Thursday, January 26, 2023

‘Rain (Nyesha)’ And Other Nods to Melvonna Ballenger

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. 

Haitian filmmaker/actor Bernard Nicholas portrays the man whose poetry soon meshes with the woman’s, an exchanging of mental prose eloquently blending together, a voice over another voice. The urgent need for human connection becomes an apparent matter, a tie to the threads absent in their individual lives. 

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.

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.”
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)

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. 



Saturday, January 21, 2023

Film Watcher Goals For 2023

 

Stock image of a Black woman in a movie theater alone. She is me. I am sitting in a movie theater alone.

Art of Film— an elective humanities course taught during my art school undergraduate education— valued a certain kind of cinema. Our curriculum was Spike Jonze’s Adaptation, Spike Lee’s Bamboozled, Tom Tykwer’s Run Lola Run, Robert Altman’s The Player— womanless directors and writers while absenting other parts of the globe. Still, I came home from Cincinnati and visited Dayton’s premiere indie theater often. I found solace in enjoyable pieces throughout the years: Dee Rees’s Pariah, Mona Achache’s The Hedgehog, and Bong Joon-ho’s Parasite. I realized without doubt that film was my whole third love— next to painting and writing— and have decided to voice my film addict plans for 2023. 

My main goals:

1.) I will continue championing films from all over the world, placing a higher priority on works by marginalized, underrepresented filmmakers and try to dedicate a few posts a month celebrating/critiquing new, upcoming voices or those in the neglected past. Over the years, I have volunteered at Athena Film Festival, Blackstar Film Festival, Philadelphia Film Festival, and the Dayton LGBT Film Festival, discovering great voices through these incredible learning networks. 

2.) I will set aside percentages of my writing earnings towards imperative works— mainly those on Kickstarter, IndieGoGo, and Seed & Spark. It is extremely hard out here, facing rejection, submitting story after story to a potential publication, praying to fit in. I imagine raising enough funds to make films a much harder process, especially considering that certain stories are favored above others. 

3.) I have finally seen the light: Western awards shows are mostly about legacy status propaganda and rarely about the winning talent. Also, should such contests exist anyway? This notion of “there can only be one?” No ties. This judgment of an artist’s interpretation versus another? Story for story, direction over direction? As a practicing visual artist and writer with a keen interest in art history (my other blog is Black Women Make Art), this daily struggle of applying for grants, residencies, and other honors, even a place to submit an essay— proves to be all subjective. Juror’s personal bias and preference exist. Thus, year after year, same folks are nominated, some folks holding onto two or three Oscars and people argumentatively stating, “they were the best!” We have seen the glaring racism and sexism showcased in the nominees. When you live in a society where almost every Steven Spielberg or James Cameron film hogs nominations— what does that say to an upcoming filmmaker, a filmmaker that is either a woman or nonwhite or a combination of both? Better luck next time? Some first timers have to make a profit before a second feature gets green lit. 

4.) I may fail in this Film Per Day Challenge and stick to twenty-five to thirty a month (we’ll see). Film is essentially a succubus; leaving you in wonderful awe or have you sobbing for hours or feeling perturbed by the human condition. It is only natural to break in between film’s dark, depressing moments. In addition, I am leaving my movie theater job in a few weeks (no more free films). That means my primary source of film watching will be streaming services unless the theater acquires cinema I would proudly pay for. Unfortunately, minority filmmakers financially underperform more often than not. 

5.) I will commit more to this nine-year blog. Perhaps five to seven posts a month? I watch so many films that my brain feels overstimulated in saturated images. It is difficult to keep up with my drafts in between other projects— paid projects. On occasion, I do get discouraged by being an almost secret blog few know about, let alone foolishly obsess over readership. Yet, I love freely writing about film, TV, and multitalented women in this complicated industry, adding my opinion on various genres. Although I do dream of surpassing two hundred fifty thousand views here, I must admit that entertainment essaying in a vacuum is not so bad after all.



Friday, January 20, 2023

Best Feature Length & Short Films of 2022

 

List of Best Films Seen In 2022.

Last year alone was a personal record in my film viewership. From being a screener for the second year at the 17th Annual Dayton LGBT Film Festival to virtually attending Sundance and Blackstar Film Festival, to working at an independent movie theater (where our greatest perk is watching films for free), and to supporting various streaming platforms, I can honestly say that my number is around two-hundred, maybe two-hundred fifty films— features and shorts.

