Fanon: Yesterday, Today Review

Fanon: Yesterday, Today. Directed by Hassane Mezine. France/Algeria, 2018. 87 mins. French.

In 2009, during my second year as a grad student at Brown University, Angela Davis came to deliver a lecture on mass incarceration, the prison-industrial complex, and the insidious forms of neo-slavery enshrined in the 13th amendment. I vividly remember how she cut the figure of a beautiful black pasionaria intensely involved, with other scholars, activists, and community leaders across the country, in the prison abolition movement. The talk was billed as a public event and, as would be expected, the room was filled to maximum capacity, mostly with notebook-clutching students, a learned assembly of grey-haired, stern-looking faculty, and a handful of “awed” community members from the greater Providence area. 

Davis started off with a joke about the midseason “trade” of then aging NBA superstar Shaquille O’Neal, from the Phoenix Suns to the Cleveland Cavaliers, to segue into the topic of her lecture: “trading” black bodies in the open “market,” whether you’re filthy rich or dirt poor, is just business as usual, for such a practice is woven into the fabric of American society. For over an hour, Davis enlightened her riveted audience about the American gulag archipelago and the vested interests handsomely profiteering from it. Her forceful words were imbued with added significance, given not just the details then emerging about the Brown brothers’ capital ventures in the Slave Trade, but also the larger domestic context – the so-called post-racial era heralded by the election of Barack Obama to the White House.

Then it was time for a little Q/A session. The first to boldly step toward the microphone was an ex-convict, just out on parole. He had come up to College Hill for the express purpose of handing a “message from the grassroots” to Angela Davis, the gist whereof was: “You’re needed more down there in underserved communities than up here, on this sheltered Ivy League campus. If you agree with me on this, then follow me, let’s go to my neighborhood, sister. Right now. Anyway, I’m out of here.” On that note, the ex-convict abruptly left the lecture room, even as a bemused Davis entreated him to stay, at least stick around for a while – but he was having none of that.

For a few seconds thereafter, an awkward silence hung over the brightly lit and warmly heated lecture room, the kind of silence that usually punctuates a “touché, gotcha” moment during a debate. The ex-convict did more than breach etiquette or punch a hole in the cozy bubble of academia: he had laid bare the paradox lying deep at the heart of scholarly engagements with the plight of racialized minorities, as such an academicization tends to further drive a wedge between the latter and the wellness resources available to treat their pain and suffering, including the healing words of a stellar mind such as Davis’s, as beyond their reach as the overpriced drugs, and other therapies, that such underprivileged communities can ill afford to medicate on. The crucial point is not that Angela Davis was presented with a false binary: be another sellout pimping white guilt or be real and get down with the people; it was rather that we were all there to watch Angela Davis, but only that ex-con came to see her, and no sooner did he leave than everyone saw, then and there, what was so plain to him: a bright and bold intellect turned into a showcase piece, like an alabaster bust trotted out for casual looks and idle chatter in the boudoirs of academia, whilst all around “the wretched of the earth” keep wallowing in grief and misery. 

In Fanon: Yesterday, Today Hassane Mezine achieves an effect similar to the collective epiphany furtively experienced by Davis’s audience in that Brown University lecture hall. Completed in 2018-2019, and timed for worldwide release in 2021 to celebrate Fanon’s sixtieth death anniversary, this latest documentary compels viewers to unravel the sphinx-like enigma of a towering figure swaddled into so many readings, so many interpretations and polemical discourses, perennially pitting postmodern ironists against postcolonial liberationists, the “right-on critics,” as the late Stuart Hall derisively called the latter camp. Indeed, as the visual narrative unfolds, shot by shot you begin to feel, somewhere in the back of your head, that telltale tingle, that eye-opening “Aha moment” that makes you wonder: could it be that I never got to see Fanon before this film? Could it be that, all along, I had been looking, unwittingly, at his anamorphic image? A caveat is in order, though: far from hyping his debut feature as showing Fanon in his true colors, “unadulterated,” as it were, a point that the restored, rephotographed, or colorized archival footage should be enough to render moot; far from claiming that he is hammering back into shape the countless warped images in currency today as so many tokens of a smugly glib radical chic, Mezine does the simplest, most sensible thing: seek out fragments of past memories and collect testimonies that, once edited into a finely textured visual tapestry, can provide a “contrast material” fit to reveal Fanon’s abiding spectral presence.

