More than twenty years ago, bell hooks examined the ambiguous relationship between black women and the cinema and argued that black female audiences have to take on an “oppositional gaze” distinctive from the intentions of predominately white male directors. According to hooks, this gaze of resistance is required in order for black women to find pleasure in the cinema.
Black feminist critic Jacqueline Bobo in Black Women As Cultural Readers later echoed hooks’ notions of an alternative positioning for black women spectators. However, both recognised a shift during the 1990’s with black female reaction to the film Daughters of the Dust(1991) directed by Julie Dash, the first African American woman to direct a theatrically released feature length film.
Daughters of the Dust, a poetic narrative told from multiple generations of African American women about a family’s Great Migration journey from the rural south to the urban north, represents a black feminist cinematic style and the potential for a new black female spectatorship. Although Bobo identifies this newly carved space for black women audiences as starting years earlier, with black women’s reception to Steven Spielberg’s 1985 adaptation of Alice Walker’s The Color Purple.
This reaction to The Color Purple is as key to understanding black female spectatorship, as Daughters of the Dust is pivotal to analysing black female authorship. At the time of The Color Purple’s release, male dominated African American civil rights organisations protested the film, with some going so far as to picket outside of the cinemas where the film had been released. This public outcry was over the stereotypical depiction of black men in a film directed by a white man, despite the film being an adaption of a novel by a black woman.
Amidst public and media debate, mainstream feminist organisations, primarily led by white women, were virtually silent regarding the film. They did not come out in large numbers to give counter arguments in support of a film based on a Pulitzer Prize winning novel by a celebrated figure of the women’s movement. Instead, African American women—mothers, daughters, sisters and aunts—quietly ignored the protests and went to the cinema. They watched The Color Purple and breathed a heavy sigh of relief that seemingly went unnoticed by the news media, mainstream feminists and conventional community representatives.
In the decade prior to The Color Purple, black female representations on screen had been marked by Blaxploitation female buck characters such as Cleopatra Jones and Foxy Brown along with 1970’s portrayals of what film historian Donald Bogle calls tragic “sisters-in-distress” in films like Mahogany (1975) and Claudine (1974). These depictions were limited to black nationalist notions of acceptable black femininity, framed to further black patriarchy. The Color Purple instead allowed black women spectators to take pleasure in seeing black female agency with a cinematic adaptation of this womanist novel.
It is this history of black female images in film, along with notable and highly problematic films such as The Birth of a Nation (1915) and The Imitation of Life (1934) that I recently recalled in talking with a close friend and cinematographer. Beyond our regular conversations about black film aesthetics and lighting for black performers, on this occasion we discussed current trends in Hollywood and independent film and my friend remarked, “Black women are the ‘in’ thing now.” For a moment, his comment took me aback. Remembering hooks’ and Bobo’s arguments in terms of black women having perhaps the most complex relationship with the cinema of any demographic group among western audiences, I found this statement puzzling for several reasons.
At a personal level, I knew that I had always loved film and that my mother who remains a serious cinéphile had been the one to foster this passion in me. However, this was our family secret that a black woman was teaching her daughter about ‘movie brats’, Hitchcock and Ford. Who was to know that instead of weekends at the mall shopping for bargains, ours were spent at home watching an array of home video titles that resembled the BFI’s “Greatest Films of All Times” list?
I also found myself remembering the enormous struggle of film directors like Julie Dash. Dash had spent decades and experienced numerous rejections by white male studio executives in making Daughters of the Dust. The idea of black women as now being embraced by an industry, which for more than a century had rendered us invisible as far as having the agency to tell our own stories yet hypervisible in depicting us as the oversexualised other, is hard to make sense of.
There is also a new generation of black women filmmakers to consider. These women filmmakers from the hip-hop generation to the millennials, have come of age in a post-civil rights era (or what Mark Anthony Neal calls the “post-soul”). They have been influenced by black feminist scholars such as bell hooks and inspired by pioneering filmmakers such as Julie Dash, Darnell Martin, Cheryl Dunye and Ngozi Onwurah. Black women directors – Dee Rees, Tina Mabry, Ava DuVernay, Tanya Hamilton, Nikyatu Jusu and Akosua Adoma Owusu – are pushing boundaries in terms of stories, cinematic styles and in reframing black female identities beyond the narrowly constructed images of black women found in mainstream film and media.
These new black filmmakers are honing their skills at a time when the conventional systems of Hollywood are experiencing a certain ‘democratisation’ of film and media. The replacing of high cost celluloid film by digital technology was perhaps the first step in fostering more low-budget independent productions. Nowadays, new media with crowd sourcing for film finance, distribution and exhibition have provided more independent filmmakers with the opportunity to control key elements of the business side of film.
