Archives for category: film

5640When I was a young girl, a female friend at summer camp asked me if I was gay. I giggled, shyly. I didn’t know how else to respond, but to say no. I had not known myself to be gay. She told me it was “weird” that I didn’t like any of the boys at summer camp. I knew I just didn’t like them. I knew I did like boys, but I hadn’t quite decided if I liked girls as well. I was more interested in going swimming. Her question made me aware of myself in a way I hadn’t been before. I was aware of the ways I’d be seen. I was aware, at the time, that to be a black girl meant liking black boys, and if you didn’t, something might be weird, or wrong.

Those feelings- of knowing and not knowing, of trying to figure it out, of wanting to exist-  washed over me as I watched Barry Jenkins’ film, Moonlight, based on the play by Tarell Alvin McCraney. Told in three chapters, with three actors playing the lead character at different points in his life, the film follows a young man, Chiron, trying to make sense of his identity and sexuality while growing up in inner city Miami, a place where palm trees, rolling tides, and sleek low-riders form a melange of texture.

In one scene, Juan (a stellar Mahershala Ali), a neighborhood drug dealer, teaches young Chiron how to swim. Water envelops the lens and these two men transcend any prior label placed upon them. They are free, floating in a body of water where man-made stigma and hatred have no place. This, in Barry’s words, is a baptism. A washing, a renewal.

But the freedom of the water cannot penetrate the hard codes of manhood that little boys act out to assert themselves, some of them done in fun, while others are done to harm. What are the boundaries to being a man, and being a black man? When is one’s particular manhood not allowed? In one scene, little black boys wrestle and roll over each other in laughter, but Chiron is targeted for not being “hard.” What makes one hard?

In the absence of a stable parent, Chiron finds space and nourishment in the home of Juan and his girlfriend Teresa (Janelle Monae), while his mother, played with a tragic intensity by Naomie Harris, sinks deeper into an addiction to crack cocaine. Under a magenta light, she screams at young Chiron, her eyes bulging, and body wrecked by the drug. But in so many scenes, there’s still a deep, warring affection in her eyes, for him. There’s a battle inside of her- the battle against an addiction and the love for a son.

I was struck by the seamlessness in mannerisms and demeanor that each actor portraying Chiron, shared. The teenage Chiron, played by Ashton Sanders, carries the quiet rage of Alex Hibbert in his eyes and in his body. He moves like someone keenly aware that they are being watched, and targeted. He is not one with himself, because he cannot be and it pained me to see this. It pained me to see a scene in which a fellow classmate taunted Chiron as he walked home. It pained me to feel the confusion and danger he felt while hiding out in a gated staircase at school to avoid further harm. It pains me that anyone would not see this film because it’s about a black person wanting to be free.

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In a later scene, Chiron sits on the beach with teenage friend Kevin, and sand between his fingers. Smiles force their way through, and a calm comes over. Like his swimming lesson with Juan, there is no judgement in the water, and in the wind. These are freeing forces that cover all, that submerge all. I’ve always felt most free in water. In a pool, even before I knew how to swim. And when I did, I threw myself into oceans that could so easily push me back out. 

When we meet older Chiron (Trevante Rhodes) in the latter portion of the film, he’s buffer, with a gold grill, riding in a similar car to the one Juan drove. His muscular body is a type of armor, his eyes pulsing with the same intensity, while his words are still few. A meeting with an older Kevin (Andre Holland) brings back both old wounds, and the ability to be free once more- to taste it (literally, as they meet in a diner), to think about, to stare at the water. I felt the intimacy and vulnerability between these two black men in my own body. There was something in their eyes, something that was crushed in their youth, but now, the tide washed over, and it’s time to start again.

moonlight

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269547_10100494988895093_3808281_nMy mother often jokes that I should’ve become a dermatologist. I could make a living diagnosing skin conditions and easing people’s uncertainties. I’d have a stable life, money, and security. I usually laugh at my mother’s humor, knowing she doesn’t really mean it.

There are times, though, when I begin to doubt the journey that I’m on because I am not sure where it’s leading. I have family, friends and colleagues who believe in me, who tell me that my future is so bright, and that I’ll be the next (insert successful black filmmaker here), and while I appreciate their predictions and praise, it gets really hard sometimes.

