Picturing Grief

Maps and movies can help us see (and move) through shared urban crisis.
Memorial for George Floyd at the closed intersection of E. 38th Street and S. Chicago Avenue in Minneapolis, August 2020. [Elizabeth Umbanhowar]

Grief is a “sacred” place.

— Avril Maddrell

The geography of protest belongs to what the cultural geographer Avril Maddrell has called the “invisible landscapes” of bereavement; she argues that “emotional geographies can be identified and ‘mapped’” onto spaces, whether these are physical, embodied-psychological, or virtual. Grief maps encompass a “dynamic assemblage of self-body-place-society” and render historic and personal traumas visible and emotionally palpable. Such visualizations, Maddrell observes, might well help to foster “relational spaces, emotional-affective geographies and therapeutic environments.”1Avril Maddrell, “Mapping grief: A conceptual framework for understanding the spatial dimensions of bereavement, mourning and remembrance,” Social & Cultural Geography, 17:2 (2015), 184, 173, 166.

Street protests, civil disobedience, murals, graffiti, even property damage: All chart public grief.

Charting public grief and anger in cities can take many forms. Street protests, civil disobedience, murals, graffiti, and even property damage are means by which marginalized populations can focus public attention on landscapes of loss and resistance.2New York Times journalist and podcast creator Walter Thompson-Hernández describes graffiti artists like his friend Sight, who recalls, “I existed when I did graffiti. I existed. That’s why I started doing it … There’s a human need to express yourself. Unfortunately the lower class and the impoverished don’t have the spaces and the walls to just be creative. They don’t own nothing. So where are they gonna do it? The streets are their canvas.” Walter Thompson-Hernández, “Scared Straight,” California Love (July 9, 2020). We have witnessed this countless times in the United States; famously, for instance, in the Watts Rebellion in Los Angeles in 1965, a protest spurred by the police beating of 21-year-old Marquette Frye amid the upheavals of urban renewal and resistance to the Vietnam War. And in the summer of 2020 we have seen it at the intersection at E. 38th Street and S. Chicago Avenue in Minneapolis, which has been transformed by neighborhood residents into a sacred space of remembrance following the murder of George Floyd by local police. Murals, makeshift gardens, and provisional memorials have drawn a stream of visitors who come to pay their respects not only to Floyd but also to the many others killed by law enforcement, whose names are painted in a growing list in the roadbed along Chicago Avenue, in a participatory project by artist Mari Hernandez.

The names project, organized by artist Mari Hernandez on S. Chicago Avenue in Minneapolis, August 2020.

How can such sharing of collective emotion encourage reckoning and restitution? In what ways does bearing witness build empathy and contribute to a more robust social infrastructure through which to meet future crises? Clearly these vast questions have no easy answers. But in contemplating “grief maps” and the power of street-level demonstrations and memorials, I have found myself considering two other, perhaps disparate kinds of visual documentation: maps of the regular cartographic kind, and movies about cities.

Both maps and films are portals through which to navigate collectively the emotional histories of cities.

Both maps and films function as powerful and accessible visual interfaces that are also affective portals through which to navigate collectively the emotional histories of cities. As architect and filmmaker James Sanders argues in his exploration of the movie industry and urban planning in New York City, the impact of film on our experience of cities is “subtle yet tectonic.”3James Sanders, “Adventure Playground,” Places Journal (May 2010). The same could be said of maps, and the journeys, pilgrimages, and psychogeographic wanderings that maps can inspire.4“Psychogeography” is of course a term that derives from the work of Guy Debord and the Situationist International. See Debord, “Introduction to a Critique of Urban Geography,” Les Lèvres Nues (September 1955: No. 6). While histories of injustice and trauma are inextricably and often invisibly embedded in urban infrastructures, two very particular and palpable examples have absorbed my thoughts in recent weeks: the Mapping Prejudice project at the University of Minnesota, and Charles Burnett’s 1978 film Killer of Sheep, set in the Watts section of L.A.


