Four Women (Part 1)

Over the course of Hollywood’s relatively short history, representations of minority groups have all too often been reduced to stereotypes. Black men and women in particular have had to watch Hollywood represent their own communities through such stereotypes as: the “Tom;” the “Coon;” the “Tragic Mulatto;” the “Mammy;” and the “Buck” (Shohat 195).

These stereotypical roles not only draw attention to the skewed, one-dimensional view of race in Hollywood (and perhaps the United States more broadly), but they also draw attention to the complex relationships between representation, performance, and stereotypes (Shohat 195).

Filmmaker Julie Dash explored these issues in one of her earlier short films, Four Women, which sets dance to Nina Simone’s ballad of the same name.

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The four women described in Simone’s song represent four common stereotypes of Black women in America: the strong “Aunt Sarah;” the ‘tragic mulatto,’ “Saffronia;” the sex worker, “Sweet Thing;” and the militant “Peaches” (UCLA Film and Television Archive). Through her performance, Nina Simone brings the voices of these four characters to life in a way that links both their similarities and differences as Black women in America.

My skin is black/My arms are long/My hair is wooly/My back is strong/Strong enough to take the pain/Inflicted again and again/What do they call me?/My name is Aunt Sara (“Four Women”).

According to Mirielle Rosello, “the problem in thinking about stereotypes … is our stereotypes about them” (in Williams 82). Linda Williams explores this idea further:

“Rosello argues that stereotypes are important objects of study not because we can better learn eliminate them from our thinking, but rather because they cannot be eliminated. Stereotypes persist, and perhaps thrive upon, the protestations against them … ” (Williams 82).

What is required then, are analyses that shine a light on the changing historical contexts of stereotypes (William 82). In other words, we need to change how we approach the study of stereotypes if we wish to effectively understand how they exist and thrive over time.

For example, Richard Dyer (1984) critiques the stereotypical representations of homosexuality in films, but does so by looking at the roots of the representation, rather than attacking the stereotype itself. As he points out, “Righteous dismissal does not make stereotypes go away, and tends to prevent us from understanding just what stereotypes are, how they function, ideologically and aesthetically, and why they are so resilient in the face of our rejection of them” (Dyer 353).

Similarly, Ella Shohat argues that while “stereotypes and distortions” analyses do highlight the issues surrounding “social plausibility and mimetic accuracy” in media, their “obsession with ‘realism'” tends to paint the world in black and white – as “errors” and “distortions,” between “truths” and “lies” (178).

In other words, preoccupation with the accuracy and realism of stereotyping can be harmful because it ignores the ways in which the politics of representation actually operate within stereotypes. Shohat suggests that this is problematic because it assumes that the reality of a community is somehow “transparent” and “unproblematic,” while inaccurate representations are “easily unmasked” (178). Instead of focusing on the specific realism of certain stereotypes, it is more effective to problematize the social and historical context in which stereotypes are produced.

In the case of Nina Simone, “Four Women” faced ‘righteous dismissal’ upon its release in 1966. It was accused of being insulting to Black women by perpetuating stereotypes, and was subsequently banned by several radio stations.

Perhaps what these critics heard in Simone’s song were the ‘typical’ markers of Black femininity – skin colour, hair texture, social roles, names – the kinds of markers that have been at the root of problematic representations of Black women in the media. While these radio stations may have heard stereotypical representations of women, they did not look beyond the surface to really understand Simone’s message.

In Unthinking Eurocentrism: Multiculturalism and Media (1994), Ella Shohat describes “the burden of representation,” which refers to the synechdochal tendency of ethnic and racial representations (182). For example, colonized peoples tend to be perceived as “all the same,” meaning that any kind of negative behaviour by one member can come to represent the group as a whole, ultimately creating a stereotype (Shohat 183). As Shohat states, “representations become allegorical,” whereby “every subaltern performer/role is seen as synecdochically summing up a vast but putatively homogenous community” (183).

With this persistence of stereotypes, certain communities, such as Black Americans, come to face the “burden of representation” (182-3). Because these stereotypes are produced and projected from outside these communities, sensitivity arises “from the powerlessness of historically marginalized groups to control their own representation” (Shohat 184).

We see this sensitivity exhibited through the critique and censorship of Simone’s “Four Women.” After years of seeing Black American’s being represented in stereotypical roles, it is understandable that some people might not have wanted to hear those distorted utterances on the radio (considering that many of the radio stations that banned Simone’s song were primarily Black) (Virgin Island Daily News n.p.). But as Dyer and Williams warn, stereotypes cannot be eliminated that easily (Dyer 353; Williams 82).

Censorship only prevents us from “exposing the reactionary political force” of stereotyping (Dyer 364).

