Archives for category: women
my mother and stepfather. a love.

my mother and stepfather. love.

I was an avid reader growing up. I read everything, even books that weren’t meant for children.

Mama by Terry Mcmillan was one of my first novels.

I recall reading a novel entitled Hand-me-down Heartache by Tajuana TJ Butler. It was about a woman named Nina who’s in a relationship with an attractive, unfaithful basketball player and her unwillingness to leave the relationship. Having witnessed her father’s unfaithfulness to her mother growing up, she had come to accept the behavior, though it’s painful.

There’s a scene where Nina stakes out in front of her boyfriend’s home, bangs on his door, distraught and angry, while he’s inside with another woman. As a young girl, I read this with fresh eyes for the denial and hysteria that Nina was experiencing. The scene was vivid, and so keenly observed that I felt Nina’s embarrassment, especially when he emerged from his home and told her to leave him alone. I wanted to scream through the page to Nina, and tell her to forget him, but something in me felt for her. I entered the scene fully, imagining the quick beat of Nina’s heart, her wet, mascara-streaked eyes, and the neighbors outside watching as she fell apart.

How do we get there? From young women, reading about love and feeling it in our imaginations, to fighting for it, and refusing to accept that it was never there?

We want to make our own stories.

I am transitioning from something that was not good for me. Something that I made into what I wanted. I am writer, a storyteller by nature, and perhaps this practice has seeped into other avenues of my life because I began to mold a story, envision moments I wanted to have, treasure the good ones we did have, and ignore others. I was editing. I was waiting for someone who wasn’t there.

Some days, I drove home from school, numb. The drive is long from Calarts (in Valencia) to South Los Angeles. There are mountains, big rigs, and long periods of space that I filled with thoughts and strategies of how I’d convince this person that we could make it work.

Unlike Nina, I didn’t learn this behavior from my mother. My mother always said, “Love those who love you.” She stood by this saying, never falling for men, or tolerating people who didn’t reciprocate this belief. Nowhere was this more evident than in her relationship with my stepfather. Some nights, she’d cook spaghetti, his favorite meal, but not without requesting that he pick up certain ingredients on the way home. He’d scour the shelves of the grocery store to make sure he could have my mother’s spaghetti. When he arrived with the needed items, she’d finish the meal. Sometimes he picked up the wrong ingredients, or maybe forgot the mushrooms, and would go all the way back to the store to correct the error. Later, he’d finish his plate and come back for seconds. He was full, happy, and they smiled with glasses of wine in their hands. This was a partnership that extended to the meals that were prepared. This was a love that I witnessed.

But I also witnessed a torn love. The love between my mother and father. A love that rendered my father frozen in time, cooking the same meal every night and recalling the lamb chops my mother used to make. His stories of my mother are a tapestry of my childhood, bordering legend, myth, and magic.

We want to create our own stories.

I am fine some days, but others I want to return. I want to return to the sweetest moments. Like, the time he surprised me and flew out to Los Angeles to visit. The day of his arrival, the emotional and physical preparations, new sheets and freshly twisted hair, a smile that wouldn’t disappear.

But the urge to return is quickly beset by the reality that the person cannot be returned to.

I have not been in Nina’s specific situation, but now, I understand. I understand how a feeling can explode into mania, into denial, and into an illusion. There is a need to create a romantic narrative from the unbalanced, from what’s torn and wounded. But, why?

Well, there are years of friendship, years of connection, and years of wanting. There were different states, long distances, and periods of waiting. I am graduating on Friday with a dual-Master’s degree, and I wanted him to be there. I still do. There are days I can’t believe he will not be there. For the last four months, I imagined him there, standing with my family, sharing this momentous day with us. He said he would “try.” That was a central part of my narrative.

I write love stories. This is a love story. This is love for self, a love that will not allow me to write myself into anyone’s life again.

If someone wants to build something, create something with you, they will do that. There’s nothing that will stop them from doing that. No distance, no practicality. When those become reasons to abandon a partnership, there never was one.

There is someone who wants to create an equal narrative. And it may be with me. Until then, I’ll write on my own.

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

Image

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.

Marissa Alexander

Brown resumed punching Robyn F. and she interlocked her fingers behind her head and brought her elbows forward to protect her face. She then bent over at the waist, placing her elbows and face near her lap in [an] attempt to protect her face and head from the barrage of punches being levied upon her by Brown. Brown continued to punch Robyn F. on her left arm and hand, causing her to suffer a contusion on her left triceps (sic) that was approximately two inches in diameter and numerous contusions on her left hand.