Data at Mapping Prejudice are compiled by geographers, historians, and activists; the project is sponsored by the John R. Borchart Map Library at the University of Minnesota.5The website’s “About Us” page explains that “Mapping Prejudice” draws on two previous projects: Segregated Seattle and Mapping Inequality. “Segregated Seattle” is “a database of racial covenants that has become an important resource for historians, legal researchers, and activists trying to understand how ideas about race have shaped real estate law and housing policy”; the material was assembled the Seattle Civil Rights and Labor History Project at the University of Washington. “Mapping Inequality,” which digitized New Deal redlining maps, was conceived by the University of Richmond’s Digital Lab. With resources for educators and invitations to the public to participate, Mapping Prejudice archives a cartography of structural racism in American cities. In so doing, the project helps to reveal the policies and processes of redlining, urban renewal, and systematic predatory lending that have denied BIPOC communities basic human and environmental rights over decades, while also gathering family stories from local communities affected by such policies over the last century. Since Floyd’s death, Mapping Prejudice has added new records regarding racial covenants in a city that is often lauded for its progressive politics and salubrious parks, lakes, and trails. But Mapping Prejudice illuminates the shadowy legacies of redlining that began a century ago in Minneapolis. “The city was not always segregated,” the site notes. “Covenants helped remake the racial landscape of the city. As racially-restrictive deeds spread, African Americans were pushed into small and increasingly circumscribed neighborhoods.”6Movies like Daniel Petrie’s 1961 adaptation of Lorraine Hansberry’s groundbreaking play A Raisin in the Sun (1959) made infrastructural violence such as redlining and neighborhood covenants visible in cinema. Starring Sidney Poitier and Ruby Dee, the film portrays the struggles of the Younger family, who buy a house in a white neighborhood in Chicago.

Projects like Mapping Prejudice make manifest the historic mechanisms deployed to marginalize, segregate, and demobilize Black and brown communities. These online cartographies corroborate the complex lived experiences and layered traumas of collective generations that spurred the Civil Rights Movement and inspire continuing efforts to resist oppression and express mourning publicly.

The movie screen can help us reckon with historical and present traumas.

Cinema can create equally powerful channels for messages of resistance and embodied experience. Movies have shaped American perspectives on race, power, and cities almost since the invention of the medium; not surprisingly, this has been especially true in Los Angeles, home of the industry. But if, as Sanders argues, films about New York in the 1960s depicted the city as an “adventure playground,”7Ibid. filmmakers in the 1960s and ’70s presented the city of angels as haunted by demons and divisions. As Thom Andersen shows in his sprawling documentary Los Angeles Plays Itself (2003), this history unfolds a multiverse of fragmented visions.

Burnett’s Killer of Sheep lays out a “map” of civic grief in south L.A. Ostensibly the simple portrait of a Black working-class family, it was the director’s thesis project at UCLA, “shot on location near his family’s home in Watts in a series of weekends on a shoestring budget of less than $10,000, most of which was grant money.”8About,” Killer of Sheep website, Milestone Films (2017). The film plots a critical yet compelling portrait of the city in the wake of the Watts Rebellion.

Screenshot from Killer of Sheep: Stan’s daughter, Angela, wearing a dog mask.
Screenshot from Killer of Sheep: Stan at the slaughterhouse.

Burnett’s neorealism confronts racial trauma and class injustice. Yet his narrative is open-ended, meditative, episodic; Killer of Sheep is an urban lament. Quiet domestic scenes are punctuated by brutal images of flayed carcasses in the offal-slicked abattoir where the protagonist works; children come home bruised from mock battles in dusty lots. Played by Vietnam veteran Henry Gayle Sanders (of whom Burnett mused, “I thought Henry was the saddest-looking man I’d ever seen, like he had the whole weight of the world on his shoulders”), the protagonist Stan is a dreamer hemmed in by economic violence.9Burnett quoted in Dave Kehr, “Shadow of Watts, in the Light,” New York Times (March 25, 2017). The film underscores the ways in which Watts itself is under pressure — as a result of federal highway construction, the devaluation of community assets, and the razing of Black homes in urban-renewal projects. Killer of Sheep explores what Jacques Rancière has described as “a relationship between the sayable and the visible,” reminding me of the potential of the moving image to offer us opportunities for a collective experience of encounter and disruption.10Christina Lovey, “A pilgrimage into the liminal: an experiential enquiry into the psychological and embodied space of grief and its re-representation in film,” Ph.D. Thesis (University of Brighton, 2016), 54.

