SLAM spotlight: Rodney McMillian’s ‘A Migration Tale’

Frieda Curtis | Staff Writer

Rodney McMillian’s “A Migration Tale,” part of the New Media Series at Saint Louis Art Museum, challenges its viewers to reconsider their understanding of racial and class disparities.

In McMillian’s film, a super hero or perhaps time traveler from the future—identifiable by this long black robes and a futuristic robotlike mask—travels from a porch in South Carolina to the streets of Harlem, New York, by way of the United States Capitol building.

 A masked traveler ventures from a South Carolina porch to a the streets of Harlem, New York in Rodney McMillian’s new short film, “A Migration Tale.” The short will be screened at the St. Louis Art Museum through March 19. Courtesy of Rodney McMillian


A masked traveler ventures from a South Carolina porch to a the streets of Harlem, New York in Rodney McMillian’s new short film, “A Migration Tale.” The short will be screened at the St. Louis Art Museum through March 19.

Starting right from the title, the film creates a narrative trajectory that refers directly to the Great Migration. The Great Migration has been the subject of work in many different mediums; in visual art, it has been most notably portrayed through “The Migration Series” by Jacob Lawrence. As viewers and readers of these works, we consume the subject as a finite historical event with start and end dates. McMillian subverts these expectations by blurring the boundaries and making the viewer reconsider this journey in the present tense.

This tension between time and space is pushed even further through the ambiguous origins of the main character. He enters the first shot from the right side offscreen and never says a single word. If he comes from the future, then all temporal possibilities have been combined into this one image, referencing and calling into question all at once a history we presume to be concretely true, the prospects of an unknown future and a present shaped by this intersection.

The film is comprised of eight relatively long shots (on average 1 minute and 15 seconds long), which allows actions to play out in what feels like real time, but the trajectory of his journey over three separate states spans just 10 minutes. As viewers, we can fill in these spatial jumps, but they also stand out as jarring visual discontinuities.

There are a variety of responses to McMillian’s masked main character as he goes on his journey: Some people don’t seem to notice the figure; some cast a quick glance and then look away again unfazed. While riding the subway, one woman notices the figure and then the camera, repeatedly giggling and looking away in embarrassment and curiosity. At one point, the camera is placed at the top of a staircase in the subway, catching the candid reactions of unsuspecting New Yorkers as they appear.

It is important to point out is that McMillian is not offering the viewer an answer or a conclusion. Motivations, origins and realities are left ambiguous to prompt active response from the viewer. Saint Louis Art Museum (SLAM) notes that “the aim is not didactic.” Instead, the film “tells a story that embraces the complexities and paradoxes of contemporary social realities through artistic exploration,” but it also asks the viewer to engage meaningfully with the questions the film raises and ultimately to reexamine the role she plays in society.

Curated by Hannah Klemm, assistant curator of modern and contemporary art, “A Migration Tale” will remain on view through March 19 at SLAM.

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