I have some thoughts on this Mother’s Day. Some thoughts that won’t leave my mind. There is a mother named Marissa Alexander who was just sentenced to 20 years in prison for firing a warning shot in the direction of her abusive husband.

The italicized excerpt above comes from the affidavit/ search warrant detailing the violence enacted on Rihanna by her then-boyfriend Chris Brown in 2009.

I recently saw the film, Think Like a Man, in a theater. When Chris Brown appeared on the screen, women swooned and howled in adoration of him. Some men even clapped. I don’t understand.

I don’t understand how a woman who has been repeatedly maimed and battered by a man, becomes the aggressor. I don’t understand how a man that bites and punches a woman until blood and contusion, becomes a king. Regardless of how we feel about about their music or popularity, that was a person who attacked another person. Alexander is also a person reacting to years of attacks by another person, but faces 20 years in prison.

This case draws eerie comparisons and likeness to the Trayvon Martin case. But what’s been interesting to me is the narrative and rhetoric that has surfaced in the black community. I keep hearing people lament the difficulties and hardships that young black men face in this country. And while I agree that black men have been systematically brutalized, I don’t believe the conversation should stop there. I don’t believe deficiencies in legal action only apply to black men, and to further that belief is to deny the slew of events that reflect larger, communal struggles for black men, black women, and other marginalized groups. This case being one.

This case takes place in the same state that acquitted Casey Anthony, a woman that the media helped portray as a helpless, mentally unstable mother. But what about this mother? What about Marissa Alexander? What about Raven Dozier, the young, pregnant, black woman who was recently kicked in the stomach by a police officer in Dekalb County, Georgia? Where are the stories about her struggle? I don’t see many.

But I do see and hear an unhealthy, absurd conflation of domestic violence, black man’s struggle, and heroism. I keep hearing stories about how we must protect our sons against police misconduct. I agree. But what about our daughters, mothers, aunts, and sisters? I know in writing this that I’m opening myself up to “you’re not down with the struggle” arguments from my own people. But I know that a struggle that doesn’t acknowledge the collective strife of the community, is not one that I want to be a part of. That divisive way of understanding government injustice only promotes the same voicelessness that we aim to combat.

I could write so much more, but I want to think about my mother in this moment. I want to think about the fluffy pancakes she prepared, and the love she sings daily.

I want to honor black mothers who are continually framed and portrayed as asexual, loud, troublemakers via film, the government-issued Moynihan Report, and gross sentencing that doesn’t consider their humanity. I have to think about Alexander’s children, who will be nearly adults when she is released. I have to think about a man who physically attacks a pregnant woman and doesn’t see a problem with that.  I have to think of the criminalization of black mothers and understand that their fight is also mine.

I cannot exist in limited frameworks that enforce our silence. Everything is not alright for anyone. And I’m saying it.

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

————

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

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Help?

I’m back. I love updating this blog way too much to leave it unattended for long. I’ve been on the go lately, too wrapped in “real life” affairs to keep up with the latest film releases or pop culture critiques. One thing, however, that has captured my attention is the media frenzy surrounding the upcoming release of the film adaptation The Help, written by Kathryn Stockett, and directed by Tate Taylor. Since I haven’t read the book or seen the film, my thoughts will be limited to a certain trend I’ve noticed (although it’s not new), in film and television. Stories centering on, or involving black characters in the midst of pivotal, oftentimes turbulent historical periods seem to be best received, especially in a commercial/mainstream sense, when whites author them. As stated previously, this is not something new. It’s been happening since The Birth of a Nation, Uncle Tom’s Cabin, and Cleopatra.

There is a glamorization that comes with the authoring of these stories. A glamorization that comes at the expense of the riveting truths that exist in their source material. I recall being on a film festival panel in San Francisco when the issue of whether to accept a short film dealing with slavery, came up. One judge was adamantly against the short film because he believed we were “past that” as African Americans and needed to “move on.” As I progressed as a filmmaker and documentarian, I came to see that “we moved past that” mostly when it came to black filmmakers wanting to make films about these events, but not when white filmmakers did.