The goal, of course, is to change what can be mapped in real urban space.

Cities are containers for mourning in response to systemic and environmental racism, and both maps and movies can create safe yet charged opportunities in which to witness and take part in this grief. As the film theorist Vivian Sobchack argues, the juncture of film, filmmaker, and viewer can be understood as a phenomenological “third space,” a shared territory of re-representation in which audiences are offered an “expression of experience by experience.”11Vivian Sobchack, The Address of the Eye: A Phenomenology of Film Experience (New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1992), 3. In its power to foster virtual memorialization, the movie screen can help us reckon with historical and present traumas and thereby — I hope — move us towards a more just future. The goal, of course, is to change what can be mapped in the real urban spaces where we live.

Notes

  1. Avril Maddrell, “Mapping grief: A conceptual framework for understanding the spatial dimensions of bereavement, mourning and remembrance,” Social & Cultural Geography, 17:2 (2015), 184, 173, 166.
  2. New York Times journalist and podcast creator Walter Thompson-Hernández describes graffiti artists like his friend Sight, who recalls, “I existed when I did graffiti. I existed. That’s why I started doing it … There’s a human need to express yourself. Unfortunately the lower class and the impoverished don’t have the spaces and the walls to just be creative. They don’t own nothing. So where are they gonna do it? The streets are their canvas.” Walter Thompson-Hernández, “Scared Straight,” California Love (July 9, 2020).
  3. James Sanders, “Adventure Playground,” Places Journal (May 2010). https://doi.org/10.22269/100504.
  4. “Psychogeography” is of course a term that derive from the work of Guy Debord and the Situationist International. See Debord, “Introduction to a Critique of Urban Geography,” Les Lèvres Nues (September 1955: No. 6).
  5. The website’s “About Us” page explains that “Mapping Prejudice” draws on two previous projects: Segregated Seattle and Mapping Inequality. “Segregated Seattle” is “a database of racial covenants that has become an important resource for historians, legal researchers and activists trying to understand how ideas about race shaped real estate law and housing policy”; the material was assembled the Seattle Civil Rights and Labor History Project at the University of Washington. “Mapping Inequality” which digitized New Deal redlining maps, was conceived by the University of Richmond’s Digital Lab.
  6. Movies like Daniel Petrie’s 1961 adaptation of Lorraine Hansberry’s groundbreaking play A Raisin in the Sun (1959) made infrastructural violence such as redlining and neighborhood covenants visible in cinema. Starring Sidney Poitier and Ruby Dee, the film portrays the struggles of the Younger family, who buy a house in a white neighborhood in Chicago.
  7. About,” Killer of Sheep website, Milestone Films (2017).
  8. Burnett quoted in Dave Kehr, “Shadow of Watts, in the Light,” New York Times (March 25, 2017).
  9. Christina Lovey, “A pilgrimage into the liminal: an experiential enquiry into the psychological and embodied space of grief and its re-representation in film,” Ph.D. Thesis (University of Brighton, 2016), 54.
  10. Vivian Sobchack, The Address of the Eye: A Phenomenology of Film Experience, (New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1992), 3.

About the Author

Elizabeth Umbanhowar

Elizabeth Umbanhowar is a Ph.D. candidate in the Built Environment Program and concurrently completing a Certificate in Cinema and Media Studies at University of Washington. She is also a licensed practitioner and a senior lecturer in landscape architecture. She focuses on transportation and public space in her teaching and in her research employs urban landscape histories and cinema technologies to interrogate the experiences of environmental grief and the concept of “urban pilgrimage.”