In what follows, I am going to watch a film incorrectly; I am going to make a mistake.
In 2019, the polymath pop star Solange Knowles released her fourth studio album, When I Get Home. Three years earlier, Solange’s third album, A Seat at the Table, had become one of the most critically lauded and widely beloved works of music of the decade. The album fit neatly into post-Obama narratives of black political, social and aesthetic resilience. But while protest anthems like Kendrick Lamar’s “Alright” soundtracked Black Lives Matter marches, “Cranes in the Sky” and “F.U.B.U.” offered a quieter kind of liberation, guided by smooth neo-soul and mathematical funk. In the wake of the album’s release, Solange choreographed complex performance art pieces, including a landmark extended set in the Guggenheim; the work was contemplative, near-academic, as rooted in the upper echelons of the avant-garde as in black musical traditions.
And yet—or perhaps unsurprisingly—in a 2019 interview Solange described the exhaustion she felt after the success of A Seat at the Table: “I think after touring the last record there were a lot of things that were happening to my body, to my spirit, things that felt out of my control.” Thrown into an unbearably public sphere, an American miasma of hundred-dollar-a-head gallery performances and think pieces on black music in the Trump era, Solange felt out of place. Unwilling to accept this, she returned home—physically, emotionally and artistically. It’s understandable, then, that many critics have been tempted to take When I Get Home as tracing this biographical arc. Solange does seem to encourage this kind of attention. And yet, I want to resist this impulse. This is the mistake I am going to make: I am going to appreciate When I Get Home by ignoring biography. Perhaps there’s something more we can learn from it.
When I Get Home dove even deeper into the abstraction undergirding its predecessor. Like Alice Coltrane’s Lord of Lords and Stevie Wonder’s Journey Through “The Secret Life of Plants,” both of which Solange has cited as guiding lights, the album embraces a radical sonic incoherence, combining the anti-regimented spirit of free jazz with the meandering ooze of Houston chopped-and-screwed production. Solange’s previous album, to be sure, was experimental, reinvigorating contemporary and classic trends in pop, soul and funk with her avant-garde sensibilities. But that experimentation remained largely constrained within traditional song structure and familiar sonic textures. When I Get Home did not so much bust out of those constraints as utterly elide them, floating through vamps, one-off refrains and improvisational breaks with a liquid ease. The result is something I can only call one of the greatest works in black music, and in American music in general, of the current century.
Solange’s visions—the things she imagined, as the opening track meditatively repeats—could not be fully captured sonically. So she gave them cinematic shape, releasing a forty-minute non-narrative companion film—essentially a continuous music video that encompasses the whole album—also titled When I Get Home. It was as aesthetically anarchic as the album, but less well known, available on only a few streaming sites (including, now, the Criterion Channel). Critics have so far mostly ignored the film, privileging Solange the musical artist while overlooking Solange the director, the cinematic savant. My decision to focus on the film is motivated not by indignation at its relative obscurity, however, but by a desire to correct a critical misstep in the experience of viewing, and listening to, When I Get Home—a misstep that reveals a deeply troubling, yet ubiquitous, feature of how we approach and experience black art today. Let this be an opportunity to write about Solange differently.
In Abstractionist Aesthetics: Artistic Form and Social Critique in African American Culture, Phillip Brian Harper isolates a fundamental tension within the concept of “black art.” On the one hand, art has historically been understood as essentially removed from reality, even from the reality that it represents. This is true even of art at its most politically and socially conscious: one does not need to believe in the necessity of “art for art’s sake” to admit that art is not life. Art, literally, constructs new things, new sights and sounds and feelings that, while perhaps indelibly entangled with the sights and sounds and feelings that precede the work, are in some sense distinct from them. This is the essential creativity of art.
Black art, however, has a particularly complex relationship to this sense of creativity. This is because, as Harper notes, black art has historically been shackled to an exhausting, exhaustive realism. Admitting the non-real nature of art—the way art necessarily abstracts itself from the world—we nonetheless insist that black art try as hard as it possibly can to mirror the world beyond it. This is due in large part to our instinctual insistence that black art must be “social critique” or “true representation.” But the mandate, Harper suggests, is even deeper, its root cause more insidious. We have become unable to imagine that black artists—black people, in general—have the desire—perhaps even the ability—to abstract from their/our lived realities: that is, to be creative. A mirroring kind of realism then becomes the only way in which blackness can be conceptualized, imagined and felt.
