One Way or Another: Black Women’s Cinema, 1970-1991
February 3-23 at BAM
Whether it’s a documentary, short film, or original screenplay, “One Way or Another” pitches the idea of film as a historical text and cultural memory. The series showcases black women directors as not just filmmakers, but anthropologists and griots, uncovering, archiving, and telling authentic stories by and about black women. The collective ethos of the series is personified in two of films about African-American literary giants: Zora Is My Name! (1990), actress Ruby Dee’s dramatic tribute to Their Eyes Were Watching God author Zora Neale Hurston; and Visions of the Spirit: A Portrait of Alice Walker (1989), a documentary in which Pulitzer Prize-winning writer Alice Walker gives an in-depth look at her life, work, and black feminist perspective.
Directed by Neema Barnette and produced for PBS’s American Playhouse series, Zora Is My Name! dramatizes Hurston’s life and her work of preserving Southern black storytelling. The film captures the intimate lives of Hurston’s family and community, and shares Southern black folklore and traditions such as “playing the dozens” (there’s a scene where old man humorously sings the blues about how ugly a child is), children’s hand-clapping game songs, allegories that personify extreme weather as a quarrel between “Mrs. Wind” and “Mrs. Water,” or explaining the struggle between man and woman as a divine folktale about bargains between God and the devil. In Hurston’s (played by Dee and Lynn Whitfield) words in the film, “Folklore is the art of people before they find out there is a such thing as art.”
While Zora Is My Name! is a narrative dramatization, Visions of the Spirit captures life through a documentary lens. The film was directed by Elena Featherstone, and shot at Walker’s home and on the set of Steven Spielberg and Quincy Jones’s The Color Purple. Walker makes the case that the personal is political, and shows how different life experiences shaped who she was, from blindness in one of her eyes, and her work collecting biographies of black women during the Civil Rights era, to her roles as mother and daughter, and the praise and criticism she received for the novel and film The Color Purple.
BAM’s series taps into the African and African-American traditions of passing stories from one generation to the next. It also challenges dominant narratives about black women. “One Way or Another” confirms, rejects, interrogates, assaults, is assaulted by, confronts, and ignores the dominant gazes of history: white and male.
The series replaces more euphemistic themes like “talking about race” with addressing anti-blackness and misogynoir head on. The films in One Way or Another centralize the diverse experiences of black women, and use storytelling to touch on topics and themes such as the ingenuity of black female artists, domestic violence, father-daughter relationships, the struggle as an artist and a mother, being a woman in a “man’s world,” being black in mainstream feminism movements, turning hardship into laughter, being both a sex object and a sexual being, health issues specific to black women, and more.
For example, Alile Sharon Larkin’s Different Image (1982) deals with consent and sexual objectification, and the connections between racist and sexist stereotyping. The 50-minute film follows a young African-American woman trying to reclaim her African heritage and navigate a patriarchal society where her body is hyper-visible while her humanity is rendered invisible. BAM has paired it with Maureen Blackwood’s 1988 short Perfect Image?, a series of vignettes where two actresses pose questions about colorism and beauty, and addresses how black women see themselves and each other. From one sketch to the next, the actresses change their persona: a fair-skinned woman joking about the ugliness of darker skin, an African woman bleaching her face, a brown-skinned woman bragging about her flawless complexion, a light-skinned mulatto wishing her skin was darker. The film warns black women of chasing the illusive “perfection” in a society of fickle beauty standards.
There are several other films that may pique interests: the series opens with screening and panel discussion of Daughters of the Dust, Julie Dash’s newly restored 1991 story of three generations of women in a Gullah family (and a big inspiration behind Lemonade). Debra J. Robinson’s I Be Done Was Is (1984) profiles four comedians who draw from their experiences as black women for their material. Liz White’s rarely screened early-60s adaptation of Othello features an all-black cast, foregrounding the play’s depiction of patriarchy—a facet often overshadowed by the racial reading of the play.
But if the “One Way or Another” promises anything, it is an array of experiences and perspectives of created by black women themselves.