“Sugarcoated Arsenic” Doesn’t Sugarcoat its Material

Students, faculty, and staff gathered in Science Center room 101 for a screening of “Sugarcoated Arsenic,” a film by University of Virginia Associate Professor of African American and African Studies and History Claudrena Harold, and U.Va Professor of Art Kevin Jerome Everson, on Feb. 6.
The title, “Sugarcoated Arsenic,” is a term used by Vivian Gordon, the director of the University of Virginia’s Black Studies program between 1975 and 1980 and the university’s first African American woman to earn a Ph.D. in Sociology. “Sugarcoated Arsenic” comes from her 1984 speech at an Office of African American Affairs event, in which she describes new forms of racism that are “just as easy to swallow, but kills you just as dead.” The short film explores the intellectual, social, and political lives of African Americans at the University of Virginia during the 1970s. Written by Professor Harold, and directed by Professor Everson, the film’s cinematography attempts to encapsulate the 1970s.
To help encapsulate that time period, they used James Baldwin and Dick Gregory’s 1968 documentary, “Baldwin’s N*gger”, which discusses civil rights and the black experience in the United States, the Caribbean, and Great Britain, as inspiration for the first part of the movie. Numerous archival photographs of African American students at the University of Virginia during the 1970s were used to guide the film’s production and footage. The filming was also done on 1970s 16mm film stock and in black and white to get the film to appear as though it were shot in the 1970s. Costumes were brought in to create wardrobe that matches the style of the time period at the University of Virginia.
The short film stars Erin Stewart as Gordon. Stewart previously worked with Everson on his short film “Cinnamon.”  In “Sugarcoated Arsenic,” Ms. Gordon recites the 1984 speech. The speech then transitions to the University of Virginia’s African American students playing table football, to which Harold spoke about how some films about African Americans do not show them doing normal activities. When asked about the film, Harold said,
“[The film] is a period piece inspired by the work of Horace Ove and Ken Jacobs. It tells the story of African American women and men who through their public and private gestures sought to create a beloved community that thrived on intellectual exchange, self-critique, and human warmth.”
The film has played in film festivals from San Francisco to Belgium, and now here at Swarthmore. One of the people who helped bring “Sugarcoated Arsenic” to Swarthmore College was Dion W. Lewis, Dean of the Junior Class and Director of the Black Cultural Center here at Swarthmore College as part of the Black History Month 2017 schedule of events. Lewis had previously been an Assistant Dean of Students and Director of the Luther P. Jackson Black Cultural Center at the University of Virginia during the time of the film’s production. Lewis was a colleague of Harold and they often collaborated and co-advised student groups at the University of Virginia. In fact, the speech used for the first part of the film was found in the archives of his office at the University of Virginia
When asked why he believed the film should be shown at Swarthmore, Lewis said,
“Student activism is very much on my mind as we move towards the 50th Anniversary of the Black Cultural Center. I thought it was appropriate timing to bring Prof Harold and this film to Swarthmore College as I want the community, particularly our students,  to contextualize and remember how institutions such as the BCC originated.”
Also in attendance at the film screening were members of the Swarthmore African American Student Society. Among the students, was Chinyere Odim ’17, Co-President of the SASS and one of the people who advertised the event to the group. She was interested in looking at the lives of African American students at U.Va in the 1970s. When asked about her opinion of the movie, Odim said,
“The film did a great job of incorporating artistry and poetry into a story that is often disjointed from creativity. I enjoyed seeing just a bit of black student life at UVA in the 70’s, and being able to make comparisons between that and what current black students are experiencing today on Swarthmore’s campus.”
This screening was one of many events encapsulated in the theme Black History: Our Restorative Justice, and commemorating Black History Month here at Swarthmore. This will also include various screenings, lectures, panel discussions, and events that are all sponsored by various departments and programs at Swarthmore.

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