Films & Filmmakers
We are a part of a long line of Black Feminist Filmmakers! This list of Black Feminist Films is not exhaustive but, for now, represents films we have seen and filmmakers that we have met whose work we see as specifically a part of the Black Feminist Film School’s canon – including some of our own contemporaries.
Reflections on Suzanne Suzanne – Click Here
A Very Short List of Black Feminist Films We Love!
Want to send us some films you love? Some films you made? Email firstname.lastname@example.org to find out how. We are also available to write film reviews on this site and in many other outlets.
Rue cases nègres (Black Shack Alley)/Sugar Cane Alley
Directed by Euzhan Palcy
Daughters of the Dust
Directed by Julie Dash
Living with Pride: Ruth C. Ellis @ 100
Directed by Yvonne Welbon
No! Black Women and Rape
Directed by Aishah Shahidah Simmons
Still Black: A Portrait of Black Transmen
Kortney Ryan Ziegler
It Gets Messy in Here
Directed by Kai Green
– – –
Technologies of Healing
Written by Kai Green
The work of Black feminists has always been about mobilizing technologies of healing, a term that I learned through dialoguing with Alexis Pauline Gumbs. When Alexis told me that I MUST see this film, Suzanne, Suzanne by Camille Billops, I quickly began my search. I located the film easily by searching interlibrary loan. Glad that I still owned a VCR, when the film arrived, I popped that tape in and started watching. That first night I watched it alone. That weekend, I had a couple of friends over and had an impromptu screening. The third time a group of friends and I had a more organized screening. After watching it the first time, I wanted to share it with anyone I came into contact with. When I watched this film, I was transformed. I was moved by Billops’ ability to use documentary film as a reparative tool within her own family. This was Billops’ first film and it traces the relationship between a mother, Billie and her daughter, Suzanne, who were both survivors of Brownie’s (Billie’s late husband and Suzanne’s late father) physical abuse. This black and white film uses shadows, darkness and light in a way that challenges both expository and observational modes of documentary filmmaking. Billops’ film is more like poetry, weaving together the past traumas that both mother and daughter experienced. Suzanne’s question for both her late father and mother is “Do you love me?” We hear the mother respond affirmatively and also reveal that she believes Brownie loved Suzanne the most and that is why she was the one child that received most of the beatings. How do we heal our bodies and hearts that have been subjected to a kind love that leaves bruises? A kind of Blues? How do we forgive mothers and fathers who couldn’t protect us children? Billops uses film as a technology of healing by creating intimacy and safety on screen so that both Billie and Suzanne have the space to ask questions of one another. This film teaches us something about the importance of releasing pain as a means of liberation. This film embodies a somatic healing ethic that allows the viewer to bear witness to a family’s closet, not for spectacle, but rather to model fierce honesty even when it might seem easier to be silent. This film asks its subjects to be brave. It asks Billie and Suzanne to look deep inside and then share what they find there. It challenges us as viewers to examine our love practices, our relationships, and most deeply ourselves. I took notes after watching the film for the first time and this is one of the first things I jotted down: When love is not libratory it is most likely hell, but hell can and must be transformed. I am thankful for Camille Billops and other Black feminists who have taught and continue to teach us how self-transformation is essential to the radical transformation of our families, our communities and our world.
The Possibility of Light
Written by Alexis Pauline Gumbs
In 1982 Camille Billops made what history now considers her first film. Her family was her subject, her object, that which she objected to, which is another way of saying I believe she made this film because she believed in the possibility of healing, or because she believed in the possibility of community and new where to start first, what not to skip.
1982 was also the year I was cut out of my mother, too big for the comprehension of doctors and both of us too small to insist that we deserved our own space and our own process. In 1982 Camille Billops reclaimed that space of hair styling moments in the kitchen and living room, mustache shaping in the bathroom, the wall outside the old family photos. In 1982 Camille Billops reclaims the process of film for her own family, recording an original theme song with the returned daughter she had given up for adoption, asking her relatives to be present to the hardest truths with their brave and softest places in the technological public of the camera.
