Arts·Black Light

TXN is a powerful new film capturing 10 years of Black culture in Toronto

Director Matthew Progress talks to Amanda Parris about the making of his short film.

Director Matthew Progress on the making of his short film

Matthew Progress will discuss his video essay TXN after an online screening Thursday, May 28. Visit niacentre.org for more info. (Matthew Progress)

Black Light is a weekly column by Governor General Award-winning writer Amanda Parris that spotlights, champions and challenges art and popular culture that is created by Black people and/or centres Black people.

Now that warm weather is here, I wake up each morning and take my breakfast on the porch. It's generally a quiet time in my usually bustling neighbourhood. In a few hours, the older lady around the corner will start playing her gospel music real loud (often complete with sermons from a pastor), and later this afternoon, my neighbour across the street will turn up the volume on his reggaeton playlist and dance in front of his van (inevitably without a shirt). But in the morning, it's only the birds and a few cars providing the soundtrack for my day. Life's slowed down, and it's made me more observant of the details. I have more time to reflect on the moment — and I've been thinking about Black folks, Black life and what it means to hold this identity while living in the city of Toronto.

There is no singular Black community in Toronto. We have no electoral party or particular advocacy body that represents the interests of all. We don't have a physical museum that houses our collective histories and cultural productions — our studies, our innovations. In that void, this multifaceted and diverse set of communities is often defined by its paradoxical absence and hyper-visibility in spaces like the media and academia.

However, a new short film offers another type of reflection. TXN (pronounced "Ten") is a video collage by writer, rapper and filmmaker Matthew Progress. It commemorates the past decade of Black culture in the city, a critically important reflection that was left out of most 2010s round-ups. A meticulously edited assemblage of found footage, the film's style reminded me of Terence Nance's work. It's a fascinating rendering of collective memory, considering the moments that define and shape Black life in the city. 

Clocking in at just under 20 minutes, I was surprised at how deeply moved I was watching it for the first time. I got goosebumps watching scenes of collective resistance against systemic violence. A lump rose in my throat as moments later I was forced to recall the violence that we inflict upon ourselves. TXN creates bridges between a wide array of Black communities and explores the intersections between ancient traditions and new technologies, virtual connections and mass gatherings. It's a reminder that although there is no singular Black community, there are moments that connect us in celebration and in protest, in joy and in pain. Watching it in 2020 as I self-isolate, I couldn't help but grieve moments that I've so often taken for granted. 

Over the past week, there's been an influx of bad news, and having the extra time to scroll through Twitter can feel like cruel and unusual punishment. Tuesday afternoon, a brutal shooting in downtown Toronto took the life of local rising rapper Houdini. Wednesday, a damning military report about Ontario long-term care facilities was released. Later that night the hashtag #JusticeforRegis began to trend on social media after the SIU was called to investigate the suspicious death of a twenty-nine year old woman in Toronto. In Minneapolis, there are protests against police violence. Also trending on my timeline: "Amy Cooper" and "Christian Cooper." 

For Black folks everywhere, this moment is overwhelming and painful. Perhaps that's why I immediately thought TXN was pronounced "Tax-ing." Being Black in Toronto specifically, and in North America more generally, can often feel incredibly taxing. But TXN sort of refocuses the lens. Black life is considered in full rather than in news bites. It's a kind of reflection we so rarely see.

Progress was commissioned to make TXN by Toronto's Nia Centre for the Arts, and Thursday evening they will host a virtual screening of the film and a short talk on Zoom. I spoke with Progress via email about the thematic structuring of the film, his curation of images and how he balanced the responsibility of portraying Black grief and pain. 

Still from TXN. (Matthew Progress)

Tell me about the name TXN. What does it mean? Why did you choose it? 

The title TXN has a layered meaning. It commemorates the years 2010-2020, which some call "the tens." It covers a decade of time, which is 10 years. The X represents the unknown, in the Nation of Islam sense, which is signifying Black folks. X is also the Roman numeral for 10. And although it doesn't make phonetic sense, it's still pronounced "ten," which is a nod to the more recent trend in typography, where vowels are replaced with an X or a number or punctuation mark. So the meaning is a hybrid of all those things.