Yet in this regard, Fanon: Yesterday, Today still doesn’t mark any significant break from the existing corpus of films on the Martinique-born thinker. Isaac Julien’s multilayered performative documentary, Frantz Fanon: Black Skin, White Mask constantly toys with the “uncertain dark” Fanon left in his wake, as Homi Bhabha so eloquently put it in “Remembering Fanon,” a spectrality Julien conveys through backfill “auratic” lighting, visual collages, double exposures, superimpositions, and the double estrangement effect induced by Colin Salmon’s thickly accented British and tall height. Even the interspersed voiceover narration over grainy or digitally remastered archival images, however unobtrusive and minimal, leaves one with a nagging feeling of déjà vu. Ditto for Mezine’s “groundings” à la Walter Rodney with talking heads across generations and continents, each in their own way indebted to the provocative essayist who, in Black Skin, White Masks was the first ever to make a compelling case for imbecilic racism, and not race, as more than skin-deep, and to the “warrior-silex,” as Césaire hailed his former student in a moving poetic eulogy, who lit the dark caves of anticolonial struggles with the incandescence of tridimensional dialectics. In all these aspects, nothing unprecedented or never seen before with Mezine’s film. So what is it, then, that makes Fanon: Yesterday, Today stand out? What sets it apart from the run of the mill, especially in this day and age when hardly a week goes by without something on Fanon being released, be it a literary or filmic riff on his works, a graphic novel, a comic book, a scholarly monograph, a memoir by a former comrade or colleague, a collection of essays, or whatever obscure secondary material filed away in library catalogs, and left for an army of future doctoral students to slog through?

For one thing, Mezine stretches wide the arc of documentary narration to craft what he calls a “chronobiography,” thereby creating an overlap between memory and history, between the intimate recollections of Fanon’s contemporaries (Abdelhamid Mehri, Jacques Ladsous, Marie-Jeanne Manuellan, Olivier Fanon,  Mohamed Salah Seddik, Ousmane Dan Gadalima, Lylian Kesteloot, Arnoldo Palacios) and the critical reflections on his renewed currency (Raphaël Confiant, Flavio Almada, Maboula Soumahoro, Houria Bouteldja, Cornel West, Ibrahim Diori, Salima Ghezali, Masixola Mlandu, Sama Jabr). This testimonial diptych is meant not so much to echo Stuart Hall’s seminal 1986 essay “Why Fanon? Why Now?” as to underscore a paradigm shift, away from concerns about Fanon’s conjunctural “timeliness,” toward a clear focus on his timelessness. However, Fanon’s is not the “eternal relevance” of the classic assured of a permanent audience, and it is in this respect that Hassane Mezine’s documentary approach is truly innovative, as his peripatetic camera relentlessly ferrets out all the scattered traces, tropes, motifs, all the intimations of Fanon’s haunting presence that, at this latter-day juncture, crystallize into a global iconomy of protest and decolonial resistance, from the Indigènes de la République in France to the “Rhodes Must Fall Movement” in Cape Town, South Africa. This lends a polyphonic quality to the interactive segments Mezine pieces together with an ear tuned to their differential speech modes, speed regimes, and time lags, as each interviewee sustains the tempo of his filmic chronotope at their own pace, on their own terms. In so doing, the documentarist charts a planetary ecosystem of sounds, texts, images, a vibrant chorus of testimonial voices across the space-time warp of the Fanonian galaxy. As a result, Fanon: Yesterday, Today is perhaps the first film to draw, out of the shifting contours of global dissent, the sharp features of Frantz Fanon’s ever lurking face, with those signature unflinching, questioning eyes, but absent the commemorative agit-prop pathos of “militant” hagiography or the “archive fever” of postcolonial historiography.

About the Author

El Hadji Moustapha Diop

A native of Senegal, in West Africa, Professor Diop dubs himself “a highly migratory academic species.” He holds a Ph.D. in French from Western University in Canada (2016), an MA in Comparative Literature from Brown University (2010), and both a BA in Germanic Studies from Université de Liège in Belgium (2004), and in English Studies from the University of Dakar (2000). His ongoing research focuses on cross-media analysis, cultural semiotics, textual pragmatics, and translation in postcolonial contexts, with a special emphasis on contemporary francophone Africa. Professor Diop has completed several translation projects in English, including the first full-fledged, scholarly biography of filmmaker Sembene Ousmane, Ousmane Sembene: The Making of a Militant-Artist (Samba Gadjigo, Indiana University Press, 2010), short fiction from contemporary West African writers, and essays by French and Francophone scholars. He recently co-translated Boris Diop’s Wolof/French novel, Doomi Golo: The Hidden Notebooks (Michigan State University Press, 2016), and is currently at work on an abridged book version of his doctoral dissertation on African film and literary adaptations. Learn More