It’s no secret that Hollywood has a diversity problem, especially when it comes to hiring directors. Last spring, the ACLU filed grievances with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission to investigate “the systemic failure to hire women directors at all levels of the film and television industry.” In November, a New York Times Magazine cover story revealed the industry’s deep-rooted hostility toward women, particularly women of color, with ambitions to direct. As Alec Baldwin observed, “There is still the presumption that men are better designed for the ferocity and meanness that the job often requires.” (The notion that the role requires meanness, of course, is itself a presumption worth questioning.)
Below, we asked seven writers to discuss some of the women who have proven their directorial talents despite those obstacles. Whether you’re into biopics, coming-of-age dramedies, or trans-generational comic ghost stories, there’s a movie on this list for you. Sit back, grab your oversized soft drink of choice, and enjoy the roundtable!
- Sarah Kessler: On Kimberly Peirce
- Gayle Wald: On Gina Prince-Bythewood
- Noah Berlatsky: On Talia Lugacy
- Ismail Muhammad: On Ava DuVernay
- Irvin J. Hunt: On Ava DuVernay
- Mary Zaborskis: On Marielle Heller
- Debashree Mukherjee: On Aparna Sen
On Kimberly Pierce
As the annual white sausage-fest known as “the Oscars” rolls around, as the #OscarsSoWhite and #OscarsSoMale hashtags rightly trend, and as scores of filmgoers across the spectrum nonetheless shell out Jacksons to see The Revenant (with popcorn), I’ve been sitting on my couch revisiting the films of Kimberly Peirce. There are, as yet, three of them. This number reflects both Peirce’s directorial perfectionism and the general lack of resources available to women directors, let alone queer women directors, in a Hollywood that would still rather throw money at straight white bro-downs like this year’s multiply nominated The Big Short. When Peirce’s debut feature, Boys Don’t Cry, was released to widespread acclaim and controversy in 1999, things progressed as they have with last year’s Carol, eliciting no nomination for the budding director even as Hilary Swank took home Best Actress for her early-career performance as the young transman Brandon Teena, whose rape and murder form the brutal denouement of Boys’s narrative. Fast-forward more than a decade to the 2013 release of Peirce’s equally devastating third feature, Carrie, and we find Richard Brody of the New Yorker paternalistically professing that Peirce’s films are “good-with-an-asterisk.” Lamenting the seasoned director’s lack of “cinematic imagination,” Brody continues, “Peirce is a filmmaker who thinks the world, who imagines the world, but who doesn’t seem to see it.”1
Needless to say, it all depends on what one means by “seeing,” as well as on who—or on what—is seeing and being seen. Conceived as they are by a Hollywood film director who is also a queer woman (Peirce is what we term a “celesbian” in Angeleno parlance), Peirce’s films palpably cultivate a mainstream audience. Yet she both envisions and visualizes a world in which the everyday violence of fitting in, and thus of appealing to this very same mainstream, proves unbearable, with often catastrophic results. Not coincidentally, the unfortunate ends that befall Peirce’s protagonists are always connected to pivotal acts of looking. Her films explore the powers of male and female gaze alike—powers she portrays as alternately destructive and redemptive.2
The theme of looking pervades Peirce’s 2013 version of Carrie, a remake of Brian De Palma’s 1976 adaptation of Stephen King’s 1974 novel. Peirce’s Carrie White (played by the age-appropriate Chloë Grace Moretz) appears even more at odds with her surroundings in the 21st-century context, it turns out. Facing a screen culture fused with adolescent hypersexuality, Carrie is bullied both at school and on the interwebs for her staid, frumpy comportment. The primary perpetrators of the onslaught are, unsurprisingly, other girls. Ring-led by Chris Hargensen (Portia Doubleday)—a character whose demonic grin awakens even my own deeply repressed all-girls school PTSD—the girls, including Aryan princess Sue Snell (Gabriella Wilde), band together to taunt Carrie into hysteria as she unwittingly begins her menses in the locker room’s open shower. Peirce’s rendering of this infamous scene curtails the viewer’s access to Carrie’s nudity, replacing De Palma’s soft-core fixation on Spacek’s breasts with several only suggestively masturbatory shots of Moretz relaxing into the steam before noticing blood on the tiles beneath her. As the period nightmare unfolds, the locker room transforms into a stage, and Carrie into a one-woman freak show, her body displayed before a jeering live audience. Ridiculed for her gender nonconformity with shouts of “Plug it up! Plug it up!,” Carrie crumples to the floor as she is pelted with sanitary products. Peirce’s camera frames her, prone, screaming for help, through the bars of a cage created by the other girls’ legs. The consummate millennial teen, Hargensen fixates less on Carrie herself than on filming the latter’s degradation for future replay. Hargensen’s evil #girlsquad clusters around her smartphone, ensuring the quality of the image. Meanwhile, in another key departure from De Palma, Peirce captures Snell’s look of acute shame as she recedes in wide-eyed horror from the hazing she has compulsively helped to instigate.
The collective female homosocial3 gaze that polices Carrie’s queer gender presentation provokes the apocalypse she later visits on the town, which culminates in her self-annihilation. For this gaze follows her to prom night, where the endlessly circulating footage of her menstrual downfall, shot from the girls’ bird’s-eye perspective, flashes onto the big screen after the iconic pig’s-blood dump engineered by Hargensen and her boyfriend.