If we look closer, we might see how Simone’s use of stereotypical depictions of Black femininity operates simultaneously as a critique of stereotyping. Instead of placing a cloak on the stereotypical roles for Black women, Nina Simone sings about them, projecting her voice in a way that works to reinscribe Black female subjectivity into the roles promoted by a white, patriarchal Hollywood (and America more broadly). Through the four women, Simone uses four common stereotypes to challenge the social and historical circumstances through which such stereotypes exist and thrive.

My skin is brown / my manner is tough / I’ll kill the first mother I see / my life has been too rough / I’m awfully bitter these days / because my parents were slaves / What do they call me / My name is PEACHES (“Four Women” ).

Through one voice, Nina Simone relays the many (and different) stories and struggles of Black, American women.

“If Simone’s song suggests a history of black women in America, it is also a history of long-suppressed and finally uncontainable anger” (Pierpont n.p.).

Later, in ‘Part 2’ of this post, I will explore Julie Dash’s filmic interpretation and re-presentation of Nina Simone’s controversial “Four Women.”

Sources:

Dash, Julie, director. Four Women. Choreography and performance by Linda Martina   Young, produced by Winfred Tennison, 1975, Vimeo, https://vimeo.com/74869216.

Davis, Thulani. “Nina Simone, 1933-2003.” The Village Voice, 2003,           http://www.villagevoice.com/music/nina-simone-1933-2003-6410700.

Dyer, Richard. “Stereotyping.” Gays and Film, edited by Richard Dyer. New York         Zoetrope, 1984.

“Four Women.” UCLA Film and Television Archive, 2014, https://www.cinema.ucla.edu/la-rebellion/films/four-women.

Pierpont, Claudia Roth. “A Raised Voice: How Nina Simone turned music into a movement.” The New Yorker, 2014, http://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2014/08/11/raised-voice.

Shohat, Ella. “Stereotype, Realism, and the Struggle over Representation.” Unthinking       Eurocentrism: Multiculturalism and the Media, by Ella Shohat and Robert Stam.     Routledge, 1994.

Simone, Nina. “Four Women.” Wild is the Wind, The Verve Music Group, 1966, Spotify,   https://open.spotify.com/album/5gHvTZO4alH9wVcWgTjJat.

The Virgin Islands Daily News. “Protests continue to mount against the banning of a         recording by Nina Simone,” 1966, Google News, https://news.google.com/newspapers?id=grdNAAAAIBAJ&sjid=wUQDAAAAIBAJ&pg=3795,2693076 &dq=four-women+nina-simone+ban+radio&hl=en. Accessed 24 February 2017.

Williams, Linda. “Skin Flicks on the Racial Border: Pornography, Exploitation and             Interracial Lust.” Freiburger FrauenStudien, vol. 15, 2004.

 

© Lesley Butler (lvb717 @ mun.ca), 2017

Art and the Animal

I have been reading quite a bit about art and art history throughout this winter semester – from 19th century impressionism, to photography, to contemporary performance art. But one of the most recent things I have read was Elizabeth Grosz’s (2011) musings on art and animals.

While many philosophical perspectives tend to distinguish humans and animals on the basis of a human’s capacity for art, Grosz takes a Darwinian approach to finding the animal roots in artistic expression.

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“The Dodo,” 1893. Image from The British Library (Public Domain).

If I had to take a guess, I would say that the extent of my knowledge on Darwin comes from high school, much of which was probably very basic ‘survival of the fittest’ related evolutionary theory. So when I saw the term ‘Darwinism’ in Grosz’s writing, I felt a little bit out of my element.

In retrospect, I think this was part of Grosz’s goal – to show that scientific theory does not have to be daunting for more humanities-minded folks, and in fact, it can actually be quite beneficial.

Darwinism has opened up a way to engage with animal forces as those with which our own forces participate, and which direct us to a humanity that is always in the process of overcoming and transforming itself. It is the animal forces in us that direct us to what is regarded as most human about us – our ability to represent, to signify, to imagine, to wish for a make ideals, goals, aims. It is the animal in us that, ironically, directs us to art, to the altruistic, to ethics, and to politics. It is animals’ modes of coexistence, their modes of difference, their direct encounters with nonliving forces and materialities that guide our own. (Grosz 169).

As Grosz argues, instead of attempting to understand art and humanity through Enlightenment philosophies that valued “intelligence, reason, and the attainment of higher, more ennobling goals,” Darwin allowed us to see the connections between humans and their animal ancestors (169-70). Essentially, Grosz aims to change the conversation of art from its reliance on the human, to its relation to the world beyond (170).