It’s hard because sometimes, I’m reeling from rejection, but I’m fighting to keep going. The rejection from an actor I really liked and have followed for years, who turns down my script. The rejection from a grant organization whose application I worked on for a month, and whose funds would’ve enabled my film to go into production. The subtle disregard of unanswered emails to urgent questions, and the disappearances of important people who initially showed so much interest in the project. Meetings and pitching and emailing that amount to waiting and more questions that don’t get answered. That’s filmmaking.

There’s no roadmap here.

I had a plan. In June, I moved from New York City back to California, to work on my first feature film, Jinn, which I plan to shoot here. It was time to tell my story- a story of exploration, black girlhood, of family, of Islam, identity, first love, and laughter. Spurred by the massive success of our Kickstarter campaign – which showed us just how much people want to see this film- I aimed to jump right into the process of finding my cast, and preparing to shoot my film this summer, as we continued to solicit additional funds for the film. I’ve never waited for permission to tell the stories that were important to me. I found a way, with low budgets, talented, dedicated cast and crew, and love emanating from my soul. Jinn would be no different.

But it was. For one, it’s a feature film. It’s a feature film with an ensemble cast and more than ten locations, and dancing, and color, and text messages on the screen, and different hairstyles, all things that take time and money to successfully capture and execute. Even in its micro-budget framework, we needed more money. And that’s what my summer became- a paper chase in which I learned, and worried, and cried, and smiled.

Three months later, I am back home in the Bay Area, writing a TV pilot, preparing to shoot Jinn, and waiting to hear from two more grants that may decide the fate for shooting the film this fall. I keep telling myself that whatever happens, I’ll keep fighting on. No grant will determine the trajectory of my career or life, but I’d lie if I said it wouldn’t hurt if I were rejected, because it would.

I put my all into my writing, and into my filmmaking. I put my all into the process of applying to those grants and making a case for why my film deserves those funds. Because it does.

There’s no 1-2-3 “how-to” guide to getting an independent film made. Sometimes, I kinda wish there were. Filmmaking is a privilege I’m so grateful to have. Nothing came easy, and it still doesn’t. Facebook statuses about successes and accomplishments are preceded by major disappointments. I often don’t know what’s going to happen next, but I’ve put in so much work that I know something is gonna pop off. And it may not be right now, it may not be next month, or even in three months, but I know, without a doubt, that this film is going to be made, with the help and support of people who want to bring it to life. InshAllah. 

I am so grateful for the people in my life and the people I don’t know who have supported this process, who’ve seen me at my lowest and have provided me with the warmth and wisdom to keep going. I am so grateful to the talented actor I talked to on the phone yesterday who loved my script, the Executive who gave the script a good rating on the Black List, the festivals who provide platforms and communal spaces for filmmakers of color to showcase their work, my producers who offer such clear insight and strategies for moving forward, and the actors who came to my audition and performed their hearts out. I am also grateful to have the opportunity to pitch and present my film to people I admire, even if some of them are not interested. These are the moments, the experiences, and people that make this work exciting, and one-of-a kind.

Even with all the heartache and uncertainty, I could never leave it to become a dermatologist.

 

 

You are driving in a car that used to be white

you are sending text messages to friends that never respond

you are dancing in ripped panties

you are eating water

you are depositing $30 checks that dissolve

a day later

you are fantasizing about rapper-singers named Mac Wilds

and choreographing dance routines in the dark

 

You are torn lilac lonely

picking up flowers on the ground

you are going on dates and hoping the dude pays

you are digging down deep into emails never responded to

you are walking into restaurants with big hair and big hopes asking for jobs

you don’t get

you are wearing sandals in January

and looking more like your mother

 

You are cloudy in the mind, but mostly in the heart

you are living in an apartment with no furniture

missing halal links and men with beards

 

You are a shrine of worry,

golden eye shadow and

2 MFA degrees away from starvation

Wednesday came and no word on the job

you are trying to make a film on a budget of hope

 

You are getting your once-white car washed

but can’t afford to tip

you can count on one hand how many times it rained in LA this winter

you are looking at pictures of people’s babies on Facebook and mourning maternity in your situation

A frozen lasagna will fill you up, right?

 

You are singing

you are understanding why groupies wait outside dressing rooms in black mini-skirts and drug dealers guard cement,

you are wondering what kind of drug dealer you’d be,

probably the kind that wears feathers

why 24-year old women date 69-year old men with jobs

you are wondering why you didn’t accept the offer of the 58-year old dreadlocked film critic who wanted to date you

 

You are crying because you probably won’t be able to attend your line sister’s baby shower

and what if the all reservoirs run out of water?

You are living in a drought

© Nijla Mumin

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Oscar Grant’s daughter, Tatiana. (photo credit: Nijla Mu’min. Taken at the Oscar Grant Vigil in early 2010 at Fruitvale Bart Station.)

“He didn’t like to be left alone.”

Oscar Grant’s mother Wanda, played superbly by Octavia Spencer, delivers this line in one of the most compelling scenes in the film. It is a detail, that when considered in the context of the story, hits us on all sides, and most importantly, in the heart. Details like these penetrate the divisive rhetoric framing Oscar Grant as a saint or a criminal. Instead, he is a son who didn’t want to be left alone by his mother, a detail so specific and tangible that the story can only be felt at that point, not categorized, or framed.

The film centers on the true story of 22-year-old Oscar Grant, a black Bay Area resident who was fatally shot in the back in the early hours of New Years Day 2009 after being detained by BART Police at Fruitvale Station, all of which was captured on Bart bystander’s cell phone cameras.

Michael B. Jordan delivers a whirlwind performance as Oscar Grant, one that sees him take on several micro- performances dictated by the personality of Grant. During the Q&A for the film, director Ryan Coogler spoke about his research of Grant, saying, “If you go to five different people, you get five different stories (of Grant).” This is best conveyed in a grocery store scene where Grant jovially assists an unknowing white female customer with a fried fish recipe, while maintaining a friendly exchange with a coworker, followed by an emotionally- heated interaction with the grocery store manager. Jordan skillfully navigates the varied textures of Grant, situating himself into different modes of empathy, anger, and joy. Of the role, he said, “…I’m not a political activist, I’m an actor and through my work I’m able to spark conversations between people, and get emotions out of people to start questioning how we treat one another.”

His performance is a great complement to Coogler’s direction and script, where nuance and foreshadowing are handled with a level of subtlety that doesn’t overemphasize their presence, but captures them in striking, understated ways. The Bay Area itself becomes a character, populated by black beanies, water rushing onto the rocks of the bay, and that distinct diction and physical bravado embodied by Grant and his friends, all framed beautifully by cinematographer Rachel Morrison, who shot on super 16mm film here.

With that foreshadowing and characterization, comes a rising tension in both Grant and the film that makes the happiest moments- Grant playfully brushing his teeth with his daughter Tatiana (Ariana Neal) – bittersweet.  The sound design accelerates the tension, merging with the industrial, metallic rumble of the Bart train moving in and out of tunnels. The Bart becomes a warning, an element of dread in this way.

This is a film for the people, a film for feelers and thinkers who want to see a story about a flawed person who loved his daughter and family, and wanted something better in life even if he didn’t quite know how to get it. It is not a film about blame or about the cop who pulled the trigger, and it may be criticized for that lack of emphasis. But at a time where human beings like Grant are murdered and then scrutinized by the media about their “criminal background,” the film is important and necessary. It argues for a life that mattered to a daughter, and leaves us to wrestle with the hard questions of how this tragedy impacts her, and people like her.

Fruitvale Station opens in theaters July 12th. Visit the website for more information.

This Review is cross-posted on Shadow & Act on the Indiewire Network, HERE.

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I think this is a good time to talk about Rust and Bone, directed by Jaques Audiard. I saw this movie last weekend and it has stayed with me in fragments, in images, and feeling, ever since.

Why do two characters need each other? How do they need each other? These are questions that any great love story should answer. There was a powerful codependence that underscored the narrative: how does one regain touch, a sense of completeness, when the physical body is severely altered? How is physical strength and power elevated by emotional purpose; by being present with another person? Can one exist without the other?

