Has Black Feminism actually progressed in film?

Is Black female representation as presented in film just a trend?
Originally posted on The National Student.

Hollywood has come under a lot of scrutiny in recent years. Just last year we were finally exposed to the “open secret” of Harvey Weinstein, prompting the beginning of the #MeToo and Time’s Up campaigns, which challenged the status quo of the industry as a whole. And Hollywood hasn’t just been criticised its treatment and representation of women. In 2015 and 2016, the Academy Awards in particular were called out for being overwhelmingly white.

Despite the recent success of Black women on screen and the progressive message that their performances are depicting, many fear that the “Black girl magic” and the empowerment of marginalised voices is nothing more than a marketing tool for ‘woke points’. But being woke is more than being a political young person, it’s more than a hashtag, and way more than a trend.

While some might have feigned surprise that the 2016 Oscars were #SoWhite, anyone with an insight into the industry could have foreseen it. From whitewashing to nepotism, and the promotion of stereotypes, it’s about time that we as a society have a conversation about films, feminism, and race.

Across all aspects of life, society indicates that women are second-rate citizens, people who need to be dominated, and are incapable of succeeding in the ways men can. This is a belief especially damaging towards women of colour, who face discrimination due to their race too. Finally, especially within in the last few years, the presence of melanated heroines on our screens has been at an all time high. Particularly worth mentioning are Hidden Figures, Black Panther and A Wrinkle in Time.

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A Wrinkle In Time, 2018

In 2015, there were no people of colour nominated for an Oscar in acting. None. In 2016, once again, there were absolutely no people of colour nominated for an Oscar in acting. Suddenly in 2017, there were six. Among the films to tackle issues of race and to garner the Academy’s attention were Loving, Fences, The People v. O.J. Simpson, I Am Not Your Negro, Moonlight, and 13th.

With her documentary 13th, Ava DuVernay calls out the racist history behind America’s penal system and challenges perceptions about the War on Drugs. She has dared to reclaim history, and ended up making it as a result. Even though DuVernay’s A Wrinkle in Time didn’t excel in the box office nor did it do well amongst critics, the film itself is a game-changer.

And that is not only because it is a landmark achievement for inclusive science fiction and fantasy (SFF) films, but also in the way that it shows Black girls a young hero who looks like them. A Wrinkle in Time is an open love letter to Black girls, and addresses the uncertainties of girlhood, especially for girls of colour.

Hidden Figures, the 20th Century Fox film telling the long-forgotten story of the African-American women at NASA who played instrumental roles in some of their most iconic missions, promotes the message that “We shall overcome”.

But it’s more than just a ‘Black movie’ – it’s an intelligent movie. It forces us to revisit one of the most monumental events in American history and acknowledge the unsung heroes that made it possible. It’s not a story that many people have heard before, but it’s one we all deserve to. It is a feminist movie, one that demonstrates a triumph of progress and perseverance through the rampant sexism of the 60’s.

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Hidden Figures, 2016

“The fight has changed, the stereotypes remain, and the cause will never die.”

A woman of colour doesn’t face racism and sexism separately. The sexism she faces is often racialised, and the racism she faces is often sexualised. Black Americans have endured innumerable hardships since their involuntary migration and subsequent enslavement from Africa to America. The game-changing book “Why I’m No Longer Talking to White People about Race” by British journalist Reni Eddo-Lodge details the equivalent Black British experience, which is far less talked about.

The labour of women, but especially women of colour, is undervalued and overlooked. We are glaringly absent from textbooks, and our whitewashed histories are only available during Black History Month or through elective courses.

The representation of Black women throughout history has affected the way Black people, as well as Western society, values, identifies and idealises Black women in general. There have clearly been changes in these ideologies over time, and they are heavily influenced by the way Black women are represented in media.

Black Panther is an important film for diversity across various spectrum’s. It’s a blockbuster movie that features a majority Black cast with major names attached to it, and the merchandising is aimed at Black children. Its existence in the pop culture scene and what it means for representation in media cannot be understated and yes, finally, it is a film that Black women can actually celebrate.

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Black Panther, 2018

The narrative places the women of Black Panther front and centre, making them the heroes of their own stories. From the start, the story avoids the sexist tropes we are accustomed to watching in film.

Black Panther contains powerful messages about gender roles. The Wakandan women’s sex appeal is obvious, but secondary to their personality and skill, and rarely do we see Black women who are as assertive and independent as they are in this Marvel creation. Furthermore, almost every significant female role is played by a dark-skinned actress. It’s amazing to witness.

