Black women filmmakers

by Claudia Springer

from Jump Cut, no. 29, February 1984, pp. 34-37
copyright Jump Cut: A Review of Contemporary Media, 1984, 2005

The emergence of university-trained black filmmakers on the West Coast since the late 1960s has included a significant number of women. During the summer of 1982, I met with fifteen black women filmmakers who work in Los Angeles, and I viewed thirteen of their films. All but two of the women were working towards or had received an MFA in motion picture and/or television production at UCLA; one had a BA in art from UCLA; one had received an MFA in cinema production from USC. All of the women spoke about their desire to communicate their ideas about black people's history and experience in film or video, often with an emphasis on women's experience. They differed about the possibility of expressing black concerns in mainstream commercial cinema; while some of the women hoped to gain directing jobs in Hollywood, others resolved to remain independent. This article discusses some of the concerns expressed by the filmmakers in their films and in interviews.

The women I spoke to came to filmmaking from various disciplines. A few had studied filmmaking as undergraduates; others had studied English literature, theatre, art, journalism, sociology, education, French, or creative writing. Many had worked for years at various jobs before entering graduate school. They said they chose filmmaking as a way to express their ideas, to influence or enlighten audiences, and to counteract the damage caused by Hollywood's inadequate treatment of black people.

The African women will become some of the first filmmakers in their countries, where indigenous film production is now developing. They have chosen to study filmmaking for the same reasons as the U.S. women and also to ensure that their countries will see good indigenous film and TV programs rather than the foreign, mainly U.S., products that have dominated their screens.

Graduate film school was given mixed reviews. All the women credited UCLA or USC with teaching them technical skills and providing access to equipment. However, excessive competition for equipment and damaged equipment  hindered them. A more serious charge was leveled by a few women against faculty members in the film departments who sometimes criticize films made from a black perspective. One woman told me,

"If you were going to do a film on something black, some of the instructors would say that you weren't making a universal film, which is really racist."

Several women gave examples of criticisms about their films which indicated that the instructors disliked the subject matter because it was from a black point of view. One woman's film, which has since received acclaim outside of the university, was called "unbelievable" when in fact it portrayed an event familiar to many black people. The white instructor and all-white class would not acknowledge the limited nature of their experiences and preconceived notions or see that there were other ways of perceiving the world than their own. Because her film received a low grade, the filmmaker had to go before a faculty committee in order to continue in the program. As another woman whose film received a similar criticism told me, the message underlying such criticism is this:

"We don't believe what you believe. We don't share your vision."

Black students often find it extremely difficult to make the films they want to make when white instructors and classmates imply that white ideology is universal while black ideology is biased.

Several women made similar observations about instructors' attitudes towards women's issues. One woman commented,

"I was told in school that some of the things I was proposing weren't valuable. Some of those things had to do with women."

Male students often shared this disregard for women's issues. A woman whose first film was about her young son told me that she was not taken seriously afterwards since some men seemed to have labeled her, "the woman who makes films about kids." Another woman said,

"Of course, film school is sexist and racist; it's just a mini-society."

UCLA also was criticized for admitting very few black students  into the Ph.D. program in film criticism. I was told that as a result, there are not enough black film critics in Los Angeles and black filmmakers have to rely on white critics to interpret their work, which is problematic because white critics are not entirely familiar with African American culture. In addition to citing the lack of black film critics, some women mentioned the lack of black faculty members in UCLA's School of Theatre Arts. Black filmmakers trained at UCLA, such as Haile Gerima, Charles Burnett, Ben Caldwell, and Larry Clark, have contributed substantially to the university's reputation by receiving international acclaim for their films, but the faculty's composition does not reflect their contributions. In fact, some of the women believe that the faculty felt threatened by black male students in the late 60s and early 70s and therefore began to accept more black women than men into the graduate program in the mid-70s. Many women mentioned a shift from the mid-70s to the present from predominantly men to predominantly women black students.