Unfortunately, my Letterboxd does not reflect that. 

Nedjma (Lina El Arabi), the tough leader of a girl gang falls for Zina (Esther Bernet-Rollande), a newcomer/ cousin of Nedjma’s rival in Marion Desseigne-Ravel’s modern Shakespearean tale Besties set in gritty part of France. DP: Lucile Mercier.

Some films on top lists I had not personally seen such as Alice Diop’s Saint Omer, Hirokazu Koreeda’s Broker and Saul Williams and Anisia Uzeyman’s Neptune Frost (currently streaming on both Criterion Channel and kanopy). Others I outright refuse— Baz Luhrman’s gaudy biopic on known pedophile Elvis Presley, a Top Gun sequel (surely not meant for my taste), Damien Chazelle’s lengthy Babylon co-starring a problematic Brad Pitt, or James Cameron’s return to colonized Avatar which had white people infiltrate blue people society (primarily played by Black actors). Things can be depicted so beautifully due to high budgets, but these stories certain white filmmakers continue telling reveal such a great lack of respect and sincerity to every person existing in society. 

Cate Blanchett put on a phenomenal performance as the cold, menacing composer Tár, but the film is a challenging bridge to cross. DP: Florian Hoffmeister.

For example, in Todd Field’s Tár, celebrated fictional EGOT winning composer Lydia rants on a biracial pangender college student who refuses to listen to Bach (much like how many of us cancel Woody Allen, Roman Polanski, etc.). This scene has been posted online; the public mostly agreeing with Lydia’s crushing humiliation; saying that just because someone behaves vilely in their personal life does not lessen their talents. Yet, however, the reality is that most problematic white people have the luxury of abusing power; with colonialism setting up the impossible, near unreachable standards, especially in every field of art, film included. After her own public meltdown, Lydia retreats to South Asia, which many wrongfully perceived as punishment, not realizing she still has monetary access, a passport, and a job— signifying that this privileged, resourceful woman has already bounced back. 

Thus, I remember the 2022 films that stood out in a more compelling light, painting the most eclectic pictures staying vividly in mind. Some (primarily Everything, Everywhere All At Once and Danielle Deadwyler’s Till performance) are on the awards radar. Most are not up for big awards, filtering quietly from notice. I think about visual artist Diamond Stingily’s towering presence as Palace in Martine Syms’s stark feature debut taking place in twenty-four hours. The African Desperate conveys the Black person in the typical sea of white in art school. The strong, emotional affair that happens in Busan between murder suspect Seo-rae and police detective Han-joon as Hae-joon’s wife Ahn has these unseen moments with her mysterious co-worker June quietly intensifies the screen in Park Chan-wook’s addictive Decision to Leave. The mourning Black women strongly led Ryan Coogler’s Black Panther: Wakanda Forever sequel, a benefitting tribute to honor the late Chadwick Bozeman felt throughout the entire film. 

My following list highlights films exceptionally captured by an excellent cinematographer and scored by a brilliant composer. They contain impeccable direction, powerful, inclusive stories of resonating human experiences, and starring actors/actresses so good (and grossly ignored), you look up their whole filmography just to see them light up the screen in a different context.

Murder suspect Seo-rae (Tang Wei) puts a dignified, married police officer Hae-joon (Park Hae-il) in Park Chan-wook’s Decision to Leave. DP: KIM Ji-yong/MUBI.

Best Feature-Length Films

Decision To Leave directed by Park Chan-wook and written by Park Chan-wook and Seo-kyeong Jeong

Nanny directed and written by Nikyatu Jusu

Till directed by Chinonye Chukwu and written by Keith Beauchamp, Michael Reilly, and Chinonye Chukwu

The African Desperate directed and written by Martine Syms 

Everything, Everywhere All At Once directed and written by Daniel Kwan and Daniel Scheinert (The Daniels) 

Mars One directed and written by Gabriel Martins

Besties directed and written by Marion Desseigne-Ravel

Petite Maman directed and written by Céline Sciamma

Wheel of Fortune and Fantasy directed and written by Ryusuke Hamaguchi

Black Panther:Wakanda Forever directed by Ryan Coogler and written by Ryan Coogler and Joe Robert Cole

Hazel Gurland-Pooler’s Storming Caesar’s Palace tells the story of activist Ruby Duncan who led the fight against the corruptive welfare system in Las Vegas. 