Yet a YouGov survey recently found that most Americans still believe there are not enough film roles for women and people of colour. The survey of 1,220 adults found that 37% of respondents believed women had enough roles available, just 2% points more than people who believed black people had enough parts available.

On-screen representations of minorities, the survey found, are seen as sometimes inauthentic, though that depends on whom you asked. Nearly half of Black respondents (46%) said on-screen representation of black characters were inauthentic, about twice the rate of the respondents overall. The analysis reveals people of colour remained underrepresented, considering they comprised 40% of the U.S. population in 2016.

Just 13.9% of the year’s film leads and 12.6% of film directors were people of colour.
But what does this mean now? The portrayal of Black women has certainly changed since the age of Blaxploitation, and of course, the success of Black women should be celebrated on screens, but do a few big-budget films with a Black cast count as progress? Is it fair?

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Fences, 2016

Investing in stories that center around people of colour without dwelling on their pain or oppression is a large step towards healing, particularly in this brutal contemporary political climate. It’s important not just to show tokenised images of Black characters, but to present diverse narratives of individuals with different stories and experiences.
It can be argued that in Hollywood, in an industry where everything is about marketing and making fortunes, that money is the only motivator. Therefore, Hollywood isn’t being progressive in including more Black actors and characters, they’re being tactical.

It seems that Hollywood has yet to understand what makes money, however. The last report on diversity in UCLA’s Ralph J. Bunche Center for African American Studies shows that “films and television shows with casts attuned to America’s diversity tend to register the highest global box office figures and viewer ratings.” Yet the study still indicates that the industry could do better.

While the data notes that some progress has been made, it also highlights that Hollywood decision-makers still consider the presence of diverse talent to be the exception, rather than the rule, but sometimes things have to get worse before they get better. To reach a point where we can put marginalised voices on screens, and tell the stories of women of colour without any prescribed idea of what we should be, to find real examples of those like ourselves – this can all be attained.

A few extra nominations won’t undo years of exclusion of women and PoC, because we are as different as we are complicated. Hollywood has to actively work to give more opportunities to those previously ostracised and make sure a wider range of stories get told.

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The Black Feminist Documentary, 2019

What I learnt from celebrating ‘Galentine’s Day’

The closing of a year is often lead with great anticipation. Halloween, bonfire night, Thanksgiving (for my American readers), Hanukkah, Christmas celebrations and then finally…the New Years build up. Then creeps in January, dragging its oversized shoes on the floor. January is like the Maroon 5 performing at the Super Bowl of months, despite my own birthday being during this month, I too, have to admit that it overstays it’s welcome. A guest that you were once looking forward to seeing, but is now refusing to leave.

Then, after this excruciatingly dull month of broken resolutions and “I’ll start tomorrow”-s, comes an infamously suffocating day for singles and even couples alike. Valentine’s Day. Don’t get me wrong, I love the concept of the day because it allows you to show appreciation to your significant other, plus the aesthetic of pink and red hearts everywhere may appear as obnoxious to some but I personally think they’re beautiful and uplifting. In a world that seems to forever filled with fake news and depressing headlines, then to suddenly be hit with flowers of all colours and love hearts is pretty encouraging to me. Lord knows we all need it.

But there is also a capitalist, ‘do it for the gram’ element involved which takes the real fun out of it. An haughty, pompous aspect that places couples to compare themselves to other couples. As though your relationships’ depth and meaning is measured based off of your financial income. A factor that is unfair and shallow to say the least. Personally, I’m a working-class student with low earning parents. Therefore, I don’t get any help from them. I simply rely on myself and how often I work, when I can. But with juggling a degree, a long distance relationship and other prospects; it can all get a little (VERY) strenuous. So with this continuous obligation to flex our lives on social media adds even more pressure on this particular occasion, minus the others- birthdays, Christmas etc.

In fact, just yesterday I was speaking to a work colleague who did not hesitate to tell me all about the expensive trips and gifts that her much older boyfriend so lovingly gives. Of course then, this was met with my own romance interrogation; “Where did you go?” “How much did they spend on you?” and “How much did YOU spend on THEM?” So whether you’re in a relationship or not, Valentine’s Day can be a bit of a pain. Don’t worry single people, least you can treat yourself to a cheap bottle of wine and a Netflix marathon then call it a night, it’s not as pathetic as everyone makes it out to be. I promise.

