played at the 61st New York Film Festival this month, consists of twelve shots, each centered on a different location in the town, filmed once a month over the course of a year. The interstitial title cards only display the month in which the subsequent shot was filmed, with the identification of these placesâ€”schools, churches, housesâ€”coming at the end credits. Seeing these places so long divorced from their original purposes, viewers are invited to sense the pain before they can fully grasp its source and, in these devastatingly composed images, bear witness to a lost future of Black America. Allensworth is a quietly searing indictment of institutional racism, imbuing Benningâ€™s long-honed structuralist approach with a haunted, angry emptiness. Itâ€™s the kind of film a person only makes after theyâ€™ve lived in America for a long time.
One of the preeminent voices of 20th-century American avant-garde cinema, Benning has seen his work grow in popularity throughout the 21st century, proliferating across the internet with the advent of file-sharing digital communities and omnipresent video hosting platforms. At 80 years old, Benning is still hard at work; Allensworth is the manâ€™s 34th feature, following dozens of shorts and installation pieces. They might not require more than Benning himself to make, plus the occasional actor, but his films are never truly isolated. From his early collaborations with Bette Gordon to his dual investigations of radical enlightenment from Thoreau and Kaczynski with Two Cabins, Benningâ€™s eyes are always trained on the people and invisible forces around us as much as any naturalist landscape or structuralist experiment.
I met James on a weekday morning during NYFF, at a waterfront apartment in Williamsburg, where he was staying with a friend. His face is softer than it appears in photos. He apologized to me several times throughout our meeting for not having a perfect memory, though he spoke with warm, unpretentious clarity. He sat across from me at the dining room table as we talked, facing away from the window. The door to the balcony was open, but I could not hear a thing from the outside.
Reverse Shot: Youâ€™ve mentioned that you only film places you know. How do you know Allensworth?
James Benning: I discovered Allensworth after I bought a piece of property in the Sierra Nevada mountains in Tulare County, which starts in the Central Valley and goes up into the mountains. Iâ€™m at the Eastern end of the county, up at 4,000 feet. Down at the other end of the county is where Allensworth is. I already know the country very well from making El Valley Centro, but when I made that film, I didnâ€™t know about Allensworth. It was this town, started by three Black men who bought up land, made to escape the problems of Apartheid and the way Black people were treated with the Jim Crow laws, to start their own community. It was rather successful for ten years or so. Then systematically it failed, because the white people in charge of the railroad moved it to an adjacent all-white town. The father of the town, Allen Allensworth, was killed in Los Angeles by two white men on a motorcycle, which was maybe an accident or maybe an execution. My film is not about Black people but about white peopleâ€™s bad behavior towards Black people. I wanted to make a film about this town, but I wanted to make it about what Iâ€™ve learned as a white person, the organizing I did in the â€™60s, and the prejudice Iâ€™ve witnessed. Thereâ€™s a kind of emptiness in the film. I donâ€™t address any of the â€śfacts,â€ť exactly, but itâ€™s giving you these visual facts that are very important to the fall of the town.
RS: Do you know who Anna Pierson is, the woman whose gravestone you use in the final shot?
JB: I donâ€™t. The graveyard is a half a mile away from the reconstructed part of the town. In Allensworth, thereâ€™s a grade school, a church, about ten or fifteen houses. Those were built since the original Allensworth lapsed. Itâ€™s on top of the old Allensworth. Only part of the town has been restored, but if you have a picture from a certain angle in 1920, itâ€™ll look the same today. They reconstructed every building on the same footprint, in the same design. Itâ€™s perfectly restored. Anyway, the graveyard has yet to be restored, so most of the graves are unmarked, just little wooden crosses. Iâ€™ve gone to the graveyard multiple times, and Iâ€™ve met a man who lives in Allensworth; heâ€™s trying to get it restored, and Iâ€™ve had long conversations with him. The railroad is back now.
RS: I wanted to talk about the centerpiece of the film, this shot of a young Black woman, dressed as one of the Black schoolgirls who famously enrolled at an all-white high school in Little Rock, Arkansas, in 1957. She stands at the front in front of this classroom reading Lucille Cliftonâ€™s â€śListen Children.â€ť What was the impetus behind that costuming decision?
