Keisha Rae Witherspoon's "T" Is a Way Through Collective Pain
The short film is now streaming through the Criterion Channel's Afrofuturism series.
A scene from T, hoto Jason Fitzroy Jeffers
I don’t remember too much about the last funeral I went to. It was my grandfather’s, in 2018. We were not particularly close—it happens when you’re one of thirty-something grandchildren—and the death was not entirely unexpected. I know it happened in a small chapel at the Montgomery, Alabama church and school complex where my father’s side of the family had met every year for Thanksgivings and reunions (a consequence of the thirty-something grandchildren and the space that requires). I only remember a moment in the ceremony where I let out a few large, gross sobs that almost felt like an interruption amongst the solemnity elsewhere in the pews. I’m assuming that it was a somber affair with a ceremony befitting the staunch Catholic he was, and that there was a large Southern lunch catered by the ladies of the Church, who likely came equipped with condolences and casseroles in tow. I wish I hadn’t blocked that day out of my memory, but I can’t change that.
Sometimes I think about how my relationship with my grandfather and his memory would be different now had the funeral—and my recollections of it—been different; would I have been more present had we celebrated his life and the family he made rather than defaulted to the typical hushed sadness and platitudes? I have been thinking about this a lot after watching Keisha Rae Witherspoon’s debut short film T (now streaming on the Criterion Channel’s new Afrofuturism series) which directly grapples with the ways communities remember their dead through ritual. In a year like this of incalculable loss, Witherspoon’s T has been a guide in examining how grief enraptures communities and haunts those that avoid it.
T follows three people in the days leading up to the “T Ball,” a fictional gathering in a predominantly Afro-Caribbean neighborhood in Miami where mourners make and show off T-shirts and costumes that commemorate their deceased loved ones. Through Witherspoon’s pseudo-documentary, we meet three participants—a grieving mother, a teen reckoning with the loss of his twin sister, and a man on the outskirts of town reluctant to memorialize his family member—in the days leading up to the event as they craft their costumes. We see them as they reckon with their memories of the deceased and their myriad coping methods, from keeping the remnants of their rooms intact to "avoiding the filmmakers” in a futile attempt to postpone the inevitable mourning and acceptance that the T Ball brings. At the ball, captured in vivid detail by Witherspoon, participants dance and pose in their elaborate costumes before the scene dissolves into an elegiac collage of space, time, and movement—a moment that positions mourning as universal and vital to our collective and individual being.
Shot in a hazy cinema-verité style, the T Ball itself is a marvel: families and friend groups parade around and dance in technicolor costumes, including a robot suit illuminated with red and blue lights to commemorate the wearer’s twin sister. Even as the mood is decidedly celebratory, the solemn reason for the gathering remains palpable. Witherspoon’s camera catches the moments of grief in between the ebullience, characterized in a quick shot of a mourner’s face or the lingering drag of a cigarette. The emcee offers a prayer to the mourners:
“We’re here to honor our dead. We’re here to mourn. We’re here to scream, to cry, to dance, to celebrate. As always, we set forth in prayer that this year will be our last year’s T Ball…”
The T Ball is a place where mourning in all of its messiness is encouraged, and Witherspoon captures the stages of mourning with such a caring and reparative gaze. We see the cycles of rage and sadness in death, but we also see its natural conclusion: the joy and peace that can come from remembering our loved ones as anything other than dead. It’s something that so many of us—myself included—lose in our quiet funerals and stifled, respectable grief.
Keisha Rae Witherspoon’s T is a moving experience, one that is able to guide and examine our own responses to grief. We have all felt grief and rage as we try and fail and try again to process the fact that someone we love isn’t with us anymore. With T, Witherspoon offers us a way through our collective pain.