Programme Notes: Waves

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Spoiler warning: these notes are best read after viewing the film. They contain discussion of plot and character details.

layla-roxanne hill looks at Waves in the context of Black cinematic stories and the people telling them. 

The teenage experience is inherently traumatic with few people getting through adolescence unscathed. However, particular care needs to be taken when Black stories are told by white people. What is a unique or notable or quintessentially Black aesthetic when imagery and affect are commodifiable and replicable: when Blackness, Black knowledge and people are interchangeable?

With his new film Waves, Shults attempts to universalise the story of adolescence through the Williams, an African American family. The film, in two acts, follows a linear story, with the first half focusing on Tyler (Kelvin Harrison Jr) and the second on his younger sister Emily (Taylor Russell). 

For a film which features interracial relationships, abortion, healthcare, the police and prison system in America, the link between these and race are neatly avoided and raised only in a few scenes. Notably, when Tyler and his girlfriend are confronted by protestors outside of an abortion clinic and again when he is told by his father Ronald (Taylor Russell), that Black men must work twice as hard to achieve the success typically afforded to their white counterparts. ‘We are not afforded the luxury of being average,’ he says.

Black joy, historically, has not been seen as profitable—meaning, the Black joy that emanates from real, deep places, not from caricature or stereotype. Black joy in the sense of Black youth laughing, riding a bike, braiding their hair, reading a comic book, and falling in love. But Black joy can also exist alongside pain, discomfort, confusion or distress.

With Waves, however, Shults’s attempts at Black joy are fleeting and the reinforcement of historic and continued destruction of the Black family remain at the core of the story. This is exemplified and epitomised through Catharine – played by Renee Elise Goldsberry – mother of the Williams family, whose pain is the most memorable of her appearances.

Though it could be argued that Waves is aesthetically Black, it tells of teenage anger and loss as experienced by Shults and those with similar experiences to him and not of Black experiences. At times, Waves – consciously or not – resembles Moonlight (Dir. Barry Jenkins, 2016), which was praised for its narration and visually arresting blue-illuminated capturing of Blackness, though its masterful cinematographer, James Laxton, is white. 

This is also apparent in the much-heralded Waves soundtrack, scored by Nine Inch Nails and long-time collaborators Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross. Unlike the soundtrack of American Honey (Dir. Andrea Arnold, 2016) – another coming-of-age film – which mirrors the film’s deep exploration of class, race and gender, Waves relies on indie-makers Fuck Buttons, Tame Impala, Animal Collective and Radiohead, as well as Black mainstreamers Kayne West, Frank Ocean, Tyler the Creator and Kendrick Lamar to carry the story of Black adolescence.

When Tyler’s younger sister, Emily, takes centre stage in the second half of the film, her story is in fact Shults’s own story, told through her white boyfriend Luke (Lucas Hedges). Utilising themes of redemption and healing, Emily is seldom afforded the depth and history of Luke and certainly not without him. It is Luke’s joy, pain and growth which we experience, not Emily’s. Jinn (Dir. Nijla Mumin, 2018) about a Black girl whose world is changed when her mother converts to Islam, leading her on an inevitable journey of self-discovery and first love, captures Black girl joy and pain in ways which can only be told by Black women writer/directors.

There are many other Black women writer/directors who have made recent feature films that explore the lives of complicated Black girls but have not yet been recognised on a larger, mainstream scale for their work. These films include: Solace (Dir. Tchaiko Omawale, 2013), Selah and The Spades (Dir. Tayarisha Poe, 2019), Jezebel (Dir. Numa Perrier, 2019), Premature (Dir. Rashaad Ernesto Green and co-written by Zora Howard, 2019), A Love Song for Latasha (Dir. Sophia Nahli Allison, 2019), and an upcoming film Paper Chase (Dir. Angela Tucker, forthcoming).

Past coming-of-age films which centre Black girls include Crooklyn (Dir. Spike Lee, 1994), Love & Basketball (Dir. Gina Prince-Bythewood, 2000), Just Another Girl on the IRT (Dir. Leslie Harris, 1992), Yelling to The Sky (Dir. Victoria Mahoney, 2011) Eve’s Bayou (Dir. Kasi Lemmons, 1997) and Pariah (Dir. Dee Rees, 2011), among many others.

These films – all by Black women-identifying writer/directors – range in subject-matter and style, exploring themes of sexuality, identity, eating disorders, boarding school experiences, first love, religion, sex work, death, house parties, sports, family relationships and fun.

Like the sermons which we bear witness to in Waves, which asks of us to look for love and not hate, perhaps the film is an attempt to bring about the reconciliation and healing of a deeply divided world. Or, perhaps like the affirmations delivered by Tyler’s coach, the continued lack of Black agency and commodification of Black experiences within white institutionality remains part of the new machine which cannot be taken down. 

layla-roxanne hill
Writer, curator and organiser

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