Black art, in short, is often taken to be nothing but a mimetic representation of an external reality, while the viewer’s job in watching such art is to become a cartographer, mapping the external reality onto what the work of art depicts. The test of black cinema becomes its accuracy, its telos relying on the fantasy of the Perfect Map (as dreamt of by Lewis Carroll, Jorge Luis Borges and Jean Baudrillard)—a map so detailed that it exists at a scale of one to one with the space it represents. In other words, art that captures reality so well that it becomes wholly indistinguishable from it.
This way of experiencing is its own form of dehumanization. Reduced to naïve parrots mimicking what they/we see and hear, black artists are imagined to lack imagination, while black artworks become interesting only inasmuch as they teach us about the realities of “black life” (whatever the hell that could be). Recall the circulation of “reading lists” of black literature and art in the wake of the police murders of 2020. These lists included works by artists, theorists and commentators as diverse as Angela Davis, Toni Morrison, Ta-Nehisi Coates and Boots Riley, and they collapsed these works into a single category: knowledge-bestowing data banks, rote recitations of information otherwise accessible in a high school textbook.
Film is a particularly poignant medium when it comes to the call for social salience. Film, after all, is precisely the art form that possesses the most plausible claim to realism. Its ability to mechanically reproduce not just images, but their movement over time, results in a medium only tenuously distinct from that which it seems to represent. As such, film in particular has long negotiated a divide between its realist capabilities—its ability to document reality—and its artistic capacity for surrealism—its ability, as art, to imagine or fantasize about the unreal.
Black film has usually been kept squarely locked on the documentarian end of the dichotomy. Movies like Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner, Fruitvale Station, Medicine for Melancholy, Nothing but a Man and the like are lauded as crystal-clear windows into (once again, that bizarrely caricatured pseudo-concept of) “black life.” Critical practice—how we watch these films and what we say about them—becomes fixated almost exclusively on how accurately they document their subject matter; “bad” films are taken to be those that obfuscate the humanistic realities of black life. We should be unsatisfied with this. As the theorist Michael Gillespie puts it in his book Film Blackness, “What if film is ultimately the worst window imaginable and an even poorer mirror?” What if we found something beyond realism in black cinema, which is to say, what if we let black film be art?
When I Get Home, as many commentators have noted, is replete with visual and sonic citations of Houston. The album was called “A Tour of Houston, with Solange as Your Guide” by the magazine Houstonia, on account of its various local references. Indeed, the song titles often literally name Houston streets and locations, nearly literalizing the work’s cartographical features. And it seems correct to note these things: Solange explicitly sees this project as a way of returning home, intentionally injecting it with its sensory and emotional pleasures, its sights and sounds, its black cowboys and candy paint. Her work seems to invite a realist eye, a critical practice committed to mapping home as a way of loving and looking at it.
When I watch the film, I refuse to hear Solange’s own citations of the “reality” of Houston. I want to insist that this film is not really about Houston. This film is about Houston. But an empirical eye, an attention to the realism of the film, does not allow us to grasp this fact. To do so, we must follow Solange into the Black Abstract. We must follow her home.
When I Get Home is bookended by a particularly striking figure (fig. 1). The figure first emerges in the opening chapter,1 “Things I Imagined,” which features the album cut of the same name. Solange repeats the titular refrain over and over, her voice finding new melodic and rhythmic pockets, as keyboard and synths wind around her—and a shot of a collection of shapes that quickly, as the camera pans down, reveals itself to be the ceiling of an enclosed room, a kind of gallery space housing a figure and a series of pitch-black paintings that recall Ad Reinhardt’s “ultimate paintings” (fig. 2). The figure is dressed all in black, but for a sequined silver veil covering their face and shoulders. The camera zooms in until the frame consists solely of a field of black, into which the figure’s black-clad lower body disappears, and the stark gleam of the veil.
Then we cut. At first, we see the back of the figure; only now, the veil has extended, grown, like a fungus. The camera slowly, lovingly pans—or perhaps its objects move; it’s beautifully hard to tell—and we see Solange, clad in the same material as the veil (perhaps now we can call it a shroud), dancing as the figure raises their arms and cranes back their head. Both are clearly in bliss (fig. 3).
