Who Holds Me? Revitalizing The Black Feminism Of The L.A. Film Rebellion
The future of black feminism lies in the past, within our cinematic legacy.
How do we breathe life into the images of black women? I sit with this question a lot, particularly as a student of film — particularly as a black woman. Efforts to champion our literal existence are cluttered with awards of our beauty, success and perseverance, despite dominant media portrayals (strongly) implying otherwise. Clever hashtags paired with sparkling melanin against bold colors, working women with five degrees and a baby on their hip, or perhaps, tragically, the latest black woman slain by police brutality.
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What makes a human, human? Humans demonstrate beauty. So does art. Humans climb their respective social ladders. But often what we define as success, however, can be deduced to accumulated capital. We are slaughtered. So are animals. What is left? There remains the peculiar state of existence and our never-ending questions of it — the laughs, the tears, the clumsiness. More to it, there is the emotional growth, the furnaced anger, the dizziness, the stillness in and in-between the pace of life. I argue these traits turn us into human. Where do we place black women in these throes of humanity? I often find myself wanting to demand to as wide of an audience as possible: “Do not herald me, hold me.”
In continuing to develop a productive feminism, we must celebrate black women for what they cannot give to us. Thankfully, a young, bold band of black filmmakers in the ‘70s at UCLA’s film school, now known as the LA Film Rebellion, gave us a beginning.
This school of filmmakers used a grain of Hollywood’s resources to speak so loudly about black life, that their message remains revolutionary today. A momentous portion of their efforts is its forward-moving notions of black womanhood.
One of the most prominent members of the rebellion is Julie Dash, whose portfolio of incredible films centered black women; laid still the camera on us, giving her audience no choice but to think about how we truly live. Barbara McCullough’s Water Ritual Act #1 is entirely an argument for the need and difficulty of black women to find spiritual & psychological peace. McCullough, another associate of the group, was inspired to make the film after her friend suffered a mental breakdown. Black male filmmakers in the rebellion also made efforts to resist our belittlement. Bush Mama, produced by Ethiopian-born director Haile Gerima, illuminates exactly what I mean and argues what we should strive for.
Bush Mama explores the life of a black couple in the Watts neighborhood of L.A., and more broadly, a state of blackness in America. Dorothy, the protagonist, is in constant battle with the welfare office, single motherhood, her relationship and protection of her own life.
Gerima pivots the camera’s eye on parts of the black woman’s body we are not used to gazing upon cinematically — her ankles, wrists and eyes. This is not merely an artistic effort, but a critical one, in light of the hyper-objectification of black women’s bodies (supported by the fact that the film rebellion largely began in resistance to Blaxploitation films.)
Much of the film is spent on Dorothy’s perils. Glaring helicopter lights and noises spill into Dorothy and her partner T.C.’s bedroom one night, triggering T.C.’s PTSD. The experience visibly terrorizes them both — a nod to state violence via hyper-police presence in black neighborhoods. The ample camera time on Dorothy alone in the film speaks volumes to the isolating, vulnerable state of black womanhood, especially when her life is fragmented by the state by way of T.C.’s imprisonment.
The film ends with the sexual assault of Dorothy’s daughter. The film invests in this moment and results in Dorothy attacking the police officer, a surprising sliver of agency amidst tragedy.
Profoundly, Gerima’s cinematic choices place us in Dorothy’s mind throughout the film. Dizzying camera movements and shots of her empty gaze reflect her crumbling mental health. This is nothing short of a revolutionary decision as a filmmaker of his time, and sadly, our time.
Gerima currently clutters the pages of essential film literature and course syllabi, although there remains an unjustified quiet to his work. Most days he can be found chatting about politics at Sankofa Coffee Shop in the Howard area of Washington, D.C. — a space named after his most popular film, and regularly utilized for black community, political organizing and acceptance. I had the pleasure of meeting him on New Years’ Eve, and when I remarked that he remains one of my favorite filmmakers, he jokingly replied, “Fund my films then!” The greats lie among us, still hustling, hoping and willing to enlighten.
I would like to revise my previous statement. My want is not for you to simply hold me, but to know me as well. Cradle the precious ones that live among you, more often beneath you, and lick their wounds with a slow attentiveness. Dissociate into their lives in the ways black women have learned, like a second language. Do not herald me, hold me and know me.