JB: I grew up in Milwaukee on the edge of a Black ghetto, and I lived in a poor white ghetto, and it was open racism. Thatâ€™s what I was taught as a young kid. At some point I started to question, â€śI donâ€™t know them, why should I not like people I donâ€™t know?â€ť One of the things that happened to me, my grade school got closed, and I was moved to a junior high school, and I was very nervous about that. That was in September 1957, and it corresponded with the actions of the Little Rock Nine girls. And I saw this picture of a Black woman surrounded by all these ugly hateful white people, and I could see that what I was going through was nothing compared to the magnitude of what she was facing. So that image, for me, is an image I can connect to a new awareness, a questioning of values.
RS: How did you find that woman?
JB: I teach at CalArts, and sheâ€™s in the dance school, and she was standing out in front. I asked her if she would like to read some poetry for me in a film, and she immediately said yes. I told her, â€śIf youâ€™re nervous, if you stumble, itâ€™s okay. Whatever you do is fine, so thereâ€™s no pressure on you to perform here.â€ť We had a rehearsal, and I didnâ€™t give her any direction because I wanted to just see what she would do. And she read it absolutely perfectly. One of the lines in the poem says the N-word in it, and I didnâ€™t tell her that was there, and she skipped over it. We had a long discussion about it after that rehearsal, and I apologized for confronting her with the word. Sheâ€™s just remarkable. The film really changes when she shows up, from then on, you have to know what the film is about.
RS: Honestly, I think your films are very accessible. Iâ€™ve shown your films to friends, people who arenâ€™t necessarily invested in film as a medium, and they can grok them and get something out of them. Is that a conscious motivation in your work, to make your films accessible?
JB: Iâ€™ve always thought they werenâ€™t, and itâ€™s always made me nervous. I donâ€™t like making people feel uncomfortable, and I donâ€™t want to make people feel dumb. But thatâ€™s really great to hear, that youâ€™ve shown it to people and that doesnâ€™t necessarily happen, so that can give me more confidence. I so thoroughly believe that the best way to learn is through observation and through that observation you gain so much more agency. I had one really wonderful experience, eight or ten years ago, in Berlin. The same film played four times, and an elderly woman came to all four screenings and thanked me after each screening. After the fourth screening, I said to her, â€śIâ€™m sorry, but I just have to ask how old you are,â€ť and she said she was in her late eighties. I told her, â€śIâ€™m so grateful you came,â€ť and she told me, â€śThey saved my life.â€ť She was looking back at her whole life, and how to observe thingsâ€¦ Iâ€™m kinda getting teary. That was really moving for me.
RS: You often call this film a mystery. Iâ€™m not gonna ask you what the mystery is, because I know youâ€™d just make me give you my answer. But what about the film signifies it as a mystery to you?
JB: Well, itâ€™s a mysterious place because itâ€™s not what it is, itâ€™s a replica. So thatâ€™s the first mystery, but then also there is the question of what it was before, you know, when it actually was alive. So, I give you hints, but theyâ€™re from the wrong time and place, but the right subject. I mainly get audiences who know who I am, though they might bring a friend along. So, my hope is that the film motivates you to do some research after youâ€™re done, to find out what Allensworth really is or even go there someday.
RS: Even though youâ€™re not always explicitly interested in contemporary culture, your work remains in conversation with the current discourse. Thereâ€™s been this explosion of a kind of rubbernecking over whatâ€™s called â€śtrue crime,â€ť where people talk through sensationalized accounts of murder, or these eerie, voyeuristic videos on YouTube of forgotten spaces across America, like Gary, Indiana. This sort of memetic work stands in contrast to your films, which take a more empathetic, studied approach. Iâ€™m curious if you have any insight into your workâ€™s continued, ever-growing relevance.