The animal becomes not that against which we define ourselves but that through which we come to our limits. We are animals of a particular sort which, like all of life, are in the process of becoming something else (Grosz 170).

metbutterfly

“Three Butterflies and a Wasp.” Illustration by Wenceslaus Hollar, 1646, The Met Museum (Public Domain)

Although I tend to be apprehensive about looking to animals for our understanding of humans (it is sometimes a slippery slope in terms of ethics, depending on the angle you take), but Grosz does bring out some interesting points.

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Crossbills at the bird feeder. Photo: Lesley Butler, 2013.

One of the key concepts that she brings in is that of Umwelt, biologist Jakob von Uexküll’s term for the particular world, or the “soap-bubble,” in which each living being exists.

An organism’s Umwelt is the unique world in which each species lives, the world as its body represents it, the world formed by the very form of the organism, whose morphology is the long-term result of evolutionary pressures, of the living engagement with a particular territory and its particular modes of object …

The Umwelt is the sensory world of space, time, objects, and qualities that form perceptual signs for living creatures, the world that enables them to effect actions, to exercise their organs, to act … It is a bubble-world, much like a creature enclosed in an invisible snow globe, which always positions the subject within the center of a movable horizon (Grosz 175).

According to this, we might see how “the body of an animal is an inverted map of its world” (Grosz 182). While at the same time, the animal’s world (the bubble in which it experiences life) “is a projection of its bodily capacities” (Grosz 183).

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A raven on the signal hill trail. Photo: Lesley Butler, 2013.

How then, does this fit in with art?

Grosz compares the material relationship between animals and their surroundings. She explores the significance of instinct for the creation of such things as bee hives, bird nests, and ant tunnels, in terms of ‘home’ and ‘territory,’ and what this means for life in general.

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Abandoned bird’s nest. Photo: Lesley Butler, 2016.

Without territory surrounding the home, both protecting it and infusing it with a certain set of resources, there can be no stable or ongoing home, as is the case for the vast majority of animals. And without the space and safety of the home, there can be no elaborate courtship dances and songs, no acts of spectacular rivalry, no arts of performance and enhancement – that is, no territory, no milieu, no art, no seduction, only the weighty reality of the phenomenal world, the Umwelt. That is not to say that there is no sexuality, no seduction, no sexual selection for the homeless or the nomadic of the animal world, only that such animals have no access to the resources for the artistic transformations of their own bodies or their milieu such as territory enables” (Grosz 185).

IMG_1075

Canada geese in Manchester. Photo: Lesley Butler, 2014.

Grosz suggests that it is these animal arts that “become the raw materials of the human arts” (185).

We use such things as feathers, colors, and scents taken from, or inspired by, what we see in the animal world to adorn our clothes, our canvases, and our bodies (Grosz 185).

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A scarab beetle artifact, used for public education at the Manchester Museum. Photo: Lesley Butler, 2014.

In a way, the human arts are not as distinct from the nonhuman as we usually think. Both the human, and the human arts in general, “are the transformation, the reworking, the overcoming of our animal prehistory and the beginning of our inhuman trajectory beyond the human” (Grosz 186).

If we consider these ideas of art and the animal, how does this transform the ways in which we think of our selves?

How might our understanding of space, territory, and home in terms of Umwelt, potentially rework our understanding of human geographies? How might we view migration and (trans)nationality, or race and belonging, through this perspective of the Umwelt? How might it change the stories we tell? Or how we tell them?

“The animal is that from which the all-too-human comes and that through which the human moves beyond itself” (Grosz 186).

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A spider’s web in a window, me in the reflection. Photo: Lesley Butler, 2014.

Sources:

Grosz, Elizabeth. Becoming Undone: Darwinian Reflections on Life, Politics, and Art. Duke University Press, 2011.

Hollar, Wenceslaus. Three Butterflies and a Wasp. 1946. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, http://www.metmuseum.org/art/collection/search/361547?sortBy=Relevance&ft=wasp&offset=0&rpp=20&pos=1.

“The Dodo.” Illustration from “[Our Earth and its Story: a popular treatise on physical geography. Edited by R. Brown. With … coloured plates and maps, etc.],” The British Library, Flickr, https://www.flickr.com/photos/britishlibrary/11223540985/in/album-72157641858423503/.

© Lesley Butler (lvb717 @ mun.ca), 2017.

What if?

A few weeks ago, I received Julie Dash’s book, Daughters of the Dust: The Making of an African American Woman’s Film (1992) in the mail. Like copies of the film itself, this book can run up to $500 (at least according to the website I was browsing), so I was very happy when I finally got my hands on a copy for a reasonable price.

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Daughters of the Dust: The Making of an African American Woman’s Film, by Julie Dash. New Press, 1992.

Now, I have written quite a bit already about the film, Daughters of the Dust (1991), but with this new (to me) text, I feel compelled to share some things that stood out to me so far.

