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Rewriting Film History with Two Decades of Black Women’s Cinema

A monthlong series at the Brooklyn Academy of Music chronicles two decades of films by African American women, including a slate of powerful documentaries.

<em>One Way or Another</em> (1974), directed by Sara Gómez (photo courtesy New Yorker Films)
Still from One Way or Another (1974), directed by Sara Gómez (photo courtesy New Yorker Films)

One Way or Another: Black Women’s Cinema, 1970–1991, a revelatory new series that opens at the Brooklyn Academy of Music today, is the kind of program that demands the rewriting of film history. It joins other recent programs — Tell It Like It Is: Black Independents in New York, 1968–1986 at the Film Society of Lincoln Center in 2014 and A Time for Burning: Cinema of the Civil Rights Movement at BAM in 2013, most notably — that have opened up traditionally narrow perceptions of black cinema as conforming to certain formal and thematic strategies or existing as part of certain genres. These programs showcase singular works that demand their own critical attention and analysis, to be regarded as more than footnotes in a larger historical narrative that has continually sought to marginalize their contributions.

Still from <em>I Am Somebody</em> (1970), directed by Madeline Anderson (photo courtesy Icarus Films)
Still from I Am Somebody (1970), directed by Madeline Anderson (photo courtesy Icarus Films)

If these works by black women filmmakers share a connection it is in their insistence on the importance of representing both the struggle and success of black lives. This takes many forms throughout One Way or Another, from the exceptional fiction work of Julie Dash and Kathleen Collins to the inventive animation of artists such as Ayoka Chenzira — the ground covered in the 21-year period designated by the series is overwhelming. But one of the most common ways black women filmmakers told their own stories was through documentaries, highlighting what the critic Clyde Taylor has called the “realness dimension” so important to early black independent film. I Am Somebody (1970), directed by Madeline Anderson, charts the progression of a 1969 strike of black hospital workers, most of whom were women, at the University of South Carolina in Charleston. Foregrounding the struggle of black women by allowing them to tell their own stories of perseverance, Anderson uses a combination of on-the-scene footage with reflective voiceover and interviews conducted after the strikes had concluded. A passive, fly-on-the-wall method would not have sufficed. This approach shows the influence of both the emerging direct cinema (she had worked with Richard Leacock at the beginning of her career) and the analytical work being done on the groundbreaking television news magazine Black Journal, where Anderson was a contributor. I Am Somebody works as both a document and a tool, a marker of history and a model for the future.

Still from <em>Remembering Thelma</em> (1981), directed by Kathe Sandler (photo courtesy Women Make Movies)
Still from Remembering Thelma (1981), directed by Kathe Sandler (photo courtesy Women Make Movies)

You can see a recurrent strategy through much of the documentary work featured in One Way or Another. Representation was not the only goal. “For me, filmmaking is both storytelling and politics,” Kathe Sandler once wrote. “It is about filling voids and vacuums of missing information, about who we are and how our stories are being told. I see my work as educating, entertaining, and, if it is fully realized—also healing.” Remembering Thelma (1981), Sandler’s 15-minute documentary about her former teacher Thelma Hill, a founding member of Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater, does all these things. As a portrait of an important dancer, it brings Hill’s extraordinary life and work into context. But the film also serves as a personal eulogy for a missing friend and a meditation on the importance of teachers to young black women. Storme: The Lady of the Jewel Box (1987), Michelle Parkerson’s 21-minute film about the legendary Harlem drag performer Stormé DeLarverie, who allegedly threw the punch that launched the Stonewall riots, and Elena Featherstone’s Visions of the Spirit: A Portrait of Alice Walker (1989), an hour-long video that explores the deep connections between the author’s family, feminism, and her writing, are less personal statements. But they remain vital because of the passion of their subjects, and each filmmaker’s allowance to not just preserve their legacy but to present them as models for multidimensional and alternative identities for black women.

Still from <em>Fannie's Film</em> (1979), directed by Fronza Woods (photo courtesy Women Make Movies)
Still from Fannie’s Film (1979), directed by Fronza Woods (photo courtesy Women Make Movies)

These are all stories, in some sense, about the need to place the creative excellence of black women on the same pedestal as everybody else. But what about women whose stories are even more obscured and don’t have a platform? Fannie’s Film (1979), an extraordinary 15-minute documentary by Fronza Woods, answers this through its study of the working day of 65-year-old Fannie Drayton, a cleaning woman at the Robert Fitzgerald Studio in New York City. The film opens with Drayton literally obscuring her image in a mirror with cleaning product, and Woods spends a good deal of the rest of the film positioning Drayton in the background as the predominantly white dancers practice around her. She exists behind the action, invisible in the space. But she slowly begins to move forward. The narration consists of Drayton talking about the job, her childhood growing up in Georgia, and her continued independence, and the camera begins to focus only on her.

A few black women filmmakers turned the camera on themselves, with startling results. Finding Christa (1991), directed by Camille Billops, is about the director’s own relationship with the daughter she gave up for adoption decades earlier. Told through an amalgamation of styles — candid interviews with family members, ambitious recreated scenes — the story of these two women, the choices they made and why they made them, is put under a self-reflexive microscope. Along with Maureen Blackwood’s Perfect Image? (1988) and Sara Gómez’s One Way or Another (1974), Billops’s work represents a strand of filmmaking by black women that is actively engaged in questioning previous methods of representation and how they operate. These films work in conversation with what came before, and tangle with the desire for a “realness dimension.” Instead of working within specific modes of documentary film, they are bursting out of them.

Still from <em>Perfect Image?</em> (1988), directed by Maureen Blackwood (photo courtesy Women Make Movies)
Still from Perfect Image? (1988), directed by Maureen Blackwood (photo courtesy Women Make Movies)

One Way or Another: Black Women’s Cinema, 1970–1991 takes place at the Brooklyn Academy of Music (30 Lafayette Avenue, Fort Greene, Brooklyn) from February 3 to 23.

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