Why did you choose a video collage as your medium to explore the decade?

I think when remembering long periods of time, we tend to see fragmented, surreal imagery in our minds, which we then piece together through more concentrated thinking or conversation with others. This medium feels reflective of the beautiful messiness of memory, especially collective memory. 

TXN illustrates a multitude of Black communities and generations in the GTA. What did your research process look like? 

After the Nia Centre for the Arts asked me to commemorate the decade with a video piece, I first created a flow of categories and a treatment for the piece. Then the brainstorm process started with myself and a couple Nia staff members jotting down a long list of important moments from the decade. We also polled a number of community members from various industries and regions within the GTA, asking what they felt the biggest moments were. Then I took a massive list and condensed it down into something feasible. It was a very informal process, but luckily I've spent a lot of time in a wide array Black communities throughout the GTA in the past decade, so I had a broad perspective which served me well. 

The video collage has several recurring images that pop up: gold, blood splatter, flames, the galaxy, a diamond. Why these images? 

These are image tags that correspond to each of the five major segments in TXN. Gold represents achievement, fire is for activism, blood signifies death, the galaxy represents global fame and diamond is symbolic of the Raptors championship. I wanted image tags that could introduce each segment and also flash throughout the film as an anchor. And it was important to me that each image be something that is found in the natural world, grounding the film in our organic reality.

Still from TXN. (Matthew Progress)

There are several themes that the film explores, from success stories to resistance movements, violence and grief to global success and collective euphoria. How did you decide on the themes that would anchor the film?

This was the first task I approached creatively. I wanted to build a narrative arc that felt like the cocktail of emotions we experience in real life. Oftentimes commemorative content mutes and sugar coats the potency of reality. I wanted to provide an unfiltered account of what it felt like to be Black in the GTA for the last decade, and to me these themes defined our collective experience. 

There are some particularly painful moments in the film, including a section where the visuals are suspended and we are left only with audio. Black pain is so often used as spectacle by mainstream media. Can you talk about the process of choosing what images to include?

This was challenging for obvious reasons. I cried more than I have in years building this section. To me, the defining trait in the mainstream media depiction of Black pain is dehumanization. The constant bombardment of images of Black death with little to no contextual information really creates a sense of normalcy and complacency among outsiders and within the Black community. 

I used quick flashes of gun violence with the chaotic sounds of Eugene McDaniels at the beginning of this segment to command the viewer's attention. I wanted to then immediately thrust them into extended Blackness, and force them to confront the voices of Black community members suffering loss due to gun violence. This felt intimate and humanizing to me. The images I did include in this section were selected based on my own emotional response and the flow of the segment. I also wanted to end the segment with a small monument to some influential community members we lost during the decade. 

Still from TXN. (Matthew Progress)

A lot of the footage comes from mainstream media but some of it is also from community groups like Stolen From Africa. How did you go about sourcing images of Black folks in Toronto?

I wish I had a more structured answer here. I honestly just spent endless hours digging on YouTube with an active Google search page opened, constantly refining my search terms. I watched a lot of longer pieces of content as well, and coverage of community events, looking for usable tidbits. Everything I used (apart from the original footage I shot of the three central characters and the film clips) was found on YouTube. 

Who did you make this film for? Who do you hope will see it?

Primarily I made it for Black folks from the GTA. I'd love us to see TXN and feel seen. I want Black folks in general from anywhere to see it, as I feel there's a lot of subject matter that is relatable to the global Black experience. Lastly, I'd like non-Black folks to view it, for the simple fact that it is a fulsome depiction of regional Black culture in a time when the mainstream is still overrun with stereotypical and otherwise toxic portrayals of us.

This conversation has been edited and condensed.

TXN. DIGTL: Screening & Talk. Thursday, May 28 at 5 p.m. www.niacentre.org

About the Author

Amanda Parris writes a weekly column for CBC Arts and is the host of Exhibitionists on CBC Television and Marvin's Room on CBC Radio. In her spare time, she writes plays and watches too many movies. In her past lives she wrote arts based curriculum, attended numerous acting auditions, and dreamed of being interviewed by Oprah.

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