Best Documentaries 


Black As U R directed and written by Micheal Rice

Storming Caesar’s Palace directed by Hazel Gurland-Pooler

Nelly & Nadine directed by Magnus Gertten and written by Magnus Gertten and Jesper Osmund

Sirens directed and written by Rita Baghdadi

Olivia (Shanay Neusum-James) helps her ex-lover Joy (Deji Tiwo) grieve the one-year anniversary of her sister’s death in Juliana Kusamu’s Losing Joy. DP: Morgan K. Spencer.  

Best Short Films


Code Switch directed and written by Mx. Roti and Davis Alexander Jones

Clones directed and written by Letia Solomon

Losing Joy directed by Juliana Kasumu and written by Nana Duncan 

Glitter Ain’t Gold directed and written by Christian Nolan Jones

Work directed and written by April Maxey

F*** Em’ Right Back directed by Harris Doran and written by Harris Doran and Ddm Ddm 



Tuesday, January 17, 2023

The Problematic Andrea Riseborough Fray

 

White women are madly frolicking together to campaign for Andrea Riseborough’s work in Michael Morris’s For Leslie.

Low budget films get made every year. 

Yet, for some odd reason, Andrea Riseborough’s high value friends Kate Winslet, Frances Fisher, and Alison Janney (For Leslie costar) are campaigning viciously for Riseborough to take a wild card slot in the upcoming Oscars leading actress race— which has historically favored them since its inception ninety-plus years ago. 

Secondly, this worthwhile discussion of self-promotion campaign led by prominent voters (some who have won Oscars and Emmys) seems louder than any in recent years, especially in the digital age where this is happening in front of our very eyes on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram. Even Indiewire is writing about this strange supportive rise; Riseborough already moving up to the number five position on Gold Derby, the awards prediction site. Whereas the support of women of color is so quiet, that you could hear a pin drop and nobody would even race to pick it up. Have these same women vouching for Riseborough ever consider the years and years of injustice towards nonwhite candidates? How the Academy can travel all over the world for their nominees and still choose the whitest and brightest to compete for the biggest acting award of their lives? Were they vouching for Alfre Woodard (Clemency), Lupita Nyong’o (Us), Regina Hall (Support the Girls), Hong Chau (Downsizing), any of the Parasite cast, Ziyi Zhang (Memoirs of a Geisha), Maggie Cheung/Tony Cheung (In the Mood for Love)— an endless people of color snubbed for decades? Probably not.

These women’s dream nominees are extremely colorist and ill-favored, excluding the incredible performances of Till’s Danielle Deadwyler and The Woman King’s Viola Davis— whom Frances Fisher claims are locked votes, but this post does not reflect that. At least, Michelle Yeoh is still present— likely the only candidate they can tolerate. They’d probably swap her out for Anya Taylor-Joy’s work in The Menu

When white actresses win— do you know who they often call out in vapid, passionless speeches? White men. Think about Frances McDormand winning her third Oscar, talking about making opportunities for women. You wonder “what kind of woman?” Her kind? Or even Michelle Williams (the white actress), whose rarely worked with a woman of color, calling out the male system. Cate Blanchett— who will likely win her third Oscar anyway for playing the cold, talented, patriarchally benefiting conductor Lydia Tar— is another white actress calling out the system that benefits her. Recently, she disregarded white men at the Critics Choice Awards in a tone deaf speech not as passionately or heartily felt as the night’s other winners— first timers Ke Huy Quan, Angela Bassett, and Sheryl Lee Ralph. 

In this post-Trump era, we are witnessing why white women overwhelmingly voted to elect one of history’s most violent presidents. White women can spit on white supremacy until the cows come home, but the reality is that white supremacy has always adored them, cherished them as though they were the prizes of womanhood, of the very cinematic art that still has many firsts to conquer for women of color. In these white women winners, the predominately white voters either see themselves reflected or desired. At times, you question if these awards truly regard talent at all— because they only seem to celebrate each other. In the year 2023, Black women have yet to win Best Direction, Best Screenplay (adapted or original), Best Score, Best Cinematography as well as Indigenous, Latino, and non-binary women. Asian women, especially South Asian, have a longer journey to go. Chloe Zhao may have won many awards in her season, but what if the vehicle was not fronted by an Oscar winning white actress? Would Zhao have been so heavily honored, so riddled with award show firsts? Can you imagine the repercussions to happen if nonwhite industry bigwigs (sadly so few to begin with) campaigned as bravely and passionately as these white people are for Riseborough? Probably very severe in an industry where blacklisting can be so easily arranged. 