Main character Ali (played by Matthias Schoenaerts), meets Stephanie (Marion Cotillard), a killer whale trainer, after a scuffle in a nightclub where both sustain physical injuries. Later, Stephanie wakes to discover the loss of her limbs after a freak accident at the marine park where she was employed.

Through the film, water becomes a freeing agent, a body of acceptance that brings no judgement. When Ali visits Stephanie shortly after her accident, he takes her to the beach to go swimming. Ali doesn’t assume she can’t swim anymore. He doesn’t deny her strength, he lets her go. He entrusts her with this physicality, as the water does. He takes on the presence of the water.

But Ali is full of carnal rage, an aspiring mixed martial artist with a need to exert and bruise things. He coins himself “Operational” when it comes to casual sex and his ambivalence is funny, but wearing, and eventually complicated when the need- the purpose for physicality, starts to develop.

Audiard populates his frames with bodies, the back of heads- Ali and his young son as they watch a MMA fight together on his computer. There’s slopes of ears and sunlight accenting Stephanie’s severed limbs. There’s Ali’s son touching Stephanie’s artificial legs. There’s love scenes where her legs are exposed, and the passion is felt.

In one scene, Ali rolls around on the ground facing defeat in one of his bouts, but when Stephanie walks into his view, revealed by her artificial limbs, he is up and filled with something. He takes back the fight, and wins.

But, how many bouts do we get until we have to fight for something more, until past brutalities that we’ve perpetuated, catch up with us? In one of the most harrowing scenes, Ali faces the fight of his life but it has nothing to do with mixed martial arts.

I think it is a good time to talk about Rust and Bone. Of ways to regain touch, and purpose when there’s so many reasons to give up. Blessed by natural, felt performances that bring us into our own bodies, the film makes us aware of the need to feel, and live, when it seems everything around us has shattered, or has gone. We need each other, and that may be enough.

Two things have compelled me to write today. One of them is this:

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That’s Zoe Saldana as Nina Simone in the upcoming film Nina, directed by Cynthia Mort.

The other one is the news that Spike Lee has been fired from directing the anticipated James Brown biopic produced by Brian Grazer. He’s been reportedly replaced by The Help director, Tate Taylor. Not much news about Lee’s dismissal has surfaced, but what I did come across got me thinking about the mishandling of black stories in cinema.

A lot of mishandling has been going on lately. The image above of Zoe Saldana in an attempt at skin darkening (to mirror Nina Simone), is one example.

I write and speak often about my experience seeing Spike Lee’s film Malcolm X at Oakland’s Grand Lake Theater when I was eight (see youtube clip below). It was an experience that helped solidify the power of cinema for me. It was a film that brought my childhood fascination and passion for black history into a dramatic, visual realm. It was a film experience that marked my hopes and expectations for the kind of dialogue cinema could have with an audience. Historical inaccuracies aside, it was (and is) what a biopic should be. It was a biopic about a powerful black man, directed by a black man. I think this matters.

I think it matters that the “story” of Nina Simone is being reduced to a fictitious affair she had with a gay man. I think it matters that Nina Simone was a beautiful, dark-skinned black woman and there are several beautiful, dark-skinned actresses who could’ve played this role. I think it matters that the director of this film ignored attempts from Nina Simone’s daughter to help elevate this narrative with some type of credibility. I think this is what happens when black stories are mishandled.

Now, when I read that Tate Taylor will direct a biopic about James Brown, I think more about this mishandling. It’s not a matter of one’s race making them ill-equipped to direct a certain film. It’s a matter of respect and experience and how that experience will translate to a story about a man who helped revolutionize music in America. A man who created an anthem that filled black folks across the world with a sense of pride and self-worth that was decades in the making.

Many people loved The Help, though I can’t be counted as one of them. Many more people loved Do The Right Thing, Malcolm X, and Crooklyn. Many more people recall the impact that these films had on them. Film theorists and critics write about these films, and about Lee. Sure, he’s had his share of box office flops but that cannot take away from the amount of experience, respect, and passion that he could bring to a biopic about James Brown. I don’t doubt that. I also don’t doubt that this decision might be the latest installment in attempting to sanitize black stories by making them more palatable to mainstream audiences (i.e. Tate Taylor and Saldana as Simone). Whatever the reasoning, it just doesn’t sit well with me. The news headline sounds like a bad joke, only it’s not. These are our stories, and they deserve more.

