An identity is questioned only when it is menaced, as when the mighty begin to fall, or when the wretched begin to rise, or when the stranger enters the gates, never, thereafter, to be a stranger. . . . Identity would seem to be the garment with which one covers the nakedness of the self; in which case, it is best that the garment be loose, a little like the robes of the desert, through which robes one’s nakedness can always be felt, and, sometimes, discerned.
—James Baldwin, The Devil Finds Work
“MY NAME IS JASON HOLLIDAY.” A brief pause. “My name is Jason Holliday.” A laugh. “My name is Aaron Payne.”
So begins Shirley Clarke’s Portrait of Jason (1967), an extended interview—shaved down from an incredible twelve hours of raw footage—with its eponymous subject: a gay African American man and brilliant raconteur. Recently restored by Milestone Films, the new 35-mm print premiered earlier this year at the Sixty-Third Berlin International Film Festival and has received glowing notices in conjunction with its subsequent theatrical runs. Clarke was a stalwart figure of underground film and the only woman among the founding members of the New American Cinema Group, which included Emile de Antonio, Gregory Markopoulos, and Jonas Mekas, among others. With Bridges-Go-Round (1958), she made a city symphony set in its initial version to the sounds of pioneering electronic composers Louis and Bebe Barron, while her feature The Cool World (1963), about the street life of Harlem teens, helped advance a realist idiom that remains one of the hallmarks of American independent cinema. Yet Portrait of Jason is a unique entry in her filmography.