Anyhow, so due to my long-distance relationship circumstances, this year I decided to celebrate my first ever Galentine’s Day with my single friends. Because being single doesn’t mean that you’re alone, at all. This is a holiday that, among other things, highlights the political power of female friendship: Galentine’s Day. To quote main character Leslie Knope, “What’s Galentine’s Day? “Oh, it’s only the best day of the year!” So for context, back in February 2010, NBC inaugurated the holiday on its sitcom Parks and Recreation, starring Amy Poehler’s iconic character Leslie Knope, a described ‘civic crusader’ and ‘friend extraordinaire’. As Knope explains it, each year on February 13th, she gathers together all her best female friends, including her mother, to celebrate what she loves about her female companions over waffles.

However, the biggest lesson that I learnt from Galentine’s Day isn’t to only challenge hetero-normative romantic relationships and gross gender roles and forever pining over ‘the right one’ but of also finally normalising the idea that being single IS NOT something to be distracted from. As someone that is currently in a relationship, I can understand why you’re reading this whilst rolling your eyes. Or how this advice would fall on death ears. Take this with a pinch of salt if you must, but the most significant rule to remember is that you’re able to be by yourself and not hate it. I know right, wild(!) I apologise if this sounds patronising, but you’re allowed to be single on purpose and enjoy it.

Galentine’s day doesn’t have to be surrounded by the concept of filling some sort of ‘romantic void’ otherwise you’re not full. That’s a complete lie. People speak to me nowadays as if by having a boyfriend, I have been “blessed” and that I have been changed for the better. As much as I love being in a relationship, I can be strong and empowered whether I’m in one or not. Galentine’s Day is for all female-identifying folks celebrating themselves, no man-dominated underbelly included, please.

As well as this, Galentines Day should be as inclusive as we can possibly make it. Not everybody has this Sex and the City and Pretty Little Liars-esque girl group. Sometimes our closest friends live in different parts of the country and so seeing all these cliquey squads can emphasise on the loneliness. I often feel it. So another lesson I have learnt is to keep open-minded and productive when it comes to this kind of thing. Galentine’s can be a beautiful day, but always remember to show love and support for women throughout all the other days to.

💚

Still I Rise: ‘Feminisms, Gender, Resistance’ Exhibition review

On October 26th, the Nottingham Contemporary art gallery launched a new effervescent exhibition titled ‘Still I Rise’ which runs until 27th January, 2019. The name stems from Maya Angelou’s empowering poem from 1978 which tackles subjects of prejudice and injustice.

Similarly to the poem, the exhibition showcases themes of resistance, gender, feminism and resilience as well as exploring the roles that women played in the history of resistance movements. It also refers to artists spanning centuries and continents who are protesting and exploring new, alternative forms of living.

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Still I Rise: Feminisms, Gender, Resistance, Act 1, Nottingham Contemporary, 2018. Image credit: Stuart Whipps
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Still I Rise: Feminisms, Gender, Resistance, Act 1, Nottingham Contemporary, 2018. Image credit: Stuart Whipps

Coinciding with the centenary of women’s suffrage within the UK, this major group is a demonstration of endurance around the world, spanning across the time periods between the late 19th century to present reforms.

The exhibition also references key historic moments including the Civil Rights Movement, resistance against dictatorships in Latin America in the 1960’s–70’s, independence movements against colonial rule in Africa, the Women’s Liberation Movement, the AIDS crisis and the Stonewall Rebellion, exhibiting pieces from a multiplicity of perspectives, from minor cases on the domestic sphere to larger scale uprisings.

Since opening in 2009, the Nottingham Contemporary has been the city’s chance to make a larger cultural mark in the global art scene, highlighting social upheavals and movements through art.

What is most compelling about this new exhibition is how it captures such a pivotal era, showcasing art as a form of protest, declaration and revelation. The exhibition itself signifies the abuse of power by those who sit in high government positions, as well as the judiciary and people within the police force. For the public, it sends out clear, repeated messages of hope. For those who understand the meaning of repeated wrongdoing, the title ‘Still I Rise’ becomes an anthem, a beacon of hope for the oppressed and downtrodden.

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Still I Rise: Feminisms, Gender, Resistance, Act 1, Nottingham Contemporary, 2018. Image credit: Stuart Whipps

Upon arrival, spectators are immediately faced with a giant board with pens and coloured paper on the side. On each piece of paper, visitors are addressed with questions such as “Blank page – Share your thoughts and feelings about the stories and themes in the exhibition” and “What does resistance look like to you? Share your acts of resistance”.

Not only do these types of statements engage viewers into the exhibition and facilitate individuals to involve their personal input, but they also help to widen conversations for future observers, opening up a much-needed discussion. This form of interactive art enables visitors to build their own versions of the accompanying publication, reflecting a history of self-publishing as a form of resistance. Answers were often playful but pressing, with answers written in permanent marker such as “TRANS RIGHTS R HUMAN RIGHTS” and “BEING WHOEVER THE F@#& I WANT TO BE!”.