 (at 2:41 I talk about the impact that Spike Lee’s Malcolm X had on me as a child)

Ciomara Morais and Cheila Lima in “All is Well”

There are few films that haunt me until I write about them. Some films are meant to be remembered but not necessarily reported on. Today, when I found out that filmmaker Pocas Pascoal’s film, All is Well (Por Aqui Tudo Bem), won Best Narrative Film at the Los Angeles Film Festivalfollowing it’s North American premiere last weekend, I knew I had to write about it.

The film centers on two teenaged sisters, Alda and Maria (played by Ciomara Morais and Cheila Lima), who flee a war-torn Angola in the 1980’s, seeking exile in Portugal while they await their mother’s arrival. Their stay quickly takes an unexpected turn when their mother’s arrival is delayed, and they struggle to survive on the streets of Lisbon.

A subtle, nuanced drama, All is Well measures the impending danger of the Angolan civil war on this family through the presence of a pay phone. It is here that both sisters await news from their mother. The phone comes to represent an uncomfortable shelter; a manifestation of what Portugal means and what it lacks as a “home” for them.

Pascoal works deftly with visual contrasts, in everything from character appearances to atmospheric contradictions. There’s a round openness to Maria’s face, while Alda’s features are more angled and exact. The physical terrain of their faces funnel into their character arcs, resulting in a relationship that is layered and complex. In one of the more symbolic scenes, Alda, Maria, and Maria’s love interest Carlos rest on a local beach that is bordered by a massive chemical plant. The idea of Portugal as a safe space, as a refuge or paradise, is quickly complicated. Portugal is a place divided by racial and economic realities, as seen here.

Those realities influence the way that each character copes with the civil war in their homeland. In capturing this, nothing is overt or advertised. This is not a film that holds a political banner. A dressmaker who masks grief at her son’s murder by becoming an ill-tempered employer to Alda and Maria, sits in a dark shadow smoking a cigarette when they bring up news of their mother.

That news starts to become scattered and critical as the film draws on. As the audience, we want the news just as much as these sisters want it. We want to hear their mother’s voice. One of the major achievements of this work is its ability to implant the audience so firmly into the relationship of these two women that one might feel like the third sibling at points. The actors embody this relationship with a sort of closeness that carries the narrative through slow-building scenes and more urgent ones.

There’s a special importance to this film at a time when debates on immigration, exile and refugee asylum are being waged across the world. As Israel deports Sudanese migrants who fled war, and makes plans to deport thousands more, we wonder about the human faces and stories in the midst of these harsh policies. During the Q&A for All is Well, director Pocas Pacoal spoke of the film as being a personal project, inspired by her own relationship with her sister. A film like this could only come out of that personal space. It privileges character relationships and atmospheric texture over political branding and succeeds enormously in that regard. It is in that attention to kinship, survival, and teenage rites of passage that larger discussions of war and exile can be fostered. When I left the theater, I could only think about these two sisters and the bond that they shared. And in the end, any discussion on exile or immigration should be centered there; with the people and their stories.

This review is cross-posted at Shadow & Act on the Indiewire network HERE.

It was like something out of a movie. Big city girl goes to visit small, southern town. She gets lost…

I visited Louisiana two weeks ago to location scout for my thesis film, Deluge. Though New Orleans is the central location for the film, my search for a safe, natural body of water led me to places outside of the city. While driving to an outlying city called Franklinton, I got lost. The GPS on my cell phone couldn’t detect a signal to the park where the river was located. I drove on, confident that I could determine the Bogue Chitto State park from road signs. Only, there were none. The signs were replaced by heat that penetrated the air condition in my rental car. I started to sweat. With foliage and trees on both sides of me, I tried to determine whether I was going the right direction. Before I could do that, a large black snake scurried out from the brush and slithered across the road. I swerved, not wanting to run over it. I turned around, called the park office and was greeted by a friendly woman named Jody who stayed on the phone with me for 30 minutes as I made my way to Bogue Chitto Park.

I drove in a long maze trying to locate the Bogue Chitto river. My phone was low on battery and I had no car charger. But I was determined to see this river. When I reached it, I was greeted by a sign that said “Swim at your own risk.” Babies, women, and fathers waded in the river, swimming and circling each other.