Somehow, in this idealized present we’ve moved past that. In this present moment when an innocent black man can be shot dead and his murderer go free soon after. Or how about the present moment where a black mother is jailed for enrolling her child in a better school district? Clearly, we have not gotten past it, lest we wouldn’t enjoy and flock to see films that provide some glamorized, safe portrayal of who we are. A film and book like The Help functions perfectly in this way because it allows people to feel comfortable with systems of privilege and injustice that have plagued this country since its inception.

Both my grandmothers worked in the domestic sphere during the same time period this book and film take place. They could be considered “the help.” My maternal grandmother used to clean the house of a wealthy white family that kept black people’s severed toes and fingers in a pickle jar on their mantle. My paternal grandmother, a well-read scholar and theologian was made to care for white woman’s children and even breastfeed them, even though she had 12 of her own. My grandmothers endured the trauma of these situations, still maintaining integrity and resistance in their everyday lives. These are the women that I want to know about. These are the scenes I want to see. These are the women that I want to watch on the screen, and write into captivating screenplays that get made into films. But my lingering question here, is do other people want to see them? When our history is not made into some glamorized vehicle to lessen the impact of racism and white privilege historically and currently, will we want to see that film? Will studios want to green light that film, written and directed by a black woman, and a self-professed descendant of the very women we watch in The Help? Will my people go to the theater to see that film?

These are questions I ask as I observe the fervor around such films as The Help, Django Unchained, and even The Blindside– all films made by white directors that inevitably helped the stories get recognized and seen by masses of people. So, sadly, the answer to some of the questions I posed is no. As an independent filmmaker, I am fully aware of the avenues I must take in order to tell the stories I feel passionate about, and those avenues many times don’t intersect with mainstream, Hollywood inclusion. Recently, I watched Titanic on TV and wondered to myself, could there ever be a film as epic as this that dealt with another massive, water-based trauma- The Middle Passage? Could there be as much interest and tears flowing in the theater if a black filmmaker released a film about black people, surviving amidst insurmountable obstacles on a voyage that signaled the development of the United States as we know it? (The closest things to it would be Haile Gerima’s 1993 film Sankofa or Alex Haley’s TV-miniseries Roots). I hold no ill feelings toward Titanic or The Help, and don’t refute the argument that movies must be entertaining to draw in audiences, but I also know what’s been continually sacrificed when our stories are not afforded the same weight as others. My grandmothers were heavily affected by their time as domestic “help.” These events left indelible marks on how they’d come to see the world and how it received them as black women. While I’m sure they may have had some pleasant moments, that was not the full picture. So, the movie I would write wouldn’t be a heart-warming comedy/drama where black nannies cracked jokes and then went home. It’d be a riveting, suspenseful drama that placed them at the center of the story, as human beings. I just hope people would want to see this story, and that I would be able to make it.

I’m not sorry to say, but we haven’t moved past this.

http://www.marriedmysugardaddy.com/the-help-an-honest-no-holds-barred-film-review

promo image for "Dark Girls"

There’s been a lot of discussion lately about the release of the documentary preview, “Dark Girls,” directed by Bill Duke and Channsin Berry (which you can view below). Whether people are enraged or awakened by the material, it’s sparked a definite chord in folks across the country. I was even moved to write a poem partly inspired by some of its themes, specifically around Eurocentric beauty standards (see previous post). The preview definitely stirred my emotions and resonated with me as a black woman who has experienced, learned, and/or witnessed this type of self-hatred in my life and community. However, after an earlier phone call with my older sister, where she posed some alternative ways to frame the discussion, I’m reconsidering my initial reactions to the directors’ focus and choice of content.

Put simply, what about the “dark girls” who were raised to love their brown skin, who were confident, and never viewed their skin color as a mistake? What about the “dark girls” raised in households where their parents/ family members praised their intelligence and beauty?  What about the darker-skinned women who were ridiculed but say that it didn’t affect their total self-conception? I know some of them. They do exist, and they seem to be all but erased from this documentary preview. This lack of inclusion caused to me wonder about the concerns of documentary filmmaking- the intentional and not-so intentional slant that directors have when conceiving of ideas that they deem compelling or powerful. What would happen if alternative perspectives were included in this preview? How would that complicate this very complex narrative on skin color? How does having two black men direct a documentary about black women’s skin color affect the narrative, if it does at all? These are questions I consider regularly as  narrative and documentary filmmaker. When I think of privileging a certain perspective over another, I must consider what that will do to the story I’m trying to tell and how audiences will react to that decision.