Dash’s book is not only a reflection on the making of the film, but it also includes the full script, excerpts from the Gullah translation of the script, a dialogue between Julie Dash and bell hooks, as well as a selection of traditional Geechee recipes.

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Traditional Geechee recipes from Daughters of the Dust: The Making of African American Woman’s Film, by Julie Dash. New Press, 1992.

Hopefully, if my mediocre cooking skills are up to the task, I will try my hand with some of these Geechee recipes, but for now I will dive into the dialogue between Dash and hooks.

Their conversation took place on April 26, 1992, in Atlanta, Georgia, and focused on the making of, and reception to, Dash’s 1991 film Daughters of the Dust.

Considering my research thus far has focused on ideas of history, identity, and life writing, I was so excited to see Dash and hooks actually discuss these matters in a critical and reflective way.

 BELL: Part of the challenge of Daughters of the Dust is that it brings us what could be called ethnographic details, though in fact it’s set within a much more poetic, mythic universe. I would like you to talk some about your sense of myth and history (29).

Because Daughters‘ thrives on the portrayal of Gullah culture at the turn of the century – with particularl emphasis on dialect, dress, food, and more – it is easy to see the connection with certain ethnographic films.

However, while noting this connection, hooks’ describes this as a kind of “could-be” ethnography, or a subversive play on the ethnographic genre. Instead of committing to a more structured, prescriptive methodology to explore Gullah culture, Dash creates “a much more poetic, mythic universe” (29).

Commenting on this tension between history and myth, or what hooks calls a “mythobiography” and “mythopoetics,” Dash defines Daughters as speculative fiction (28-29). What she describes as a kind of “what if” approach to storytelling.

 DASH: It’s interesting that you say mythopoetic, because Daughters of the Dust is like speculative fiction, like a what if situation on so many different levels.

Like what if we could have an unborn child come and visit her family-to-be and help solve the family’s problems.

What if we had a great-grandmother who could not physically make the journey north but who could send her spirit with them.

What if we had a family that had such a fellowship with the ancestors that they helped guide them, and so on” (29).

In a way, this ‘what if’ approach to storytelling creates a kind of alternative history. Dash is not concerned with teaching history; rather she conveys it in a creative way. It is not necessarily what is historically true or untrue that is important for Dash, but instead how the story is told.

On this topic of truth in historical film, Dash has critiqued the tendency to approach films like Daughters from what she describes as a “teacher-learner” situation (28). She suggests that when audiences are presented with new information, especially when it is to do with minority groups, they treat these films as a documentary presentation – material on the screen is absorbed as fact, even if it is indeed dramatic fiction (28).

While Dash does present a lot of information on the Sea Islands and Gullah Culture, informed by extensive archival research, she does this by weaving history with myth; fact with fiction.

It is a ‘what if’ approach to how we remember, recall, and perhaps, rewrite history.

 BELL: It’s interesting that whenever an artist takes a kind of mythic universe and infuses it with aspects of everyday reality, like the images of women cooking, often the cinema audiences in this society just isn’t prepared. So few of the articles that I’ve read about Daughters of the Dust talk about the mythic element in the film, because, in fact, there is this desire to reduce the film to some sense of historical accuracy. It is relevant for moviegoers to realize that you did ten years of research for this film – but the point was not to create some kind of documentary of the Gullah, but to take that factual information and infuse it with an imaginative construction (30).

One example of this challenge to representing historical ‘truth’ is Dash’s creative use of indigo in the film.

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Screenshot of flashback scene to an indigo plantation on the Sea Islands. Daughters of the Dust, directed by Julie Dash. Kino International, 1991.

On the Sea Islands, many slaves worked on indigo processing plantations. Indigo was toxic, and tended to stain the hands of those who worked with it. While Dash knew that this blue stain would not have remained on the elders hands all these years after enslavement, she chose to include this imagery as an atypical “symbol of slavery” (31).

DASH: I worked with Dr. Margaret Washington Creel, who is an expert on the Gullah. She was my historical advisor on the project, and she reminded me that, of course, indigo was very poisonous and all that, but that the indigo stain, the blue stain, would not have remained on the hands of the old folks who worked the indigo processing plant. And I explained to her, that yes, I did understand that fully but I was using this as a symbol of slavery, to create a new kind of icon around slavery rather than the traditional showing of the whip marks or the chains … I wanted to show it in a new way” (31).

When we see these elders with their hands stained blue, the question should not be “is this real?” But rather, “what if this was real.” What does this imagery represent, and how can it make us rethink or reimagine history and the legacy of slavery on contemporary bodies?