This Andrea Riseborough situation reveals a dirtier, uglier side to how powerful whiteness can be, how it can shift votes on the very pedestal that idolizes them. No matter how one feels about the Oscars— a questionable organization that still reeks of a certain privilege— it is very scary.  A nonwhite artist can possess so much talent and play that “working twice as hard as them” game. It doesn’t change the simple fact that someone white can always come out of nowhere and victoriously steal the spotlight, undeserving or not. 



Friday, January 13, 2023

Happy Birthday, Euzhan Palcy: Fem Film Rogue Icon Spotlight

 

Behind the scenes with Euzhan Palcy.

Euzhan Palcy, an incredible history making filmmaker deserves to be celebrated. Viola Davis said in a powerful introductory speech at the Honorary Oscars ceremony that Palcy is a woman of many firsts, that she did never sacrificed her blackness or womanhood. In the filmmaking field, it takes bravery and courage to get behind the camera and decide as a Black woman to tell evocative Black stories surpassing all genres. As a Black director controlling the Black image— historically almost always white, especially in biopics and blackploitation— Palcy sought to turn the tables in the cinematic medium, pushing out African diaspora in memorably prolific masterpieces.  

Euzhan Palcy with her much deserved honorary Oscar.

Born and raised in Martinique of the French West Indies, Palcy studied French literature and theater at the University of Paris (also called the Sorbonne) and art and archaeology and film/cinematography at the Louis-Lumière College. After The Messenger, a 1975 TV film set in her native Martinique and The Devil’s Workshop, a 1982 short, Palcy’s first major film Sugar Cane Alley— made for a million dollars with help from the French government— placed her on the filmmaking map. Based on Joseph Zobel’s semi-autobiographical Black Shack Alley novel, Palcy’s revolutionary work focuses on the grave injustices white landowners placed on Black sugar cane farmers in 1930’s Martinique. The protagonist young José lives with his grandmother Ma’Tine, witnessing generation after generation of the overworked, beaten Black farmers regardless of their age and health. Sugar Cane Alley— edited by the award-winning Marie-Josèphe Yoyotte— won many awards including the Best Work Award at the Cesar Awards, the Volpi Cup for Best Actress at the Venice Film Festival for Darling Légitimus, and the Public Award at The Panafrican Film and Television Festival of Ouagadougou held in Burkina Faso. 

Euzhan Palcy between Marlon Brando (Ian) and Donald Sutherland (Ben) in the barrister’s office scene. 

A Dry White Season, Palcy’s second feature-length starring Donald Sutherland, Marlon Brando, and Zakes Mokae, exposes South Africa’s brutal, ugly past— the unforgettably evil apartheid. The story unfolds rather quickly— showcasing the idle pleasantries of upper crust white lives versus the precarious uncertainty of peacefully protesting Black people. Even Black children are not safe from vicious political reign. Ben, the oblivious white professor, sees his country for what it is, influencing his young impressionable son Jonathan in the process. Everyone else including his own wife and treacherous elder daughter sees Ben as a traitor— all because he knows that killing Black senselessly is wrong! In Palcy’s film, there are no roses placed on the truth— it is bloody, violent, and heartbreaking. 

Palcy’s other works include the NAACP Image Award nominated Ruby Bridges for the Wonderful World of Disney, the documentary Hassane (“How Are the Kids”), and various shorts, TV films, and TV episodes. Throughout her career of bold, eye-opening risks, Palcy has explored the definition of the globalized experience, highlighting the devastating consequences that colonialism left behind in every nook and cranny of our world, of our tarnished history. 

Behind the scenes with Euzhan. 

Euzhan in action. 

