|Still of Evlynne Braithwaithe as the woman from Melvonna Ballenger’s Rain (Nyesha), 1978.|
Melvonna Ballenger was another exceptional Black woman studying at the UCLA to become a filmmaker, befriending the likes of Alile Sharon Larkin, Stormé Bright Sweet, Zeinabu irene Davis, Jacqueline Shearer, and Julie Dash during the incredible occurrence otherwise known as the L. A. Rebellion.
Rain (Nyesha)—made as her “Project One” and accessible on the UCLA Film & Television Archive YouTube channel— showcases Ballenger’s commendable filmmaking promise as a twenty-four-year-old film student. She voices over the black and white short which combines the grainy moving image with experimental poetry and sound; centering on a hard working Black secretary who dreads the weary weather that invades her otherwise mundane daily routine. After some heartfelt complaining and reluctantly getting out of bed, the single Black woman draws a white robe over her white chemise and wanders about her sparse, immaculate apartment. She turns on the radio knobs, switching on station after station. In a perfect, utterly charming coincidence, they each play songs about rain including Lena Horne’s Stormy Weather, Nancy Wilson’s rendition of Don’t Rain on My Parade, and The Dramatics classic In the Rain.
|Our umbrella wielding girl misses her bus. However, in missing the bus, fate intervenes.|
|In her wait, the bespectacled woman meets the bespectacled man; their almost matching sunglasses a form of sameness.|
Once leaving the place she desperately longs to stay, en route to work on the smooth backdrop of John Coltrane’s After The Rain, the office typist encounters an Afro haired street activist (who slightly reminisces the great poet Gil Scott Heron in his actions) demanding liberation for all. His cause becomes her cause, a precious serendipitous moment echoes the Black person’s right to exist at the edge of the Black Is Beautiful movement. She lives, travels, and works alone, finds supreme pleasure in her own company (a woman should value herself enough to celebrate her bliss, especially a Black woman existing in a society lying to her on a daily basis). Yet, the man initiates their contact in a respectful manner, tenderly, a real chivalrous sort who respects her and requests her part in the revolution, expressing that it is theirs to share.
|Her typing job of their joint manifesto…|
|…also becomes his duty as well.|
At sixteen minutes long, Rain (Nyesha) is a much more provocative Black romance/activism piece than many seen over the years. The film paints a beguiling, straightforward portrait, honest and authentic, a genuine caring spirit in its two central characters. Unfortunately, this is Ballenger’s solely available work. She unexpectedly passed away at the young age of forty-eight, in the middle of preparing for her final work, a project described in full detail from the Los Angeles Archive Collective:
“Nappy-Headed Lady began production in 1980 and according to notes found with the donated materials, ‘will portray a young black woman growing up in the 1960s who rebels against her parents’ desire to have her hair straightened.’ Intent on mixing documentary footage from the period to ‘connect the protagonist’s struggle with the nationwide Black movement,’ the scripted scenes were shot on 16mm black and white film over several shoots in the Springs of 1980 and ‘81.We film cinephiles missed out on what would probably have been a remarkable, deserved-to-be-made film, especially for that time when most starred straight haired Black women protagonists (if they existed)— a noticeable presentation shift from the main character of Rain (Nyesha).
The Archive retains 43 items related to this project, among them the following unconformed audio elements: ‘Hair Washing takes 1, 2, 3, 4,’ ‘Health Spots (Immunization),’ ‘Swimming pool scene,’ ‘Inside kitchen,’ ‘Shower scene,’ ‘Telephone conversation,’ ‘TV noise, commercials,’ ‘wild sound,’ and a ¼ inch audio cassette tape of sound effects. The only clue to how the film may have eventually looked exists as a work-in-progress edit on a DVD transfer of a ¾ inch tape, and is available to scholars via an appointment with our Archive Research and Study Center on the UCLA campus.
This incomplete version of the film, which was assembled in 1985 likely as a work sample created in the hopes of securing completion funds, hints at what the narrative portions of the story would have depicted: a teenager’s struggle to keep her ‘natural’ against her parent’s wishes, her father’s heat-soaked beat as a mail delivery man in Los Angeles, a nurse’s argument with her supervisor about her ‘unprofessional’ Afro.”
|Julie Dash, Alile Sharon Larkin, Stormé Bright Sweet, and Melvonna Ballenger. L. A. Archivist Collective.|
|Alile Sharon Larkin, Stormé Bright Sweet, Melvonna Ballenger, and Julie Dash. L. A. Archivist Collective.|
Nappy-Headed Lady’s intriguing scene titles “swimming pool” and “shower” would likely divulge on the intimate knowledge of Black women’s psychological displeasure of water when not surrounded by the ideals of hair washing. This Wizard of Oz Wicked-Witch-of-the-West effect (Dorothy throws water on the villain and the villain melts) mirrors our overzealous reactions to what water physically does to our strands: destroys hairstyles, promotes shrinkage and potential dryness, and temporarily alters curl patterns. Oh yes, the hair dilemma is the real struggle. Imagine a Black woman character sitting poolside, refusing to swim without a protective cap or never having learned to swim due to the generational instruction to avoid water situations that do not involve shampoo and conditioner. In the shower, on a non-wash day, she would twist her body in all kinds of ways so that the spray does not touch her head.
|Still from Ballenger’s unfinished film, Nappy-Headed Lady. L. A. Archivist Collective.|
|Another still from Nappy-Headed Lady. L. A. Archivist Collective.|
With the jazzy renaissance that Rain (Nyesha) brings, Melvonna Ballenger delivered a quiet, satisfying narrative that has all the makings of a Black romantic classic. It simmers deeply in a poet’s soul— the repeated refrains about the woman author’s misery for the weather’s precipitation and the man’s desire for equality and peace slowly meld into a resolution that suits both parties.