One of the most striking aspects of the film for me was how subtly you picture the process by which the black body is sexualized. There are these minute moments of transgression, glances between students or between the central teacher-character and her colleagues that mark the transgression. But you also leave a lot of space for the viewer to misunderstand the kind of de-humanization that is taking place... why?
I wanted to focus telling the story through a focus on gestures. A glance, a stare, and who is looking at who are obviously very important gestures in film in the way they communicate conscious and unconscious desires and anxieties. Looking and who looks at whom, who is unaware and who is unaware, all are visual codes for structures of power and dominance (as feminist psychoanalytic theory describes). I used horror film as a genre to help me reveal racialized and gendered power dynamics. In savage transgressions happen at multiple levels, some not as easy to accept as others. For example, the school administrator's gaze breaks up Sara's sexualizing gaze upon James, it re-establishes order. However there are a few moments in the film that suggest that James has been gazing at Sara all along, unbeknownst to her or the viewer. Even more disconcerting, James has likely been gazing at Sara along with the viewer the entire time. This kind of voyeurism is customary in the horror film genre. In savage it indicates the threat of sexual violence from a black man--an unconscious fear that (white) society harbors. What makes this an "illegal" look is that James' gaze is never fully disciplined, by the end of the film he is not correctly placed in some kind of detention that would ease that racial anxiety in (some) viewers. He is simply still out there looking and deciding and gazing and creating the world as he sees it. Scary.
Also, I wouldn't say that James is dehumanized. Sara is pulled by her attraction to James--it leaves them both vulnerable in a sense. Maybe his is made into an object by Sara in a sense at first, as he is the pupil she is trying to integrate into her class, but I think what occurs by the films end is that he becomes something closer to human for Sara--because of the suddenness of her rush of feelings and because their encounter made her begin to question herself and her role as a white teacher in a classroom of black students.
Can you talk about how oblivious the central teacher is? Of herself, of what she wants from her students in general or in the particular case you picture so clearly? Why do you render her so absent from her own desires / aggressions?
I wanted to be careful not to demonize the teacher, Sara. She is cut off from many aspects of her own desires in a way that I could relate to. There are many ways I must subjugate my feelings in order to get through the world and the rules that are in place. Of course, its not the same, I'm a black woman and Sara is white, but it was a way I could try to understand her experience. She wants to be good, and she's learned that being good looks a certain way. I thought what was most interesting would be if her unconscious desires betrayed her overt intentions. There is an internal psychological battle going on that I felt was a worthwhile challenge to try to depict in the film. It has to do with her fear and anxiety within that can become externalized into violence.
There are two very different kinds of violence in this work -- the domestic violence the student clearly suffers from, and the structural violence of the teacher's racist projections. Can you unfold a little bit about why you felt it was important to show the intersection of these forms of violence?
I just feel that making a life in this world can be painful for absolutely everyone. Humans are often violent, the structures they make are an outgrowth of that violence--violence that arises out of fear and anxiety. I wanted to deal with the anxieties Sara faced simply existing and wanting love and to be loved but also how the collective anxieties of society calcifies into the criminalization and the policing of black bodies. I wanted to point at the fact of racialized violence and say look I'm not afraid to talk about this. I wanted to make my white professors at Columbia have to talk about it with me. I didn't want there to be any easy explanations or ways to rationalize the violence either, and that's why there are many omissions, like what is actually going on in James' house, for example. I wanted this film to prompt an emotional conversation about the nature of human violence.
During my thesis review at Columbia my advisor asked me why I hated white people so much. I cried then but I laugh at it now. If only he could understand that my willingness to have this conversation about race was an invitation based in love and an interest in collaborating in a real sense.
Kumi James with NM Llorens
Kumi James is a multidisciplinary artist, scholar, and activist currently based in Los Angeles, CA. Her work focuses on contending with the many levels of violence that black people experience. Her work is guided by questions such as "what is anti-black violence?" "can black people heal from the violence they experience?" and "what does it mean to create black community in an anti-black world?" In recent years, she has turned to co-creating an intentional black healing space and DJing and promoting a dance party centering black queer folks called Love is the Plug. Her next film project is a post-apocalyptic love story between a black mother and her 11-year old daughter trying to escape a world that intends to incarcerate them and force them to become surrogates for white mothers who cannot bear their own children. Kumi James graduated from Columbia University (MFA 2013) and UCLA (BFA 2007) for what its worth.