Exactly 60 years ago, Billie Holiday first began singing "Strange Fruit", a beautifully mournful elegy to the victims of lynching in the American South, a deep evil not infrequent at the time. Rysan Fall created a tribute film to her performance as a homage for Black History month, and to the election of Barack Obama.
"I wanted to show contrast in how far my race has come in the United States," as he tells me. So it is probably appropriate that his movie is actually a machinima set in a virtual Harlem, featuring an avatar of Billie Holiday specially made for the production.
In Fall's video, Ms. Holiday performs the song at the Cotton Club, part of a historically accurate Second Life recreation of the New York neighborhood duing its "Renaissance" period, where Holiday and other jazz legends held sway. In Fall's telling, however, the glamorously casual nightclub setting gives way to the brutal image she's describing, seen in stark silhouette.
"I envisioned her singing and telling the patrons a story....about the violence of the South." Rysan spent a long time searching for a gallows tree, eventually buying one on Second Life's online commerce site.
African-American in real life and SL, Rysan Hall himself plays the lynching victim depicted in the machinima.
"To tell you the truth," he says of that experience, "it was kinda unnerving in a way. Because I'm very close to my avie, and the way I had the sky and the lighting when I filmed....it was eerie. I was alone when I filmed that scene." He shot it quickly as he could, so he didn't have to look at himself being lynched for much longer than he had to.
And though his machinima is meant to mark a turning point in American history, traces of the old ways still linger, and follow us into new mediums. "It's funny," he tells me, "but I have experienced some racism in SL. It's subtle...but it's there."
He recounts a time when he agreed to meet with someone about a machinima project, but before he saw Fall's photo in the First Life tab in his avatar profile.
When he arrived for the meeting, Fall remembers, "him and the cast were just immediately quiet. No one spoke to me directly. And when they started talking on voice, I heard many Southern accents. I figured, 'Here we go, kinda.'" One of the cast members started telling racially tinged jokes. "After that I just left." Rysan Fall acknowledges that the behavior may have been coincidental.
"But sometimes... you know."
Thanks to movies1963 beck for recommending this machinima; image of Billie Holiday's avatar courtesy R. Fall.