Dean is not so much interested in showing us the tired old vampire lurking in his castle, but the vampiric nature of cultural production in the world around us, the forces that suck us dry of our true potential. Dean is extending the work of Karl Marx, who said that ‘Capital is dead labour, which, vampire-like, lives only by sucking living labour, and lives the more, the more labour it sucks.’
Marx uses the phrase ‘wage slavery’ to advance his comparison between slavery and wage labour, between owning and renting a person. Racialised chattel slaves, ripped from their birthplaces and traded as possessions, were the capital that led to the industrious revolution, then the industrial revolution; and, for Danielle Dean, the late-stage capitalism we live under today. Although it is more than a bit problematic to use the first-person plural ‘we’, as a white, British man, Dean’s work gives me a way of engaging with problems such as this. Indeed, Dean’s project is to unveil and interrogate the power struggles throughout history across race, gender, and class divides.
While the title ‘True Red’ (named after a commodity) reminds us that – according to Marx – we are all slaves to capital, the focus here is on an examination of the slave-trade, and how colonial history shapes identity. Dean’s work explores what she terms the ‘colonisation of mind and body’ and examines the power structures present in different media – news, advertising, social networks – and how they affect us today.
There is an undeniable charm in the way the story is told, namely with talking-head-style video diaries, recorded with smartphones. An intimacy between speaker and viewer. We might have tuned into a vlog, and I think that’s important – this is a real person telling us a story about their everyday life. In fact, the artist Dean herself is acting in the film, along with her sister Ashstress Agwundobi, and her friends, who all live in Cuney Homes, an affordable-housing block in Houston that also happens to be built with red brick. A sense of authenticity and familiarity shines through, ushering us over the stumbling blocks that less accomplished works might have when genre-bending a fictionalised account of an historical fact.