I was there to look at the water.

I believe all water carries spirits. This water carried some spirits. They said something but I didn’t immediately listen. Call me a crazy filmmaker but I remained, taking photos of the water for possible inclusion in my film. I was the only black person at the river, which didn’t surprise me because I’d been the only black person on all my water visits; further inspiration for my examination into black people’s relationships to water.

I believe something happened in that water. Something that rolled through the air and settled in the rocks. Still, I stayed. I stayed even though I couldn’t envision my film happening at this river. Something about this river didn’t want my body in it. River warning. I exited the park.

In my car, I devoured half of a warm sandwich that I purchased earlier that day. A shrill, male voice filtered through my car window.

“Can I get a piece of that sandwich,” it asked. I looked over to see two men in dirty white t-shirts standing by a van. They smiled. In a mixture of heat-induced confusion, I smiled and shook my head, motioning that I wasn’t interested in talking. But that didn’t deter them.

One of the men leaned into my window and said, “Did I scare you?” He laughed. I again smiled, but this time said, “No.” But I was lying. Their intrusion did scare me, as much as it confused me. I was hungry, thirsty, and low on cell phone battery and just wanted to get out of there. The one man continued.

“Can I open your car door?,” he asked. I braced my steering wheel, ready to pull off at any moment. He opened the door, breaking the glass barrier between us. A sour odor came with him. “I want a car like this, but all my friends say it’s for women,” he said. I nodded, wanting so bad to close the door on his hand.

“Where are you from?” he said. His friend leaned into the car. “California,” I cursed myself silently as soon as I said. Their eyes doubled in size. The air in the car got so thick and my heart was pounding to the point of explosion. I knew then what that river was telling me. What the black snake was telling me. What the dying GPS was telling me. That I didn’t belong at this park. At this river full of spirits. These men were like the spawns of unsettled heat and suffocation.

Back to the car and I’m looking ahead through my windshield at more green foliage. The men are waiting for some type of invitation. “We’ll leave you alone,” one of them says. He closes the door and I feel sweat under my shirt. Moisture in my hair and eyebrows, and fear in my stomach. They walk to the river in their dingy shirts.

With my cell phone on its last cell of life, I didn’t know how’d find my way back to New Orleans, but something in me knew I would. And I did. I arrived in Uptown and found comfort in a giant Walmart, where I bought a car phone charger and flirted with a cute salesman. The air was wetter than it was in Franklinton. It washed into my pores. I’d found my back.

Through out pre-production for Deluge, I’ve encountered numerous obstacles, some that have strengthened my will to get the project made, some that have frustrated me to the point of tears, and some like this, that lead me to layered, textured understandings of the power of water, of intuition, of spirits, and of instinct. I shouldn’t have went to that river, or rather, I shouldn’t have went to that river by myself. Though my previous water visits were pleasant and welcoming, this water was not. It flowed heavy. Though I could write a whole safety essay on what I “should’ve done,” I’ll instead say what I have to do.

I have to make this film.

I have to get back to New Orleans. I have to interact with these bodies of water even more. I have to talk to more African Americans about their relationships to water. I have to swim in Pontchartrain on the North shore again. I have to bring black mermaids to life.

At every obstacle, at every refusal for help or assistance, at every pillar of frustration that keeps me up late into the night, there’s a spirit, an instinct, a dream, a water whisper saying I have to make this film. I have to find my way back, like I found my way back to New Orleans from that heavy river. And from then on, I listened to the moisture in the air, to the rain that fell, to the air, and I was alright in New Orleans. I knew where I belonged and where my film belonged.

We have 45 more days to raise $25,000 to make this film, through our Indiegogo campaign. ANY contribution helps us move forward. This is the only way we’ll be able to make this film. I’m a graduate student and my school offers no financial assistance for students to fund their films. We are asking for your contributions and support to bring this film to life; to bring black bodies into the water, to talk about black bodies in water and why some don’t get in the water, to engage with water mythology, to follow the emotional journey of a young girl who is called to the water.

