Black women are often called the backbone of the Black community. We are literally the vessels through which the community continues to flourish. Yet, Black women endure the most abuse, othering, and hurt. We rarely get to be our fully realized selves without fear of retaliation from those outside of our community, and at times, even Black men. In her picturesque and haunting documentary, (In)Visible Portraits, filmmaker Oge Egbuonu turns her lens on Black women giving us back our agency and narrative.
Using interviews, oil paintings, collages, photographs, music, and poems, Egbuonu addresses today’s Black women. We are still fighting for visibility against the police state and the multigenerational trauma that began amid the TransAtlantic slave trade when our bodies and children were taken from us. Ahead of (In)Visible Portraits’ OWN debut, Egbuonu spoke with Shadow and Act about the origins of her love letter to Black women and what it means to be seen.
“I had moved back to LA, and I was trying to figure out what my next move was,” Egbuonu reflected on the origins of (In)Visible Portraits. “I walk into this meeting with this middle-aged white guy, Michael Meyer. He was like, ‘I was watching this YouTube clip of Isaiah Thomas being inducted into the Hall of Fame. He’s thanking his mom for all the sacrifices that she’s made. I was really moved by that. It made me realize that there isn’t anything out right now that I’ve seen that celebrates Black mothers and the struggles that they endure.’ I was like, ‘Well if I were to create anything, I would want to create something that celebrates and holds reverence for Black women and girls because we’re that before we’re mothers.’ That’s how [the movie] started.”
With (In)Visible Portraits, Egbuonu was deliberate about pushing past the traditional confines of filmmaking. “I wanted to make the documentary feel like a love letter to Black women,” she explained. “When I was doing my research and development, I was sitting and ruminating on the things that make me feel loved. For me, it was poetry; it was art, it was music. So, I poured all these into [(In)Visible Portraits].”
There are no traditional “celebrities” or A-listers in the film. Egbuonu has also centered the views and opinions of a younger generation of Black girls whose voices are often discarded in projects like these. “I decided to use scholars, authors, activists, and what we may label as everyday women and girls, because I wanted the documentary to feel relatable,” she explained. “I wanted it to lift the veil of this illusion that certain things only happen to certain people, and just show that the Black woman’s experience. Although we’re not a monolith, some of the virtues that we experience are universal, the virtue of suffering, the virtue of pain, compassion, and understanding. I was very intentional with choosing to use and highlight Black women who are mothers, Black women who are still in their girlhood, Black women who are scholars and authors, and activists. We’re trying to navigate a society that continues to dehumanize us. For me, it was a way of re-humanizing us by allowing Black women and only Black women to tell our story in this documentary.”
In addition to allowing Black women to speak for themselves, it was imperative for Egbuonu that she did not shy away from some ugly truths. As much as Black women have endured from the world, she also addressed the trauma that Black women have suffered at Black men’s hands. “It really addresses the various layers of the Black woman’s experience,” she explained. “I don’t think that you can address the Black woman’s experience in America without highlighting what that looks like within the Black community. This documentary isn’t the end-all-be-all about the Black women’s experience, but it is, in my opinion, an entry point into what that experience looks like. Unfortunately, it includes dehumanization on all levels, on a community level, on a societal level. I really wanted to highlight that in the way that I told the story.”
Upon completion of the film, Egbuonu began sending it out to festivals. Though her work was met with praise, she was also told that it “didn’t fit” into the programming. Instead of feeling defeated, the filmmaker decided to self-distribute. “Initially, rejection felt like a gut punch.,” she said. “But then I allowed them to serve as redirection for me. And in a sense, I came to realize that at the end of the day, Hollywood doesn’t create culture; it follows it. I figured out a way to get the story out there. It was symbolism to the Black woman’s experience. The country was built on the backs of Black women. We are always cleaning up the mess of everyone else, and we’re always finding a way, whether it’s to our detriment or not. For me, it was just another reason why this film is important.”
This past calendar year has been particularly challenging for Black women who have witnessed the blowback on Megan Thee Stallion after she was shot, Breonna Taylor’s murder, and so much more. (In)Visible Portraits has never been more of the moment. “Toni Morrison said, ‘Freeing yourself is one thing. And claiming ownership of that free self was another,'” Egbuonu said. “In creating (In)Visible Portraits, it was not only freeing myself, but it was also freeing Black women and girls from a narrative that society continues to create about us. We’re changing the narrative. When you think about the Civil Rights Movement, many people don’t speak about the Black women who were the backbone of that, Septima Clark, Fannie Lou Hamer, all these incredible women who were not pushed to the forefront because of patriarchy. When you think about the movement right now that is leading the world on a global scale; Black Lives Matter was founded by three Black women.”
As many strides have been made, it can be difficult not to feel defeated when it comes to being seen in your fully realized humanity as a Black woman. “We’re having this reckoning where people are really starting to question the way that they show up in life,” Egbuonu said. “I think it is a very beautiful thing right now with Black women remembering who they are. I do think there will come a time where Black women are valued and appreciated and seen and heard because we are demanding it. I think this generation —my generation and younger ones- is really changing how we understand and experience life. Because we understand that all of the things that we have been taught are not immutable truths, these systems and these social constructs can be challenged and changed. I do think that we will eventually experience a world where Black women are held in a reverence that we deserve.”
(In)Visible Portraits will premiere March 2 at 9/8c on OWN.
Aramide A. Tinubu is a film critic, consultant and entertainment editor. As a journalist, her work has been published in EBONY, JET, ESSENCE, Bustle, The Daily Mail, IndieWire and Blavity. She wrote her master’s thesis on Black Girlhood and Parental Loss in Contemporary Black American Cinema. She’s a cinephile, bookworm, blogger and NYU + Columbia University alum. You can find her reviews on Rotten Tomatoes or A Word With Aramide or tweet her @wordwitharamide