Dash offers viewers a “new way” of telling stories, of representing history, and of mythologizing memory. Daughters resists its classification and interpretation in terms of “reality” and “authenticity,” by shifting the discourse into the realm of the creative, the mythic, the imaginative … towards the what if.

With Dash’s creative approach to narrative, historical fiction, we see how “what if” can be a powerful, poetic proposition.

 

Sources:

Dash, Julie. Daughters of the Dust: The Making of an African American Woman’s Film. The New Press, 1992.

Dash, Julie, director. Daughters of the Dust. Kino International, 1991.

 

© Lesley Butler (lvb717 @ mun.ca), 2017

The Blur Between

When writing about the making her film Daughters of the Dust (1992), Julie Dash credits the archives for helping shape the historical, ethnographic foundation of her story: a Gullah family at the turn of the century, contemplating northern migration from their Sea Island home to the US mainland.

Turning to the archives myself, I decided to browse the photographs in the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s “public domain” collection to see what I could find.

One image caught my eye.

It was a photograph by Henry P. Moore of a group of former slaves on a plantation during the American Civil War (1862).

 

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Moore, Henry P. “Negroes (Gwine to de Field), Hopkinson’s Plantation, Edisto Island, South Carolina.” Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1862.

 While in residence, [Moore] made some of the earliest and most poignant Civil War photographs of slave life in the Deep South. Moore focused on the changed lives of African Americans in the aftermath of the Union victory (navy and army) at the Battle of Port Royal, South Carolina, in November 1861.

 With the departure of their owners, plantation workers in Union-controlled areas were no longer slaves but, before the Emancipation Proclamation, not yet free. (Metropolitan Museum of Art, http://www.metmuseum.org/art/collection/search/286557?sortBy=Relevance&deptids=19&ft=*&offset=40&rpp=20&pos=42)

 “No longer slaves but not yet free.”

A liminal state.

Caught between a divided nation,

Between time,

Between place … but where is home in the inbetween?

I think what really caught my attention about this photo was the way in which the plantation workers looked towards the camera. I do not know if this photograph was staged or not, but the fact that the Black workers return the gaze of Moore’s camera really jostles the power dynamics of the photographs. In a way, this gaze seems to acknowledge the tripartite relationship between subject-artist-viewer.

But what does this relationship signify? What power structures exist in this frame, and beyond it?

If we take the title, for example, what can we learn?

After the word “negroes” (a word quite out of date, although only so since about the 1970s) there is the bracketed phrase: “Gwine to de Field.”

gwine (gwīn)


  1. Chiefly Southern & South Midland US

A present participle of go1.

[African American Vernacular English, alteration of going.]

(The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language)

The inclusion of this in the title makes me wonder if it was Moore’s conscious attempt to more “authentically” (a loaded word, yes) represent his subjects? Does this title allow the subjects to speak, in a way? Or is Moore exoticizing their own language? Are the subjects ‘othered,’ and silenced through the power structures imbued in this photographic (and somewhat ethnographic) pursuit?

We also learn from the title that this image depicts a plantation on Edisto Island, one of the Sea Islands off the coast of South Carolina. This is near St. Helena Island, which is the Sea Island in which Daughters of the Dust was set (the focus of my current research).

Julie Dash has said that she wanted to make Daughters of the Dust to tell untold stories, the untold histories.

What stories are held in the frame? What histories are hidden?

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Moore, Henry P. Detail of “Negroes (Gwine to de Field).” Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1862.

I look to the woman on the ride side of the photograph, carrying a child. The skirt of her white dress is blurred, as if caught in the midst of movement. At a glimpse it looks ghostly. Mother and child caught in motion – in a flash of the camera, caught between past and present. They may be caught in between – in the liminal – yet, in their ghostly, blurred visage, they appear to transgress the limits of the photograph.

Moore may have wanted to capture a moment, but what he also captured was (a) movement.

In any case, in that blur, I am reminded of the life behind the image. The stories untold and the histories that still resonate.

Sources:

Dash, Julie. Daughters of the Dust: The Making of an African American Woman’s Film. The New Press, 1992.

Dash, Julie, director. Daughters of the Dust. Kino International, 1991.

Moore, Henry P. “Negroes (Gwine to de Field), Hopkinson’s Plantation, Edisto Island, South Carolina,” photograph, Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1862, http://www.metmuseum.org/art/collection/search/286557?sortBy=Relevance&deptids=19&ft=*&offset=40&rpp=20&pos=42).

© Lesley Butler (lvb717 @ mun.ca), 2017

 

Maneuvering the Master’s House

When I initially began my research about a year ago, I looked mostly to literature on postcolonialism, transnational feminism, and life writing. But as I was primarily interested in how film and gender fit into these general topics, I found myself perusing a book called, Celluloid Ceiling: Women Film Directors Breaking Through (2014). While trying to see if I could find any specific films or filmmakers that might help me hone in on a more specific topic, one paragraph stood out to me:

 Far from Hollywood, Senegalese director Safi Faye realised she could communicate more effectively in visual images rather than words to overcome the multiple languages of her country and avoid using the language of France, the coloniser of her country, Senegal (Kelly and Robson 12).