The inspiring Euzhan Palcy— the first to direct a Hollywood film, the first Black filmmaker to win the coveted French Cesar Award and Silver Lion at the Venice Film Festival, a Silver Gavel from the American Bar Association, the Sojourner Truth Award from Cannes Film Festival, and wins at the Philadelphia Film Festival, Durban International Film Festival, and etc.— is a profound testament of commendable strength and diligence. The film industry is a very difficult road to navigate, especially for a Black woman, prone to working with low budgets, awards snubs, and every roadblock in between. That’s why in 2023, there remains a select few that please these juries/voters/guilds still stuck in a certain time, a time that is more often exclusive than inclusive. 

Although no official word yet on if Palcy is working on new projects, there is an audience interested in her past films and whatever comes next. 

Strong, insightful quotes to really think about by Euzhan Palcy:

“I wanted to make a Black story about South Africa. Unfortunately, no producer in Hollywood would put one penny into a Black story.” 

“Some people make movies for money or glory and will take any subject people offer them. But I cannot do that. I need to feel the story and make it mine.” 

“There are many projects I couldn’t get off the ground because they didn’t have white heroes. It’s a problem that everyone who’s been working in Hollywood has been facing.” 

“No one enters this stage alone. I would not be here without the wisdom and love from all those who joined me in my journey. My heart is bursting right now thinking about my grandmother, of my dad, of my mother, and my godmother and godfathers…” 

“Many have asked me why for a time I stepped back from a career that I love. I stepped back so that I could truly stand up and stand tall. If I didn’t make any movies for a few years, it’s because I decided to keep silence… I kept my silence because I was exhausted.” 



Thursday, January 12, 2023

‘Abbott Elementary,’ Best Show of the Year

 

Abbott Elementary season two advertisement.

“Janine— as teachers at a school like Abbott, we have to be able to do it all. We are admin. We are social workers. We are therapists. We are second parents. Hell, sometimes we’re even first. Why? It sho ain’t the money.”— Barbara Howard, kindergarten teacher brilliantly played by Sheryl Lee Ralph.

Abbott Elementary is the binge-worthy mockumentary comedy we have been waiting forever on. Every episode has moments delivers laughter and tears thanks to commendable writing and superb acting. 

Everyone had to have a teacher (or principal) that dressed like Janine (Quinta Brunson). Thanks to series costume designer Susan Michalek for crafting that reality. 

The environment at Abbott is not always perfect. They struggle on with old books and limited equipment: expected results of the dwindling public school system that has hurt and hindered a lot of us. The determined Janine Teagues, a too-delightful, competitive spirited second grade teacher, tries to make it as fun and exhilarating as possible. Barbara Howard, the warm, soothing kindergarten teacher with a mean bite and her best bud Melissa Schemetti, the other second grade teacher (and often Janine’s playful nemesis), often side against Janine. Thankfully, Janine does have friends in eighth grade teacher Jacob Hill and newcomer Gregory Eddy, a tight circle that nudges our perky, thrifty fashioned girl in the right direction. 

Jacob, the white do-gooder who traveled throughout Africa, may seem an ill fit to this tight team due to his lengthy rants and desire to be more proactive in civil rights. He often adds the amped up fuel to Janine’s well-meaning schemes, showing to be one of her biggest supporters/allies. Also boyfriend Zac, a lover of sneakers just like Jacob, is simply amazing— funny, gifted vocalist, awesome one-liner delivery! Although Jacob has a hard time zipping his lip, he does sprout insight every once in a while. 

The polar opposite of Janine, Principal Ava (Janelle James) is an iconic fashionista with a style that steals the show episode after episode. 

Principal Ava Coleman, however, operates on various noticeable fronts. In the beginning, she seemed too invested in promoting her image, mainly on social media tools like Tik Tok and Poshmark, building her brand versus helping Abbott in any structural way. She even used emergency funds to have a billboard of her stylish self posted in front of the school and buy new wavy hair instead of purchasing desperately needed rugs for the classrooms. Heck, her green screen office is the primary spot to take incredible videos and seller pictures of her brand name merchandise. She even has her own gaudy bathroom installed in the school basement. Yet, Ava has also taken extreme action under circumstances that would overwhelm even the strongest person. She managed to give a compelling speech on being principal in front of the very person she blackmailed to get the job. She successfully substituted sick Janine’s class— funny considering that Gregory, the former substitute fit for the principal role advised Ava on the importance of using Janine’s folder and that Janine is out because Ava left her sandwich out in the window. Who could forget Ava transforming Janine into the Black Marilyn Monroe (or Dorothy Dandridge) for a Halloween party or giving Janine a lift to another club job with her friends during holiday break? 