JB: First off, about the internet, I think Iâ€™m one of the few filmmakers who doesnâ€™t give a shit if you steal my work and put it online, even if itâ€™s crappy, though Iâ€™d rather it be in better quality. From having that outlook, Iâ€™ve gone from under popular to way more well-known than I should be. That way, people can see my work, and then maybe if it comes to town they might come and see it projected. Both the Allensworth screenings were sold out, which is nice. I think Landscape Suicide (1987) is a good example. People create podcasts, and they go on and argue on the internet, and itâ€™s always really sensationalized. What Iâ€™m trying to do with these films is make you understand that thereâ€™s actual people involved in things that happened, that Kaczynski is an actual person, and so was Ed Gein, and so were the victims of those people. Iâ€™m not interested in the gruesome details, the moral, psychological details of what crime is, why it happens, how angry can somebody get.
RS: Allensworth falls in line with a recent trend in your work, this focus on the slipperiness of Americana, how a unified vision of the U.S. is as impossible year to year as it is from town to town. Last yearâ€™s United States of America was a remake of an earlier film you made with Bette Gordon, in 1975 for the bicentennial. All 50 shots are from the back seat of your car as you road-trip across the country, one for every state. Your remake is predicated on that stinger, where it reveals that the film, ostensibly composed of 50 shots of landscapes across the nation, each from a different state, is entirely shot in California. Were you trying, in that film, to reject the common visual narrative of Americana, or was it nicer than that?
JB: Well, how it started and what it became are probably different. I was in the pandemic, and I had already made three other films, because the pandemic had made me very nervous. In the beginning I was really afraid of dying. The original United States of America, which I made with Bette Gordon, got a lot of attention after being shown on one of those streaming services, so I figured Iâ€™d remake that since people are enjoying the old one. It came out of this idea of wanting to travel but not really being able to. When I made the film, I thought, â€śI donâ€™t want to make this a joke on the audience, but I have to reveal it.â€ť Then the film became very popular, because people like being fooled. It was fun, looking for a swamp on Google Maps to play Georgia, or you know, specific things that I thought represented specific places.
RS: What are you seeing in your mind and what are you searching for when youâ€™re looking through Google Maps?
JB: Sometimes Iâ€™m searching for certain places. Sometimes I go to places Iâ€™ve been before. I also look at whatâ€™s been documented, and what gets added later, like up in the mountains. One day, one of the trucks went by my house, and I thought Iâ€™d get it finally, but we didnâ€™t. They never sent another guy. But yeah, I look at stuff, a lot of personal stuff, peopleâ€™s houses.
RS: Do you have footage of your house over the years?
JB: I donâ€™t, but now Google Maps has a history button, you can find ten different years of that place. I can show you my house where I grew up in Milwaukee. Itâ€™s a stunning transformation.
RS: What camera did you use to shoot Allensworth?
JB: The same camera Iâ€™ve used since Ruhr in 2009. Back then, I bought a digital Sony HD camera. Itâ€™s not 4K. It needs a certain amount of light; it canâ€™t do what 4K can do in the dark. But I like the smaller files, and I like the look of the image; Itâ€™s not so hyperreal, not so completely in focus. Iâ€™m not one thatâ€™s nostalgic for the grain of film at all. Iâ€™m so happy not to pay a lab anything to make a film. Because then, like with Allensworth, I made it for 500 dollars, just gas money driving up there and back. I own my equipment, I donâ€™t have a crew, I could eat at the McDonaldâ€™s nearby, get a breakfast sandwich. The whole film is made on Premiere, and I do the mixing myself. Itâ€™s manageable.
RS: Youâ€™re still teaching, right? Do you think that the way people observe has shifted over the time youâ€™ve been teaching?
JB: Yeah, Iâ€™ve been at CalArts for 35 years now, though before that I taught at a number of different universities, and my very first teaching experience, when I was organizing, was adult education in the South. I taught bookkeeping. They really wanted to learn. It was exciting to have that as a first teaching job. They were funny; they complained I was a northerner. I like teaching. I donâ€™t like to tell people what to do. I do think observation is an important part of learning, and universities generally donâ€™t do that. I think now people are less likely to even know what you can observe. I mean, I do get art students; theyâ€™ve learned something about it, even figure drawing. Today, attention spans are so short, and all media addresses this bombardment.
RS: How do you think your legacy will be with regards to how we look at America?
JB: Oh, I donâ€™t think America learns at all. Otherwise, we wouldnâ€™t be in the jam weâ€™re in. Thatâ€™s what theyâ€™ll learn from me. â€śYou shouldâ€™ve listened.â€ť