The women told me that they often rely on each other for support in order to endure a stressful university environment. From working on each other's films to sharing plans and goals, they provide a mutual sense of community. However, a few women currently on campus said there is less group orientation among black women at UCLA now than in the 1970s, in part because they receive support from other students, both white and black, and do not experience the hostility that many of the first black women students encountered. Several factors may be responsible for the decrease in group cohesion. White students may now be more receptive to studying with black students; few black women are on campus at once since many take leaves of absence or hold jobs while studying; and there is more emphasis on individual work now than there was in the 1960s and 70s when students dedicated themselves to group activity. Nevertheless, many of the black women who met while studying filmmaking continue to work on films together, both before and after receiving their degrees.

All of the women are pursuing careers in film or video production. The main obstacle they face is lack of financial backing for their work. It is extremely difficult for them to finance even their student films and videotapes, most of which cost between $5,000 and $12,000. The universities provide some loans; otherwise, projects are completely student financed. (USC, unlike UCLA, does pay for raw film stock and processing.) Many students hold jobs and channel all their earnings into their school film and video projects; as a result, other areas of their lives may suffer. One woman told me that her car had been repossessed, and while working on a film, she would feed her crew but go home and  realize she could not afford to feed her family. Like other students in similar straits, she decided to take a leave of absence from the university and spend a longer time completing the MFA.

Financial difficulties continue after students earn their degrees. Some of the women I talked to work at clerical jobs, sometimes with temporary agencies that allow for flexibility when filming or researching a project. Other women use their film and video production skills in freelance work or to work for community centers. Still others work in the film industry, at jobs that do not fulfill their goals but may lead to advancement. They also pursue grants as a way to fund films; some women have received grants that contributed significantly to the production of their films. Others look for sponsors to provide money to complete a film.

Career goals expressed by the women include producing or directing feature length films, teaching filmmaking at the university level while making films, owning a production company, making ethnographic films, writing screenplays, using video in conjunction with international law, and doing "guerilla filmmaking" in the streets. The women voiced varying opinions about whether their proximity to Hollywood could help them achieve their goals. Some women said they had little or no interest in working in the Hollywood industry:

"To work here would be very difficult unless you want to get involved in the commercial aspect of video and film and make very slick, computerized products."

"Los Angeles has a deteriorating effect on artists."

"I'm trying to undo the damage [Hollywood] is doing, to be an alternative, because the images Hollywood is putting out are negative and unreal. They may operate under the premise that it's pure entertainment, which I don't believe. There's no such thing. So I really feel that I'm countering Hollywood."

"I don't feel Hollywood is going to create positive images of black people. They haven't done it historically, and I don't see them doing it presently or in the future, and so that's up to us; we have to do it."

One woman thought that being close to Hollywood helps independent filmmakers because moviegoers in the area who lose interest in commercial "murder and space stories" tend to come to theatres that show independent films.

Other women felt that Hollywood jobs provided them the opportunity to use their film and video production skills, gain experience, make contacts, and perhaps advance into producing or directing jobs. Some told me that they envisioned themselves treating their preferred subjects in films made on the side, separately from any work done for the Hollywood studios. However, other women hoped to make the films they desired within the system, although they were aware of difficulties they might encounter, as indicated by this statement made by a women who works for a Hollywood studio now:

"I had always heard that politics were so important in Hollywood, but I was not prepared for this, or for the amount of sexism. It's absolutely incredible. The old boys' club is very tight; deals are made on racquetball courts, friendships are established [in restaurants], and decisions are made white water rafting ... It's very difficult for a woman, a black woman, especially someone outside of the Hollywood community, to participate in the kinds of activities that have already been set up. A lot of these boys went to school together, their fathers knew each other or they served as pages together at NBC before civil rights came in and black people became pages too. These relations form the foundation for commercial products. I think you might be able to permeate that system and then you might be able to be assimilated. But you have to ask whether that's what you want to do. What you have to become in order to do that is not necessarily what you intended to be. You always have to keep sight of why you came here, why you wanted to get involved in the first place. I have yet to answer how I see myself fitting in there."