Help us make our way back home. Join us. Learn more about the film. Contribute now: http://www.indiegogo.com/Deluge?a=539176


Poem after being rejected from the Calarts Film Directing Showcase

 

Yes, this is an angry poem

yes, this is a tired poem

tired of sitting in classes and feeling like a wall-

poem

 

this is a poem that doesn’t bring up Cassavetes to feel important

this is a poem that never saw a Cassavetes film before coming to school

 

this is a poem that likes Love and Basketball

and wants to write for television

 

this is a sell-out poem

 

this is a black woman poem

a poem for my grandmothers who never saw themselves

reflected onscreen in their lifetime- poem

 

a poem for dusty film reels rotting in warm apartments

because the single black woman had to give up her dream

to make ends meet and feed children- poem

 

this is a Daughters of the Dust poem

a poem wet in Gullah water

and natural light

on beaches by itself because

critics couldn’t understand it’s dialect

 

this is a poem that don’t want no

magic negro/ monster’s ball

no begging to sleep with white men

to make it feel good- poem

 

this poem is black laughter and breath

cause we played at festivals and heard it warm

in the throats of black audience

 

this poem be black talkin’ and silence,

black without a title or tell-tale sign

of “blackness” stamped across the credits

to make you feel better

 

this poem is 16mm and 24 frames

of grandmother’s silence in segregated theaters

of my silence in cold film classes

not saying nothing because there’s nothing to say

 

this is a Boyz In the Hood for the 10th time poem

a Menace II Society poem in VHS

a Sankofa poem creeping out of sugar cane stalks

 

this is a love poem

 

this is Grand Lake Theater in 1992

watching Malcolm X with fish sandwiches in our hands

and our eyes wet- poem

this is daddy yelling Alhamdulillah at Denzel at the podium-poem

 

don’t ever tell me I’m being didactic because I put a black Muslim character in my script- poem

 

this is Jason and Lyric making love

in those purple and red flowers,

and that wedding scene at the end of Coming to America,

that made us all want to go live in Zamunda- poem

 

this is an exclusion poem

this poem can’t catch a football and be adopted by a white family

to win the Academy Award-poem

 

this is Dorothy Dandridge’s heart when she lost that Oscar

this is black movies pulled from theaters before their first breath

this is a Regina King and Kaycee Moore poem

this is a Euzhan Palcy poem

 

this poem can’t find work even though it’s considered a cinematic legend

around the world

 

this poem made a black woman come up to me after the screening

tell me she saw herself in my film,

and that I had to expand the film into a feature

 

this poem was rejected from the showcase

 

-Nijla

2012

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This poem is ultimately about the idea of a “film audience” and who deems certain audiences more credible than others.  What role does race, sexuality, and class have in our reception of films? In my experience screening my short film Two Bodies at film festivals, I’ve seen that it strikes a chord in the audience. Those audiences have been comprised of different types of people, though mostly women and women of color.  So what does that mean? Does that matter in the larger context of its credibility as a film? I’ve written film criticism and theory. That lens is valuable as a filmmaker and viewer, but I’ve had to step outside of that lens to truly connect with audiences. When I walk out of a theater, and women come up to me and tell me that they appreciate my film, that’s the only thing that matters to me as a filmmaker. When a woman of color tells me she relates to the mother-daughter relationship in my film, that makes me feel good. If my film is helping women of color become visible in ways that aren’t common, then I’ve done my job.

bell hooks has done a lot of writing on this subject of the black female spectator. How do we enter films?  Are we a part of the mainstream “audience” and in what ways? There are several films from the “Golden Age of Hollywood,” that I neither like or want to watch. They are considered classics. They usually feature black women as “mammy” stock characters. Is there something wrong with me? Am I a true film buff because I’m not excited to watch Gone With the Wind?  Why are “black films” financed by major film studios mandated to do well or else another black film won’t “ever” be financed? Is that an issue with the black audience or the fact that certain stories are seen as more important and lucrative than others?

These are some of the questions that spurred this poem. These are some of the films I grew up watching. Some of the films and people that introduced me to cinema and had an impact on my immersion in it. I fostered an emotional connection to some of these films, and still do. If that brings down my worth as a filmmaker, film critic, and person, so be it.

I make films to move people.