Watching this film for the first time, my heart said this is black feminist film. Because it asks the hard intersectional questions. What does a young black woman’s struggle with addiction have to do with abuse she experienced at the hands of her father. How can a black mother and daughter love each other when there years together were cracked by the abuse they both experienced at the hands of a man who supposedly loved them. How does a woman use drugs to forget her father and become him. How does a brother understand himself within a line of reckless men who died young? How does a wife and mother admit that the first thing she felt was relief when she heard that her husband and the mother of her children had died?
The major question of this film is can we see each other, across reflection and trauma, addiction and silence? Bringing the camera into intimate space and shaping a particular light, making visible a particular darkness allows Billops’s own family to have a space that I didn’t have on the birthing table. A place to have their process. The central moment of the film, where stage cheating away from each other, faces in changing intentional light Suzanne gets the opportunity to see herself in her mother, to see that at exactly those moments she felt most isolated from her mother they were sharing in the grim practice of surviving an abusive household where they could not protect each other. The moment when Suzanne sees through a lifelong shadow her mother, not as mother, but as co-survivor, allows grace, makes a healing possible that was not possible in any other setting of light.
Billops does this again and again across her career, claiming her family as a primary audience visible on film, centering the deepest silences, the silences in her own family, in her own life, in their contested choices towards each other as her primary archive. Creating a transformation that will stay in her life even if somehow the film reel is lost. Offering an intimate statement on violence against women and girls and addiction, on violence and the early deaths of black men, on motherhood and adoption, on the violent representation of Black people in art, on what has been stolen, on what can be stolen back.
If Suzanne Suzanne teaches us what Black Feminist Film is, might be, could be, the message is very similar to Audre Lorde’s message in the first sentence of her classic essay “Poetry is Not a Luxury”: “The quality of light by which we scrutinize our lives has direct bearing upon the product which we live, and upon the changes which we hope to bring about through those lives.” Maybe a Black Feminist Film is a film that cares about what Black Feminism cares about: black women and everyone we love. Maybe a Black Feminist Film is set where Black Feminism is set: around a kitchen table. Maybe a Black Feminist Film does what Black Feminism wants to do: make space for healing, for wholeness, for complicated visible love.
Written by Julia Roxanne Wallace
Anyone that has ever had parents or siblings or children or family of any kind must know something about the need for healing and the result when there is a lack of it.
This film is about safe space. It shines a light on the truth, open-ness and healing that becomes possible when a space is safe enough. A space safe enough to tell not just the truth but all the whole truth. The truth that hurts in labor but allows you to push through; and on the other side new life and healing rain down on everyone it touches. Even me. A space created (ostensibly?) by Black women for black women and their family.
This is not the only reason I consider “Suzanne Suzanne” a black feminist film. It has the characteristics that typify black feminist film as I now understand them, with the help of Judylyn S. Ryan’s Spirituality as Ideology in Black Women’s Film and Literature. Through the film I witness how it does indeed:
1) interpret spirituality;
2) embrace responsibility;
3) strengthen life-force;
4) reverse dispossession;
5) renew self-possession;
6) chart futures; and
7) reveals Camille Billops on her specific purpose, presumably, to
a) tell the truth and invite others to do so;
b) bring healing to herself and her family invoked by her willingness to have the hard conversation(s).
Billops is both expert facilitator and filmmaker in this film. Not so much because she succeeds in navigating a balance between her roles as director and subject, relative and observer, insider and outsider.
The nuclear family is one of the most unsafe spaces I know of in this country if not THEE most unsafe space, especially for girls, women, and feminine or gender transgressive people. The violence can be physical, verbal or force. I have never seen more hitting and yelling than what I have witnessed in the home of my parents. Surely it’s familiar some of you too – from the whoopin to the stifling of creative and strong spirited children. The Browning family is not unfamiliar; though the type of violence may be.
The scene that is at the height of breakthroughs in the film is not set in the home as all of the other scenes but in a darkened room, perhaps a safe and neutral space. The daughter is given questions to ask the mother. It’s as if Camille Billops is facilitating a conversation that she knows needed to happen and at some point the daughter begins to ask her own questions.The drama is in the healing and the healing is palpable.
– – – – – – – –
– – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – –