Kathleen Collins and the Redemptive Softness of Black Women

Still from the film “Losing Ground” directed by Kathleen Collins.

This post has been a long time coming.

I Love Black women filmmakers, because I believe that Black women filmmakers see us. Not just the uplifting “We shall overcome” versions of us, but they see us in all of our beauty, contradictions, nuanced, strength and fragility.

Last fall, while reading Jacqueline Bobo’s Black Women Film and Video Directors, I kept coming across the name Kathleen Collins.

Come to find out the reels for Collins’ film “Losing Ground” were at the library so I took an afternoon and I watched it. The film blew my mind.

The main protagonist in the film is a Black woman philosophy professor who is searching for the ecstatic experience. Yes, honey, she is searching for ecstasy.

In an interview in Black Film Review Collins stated that,

Actually, the only hope for any sort of feminine salvation in this country– and the sad thing is that Black women are giving it up  in favor of a quietly growing, kind of strident white feminism. But the only residual softness that is possible in this culture as far as I am concerned is in the hands of Black women.

When I read this I thought. Wait a minute, the people who have been historically represented as lewd, lascivious, unrapeable, gold diggers, rich and lonely,  hoochie mammas, are the ones who have the redemptive softness?????

Film scholar L.H. Stalling takes this idea of the residual softness of Black women and runs with it. She writes,

Kathleen Collins’s solution to the violence done to black women and their image insists that such redemption come from those who have been positioned as the most abnormal and dysfunctional in society, black women.

This idea of Black women being the site of redemption because they are some of the most maligned is interesting, and I believe that I have heard it before in Audre Lorde’s work.

For me it takes on a greater significance when I watch reality television shows featuring the narratives of Black women. Love and Hip Hop Atlanta in particular is what comes to mind.

Stallings goes on to underscore why I enjoy movies directed by Black women filmmakers when she states,

Collins produces a film that imagines a viewer or audience who can get turned on by seeing a black woman think, be conscious, and create consciousness on screen. Black independent filmmaking (be it documentary, cinematic fiction, or pornography) continues to be the only space in which black filmmakers can explore and represent various sexualities and subjectivities.

So, what do you think of this idea of the redemptive softness of Black women?

On the {Sexual} Politics of Viola Davis’s Natural Hair at the Oscars

It wasn’t until my homie Gisele, a Black woman and working actress pointed out to me that Viola Davis graduated from Julliard in the late 80’s, that my growing obsession with Davis began to make sense.

In Davis, I saw myself.

I saw the struggles of so many Black women who try to remain whole in the face of economic, racial, sexual and financial circumstances that threaten to undermine them, in a mainstream culture that reads them by and large as maids, hypersexual video vixens, or as invisible.

A couple of weeks before the Oscars I watched the Tavis interview with her and read two articles at Shadow and Act titled “It’s a Difficult Time to be a Black Filmmaker with an Imagination” by Tanya Steele and “A Young Viola Davis Thought Experiment” by Charles Hudson. This material helped me to flesh out my ideas around Davis.

I wanted to know, what Davis’s process for deciding whether or not to take the role?  When I learned from the Tavis interview that she thought about it for three months, that it kept her up at night, she had me.

In the bookToms, Coons, Mulattoes, Mammies and Bucks Donald Bogle studies the history of representations of African Americans in film. Bogle contends that all of these stereotypes are rooted in entertaining to stress “Negro inferiority”. Which leads me to ask, what is the political purpose of seeing “Negros” as inferior?

You see, I believe that one of the most interesting intersections to explore is the intersection between race and cultural productions because they can teach us both about the insidious and peculiar history of race and gender. This is important because I believe that understanding history can possibly lead us to a different, equitable and just future.

As many of you know I enjoy writing about films more than I writing about rap music these days, largely because the financial and racial politics of filmmaking remains highly undertheorized in pop culture blog spaces.

Which brings me to Ms. Davis and erotic capital.

Viola Davis and Erotic Capital

I take the idea of erotic capital from Siobahn Brooks. She has done some interesting work on class and race in strip clubs in New York and Oakland.

Erotic capital is made up of the things that are used to evaluate a womans sexual desirability in the public marketplace. So for Black women, I see erotic capital as hair texture, hair length, skin color, skin hue, body shape, nose and mouth size.

If we look at Ms. Davis, against mainstream standards of beauty that says that thin, white, young, curvy and blond is the norm, then I read her desire to show up to the Oscars with short chestnut afro as a rupture in popular culture representations of beauty. At least for that moment.

In a moment, when she knew that the focus would be on her, she chose to show up wearing a hairstyle that many people, some Black women included would call uncivilized.