Although quite short and straightforward – more a survey than anything profoundly theoretical – this quote helped me to think more about the significance of film within (post)colonial contexts.

How does the visual medium of film work through the colonial implications of communication? How does it navigate language differences within (and across) borders? How does it challenge, and engage with, notions of silence?

In a way, Safi Faye’s filmmaking philosophy seems to echo Marlene NourbeSe Philip.

 In man the tongue is

(a) the principle organ of taste.

(b) the principle organ of articulate speech.

(c) the principle organ of oppression and exploitation.

(d) all of the above.

(Philip 59).

the tongue is the principle organ of oppression and exploitation.

Every slave caught speaking his native language shall be severely punished. Where necessary, removal of the tongue is recommended … (Philip 56).

Sometimes I find myself forgetting the histories of power and persecution behind the very words that warp my tongue.

Perhaps I don’t really forget, rather, I fail to notice.

When something becomes seemingly second nature, like language – like my mother-tongue – it becomes hard to defamiliarize it, to distance yourself from it. But this is why it becomes all the more important to remember the many injustices that occur at the level of language.

 English

is my mother tongue.

A mother tongue is not a foreign lan lan lang

language

l/anguish

   anguish

— a foreign anguish.

 

English is

my father tongue.

A father tongue is

a foreign language,

therefore English is

a foreign language

not a mother tongue (Philip 56).

What does this mean then for filmmakers like Safi Faye who are caught between languages? How can the visual help us navigate those colonial histories? Can film maneuver the politics of language more effectively than other textual mediums?

I think also to Audre Lorde, who famously claimed: “The master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house” (112).

 Those of us who stand outside the circle of this society’s definition of acceptable women … know that survival is not an academic skill … It is learning how to take our differences and make them strengths. For the master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house. They may allow us to temporarily beat him at his own game, but they will never enable us to bring about genuine change. And this fact is only threatening to those women who still define the master’s house as their only source of support (Lorde 112).

If we think of these “tools” in terms of language, how can we apply this to Safi Faye’s approach to postcolonial filmmaking? Can filmmaking dismantle the ‘master’s house’? Or does filmmaking become yet another tool of the ‘master’?

 What does it mean when the tools of a racist patriarchy are used to examine the fruits of that same patriarchy?” It means that only the most narrow perimeters of change are possible and allowable (Lorde 110-111).

Can filmmakers, with unique, passionate, and critical ways of storytelling, direct their lens in a way that is resistant to their patriarchal, racist surroundings? Can filmmaking effectively contribute to (post)colonial conversations?

 

Sources:

Kelly, Gabrielle and Cheryl Robson, editors. Celluloid Ceiling: Women Film Directors Breaking Through. Supernova Books, 2014.

Lorde, Audre. Sister Outsider: Essays and Speeches. Crossing Press, 1984.

Philip, Marlene NourbeSe. She Tries Her Tongue/Her Silence Softly Breaks. Charlottetown: Ragweed Press, 1989.

© Lesley Butler (lvb717 @ mun.ca), 2017

Under the Deep Blue of Moonlight

If, like me, you are interested in film, then you have probably already seen Moonlight. If you haven’t, then I suspect you will be hearing a lot more about it in the near future – and not only during awards season, but in years to come.

Moonlight chronicles the life of a young boy named Chiron (nicknamed “Little” and “Black” at different points in his life) as he grows up in a poor, drug-ridden neighborhood in Miami. In three chapters – from childhood, adolescence, and finally, adulthood – we see Chiron tread the murky waters of identity and isolation, navigating his differences as he tries to find his place in the world.

Visually stunning and poignantly poetic, Moonlight already has a few things to be proud of, including: box office success, top ratings, and several awards.

Some say it is a film of many ‘firsts‘: The first Black filmmaker to be nominated for an Academy Award for Best Director, Best Screenplay, and Best Picture (Barry Jenkins), the first Academy Award nomination of a Black woman for film editing (Joi McMillon), and some say, it could be the first ‘LGBTQ’ film to win Best Picture, not to mention a ‘Black LGBTQ’ film.

While these are all impressive achievements and certainly indicate a step in the right direction for (American) award ceremonies (re: the #OscarsSoWhite outrage just last year), I do not wish to dwell too much on these formal declarations of excellence, but rather on the cinematic artistry and social underpinnings that are really at the heart of Moonlight’s achievement.

Moonlight is more than a “queer love story” or a well-done “black movie,” as it has been labeled in headlines and award season chatter — though it is also very much a well-done black, queer love story …

“The thing that scares me is that people will try to use that to put it in this corner, because we can’t consider it ‘a great story.’ We have to consider it ‘this kind of great story” (McCraney quoted in Anderson, “L.A. Times”)

Moonlight was adapted from Tarell Alvin McCraney’s semi-autobiographical play titled, In Moonlight Black Boys Look Blue.

This title also works its way into the film’s dialogue, spoken by a drug dealer turned father figure to young Chiron, or “Little,” as he is called during this chapter of his life. It was a line that stuck with me long after I left the theatre.

In moonlight black boys look blue.

It’s probably under the moonlight that we see that black boys can be blue, can be sad and sullen and intimate … It’s under starlight that we see them differently, or that we get the chance to.

Because we rarely see ourselves in those hues or under that gauze. We see ourselves in the harsh police light or the amber of street lights, but what is it when the reflection of the sun in the moon is sitting on these bodies. What beauty can we see? (McCraney in “L.A. Times”)

Bodies under light. Bodies under watchful eyes.

The body is the place of captivity (Brand 35).

In thinking of bodies, I think again to Dionne Brand, who says, “the Black body is one of the most regulated bodies in the Diaspora” (37).

How then, does moonlight affect this bodily captivity? How does it reject regulation?

As McCraney argues, Black boys are used to seeing themselves under the flashing lights of cop cars, or under the urban artificiality of street lights. But what of the deep, natural, blue of moonlight? Can this help ‘denaturalize’ the overregulation of Black bodies?

Under moonlight, bodies change. Beings change.

In the film, some of Chiron’s most pivotal moments occur under moonlight. In a way, it is when Chiron is under that cloak of blue that he really starts to accept himself. He can begin to embrace his differences while defying other people’s definitions and expectations of who he should be.

Whether he is “Little,” “Black,” or “Chiron,” under the moonlight, he can just be.

This self which is unobservable is a mystery. It is imprisoned in the observed. It is constantly struggling to wrest itself from the warp of its public ownerships. Its own language is plain yet secret. Rather, obscured (Brand 51).

What I also noticed, however, was that where there was moonlight, there was often water. The beach, for one, becomes a particularly significant setting for Chiron’s personal growth.

The beach: where water meets land, and where man is caught somewhere in between. Between the rolling waves and the sinking sand, it is a transformative space – between beginnings and endings, there are becomings.

In a way, moonlight reflects most strongly alongside bodies of water. Blues become bluest between sky and water, away from the neon lights of urban life.

And blue, too, are bodies by water.

I’m thinking of one particular shot where we see “Little” standing alone, shirtless, staring out into the water. The blue of the moon reaches from the sky, tinting the waves as they roll forwards and backwards, and finally casting its cerulean colour across Chiron’s bare shoulders.

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“Little” (Alex Hibbert) in Moonlight. Directed by Barry Jenkins. A24, 2016

The sea would forever be larger than me. My eyes hit only its waist. I saw a wave’s belly looking backwards. I saw froth rolling toward my feet as the sea moved into my spot on the beach. It always came in a jagged circle, frothing and steaming. It reduced all life to unimportant random meaning. Only we were changing and struggling, living as if everything was urgent, feeling – the ocean was bigger than feeling (Brand 11-12).

Against the sea, one life might seem small, perhaps powerless, in comparison. But when you see “Little” standing along the shore, he is not diminished.

Although the sea is at once threatening, it is also transformative. It holds potential – both positive and negative. Caught between the sand and the waves, Chiron acknowledges the formidable nature of the sea.

Formidable, but not insurmountable.

Chiron’s place in the world might not be clear – caught between acceptance and isolation, between protection and persecution, between conformity and conflict. But one’s life is never truly little, even against a seemingly endless saltwater horizion. What is one’s life, if not for one’s becomings? There is no destination without a journey. And in Moonlight, the journey becomes the destination (Brand 203).

Water is the first thing in my imagination. Over the reaches of the eyes at Guaya when I was a little girl, I knew that there was still more water. All beginning in water, all ending in water. Turquoise, aquamarine, deep green, deep blue, ink blue, navy, blue-black cerulean water (Brand 6).

Under the deep blue of moonlight, we see bodies differently.

We see beauty.

Or more importantly, under moonlight, we get the chance to.

 

Sources:

Anderson, Tre’vell. “Before the buzz began on ‘Moonlight,’ the coming-of-age story           started with playwright Tarell Alvin McCraney.” Los Angeles Times, http://www.latimes.com/entertainment/movies/la-et-mn-moonlight-playwright-tarell-mccraney-20161017-snap-story.html.

