Dealing with a narrative that pits perhaps two of the most oppressed minorities in history against one another in the face of an inexplicable death and subsequently blaming for its occurrence is a nearly impossible thing to put into visual form, considering that it requires a person to acknowledge the multiple voices and interactions and engagements that surround its most heightened moments, not to mention the seemingly irrelevant moments that, nonetheless, factor heavily into the rhetoric surrounding an event well before its initial inception. All of this is damn near impossible to do with success, and it is certainly only worsened when one attempts to perform all of these identities on their own. However, for a considerable portion of the early nineties, Anna Deavere Smith found herself attacking issues of race riots, specifically looking at a problematic and fiery riot which occurred in Crown Heights in 1991 following death of a young black boy and a later a young Hassidic Jewish man, in what was allegedly retaliation agains the elderly Jewish man who ran the boy over. Of course, while much of the film, although to be more accurate it is a video recording of a one person show Smith had put on, seems intent on considering the odds and angers between Jewish and African-American groups uncomfortably navigating the same condensed and oppressive spaces, it is certainly not the only element of the ideology being spouted and countered throughout the film. Smith constantly moves between race, gender and identity to look at the ways in which political leaders such as Al Sharpton affected the movement, as well as the way in which theories about race and religion undermine the possibility of successfully understanding the misunderstanding that led to unnecessary bloodshed and an equally frustrating riot in a urban subdivision of New York. Fires in the Mirror manages to be about as bias as possible in its consideration of who really suffers loss in such a situation, while making bold and expansive considerations of the way identity changes and molds itself to fit a moment or idea, much as Smith does within the context of the one person show.
The film seems to embrace Judith Butler's notion of performing gender as being just that, a performance. Particularly, Butler seemed to suggest that a person could use and remove certain gendered signifiers to help those they interact with better understand their gender in the moment, although even this is rather fluid and subject to change in the matter of seconds. Smith takes this idea and more than runs with it within Fires in the Mirror, in once scene playing a white statistician, while in another Angela Davis, she even embodies the unconventional role of a Australian Hassidic Jew, all the while creating a narrative of the possible layers to the death of two young people and the dueling riots of two groups who felt they had been victims of an injustice. One could certainly argue that Smith wants to extend Butler's notion of the performative to add elements of race, class, nationality and even more unusual religious identity, reminding viewers that in most instances common ideals win out and rationality emerges, however, when one finds trouble navigating the liminal space between respect and understanding things can truly become complicated and the moments hesitation when commenting on a disruptive topic can prove fatal, it certainly did in the case of Crown Heights circa 1991. Of course if this were entirely dramatization one would be hesitant to embrace its masterful quality. However, Smith does not simply adapt her own play by gleaning from accounts to create an ideal fictional appropriation, instead; she actually embodies the persons she interviewed, going so far as to use their exact words in her play and nothing more. This seems to occur most successfully with the maternal figures, however, her portrayals of elderly Jewish rabbis and reluctant eyewitnesses are equally powerful and no less captivating Finally, if this direct approach is not enough, the viewers is also provided with the repetition of images and film from the riots affirming its reality, even if they are watching a beautifully executed simulacrum of the original events. In the films closing shot, prior to a montage of images, one cannot help but understand that at the root of all the political rage and racial hatred, very real loss occurred and to not give that a voice, even through a simple shot at close would be to do a terrible injustice.
This is a gripping and masterful work and I am ashamed to have gone this long without seeing it, and cannot urge you enough to watch it immediately, to do so, or to find out more information about Anna Deavere Smith, click on either of the images below: