In my last post, I explored the controversy of Nina Simone’s song ‘Four Women,’ which was the inspiration for Julie Dash’s film of the same name. In ‘Part 2,’ I look more closely at Dash’s visual adaptation of the song.
Some of my initial questions when coming across this film were: Why, about a decade after it’s initial release, did Dash decide to resurrect Simone’s song? Why did she dedicate one of her first filmmaking projects to this re-presentation of ‘Four Women’?
In “The Oppositional Gaze: Black Female Spectators,” bell hooks (1992) explores the issues of race in cinematic representations and looking relations. hooks discusses the problematic depictions of Black individuals in American cinema, saying “When most black people in the United States first had the opportunity to look at film and television, they did so fully aware that mass media was a system of knowledge and power reproducing and maintaining white supremacy” (hooks 117).
Because Black communities were either underrepresented, or misrepresented, in the media, the “oppositional black gaze” responded by developing a black independent cinema that worked to redirect the images on screens (hooks 117). In the 1970s, Julie Dash emerged as one of these independent filmmakers.
In Four Women, Dash uses Simone’s controversial song as the driving force behind her short film (it can be viewed here: https://vimeo.com/74869216). As her own creative contribution to Simone’s musical narrative, Dash’s opens the film with a sequence in which dancer Linda Martina Young is wrapped in fabric, body nearly indiscernible as she twists and turns to the sounds of chanting, whips lashing, and waves crashing. The soundscape is subtle, but incredibly poignant, alluding to America’s role in the transatlantic slave trade, and ultimately situating the performance within that haunting historical context.
This filmic prologue to Simone’s searing ballad effectively prompts viewers to see how legacies of slavery are reflected in contemporary Black identities.
This opening scene explicitly situates Simone’s song within the historical context of America’s racial past – it let’s the audience know that Simone’s music is not just about ‘Four Women’. It is actually for women. For the African American women, like Simone, and like Dash, who recognize the racism present in America’s past, and present. The women who persevere, and pave the way for a future that reflects their individual, and collective, wants and needs.
“Looking and looking back, black women involve ourselves in a process whereby we see our history as counter-memory, using it as a way to know the present and invent the future” (hooks 131).
In a way, Dash’s depiction of Simone’s four women through one body (the dancer, Linda Martina Young) may be interpreted as a reclamation of the stereotype that has overshadowed representations of Black female subjectivity throughout mass media.
Much like the effect of Simone singing all four verses, Dash’s film represents Black female subjectivity through the performance of the individual, allowing her to simultaneously critique the synecdochal operation of stereotypes. By re-presenting the images of Black femininity that have persisted over the years, Dash challenges the “burden of representation” by drawing attention to the political implications and the ontological limits of racial stereotyping.
In a similar sense, by pairing dance with Simone’s music, Dash’s experimental film also offers us new ways to think about black female subjectivity and black female spectatorship.
When thinking of films, it is all too easy to think of looking relations as one-directional: the subject is looked at by the spectator. However, when we speak of an oppositional gaze, hooks’ encourages us to explore the relationship between image and spectator even more closely (131). While the Black female spectator looks to the screen, how does the screen then look back upon the viewer? What kinds of representations exist for the Black female spectator?
In the case of Dash’s Four Women, we take these looking relations one step further. By having a dancer as the sole performer, Dash draws attention to the constructedness of the screen; in classic narrative film, it is all too easy to get swept away by the stories of other characters – for example, with Hollywood’s ‘seamless’ editing style – but through this experimental performance, we become more aware of the relationship between viewer and subject. The dancer performs on a stage, a place that exists for the purpose of performance. While there is no illusion of reality in Dash’s film, this, in a way, allows us to more effectively critique reality (in this case, the reality and politics of racial representation).
We as viewers are forced to recognize that we are watching a performance; we are forced to consider more closely our role as spectator and thus, interpreter of images of Black femininity.
As the four women ponder at the end of their respective verses, “What do they call me?” we, as spectators/listeners, are asked to consider our own relationship to Aunt Sarah, Saffronia, Sweet Thing, and Peaches. Though each woman speaks for herself, we see how their perceptions of self are intertwined with how other people see them. In a way, the viewer/spectator becomes implicated in the process of stereotyping, and are called to question their own role in racial representation through critical looking relations.
Dash, like Simone, does not wish to ignore stereotypes, nor does she expect to easily eliminate them. Rather, she directly approaches them, interrogates them and re-presents them in a way that can help us to further understand the historical roots of these persistent, and indeed problematic, racial stereotypes.
I think it only fitting to leave this post with Thulani Davis’s (2003) beautiful reflection on Nina Simone’s music:
“But it was “Four Women,” an instantly accessible analysis of the damning legacy of slavery, that made iconographic the real women we knew and would become. For African American women it became an anthem affirming our existence, our sanity, and our struggle to survive a culture which regards us as anti-feminine. It acknowledged the loss of childhoods among African American women, our invisibility, exploitation, defiance, and even subtly reminded that in slavery and patriarchy, your name is what they call you. Simone’s final defiant scream of the name Peaches was our invitation to get over color and class difference and step with the sister who said:
My skin is brown/My manner is tough/I’ll kill the first mother I see/ My life has been rough/I’m awfully bitter these days/Because my parents were slaves (‘Four Women’)” (Davis n.p.).
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. Accessed 6 March 2017.
hooks, bell. Black Looks: Race and Representation. Between the Lines, 1992.
Simone, Nina. “Four Women.” Wild is the Wind, The Verve Music Group, 1966, Spotify, https://open.spotify.com/album/5gHvTZO4alH9wVcWgTjJat.
© Lesley Butler (lvb717 @ mun.ca), 2017.