Interview: Mike Henderson
This article appeared in the January 19, 2023 edition of The Film Comment Letter, our free weekly newsletter featuring original film criticism and writing. Sign up for the Letter here.
Pitchfork and the Devil (Mike Henderson, 1979)
I was first introduced to the work of Mike Henderson sometime in 2015. His brilliant film Down Hear (1972) was playing in a touring program of experimental shorts called “Black Radical Imagination,” organized by curator Erin Christovale and filmmaker/programmer Amir George. Down Hear is an early example of Henderson’s “talkin’ blues” style, which usually features the artist singing, playing guitar, and providing commentary on the soundtrack. Henderson also appears on screen as a performer in the film. Set in the cramped kitchen of a small apartment, Down Hear depicts a condensed history of Africans in America, from the Middle Passage to the early ’70s. At the time, it was the earliest example of an experimental film made by an African-American artist that I had seen. As an African-American experimental filmmaker myself, I was overjoyed to discover a cultural connection within a mode of practice that I had grown to love.
Henderson has been active as an artist in various mediums for more than 50 years. After early success as a painter—his paintings were exhibited at New York City’s Whitney Museum in 1969 and 1971—he decided to try his hand at filmmaking. Between 1970 and 1985, he completed more than 20 films, with themes ranging from the legacy of slavery in the United States to the anguish that artists suffer in order to actualize a new work. Henderson currently resides in the San Francisco Bay Area, where he still spends much of his time painting and playing guitar. Over the years, as I have had the fortune of watching many of Henderson’s films, I have learned a great deal from them: how to better engage one’s community with a camera, how to let circumstance and the natural flow of events make their marks on the final work, and most importantly, how to trust one’s intuition.
Tonight, the Academy Museum of Motion Pictures will present a program of Henderson’s groundbreaking shorts, titled “Mike Henderson: The Blues and the Abstract Truth.” I sat down with Henderson over Zoom a few days ago, on January 16th—MLK Day—for a wide-ranging conversation that spanned his experiences growing up in Marshall, Missouri; his encounter with musician Rahsaan Roland Kirk on the streets of San Francisco; his memories of making some of the films that will screen at the Academy Museum; and more.
You were born in Marshall, Missouri in 1943, is that correct? So you’re coming up on your 80th birthday.
Yes. You can waste your money, but you can’t waste your time.
What was it like growing up in Marshall at the time?
Awful. It was a small town: maybe 10,000 people, a couple of hundred Black people. We were poor—we didn’t have running water, heat, plumbing, or any of that stuff until I was in the seventh grade. I was into music and art, which never made sense to anybody around there. I was pretty much a loner until I met guys who made music or whose parents made art. The San Francisco Art Institute was the only one that wasn’t segregated back then, so I came out here.
The first time I came out here, everything fell apart for me. I went back to Marshall with my tail between my legs. I thought: “you failed, you weren’t shit.” I knew what I needed to do: I needed money. I asked for a job at the local hotel, and finished high school. Then I came back out here to find out who I was. There was this family I met, and they took me to the Black Panther rallies. For the first time I was seeing African Americans in a different light. I was getting a feeling of what the Harlem Renaissance was like, when people were trying to speak about dignity and unity and becoming more than what people thought of you. I finally got into SFAI in 1966. Rent was 30 bucks a month. I also played in a band.
I had seen experimental films around the school, by people like Bruce Nauman. I hadn’t seen any of Bob Nelson’s films yet, because I didn’t really like watching films. You said “films,” and I thought they were “movies,” you know? Then I got a summer scholarship to go to Skowhegan [artists’ residency in Maine] for painting. I met people there who went to Yale and the Ivy League schools. There was this one girl who showed a film—Christina Schlesinger was her name. Her father [Arthur] wrote speeches for [President] Kennedy. In her film, there was an African-American woman, Christina’s family cook, and that was the first time I’d seen a Black person on screen who wasn’t playing some sort of stupid role. That got stuck in my head. Christina and I ended up doing a fresco together there. It was political—it was about Dr. King, the assassination of Kennedy, the Vietnam War, and poverty.
