Taking Control of the Lens: Julie Dash and Leslie Harris

“I grew up at a time when it was an anomaly to see people who looked like me on TV. When you don’t feel seen or heard, you don’t feel validated or valued.” – Shonda Rhimes

          Space is what defines our bodies, fashion, style, dress, hair, mannerisms, and skin color. Depending on where a person resides, space determines an environment’s specific ethnic and aesthetic makeup. Black women filmmakers negotiate and utilize space differently than their male counterparts. Black male directors generally tell stories of the black male experience, masculinity, manhood, and urban experiences. These are themes seen in films like Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing and Melvin Van Peebles’ Sweet Sweetback’s Baadassss Song. Black women filmmakers, on the other hand, use space to explore black womanhood, gender relations, and class through the black woman protagonist(s) in film. The 1990s was an especially revolutionary period for black women filmmakers because they produced films that engaged women spectators around the world.

Julie Dash’s Daughters of the Dust (1992) was the first full-length film by an African-American woman with general theatrical release in the United States.

Julie Dash’s Daughters of the Dust (1992) was the first full-length film by an African-American woman with general theatrical release in the United States.

Julie Dash’s Daughters of the Dust opens with the line,

“I am the first and the last. I am the honored one and the scorned one. I am the whore and the holy one. I am the wife and the virgin. I am the barren one and many of my daughters. I am the silence you cannot understand. I am the utterance of my name.”

The powerful lyrical prose transitions beautifully into first scene when the Gullah Islands enter on screen with the presence of a boat treading through water. The audience is immediately immersed into a distinctive African culture that is defined and narrated by women. The voiceover invites us into the filmic space to experience the Sea Gullah Islands, home of the Peazant family, the members of whom have sought to sustain a unique, imaginative, original African culture. When the boat enters the on screen, we assume the boat is representative to the boats that crossed the middle passage to bring slaves to America. However, when the camera zooms in on the boat, the audience sees a regal woman who is soon to be revealed as Yellow Mary standing starkly in the boat, upright, and prideful. Her position is not a position of powerlessness. She is powerful and the women who will be unveiled in the film, following Yellow Mary’s entrance, have the same power and agency granted on screen.

Dash strategically time stamps the film, situating the setting in 1902, an important historical period for Blacks living in America. By doing so, the audience is able to enter into culturally specific space where blacks survive, exists, preserve, and remember their ancestors at Ibo Landing. Ibo Landing is a symbolic space because it serves as a canvas to glance back to slavery, the Middle Passage, African religions, Christianity, Islam, print media, photography, moving pictures, and African-American folkways, as elements with which black people must come to terms in order to glance forward as citizens of the United States. It serves as a space where the Peazant family can articulate their family history without the intrusion of whiteness. Whiteness is completely marginalized in Ibo Landing. Dash does this to show the audience a true authentic black culture where decisions are made and life is experienced on their own time and in their own space.

1002004012415809On the other hand, space in Just Another Girl on the I.R.T. functions differently than Daughters of the Dust because the film is situated in a city rather than a rural environment. The opening scene shows a young black man with a garbage bag in his hand, walking

slowly in the dark. He anxiously scans the area and places the bag next to a trashcan and walks away. This image is taken from second to final scene of the movie where Chantel, the protagonist, gives birth to her child in her boyfriend’s bedroom and frantically asks her boyfriend to dispose of the child. The media often frames the story as an unfortunate mishap that only happens in underprivileged spaces, such as low-income neighborhoods. The subjects are not granted a voice in the media to tell the story from their perspective. Leslie Harris revises the narrative and inserts the voice of 17-year-old Chantel Harris to tell the story.

In the first few seconds, Harris places the narrative in Chantel’s hands and her voice over is directed to the audience. Chantel states “You know tomorrow you might be reading about this in papers or you might even see it on TV. Y’all might shake your heads and think and say somebody was real bugged out or was on crack or something. Some people hear about my neighborhood and assume some real fucked up things. But I am going to tell y’all the real deal.” Instead of whiteness defining Chantel’s lived experiences, Chantel uses space to give an authentic voice to young black women living in urban environments.

Brooklyn, like Ibo Landing, is a symbolic space because it serves a foundation to build Chantel’s story. After the opening scene, Harris brings Chantel’s voice to the foreground and shows her standing at the Park Place subway stop in Brooklyn waiting on the Manhattan-bound train to take her to Midtown where she works at a local grocery store.

While Chantel is on the platform Harris cuts to the sign above the subway stop, which is covered in graffiti. Behind it are the tall high-rise buildings that make up low-income housing. Chantel boards the train and Harris makes it a point to briefly display the passing subway stops signs. Each sign along the ride is more clean then the last, each subway station nicer than the one before it.

The mis-en-scene of this shot is important because it shows how Chantel moves into spaces of familiarity to spaces of unfamiliarity. It also represents the social circumstances that Chantel experiences daily. Before she enters the store, Chantel abruptly turns to the camera and openly states,

“I’m a Brooklyn girl. Lots of people think Brooklyn girls are tough. I guess that’s true. I don’t let nobody mess with me.  I do what I want, when I want.”

Despite the drastic change in environment, moving from grimy to affluent in only a couple of minutes, Chantel doesn’t change her attitude but declares Brooklyn as her identity. Brooklyn defines Chantel’s experience and how she interacts in other spaces unfamiliar to her.

These stories of black women navigating restricted or granted spaces would not have been explored if it wasn’t for black women filmmakers creating these films. These films are critical to explore how the various types of black woman navigate their worlds whether in Ibo Landing or Brooklyn.

Beauty Rest

By Alicia Cobb

It’s a complex

Beauty only goes skin deepth

You heard your mother say it

Didn’t listen

Doesn’t pertain to you anyway

But when the golden strands turn gray

And wrinkles set in

There’ll be no need for a mirror

When we can’t fit into those thigh boots

And we have too many rolls

To fit in that tank top

What will you replace

In the empty spaces

Conversations about

Who you know

And where you’ve been

It’s a complex

I can’t even begin

Baby girl

I wish I had a mirror

That would reflect your soul

Because that

Pretty girl

Is what makes you whole

Not perfect pictures

Or the likes

Or millions of friend requests

Let your brain do some work

Allow your beauty to rest

Beauty is and forever will be skin deep

One day it will be put to a test

Finding Feminism in my Grandmother’s Georgia

Dear Grandma,

I have often wondered about the days when you were young. The days before your children. The days before you divorced your first husband. Before you fell in love with your second. The days before you sported a perfectly combed Afro. The days when you drove a tractor, plowing your grandfather’s farm. The days when you played the dozens.

When I imagine you young Grandma, I see a brown girl toting schoolbooks and dreams down a dirt road in Pinehurst, Georgia. A brown girl telling the world to make space for her brown hands and brown eyes and brown elbows and brown hips. You walk down this road with your head held high, passing corner stores and lynching trees, and stick ball games daring anyone to question your humanity, your fullness. I imagine this moment and I take comfort in knowing that you are my grandmother.

I imagine you young and I ask myself: did you know that you would one day teach me how to love my little brown girl self?  That you would be my first example of radical black feminism?

And because I know you, I know that should you read this, you will scoff at the word feminism. To you, like many black women making a way in the Jim Crow South, feminism belonged to white women. Not you. Feminism would not pay your bills, would not feed your children, and would not soothe your back pain after a long days work. There was no place for you inside a feminism defined by a society that had always deemed you inferior.

But Grandma, you are radical. You have fashioned entire worlds with your hands, creating magical spaces for my little brown girl self as we baked homemade cheesecakes and stitched quilts. You taught me how to pray to the Goddess of little brown girls, how to thank her for my own brown hands and brown eyes brown elbows and brown hips. You told me the secrets of vitamin E oil, disclosed the potency of a glass of apple cider vinegar and water, and reminded me that I should live harmoniously with the earth.

Before I fell in love with Zora’s stories or began to quote Audre’s poetry or recite Toni’s manifestos, I had you Grandma. I stand at the edge of the universe with my arms wide open because Grandma, you have taught me that a woman with her arms closed is not ready to receive her blessings. A woman with her arms closed can serve no one. And what is a life devoid of service?

As a caretaker for the elderly and sick, you are proof that healing does not come by medicine alone but through kind words and laughter and healthy doses of sweet tea- antidotes not bound by the politics of race or class or sexuality. Your arms are open to all.

Perhaps, you will choose to describe your life in another way but I imagine you young Grandma, toting schoolbooks and dreams down a dirt road in Pinehurst, Georgia, and some part of me just knows that you have always understood your power. There is nothing more radical, more feminist than this.  I will always be grateful to you for that lesson.

Love,

Jessica

To My Partner- Marching in Feminism

Dear Kamau Nkosi,

You are a silent feminist. Not a loud, verbose, self-righteous, attention-seeking, ‘all-hail-feminism’ type of feminist. You have never been the one to post soliloquies on Facebook to parade your liberalism or acceptance of gender equality. Because, for you, your actions are more important than words posted on a digital platform where sentences and ideas live only for half a second.

You are the feminist that attacks with calculated intentions.

You penetrate the thirsty minds who thought they knew about systematic enslavement, second wave feminism, the prison-industrial complex, Angela Davis, bell hooks, and Sybrina Fulton and challenge them so nonchalantly that they have to self-reflect on their own ignorance and misconceptions.

When I say you are a feminist, some people might think of it as a negative. But I ask: why can’t a man be a feminist? I don’t understand why some men are afraid to claim feminism as a philosophy that they believe. In their minds, feminism equates to radicalism or women only. In reality, feminism utilizes race, sex, gender, and class as tools of analysis to address economic reform, health care, stop and frisk laws, social issues, and politics. It’s an all-inclusive philosophy that should be integrated in the way we think about policy and reform. It should not be considered the exception or an option women seek because they hate men.

When you organize events like the Bronx Defender’s Block Party, Youth Justice Summit and your trips to City Hall to rally on behalf of Ramarley Graham, you stay awake countless nights planning, pondering, sending emails, and worrying because your passion for justice is not just a thing you do. It is who you are.

I see your love for feminism when you buy me books by bell hooks and expose me to shows like “The Wire” where the victims are chained to a socioeconomic space from which they are unable to escape.  Because black mothers couldn’t be mothers, black fathers couldn’t be fathers, and teachers can’t teach because politics and power govern policy and the police.  And in the end, jail becomes home to petty crimes and black faces that thought selling heroine would grant them self-esteem.

In reality, no else was around to teach them how to dream.You realize that the tools for self-empowerment and self-liberation are not equally distributed amongst everyone.

You understand that beauty wears many shades, comes in different heights, and in different shapes. And despite the shortness of my kinky golden curls, you have never sent me a text message that read “I think you look better with long hair, a woman should have long hair.”  Hair, for you, never determined a woman’s beauty. It was the confidence and the way she carried her crown that made her beautiful. Thank you for never placing beauty in a box.

Even though you are quiet in your actions, you are deliberate and thoughtful. You may not knock on a thousand doors to announce your presence or intentions. But when you decide to knock on one, it has a ripple effect and everyone listens…including myself.

Thank you.

Smiley