THE RING OF FIRE
A FILM BY RAMAJ JAMAR
REVIEW BY MICHAEL ALLEN HARRIS
A Black Queer Person’s Journey to Awake From a Nightmare (Codenamed: Brutality)
I met Ramaj Jamar during my graduate studies at Tisch. If my recollection is correct it was during a Collaboration class where student designers, actors, and guest directors came together to workshop new works by student dramatic writers.
During the first round of presentations, one didn’t quite know what to expect from anyone. And then, Ramaj, a soft-spoken Black costume designer with an eccentric outfit stood up to present. I remember the anticipation I felt. The excitement of linked Black Solidarity that screams: Come on boo, f*ck it all the way up!
From the first rendering I knew Ramaj was a force to be reckoned with, an Afrofuturist whose work is unapologetically Black and queer. So I knew from jump that their short film The Ring of Fire was going to be a dive into a vision that disobeys Western conventions.
The Ring of Fire is an eight-minute film that utilizes music, dance, and elements of Yoruba to showcase the nightmare that is being Black in America. However, it is not an exhibition of traumatic images. It is a black individual’s psyche on display, haunted by agents of death: racism and COVID 19.
The film begins with a black individual (Ramaj) sitting alone on a grassy plain under a full moon. As they look to their phone, the madness begins. We do not see what they see, but Ramaj’s reaction and distorted strobe effects let us know it’s traumatizing. Another Black person killed by a police officer? Another Black Trans Woman murdered? Both? The scene is shot in black and white, galvanizing an old school horror film aesthetic. And true to form, here comes a looming specter, reaching out their hand to Ramaj who can sense their presence but afraid to look back. When they do, they are face to face with a Figure wearing a skeleton COVID style mask, a wide brimmed hat (think Beyoncé’s Formation), and a cloak.
To the Western eye, this Figure invokes the Grim Reaper. Or are they Papa Legba, the Haitian spirit who is the intermediary between this world and the next? Either way, Ramaj is at the crossroads of life and death and chooses to survive and so they run.
Running, running, running, a black person running down the street at night. Being chased by the Figure who we see from Ramaj’s view is now a car. Ramaj runs past a bag of skittles and an Arizona Iced Tea… we all know what this means.
The entire chase, all that one can do is pray silently: Please make it home, please don’t let me hear a gunshot. And when another person enters the frame there is a quick jolt that runs through your spine. You think they are a police officer, but it’s a black man, and Ramaj is now joined by a group of black people running. Have they too met the Figure at the crossroads and chose survival?
And then a booming voice screams: Why are you running away from me, I’m just a child. Not with that Candyman voice you not! But when Ramaj turns around the Figure is now a child. A beautiful black child wearing sunglasses, red garb, and a straw hat. Turns out the Figure was actually Elegua, an Orisha of paths in Yoruba religion, who is sometimes depicted as a child. Ramaj kisses the child deity’s forehead and we segway to Ramaj mesmerizing us with a dance. This portion gives the viewer a sense of protection and the allowance to breathe. As if to say, the Orishas have our backs. It feels oddly cathartic.
And then, we are in the next act of the film. Ramaj uses theatrical elements (elaborate costume, set design, and clever special effects) to give us a tour of his depictions as Yoruba Orishas. Que Erykah Badu’s “Didn’t Cha Know” and fog, Ramaj turns a trampoline into a performance space. The first Orisha they embody is Eshu, and here they guide us through a dance ritual that feels meditative. The sound of thunder transitions us to our next Orisha, Shango, who is associated with thunder & lightning. Unlike our visit with Eshu (whom Ramaj depicts), here we see Ramaj depict the thunder God and the protagonist. Shango thrashes, lights flash, white confetti falls (rain? tears?), and the protagonist convulses to the point of passing out. It is a moment that is filled with rage: an emotion that many Black people are sitting with, have sat with, and suppress. Ramaj suggests that this rage is so powerful that if unleashed it will cause a storm. And after, you fall into a deep sleep.
EARLIE HUDNALL, JR
And what happens after a storm? Often, you’ll see a rainbow. Ramaj executes this by dawning an ethereal rainbow garb that represents Oshunmare. They plant a sensual kiss on a Black male. It is too easy to look at this moment and go “rainbow…queer, of course”. More often than not, Black queer persons do not feel safe in spaces where the rainbow flag flies because…white people. As a Black gay man, this moment really stuck out to me. I felt as if I could say “I’m home. I’m safe. I don’t have to explain. I’m not a fetish.” under this rainbow.
I never wanted this segment to end, but alas it was momentary. As red confetti falls and Tupac’s “Hail Mary” plays, Ramaj and his love (played by La’ Rodney Freeman) dance and thrash their way around as we are intercut by images from previous scenes. In my (just my) interpretation, Ramaj is communicating the difficulties of navigating Black queer love/relationships. That often, the madness that causes friction is caused by forces outside the personal space. I got this most as the camera pans out and we see two individuals throwing the red confetti upon Ramaj and Freeman.
Our journey semi ends with a quote: “Which is the true nightmare, the horrific dream that you have in your sleep or the dissatisfied reality that awaits you when you wake?” We end-end on Ramaj awakening out of their sleep, drenched in sweat, and gasping for breath. They nearly break as the credits intercut. The title emerges and we are left with the shouts of “I can’t breathe”, repeated over and over again.
And now, what are we left with? How do we feel? I personally took a deep breath. Reminded myself to sage and made a note to finally begin my research on Yoruba. I felt less alone. I felt alone.
The Ring of Fire is a beautifully haunting tour of the emotional and psychological core of Black people in America. It vacillates between fear and the desire for joy. The final quote reminds us that Black people are facing two enemies, the outside world and the inner demons caused by PTSD.
Being familiar with Ramaj’s work, I knew I was walking into a journey that wasn’t going to be told in a straight line. Even if I wasn’t sure what I was watching, my spirit did.
There are images and depictions that could be unclear. And I don’t mean this in a negative way. Growing up in the South, Yoruba is something that is very new to me. Colonization is a motherf*cker aint it? I find it interesting that contemporary Black artists are channeling the Orishas in their work. I love it and can’t get enough of it. It seems that this neo-renaissance of black art is anchored by Yoruba and Afrofuturism and Ramaj’s work is no exception. As jolting as The Ring of Fire can feel it doesn’t go into the realm of torture porn. It’s an expressionistic trek of the inner turmoil that is uniquely and unjustly placed upon Black people. It’s true.
“They don’t think it be like it is, but it do.” – Oscar Gamble.
Michael Allen Harris
Dramatic Writer/Theatre Artist