Snell, who has guiltily attempted to induct Carrie into normative heterosexual femininity by giving the outcast her own coveted spot at prom—complete with dull-but-cute meathead date—can only look on, in further horror and pity, as Carrie retaliates, killing everyone in her wake but Snell and the girls’ kindly gym teacher. And in the end it is the white-blond Snell, pregnant with her dead jock boyfriend’s spawn, who has the last look, as her belated benevolence fails to prevent Carrie from disappearing into the earth before Snell’s tearful eyes.
Snell’s look—her gentle, humanitarian, female gaze—cannot redeem Carrie’s queerness. As Carrie’s ascetically religious mother (played by a terrifyingly volatile Julianne Moore) well knows, original sin endures. Yet Peirce’s interest lies, it seems, less in reframing our view of the story’s queer antiheroine than in rescuing Snell’s own gendered way of seeing, claiming the heteronormatively feminine point of view for the good. After all, Snell gets to live to see another day, as does her blond counterpart, Lana Tisdel (Chloë Sevigny), Brandon Teena’s cisgendered female lover in Boys Don’t Cry. Patricia White and J. Jack Halberstam have both brilliantly written on the politics of the gendered gaze in Peirce’s earliest film, with White observing that, though Brandon is indeed the film’s “transgendered hero,” Lana possesses the film’s “centring subjectivity.”4 While Lana’s equal parts lustful and romantic gaze at Brandon crucially affirms—rather than phobically interrogates—Brandon’s trans masculinity, the centrality of her look to Boys’s narrative ultimately (and unfortunately) ensures that, in Halberstam’s words, “the [film’s] transgender subject [is] dependent on the recognition of a woman.”5 This sexually empowered young cis woman is, like Sue Snell, the last one standing after Boys’s violently realist apocalyptic close. In the wake of the queer death she has witnessed and survived, Lana strikes out on her own, and we read in an epilogue that she soon births a child. For Peirce, the future is female-sexed and female-gendered. Does it get better? We have yet to find out.
Predictions aside, Peirce’s greatest strength is her ability to document the havoc wreaked by gendered ways of seeing. Her 2008 passion project, Stop-Loss, features not a queer protagonist but a paradigm of US straight white masculinity—a soldier (played by Ryan Phillippe) gone AWOL to avoid an unjustly administered return tour to Iraq. As the fugitive Staff Sergeant Brandon King contemplates his fate from a fleabag motel bed, his inner gaze flashes back to the scene of an impromptu counterinsurgency operation in Tikrit, depicted in real time at the film’s start. Upon entering an Iraqi home, King’s eyes fall on the bodies of multiple civilian men, women, and children that he and his squad have murdered in the crossfire. His inability to un-see this abominable tableau—a gory picture wrought by his very incapacity to see Iraqis as people—provokes his desertion. King’s mother and more-than-friend, the blond Michelle (Abbie Cornish), understand his reaction, despite the contempt King’s abscondment elicits from his father and fellow soldiers. In the end, as King takes it like a man and ships back out, Michelle watches him march off to death, another woman left staring into an uncertain future.
As we viewers look forward to Peirce’s future films, the best place to see her at work is currently on television, where she’s recently helmed episodes of AMC’s riveting 1980s tech drama Halt and Catch Fire, and WGN America’s 1940s nuclear drama Manhattan. The historically “feminine” medium of television is a veritable Peircean playground in the present age of “quality TV” with increased roles for queers and women. I’ll be watching.
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On Gina Prince-Bythewood
In Gina Prince-Bythewood’s underappreciated Beyond the Lights (2014), a young singer simultaneously falls in love and learns to love herself. Noni (Gugu Mbatha-Raw) is the black daughter of Macy Jean, a scrappy single white mother (Minnie Driver) who has capitalized on her offspring’s prodigious musical talents to propel them both out of working-class South London. Noni is on the brink of pop stardom when she realizes she can no longer live with her mother’s manipulative micromanagement, the vampiric Los Angeles paparazzi, and the industry’s crude exploitation of her sexuality. In an act of alcohol-fueled desperation, she attempts suicide.
For Noni, a black woman in a cutthroat industry that thrives on spectacle, cultivating a hypersexual persona is the price of making it. To be noticed, as another character cuttingly observes, she must be perpetually “in a weave, face down, ass up.” Luckily for Noni—and for us—the first person to truly “see” her is a dashing cop (Nate Parker) with six-pack abs and the sweet ambition to “be a Brother who can make a difference.” His name is Kazam (Kaz for short), and despite the superhero moniker, in this black feminist romance he’s no conventional savior of a damsel in distress. For one thing, he’s got his own overbearing parent to deal with, and his own house to get in order. And although Kaz literally saves Noni’s life, in the end she is her own hero. Her comeback, as an artist and a woman, is a powerful and immensely satisfying act of self-reinvention.
Beyond the Lights narrates Noni’s self-recreation visually and audibly. The visual makeover comes in a tender scene in which she ditches the weave and “comes out” in her natural curl to a besotted Kaz. She rediscovers her voice when she delivers an emotional a cappella rendition of Nina Simone’s deep cut “Blackbird” in a Mexican karaoke bar. Through the power of Prince-Bythewood’s subtle storytelling, these familiar cinematic tropes of makeover and catharsis are infused with new complexity and interest. Noni’s efflorescence as an artist is the vehicle, in Beyond the Lights, for an unprecedented cinematic exploration of black female self-love and self-healing.
The music of Nina Simone signposts the stages of Noni’s journey. Noni’s mother first discovers her child’s musical precocity when she plays Simone’s “Blackbird” for her squalling toddler, who sings the melody back to her. When 10-year-old Noni (India Jean-Jacques) performs “Blackbird” at a London talent show and places second to a clearly inferior white child, the experience dramatizes the racism she will contend with and exposes the depth of her mother’s determination to engineer her success. When Noni and Kaz are falling in love, their mutual admiration of Simone’s song “Four Women” seals the deal—and establishes Kaz as a fully worthy paramour for Noni in viewers’ eyes. And when Noni throws off the external trappings of pop flyness—the acrylic nails, purple weave, and towering stilettos—her raw performance of “Blackbird” at the karaoke bar signifies her intention to translate this new “realness” from her life to her music.
“Wish I could write songs like that,” Noni muses to Kaz while they listen to “Four Women” in Noni’s sleek LA digs, whose lack of furnishings symbolizes the emptiness of her pursuit of fame on others’ terms. Within the frame of the film, Noni’s wish goes unfulfilled. The power ballad she sings in the film’s final scene, attributed to her and composed for Beyond the Lights by the top-shelf writer-producer The-Dream, draws on Simone’s imagery and is also titled “Blackbird,” but it lacks the piquancy and austerity of her lyric. And when Noni sings the soaring chorus of this new “Blackbird”—I’m free at last / free from you / free from the past / freedom at last—she projects a sense of possibility that is pointedly missing in Simone’s version (which preceded Lennon and McCartney’s “Blackbird” by several years). Although Simone performed her “Blackbird” at the height of the civil rights movement, including at a legendary 1963 Carnegie Hall concert, her song refuses to picture transcendence or even hope for its black female speaker. Thematically, it uses the occasion of a painful breakup to represent the loneliness and desperation of the perpetually unloved African American citizen and artist.
From a certain perspective, such use of Simone’s “Blackbird” to dramatize Noni’s personal and professional triumphs would appear facile, a betrayal of the artist who once called herself the “Blackbird of show business” and insisted on the “truth” of her song’s elemental sadness.6 But Prince-Bythewood is part of a burgeoning tradition of black artists drawn to Simone’s “sonic radicalism” and bent on using her art to tell their own stories.7 Interest in Simone has run high in the era of Obama: since 2008, we have had two biographies and two documentaries, with another biopic forthcoming. She is regularly sampled by hip-hop artists, including Kanye West, who courted controversy with his citation of Simone’s version of “Strange Fruit” in his 2013 breakup song “Blood on the Leaves.”
Beyond the Lights also “samples” Simone, celebrating her as an icon of artistic integrity and black feminist voice. In this, Prince-Bythewood’s film runs somewhat counter to Liz Garbus’s critically acclaimed (and now Oscar-nominated) 2015 documentary What Happened, Miss Simone?, in which Simone’s own political radicalization is seen to dovetail with her descent into madness—or, at least, this is the story Simone’s estranged husband wishes to tell.8
For Noni, the opposite is true. As she grows up with Simone—at first imitating her sound, then sampling her repertoire, eventually internalizing her example—she is able to treat her depression and realize her own nascent politicization. Noni’s process of healing from exhaustion and mental illness is fueled by her burgeoning determination to be a singer who cannot be owned by anyone: not her mother, not her lover, not a record label. Noni is not Nina. But that doesn’t mean we can’t see Nina Simone’s spirit shining through in Mbatha-Raw’s luminous visage as, in the last frames of Beyond the Lights, Noni owns the stage and, finally, herself.
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On Talia Lugacy
Especially for folks who don’t watch them, rape/revenge films are generally thought of as sexist exploitation crap, built on sadism and violent sexual fantasy. Watching the 2007 film Descent, then, an uninitiated viewer might think that its sympathetic treatment of sexual violence is an anomaly—perhaps one attributable to the gender of its director, Talia Lugacy, one of the few women to ever helm a rape/revenge film.
There’s no doubt that Descent is both pro-feminist and anti-rape-culture. The movie tells the story of Maya (Rosario Dawson), a college senior who is date-raped during her senior year by charming football player Jared (Chad Faust). Jared’s rom-com pushiness and “winning” egotistical boasting is of a piece with his violence. Rape is figured as one form of sexism—a natural extension of Jared’s easy white-guy entitlement. The rape is filmed with virtually no nudity; it is quietly brutal, visually undramatic, and painful to watch. The remainder of the film focuses on Maya’s depression and isolation as she graduates college, works in a clothing store, and is generally set adrift in her own life—until she and her friends decide to take revenge. Violence in Descent is not to be joyfully consumed; it is a wound that doesn’t heal. The film’s main emotional mode is not horror, repulsion, or lust, but grinding sadness—which is perhaps why audiences and critics alike have largely ignored it.
Descent is, then, a surprisingly sympathetic account of rape trauma in a genre that stereotypically lacks sympathy and subtlety. That stereotype, though, is largely incorrect. Despite its skeevy reputation, rape/revenge has long been an explicitly feminist genre, one that sympathizes with rape victims rather than with rapists. Rape/revenge rape scenes are almost always ugly and sexless. Ingmar Bergman’s The Virgin Spring (1960), for instance, features a rape scene in which a nice guy suddenly turns into a violator—an obvious predecessor to the scene in Descent.
There’s precedent, too, for Lugacy’s critique of masculinity and rape culture. Abel Ferrara’s Ms. 45, for example, starts out with the mute heroine, Thana (Zoë Tamerlis Lund), being raped twice by two different men, and then links that sexual violence to street catcalling, workplace harassment, and prostitution. For that matter, Thelma and Louise
(1991), directed by Ridley Scott, perhaps the most famous mainstream feminist film, is essentially a rape/revenge narrative. So is last year’s Mad Max: Fury Road, in which a group of sexually exploited women first flee the male hierarch Immortan Joe, then return across the desert to destroy him. Director George Miller is a guy, but his rape/revenge film is nonetheless an explicit critique of patriarchy.
Rather than offering a new female perspective on a male genre, then, Lugacy reveals a tradition: in the past, male directors of rape/revenge have, more or less deliberately, attempted to embrace a female perspective. Indeed, gender switching, in various forms, has been central to the genre for decades. Carol Clover, in her seminal 1992 study of gender and horror, Men, Women, and Chain Saws, pointed out that one of the main inspirations for ’70s rape/revenge was Deliverance (1972), a film centered around a male/male rape. Subsequent male-directed efforts like I Spit on Your Grave (1978) deliberately replaced the male rape victim with a female one, consciously asking the (iconically male) audience to imagine themselves as female victims of a male aggressor. It’s not an accident that the rapist (of a woman) in Irreversible (2002) is a gay man, nor that the female victim in The Stendhal Syndrome (1996) ends up imagining that she is the rapist she murdered. Rape/revenge consistently encourages cross-gender identification. It wants men to feel what it’s like to be disempowered, and violated, like women.
The genre also, arguably, wants women to imagine what it is to be violators like men. That’s certainly the case in Descent, where the revenge on the rapist isn’t death (as in many rape/revenge films) but rather sexual violence. At the end of Descent, Maya recruits her bisexual friend Adrian (Marcus Patrick) to rape Jared. If male directors use the rape/revenge genre to sympathize with women, Lugacy is, via Maya, exploring the specifically male experience of power and violence.
The fact that Lugacy, as a woman, can pick up rape/revenge as-is, without overhauling its conventions, can in some ways be seen as a validation of the genre. Rape/revenge is committed to a consciously feminist exploration not just of gendered violence, but of gendered roles. As a result, Lugacy, as a female director, doesn’t need to upend the tradition. It’s hers already, both in the sense that rape/revenge films sympathize with female victims of violence, and in the sense that rape/revenge films are open to men and women switching gendered positions—including the gendered position of the director’s chair. The tropes of rape/revenge work when men imagine themselves as women, but they work just as well for women imagining themselves as men (often seizing the phallus quite literally, in the genre’s numerous castration scenes.)
But while rape/revenge may make a woman director seem natural or normal, the fact remains that almost all rape/revenge directors are men. Rape/revenge insistently, repetitively, violently imagines the overthrow of the patriarchy, but the person ordering the execution of Immortan Joe from behind the camera is still a guy. Descent shows that rape/revenge shouldn’t depend on having a man in the director’s chair. But Lugacy’s status as exception is also a reminder that gender, with all its visible and invisible violence, is a hard narrative to escape.
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On Ava DuVernay
If Ava DuVernay is one of the more exceptional black filmmakers working today, she’s earned that distinction with her attention to what is unexceptional in black life. Her conception of blackness has little room for the kind of tortured, torturous, and prurient interest in antiblack violence that characterizes a film like 2013’s 12 Years a Slave (though, in fairness, we might also attribute that film’s voyeuristic emphasis on violence to Steve McQueen’s aesthetic tendencies). Rather, she’s always been interested in the rhythms of black life, its existence as a social field distinct from white supremacist racial abuse.
DuVernay first made her name with the feature-length dramas I Will Follow (2010) and Middle of Nowhere (2012), winning a Sundance directing award for the latter. These films are delicate dramas committed to exploring the intimacies that domestic space affords, and the ways in which blackness necessarily pushes up against and expands the domestic sphere’s limits. Her characters encounter each other in bedrooms, in kitchens, on front lawns, in clubs—in short, wherever they might form the attachments that sustain community.
I Will Follow introduces us to Maye (Salli Richardson-Whitfield), a woman preparing to leave the Los Angeles home she shared with her deceased aunt Amanda, a musician who was once famous in LA’s music scene. The plot is thin and negligible, because Follow’s real concern is the provisional forms of community that alleviate the disintegration of Maye’s two-person household.
In lieu of narrative, we’re treated to a haunted, almost claustrophobic exploration of domestic space. DuVernay trains her camera on the home’s cluttered interiors, lets it linger in doorways and at windows, or pans over a heap of bedding made alien in extreme close-up. We never see the house in its entirety; its architecture takes shape through fractured glimpses as Maye and others move about it. Maye is accompanied by a procession of characters who cycle in and out of the home: Fran, Maye’s aggrieved cousin; Raven, her sullen yet curious nephew; and Troy, an infatuated ex chasing Maye against his better judgment, are just a few members of the community who appear, framed almost exclusively in medium close-ups. The overall effect is to heighten our sense of dwelling in close quarters with these characters. DuVernay simulates a sense of shared social space in which her characters demonstrate the complexity of their inner lives.
DuVernay has embraced weightier narratives as her reputation and career have grown, but this does not mean that her interest in black sociality has been displaced. On the contrary, it’s become more consequential to her filmmaking. The aesthetic and political success of her 2014 Civil Rights epic Selma hinges on this. Though marred by some unfortunate visual choices and cartoonish characterization—Dylan Baker plays J. Edgar Hoover like he’s wandered off the set of a Terminator film—Selma is a smart, nuanced film that departs from great-man historiography to present a social history of the Civil Rights Movement.
