By Anya Shukla
The two minute and 29-second video starts in the dark. “Other people don’t have to remember to forget,” the voiceover half-whispers in Spanish. Noses and ears bloom in and out of sight as the camera, focusing and unfocusing like a dilated eye, circles several people. The speaker continues: “Check their pockets for everything they need to bring out: money, keys, ID, and a strategy to present themselves.” The video’s subjects stay stock-still, the lack of light and strange camerawork obscuring their faces. They stand like statues: static, with unnerving immobility. “The movie started without me, and around me.”
An elegant, multifaceted piece, Rodrigo Valenzuela’s Tertiary explores the role of people of color in cinema and television, art forms where racial minorities are often underrepresented. For example, according to a study by UCLA, only 18.7% of broadcast scripted leads went to people of color, while racial minorities make up 38.7% of the American population. Tertiary delves into the sociological and psychological impacts of this relegation of racial minorities to the background.
Watching this piece as a middling Spanish speaker (I speak Spanish but am nowhere near fluent), my eyes often dropped to the subtitles rather than the main video. I’m sure other English speakers would do the same: inadvertently further ignoring the people of color on the screen and distancing oneself from those featured in this piece.
The video begins in darkness, but it doesn’t end there: at around the one-minute mark, lights flicker on, and we see the piece’s subjects in stark relief: they are a diverse group, both in terms of clothing—one wears a gray dress shirt, another a red summer dress—and skin color. Yet all still stand motionless; the camera circles them as if they were prey. Even with the addition of bright lighting, the image onscreen still blurs, preventing me from fully focusing on any one person for more than a second. It’s almost as if it's literally impossible to film people of color.
The camera continues to move around the group as the voiceover narrates: “Some can make things happen, and things happen to me.” This sentiment, unfortunately, accurately describes racial minorities’ lack of agency in film and television. Rather than be featured in a leading role, many are written to passively populate the background.
In Tertiary, Valenzuela comments on this passivity through his subjects’ motionlessness. The people of color featured in this video are stuck in place; they are not portrayed as authentic human beings, complete with voices and gestures and movements. They exist solely as objects.
“There is no moment when my presence becomes habitual,” the speaker adds. The addition of racial minorities in film, TV, and cinema is not instinctive: several blockbuster movies have faced PR issues when roles meant for people of color instead are filled by white actors, and five years of #OscarsSoWhite shows that racial minorities are still not accepted in mainstream media.
But the video’s subjects maintain an unreleased energy. They do not just stand acceptingly; they wait. And at the end of the video, the pace begins to speed up. We circle a man who stares directly at us, his eyes following the camera as it moves around his body. Unconscious, habitual gestures crop up: a woman scratches her nose; another moves the hair out of their face. People of color begin to actively take up space.
The voiceover grows increasingly urgent as it discusses a common question received by people of color: Where do you come from? We circle around the man again. He follows the camera with his eyes.
It took me until the seventh or eighth viewing to realize this is actually the same shot as before, just filmed a few steps closer to its subject. Nothing has actually changed. People of color still don’t have as much representation as they deserve; tragically, they are still viewed as objects.
And then the video abruptly fades to black, and the speaker is cut off.