Black Girls in Paris

Black Girl in Paris filmKiandra Parks’ film Black Girl in Paris, based on Shay Youngblood’s novel of the same title, airs on HBO this February and March. The 20-minute short was Parks’ grad thesis project at NYU. Parks’ film follows an alternate path mapped out in Youngblood’s novel and focuses on the relationship formed between the protagonist Eden (played by Medicine for Melancholy‘s Tracy Heggins) and Luce (the brilliant Zaraah Abrahams), a fellow black girl in Paris surviving on luck and hustle. In this way, the beautifully shot film is for Baldwin’s Giovanni’s Room what Looking for Langston is for … well, for Langston. At the same time, the film pays homage to “black girls” like Josephine Baker, Ada “Bricktop” Smith, Marpessa Dawn and others who looked for the city to transform them in savvy cosmopolites and erotic subjects. That transformation, especially for black girls, is not always easy or glamorous, the film reminds us. But the experience of adventure is usually worth the price of the ticket.

 

Patsey’s Screams

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photo c/o premier.fr

Steve McQueen’s 12 Years a Slave is an important film that is also difficult to watch. Film critic Armond White describes it as a “horror show” that will encourage “howls of discomfort.” But as uncomfortable as those two-plus hours are, they only graze the surface of the horrors of lived slavery. Asked about the “hard to watch” label by LA Times’s Steven Zeitchik, McQueen said in no uncertain terms, “The truth can sometimes be hard to watch. […] But if we want to understand where we’re going, we have to understand our past.” At the same time, I remain wary of how spectacular displays of black pain impact viewing audiences. (Saidiya Hartman’s Scenes of Subjection proves ever-timely, relevant and useful for viewing such explicit representations of bodily trauma.) Will confronting the slave past by seeing it represented make us feel self-congratulatory in what too many have misidentified as a “postracial” era? Or will witnessing representations of slavery embolden us to confront the imperial, racial, and sexual violence of the present: the “afterlife of slavery?”

As I turned away from some of the film’s explicit scenes, I became aware of its attention to sound as well. Averting my eyes didn’t blot out the simulation of whip cracks; a mother’s incessant wailing following the sale of her children; or Patsey’s (played brilliantly by Lupita Nyong’o) tortured screams. I thought about Frederick Douglass’s Aunt Hester, whose “heart-rending shrieks” would wake him up at dawn. Harriet Jacobs renders more subtle registers of hearing in Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl. She mentions the “stinging scorching words” of a sexually predatory master and the nighttime whispers of a jealous mistress as some of the quotidian terrors of slavery she endured.

Through sound, song, and dance turned moan and scream and back to song again, McQueen’s film captures the affective memories of slavery. One of the most emotional scenes—at least for me—takes place at the burial of a slave who has fallen dead from overwork in the cotton fields. The slave community sends their brother “home” with “Roll Jordan Roll,” “I want to go to heaven when I die.” The camera closes in on Solomon’s/Platt’s (Chiwetel Ejiofor) pained expression. For the first time, “Platt,” who is usually playing the fiddle, joins his voice with the robust cries of others. The kidnapped “free” man becomes resigned to his fate as a slave and turns his hope for freedom toward the afterlife. As a complement to the violence of whipping and plantation labor, that act of singing—like the scenes when the mistress forces the slaves to dance for her entertainment—broadens the “truth” of slavery by bringing the aural and the emotional facets of the institution to bear on the physical toil and abuse.

The affective sway of 12 Years a Slave doesn’t dim the unrelenting cruelty displayed on the screen though. To some extent, it heightens it. Solomon’s hopelessness is alleviated by his rescue, but the mournful refrain of “Roll Jordan Roll” haunts viewers as we contemplate Patsey’s fate. Patsey—who makes corn husk dolls after picking cotton clean; who begs for death to escape the sadistic clutches of a sexually depraved master; who, just for a moment, loses herself in the music and dances to her own tune; whose back is skinned clean because she wanted to bathe with soap—is not rescued by a Canadian carpenter or a gun-toting Django-like avenger. Patsey’s tragic fate, for some, may belie enslaved women’s various modes of resistance. At the same time, the film refuses to allow us to “look away” from the tortured gaze of one who is left behind. By making Patsey’s the last image of slavery we see, McQueen’s film reframes the history of slavery through a female gendered lens that makes the trials of black girlhood and womanhood as essential to our remembrances as the more often recounted narratives of stolen manhood.