Within the exhibition, there are different rooms for each gallery, and each one of these rooms is arranged thematically across different practices and waves of feminism. Above the artworks themselves, the exhibition displays have been designed by f-architecture, a research-based architectural practice which explores issues surrounding the spatial politics of bodies and subjects.

As well as the catalogue, which is by OOMK (One of My Kind), the London-based collaborative publishing practice that has produced a book with rearrange-able pages to allow the reader to structure their own thoughts.

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Still I Rise: Feminisms, Gender, Resistance, Act 1, Nottingham Contemporary, 2018. Image credit: Stuart Whipps

The first artist to be gazed upon is none other than feminist artist Judy Chicago, with a pink-peach background for a wall, Chicago’s explosive colour pieces are complimented marvellously. It’s been over 50 years since the artist debuted her flame, fireworks and smoke performances on print, yet the pyrotechnics of Smoking Bodies in the Californian desert still ignites the same passionate reaction today. Chicago created this body of work as a reaction to the male dominance of land art created in the 1960’s.

Other standout pieces were displayed proudly within another gallery room titled ‘A Rumour’. This area features an array of protest posters showcased a decade later, during the 70’s, by the See Red Women’s Workshop, covering topics from abortion rights to Margaret Thatcher’s benefit cuts. There are also Suffragette Mary Lowndes’s detail-orientated and crafted banners that were designed for the 1908 National Union of Suffrage Societies procession, alongside a selection of prison photographs of female anarchists affiliated with the Paris Commune of 1871.

Queer artists, however, made the most significant impact in this particular area; a tower of Zoe Leonard’s infamous poem ‘I WANT A DYKE FOR PRESIDENT’ was distributed to visitors of the exhibition. The piece highlights the need for a wave of politicians which represent marginal voices across the spectrum. Despite being published in 1992, it recently regained recognition and relevancy as it was performed as a rap by Mykki Blanco for a video, during the run-up to the 2016 US Presidential Election.

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Still I Rise: Feminisms, Gender, Resistance, Act 1, Nottingham Contemporary, 2018. Image credit: Stuart Whipps

The erasure of minorities and the outvoted isn’t uncommon within history. There have been many examples in recent years which show that many important movements and advancements within biographies involved more than the white men who were accredited. I recently read a line inside the Stanford Daily about representation which said “Representation can make disadvantaged groups become real people” and I think I’ll continue to use this quote in the future because it’s true, and that’s why exhibitions like these are so engaging: they help us to realise that there is a lot going on outside of our echo chamber.

There are patriarchal hierarchies and that’s the brutal truth about the world we live in, within all sectors. Whether we agree or understand it all or not is irrelevant because not everything is our story to tell and a lot of the time, we want to be heard more than actually understood. Isn’t that what Maya Angelou fought for her entire life anyway?

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Still I Rise: Feminisms, Gender, Resistance, Act 1, Nottingham Contemporary, 2018. Image credit: Stuart Whipps

The importance of “Dear White People” and the struggle with self-indentity

An opinion piece on the Netflix series “Dear White People” told from a mixed race perspective.

“When the truth is suppressed, it doesn’t die; it goes underground”.

It has been quite some time since I’ve written a blog post, I find that my intentions with this site change every other month. Originally, it was just a safe space for me to talk about my life and adventures, then it became a platform for me to practice my music journalism by reviewing albums, but then somewhere along the way I lost track of all of that in an abundance of things, like my exams, internships, portfolio expanding, maintaining friendships, working etc. And as a result my self-esteem sort of plummeted, especially in a creative sense. But one thing that I like and, above all else, appreciate about this blog is that I’m free to express whatever I want, no judgement on how I deliver statements or no one to devalue my views and opinions, and nowadays I find that my work frequently intersects with issues of race, gender, sexuality, feminism, and progressive politics.

Nevertheless, everybody experiences things in a different way, it’s not always easy to get people to understand what you mean or for everyone to see eye-to -eye. We’re living in far more polarising, politically intense times where things almost go full circle to the point that we lose direction. Or that we’re all reciting the same lines to the point where every room becomes an echo chamber, and it’s getting cramped.

If I choose to one day have children, the only values I hope for them to have is to appreciate nature, to love themselves and their bodies, have gratitude and empathy towards others but most importantly, to keep an open mind towards things and people that they don’t understand. This should be just the basis, but unfortunately this isn’t a natural inclination for everybody.

