Film

A Black Girl’s Body You Might Save From Drowning

Adapted from a play, Bronx Gothic is a must-see film that will linger with you for days.

Okwui Okpokwasili in Andrew Rossi’s documentary Bronx Gothic, based on Okpokwasili’s performance of the same name (all images courtesy of Grasshopper Film)

Seeing Bronx Gothic, a film directed by Andrew Rossi about the development and execution of Okwui Okpokwasili’s one-woman performance Bronx Gothic, makes me re-think why I write reviews. It’s very likely that by the time this review is read the run of the film will have ended (it’s scheduled to close on Tuesday, July 25). Therefore this piece of writing won’t promote it in the way that I would like to, since I think every living human being alive right now should see this film. I don’t think I can use this review to explain the import and resonances of the film adequately either. I could take a few thousand words to dissect and parse the various scenes and their effects, but truly such exegesis would only limit the work and the entirety deserves to be seen. I can take you along the estuary, but there is an ocean of meaning waiting. I might use this space to think through the work, but I don’t want to solve it; I want to stay with it and have it linger with me. I suppose the best I can do with this writing is to let you in on one of the ideas that has been haunting me since I saw the film three days ago.

Okwui Okpokwasili in Andrew Rossi’s documentary Bronx Gothic, based on Okpokwasili’s performance of the same name

The film begins with one of the early moments of Okpokwasili’s performance, in which she says “I’m here, I know this building … there are spots of blood on the floor.” At the core of what the artist demands — and the way the piece is structured it really is a demand rather than a request — is presence with her, intimate presence, to somehow enter her body and be fully engaged with her experience of being what she saw herself to be as a child: an ugly, black girl who didn’t know her own body.

If it’s not made clear by the first 30 minutes of her performance in which Okpokwasili just dances and vibrates in place silently, spasming like a padlocked door someone is forcibly opening, this is a crisis. It’s a crisis because Okpokwasili is a foreigner, an immigrant, female, and black — some of the top finishers in US culture’s schadenfreude sweepstakes. It’s a crisis because the only people who might help her come into knowledge of her body and what it can do, hate her (like her classmates) or are hamstrung by propriety (like her mother) or can’t see past the desire to possess the young, lithe body (like the older man who may have sexually abused one of the characters she inhabits).

This situation is a crisis because every time we fail in the radically empathetic attempt to inhabit that unloved body we make a few more black girls come closer to drowning. Okpokwasili is dancing and vibrating until she is a slick and sweaty mess and she demands my presence.

Okwui Okpokwasili in Andrew Rossi’s documentary Bronx Gothic, based on Okpokwasili’s performance

It’s not a simple request. In the film, she breaks down after a performance and holds her husband and says that she was there, back in the space and time of being alone, unloved, despised. Then later in a moment of reflection she says she knows that loving this brown body is always work, so (she says to herself): do the work. I pass on that challenge to you the reader as I take it up myself: (you) do the work.

Bronx Gothic, directed by Andrew Rossi, is showing at Film Forum (209 West Houston Street, Soho, Manhattan) through July 25.

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