What does it mean to  show up to the Oscars as a Julliard trained dark skinned Black woman, who is nominated for an Oscar for playing a maid in a movie that is a mainstream/hegemonic narrative about the “Good Old South”? In 2012?

Viola Davis and Black Women’s Genius

I knew that Davis was a genius when I learned two things. The first, is that for her role in Doubt she created a thirty page report/dossier on her character because she knew she only had two scenes to nail the character.

Thirty pages? That means you are invested in your craft.

The second reason why I knew she was a genius is because of Toni Morrison’s Sula. In some ways when I read that she created this dossier, I was immediately reminded of Morrison’s Sula, and the idea of a woman without an artistic form becoming dangerous.

It was in this moment that I realized that Davis, needs to produce her work otherwise she wouldn’t be right.

What do I mean by being right?

How many broken spirited people do you know who ain’t right largely because they knew they were put here on this planet to do something, but rather than embrace that thing, they took the path of least resistance?

What does it mean in 2012 to not take the path of least resistance when your Julliard training implicitly tells you that you should expect to be doing Shakespeare after you graduate from your acting program?

What do you do when you learn that the rules for you and the rules for your peers are not one and the same?

What does it mean to be a Black woman, looking to be validated by an industry that has historically seen people like you only as being fit to play a maid?

Pariah and Red Tails: Film Finance, Sexuality and Race.

I will be writing a series of posts about Pariah. This is the first of three or four.

Dedicated to @Very54. I missed you too.

The conversation around Red Tails and Pariah is interesting in it brings the politics of black stories and professional Black storytellers to the forefront. (Peace to James McBride for the language of professional Black storytellers.)

This post isn’t about the content of the films, but about how audiences perceive movies, the history of White hollywood and the politics of getting stories made and distributed that feature Black subjects.

George Lucas personally financed Red Tails, after the Hollywood establishment decided that a film with all Black leads isn’t viable.  Forrest Wickman in Slate writes,

George Lucas, who produced the movie, has said that he was forced to finance it on his own—to the tune of $58 million—when studios balked at the marketability of a film with all black leads.

Last week, after the release of Red Tails,  on John Stewart’s show, Lucas went on record saying that the Hollywood establishment did not know how to market Red Tails with an all Black lead casts.  Sofia Hernandez writes,

He continued, “They don’t believe there’s any foreign market for it and that’s 60 percent of their profit…I showed it to all of them and they said ‘No. We don’t know how to market a movie like this.’ ”

Unlike the Matthew BroderickDenzel Washington Civil War drama Glory or other films depicting black soldiers in battle, the World War II pic Red Tails does not feature a white protagonist, said Lucas, “It’s an all-black movie. There’s no major white roles in it at all. It’s one of the first, all-black action pictures ever made. It’s not Glory where you have a lot of white officers running these guys into cannon fire. They were real heroes.”

As a scholar, I do the political economy of culture, which is a fancy way of saying that I examine the way race, gender and institutional power impacts how art (music and films and books) is made.

The fact that the overseas market plays such a huge role in determining whether or not the Hollywood film establishment would support Red Tails is significant.

Filmmaking is capital intensive and historically the domain of White men. For me, it would have been interesting if Lucas mentioned that movies featuring Black subjects have a hard time within the Hollywood establishment and went on to mention the fact that it is a miracle that Pariah has been made. This would have opened the space to talk about films made featuring Black people by a seasoned White male filmmaker and a new comer Black woman filmmaker. It would have opened the space to ask how does money, and race, and sexuality impact their films similarly and differently?

I’ve seen Pariah twice. The first time was at a screening with the producer, Kim Wayans, Dee Rees the director, Nekisa Cooper the producer and Adepero Oduye the star. The second time was with a nearly all Black sold out crowd at an art house theater.  I’ll see Red Tails next weekend.

Based on my notes from the Q&A on Pariah, the film cost approximately five hundred thousand dollars to make, and it took them 18 days to complete it. As of January 22nd, 2012 it made $497,579. This is a second career for the director/producer duo as Cooper and Rees met while they were both in corporate America, working a Proctor and Gamble. Cooper and Rees also fundraised and used credit to get the film made. Lastly, many of the crew members were willing to work without pay (temporarily) because they believed in the project.

Given the fact that the birth of film in the United States is largely thought to be “Birth of a Nation” it is in fact a miracle that Pariah was made in the first place.

What is interesting to me is that Reese and crew’s narrative has been one of we did it, come out and support, I have been working on this story for a while, no it is not autobiographical, but there are parts of me in here and I am glad we were able to make it.

So my questions are.

Why were Black folks in social media spaces and in comment sections of the mainstream press seemingly more willing to rally around Lucas’s film but not Reese’s?