"Daughters of the Dust," directed by Julie Dash

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Silence is always an interesting indicator, signaling a number of varied emotions. After watching the “Hollywood Reporter” clip above, I’m convinced that the silence here is beset by discomfort and also apathy. When asked about the presence of minority directors in Hollywood, a panel of white directors froze up and decided not to “step into that,” as one stated. The lone black director, Steve McQueen, is then mandated to become the spokesperson for this issue by way of his skin color alone. This is a familiar, albeit disturbing experience that I’ve witnessed and have been on the receiving end of. It’s the inability to pass on a question regarding race because your very existence is synonymous with “race,” while white counterparts are relieved of the need to feel or say anything.

So, what if McQueen decided not to answer that question? What if he remained quiet and decided not to “step into that,” as the other directors? Would that be wrong?  In my own experience, and numerous instances where discussions of “race” are initiated, I find myself unable to remain quiet, partly because I care about the issue being discussed, and partly because there is a very strong expectation by others that I possess some kind of authoritative position on the subject. There is a very interesting intersection here- on one hand choosing to speak because you have something to contribute, but on the other hand being expected to have the “answer” to whatever issues of “race” are propositioned, while others choose to remain silent and outside of the discussion.

At about 00:55 in the video, we see McQueen physically unable to contain his emotion about the topic of the discussion. The screen is split and Mike Mills looks towards him, with an air of discomfort and his arms folded. There is no effort on anyone else’s part to address either McQueen’s or the moderator’s questions. One director states, “I don’t know.” That’s a perfectly reasonable response. The topic is layered and complex and when faced with that kind of question in a televised roundtable, it may be difficult to formulate an answer. My issue has less to do with their choice not to respond, and more with expectations of Mcqueen and other “minorities” to do so. Sometimes we don’t know either. Sometimes we just want to sit there, absolved and unaffected like everyone else. Sometimes we want to have the choice to not engage in a discussion about “race” even though our skin makes us predisposed to contributing to it. It’s the issue of choice, expectation, and association that make this video fascinating to me.

McQueen becomes the center of that choice- his words become exalted to some position of “knowing” because he is black. But I would argue that the other directors have some of that “knowledge” as well- They know why they don’t want to cast black actors in roles, and some may know why or have ideas about why certain blacks films aren’t funded or green-lit by studios, but they have made a choice to sit on this panel and not engage in those ways. Systems of privilege and whiteness have enabled these types of choices, and the “lack” of choice in the case of people of color. In the book White Lies, Maurice Berger states, “Whiteness implied not a color of skin, per se, but a usually unexamined state of mind…(204).” Here, it is excellently exemplified. McQueen is put into the position of “examiner,” determined by race alone. The other directors, by way of race, are not required to say anything about a situation in Hollywood and the country that not only involves them, but also, holds them at the core of it.

I’ve read some online backlash to McQueen statements, labeling him a hypocrite because he doesn’t cast many blacks in his films, and because he didn’t have a “better” and more extensive response to the question. I take offense to the sentiments for two reasons. One, McQueen’s main film Hunger was about the Irish hunger strike, so why would he cast black actors in that? McQueen is also a Black British person. People forget that his very relationship to race and issues that pervade the “American” cinematic landscape are in many ways different than a Black American filmmaker or director. To negate these differences is to not fully understand his responses. In the beginning of the clip, when asked about the “minority” question, he replies, “I must be in America. Jesus Christ.” This is not to stay that racial issues don’t exist in the UK, because they do, but his understanding and engagement with them may be different from a black American, or even white American director. All of this, coupled with the discomfort and large expectation of being the “authority” on race in film, are reasons I take no issue with his response to this question.

I take no issue with people of color not having the “perfect” answer for every race-related question posed, and it’s been a long journey in learning to do that. I still wrestle with myself when I feel I didn’t represent a certain “racial” issue right. But why is that my duty? If we are going to make any progress with race relations in this country and globally, people- white people, black people, Latino people, Asian people, etc. – must be able to have dialogues. Not discussions where one person is expected, by the default of their race, to have the answer. At 1:37 of this video, the moderator asks of McQueen, “Why is that?” in regards to blacks and other minorities not being cast in movies, and McQueen states, “I don’t know, ask them.” The camera opens to a wide shot and no one says anything.

That is the problem.