Marginalia: On Supporting Black Women Creators

(Originally written January 2016)

The first time I heard of history-making filmmaker Ava DuVernay was when I saw an ad for her first feature film, I Will Follow

 

The ad alone was very seductive: a photo of a handsome man (Omari Hardwick) and a beautiful woman (who I immediately recognized as Salli Richardson-Whitfield), looking at something beyond the frame of the poster, both washed in a slightly golden hue. I was sold based on that soft, tender image of two Black people alone.

 

The film played at the West End Cinema, a small theatre in Washington, D.C.'s Foggy Bottom neighborhood that is no longer open.

For 90 minutes though, back in 2010, I watched a film about 30-something Maye (played by Richardson-Whitfield) grieving her recently deceased aunt, who was a firecracker rock and roll drummer in the 1970s.

For 90 minutes, I watched a quiet, beautifully shot film about the interior life of a Black woman.

 

I Will Follow (2010) /  Still photography by Sidney Ray Baldwin

 

Maye wasn’t the put-upon wife of a man of action — a cop or firefighter or some kind of government agent.

She wasn’t the sassy “best friend” of a quirky, willowy blond woman living beyond her means somewhere in Brooklyn or Manhattan.

She wasn’t the Magical Negro who solves everyone’s problems with a wink and a smile.

Maye was loving, stubborn, grieving, and beginning the work of moving on.

Maye was a Black woman simply being.

It sounds like such a simple concept, but for me, in that theater, I was looking at something quietly groundbreaking. Of course, there have been Black women directors who came before DuVernay, and there will be more along with her and after her.

However, I remember feeling as though I was seeing something made especially for me. Not a brightly lit romantic comedy or a bombastic action flick set in some kind of urban dystopia, but something more quiet and far more intimate.

Just a few years later, DuVernay became the first Black woman director awarded Best Director at the Sundance Film Festival for her 2012 film Middle of Nowhere (another quiet, beautifully shot film) and was then tapped to direct Selma, which led to her becoming the first Black woman director nominated for Best Director at the Golden Globes Awards and the film being nominated for Best Picture at the Academy Awards.

It is especially groundbreaking that I Will Follow and her subsequent films were made in a time where women only made up about seven percent of the 250 highest-grossing films of 2014, according to the most report I could find by the ACLU.

It is rare to see media that reflects the kind of women who are my family, my friends, and who represent portions of me. Of course, there are films made by many of the directors highlighted on this very site: Kasi Lemmons, Nikyatu Jusu, Nefertite Nguzu, Julie Dash, Tanya Hamilton, Destiny Ekaragha.

 

In The Morning (2014) Written and directed by Nefertite Nuguvu / Cinematography by Arthur Jafa

There are web series such as Awkward Black Girl, created by my fellow sister in awkwardness Issa Rae, Clench and Release, created by comedian and Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt writer Charla Lauriston, and Black and Sexy TV, created by Numa Perrier and her partner Dennis Dortch, who co-produce web series about romance, sex, and relationships that feature predominantly Black protagonists. There are others doing the work; and there is more, much more, to come.

As a photographer and photo editor, I have always been hungry for images that center Black women, be it in photography, film, video, and TV. I love that space is being given to creators such as Mara Brock-Akil and Shonda Rimes to make shows that depict us as heroes, villains, and within a nebulous space somewhere in between those poles. 

I love seeing work that highlights the many forms of Blacknesses that exist, and the many forms of womanhood that exist, and the various intersections that Black women embody by simply being.

We live in exciting times. With the advent of DSLRs, iPhones, YouTube, Vimeo, and iMovie, the work that I love to see is being done by people who, to paraphrase filmmaker and screenwriter Dee Rees, are not waiting for a “yes” from traditional studios and gatekeepers.

 

Merkato (2014), short documentary directed and shot by Sosena Solomon

And it is up to us to do what we can to support current and future Black women creators. How can we do this?

There are a few ways:

Amplify.

Social media and word of mouth are still some of the best ways to get the word out about creative projects being made by Black women. Word of mouth is what got people in seats in the theater for DuVernay’s first feature, which led to the creation of AFFRM (now known as ARRAY) , an organization whose mission is to not only distribute independent films made by people of color, but also create marketing campaigns to make sure their work is actually seen. Don’t be shy. If you see something intriguing, use Twitter, Facebook, Tumblr, Instagram or your phone to let people know.

Critique.

Critique — not to be confused with criticism — is an important part of the creative process. The key is to recognize the difference between critique, which is honest feedback paired with insights into what worked and perhaps what did not work or could be pushed more, and an attack, which is simply tearing into something without giving an in-depth reason as to why you didn't like something or feel indifferent to it.

Talk about what worked and why. Talk about what didn’t work and why. Talk about what ideas you may have wanted to see pushed and why. It is also important not to fall into the practice of glad handing. Empty praise doesn’t do justice to the labor that goes into creating a body of work. Ask questions. Focus on the why, regardless of whether you like or dislike what was created. Critique is what helps make a body of work that much stronger. And it shows that you are taking the work seriously enough to be worthy of rigorous critique.

Invest.

IndieGoGo, Kickstarter, Patreon, and GoFundMe all host interesting and dynamic projects by Black women creators that need financial support to be realized. Black Girl Funded also rounds up projects created by Black women who are crowdfunding for various projects. Money is tight in general but even small donations of $10 and up help a ton. As someone who recently launched her very first crowdfunding campaign last year, I can tell you firsthand that every donation counts. There is no such thing as too small a donation.

Show up.

Numbers are hard to ignore, even when traditional studios twist themselves into pretzels to do so sometimes. When you see a movie, web series, TV show, gallery exhibit, magazine story, etc. created by a Black woman — show up. Buy a ticket, turn your remote to that channel, buy that magazine. Step into that gallery showing work by Black women and show that people can and will show up for Black women creators.

Help or move.

My friend, scholar and author Renina Jarmon, coined this saying and it has stuck with me for years. Helping entails more than providing money (although money is nice too).

Helping could be offering to babysit so the Black woman creator in your life has more time to finish a spec script or scout a location or edit a crucial part of her film or photo shoot.

It could picking up dinner so there is one less chore on her to-do list.

It could be taking her out for coffee when you see how frazzled she is while she works to complete an exhibit or a final screenplay draft.

It could be picking up the phone and offering words of encouragement.

Anything less is unnecessary. It is a distraction.

 

Film still from Drylongso, directed by Cauleen Smith

Being an artist can be hard and often lonely work.

Is it satisfying to bring an idea to life when it first existed only in your head? Yes.

Is it thrilling? Absolutely. 

Would I have it any other way? Absolutely not.

But is difficult. And it is labor. And I commend all of my fellow Black women creators out there who get up every day and go about the business of living and creating. Of saying to "hell with the margins, we’ll create our own center."