High on Love

Don’t get me wrong. I’m glad Forest Whitaker stretched his acting chops in The Butler and am looking forward to seeing Steve McQueen’s Twelve Years a Slave. I think all facets of American history and black people’s central place in it deserve to be represented. It’s especially important to remember those things that many would choose to forget.

And yet, the recent slate of black films about black trauma and servitude has made me slightly war weary. “Somebody, anybody make a film about middle class black folks doing ordinary things!” I even find myself counting down the days to the premier of The Best Man Holiday.

This past week, the film gods finally intervened. Shaka King’s feature debut Newlyweeds was showing at The Charles. I hadn’t heard about the film and even if I had, I’m not sure I would’ve paid money to see a “stoner dramedy,” not even one praised by Sundance. The promise of a Wire reunion whet my curiosity though: the film’s executive producer is Gbenga Akinnagbe (The Wire’s “Chris Partlow”) and Isiah Whitlock Jr. (“Senator Clay ‘sheeeeet’ Davis”) and Hassan Johnson (“Wee-Bey”) have parts in the film. Plus, it’s shot in Bed-Stuy!

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But even more than my desire to nostalgize over Brooklyn, my need to see something black and clever and funny drove me to the theater. And I’m glad it did. Newlyweeds is much more than a stoner film. And while it’s hilarious, it also has an undercurrent of melancholy. Amari Cheatom (“Lyle”) and lovely newcomer Trae Harris (“Nina”) are high on love and weed. Eventually their enjoyment of the latter threatens their relationship and their futures. It manages to be a cautionary tale without turning into an afterschool special. But most of all, it’s refreshing. It’s not a typical “black film,” a stagey romance, or your usual stoner comedy. The combination of King’s keen imagination and dark sense of humor; Harris and Cheatom’s unaffected performances; and Daniel Patterson’s gorgeous cinematography make it a must-see, especially for black indie lovers.

 

ESPN’s ‘Venus Vs.’ Explores Venus Williams’s Equal-Pay Legacy by Allison Samuels

venus_williams_1996Venus Williams may be absent from Wimbledon this year, but her influence on the tournament remains—and as more than just a bellwether for sister Serena’s success.

The new ESPN film Venus Vs., which airs July 2 on the sports network, is likely to cement the tennis superstar’s legacy as a trailblazer and a heroine for women’s rights. Venus Vs. documents the long battle for equal wages among the sexes in tennis that began with Billie Jean King and was later championed by Venus.

Director Ava DuVernay suggested the Venus-themed documentary to ESPN last year after researching Williams’s relentless efforts to attain equal pay at Wimbledon. “I’d heard about it but didn’t know all of the details,’’ said DuVernay. “It’s really a fascinating story.’’

Continue reading @ The Daily Beast

Gloria Steinem Had Strong Influence on Black Women

By Evelyn C. White | SF Gate

Steinem and Hughes c/o MISS

Tonight Home Box Office will air “Gloria: In Her Own Words” – a riveting documentary about the famed leader of the feminist movement. The masterful film augments “The Education of A Woman: The Life of Gloria Steinem” by Carolyn Heilbrun, the first full-length biography of the activist/journalist who, in 1971, co-founded Ms. magazine.

Indeed, “Gloria” features hilarious footage of network anchor Harry Reasoner (1923 -1991) deriding the launch of a magazine that he ventured would last “six months before it ran out of things to say.” Forty years later, Ms. boasts a global readership and was recently honored for an article on antiabortion extremists.

Continue Reading @ SFGate