Why Africa Cursed Europe? Body, Identity, Civil Rights
Selected by: Marina Gržinić
The screenings will be followed by the selector’s commentary as well as a Q&A in dialogue with the audience.
“A white face goes with a white mind. Occasionally, a black face goes with a white mind. Very seldom will a white face have a black mind.” — Nikki Giovanni (b. 1943), American poet. From a conversation with James Baldwin, in London, Nov. 4, 1971, in A Dialogue (1973).
The video-film program is a continuation of the curatorial work I did in selecting screenings for the 2010 City of Women edition, which had race and class as two of the pillars for conceiving an independent, critical program of projections in the new millennium. In the present film program, these two pillars have been retaken and reworked with questions of history, agency and representation. How do these three conditions collide in contemporary arts production in the time of global capitalism? How do they affect our understanding of life, death, labor and the future?
The program presents two works that provide a platform in which marginalized black female voices can be heard and validated. One of the most important aspects of this program is that we present films about conditions black women face that are actually made by black women directors.
The title of the film The Body Beautiful is a tricky one since at first it leads one to think of the many TV series featuring known actresses and their lifestyle program videos demonstrating how to shape the body and reproduce a healthy life in psychic balance. This last is a neoliberal tendency in capitalism that preaches the possibilities of how to be “one” with oneself at every step. It is clear that this is an illusion, as we have to constantly deal with a decentered self that is out of balance and under harsh pressure from capital’s deregulation. The body and the subject are under constant processes of deregulation, discrimination. The Body Beautiful by Ngozi Onwurah is centered on such a distortion, and the stories of both the mother and the daughter provide the narration for the film. At the center of the work is the question of representation: the profound effects that body image and the strain of racial and sexual identity impose on both of them.
The feature-length documentary Reflections Unheard: Black Women in Civil Rights by African-American film director Nevline Nnaji focuses on the marginalization of black women at the intersection of Black Power and feminist ideologies from the Civil Rights era up to the present day. The main question that the documentary poses is: Where do black women activists fit in the epochal struggles for equality and liberation during the 1960s and 70s? More precisely, what is exposed is the intersection between the male-dominated Black Power movement and second wave feminism, which was largely white and middle-class, showing how each failed to recognize black women’s overlapping racial and gender identities.
A wide range of archival footage from the 1960s and 1970s displays the blatant differences in socio-economic status and political concerns between white feminists and feminists of color. Where both movements fail(ed) to acknowledge the intersection of gender oppression and race, the documentary explores the ways in which black women became a galvanizing force, raising awareness about and seeking solutions to those issues that often left us out of the overall framework: reproductive rights, dependable day-care for working mothers, government resources, employment and fair wages.
The film Reflections Unheard: Black Women in Civil Rights uses archival footage and in-depth interviews with former members of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), SNCC’s Black Women’s Liberation Committee, the Black Panther Party, the Third World Women’s Alliance, and the National Black Women’s Feminist Organization. The material reveals how black women mobilized, fought for recognition, and raised awareness as to how sexism and class issues affected women of color both within and outside of the Black Power Movement and mainstream feminism. Prominently featured activists include Frances Beale, Kola Boof, Angela Davis, Nikki Giovanni, Rosemari Mealy, Judy Richardson, Gwendolyn Simmons, Deborah Singletary and Eugenia Wiltshire.
Reflections Unheard: Black Women in Civil Rights features controversial Womanist (which seeks methods for eradicating inequalities not just for black women, but for all people) and novelist Kola Boof, who, according to Nevline Nnaji, inspired the documentary as well as Nnaji’s own awareness about the various aspects of the black feminist experience. Through such a view, Nnaji has succeeded in presenting a perspective that isn’t always rooted in the Black Nationalist Movement or shaped by the language of academia.
The film constructs a powerful oral history of recontextualisation of the Civil Rights Movement in the U.S. The film struck us by its power of discourse and reflection, as well as by its punctuated analysis by prominent figures of the movement of the time covered by the archive footage through to today. It is a polar contrast to the portrayal of African American women as hyper-sexual temptresses, a portrayal as old as American slavery but one in which mass media, during the blacksploitation film genre period that emerged in the United States in the 1970s (considered an ethnic sub-genre of the general category of exploitation films), merged two caricatures of the African American – the Jezebel caricature and the Sapphire caricature – which produced the hybrid figure of an “angry whore” fighting injustice. This is important as, at present, mass media stereotypes repeat racist ideologies in different variants and contexts. In the Slovenian context, we definitely have the stereotype of the uneducated, primitive Southerner women (coming from other republics that were once, along with Slovenia, part of the common state of Yugoslavia) that has been, since 1991, harshly reproduced as a figure of illiteracy and backwardness that is a target for racist and discriminatory prejudices.
The film is particularly important since people are of the opinion that black feminist positions are irrelevant or even destroy the black community. These prejudices have pushed into an enduring state of exclusion positions of those such as Harriet Tubman, Ida B. Wells, Sojourner Truth, etc. Racial stereotyping is a convenient way in which to shelve others into categories that make sense to hetero-normative white racist regimes.
In a word, this is a film program that opens a set of questions and will empower many to start to work on a local history, demanding civil emancipation and rights for all, here and now. Last but not least the presentation of the film program reworks several essay and commentaries on the films and topics found online. (Marina Gržinić)
Ngozi Onwurah (UK)
The Body Beautiful, 1991 / 23’
The film is in English, no subtitles.
Nevline Nnaji (USA)
Reflections Unheard: Black Women in Civil Rights, 2013 / 81’
The film is in English, no subtitles.
Price (both films): € 4.