By painting a black Odyssey, Romare Bearden connected the desire of African American people to return home with Homer’s epic. In Bearden’s art, the Odyssey is linked to the Freedom Riders, the Underground Railroad, Marcus Garvey's steamship line, and Rosa Parks on a Mobile bus. Regardless of whether or not they knew Bearden, filmmakers have also united Homer and American blacks. In John Sayles’ The Brother from Another Planet (1984), an alien played by the African American actor Joe Morton lands in Harlem and spends the rest of the film trying to return to his home planet. Joel and Ethan Coen’s O Brother, Where Art Thou? (2000), directly based on the Odyssey, has key black characters, one of whom resembles Homer himself. There are also Homeric references in the Coen’s Inside Llewyn Davis (2013), including a black cat named Ulysses. To ground a black Odyssey within larger cinematic traditions, we will also watch scenes from Godard’s Le mépris (Contempt) (1963), in which a director seeks to make a film of the Odyssey, Joseph Strick’s Ulysses (1967), based on James Joyce’s novel, and of course, 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968).
Krin Gabbard is Professor Emeritus of Comparative Literature and Cultural Studies at Stony Brook University. Since 1971, he has taught courses in cinema studies, the cultures of jazz, and the history of literature. He is the author of Hotter than That: The Trumpet, Jazz, and American Culture (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2009), Black Magic: White Hollywood and African American Culture (Rutgers U Press, 2004), Jammin' at the Margins: Jazz and the American Cinema (U of Chicago Press, 1996) and Psychiatry and the Cinema (2nd ed., 1999). He is currently writing an interpretive biography of jazz artist Charles Mingus.
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