ShortList 2020: How ‘T’ Finds a Vision of America in Black Rituals Surrounding Death (Video)

“We really do reside at a fork in the road, and that a lot of people are desperately in need of healing,” director Keisha Rae Witherspoon says

Last Updated: August 24, 2020 @ 12:07 AM

The short film “T,” which won the top award for shorts at this year’s Berlin Film Festival and is now a finalist in TheWrap’s ShortList Film Festival, is a bold, impressionistic and documentary-style look at rituals surrounding death in the Black community, particularly in the South. That may make it especially timely at this moment in our history, but director Keisha Rae Witherspoon definitely thinks of it as a film not for one particular time.

“I suppose for some people there might be a renewed context, but what we’re seeing now is a continuation of what’s been happening for a very long time,” Witherspoon said. “More than anything, what we’re probably seeing is a more crystalline perspective on the fact that we really do reside at a fork in the road, and that a lot of people are desperately in need of healing.”

Healing, in a way, is what “T” is about. The film is set in a community where homemade t-shirts are used to commemorate those who’ve died, and where an annual ball celebrates the dead in music and dance. It unfolds like a documentary, but in fact, it’s all scripted and acted, though it’s based in real rituals.

“It came from me observing my community and thinking a lot about ritual, and how a lot of our rituals are sort of pieced together from scraps, really,” Witherspoon said. “As a person of Caribbean descent who grew up in Miami, I see so much lost heritage, as displaced people. I find that to be very interesting as well as heartbreaking, and a fascinating reiteration of what America is.”

The idea for “T” came to her quickly, Witherspoon said, from the verité-style footage of participants in the ball to the flashes of dance and music that run through the film and were a product of her collaboration with visual artist and costume designer Mumbi O’Brien. But, she added, she did get cold feet when she got into the editing room. “As a first-time director, I wasn’t aware that it’s a common experience where you get your dailies and the impostor syndrome sets in,” she said. “I shelved the film for a little while out of uncertainty, but we finally arrived at something that reflected the vision I had in my mind.”

In its final moments at the ball, the film loses itself in a swirl of color, movement and music – and in the midst of it is a muffled and distorted version of Bruce Springsteen’s “Dancing in the Dark,” a pop hit from 1984 that is seldom linked to Black ritual. “I love Bruce,” she said. “And that album that ‘Dancing in the Dark’ comes from, ‘Born in the U.S.A.’ – if we’re talking about albums that are expressions of the struggle of the American consciousness, it really delivers.

“The album was a criticism of America. What followed was the song ‘Born in the USA’ becoming a patriotic anthem, often with the actual message of the song getting lost in translation. It’s one of the more specific reasons I included it with the use of ‘Dancing in the Dark’ as it relates to the optics and theme of the film.”