After cutting to the opening credits, we cut back to the gallery, following the same camera pattern as before: a slightly different shot of the ceiling that pans down to rest on a different painting (fig. 4). The single block of black has now been segmented into three, each with a slightly different shade. And the figure, too, reemerges with a difference: they have been segmented into two. Now the figure with the original veil walks past the painting, as another figure—unveiled, but with a sash of the same silver material wrapped around one wrist—follows.
Immediately, the opening sequence’s setting recalls a museum—an environment, remember, that had been a source of exhaustion for Solange. The consequences—both good and bad—of black art’s emergence in the art world have long been explored and negotiated by black artists, critics and theorists (and, of course, museumgoers themselves). Solange seems to be trying to figure out the relationship between home and the gallery, a relationship that seems to easily map onto one between “blackness” and “whiteness.” That relationship is both what sparks When I Get Home and what the film is about. In this opening sequence, the gallery space becomes a kind of launchpad, the first stop in a cruise into a hallucinogenic Houston, just as it was Solange’s experience of the museum space that sent her home.
See? Already, realism has seized me. The work has been affixed to the world (I have done that); Solange’s artistic practice has become a mirror, or a shadow.
Yet when rewatching (it is crucial that I clarify “re-”) the film’s beginning in order to write the summary above, I found myself confused. I’ve watched the film more times than I can count, and upon this particular return I had already developed a theoretical framework. All I needed now, I assured myself, was timestamps and screenshots. And yet when I began to write the summary, I paused. I was focused, as you have seen, on the silver-clad figure, who had become the locus of my experience of the film. And yet I found myself unable to write, with honesty, “the figure.” For, as you have seen, it seems just as reasonable to say that there are three figures: the veiled, the shrouded and the follower. Had I merely forgotten this wrinkle?
I found myself frustrated in my attempts to say what the film literally shows in these moments: one or three? Neither feels satisfactory. The reason for this ambiguity has to do with the cinematic character of the work. In the cut between the first two shots of the film—of the figure in the gallery and the figure dancing with Solange—something happens. The “something” is what film theorists committed to montage—the juxtaposition of two or more images over time via cutting from one to the other—consider to be absolutely central to film as an art form. For a juxtaposition of two images creates a third term: the idea that links the two into a chain that means something. A juxtaposition of a glass of water and a human face communicates “thirst”; a juxtaposition of two human faces looking at the camera communicates not just that they are looking at each other, but some rich emotional tie between them.
What does this first cut of When I Get Home communicate? Perhaps it shows me the actions of one figure over time; but why the difference between them (the growth of the veil)? Perhaps it shows me a new figure; but why the similarity between them (the veil itself)? The point is that the ability to adjudicate between these two possibilities disappears into the cut, into the break. The only way to know if the second figure is a new figure would be to see the first figure and the second figure in the same space, or to see the first figure move into the space occupied by the second figure. But the evidence I would need to make such a determination has disappeared into the cut.
Simply put: look at how hard it was just to isolate the “reality” of one figure in the first sixty seconds of the film. I could not even say if there were one or three human beings! Perhaps I am too excited by this simple fact, but it seems to hold the entire thesis statement of When I Get Home—deeper, of cinema as an art form—within it. For what this moment reminds us is that When I Get Home is not sociology, or anthropology, or any purely documentarian (even documentaries are not purely documentarian) object; it is art. And, like all art, it does things to its referent; it heightens, complicates, subtracts from, adds to, the elements of the world that it “represents.”
In trying to describe that first scene and be done with it, I was warring against the film. Loving it entailed returning to what had first drawn me in: the surface of the film, its immediate form, rather than a “reality” that hid under that surface, to be archeologically “rescued” and reduced to firmly delineated points on a map. I had to accept that the film did not show one or three; it showed something fundamentally irreducible to one or three (or ten or one thousand).
This cinematic moment, this opening refrain, proves that loving black art is something very different from listing its citational references. Loving When I Get Home is not an act of cartography. When I Get Home is both less, and thus more, than a map.
