“I am not making films for people to see. My films are finding out who I am and addressing the great questions.” – Mike Henderson
Due to a slate of recent preservations by Mark Toscano of the Academy Film Archive, the films of Mike Henderson (b. 1944) have finally come to light. Formally trained as a painter and blues guitarist, Henderson expanded his creative expression in the 1960s to filmmaking. Radical, innovative, political and often comical, Henderson’s 16mm short works are an eccentric outgrowth of his music and painting backgrounds. Initially manifesting from a desire to animate the figures in his paintings—which he thought would give his artwork greater depth—Henderson’s powerful, candid work ranges from audiovisual compositional experiments, to musings on creativity, to John Lee Hooker-style spoken blues performances about the Black experience and Black identity. As the late filmmaker Robert Nelson has noted, "Henderson’s movies are the first movies in the world to bring the authentic 'talkin blues' tradition into film.” Henderson’s films typically address a variety of political and social issues, many times with wry humor, along with performative and introspective elements.
Born in Marshall, Missouri, Mike Henderson headed to California after high school to attend the San Francisco Art Institute, the first and only racially integrated art school in the United States in the 60s. It was here that he fortuitously met teacher and filmmaker Robert Nelson, who would teach Henderson how to shoot and edit 16mm film. Film archivist Mark Toscano, who is responsible for preserving all of Henderson’s films to date, explains, “He learned the bare minimum he needed to know to actually make films, and then he proceeded to create a singular body of independent film work that intertwines complexly with his painting and music, having perhaps more in common with those two disciplines than other films.”
A heated time to be an artist in San Francisco, the 1960s politically activated Henderson—he was profoundly affected by the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr.—and exposed him to a wide spectrum of artists, musicians and filmmakers. Mike Henderson would eventually join the faculty at University of California-Davis as a professor of art, teaching painting, drawing and filmmaking until his retirement in 2012.
The Harvard Film Archive is honored to welcome Mike Henderson in person to present his films. He will also introduce a program of his close friend Robert Nelson’s work the following evening. Highlights include Henderson’s first film, The Last Supper, in which a blasphemous romp and orgy break out, while Dufus is a comedic and radical look at black stereotypes acted out by Mike Henderson in a variety of amazing performances. Concluding the program is the masterful Down Hear, a powerful meditation on slavery and oppression set in a kitchen and featuring a slave- trading reenactment by Mike Henderson in white face, along with his brother Raymond, all paced by a slow and haunting blues track played by Mike. – Jeremy Rossen
Special Thanks: Mark Toscano—the Academy Film Archive; the Cinema Project; Eric Isaacson—Mississippi Records; Mark McElhatten.
16mm prints courtesy of the Academy Film Archive. Dufus and Down Hear restored by the Academy Film Archive.
All films directed by Mike Henderson.
US 1970/73, 16mm, b/w, 6 min
US 1970/73, 16mm, color, 8 min
US 1982, 16mm, b/w, 4 min
US 1984, 16mm, b/w, 4 min
US 1981, 16mm, b/w & color, 8 min
US 1979, 16mm, b/w & color, 15 min
US 1983, 16mm, b/w & color, 7.5 min
US 1979, 16mm, b/w & color, 15 min
US 1983, 16mm, b/w, 3.5 min
US 1983, 16mm, color, 3 min
US 1970, 16mm, b/w, 2 min
US 1972, 16mm, b/w, 12 min