For black women this has been especially significant as generations-old traditions of networking through churches, schools and women’s social clubs have been transferred into the cyber realm of social media. Young, professional African American women have embraced digital technologies for communicating, networking and ultimately marketing their own products. Be it a new independent publishing company or their latest art house film, black women are able to speak directly to each other as potential audiences. Digital networking has opened the door to newfound entrepreneurship in independent film and media amongst young black women. A prime example is African-American Film Festival Releasing Movement (AFFRM), an independent black film distribution company founded by award-winning filmmaker Ava DuVernay director of new release Selma.
Started in 2011, AFFRM has released seven films and is now distributing films internationally. But, it is important to recognise that black independent film in terms of distribution did not start with social media. Instead, one can look at the example of Haile Gerima and his strategies for marketing and distributing his 1993 slavery film Sankofa as a model for what is happening with contemporary social media in terms of independent film. Likewise, the Sankofa model finds its roots in the marketing and distribution techniques used by 1920’s and 1930’s African American film pioneer Oscar Micheaux. Yet, what sets this current trend apart is the participation by black women in grassroots organising via social media in supporting films by and about black women.
What also distinguishes this new group of black independent filmmakers, both women and men – whose works Nelson George calls the “new black wave” – from the New Black Realism of the 1990’s and the 1970’s Blaxploitation era is a collectivism amongst new black wave filmmakers. Rather than focusing on the celebrity of a few black directors who are making it in the Hollywood system, this new black wave era is centred on a movement that fosters as many black filmmakers telling diverse, high quality stories as possible.
In 2013, the major studios released more films by and about black people than had been seen in decades. In part, this increase can be attributed to greater opportunities for black independent filmmakers to bypass the Hollywood system altogether and still have their films seen by targeted audiences. Also, the ability of studio-backed black filmmakers to work with local community and film organisations to incorporate grassroots marketing via social media in order to speak directly to their audiences has supported the commercial viability of black films overall.
What does this discussion of new media, digital production, marketing and distribution have to do with the question of black women as the “ in thing” as opposed to the one hundred plus years prior to now?
Personally, I am still uncertain how “in” black women really are. The numbers overall for women directors and for women in executive positions in the film industry remain a serious concern. Although the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences has its first African American woman president, Cheryl Boone Isaacs, and as many celebrated another Academy Awards year in which a black woman performer, this year Lupita Nyong’o, walked away with an Oscar, I am not sure if we are really at a turning point for black women in the film industry as a whole.
What I am confident about is a new relationship between black women and the media, specifically film. After more than a century of the black female form being battered by stereotypical constructions of mammies, sapphires, jezebels and tragic mulattoes, this current generation of black women spectators empowered by decades of black feminist thought, critically engage with media and readily recognise stereotypical images. Beyond simply spotting stereotypical portrayals, black women now have the platforms to critically examine how such images inform black female identities and to publicly call out producers and media organisations that present these problematic depictions of black women.
The thoughtful approach that so many black women now take in examining film and media representations is encouraging. Less often do I hear black women say, “It’s just a movie…it’s not that deep.” Instead young black women appear more aware of the everyday significance media and film messaging has on informing societal notions of race and sex. While film as an industry appears to remain a boy’s club that rarely if ever has black women in mind, film is a socio-cultural entity that has an enormous impact on how black women are viewed and on how we see ourselves. Whether the film industry has chosen black women as the new “in thing” or not is no matter. What is imperative is that black women tell our stories with the diversity and richness that speaks to the complexities of our experiences.
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Montré Aza Missouri has produced narrative and documentary films in the UK, the US, Ghana and Nigeria. She is an Assistant Professor in Film at Howard University where she teaches Directing, Scriptwriting, Film History and African Cinema. She is also the founding director of Parallel Film Collective a nonprofit organisation dedicated to producing, distributing and promoting “local equals global” film that transcends limiting racial, cultural and gender identities found in mainstream media. A former fellow at the Center for Media, Religion and Culture, Montré is completing her book Black Magic Woman and Narrative Film: Race, Sex and Afro-religiosity for Palgrave Macmillan. She is on Twitter @MontreMissouri
- Doing the Right Thing: Black Film and TV in a Biased World (mediadiversified.org)
- A Forgotten Part of British History: Belle (mediadiversified.org)
- Black British feminism then and now (mediadiversified.org)
- We Are Not At Zero. (mediadiversified.org)