We get a gaggle of girls proudly discussing how they want their hair done and admiring Coretta Scott King’s style. We get Martin Luther King Jr. and his partners joking easily over breakfast with the perfectly cast Niecy Nash, the urgency of the campaign they will soon embark upon momentarily dissolved. This conception of blackness is about a culture and a people that exist separately from white people’s embrace and white people’s violence. It tracks the development of emergent cultural values, “new practices, new relationships and kinds of relationships,” as Raymond Williams would have it, which erode the dominant order of things.9 This is about political change as a function of organic, social processes.
This attention to an ignored social history extends to David Oyelowo’s performance. He plays King as a politically and morally compromised man attempting to sit astride a popular movement that often threatens to buck him. The scene where King explains his tactics of escalation and spectacle to SNCC’s John Lewis (played by a magnetic Stephan James) and James Forman (Trai Byers) is instructive. Looking down at Stephan James and outlining his tactics, Oyelowo maintains this measured yet affable tone, gifting King an eerie everyman charm tinged with disdain. He transfigures a hero into a crafty (and perhaps callous) leader indifferent to local organizing and unable to recognize that his tactics might cost people their lives. He views Selma’s homegrown revolutionaries from a distance, pawns in his chess match with Alabama Governor George Wallace.
Oyelowo’s performance complements DuVernay’s vision of the campaign for voting rights. Though King is its central figure, Selma portrays the campaign as anything but a hierarchal movement. It is an organic insurgency emerging out of black people’s collective impatience and indignation. The movie makes it clear that Selma’s black citizens have been organizing and planning for a confrontation over voting rights long before King’s arrival.
Though some residents welcome the preacher, SNCC’s more organizing-minded leaders challenge him. Later, Jimmie Lee Jackson’s death at a night march—organized not by the Southern Christian Leadership Conference but by local activists in King’s absence—pushes Selma into crisis and gives King the premise he needs to escalate his campaign. While King arrives on the scene as a potential catalyst, he is only one element in a fractious environment, called in by Selma’s black citizens to reinforce the groundwork they’ve already laid.
Selma, then, is a turning point for DuVernay’s focus on black sociality. It marks an understanding that black life is not only worthy of examination, but exists prior to and outside oppression as well as in opposition to it. In this sense, DuVernay’s aesthetic is not only exceptional, but of immense value at this crucial juncture in how American minorities think about political organizing and their own history of resistance.
Jump to remarks:
On Ava DuVernay
Irvin J. Hunt
When Ava DuVernay released Selma nationwide last year, she received a barrage of complaints about its “serious” historical errors.10 The stakes were admittedly high for the first feature-length biopic on Martin Luther King Jr. (David Oyelowo), one that chronicles his campaign to secure the now-weakened Voting Rights Act of 1965. Considering the five months that DuVernay spotlights between 1964 and 1965, the film’s major plot points are expected. Selma begins with King’s 1964 Nobel Peace Prize speech, a scene that cuts to the 16th Street Baptist Church bombing that killed four African American girls the year prior; climaxes with a horrifying portrayal of “Bloody Sunday,” the police entrapment of and attack on protestors on the Edmund Pettus Bridge; and closes with King’s roiling speech at the 1965 Montgomery rally that punctuated the march from Selma. One could also have expected that the most repeated criticism about the movie was its exaggeration of the tension between King and President Lyndon Johnson (Tom Wilkinson). The historical critique was justified, supported by both preeminent historians and these leaders’ closest advisors, but it invariably failed to appreciate the film as art.11 She might have fudged the historical record by vilifying Johnson,12 but in the way she designed the film she remembered what Hollywood typically forgets: King’s persistent concerns with black poverty.13.” See Reed, “The Strange Career of the Voting Rights Act: Selma in Fact and Fiction,” New Labor Forum, vol. 24, no. 2 (2015), p. 34. ]
While criticizing DuVernay’s invented conflicts between King and Johnson, few if any have praised how she emphasized what was in fact a shared focus on the poor. This oversight is suggestive of how national remembrance of Civil Rights emphasizes voting rights over labor issues. Because Stephen Spielberg’s DreamWorks Pictures bought the movie rights to all of King’s words in 2009 for their own King biopic, DuVernay had to rewrite the speeches for Selma.14 Her revisions to “Our God Is Marching On” best illustrate how she reframes the dominant narrative of civil rights, because she closes the film with this speech. King himself had taken the occasion to draw out what historian Jacquelyn Hall recently called the “Long Civil Rights Movement.”15 Rather than date the beginning of the struggle to the 1954 Brown v. Board of Education decision, King identified its origins in the late 19th-century Populist Movement for labor rights. The Populists, according to King, “began awakening the poor white masses and the former Negro slaves to the fact that they were being fleeced by the emerging Bourbon interests. Not only that, but they began uniting the Negro and white masses into a voting bloc that threatened … the Bourbon interests,” meaning the economically conservative members of the Democratic Party at the turn of the 20th century.16 Hoping to keep “the southern wage level … almost unbearably low,” the “southern aristocracy” disseminated the “doctrine of white supremacy” as a psychological analgesic to “empty pockets” and aching hunger. None of this was lost on DuVernay, who rewrote the speech as:
From slavery to the Reconstruction to the precipice at which we now stand, we have seen powerful white men rule the world while offering poor white men a vicious lie as placation. And when the poor white man’s children wail with a hunger that cannot be satisfied, he feeds them that same vicious lie. A lie whispering to them that regardless of their lot in life, they can at least be triumphant in the knowledge that their whiteness makes them superior to blackness.