Yes, the films are two different audiences, but they both feature Black casts, they both have awesome and interesting back histories in terms of film finance and they both feature stories that need to be told.

Is Black homophobia working here?

If we take the statement “We need to support Red Tails because if we don’t the Hollywood establishment may not make anymore movies featuring us” then don’t we assume that we have more control over film finance than we actually do?

Why would a Black person in 2012 assume that they can control which films come out of Hollywood, when it is clear that “overseas marketing possibilities” have far more control, at least with Red Tails?

I love writing about movies the way I use to Love writing about rap music. I hope it shows.

The Politics of Making a “Black Film” in Obama’s America

Image of director Kasi Lemmons courtesy of Professor Sussoro’s Blog

Last fall I tweeted that a barometer of Black women’s freedom would be their ability to control, tell, and distribute their own stories.

Having seen Push, and now For Colored Girls, two movies based on texts written by Black women about Black women, but directed by Black men, I am incredibly mindful of who gets to tell which story and why. Story telling is powerful because it is through stories that we come to see who we are in the world. Our stories define us. Stories tell us what is possible.

Consequently I was really excited when I learned that Pariah, directed by Dee Rees had been acquired by Focus Features last week.

A story, by a Black woman, about a Black girl. #Awesome.

In thinking about Pariah I was reminded of a Professor Michelle Wallace’s commentary on Spike Lee nearly fifteen years ago and what it means to make “Black Films.” In the article “Doin’ the Right Thing” she writes,

” …implicit in this formulation of Blacks having their own films was the nagging question as to whether such representations would somehow make black
peoples lives better overall. Regardless whether representation weather a film has value as any value as art, it can , if it chooses closely mirror or reflect the problems
and inequities of society. People make the mistake of thinking that a film can therefor correct inequities. This because we as a culture, are still trying to figure out what representation fully means in still new and exponentially expanding forms: what such forms can and can’t do, what we should and should not ask from them.”

She also say’s something in the article that has stuck with me which speaks to the idea that,

“we can now see that the notion of blacks making their “own” films presupposed the existence of a monolithic black community, unified enough to
posses a common ideology, ethics, morality, and culture, sufficient to override such competing and divisive interests as class, gender, sexuality, age and
education.”

This morning @tkoed Sent me a link from Ta-Nehisi’s blog where Neil Drumming, a screen writer and journalist, talks about about whether he would make “Black films.”

The article talks about how films by several NYU alums made it to Sundance this year. Full disclosure, as a little bear I worked for several years at NYU’s film school as an office manager. NYU’s Black film making culture is a part of me. It is in seeing grad and undergrad student filmmakers grind to make their dreams work that, that in some ways I developed the courage to openly pursue being an artist. Filmmakers taught me the power of story and how to analyze a film.

My homie Jase has just came back from Sundance after working on a doc on Harry Belafonte, Sing Your Song, #wingsup.

My homie’s Marquette Jones and Qwesi Davis both have films in the San Diego Black Film Festival this month.

I also found this article to be interesting, in that it speaks to how hyper segregated both Hollywood AND the art world is. Furthermore, it is related to a conversation that I was having last week with a Black woman journalist friend about how segregated Washington’s journalism corps are, and what this means for the careers of Black people in general and women of color in particular. It appears that one can operate in the White circle or the Black circle, but not both. Where does this leave people who are neither White nor Black? o.O

Work mirrors life?

Was it this rigid in New York? I don’t recall.

What is material to me is that Neil never disclosed his race. I read the article again, looking then I asked @tkoed if Neil was White. @Tkoed says that this is because regular readers know who he is, and that may be true. But I am not a regular reader, so I finished the article wondering is this a White, mixed race or Black person analyzing what it means to have negro characters in their movies.

Perhaps given how marginalized Black films are, to choose to make Black movies is a choice to have your work live on the margins. This can be tough to reconcile for some.

The homie Dame also sent me a link to an article titled “Can Revolutionary Films Hinder Social Action.” Read it here. This article looks at how the top 1% can use the medium of film
to transmit messages to the masses that then absolve the masses from taking action. For example, if you know that “The Matrix” exists, are you obligated to do something about it?

Oh and Rob has a piece up at The Liberator about the Black Creative Class. He makes some interesting points about who makes up this class and although his timeline throws me a bit, I like
the idea of inter-generational Black struggle that’s not linear and impacted by art. In some ways I think our posts are in conversation with each other.

Excited about Pariah?

Why did we assume that having more Black Films would change the lives of Black people?

Can we have a conversation about the forces that create a “Black Film” genre in the first place?

Race and racism are draining.