When I Get Home seeks to transform Houston through vibration. Not one or many, its particles, its atoms—the black people Solange loves so dearly—vibrate into each other. The result is abstraction: that is, is the impossibility of pinning down any single atom or any single whole. I could not tell you if there were one or three figures in the film’s opening strains. But what if this isn’t a bug, but a feature of When I Get Home’s aesthetic and philosophical manifesto?
Solange has confessed to an obsession with “repetition.” She has expressed admiration for artists—including Coltrane and Wonder—for “artists who have used repetition in those projects to really reinforce their frequencies.” The song “Things I Imagined,” for example, consists almost exclusively of “I saw things I imagined” sung in a multitude of variations, all moving around a single framing melody and chord progression. “When I’m saying ‘I saw things I imagined,’” Solange explains, “maybe the first four times I didn’t actually believe it, but by the eighth time it’s coming into my spirit.” Repetition moves the emotional register of the utterance into the body. It is also the essence of music. Note how “frequency,” which refers to the number of occurrences over a specific period, is used to describe sound. A given tone is not, in fact, a single thing. The wave of a low tone—the bass underpinning the track—repeats less over a given period than a higher-pitched tone—Solange’s crystalline vocals. The point is simple: when we hear a sound, we hear a new, unified thing; but that thing only can exist as a multitude of points, as their proliferation. The power of repetition cannot be found in any single instance (including a single instance we would call the “whole”), but in the vibration this multitude makes together—the blurring slur that we call sound, the thing that is both one and many.
This effect is echoed in the visuals of the film. Solange’s performance pieces have always leaned heavily, and thrillingly, on costuming; this film is no exception. Virtually every time an ensemble of figures enters the film, they are identically or similarly costumed; Solange often buries herself within that ensemble. These figures often perform identical or sequentially linked actions, heightening the sense of cohesion and entanglement. Even isolated figures bleed into their external environment; in the “Stay Flo” chapter, a woman strides across a variety of minimalist backgrounds lugging a Sun Ra-esque, computer-like monolith, dressed in its exact shades, covered by its glimmering lights. The effect of these formal arrangements is that no single figure ever feels cordoned off from its surroundings. They each appear infected by their settings, transformed into nodes in a massive network. If the silver figure was blurred by time through the film’s use of montage, then When I Get Home also blurs figures spatially, dispersing “them” across the frame. Of course, it would be silly to say that it becomes literally impossible to tell them apart. But it does become possible to see them as vibratory, animated by, as the theorist Fred Moten puts it, “consent not to be single.”
Take a beautiful sequence in which a line of figures clad in black stand behind each other, forming a line before the camera. The sequence is one shot, unbroken by any cuts. First, the figure(s) appear (fig. 5). One figure stands before us, unambiguously single, but for the cascade of limbs erupting out of them. Rather than separate into multiple points in the frame, into the suggested multitude of individuals, the figure sucks into itself (fig. 6), only to immediately explode (fig. 7) and reassemble (fig. 8). The arc of this sequence is not linear. We do not move from one to many or many to one; we oscillate, transmuted into a sine wave, spiraling around and across the “one” and “many”—a spiral extended by the score, a chopped and screwed choral vamp. The repetition of the similarly clad figures is not resolved into separation or union. Resolution is beside the point.
Take, too, “Dreams.” This chapter is structured around a single space: a suburban street. The camera oscillates between two houses on either side of the street. In one, black figures seem to age, beginning as children playing in a pool, mourning for a dead companion, and eventually being replaced by adults. But this already slightly surrealist tale is complicated by the second house, occupied only by a mysterious woman who watches the other house eerily. This observer begins to transform. First, the camera pans to her feet, where we see the same ivy creeping over the house beginning to grow. The ivy continues to grow until she, and the house, are fully covered. The camera zooms in, as the new figure, frozen in the shot until this moment, lowers herself to her haunches.
This woman, this watcher, this witness, loses herself to the world. Her body, once sovereign and separate, becomes incurably infected. But rather than allowing this infection to result in a kind of death, Solange, ever the brilliant choreographer, grants this figure one crucial movement precisely at the moment when motion should be disallowed—right as the infectious ivy is poised to reduce her to pure nature, pure object. Solange knows this, and as such the figure remains still until the last possible instant, seemingly confirming our intuition that dispersal into the world is the end of one’s own being. But such an intuition is misguided: the figure, no longer just herself, but never anything but that, moves with intention and purpose, a simple willing that transforms her infection from death into… not life, but something else.