Considering that the biographical King believed that it was “very important to see the roots of racism and the denial of the right to vote,” DuVernay appropriately grounded these issues in an economic calculation. King began the speech with the incantation, “Let us march on poverty,” and ended by asking how long prejudice would prevail. “How long? Not long,” he repeats. DuVernay revised these repeated first words to the original closing sentences with her own anaphora: “soon and very soon” will “freedom” come. In this revision we can hear King’s prioritized imperative to “march on poverty.” After all, there are two points of time in DuVernay’s anaphora, the “very soon” of the Voting Rights Act (signed five months later, the film indicates, as King speaks), and the belated “soon” of class justice.
By looking back at the film from this concluding speech, the places where King is conspicuously silent about poverty start to ring with labor concerns. In those moments, when others refer to the poor in the face of King’s insistence on voting rights and total desegregation, DuVernay suggests that he saw these three issues as inseparable. Johnson stands not only as a “reluctant” collaborator with King, as DuVernay says, but also as a foil to King’s multivalent politics.17 In their first meeting in the film, King sits across from Johnson in the Oval Office and presses him to pass voting rights legislation. “Most of the South is still not desegregating,” Johnson says gruffly. “Let’s not start another battle when we haven’t even won the first. And you know what the next battle should be? The eradication of poverty … This voting thing is going to have to wait.” When King states that “it can’t wait,” his explanation resounds with rhetorical persuasion not because of the specific problems he mentions with waiting, but because of the way he connects them:
You know the astounding fact that not one of these criminals who murder us when and why they want has ever been convicted … Not one conviction because they are protected by white officials chosen by an all-white electorate. And on the rare occasions that they face trial, they are freed by all-white juries. All-white because you can’t serve on a jury unless you are registered to vote.
King views the issues as meshed while Johnson views them as discrete, a contrast that becomes ever more emphatic in a conversation between Alabama Governor George Wallace and the president. “George, why are you doing this? Your whole career has been working for the poor. Why are you off on this black thing?” Johnson’s single-minded approach to class oppression—however historically inaccurate—highlights King’s as intersectional. The methodological divide between the two leaders is underscored at the outset when King trumpets, in a speech to an emotionally tired audience, “One struggle ends just to go right to the next and the next. If you think of it that way, it’s a hard road. But I don’t think of it that way. I think of these efforts as one effort. And that one effort is for our life.” This “one effort” cannot but include the antipoverty campaign King urges at the end.
Alongside Julie Dash, Yvonne Welbon, Dee Rees, and other black female directors, DuVernay is changing the master narratives used to tell black history in film. Her 2012 Middle of Nowhere, for which she won the US Directing Award from the Sundance Film Festival, is a refreshing and empowering story not about another black man’s experience of prison, but about how a black woman copes with her husband’s incarceration. DuVernay’s distribution collective Array is poised to continue these crucial revisions, even if they do not receive their deserving awards, as this year’s Oscars portends. “Justice is juxtapositionin’ us,” raps Common in “Glory,” as the credits roll in Selma. The sentence describes a justice system that juxtaposes not only fellow citizens, but also related issues, like black votes and wage labor. It would be a shame to repeat the procedural logic of this system by failing to account for black film as art as well as history.
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On Marielle Heller
The Diary of a Teenage Girl, written and directed by Marielle Heller and adapted from Phoebe Gloeckner’s 2002 graphic novel, tells the story of 15-year-old Minnie Goetze as she explores her sexuality in 1970s San Francisco. The film opens with a camera on Minnie’s ass swaying as she walks in slow motion, and then moves to her face while Minnie announces in a voiceover, “I had sex today. Holy shit.” She goes home and eagerly records the events of the day on a cassette player, and among the first things she adds to her brand-new audio diary is, “If you’re listening to this without my permission, please stop now. Just. Stop.” The audience is immediately confronted with the ethics of spectating: do we have Minnie’s permission to tune in to the story that follows? If we don’t turn off the film, are we committing a violation against Minnie? These questions take on more weight as we learn that her first sexual encounter is with her mother’s boyfriend, Monroe. Over the course of the film, we witness 15-year-old Minnie sleep with Monroe, examine her own nude body, and give a middle-aged man a blowjob while pretending to be a prostitute; we can witness all of these scenes because Minnie is played by a 23-year-old actress, Bel Powley.
The film participates in “age drag,” when a person portrays an age other than their own. Age drag is ubiquitous in Hollywood; growing up, I never felt old enough to be my age (bartenders today still agree), perhaps because television shows and films often cast actors and actresses in their 20s and 30s to play those teenagers (see: Gossip Girl, Pretty Little Liars, 90210, Friday Night Lights, The O.C., and the rest of my Netflix library). Media projects might choose to have a 30-something play a high school student for reasons ranging from professionalism to child labor laws to the guarantee that the actor won’t go through puberty midway through a series.
Another reason, and the reason why age drag must occur in The Diary of a Teenage Girl, is due to obscenity laws. A 15-year-old having sex, even simulated sex, on-screen is a crime. A 23-year-old playing a 15-year-old having sex, simulated or not, on-screen is perfectly legal. In visual media featuring the sexual activity of someone under 18, the options are to cast actresses who are at least 18 but look pubescent, or even prepubescent, as in the case of porn categories like “barely legal” and “schoolgirl,” or to imply sexual activity without depicting it, as in Stanley Kubrick’s 1962 adaptation of Lolita. Often, these portrayals are directed by men and play to the male gaze, which impacts the experiences of those acting as well as those viewing. For example, the actresses of Blue Is the Warmest Color
have spoken out about how they felt violated while filming their sex scenes under the direction of Abdellatif Kechiche, and others have critiqued the film’s scenes for aiming to fulfill the fantasies of anyone but lesbians. When age drag is employed to tell stories about girlhood sexuality, they’re told by persons other than girls for the viewing pleasure of people other than girls.