One of the major reasons that some of the filmmakers want to work within the Hollywood system is to obtain wide distribution for their films, for without a Hollywood company distributing a film, it is extremely difficult to give it national theatrical release. Many of the women told me that they want to reach as many people as possible with their films, and they feel that their films have universal appeal:

"My films will have black characters and deal with concerns of the black community, but they'll be universal since they'll deal with people trying to attain self-fulfillment, with friendship, male-female relations, and growing pains. It's important to visualize myself and my people, so of course I'll use black characters, but it's also important for me to deal with issues important to all of us, whether they're political, emotional, or psychological."

"I want to use the specifics I come out of and be universal as well. I'm interested in reaching as many people as are interested in creating change. Hopefully what I say will be of some kind of value."

"I think you will reach a larger audience with whatever you want to do or say through a commercial vehicle. I hope that what I'll be able to do is present people on the screen who maybe haven't gotten there before, stories, etc. There are lives I've encountered that are worthy of films."

"My films will be just as much for whites as for blacks, like instructional pieces for people who haven't been exposed to us."

"I think it's important for non-blacks people to learn about black heritage."

Some of the women belong to black filmmakers' cooperatives and are using alternative types of distribution; others have distribution companies handling their films. The majority distribute their films themselves since the cost of making multiple prints for distribution companies is prohibitive. Their films have been seen in festivals, schools, universities, libraries, community centers, and on television. Many women told me that they will continue to prioritize black community organizations in screenings since the black community is their primary audience.

The African women plan to distribute their films theatrically and on television in their countries as well as internationally. Theatres already exist throughout Nigeria and Cameroon, although so far they have been showing U.S. and other foreign films. Anne Ngu told me that if the official censors in Cameroon accept her films, the theatres must screen it; theatre owners cannot reject a film because they fear it will be unprofitable. Distribution in Nigeria is complicated by the diversity of Nigerian cultures and languages, according to Ruby Bell-Gam:

"In Nigeria alone we have hundreds of languages. In some parts of Nigeria, from one town to the next, people don't understand each other's languages. The culture I portray in my film may not apply to all of Nigeria ... Most people in Nigeria understand and speak Pidgin English; so I'd like to make films in Pidgin. It may be the most effective language for communication in Nigeria."

In rural areas without theatres, Bell-Gam told me, there are town halls where films can be shown, as well as more affluent people who might be willing to use their large compounds to show films to the villagers.

Films included in the following discussion are categorized according to the themes of African heritage, black solidarity, black women's experiences, and influential black people.  This article is intended to be descriptive rather than analytical. My purpose is to provide exposure to black women filmmakers by describing their work and ideas, and I leave it to others to analyze the films discussed here.


A number of the films deal with aspects of black Americans' African heritage, and several filmmakers identified this as one of their major interests. African heritage has been a recurrent theme in black arts over the years. As C.W.E. Bigsby writes,

"For the Black American, that past lies distantly and ambiguously in Africa, and for both the First Renaissance, inspired by Richard Wright's Native Son, but coming into its own in the 1950s, 1960s, and 1970s, it was a vital world of myth and fact, a crucial key to private and public meaning." (C.W.E. Bigsby, The Second Black Renaissance: Essays in Black Literature, Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1980, p. 9.)

A poem by Margaret Danner, "And Through the Caribbean Sea," is cited by Don L. Lee as an example of poetry infused with Africa:

"We, like shades that were first conjured up by an African witch doctor's ire, (indigo for the drum and the smoke of night, tangerine for the dancing smudged fire) have been forced to exist in a huge kaleidoscope world. We've been shifting with time and sifting through space, at each whimsical turn of the hands that have thrown the Kaleidoscope, until any pattern or place or shade is our own ..." (Margaret Danner in "Toward a Definition: Black Poetry of the Sixties" by Don L. Lee, in The Black Aesthetic, edited by Addison Gayle, Jr., New York: New American Library, 1971.)

Africa is an integral part of many black works in all the arts. For example, in prose, Toni Morrison's Song of Solomon revolves around the tale of slaves who escaped their bondage by leaping from the fields and flying back to Africa. Examples in painting are Dan Concholar's "Series of Africa #2," and James Lesesne Wells' block print, "African Phantasy."