When Janine (Quinta Brunson) encouraged Gregory (Tyler James Williams) to add personality to his bare classroom walls, it seemed an open metaphor to shift beyond substitution, for permanence, to make a lasting effort on both the students and perhaps Janine’s heart. 

Janine and Gregory’s potential has been simmering from their very first meeting. Janine—the girl next door— frequently visits Gregory’s nearby classroom and vice versa for either old-fashioned good advice or polite small talk riddled in cartoon hearts. Although not usually a big fan of TV office romances (this Collider article is a good one), something about these two makes it impossible not to root for them going the distance. They share common ground. Gregory, a Black man with an overbearing military father, shares his vulnerabilities to Janine, who has an absent mother and an inner lonely girl syndrome beneath her exterior bubbliness and “toxic positivity.” Yet, Gregory knows every facet about Janine, which makes them all the more endearing, considering that most men fail to pay attention and care. Unlike Janine’s selfish, narcissistic, first and so-far only boyfriend Tarik, Gregory knew her favorite film was Jumanji, noticed her hair parted on the other side, and rescued her from countless mishaps on many occasions. While the advantageous Tarik had a kid spirit about him feeding into Janine’s childlike disposition, Gregory has a mature, sensible vibe that would definitely aide in ensuring Janine’s growth. Janine and Gregory provide an alluring adventure, that’s for certain. Maybe, just maybe too, in the future, Gregory may join his father’s landscape company after all and Janine can remain Abbott’s Most Affectionate Second Grade Teacher. 

In addition to phenomenal writing (thanks to a very inclusive staff) and impeccable direction, Abbott Elementary must be applauded for showcasing diverse body types. There’s still an over abundance of thinness and whiteness celebrated and awarded in both television and film industry. Thus, it is a nice change to see tall and short, curvy and robust figures in leading and supporting roles— a beautiful reflection of the world we actually live in. It’s even noticeable with the interesting side characters— Zac, Jacob’s bespectacled boyfriend, Janine’s new friend Erika (played by Courtney Taylor recently Issa’s assistant on Insecure), and Ashley, Melissa’s annoyingly tone-death assistant.  

Abbott Elementary cast at the Golden Globes, winning for Best Actress in a Comedy Series for Quinta Brunson, Best Supporting Actor in a Comedy Series for Tyler James Williams, and Best Comedy Series.

The excellent cast is led by its infectious dimpled creator Quinta Brunson— second Black woman (after Lena Waithe) to win an Emmy for Outstanding Writing in a Comedy Series. Fellow Emmy winner Sheryl Lee Ralph— always a charming, warm spirit— delights as church praising Barbara, who often funnily confuses white and Black actors and wears the best red lipsticks. Tyler James Williams—a versatile talent who ranges from comedic chops on Everybody Hates Chris to drama/horror in Dear White People and The Walking Dead (his death scene remains one of the most gruesome)— shines bright as Gregory, the former ambitious principal turned near-reluctant teacher harboring a sweet crush on Janine. Comedian Janelle James brings infinite laughter as a slacking, multitasking yet on occasion wise Principal Ava, Lisa Ann Walters is the tough, sassy South Philly raised Melissa who has “fix-it” people on speed dial, Chris Perfetti plays the corny, overly talkative, well-meaning eighth grade teacher Jacob, and William Bradford Davis effortlessly plays the thoughtful janitor-of-all-trades Mr. Johnson. Every single person puts in work on this impressive ensemble, making a school setting feel authentically homey, hence why Abbott Elementary has received nominations and awards from the Black Reel, Emmys, Gotham, Independent Spirit, Golden Globes, the Writers Guild Association (WGA), the Producers Guild Association (PGA), the NAACP Image Awards, etc. It is an incredible feat—a long time coming actually— to see a Black woman creator deservedly honored and thoroughly loved by Hollywood sailing behind on the tidal wave of Yvette Lee Bowser, Mara Brock Akil, Shonda Rimes, Ava DuVernay, Hanelle Culpepper, Michaela Coel, and Issa Rae.

With its third season renewal from ABC and half the second season left before summer hiatus in the spring, the wonders of Abbott Elementary never cease.



