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


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)

Wow. I haven’t written on here in so long. Been so wrapped up in pre-pro on Deluge that I forgot blogging even existed. But alas, I had to step out today to go to Kinko’s. Ah, Kinko’s.

handle with care

I met a guy there once before. He’s an assistant manager and has a nice hair cut. The last time I came, we stood in awkward silence for five minutes when my receipt jammed in the printer and he struggled to rescue it. A receipt for a purchase of paper is not extremely essential to my budget but I decided to stand there and see if he’d ever fix the paper jam. It was fun to watch his hands and eyes move in frenzied coordination trying to figure it out. He had nice hands with a few gashes and marks on them.

Finally, he went to the back, leaving me for five more minutes with no receipt. I waited, and when he came back, he handed over a 3-page printout of the small paper transaction. He smiled at me. Then it was over. I liked his persistence.

Today, I walked in and there he was delegating tasks to fellow employees. I told him I needed my paper cut. He said it would cost me, but “I don’t mind taking your money,” he said. He smiled at me and I smiled back. Probably the biggest smile I’d had in a week. Sad, I know, but pre-production is hard sometimes.

I took my paper out and told him I just needed “a little off the top.” Gave him an exact measurement. He looked at me, grabbed the stack of paper, and took it to the back. He cut my paper. For free. I think he wanted to say more but more words didn’t come. I touched my newly cut paper and pushed it into my used brown Kinko’s bag. I started to take out my phone like I really had something to do on it. I didn’t. He started toward the back where I imagined he presided over a mound of paper shipments that gave him tiny cuts on his fingers.

I gave my paper a final once over and walked toward the exit. He was standing on the other side of the counter smiling at me. “Have a good day!,” he yelled out. I smiled back, and waved. I walked out to my car and looked back like maybe he might follow me with advice on paper-cutting, but he didn’t. I got in the car. I drove away.

I run into these kinds of situations and am not quite sure of how to go about them. I think someone is cute. They may think I am cute too, but who has the words for that when they are trying to fix a receipt jammed in a printer or cut the top of paper? What is the proper protocol when you have a crush on a sandwich-maker at Whole Foods but there are 9 disgruntled customers in line after you who could care less? Sure, you can ask them what sandwich they like best, or in the case of Kinko’s, inquire about how they got started in the paper business, but is that really sincere when all you really want to know is if they are interested in you too?

Well, you have to start somewhere. Maybe that somewhere is inquiries about different grades of paper, from linen to card stock, which segue into questions about good movies they’ve seen and if they like sweet potatoes as much as you do. Wait, is that too much? And, if the sandwich is good at Whole Foods, maybe I should let the guy know what a great job he did the next time I’m in there. Or maybe it’s bringing more paper back to Kinko’s and asking him if he wants to cut… Who knows. I like to think fate is the best option in all cases. Maybe, in some strange way, we will meet again, the paper man and I.

But, for now I have to finish this movie.


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.

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:

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-



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





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.

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.

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

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