Films made by African American women who are exploring aspects of their African heritage include YOUR CHILDREN COME BACK TO YOU and A DIFFERENT IMAGE, both by Alile Larkin, VARNETTE'S WORLD: A STUDY OF A YOUNG ARTIST, by Carroll Blue, and FORWARD EVER, by Pamela Jones.

YOUR CHILDREN COME BACK TO YOU has been seen in cities throughout the States and in Paris, Cannes, the Netherlands (on television and in several cities), and England. The film depicts a young black girl's, Tovi's, struggle to choose between two worlds: the material comfort of life with her aunt, who represents conformity to U.S. bourgeois values, and the poverty of her stepmother, who represents Pan-Africanism. Both women want to care for Tovi while her father is a freedom fighter in Africa. Tovi's confusion is expressed when she relates her dream about a country where black people can live freely, but she supposes that the country "would be dirty." After vacillating between the two lifestyles, Tovi learns that her father has been killed and she chooses Pan-Africanism in the hope that black people may have a brighter future.

The film weaves aspects of African heritage into the narrative by including African fabrics and patterns in Tovi's stepmother's home and African tales that Tovi is told. The film is 27 minutes, in 16mm black and white, and has a narrative structure, although it contains more ambiguity than the classical Hollywood narrative. Individual sequences, and the film as a whole, do not end in strong closure. Tovi's struggle to understand the complexities of the adult world are not over-simplified; rather, the film's loose ends indicate that there are no easy answers. As Larkin, who has an MFA from UCLA, told me:

"I want to make images that cause us to examine ourselves and our experiences, the positive and the negative ... I don't want to provide the answer. My films remain open at the end; the problems still exist, and we have to struggle to overcome them, as opposed to a happy ending where you can go home knowing everything was resolved in the film so you don't really have to deal with it."

A DIFFERENT IMAGE, Larkin's second film, tells the story of Alana, an African American woman who attempts to define herself according to her own standards of beauty, based on African women's styles, rather than on U.S. notions of femininity. Her practical clothing and confident body language are contrasted with images of women as sex objects on billboards and in Playboy magazine. Alana turns to African standards of beauty to free herself from the constraints imposed on U.S. women by rigid codes governing "ladylike" behavior. Alana's nonconformity causes her to be misunderstood by almost everyone, including her best friend, a young man who is unsure how to interpret her behavior.

A montage sequence of African women who appear proud and independent sharpens the contrast with U.S. images of passive women, almost always white, used in advertisements. A DIFFERENT IMAGE is in 16mm color, 51 minutes, and has a narrative structure with unique elements such as a montage sequence of African women with rhythmic and graphic editing that breaks conventions of continuity editing and adds to the film's individuality. Like YOUR CHILDREN COME BACK TO YOU, A DIFFERENT IMAGE is open-ended; the issues raised by the film are not resolved. Larkin has found that audience members frequently want to discuss the film after seeing it, so she has written a discussion guide. A DIFFERENT IMAGE has been screened at Filmex in Los Angeles, where it was named runner-up for best short film of 1982, as well as in several other U.S. and English cities.

African heritage will be explored again in Larkin's next film, ABENA'S WINDOW, part of which will be set in Ghana during the slave trade. Larkin described it as dealing with infertility both literally and as a metaphor for black people's inability to produce in oppressive American society.

VARNETTE'S WORLD: A STUDY OF A YOUNG ARTIST is a documentary about a black woman artist, Varnette Honeywood, who lives and works in Los Angeles. This film was made by Carroll Blue, who has an MFA from UCLA.  Honeywood talks about her life and art, including a trip she made to Africa for a convention of black artists. She describes the influence of African art on African American art, particularly in the use of bright colors, which are evident in her own art depicting people and scenes from the black community in wall murals and paintings that joyously affirm childhood playfulness and community cohesion. Honeywood values her trip to Africa for strengthening her understanding of her African heritage and for introducing her to many other black artists. The film is in 16 mm color, 26 minutes long, and is highly polished technically and artistically. Honeywood's voice over describing her life and thoughts accompanies images of her community, while music from the black church and community forms an integral part of the soundtrack. VARNETTE'S WORLD won the Gold Hugo award at the Chicago International Film Festival in 1979. It has been seen on national television in the United States, England, and Sweden, as well as in screenings in the Netherlands, France, and England.