Diary’s female direction under Heller, by contrast, alters its portrayal of age drag: Heller’s taking on this gaze allows for a different story of girlhood sexuality to be told, one where a girl can construct her own sexual narrative, even if that narrative is one that will inevitably be accessed and influenced by others. Heller literalizes this altering of the gaze after Minnie first has sex with Monroe. They lie in bed, and Minnie pulls a Polaroid camera out of her bag. She instructs Monroe to take her picture; he asks why, and she replies, “Please. I just want to see.” She lays back, and he does as instructed. Minnie thus orchestrates the image of her sexuality, and she keeps this image for herself. Later, as she stands naked in front of her bedroom mirror, she tucks the photo in the mirror, where it remains throughout the film. The image does not circulate; instead, it’s one that she faces and can revise over the course of the film as she learns more about what she desires and what boundaries she wants to set for herself.
Minnie controls both the image of her sexuality and, by telling the story to her audio diary, its accompanying narrative. Sometimes Minnie records her explicit escapades while out in public, seemingly unconcerned with those who do indeed overhear her. These scenes signal that Minnie knows her sexuality is neither entirely hers nor private; it will always be accessible for scrutiny by strangers and persons close to her alike. Instead of resigning to this public ownership of her sexuality, she challenges these claims by attempting to create and manage her own story. If we feel uncomfortable listening to and watching Minnie, it’s an important reversal of power dynamics that exist in the real world between girls and everyone they encounter: boys, adults, parents, teachers, doctors, coaches, complete strangers, and other girls. Girls are made to feel uncomfortable for having sexual desire, sexual bodies, and receiving sexual attention. Minnie refuses this narrative, challenging audiences to think about their expectations around girlhood sexuality, how seriously they take girls’ perceptions of their own sexual experiences, and how much it’s any of our business in the first place.
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On Aparna Sen
Aparna Sen’s Goynar Baksho opens with a blurry point-of-view shot of something gold. As the camera’s focus sharpens, our eyes feast on a sumptuous display of jewelry through the perspective of eleven-year-old bride Rashmoni. The camera tilts up and we see Rashmoni reflected in the jewelry box’s inside mirror, her child’s face delighted with this magnificent dowry. She turns to her mother, sitting beside her, with pure happiness on her face. We uncomfortably realize that to be a wealthy married child bride represents the pinnacle of female destiny within the gendered political economy of turn-of-the-century Bengal.
Aparna Sen has chosen the rarest of genres with this film—a comic ghost story that is trans-generational and feminist to boot. Goynar Baksho is an adaptation of Shirshendu Mukhopadhyay’s novel of the same title, cinematically enhanced by Aparna Sen’s mastery of the mise-en-scène of domestic interiors. The film follows the jewelry box of the opening scene as it travels through the lives and desires of three generations of women in West Bengal. Its first claimant, the child bride Rashmoni, is widowed soon after her wedding. The box changes hands on Rashmoni’s death when, as a newly minted ghost, Rashmoni entrusts the box to her niece-in-law Somlata. The box reaches the end of its journey when Somlata’s daughter donates it to a group of revolutionary freedom fighters.
Ghosts are nagging reminders of what Salman Rushdie terms “unfinished business”: insistent voices whose claim is that history is cyclical and we won’t be able to move on till we acknowledge the injustices of the past. Rashmoni, too, cannot let things lie. She haunts the women of the family, egging them on to exercise the freedoms she never had.
The bulk of the film is dedicated to Rashmoni’s niece-in-law, Somlata (played by the luminous Konkona Sen Sharma). She enters the film in 1949 as a young, wide-eyed, and compulsively stammering bride. Accompanied by a little brother, she glides up to the jetty of her new home on a tiny boat. The majestic mansion on the banks of the Hooghly River symbolizes old money; Somlata’s brother exclaims, “You’ve married into a royal family!” Within a few days, however, Somlata will realize that the grandeur of old money has become a myth in the new nation. Her in-laws were compelled to leave most of their fortunes back in East Pakistan, her husband is a good-for-nothing blusterer with the hangover of an aristocrat, and the palace is besieged by creditors. Appearances can be deceptive. Or, shall we say, all that glitters is not gold?
Much of the pleasure of watching this film lies in the unlikely friendship that develops between the timid young bride and a blaspheming, foul-mouthed ghost. When Rashmoni abruptly dies, she elects Somlata to hide her jewelry box from greedy relatives, and threatens her into compliance. Rashmoni teaches Somlata how to wrest power from the limited spheres of action available to her and allows her to use the jewelry box to start her own saree business.
More importantly, Rashmoni helps Somlata understand the value of erotic self-fulfillment. In a calmly composed scene of shattering impact, we see Somlata walk down to the banks of a pond with a pile of soiled dishes. It is early dawn. A thin fog hangs over the pond and the insects of the night are still chirping. Somlata hears a voice and is startled. Looking around, she sees a reflection in the pond: it is the phantom aunt, Rashmoni. After greeting Somlata with her standard expletives, Rashmoni’s voice becomes tender. “How does it feel?” she asks. Somlata doesn’t understand, so Rashmoni explains, “That which you do with your husband all night.” Somlata is shocked and concentrates on her dishes, but Rashmoni doesn’t give up. She mercilessly harangues the younger woman and points out the double standards involved in an act that is condoned within marriage but repressed in speech. When at last Somlata manages to say one word—“Nice”—Rashmoni demands to know the nature and mechanics of the “nice.”
