Taking Control of the Lens: Julie Dash and Leslie Harris

“I grew up at a time when it was an anomaly to see people who looked like me on TV. When you don’t feel seen or heard, you don’t feel validated or valued.” – Shonda Rhimes

          Space is what defines our bodies, fashion, style, dress, hair, mannerisms, and skin color. Depending on where a person resides, space determines an environment’s specific ethnic and aesthetic makeup. Black women filmmakers negotiate and utilize space differently than their male counterparts. Black male directors generally tell stories of the black male experience, masculinity, manhood, and urban experiences. These are themes seen in films like Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing and Melvin Van Peebles’ Sweet Sweetback’s Baadassss Song. Black women filmmakers, on the other hand, use space to explore black womanhood, gender relations, and class through the black woman protagonist(s) in film. The 1990s was an especially revolutionary period for black women filmmakers because they produced films that engaged women spectators around the world.

Julie Dash’s Daughters of the Dust (1992) was the first full-length film by an African-American woman with general theatrical release in the United States.

Julie Dash’s Daughters of the Dust (1992) was the first full-length film by an African-American woman with general theatrical release in the United States.

Julie Dash’s Daughters of the Dust opens with the line,

“I am the first and the last. I am the honored one and the scorned one. I am the whore and the holy one. I am the wife and the virgin. I am the barren one and many of my daughters. I am the silence you cannot understand. I am the utterance of my name.”

The powerful lyrical prose transitions beautifully into first scene when the Gullah Islands enter on screen with the presence of a boat treading through water. The audience is immediately immersed into a distinctive African culture that is defined and narrated by women. The voiceover invites us into the filmic space to experience the Sea Gullah Islands, home of the Peazant family, the members of whom have sought to sustain a unique, imaginative, original African culture. When the boat enters the on screen, we assume the boat is representative to the boats that crossed the middle passage to bring slaves to America. However, when the camera zooms in on the boat, the audience sees a regal woman who is soon to be revealed as Yellow Mary standing starkly in the boat, upright, and prideful. Her position is not a position of powerlessness. She is powerful and the women who will be unveiled in the film, following Yellow Mary’s entrance, have the same power and agency granted on screen.

Dash strategically time stamps the film, situating the setting in 1902, an important historical period for Blacks living in America. By doing so, the audience is able to enter into culturally specific space where blacks survive, exists, preserve, and remember their ancestors at Ibo Landing. Ibo Landing is a symbolic space because it serves as a canvas to glance back to slavery, the Middle Passage, African religions, Christianity, Islam, print media, photography, moving pictures, and African-American folkways, as elements with which black people must come to terms in order to glance forward as citizens of the United States. It serves as a space where the Peazant family can articulate their family history without the intrusion of whiteness. Whiteness is completely marginalized in Ibo Landing. Dash does this to show the audience a true authentic black culture where decisions are made and life is experienced on their own time and in their own space.

1002004012415809On the other hand, space in Just Another Girl on the I.R.T. functions differently than Daughters of the Dust because the film is situated in a city rather than a rural environment. The opening scene shows a young black man with a garbage bag in his hand, walking

slowly in the dark. He anxiously scans the area and places the bag next to a trashcan and walks away. This image is taken from second to final scene of the movie where Chantel, the protagonist, gives birth to her child in her boyfriend’s bedroom and frantically asks her boyfriend to dispose of the child. The media often frames the story as an unfortunate mishap that only happens in underprivileged spaces, such as low-income neighborhoods. The subjects are not granted a voice in the media to tell the story from their perspective. Leslie Harris revises the narrative and inserts the voice of 17-year-old Chantel Harris to tell the story.

In the first few seconds, Harris places the narrative in Chantel’s hands and her voice over is directed to the audience. Chantel states “You know tomorrow you might be reading about this in papers or you might even see it on TV. Y’all might shake your heads and think and say somebody was real bugged out or was on crack or something. Some people hear about my neighborhood and assume some real fucked up things. But I am going to tell y’all the real deal.” Instead of whiteness defining Chantel’s lived experiences, Chantel uses space to give an authentic voice to young black women living in urban environments.

Brooklyn, like Ibo Landing, is a symbolic space because it serves a foundation to build Chantel’s story. After the opening scene, Harris brings Chantel’s voice to the foreground and shows her standing at the Park Place subway stop in Brooklyn waiting on the Manhattan-bound train to take her to Midtown where she works at a local grocery store.

While Chantel is on the platform Harris cuts to the sign above the subway stop, which is covered in graffiti. Behind it are the tall high-rise buildings that make up low-income housing. Chantel boards the train and Harris makes it a point to briefly display the passing subway stops signs. Each sign along the ride is more clean then the last, each subway station nicer than the one before it.

The mis-en-scene of this shot is important because it shows how Chantel moves into spaces of familiarity to spaces of unfamiliarity. It also represents the social circumstances that Chantel experiences daily. Before she enters the store, Chantel abruptly turns to the camera and openly states,

“I’m a Brooklyn girl. Lots of people think Brooklyn girls are tough. I guess that’s true. I don’t let nobody mess with me.  I do what I want, when I want.”

Despite the drastic change in environment, moving from grimy to affluent in only a couple of minutes, Chantel doesn’t change her attitude but declares Brooklyn as her identity. Brooklyn defines Chantel’s experience and how she interacts in other spaces unfamiliar to her.

These stories of black women navigating restricted or granted spaces would not have been explored if it wasn’t for black women filmmakers creating these films. These films are critical to explore how the various types of black woman navigate their worlds whether in Ibo Landing or Brooklyn.

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