Create Anew: Black Feminist Film School
Black Feminist Filmmaking as Spiritual Leadership
First, I want to give thanks for the many ancestors that have gone before us and continue to go before us and beside us to make a way. Also, for those storytellers, teachers, community organizers, technologists and filmmakers who have made my path and the path of my contemporaries easier. Especially, those that are ancestors and that in the words of Alice Walker,
… dreamed dreams that no one knew-not even themselves, in any coherent fashion-and saw visions no one could understand…. [Those that] waited for a day when the unknown thing that was in them would be made known; but guessed, somehow in their darkness, that on the day of their revelation they would be long dead.
So, to those long dead I send light and gratitude. And Gratitude also to those living including black LGBTQ filmmakers like Yvonne Welbon and Katina Parker.
And of course to the organizers of this event Kelly Wooten, Shiylh Warren and last but not least my co-llaborator, co-creator and teacher the beloved and brilliant Dr. Alexis Pauline Gumbs; I am very grateful that black feminist filmmaking is being validated institutionally because I understand that such a thing does make a difference; and is healing for many living AND long dead. ASE!
(I want to engage the “what is” a Black Feminist Film/Filmmaker by talking about the image of Black Feminist Filmmaking that I am walking in and toward, even as I am creating it)
I make myself a filmmaker like Milla Granson was a teacher. She was a slave who learned to read from the children of her owner. She taught 12 students at a time, also slaves, to read in her midnight school. Once they learned she dismissed them and taught 12 more. Over the years, she taught hundreds of salves to read and write and many of them used that tool to gain their freedom,
I learned about this woman in Akasha (Gloria) Hull and Barbara Smith’s introduction to All the Women Are White, All the Blacks Are Men, But Some of Us Are Brave. They go on to say:
“She used her skills not to advance her own status, but to help her fellow slaves, and this under the most difficult circumstances… The knowledge she conveyed had a politically and materially transforming function, that is, it empowered people to gain freedom.”
I make myself a filmmaker in the legacy of the Combahee River Collective’s Statement, which is a foundational text for any Black Feminist. They agreed,
“If Black women were free, it would mean that everyone would have to be free since our freedom would necessitate the destruction of all systems of oppression.”
I make myself a filmmaker knowing that we can create the world anew; a world we deserve to have if we choose to do so.
Finally, I make myself a filmmaker in the spirit tradition of specific directors who have created films that are for me canonical; filmmakers such as Julie Dash with Daughters of the Dust, Euzhan Palcy with Sugar Cane Alley, Camille Billops with Suzanne Suzanne and even contemporary filmmaker Kortney Ryan Ziegler in his film, Still Back: A Portrait of Black Transmen.
Judylyn S. Ryan articulates this tradition and it’s characteristics well in her book Spirituality as Ideology in Black Women’s Film and Literature where her book draws out what it sees in Black Women’s art, for me it is reflective, prescriptive and prophetic.
The characteristics that she draws out include:
1) Interpreting Spirituality
2) Embracing Responsibility
3) Bearing Life-Force
4) Reversing Dispossession
5) Renewing Self-Possession
6) Charting Futures
7) (One for me)
Like Judylyn S. Ryan, I too understand “spirituality as a source of knowledge and a way of knowing” that is generative and proactive and not reactive or subject to the “gravitational pull of hegemonic discourses”. And I am learning about the ethos of interconnectedness that has allowed oppressed communities to flourish and serve as imperatives in traditional African cosmology.
This ethos of interconnectedness renders us all as agents and, Black Feminist Filmmakers in particular as leaders in the task of realizing collective well-being. To name oneself a Black Feminist Filmmaker is to embrace this responsibility which also means becoming a mediator between worlds to strengthen the drain and threatened life-force of the community. For example, in form, my tradition of black baptist preaching could be a channel for strengthening life-force.
My journey through divinity school was about gaining tools and understanding just like my journey to simultaneously create and matriculate through Black Feminist Film School. This shows up in my work not in terms of religion but in terms of thinking about how do we make and transfer meaning and how have we done so in the past. Also, divinity school helped me better understand the history of popular cultural Christianity in this country.
Reversing the dispossession that is inherent in “structured absence” which is what is pervasive today – the absence and maligned presence of black people, lgbtq people or all of the above, is another characteristic. We can create generatively for our future AND we can also, in the words of Ryan “[reinscribe] future agency in a cinematic past”. Then Renewing Self-Possession involves creating not just new images but a new way of viewing critically.
Finally, Charting Futures wraps up or connects this looking back looking forward/Sankofa practice that for me is necessary when intentionally studying anything. I like the way Angela Davis talks about it in Women, Culture and Politics, our challenge is…
to respond fully to the needs of the moment and to do so in such a way that the light one attempts to shine on the present will simultaneously illuminate the future.
And because 7 is the number of completion I add one more. Perhaps it could be a model for each of us in our tranifestas to identify their own purpose as Black Feminist Filmmakers or in whatever role you choose to play. For me that is the choice to create a space of brave loving truth always. It is my practice to create space that is so full of love and a clearly defined standard of love that people are safe enough to open up and transform; and clear enough that if that is not their community accountable intention then they can keep it moving. So, whether that is a space in which, for example, white women can come to understand their privilege and transform into actively anti-racist people; a space where black lesbians can come to understand gender as a construct and transform to mentor young black trans men; or a space where folks can understand that light and dark are tools in film and transform to be filmmakers that not only use light but also darkness and use them with intention. So, this number 7 is all apart of what it means to me, individually, to be a Black Feminist Filmmaker and create self-determined practices and space for other Black Feminists.
Black Feminist Film School Impetus:
Much of the impetus for Black Feminist Film School I have laid out in talking about what it is but of course there are some more personal motivations; and not just those that arise from my creation of Queer Renaissance as a multimedia movement aimed at creating the world anew through art, media, education and entrepreneurship.
I have completed my coursework toward a Master’s in Film Production (except for one class). I am now working on my thesis film. Most directly, the impetus for Black Feminist Film School came from my experience of film school.
The Real Deal
Imagine looking back in time and across history to those that have done what you have understood as your common life’s work. Imagine paying thousands of dollars a year for help to take this journey in which you, not only, read books but participate in discourse that deepens your engagement of these filmic and literary texts. Imagine the benefit of learning about the successes and failures; the juicy, though dusty, gossip of days long gone. Imagine the pride of professors who “used to do” and “used to know” and “once worked with…” Imagine the excitement that ebbs and flows among teachers, colleagues and classmates. Imagine the validation of being invited to conferences and to contribute to journals that engage the topics that you are immersed in; that you are put on this planet to learn, engage and advance. Imagine professors and classmates introducing you to unheard of history that unlocks whole new realms of existence and possibility. Imagine the career opportunities, collaborations, mentoring and friendships.
Now, ….. understand that this look back, for the most part, excludes black people, black women, and certainly black lesbian women. Understand that this sort of ignorance is not only acceptable but encouraged and sanctioned. Understand that there is no discount to tuition and fees for those that do not have the benefit of multiple forms of privilege – economic or otherwise. Understand there is no discount given even if the history of your “people,” whomever they might be, are systematically excluded from the curriculum; and certainly no allowance to seek out that which is missing. Understand that not only are the books and films assigned privileging white male heterosexual works and experience, so is the discourse and the pedagogy. Understand that the reflection that occurs, occurs between those that look and think similarly and so goes the mentorship, collaborations, and other opportunities. Understand that what I find of a legacy to walk into must come from elsewhere – my own research, mentors in other departments, writers and artists across the country; people, often times black feminists or womanists, to whom I pay no tuition or fees, but who see it as there purpose to educate me, that I might not only create but educate others.
So, what you have imagined and now understand is my motivation, with Alexis, to create Black Feminist Film School.
Not only that, but one day I realized that the filmmakers that those paid to advise me had recommended, I guess so that I might identify with them, were Tyler Perry, someone that directs black lesbian adult film, and tokenized black artists and mediamakers. Not to say anything against them but that was irrelevant to the constant purpose I articulated. Their methods to push me to grow and develop my work often involved random tokenized black people like Oprah Winfrey, as if they never heard or read a word of what I articulated as my intentions. Many do not see it as their job to educate themselves so that they might educate me.
Going in I knew that I would experience isolation and have to create my own opportunities. But because I did not dehumanize my instructors I was often hopelessly hope-full. Perhaps it was inevitable that we would create this opportunity for others. But it is still quite unfortunate that at this stage of the game I would have to create it for myself.
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As I simultaneously create BFFS and matriculate through it (a common practice in a graduate program to teach as you learn and learn as you teach), I am creating films and other forms of art and media, as well. For example, Mobile Homecoming is a project that Alexis and I have created together that has a documentary component. Mobile Homecoming seeks to amplify generations of queer (aka LGBTQ, SGL, etc.) black brilliance. Yvonne Welbon’s film, Living With Pride: Ruth Ellis at 100 is certainly a filmic influence for us on this project. Our project is about honoring those that have come before us and creating not only intergenerational black queer community and family of choice but also models for us to care for our elders as they age. Yvonne’s film certainly models that.
We are still on the journey to acquire all of the necessary tools of production but we have not been stopped by limited access to equipment; while still aspiring to the quality production that has made Yvonne not just a filmmaker but an award winning filmmaker and professor.
Another influence is Suzanne Suzanne a documentary film by Camille Billops that engages her family history and the death of a family member. This documentary has artistically lit and staged scenes that give the film the not only the power to heal but displays the healing itself through narrative drama.
The Mobile Homecoming documentary is still in production and we hope to complete post-production in 2013.
The project I am simultaneously working on, I hope to be representative of not only Black Feminist Filmmaking but also my creative and technical skill as a filmmaker – is a docu-fiction project. It is undeniably, whether by direct influence or not, in the spirit of Cheryl Dunye’s hybrid documentary-fiction work.
In this project a community of mostly black queer folks come together to create a variety show for television. It uses healing poetics and black feminist social satire to inspire growth and transformation by reflecting to us the ways in which we fail to love one another and instead use the masters tools to keep ourselves and others dispossessed (if you will) of our true potential. So, there will be live original performance of dance, music and ritual alongside skits.
Another way I describe it is Marlon Rigg’s Tongues Untied meets Chappelle’s Show; or as a Daughters of the Dust meeting In Living Color; if you can possibly imagine a Black Feminist In Living Color. This healing poetics I call it Saturday Night Queer!
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Julia’s Questions for BFFS:
- I am learning how the Black Arts Movement engages my understanding of Black Feminist Filmmaking; how do they or do they not serve one another?
- I must explore the relationship of African Spirituality and cultural practices to the film form?
- What are Black Lesbian filmmakers trying to accomplish now; how are they successful or not; what are their methods; how are audiences responding to, benefiting from, or critiquing this work?
- What are the technical and analytical skills that are missing from the films being created by new black lesbian filmmakers today?
- How can we create films together in this context of love and accountability to black feminist ideals?