FORWARD EVER, a work in progress by Pamela Jones, will be a three-part documentary about the historical struggle for Pan-Africanism among black people throughout the world. The first part will show the ancient history of Africa and the early struggle to unify the continent, ending with the European invasions and colonization. The second part documents the efforts of American black people to organize support for Pan-Africanism. The third part will be a perspective on the international struggle to throw off imperialism and class oppression.

Part of the completed footage, shot in 1978, follows a young black organizer for the All-Africa People's Revolutionary Party as he travels through Washington, D.C. urging black people to attend the annual African Liberation Day rally. The film is shot in 16mm black and white. The completed footage is cinema verité combined with documentary footage of civil rights marches and speeches. The cinema verité style and the editing convey the spontaneity involved in grassroots organizing, for the organizer has to adjust his persuasive arguments for everyone he speaks to on the streets, and many are unfamiliar with concepts of Pan-Africanism. His enthusiasm and personal touches make him fascinating to watch.

These four films share a curiosity about and respect for the African side of African American heritage. They indicate ways that Africa continues to be relevant to African Americans, providing role models, artistic inspiration, and hope for a better future for black people throughout the world.

Several other films concerned with African heritage that I was unable to see deserve mention. Mildred "Imelda" Richard's BEEN HERE BEFORE is, according to the filmmaker, about different types of white oppression of black people that have prevented black men from communicating with black women over the ages. It moves from 18th century Ghana where black people are kept captive in chains, to a plantation where black men and women are separated by law, to a jazz club in the 1950s where black people are destroyed by drugs, prostitution, and murder, to a semi-documentary in L.A.'s Jefferson High School where the system denies black students access to higher education.

Barbara McCullough's WATER RITUAL #1: AN URBAN RITE OF PURIFICATION incorporates African spiritualism and ritual in its poetic treatment of a woman's relationship to her environment. The film has been controversial because it depicts the woman urinating. McCullough explained that the woman symbolizes all Third World people who are displaced in the world and forced to live according to values that are not their own, and the act of urination symbolizes the woman coming to grips with her cultural confusion by dispelling her frustration in order to turn her attention to creating a better society.

Julie Dash's DIARY OF AN AFRICAN NUN, based on a short story by Alice Walker, concerns a black nun's conflict over the concept of a white God.

ONE, a dance film by Pamela Jones, deals with an African American dancer who is insecure about her talent and falls during a performance. Through a shift in time and space, she suddenly finds herself in Africa surrounded by a group of women who sing to her and strengthen her. These same women are also African American women in the dancer's audience, who applaud her performance. As Jones told me,

"The same women are repeated in different places in history, culture, time and space. We're all one person in a way."

Jones is currently working on a film about African American coal miners in the 1930s that will draw the link between black miners in South Africa and the United States.

Africa also occupies a central position in three films made by African women studying at UCLA: AFRICAN WOMAN U.S.A., by Ijeoma Iloputaife, MY CHILD, THEIR CHILD, by Ruby Bell-Gam, and LITTLE ONES, by Anne Ngu.

In her film, Iloputaife, from Nigeria, portrays the narrow-mindedness and abuse encountered by an African woman studying dance at a U.S. university. She receives a long-awaited work permit, but has difficulty finding a job. At a job interview, a white male executive leafs absentmindedly through her portfolio while asking inane questions, such as,

"Wasn't Idi Amin the president of Nigeria?"

He ignores her answers, and finally offers her a job far beneath her qualifications. The sequence captures the insular attitude of many U.S. people who do not try to learn about foreign cultures because they assume they already have sufficient knowledge. The African woman's final abuse occurs when an African American man, who had earlier identified himself as a talent scout offering to further her dancing career, forces his way into her apartment while she is out and rapes her daughter.

Iloputaife described the film as being, at one level, about mistakes made by foreigners because of cultural differences. The American job interviewer shows his ignorance by sticking to preconceived notions about Nigeria. The woman, in turn, trusts the "talent scout" because she assumes that people tell the truth about themselves. When he attacks her daughter, he shows his disregard for their shared heritage; instead of helping his people, he takes advantage of them. Iloputaife drew a parallel to some Third World educated people who, rather than use their education for their people's benefit, work for personal gain at others' expense.

The film contains some complex images and techniques, including a sequence in which the child watches an old Hollywood film about the Biblical story of Lot in which a man rapes a woman. The sequence simultaneously foreshadows the child's fate, indicates the historical pervasiveness of rape, and illustrates Hollywood's glib treatment of the crime. By contrast, the child's rape is brutal and terrifying. The film ends with multiple images of the African woman running down the night street in anger while her screams reverberate. AFRICAN WOMAN, U.S.A. is in 16mm color and 30 minutes long, and has been seen on network television in Nigeria.

MY CHILD, THEIR CHILD was made by Ruby Bell-Gam, another Nigerian woman studying at UCLA. The film offers a fictional story of a woman struggling against unfair child custody customs in Nigeria. Her ex-husband has custody of their young son, whom she can see only on the last day of every month. She defies her ex-husband by bringing her son to her home earlier than the designated day. That evening, she still has her son and defiantly ignores the ringing phone which signals her ex-husband's anger.

MY CHILD, THEIR CHILD is a ten-minute, Super-8 color film with distinctly African qualities. In addition to the fact that it deals with a Nigerian situation and is set in that country, its construction seems influenced by Bell-Gam's culture. African music, for example, plays an active role in the film. As Bell-Gam told me,

"In this film, I tried to use music for expression. We use music a lot in my culture. When my actress cries, you don't hear her cry, but the music is a lament. The Africans who've seen the film like it very much; they say it is very African."

The film, in fact, uses very little dialogue; it communicates with images and music. In addition Bell-Gam cast mostly Africans in the film in order to have characters with African voices and mannerisms which, she told me, are distinct. So even though the film was shot in Los Angeles, it successfully conveys an impression of Africa. 

LITTLE ONES was made by Anne Ngu, a woman from Cameroon who is also studying filmmaking at UCLA. The film depicts an African woman's grief after experiencing a stillbirth. The poem on the soundtrack addresses the dead infant, telling how it has hurt its parents by rejecting life; yet they understand its reluctance to enter a world where children are the victims of brutality, starvation, racism, and war. LITTLE ONES (super-8 color, ten minutes) communicates lyrically through the poem, written by the filmmaker's husband, and through expressive images. Personal images, such as the woman's mourning her dead child at its grave, are juxtaposed with still photos of starving, injured, arid dying children from around the world; personal and political issues become entwined. Ngu told me that she envisions the film as important to women who have experienced stillbirths by helping them work through their feelings. She intends to distribute it in Cameroon. Currently, Ngu is working on a videotape about a Cameroonian naming ceremony.


Many of the films I saw, while they do not concern Africa, nevertheless treat the theme of solidarity among black people. Black nationalism, like Africa, has found recurrent expression in black arts. For example, Margaret Walker's poem, 'We Have Been Believers," includes the lines:

"We have been believers believing in our burdens and our demigods too long. Now the needy no longer weep and pray; the long-suffering arise, and our fists bleed against the bars with a strange insistency." (Margaret Walker, "We Have Been Believers" in From the Dark Tower: Afro-American Writers 1900 to 1960," by Arthur P. Davis, Washington, D.C.: Howard University Press, 1974.)

Several other poets who have written about black solidarity and revolt are Don L. Lee, Sonia Sanchez, Imamu Amiri Baraka, and Nikki Giovanni. An example from the visual arts is a silk screen print by Barbara J. Jones entitled "Your Brother's Keeper," which portrays in vivid black, purple, orange, and yellow, determined black faces, clenched fists, guns, and the words, "Resist law and order in a sick society."