I’m in no way lessening the gravity of this skin-color caste system within the black community, and globally. Through out my life, I’ve seen the debilitating ramifications of its existence, and I’ve always been a proponent for trying to break it down and analyze its function as a force of division, pseudo-importance, and over-enforced Eurocentricity. I cannot say that I’ve experienced what the women in this preview have, but I’ve felt the sting in my chest when my friends and family members have. I’ve experienced the incessant pressure from media, classmates, and teen crushes to have long hair, to claim that I was “half Indian,” to embrace “light skin” as if it were some kind of exalted honor.  So my intent here is never to devalue the impact of these ingrained ideologies that affect black and brown people across the world, but to question how this preview would function if the total complexity of this issue was explored.

There is a part in the documentary where interviewees talk about black men not seeking out long-term relationships with them because they’re darker skinned. In my experience, I’ve seen some black men seek out women with this as one of the main reasons they’re attracted to the woman; because she has dark skin. Both motivations can be problematic and should be examined, but this is just an alternative consideration. There’s also no discussion of how other elements of self-esteem and socialization affect the way young girls react to these beliefs. My older sister mentioned her friend, who despite having the treasured long hair and light skin, was extremely insecure and unhappy with herself. Her thoughts had less to do with her skin color and more to do with her family influence and emotional health, which can also be applied to dark skinned girls brought up in supportive, loving homes who feel good about themselves.

By leaving out the varied voices of dark-skinned women and black community members, we’re not able to feel any other way but mad, angry, enraged, saddened, and hopefully ready to change this discourse. But there are parts of this narrative that can ignite hope, relief, and maybe even some humor.  Again, it all goes back to the directors’ intentions and their “slant,” which is something I’m so fascinated with as a filmmaker. I once took a documentary filmmaking class at Howard University where we discussed the choices made by filmmakers, which renders how their act of “documenting” is interpreted. If the director’s intention was to move people to the point of dialogue and change, hopefully the piece works in that direction, but how would presenting a multifaceted perspective help to enliven, evoke or distill that dialogue?

I wrote this:

 

21 years after we learned

that nappy hair didn’t make you pretty

and the boys didn’t like it either,

someone is still pulling my coarse strands

to see how long it is

 

brown girls learn to love flat irons

that kill coils

brown women behind me in the mirror

tugging at my stubborn kink

to see if it’ll flow past my shoulder

 

4 years after my best friend

bent her face in pain and said sadly,

I look like an African

she’s behind me in the mirror,

pulling pieces of my hair

to see if it flows past the shoulder

seeing if it hangs there,

but it doesn’t, just curls back and

bounces out of her fingers

wanting freedom

 

brown women in the mirror,

wishing for hair past shoulders

pulling mine to comparison

hating the African that’ll always scream through

their faces

cuz the boys didn’t want the bald headed girls

and mine gives her a mission

to get longer

 

-Nijla Mu’min

© 2011

Partly, in response to this:

 

 

can you see me? am i there?!

A recent spate of disheartening events have prompted me to write tonight. One in particular stands out. I recently had a dispute with my school’s campus safety department regarding an erroneous ticketing procedure. When I attempted to resolve the matter, I was told by a mediating third party that the individuals I interacted with expressed that I was “very aggressive, rude, and hostile” when I approached them about the issue. They were thus resistant to resolve the matter. I was then told that I should go back to those same people and attempt to “prove” to them that I’m “polite” and willing to work to resolve the issue. Now I’ve had numerous experiences with people’s racist attitudes in my life, but this is one of the most ludicrous, and also amusing.

Not only is it insane that I would walk into someone’s office yelling and being hostile, it is also beyond me that I would later be encouraged to “prove” to them that I am a polite person based on their own false image of who I am. This is not the first time I’ve been unwillingly placed into a robotic, “black woman” body and expected to be some type of caricature that approaches complete strangers by being aggressive and loud. This “black woman” script is an all too common model for folks uncomfortable with the idea of intelligent black people, or black women in this instance. To make up complete untruths and fabrications about my character would be the way they justify their own negligence and ignorance.

I’ve had people snap their fingers and wind their necks when talking to me, expecting that I would return a Maury Povich- produced black woman- response, and be okay with that. I’ve seen those same people conduct “civil” conversations with white women and others. I recently read an article by Helena Andrews on TheRoot.com called “Are Black Women Invisible?” Studies were conducted for the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology on the social invisibility of black women, and the  conversations participants had with them.  According to the article, “The study’s participants were given a list of comments spoken during the conversation and were asked to match them to their speaker. Participants either mixed up the comments made by black women (suggesting that black women are interchangeable) or attributed the comments to another race or gender entirely.”