Wednesday, December 28, 2022

The Generational Plight of the American ‘Black Girl’

 

Black Girl film poster.

In the late 1960’s, Drama Desk winning playwright Jennie Elizabeth Franklin found success in her fourth play, Black Girl. Not to be confused with Senegalese filmmaker Ousmane Sembène’s 1966 film Black Girl set in France, the African American version directed in 1972 by Ossie Davis is adapted by Franklin, based on her work. While Sembène explores the traumatic plight of the imported immigrant, Franklin and Davis convey the consequential impact that mental conditioning has placed in the Black family structuring; mainly the weighed burdens unfairly set on matriarchs.

Betty Everett— the singer behind the popular track— “The Shoop, Shoop Song (It’s In His Kiss),” sings the title “Black Girl,” playing repeatedly throughout the film. 

Rose (Louise Stubbs) is angry that Billie Jean (Peggy Pettit) has quit school. DP: Glenwood J. Swanson.

A distressed Billie Jean taking Rose’s unleashed ire. DP: Glenwood J. Swanson.

In the American Black Girl, Billie Jean embodies the unnatural fear and hostility nestled in the minds of those who feel threatened by education’s close relationship to success and “betterment.” In order to sabotage Billie Jean, Norma and Ruth Ann, Billie Jean’s manipulative older half-sisters, jeopardize a young girl’s vulnerable mentality with verbal poison. Perhaps in addition to those who tease and taunt her in school, Norma and Ruth Ann are also other reasons that Billie Jean has dropped out. Norma and Ruth Ann represent the pains of being stuck in unhappy situations, of misery loving company. Thus, Norma and Ruth Ann taint Billie Jean’s dancer ambitions, turn it into a patriarchal testament (dancing for the lustful male gaze) instead of a young Black girl embracing the art of her graceful human body. Billie Jean moves in an elegant rhythm similar to ballet style— “ballet” is a word Norma frequently mispronounces. 

Old habits come back to bite as Rose (Louise Stubbs) passionately kisses her philandering ex Earl (Brock Peters) in front of the family. DP: Glenwood J. Swanson.

Mu’ Dear (Claudia McNeil)—Rose’s mother— believes that the “Bible belongs on the shelf not in self” whilst posing in front of white Jesus’s portrait. DP: Glenwood J. Swanson. 

The stern, sacrilegious Rose, mother of the three, is blind to Norma and Ruth Ann’s resentment, believing that Billie Jean is on her way to becoming much like her— a tired existence in a humble, multigenerational house where contempt and strife collide. Often, the disappointed Rose compares Norma, Ruth Ann, and Billie Jean to Netta, her foster daughter up in college aiming to become a teacher and upcoming law student. Rose only saw potential in Netta and gave up hope on her biological daughters altogether. That hurt Billie Jean’s already fragile self-esteem. Norma and Ruth Ann were tearing her down constantly. 

Norma (Gloria Edwards) calling Netta’s photo the callous B word to Ruth Ann (Rhetta Greene)— who then mispronounces the word “deaf.” DP: Glenwood J. Swanson.

Netta (Leslie Uggams) in her dorm talking to Rose about her Mother’s Day plans. Fifty years later, Uggams would star in Nikyatu Jusu’s feature-length debut, Nanny. DP: Glenwood J. Swanson.

Black Girl struck a personal chord with me. I was repeatedly bullied by my teachers and peers over my physical appearance— hair and clothes sadly— and dropped out my senior year of high school. My mother also experienced the same, dropping out at sixteen-years-old (she once told me that she only had two outfits) and later completing her GED after having children. I too received my GED and completed undergraduate and graduate studies; the only member in my family to achieve the feat. Although she never said “I’m proud of you,” I believe that my mother was. My brightest memory is of her clapping at my undergraduate graduation. As proud and strict a parent as Rose, my mother also wasn’t keen on apologizing (which is a strange communal trait). She demonstrated “sorry” in her actions. I believe sometimes parents never want to see their children correct them or showcase knowing what they did not learn or understand. They want to be stay in the dominant roles as parent forever, the person retaining greater knowledge. Still, I admired my mother correcting my English papers or us learning algebra together. 

Billie Jean succumbing to Ruth Ann and Norma’s deceit. DP: Glenwood J. Swanson.