A film that expresses the desire for worldwide black solidarity is by Karen Guyot, who has a B.A. in Art from UCLA. Entitled PAS SI BÔ (Haitian Creole for "not so good"), it uses a montage of still photographs, advertisements, and animation combined with live action footage and emphasizes the discrepancy between the luxurious lives led by tourists in the Bahamas and the lives of the island's inhabitants. Billed as a paradise for tourists, the islands are bleak for their own people. Slick ads for vacations in the Bahamas are juxtaposed with images of poverty; the words, "It's better in the Bahamas," appear three times with increasing irony. A small animated black waiter walks endlessly across the screen while images of tourists relaxing appear behind him. Intermittent black and white still photos show a black woman on the beach tossing her hair back glamorously, but she finally rejects the tourists' superficial lifestyle to run, in color, to the shantytown where the island's black people live. The soundtrack consists of ocean waves, clinking glasses, and party noises that gradually are drowned out by drum beats.

Guyot told me,

"People visiting the islands just see glamour. The woman in the film can be interpreted as a beautiful tourist or as a native who runs back to shantytown. The message is that everyone is in the same situation; the tourists are no better than the poor people, although tourists ignore that reality to live in a fantasy world. If you're a tourist, don't just think that's all there is. You shouldn't just look at the glamorous sections of a town; look at the poverty as well."

The film is in l6mm and three and a half minutes long. Guyot told me that she likes to make short films that come right to the point and that communicate universally with images. PAS SI BÔ has been seen at festivals in New York, Chicago, Michigan, and Los Angeles, where it won honorable mention at the 1982 Black Talkies on Parade festival.

Black people's united stand against police brutality is the theme of Carmen Coustaut's film, JUSTIFIABLE HOMICIDE, and other filmmakers expressed interest in confronting the issue in future films. JUSTIFIABLE HOMICIDE was inspired by, but does not attempt to recreate, an actual incident of police brutality — the Terence Johnson case in Prince George's County, Maryland. Coustaut's film shows two white policemen accost a black teenager who is washing clothes at a laundromat with his brother. They frisk him, taunt him with a knife, and finally point a gun at him while he lies handcuffed on the ground. His brother protects the youth by pulling a gun and shooting the policeman, only to be taken into custody himself. In a show of solidarity, one of a group of black onlookers raises his clenched fist in salute to the arrested youth.

The film is in 16mm black and white, five minutes long. Remarkable for its concise imagery and editing. JUSTIFIABLE HOMICIDE is influenced by Coustaut's training at USC, where she received an MFA in cinema production in 1982. She told me that her filmmaking differs from what she has observed as the UCLA style. At USC, she said, she was given more rigid specifications for films than are students at UCLA. USC emphasizes the dominant narrative style and requires that films be short and tightly structured, while,  according to Coustaut, UCLA students, allowed to make longer films, have more room for experimentation and more time to convey their messages. JUSTIFIABLE HOMICIDE has been shown in Chicago, Washington, D.C., Nigeria, and Los Angeles, where it won second place at the Black Talkies on Parade festival in 1982.

Melvonna Ballenger's RAIN offers a poetic portrayal of a young woman's growing political awareness. The woman, a clerk typist, is released from the drudgery of her job when she meets a man distributing leaflets on a rainy day. The encounter starts to politicize her, and her life gains new meaning as she devotes herself to social causes. A lyrical mood is created with her recitation about rain on the soundtrack. RAIN is in super-8 and received an honorable mention at Los Angeles' Black Talkies on Parade festival in 1982.

Another aspect of many black people's shared experience is presented in Stormé Bright's videotape, THE SINGLE PARENT: IMAGES IN BLACK, a documentary in which black single parents discuss their feelings about raising children alone. They talk candidly in a group meeting and in individual interviews about problems they have had, as well as positive experiences. This 21-minute videotape is being used as a teaching aid in the California university system and circulates among women's groups and other interested people. Bright, who has an MFA from UCLA, is currently working on two videotapes which will further explore group issues: SUPERSTITIONS IN A SUPERSTRUCTURE will examine professional athletes' superstitions and WHOSE CHILD? will discuss the strength of the extended family.