But this was before Dr. King was assassinated. When I got back to San Francisco, and he was killed, I went down to the rally at the Civic Center to see the speeches. On my way back, I kept thinking about how I wanted the figures in my paintings to move. Later, I was hanging around the lobby at the school, looking for the sculptor Robert Hudson, and the first person I stopped, who I thought was Hudson, turned out to be Bob Nelson. He said he taught film, and I said, “Hey, I want to make a film!” He said, “Do you have a camera?” At that moment, a woman comes up to Bob and says,“Do you know anyone who wants to buy a 16mm camera?” It was 200 bucks. I had some money to buy it, but I didn’t know how to use it, so Bob says, “Well, go get a roll of film.” The next day, when I came back, he showed me how to load the camera.
I shot some film, and I liked what I saw—it was just tables and chairs, playing with lighting and trying out the zoom and all that. So I told Nelson, “I’m gonna make a film of the Last Supper.” He said I could come to him if I needed any help. The first time I shot it, I got all the people together, and I didn’t put the loop in the film right, so it was all fluttery. When Nelson took me down to look at the stuff, I met another friend of his named William Wiley, the filmmaker. But I didn’t take any film classes until later. I just liked making films, no pressure. I still don’t like looking at films necessarily. I like making them, but I don’t like seeing them!
First thing Nelson said was, “We can salvage this!” But I said, “No, man. I’m going to do it all over again and shoot it in color.” I asked everyone to do it again. The next thing was, what do I do with the sound? Nelson told me that if you didn’t shoot sync sound, you can get people to read parts. So I tried to get people to come back to read parts. But after a month of me trying, Bob offered to come in and help. While I was waiting for him and the others to show up, I had the projectionist, Roy, run the film back. He starts it, and I pick up the guitar—I always have a guitar with me—and start playing. When it finished, Bob walked in. Then Roy said I didn’t need anyone else. While I had been playing and talking, he’d recorded the sound, and he said that that should be the soundtrack. So Nelson says, “Play it back, Roy.” After the lights came on, he says, “That’s it! It’s the first talkin’ blues film!”
But painting is my voice; film was just something I did. Music was always very close to me, too.
When did you start playing guitar?
The worst thing I did was tell my father I wanted to play guitar. [Laughs] There was a Black Holiness church down the hill. There was a woman named Anne who lived near us. She played guitar—I don’t know if I could say played; she banged on it. [Laughs] I would peek in the church and watch her play with her guitar and amplifier. She’d fall asleep and then jerk up and play again. She was the first person I saw playing guitar.
Later, Ike and Tina Turner came to Marshall—goose pimples. I was like, man, this is it. They were slick. It wasn’t Motown they played, it was closer to blues. I had a Lightnin’ Hopkins record and a John Lee Hooker record, and that’s what I wanted to be. It took me a long time to hear B.B. King, because he was almost jazz to me. I liked that Delta sound, that country sound. Some people called it slave music, but I didn’t see it like that. To me, it was just music that told a story about the times, what was going on, how people felt, and it was real accessible.
Anyway, I bought a guitar, and eventually we got a band together, and my brother was the lead singer. That’s how I learned the guitar, by watching people.
When I think about my own trajectory as an artist, I distinctly remember when I first encountered your films. When I was in grad school and I’d just discovered experimental film, I started going deeper into that rabbit hole of the ’50s, ’60s, and ’70s avant-garde, and all these guys—R.I.P. Michael Snow—who were all very much about Black music and improvisation. But where were the Black filmmakers? When I finally saw Down Hear a few years after grad school, it blew me away. It was the missing link of experimental Black film that I’d been looking for. The space you carved out was singular, as far as I know. Were there other Black people you encountered that were making experimental work?
I didn’t give a damn about what everyone else was doing. It was about me trying to find who Mike Henderson was. How many Black people were going to school back then? I never thought about any of that stuff. I was finding my own way. I was thrown out of every Black film festival. I didn’t fit in. I did what I wanted to do and the rest was noise.