During the big showdown, however, Billie Jean discovers that Norma and Ruth Ann have been destroying Netta’s encouraging letters to Billie Jean. DP: Glenwood J. Swanson.

Norma and Ruth Ann ostracizing Netta for keeping to her studies and not pursuing sexual conquests also hit home. Some people truly are uncomfortable with individuals who seek higher goals, whose ambitions focuses on career pathways and not hookups heavily prevalent in pop culture. I do not talk to my Bible wielding family about my celibacy because it causes distress, harmful jokes, and invasive questions. Last year at my brother’s grandmother’s funeral, my cousin asked me, alone in his car, “why does it seem like you don’t like sex?” In moments that Norma and Ruth Ann circle Netta, accusing her of all kinds of foul, wicked cruelty, Netta’s expression grows more intense, frightened, familiar. These are women around her own age. Why is it so important to know the sex life of someone else, to criticize those uninterested in the act? Netta is educated and virtuous too? Oh, the girls hate that. Or maybe it is not hate at all. Their misplaced envy— their dislike over Netta behaving unlike them—has transformed into a toxic rage, especially Norma, who then pulls out a knife.

Netta also privately assures Billie Jean that Rose has never said “I love you,” much less hugged her foster daughter. Rose withholding motherly affection and praise from Billie Jean has affected the young girl so much. Billie Jean almost turned into Norma and Ruth Ann. DP: Glenwood J. Swanson.

A hypocritical Rose worries that Billie Jean’s dancing will be the makings of future promiscuity, that the generational cycle will repeat. Yet, in the next instant, Rose does little to protect Billie Jean from Herbert, the other house occupant despite Billie Jean protesting her dreams go beyond empty pleasures. Billie Jean’s room connects to the kitchen and back door. Anyone can come through unsupervised. It doesn’t help that Herbert doesn’t knock. Rose nonchalantly says that Billie Jean has nothing Her set hasn’t seen before— setting Billie Jean up for potential sexual harm. Rose comes across as believing such access is natural, not unseemly. Billie Jean is a minor. Who knows what is occupying that man’s mind for him to continue shocking behavior towards a mere child? How can Rose obsess over Billie Jean’s future when she’s not even understanding the present danger under her own roof? This demonstrates the long historical pattern of women purposely turning a blind eye. 

Family at church on Mother’s Day. DP: Glenwood J. Swanson.

Netta giving Billie Jean the hope she needs to move forward. DP: Glenwood J. Swanson.

Thankfully, Netta believes in Billie Jean— a healthy relationship that Norma and Ruth Ann try to destroy. It is already bad enough that Billie Jean is named after Norma and Ruth Ann’s charismatic father, how dare she try to better herself too!

Mu Dear embracing her granddaughter Billie Jean before our heroine finishes school alongside the trustworthy Netta and trains for dancing. DP: Glenwood J. Swanson.

And Rose, finally realizing that the spiritualist was wrong in dismissing the treasure right in front of her very face, her very blood: Billie Jean. DP: Glenwood J. Swanson.

My next goal is to read Jennie Elizabeth Franklin’s Black Girl play and write a compare/contrast essay of source material versus film, seeing as Franklin wasn’t happy with this production. At least, Franklin had a win in ensuring that Peggy Pettit—star of the touring the off-Broadway version— received the starring film role; the studio wanted a lighter skinned actress (Hollywood history still repeats on this unfortunate standpoint). This film, however, does render a heavy story of generational trauma. You think about the tremendous sorrow Sembène’s girl experienced and that of Nikyatu Jusu’s modern Aisha in the horror Nanny; how these three individual vehicles connect together to form a resonating narrative. While Sembène’s girl and Aisha are visibly drowning from the subjective gravity of “slavery by another name” aka underpaid/undervalued servitude, Billie Jean’s self-esteem is constantly threatened to submerge in overwhelming doubt— doubt of which caused not just by her family, but the cyclic damage brought by white supremacy. Although no white characters are present in this piece, the consequences of colonialism is a haunting, terrifying ghost that lingers in the smallest of ways.


Therefore, Jennie Elizabeth Franklin and Ossie Davis’s Black Girl validates a simple desire to be loved and respected, to be treated as though her purpose on earth matters, and that in light of stacked generational odds, her mother will stand right beside her, embracing all that she is and all that she will become.