Berman, Eliza. “Moonlight Filmmaker Barry Jenkins on the Bittersweet Feeling of Being a First.” Time, http://time.com/4656493/moonlight-barry-jenkins-interview/.

Brand, Dionne. A Map to the Door of No Return: Notes to Belonging. Toronto: Vintage Canada, 2001.

Moonlight. Directed by Barry Jenkins. A24, 2016.

 

© Lesley Butler (lvb717 @ mun.ca), 2017

To Have and Have Not a Room of One’s Own

 

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A still from my short documentary,”Muriel Box and the Celluloid Ceiling” (2014): Who is left out of the ‘frame’ behind the camera?

 

In an effort to learn more about the context through which Julie Dash developed as a filmmaker, I have been browsing the virtual world of her alma mater at the UCLA Film and Television Archive.

There, I found a link to a 1979 interview with her by the UCLA student cable program, “The View”.

The interviewer, Barbara McCullough, spoke with Dash about her most recent film, The Diary of an African Nun (1977), which was adapted from Alice Walker’s short story of the same name.

It was only a short interview (clocking about 7 minutes), but it was jam-packed with valuable insights into filmmaking, particularly with regards to African American women, as well as into broader thematic issues of colonialism, religion, and identity (via the African Nun).

What really caught my attention, however, were Dash’s comments about studying at UCLA. She praised the facilities offered by the university, saying that they were incredibly valuable for young film students such as herself.

On the surface level, discussing such things as space and equipment might seem less interesting than the actual storytelling side to filmmaking, but I think it really helps draw attention to the very real, logistical struggles of independent filmmaking.

Having a story is one thing, but in the medium of film, having the materials to actually tell these stories is often a significant barrier for novice filmmakers.

 I did look forward to coming to UCLA to use their facilities, because it is very hard as an independent filmmaker to attempt, and bring to completion, an independent film without the sound stages and equipment and so on. (Dash, “L.A. Rebellion”)

Following this, McCullough asks Dash how she will manage these obstacles once she has moved on from UCLA. Dash’s response centered on one thing: money.

It’s really about money, more than anything else. (Dash, “L.A. Rebellion”)

Despite even one’s best efforts, the artistic vision of a filmmaker means little to the rest of the world until money helps bring that vision to reality.

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Odd Woman Out, an autobiography by Muriel Box. London: Leslie Frewin, 1974.

When I heard Dash discuss the significance of having financial support, two names came to mind: Muriel Box, and Virginia Woolf.

Three years ago, I made a short documentary about the British director Muriel Box. For research, I read her autobiography, Odd Woman Out (1974), where she chronicled her journey through the male dominated, British film industry. One thing in particular that stood out to me in this book, which I later used to formulate my primary argument, was Box’s reference to Virginia Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own.

 

 

 

Virginia Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own made such an impact on me in my twenties that I had been possessed ever since with a strong urge to support the cause of equality between the sexes. Thus my approach to this subject was perhaps more enthusiastic and dedicated than to any other theme previously attempted. Unable to chain myself to the railings, I could at least rattle the film chains! (Box 222).

After this, Box goes on to discuss the kinds of financial struggles she faced with her films. The positioning of Woolf beside Box’s financial woes immediately made me think back to Woolf’s own argument: “A woman must have money and a room of her own if she is to write” (4).

While Woolf is commenting on women in fiction, I think it can be related to filmmaking as well.

As a creative endeavor, which involves various forms of storytelling (including writing), I think it only fitting that women filmmakers, too, “must have money and a room of her own” in order to tell their stories.

Without backtracking too far into this project of mine, I must say I am intrigued by the connections between Julie Dash, Muriel Box and Virginia Woolf, all women of different times and creative perspectives, yet all fueled by one common goal: to have equal access to funding and facilities in which to work.

At the same time, I cannot ignore the issues of race and class when putting these three figures into hypothetical conversation with each other.

How do race and class influence funding for independent filmmakers in the US? What opportunities were available for African American filmmakers in the 1970s and 1980s, the time when Julie Dash herself was a student?

Who in the film industry gets to have, or have not, a room of one’s own?

 

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The film editing suite at the University of Manchester. Having the proper space and equipment to work with was essential for a student filmmaker like myself. Photo: Lesley Butler, May 2014.

 

Sources:

Box, Muriel. Odd Woman Out. London: Leslie Frewin, 1974.

“L.A. Rebellion – Julie Dash on UCLA’s ‘The View’ (c. 1979).” Youtube, uploaded by UCLA Film and Television Archive, 3 May 2013, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wq-9-bt5Ho8.

Woolf, Virginia. A Room of One’s Own. London: Penguin Books, 1928.

 

Lesley Butler (lvb717 @ mun.ca), 2017