You know, I was in Peter Hutton’s first film, because he was in mine.
I know that film, the one with the fried chicken! That’s amazing. That’s you in In Marin County (1970)?
Uh-huh. That’s the way it was when you wanted somebody to be in your film. I think he was going to buy me lunch and I did it for that, and for a chance to go to Marin, because I’d never been there. You get me in a car and I’m ready to go! And Peter’s in The Last Supper .
Oh, Peter’s in The Last Supper?
Yeah, and then he asked me to be in his picture. He was doing precision sculpture. Then all of a sudden he really took to filmmaking. George Kuchar was the other person whose films I saw back in those days. And Bruce Conner. I didn’t understand George’s films, but I always told him that the one where he’s in the shower talking to his mother [Hold Me While I’m Naked (1966)] was an influence on my film with the violin [The Shape of Things (1981)]—just that one film, though, because I never understood his other films. [Laughs]
At SFAI, when classes were over, I’d go to the Avalon Ballroom or the Fillmore to see music. One night, I saw Cream, the English guys who played blues, and Rahsaan Roland Kirk appeared as a guest. The next day, I was walking to school at six in the morning, and I’m crossing Market Street to catch the cable car, and I hear the saxophone. I say, “Damn, that’s Roland Kirk. What are you doing out here?” And he said, “Playing to the sounds of the city, brother.” I was never the same again. That’s how real his music is. This is what a true artist is. This is Van Gogh, Picasso, Matisse with a brush tied to his hand. It just stuck with me in the gut, in the soul. I felt like I found another gear, something that gave me inspiration to do more of what I wanted to do.
You’ve been very determined about your path for a long time, and on that path you’ve had a lot of success. How does it feel to be considered a pioneer, to have your pictures preserved by the Academy Museum?
I feel very blessed. That’s all. To me, art comes out from under the ground and through me. It doesn’t come from my head. I’m not an intellectual. My work comes from surrender, I know what I want to do even if it doesn’t make any sense, and I do it. Like the time I stood in front of a painting and thought: “I want my paintings to move.” Some people at Harvard asked me, “Where is filmmaking going?” and I said, “I have no idea. They do what they wanna do, and that’s what I wanna see done. If it’s Hollywood and it’s entertaining, that’s good, too.”
I’ve seen Spike Lee’s movies, you know. I didn’t watch them because he was Black, I watched them because I’d heard about him and heard some of the things he’d said, and I wanted to see what he did. I think the first one I saw was…
Do the Right Thing (1989)?
That one, yeah. And the next one I saw was Mo’ Better Blues , because of the title. My favorite is Crooklyn . But overall, they were too long, I would have made them 15 minutes.
I’d love to see that version, a film called Marshall about your childhood. [Laughs] Coming up as a kid in the ’80s and ’90s, I think I’m of a generation that was forced to think of success in very capitalist terms. To be as “successful” as Spike Lee was the implicit goal. This whole idea of keeping your head down and doing the work because it’s fulfilling and makes you feel free, that’s gotten lost in the shuffle. When I think of your legacy, I think of someone who found freedom for themselves. The way you put the blues and your paintings into it, you’ve made it this very personal thing, an antidote to the negativity that’s infiltrated the art world and people’s perception of it. I think what you do is a medicine, and I just want to thank you.
Well, thank you. I appreciate that you see the works that way. Personally, the Black community is in here [within me], not out there. If there’s something in being a person of color, then it’s already in me—I don’t need camaraderie to find it. I’m a mixture of all the things and people I’ve encountered. I want to take in the whole world as much as I can. But I also know I only have so much time, and taking it in doesn’t mean anything if I don’t do something with it. Otherwise, we’re just perpetuating the perpetual motion of something. You wanna break that pattern.
Ephraim Asili is an award-winning African-American artist/filmmaker/DJ. He is also an associate professor and director of the film and electronic arts program at Bard College.