In my case, my true character was made invisible in the scope of the interaction I had with these people. It was colored in with a stock- character stereotype that movies, reality shows, and advertisements blast into society everyday. Whatever input I had or expressed was invalidated due to their belief in the “script” they wrote for me before I even had a chance to speak. Though my situation is limited to a campus dispute, this experience is somewhat universal and echoes larger issues related to people’s inability to decipher between stereotype, ignorance and what’s there in front of them. A black woman who who responds intelligently, unflinchingly and without fear is not a “loud, rude” black woman. And even if they choose to raise their voice, stereotypes should not be attached to them.  However, everyday black women become this, not by their actions but by someone else’s cognitive limitations in seeing them as a true, breathing person with a life, and not a carbon copy robot caricature.

For further reading:

http://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/the-social-thinker/201012/are-black-women-invisible

http://www.theroot.com/views/singleminded-being-invisible-woman

This opening weekend is the first in a long time that I’ve been excited for. About two months ago, I marked my google calendar in anticipation for the releases of Night Catches Us, directed by Tanya Hamilton, and Black Swan, directed by Darren Aronofsky.

I actually caught a pre-screening of this film at my school when Tanya Hamilton visited my program’s Guest Artist Workshop. I found the story and the screenplay captivating in structure, subtlety, and tension. On-screen chemistry between Anthony Mackie and Kerry Washington was sizzling. However, what I found most interesting about the film was Hamilton’s premise for writing and developing it. Her inspiration for the film was one of her mother’s friends who was involved in a Civil Rights Sit-in at the White House in the 1960s, and whose life was deeply affected by it. Hamilton was concerned with people like her, who “burn bright” at such a young age, being involved in social movements, and then must live in the afterglow, destruction, and repercussions of their involvement, while leading so-called “normal” lives, raising children, and working a 9-5. This was a very dynamic concept to me. I thought about so many former freedom riders, black panthers, and Civil rights activists who walk through the world each day, their struggles and past lives invisible to the present world. The characters in Night Catches Us inhabit a very unique moment in time, attempting to carry on with normal life and love amidst the still-potent embers of the Black Panther Party and its complex legacy on them and the country. Please see this film, if not only for the story but for its rich, slice of life cinematography, layered performances, the Roots’ musical score, and a stunning debut by Tanya Hamilton.

I saw this movie tonight. The theater was packed and I would say rightfully so. I appreciate Aronofsky’s work and his visceral, stomach-clenching exactness when it relates to human emotion and unraveling. This is evident in all of his films, and he delivers once again with Black Swan. It’s very much a psychological thriller, with lots of obsessive compulsive behavior, pointe shoes, and eroticism. It may be kinda scary but I think one of main reasons I appreciated the film was because I connected with the main character, Nina, (played phenomenally by Natalie Portman), in a real way. Not so much in her extreme mental episodes, but in her need to be the best, to prove herself even to her own self that she could be both the White Swan and Black Swan. It’s a very terrifying feeling to be trapped in your own mental hysteria and doubts when trying to advance at a given task, especially when related to art. One starts to turn on them self, seeing their own body as an enemy of sorts. I found this thematic thread to be fascinating, something that I immediately latched onto and watched in anticipation as the writers and director explored the depths of it.

Matthew Libatique’s cinematography is always fresh and dynamic to me- here he really comes alive. The ballet scenes are particularly precise- I’m always interested in how directors frame scenes with extensive movement- dance, sports, etc. Aronofsky utilizes extensive POV shots, especially in a scene where Portman turns and pirouettes repeatedly, creating a delirious, dizzy feeling in the audience. Here and in other scenes, Aronofsky and Libatique work together to transform the camera into a ballerina itself- it moves with such grace, dollying between the bodies of the dancers and floating with a precision that makes it hard to believe it is even on stage with them and not flying through the air. Aside from its haunting, self-destructive world, the film included an interesting subplot of a mother/daughter relationship between Nina and her mother, a former ballerina gone- old, and also eerily doting and protective of Nina. All these components made for a very disturbing, memorable movie experience.

Okay, so that actually turned out to be more of a review than I intended. I guess I can’t help it. I love cinema and seeing these two films on the big screen was a treat.  Support quality cinema directed by black women!!! and Black Swan too…