As a young person I always felt that it was important that I cultivate these strengths within my own character so that I can lead by example, not words. To be open to a new era of political correctness and changing sexual politics. You can call it whatever you want, whether it be “a liberal” or a “social justice warrior”, or the current favourite insult, a “snowflake” *cringes* however, these are the values I live by. Though it hasn’t always been this way.

Growing up in a predominantly white area in the UK (no, seriously the population of minorities is 2.2% in my area and that’s all the minority races in total) I never realised how oblivious I was to a lot of things, or how oblivious others were. Every comment that was made about my appearance and identity I mostly usually brushed off, especially because I was (unfortunately fortunate) enough to be light-skinned and borderline considered “White passing”. Yet still had the features of a Black person. So all my life I’ve been, what can be considered as ‘lucky’ in a way that not being ‘black’ enough came to my advantage, but in the least rewarding way. It’s as complex as it is problematic.

And that’s where my fascination with “Dear White People” came in, I immediately recognised the protagonist, played by Logan Browning, from Bratz: The Movie in 2007. My initial thoughts were “Oh god, please don’t let another mixed race girl not acknowledge her biracial heritage” I know, to some of you this may sound ghastly. But Zendaya in Disney Channel’s Shake It Up had two Black parents, and growing up I found this quite damaging, because it made it seem like multiculturalism couldn’t and shouldn’t exist, like we’re experiments and not the real thing, as if you had to be either one or the other. A “watered down” version of the original. So watching a show that finally addresses the struggles of a biracial individual and the war with their self-identification was refreshing to say the least, as well as reflecting the real internal struggle of figuring out who you are in this world.

Gail Lukasik’s novel ‘White Like Her‘ is a prime example of the struggle with self-identifying, she explains how her mother pretended to be White throughout her entire life and by doing this, she received a lot more privileges socially and economically, because she was “passing”. The saddest part, is that it all has to even matter in the first place. It’s funny how race is apparent on sight, isn’t it?

Yet racism hasn’t always been black and white. White supremacists, for example, used to hate Irish and Italians at the turn of the century. They weren’t considered white. But once people realised that there were a huge amount of them, they needed to include them for power’s sake and they did. Race is almost a concept, but in which involves real and damaging effects.

I kind of understand why people are interested in people like myself who are racially ambiguous. Race, however flawed the concept, is used as a tool for understanding people. Personally, I’m curious about other people’s racial backgrounds too and as human beings we are always searching for ways to identify, and factors like skin tone serve as physical reminders of our ancestry and racial heritage.

BUUUUUT, there are appropriate ways to talk to someone about their background and then there are ways to sound like, for lack of better words, an ignorant dickhead. And a lot of what I went through before was never worth compromising myself and who I am just to have a couple of friends, I’d go through the countless eye rolls and the tone deaf “You’re not even Black so you have no right to be offended!” statements just to get people to finally understand me on some level.

Since recently visiting an old friend from school that I had contrasting views with, the daunting realisation that I’m forever going to have to explain and justify my existence hit me like a bus. It was a heart-breaking epitome, racism is a lot more than “being mean” to someone because of their race. They’re a whole load of stages in White supremacy before being considered an extremist and with the case of my close friend from school, it was past indifference and minimisation, you know, “We all belong to the human race!” and the use of phrases like “post-racial society” and the casual White saviour complex followed by the denial of White privilege, plus never forgetting the constant false equivocation. Classic.

Yet the movie/television show “Dear White People” was enough in its title because it caused a bellicose, erupting reaction. Even Antoinette Robertson who played ‘white whisperer’ Coco Conners stated in an interview with Harper’s Bazaar that the name and podcasts ‘alienated’ White people. The like/dislike ratio on the YouTube official trailer was almost equal and the comments were all too familiar “What if there was a show called ‘Dear Black People??? There would be a war!”

Sigh. In explanation of that; first of all, the intent with the show was to generally raise more awareness with racial sensitivity i.e not doing black face and other blatantly racist hate crimes. Whereas a show directed towards minorities is always done with malicious intentions and is poorly informed i.e. everything Nicole Arbour has posted, ever.

Back to the show; each episode in the second season, save for the last, focuses on the experiences of one character, nose-diving viewers into the realities and trepidation’s of what it means to be black, or not black, or not black enough. Although the creator recognises that the show quantifies this problem through blackness, he thinks it’s a systemic result of the human condition.

In an ideal world, Dear White People would be better received. It encourages people to call out ignorance when they see it while educating individuals without chastising them, and holding both sides accountable. It deserves to have its watercooler moment because it encourages the discussions and bring issues to the surface that we really need to be having during these increasingly divisive times.

As journalist Wesley Morris of The New York Times pointed out in a podcast, change is happening in the Western world; “It’s just happening in dog years”.