Francisco Robles

Francisco E. Robles is a PhD candidate in Princeton University’s English Department. His dissertation delves into the democratic methodologies, radical representational tactics, and musical styles of Odetta, Lydia Mendoza, and Woody Guthrie, exploring how they enable readers to rehear(se) political praxis in works by Zora Neale Hurston, John Steinbeck, Sandra Cisneros, and Toni Morrison.



"'This bitter earth may not be so bitter after all': Political Promise and Sonic Geography in Killer of Sheep and We Insist! Max Roach's Freedom Now Suite"

As Abbey Lincoln unfurls her astounding energy on Max Roach’s Freedom Now Suite, she sounds out deep grooves of political expression etched by diasporic experience and memory. Charles Burnett’s Los Angeles film, Killer of Sheep, (re)plays these same grooves on city streets, but only if we reconsider the film sonically, taking an approach grounded in the utopian—yet politically attendant and praxis heavy—tendencies of black avant-garde musical production, represented in this paper by Roach’s Freedom Now Suite. Rehistoricizing Killer of Sheep by placing it in a trajectory of black avant-gardeperformances of the street shows that the film doesn’t use music simply to extend the viewer’s affective response or shape a viewer’s narrative expectations; its music is so much more than a photoplay or a film score. Killer of Sheep makes us listeners, not just viewers, emphasizing and liberating rather than subordinating its aural dimensions. In my reading, the film becomes an innovative “audiovisual suite,” shifting from a visual economy to a sonically founded narrative structure.

By looking at the ways that Killer of Sheep (re)forms and (re)prioritizes music’s filmic presence, especially when read alongside Roach’s “Triptych” from Freedom Now Suite, we encounter an inventive methodology of hearing, seeing, and feeling that generates unique modes of exploring the varieties of black experience. Novel diasporic maps emerge in South Central through the film’s audiotopic exploration of the everyday self’s relationship to community as a historical, political-economical, and spatial category beyond the street. Killer of Sheep sounds out South Central’s sonic geography and articulates the neighborhood’s dreams and hopes as interactions with a diasporic consciousness, as both are made contrapuntally present through the film’s suite structure.