Solange, as revealed in this sequence, has a thing for flesh. In Solange’s vision, Houston becomes a heaving mass of flesh, gleaming in the hot sun—its signifier, the haunting image of the black cowboy. “Flesh,” as canonically introduced to black studies by Hortense Spillers, picks out a particularly black mode of human existence, most clearly epitomized by chattel slavery. In chattel slavery, human bodies were reduced to pure monetary value; for such a thing to occur, all the marks of individuality and sovereignty that render human bodies coherent and intelligible as human bodies—nationality, kinship, self-consciousness—were erased. Bodies became abstracted, lumps of matter, wholly interchangeable: they became flesh. This transfiguration is, of course, a monstrosity in the context of chattel slavery, mobilized as it is toward violence and the brutality of commodity exchange. But we can still seek to understand the “terrible beauty,” as Moten puts it, of fleshiness, of the way the abandonment of coherence and intelligibility open up beautiful and radically new ways of living.
Released from their singularity, the objects of Solange’s gaze blur into each other, into ivy, into metal, into shining silver, into walls of black, into beams of light. Vibrating so fast they leave this plane, into a universe not of pure, immaterial Forms, but of freewheeling materiality. Vibrating so fast they lose themselves, only to find themselves with a difference.
By the end of the film, this rejection of formal coherence has become literal. In the final few minutes of a film in which nearly every frame housed a figure, the “Beltway” chapter consists almost entirely of a shifting field of flashing lights. But it isn’t just an abstract light show; it contains within it a series of directions to a location in Houston called Prairie View (fig. 9). What on the one hand asserts itself as an abstract field simultaneously, almost paradoxically, asserts itself as a set of coordinates, a material location rooted in Solange’s Houston. The familiar realism seems to bubble up, eclipsing the abstract.
I’ve never been to Houston. I don’t know where Prairie View is, where the I-10 or the PV exit or TR Solomon Road is. I could look it up. But what, in attempting to “place” these coordinates from the film, would I be trying to accomplish? Looking for Prairie View in this way would reduce it to a site on a Google Map; it would, in other words, have nothing to do with Solange’s “Prairie View.”
Solange explains: “The longer that I was here [in Houston], the more these sorts of things that might have been mundane to me, visually, started to really enrich my spirit.” Prairie View is not the list of directions on the screen. Those directions are completely devoid of the immediacy of feeling we call “experience”; they are missing not simply the “subjective” element, but the rich affect such experience entails, the mystic quality of material immediacy and intimacy that surreally accompanies being human. As Solange says, this work is not a matter of mind but of body, of feeling.
When I Get Home thus transmutes the image of Houston into something worthy of love: not a collection of coordinates, not even a collection of places and practices, but the woozy, impressionistic swirl of qualia we call “everyday life.” It is only by veering away from Houston—by embracing abstraction and surrealism—that Solange is able to return home to it, carrying us in her undertow.
As I said: When I Get Home is bookended by a figure I just can’t get out of my head. The shrouded, or veiled, or whatever, figure dances, an entire ecosystem spewing out of their silver flesh. But in the end, in the final shot before the credits roll, that skin is stripped back (fig. 10).
I suppose that one could say that, in the end, they were nothing special, nothing inhuman, nothing impossible, unrealistic and escapist. They were just another black person. One could say that, if one were committed to the idea that there was nothing special, nothing inhuman, nothing impossible, unrealistic and escapist about blackness and black people.
If blackness seeps through Houston, through When I Get Home, through Solange’s opus, then I refuse to constrain it. I refuse to let a realism about blackness become the vehicle by which this masterpiece is set in stone. Let this final shot vibrate with the rabid, impenetrable energy that has animated the entirety of this film. Solange sees blackness in all of its unsettled and untimely glory, in all of its material and magical profanity. She wants you to see it too. She wants to share it. Or, rather, it’s an anarchical force that cannot be shared, because that would imply that it could be owned in the first place, which would imply that it could be located and held. You can’t do that; all you can do is say “I’ll be your vessel.”
Art credits: All images are stills from Solange’s When I Get Home, 2019.