By Matt Whitman
The New York Character at Jefferson Market Library is an ongoing series of screenings and panel discussions that explore films culled from The New York Public Library’s unparalleled 16mm film collection and archive held at The Library for the Performing Arts at Lincoln Center.
The first such program began last year and used this valuable archive as a means of investigating the ways in which the “character” of New York and its very own characters have been (and continue to be) constructed and reinterpreted via the medium of film: the accents, the attitude, the dialectic of the inevitability of a neighborhood’s and a city’s changes as well as a resistance against them. Subsequent programs and panels brought us specifically to films located within the area surrounding 42nd Street and those who, in the 1970s and 1980s, witnessed the beginnings of the drastic changes that would occur there. These are just a few of the ways that the New York character has been explored.
For every New York Character program, invited experts engage in a panel discussion and conversation with the audience, collectively unpacking the exhibited films and providing context for an informed discussion of their wider meaning. Panelists have included city historians, linguists, documentary filmmakers, artists, writers, and university faculty.
In December’s program, we will look specifically at one New York character: the late renowned jazz artist and composer Charles Mingus, through Thomas Reichman’s 1968 film Mingus: Charlie Mingus 1968.
The film sees Mingus through a tumultuous period in his own life—facing a city-enforced eviction from his studio home while separated from his wife and raising a five-year-old daughter. But Mingus’ personal turmoil is only mirrored and indeed highlighted by the turbulence facing the City and the country as a whole. A truly larger than life personality, Mingus offers his interpretations of what it means to be a person of color, an artist, a father, a lover, a New Yorker, and an American and how he has tried, and continues to try, to make sense of his agency both inside and outside of these structures.
While the film dates back to 1968 and was followed by Mingus’ death only eleven years after it’s release, it remains now, more than ever, an important and compelling portrait of the simultaneously powerful and fragile role of the artist within the moments and spaces of political uncertainty, as well as the continued struggle against social injustice. We invite you, during an especially important time in our local and national histories, to join us at Jefferson Market Library on December 15th, as we partake in the rediscovery of this film and it’s renewed significance.
Matt Whitman is an American film and video artist based in Brooklyn, NY. He is currently a part-time faculty member at Parsons The New School for Design. Whitman holds an MFA in Fine Arts and an MA in Media Studies.