Film

They Are Somebody: BAM Reveals the Rich History of Black Women Filmmakers

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A milestone anniversary of a landmark movie — Julie Dash’s oneiric and lush mythopoetic masterwork Daughters of the Dust — has prompted, at BAMcinématek, a revelatory look back. Restored and rereleased last fall, 25 years after its 1991 Sundance premiere, Dash’s film, the first feature directed by an African-American woman to receive a general theatrical run, does not exist in isolation; it belongs to a history of independent film too little known and celebrated. “One Way or Another: Black Women’s Cinema, 1970–1991” assembles dozens of titles, of varying lengths, genres, and countries of origin, spotlighting two decades’ worth of provocative, profound, personal, and political moviemaking.

Those who missed the revival run of Daughters of the Dust at Film Forum in November and December can catch it in the BAM series, along with a program of Dash’s rarely screened shorts. The greatest of these works, Illusions (1982) — a shimmering, idea-packed period piece about two African-American women working in World War II–era Hollywood, one a frustrated executive passing as white, the other a singer who is called in to dub the trilling of a blonde starlet — sharply lays bare, in just over half an hour, myths about race and gender perpetuated by the movie industry. The film’s final line could serve as a motto for the entire retrospective: “There are many stories to be told and many battles to begin.”

One of those fights — for union recognition and fair wages — is the focus of Madeline Anderson’s I Am Somebody (1970), a rousing thirty-minute documentary about four hundred hospital employees (all but twelve of them women, and all black) on strike in Charleston, South Carolina, in the summer of 1969. “We learned that we gotta stick together,” declares one unidentified nurse, the film’s de facto narrator, her face and words as memorable as those of the civil rights heroes who rally behind local 1199B: Coretta Scott King, Ralph Abernathy, Andrew Young.

Other outstanding nonfiction works in the series chronicle not a movement, but a single life. Fannie’s Film (1981), by Fronza Woods, follows its 65-year-old African-American subject as she wipes down sweaty Pilates machines and tidies up other equipment in a dancers’ exercise studio, the patrons of which are exclusively white. Woods presents this racial divide without comment, opting instead to do something more radical: let the cleaning woman speak for herself. Answering Woods’s offscreen questions, Fannie Drayton recounts her Savannah childhood, her move to Harlem, her happy marriage, and her everyday pleasures (“My linen closet is out of this world”). With this fifteen-minute portrait, Woods isn’t interested in condescendingly canonizing its principal; rather, she makes the mundane facts of Drayton’s life indelible.

Fascinating auto-recollections likewise drive Michelle Parkerson’s Stormé: The Lady of the Jewel Box (1987), a slim but detail-dense tribute to an outsize personality and NYC LGBT shero. “All I had to do was be me and let people use their imaginations,” butch lesbian Stormé DeLarverie, in her late sixties at the time of this sit-down, tells the filmmaker, before recounting her years as a singer and emcee, dressed in impeccable gentleman’s attire, at the all-drag Jewel Box Revue (“25 Men and 1 Girl,” boasts a marquee announcing the touring company). Diane Arbus, remembered as “a marvelous lady” by DeLarverie, captured the performer’s glorious gender nonconformity in a photo; Parkerson’s film reveals a protagonist who refuses to be limited by her senescence. In the closing minutes, DeLarverie, clad all in denim, her close-cropped Afro more salt than pepper, patrols the sidewalk just outside the Cubbyhole, one of several sapphic West Village boîtes she guarded for decades.

The most formally complex film here is also the one that gives this expansive series its name: Sara Gómez’s One Way or Another (1974), the English title affixed to the original De Cierta Manera (more accurately translated as “in a way”). The first feature-length work by a woman in Cuba, and one of the few from that country to be helmed by an Afro-Cuban, Gómez’s movie is a revolutionary hybrid about the nation’s revolution, featuring “real people and fictitious ones,” per an opening intertitle. In the former category is Guillermo Diaz, a onetime boxing champ, composer, and singer, made vivid both by the archival footage we see of him and by the version of himself that he plays. In the latter is the central couple, a schoolteacher (Yolanda Cuellar), upbraided by her colleagues in a still-marginalized district as “too outspoken,” and a laborer (Mario Balmaseda) who tentatively questions, while still benefiting from, machismo culture: “What about the code of being a man?” he asks toward the end of the film, signaling his allegiance to old customs. This protean critique of Castro’s Cuba, made by one of its own citizens, astutely points out the innumerable barriers to the promised but elusive goal of universal equality.

Gómez died at age 31, before her movie was completed. But her spirit lives on in Larry Bullard and Carolyn Y. Johnson’s A Dream Is What You Wake Up From (1978), a film deeply influenced by One Way or Another. Like Gómez’s project, A Dream combines fact and fiction — and meta-episodes — to address imbalances of power, in this case in black families in different socioeconomic strata in the U.S. A group of guys, sitting around a Steenbeck, in a seemingly staged episode, earnestly discuss what it means to be a man; an interview with a real-life couple in suburban New Jersey shows a great deal of tenderness between the spouses, though the wife chafes at her husband’s paternalistic notions. It was during this segment that another pithy line from Illusions came to mind: “They see me, but they can’t recognize me.”

‘One Way or Another: Black Women’s Cinema, 1970–1991’

BAMcinématek

February 3–23