As Somlata, like a good therapist, turns the questioning back onto Rashmoni, we learn something of the deprivations suffered by a child widow in the early 20th century. Married at age eleven to an elderly man and widowed soon after, Rashmoni was forced to follow the strict lifestyle prescribed for Hindu widows. Her hair was shorn to a short crop, she was prohibited from wearing colored fabrics or jewelry, she could only eat boiled rice from a stone plate, and, of course, she wasn’t allowed to take a lover or husband ever again. As Rashmoni starts to speak of her lost youth and her unfulfilled desires for a sensual life, Somlata loses some of her own fear of the spectral and the two women chat like familiar friends. But eventually, Rashmoni grows offended by the living girl’s reticence, interpreting it as the arrogance of a loved and happy wife. She curses the presumed source of Somalata’s happiness—her husband—and bursts into tears. The ghostly reflection in the water disappears but the cackling curses turn into the cawing of a crow: “Mor. Mor.” “Die. Die.” The camera scans the surface of the pond looking for the unhappy ghost; water, fog, and trees all merge to create an eerie landscape of longing.
This is a key scene in the film. It weaves explicit dialogue with rich symbolism to articulate one of Aparna Sen’s chief directorial concerns: the cinematic exploration and articulation of female desire. It is not by accident that Somlata sees Rashmoni as a refection in the water, for Goynar Baksho is replete with images of women being reflected back at themselves as they struggle to understand their dreams and their place in history.
The opening reflection—Rashmoni’s face in the jewelry box’s mirror—prompts us to wonder about the clichéd female lust for gold. Goynar Baksho pushes us to question the cliché in its title song: “Tell me, is gold all that the box holds?” For Aparna Sen, the jewelry box enunciates a clear political statement. It shows us how feminized desires for beauty and adornment are connected to complex economies of social repression and domestic control, as well as fantasies of female agency. Thus, the box smashes artificial boundaries between the private and public, the realm of the domestic and the stage of historical action. The ownership of the box is reassigned at moments of great historical and political transition. First, it changes hands from Rashmoni to Somlata in 1949, two years after India’s independence from British colonial rule and two years after the partition of Bengal into India and East Pakistan. Next, in 1971—the year of Bangladesh’s painful struggle for independence—it passes on to Somlata’s daughter, a college-going, scooter-driving, politically active young woman who steals the box with the ghost’s permission. Somlata’s daughter donates it to a group of militant revolutionaries fighting in Bangladesh’s war of liberation. The social freedoms of Bengali women shift across three generations, just as the political identity of Bengal changes through two bloody wars of independence. Change doesn’t come easy, and it needs constant doing.
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This article was commissioned by Sharon Marcus.
- Richard Brody, “Kimberly Peirce’s ‘Carrie’,” New Yorker, October 18, 2013. ↩
- For the definitive work on the “male gaze,” see Laura Mulvey, “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema,” Film Theory and Criticism: Introductory Readings, edited by Leo Braudy and Marshall Cohen (Oxford University Press, 1999), pp. 833–44. ↩
- For a working definition of “homosociality,” see Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick, Between Men: English Literature and Male Homosocial Desire (Columbia University Press, 1985). ↩
- Patricia White, “Girls Still Cry,” Screen, vol. 42, no. 2 (2001), pp. 217–21. ↩
- Judith Halberstam, In a Queer Time and Place: Transgender Bodies, Subcultural Lives (NYU Press, 2005). ↩
- Nadine Cohodas, Princess Noire: The Tumultuous Reign of Nina Simone (University of North Carolina Press, 2010), p. 143. ↩
- Salamishah Tillet, “Strange Sampling: Nina Simone and Her Hip-Hop Children,” American Quarterly, vol. 66, no. 1 (March 2014), pp. 119–137. ↩
- Ruth Feldstein, “What Happened, Miss Simone?: Liz Garbus’ Documentary in Review,” OUPblog, July 21, 2015. ↩
- Raymond Williams, Marxism and Literature (Oxford University Press, 1978), pg. 123. ↩
- Elizabeth Drew, “‘Selma’ v. History,” New York Review of Books, January 8, 2015. ↩
- The august company of these critics include King’s executive assistant Andrew Young, Civil Rights historian Julian Bond, Johnson’s cabinet member Clifford Alexander, and close advisor Joseph Califano. See Richard King, “‘How Long? Not Long’: Selma, Martin Luther King, and Civil Rights Narratives,” Patterns of Prejudice vol. 49, no. 5 (2015), pp. 466–85. ↩
- Albert R. Hunt, “A Villain in Selma, but Not in Real Life,” New York Times, January 18, 2015. ↩
- Adolph Reed, however, contends that the film “isn’t really about the campaign for voting rights at all”; rather, it is an “act of mobilization” for the “status claims precisely of the black PMC [professional-managerial class ↩
- Frank James, “I Have a DreamWorks: Spielberg Gets King Movie Rights,” NPR.org, May 19, 2009. ↩
- Jacquelyn Dowd Hall, “The Long Civil Rights Movement and the Political Uses of the Past,” Journal of American History, vol. 91, no. 4 (2005), pp. 1233–63. ↩
- Martin Luther King Jr., “Our God Is Marching On,” King Papers, The Martin Luther King, Jr. Research and Education Institute, Stanford University. ↩
- Ava DuVernay, interview by A. O. Scott, “Ava DuVernay Didn’t See the Reaction to ‘Selma’ Coming,” New York Times Magazine, February 18, 2015. ↩