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Still from Edward Owens' 'Private Imaginings and Narrative Facts,' 1966. (Courtesy SF Cinematheque)

One of the best features of Black History Month (and all celebrations of underappreciated cultures, for that matter) is the (re)surfacing of forgotten or unknown talents. This week’s picks salute a range of folks working the margins.

Edward Owens
Through Feb. 28
SFMOMA online

Edward Owens was a teenage prodigy whose output encompassed films, paintings and collages. He was enrolled at the Art Institute of Chicago in the mid-1960s when, fatefully, Gregory Markopoulos joined the faculty. The pioneering experimental filmmaker discovered and influenced Owens’ work, and encouraged his Black gay student to head east in 1966. Imagine being welcomed into New York avant-garde circles as a gifted 17-year-old.

For the first monthlong installment of the three-part exhibition Assembly of Images: On Histories of Race and Representation, SFMOMA and SF Cinematheque unearthed a pair of Owens’ rarely screened short films that he shot in Chicago. Dreamy and mesmerizing, the silent Private Imaginings and Narrative Facts (1966) imbues Black faces with glamour and longing; it was originally entitled Mildered Owens: Toward Fiction (after its central figure, the artist’s mother).

Remembrance: A Portrait Story (originally called No More Tomorrows, 1967) also features the imposing Mildered (with friends Irene Collins and Nettie Thomas) and likewise suggests the gulf between reality and dreams. Owens wrote, “The music is by Marilyn Monroe singing ‘Running Wild’ from Some Like It Hot, because it’s a film portrait of Nettie Thomas. She did floors in white women’s homes, like Black women did to support their families in the olden days. My mother is sitting in a wicker chair with an ostrich feather boa, a grey worsted wool skirt, a silk belt. For her portrait, I used ‘All Cried Out’ by Dusty Springfield…”


The beauty of Owens’ images is immediately apparent, but I didn’t grasp the power, the love, and the pain in his films until the second viewing. No doubt the scarcity and preciousness of Owens’ work affected me; struggling with drugs and an undiagnosed bipolar disorder, Owens stopped making films when he was 20. He returned to Chicago in 1971, where he finished college and lived and worked until his death in 2009.

Frances McDormand in the film ‘Nomadland.’ (Courtesy of Searchlight Pictures)

Premieres Feb. 19

Chloé Zhao’s much-ballyhooed follow-up to The Rider is a movie that, like Kelly Reichardt’s First Cow and Eliza Hittman’s Never Rarely Sometimes Always, isn’t helped by the hype. All three films deserve to be widely seen, but some movies need to be discovered and encountered, taken in and experienced, on their own terms and without the taint of expectations.

So let’s just say that Zhao’s quasi-hybrid of fictional characters and real people who’ve given up, left or been pushed out of their homes and taken to the road is a useful Rorschach test for gauging your tolerance and appetite for alternate modes of living. Camped many a mile from both Ken Kesey’s traveling band of merry pranksters and Bruce Springsteen’s blue-collar road warriors, Zhao’s people (embodied by Frances McDormand with a touch of the rebel, the seeker and Rosie the Riveter) are, at least in theory, as free as a bird now.

Freedom is a moving target, though, especially if you make movies for more than a handful of viewers. That’s a highfalutin way of saying that I liked Nomadland most when it rambled into the open spaces of experimental narrative, and least when it steered toward the commercial safety of conventional narrative.

Saru Jayaraman at rally against sexual harassment in the film ‘Waging Change.’ (Courtesy Waging Change)

Waging Change
Feb. 19, 8pm

The pandemic derailed Oakland filmmaker Abby Ginzberg’s big plans—a premiere at the Castro, notably—for her eye-opening 2020 documentary about the various ways in which restaurant workers are exploited, harassed and robbed. Absent the virus, Waging Change assuredly would have been used by labor and community organizations coast-to-coast to raise public consciousness and, even better, the minimum wage. (Even without the film, Florida voters passed a gradual hike in the hourly wage up to $15 in 2026.)

The silver lining to the yearlong pandemic, to the degree there is one, is that the spotlight and the conversation has shifted toward the inequities endemic to our society. With a new administration in D.C., a higher federal minimum wage is part of the discussion. Excellent timing for Waging Change, which premieres Friday, Feb. 19 at 8pm on KQED (with a recently added segment on the effects of COVID-19 on the restaurant sector).

There’s been a lot of talk in the last couple months about democracy. Ginzberg has been making films about justice for 15 years. I’m far from certain that the latter can insure the former, but surely democracy without justice is no longer a viable state of affairs. As always, tip generously.

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