Another theme that occurs frequently is the exploration of black women's experiences and identities. Books written by and about black women include Zora Neale Hurston's Their Eyes Were Watching God, Toni Morrison's The Bluest Eye and Sula, Toni Cade Bambara's Gorilla My Love, and Alice Walker's The Color Purple. Of the films already discussed, many incorporate the theme of women's experiences:

*  YOUR CHILDREN COME BACK TO YOU portrays two women of different generations who live without men and who try to provide what they each perceive as the best environment for a little girl.
*  A DIFFERENT IMAGE revolves around Alana's attempt to define herself as a strong, independent woman, although she must constantly fight sexist treatment and pressures to conform.
*  VARNETTE'S WORLD: A STUDY OF A YOUNG ARTIST documents the life of an independent black woman artist: her past struggle to achieve her goals, her current work with the community, and her personal fulfillment through art.
*  BEEN HERE BEFORE concerns the relations between black men and women in different cultures and times.
*  WATER RITUAL #1: AN URBAN RITE OF PURIFICATION depicts a woman's spiritual communion with her environment.
*  DIARY OF AN AFRICAN NUN concerns a black woman's doubts about a white God.
*  ONE is about black women lending support to one another over the ages.
*  AFRICAN WOMAN U.S.A. explores a woman's encounter with sexism, the bond between mother and daughter, friendship between women, and rape as seen through a woman's eyes.
*  MY CHILD, THEIR CHILD illustrates inequality to women under patriarchal customs and one woman's experience.
*  LITTLE ONES deals with a woman coming to terms with a stillbirth.
*  PAS SI BÔ shows the superficiality of women in travel advertisements and calls for black women to acknowledge their shared roots.
*  RAIN portrays a woman making changes in her life to find fulfillment.
*  THE SINGLE PARENT: IMAGES IN BLACK includes women who discuss raising children without men.

Three additional films that explore black women's experiences are SO YOU WANT TO BE AN ACTRESS, EVA'S MAN, and NAPPY-HEADED LADY. SO YOU WANT TO BE AN ACTRESS, by Ivy Sharpe, deals with the bias against black actors. It presents a fictional portrayal of a middle-aged black woman who, after having been a fairly successful stage actress in New York, moves to Los Angeles to act in films. While she dresses for the day she talks about the difficulty of being black in Hollywood where black actors have few parts. Juxtaposed against her monologue are still photos from Hollywood films showing white stars who set the standard for beauty, as well as black women playing servants and mammies. In a poignant moment, the woman combs her hair to look like Garbo's in an effort to conform to white standards. The woman reveals that her favorite role was Blanche DuBois in a black acting company's production of A Streetcar Named Desire. She seems to slip in and out of playing Blanche, and it becomes apparent that, like Blanche, she has delusions about her life; rather than support herself as an actress, she has had to turn to prostitution to survive.

The film is in super-8, color, and 11 minutes long. Sharpe told me that her script is based partly on interviews with the actress who plays the woman in her film. A Hollywood actress herself, she talked to Sharpe about the treatment received by black actors over the decades. Sharpe organized and added fictional elements to the interview material, and then shot the film as if it were an interview taking place in the woman's apartment. The result is a blend of documentary and fiction with a feeling of spontaneity. According to Sharpe, her film is about all people who follow a dream, and more specifically, about assimilation. How do black women end up perceiving themselves after adopting white U.S. thought and trying to look like white movie stars?

EVA'S MAN, based on a novel by Gayle Jones, was made by Anita Addison. The film treats a black woman, Eva, who kills her lover.  She refuses to speak to a white psychiatrist who questions her about her motives, so he leaves her with a tape recorder to confide in. In flashbacks, we see the abuse Eva suffered at the hands of a husband and two lovers.

Addison's film is in super-8, black and white, and 13 minutes long. Shifts in space and time give it a surreal quality that conveys Eva's state of mind. Music is also used effectively to evoke a range of feelings, from eerie to romantic to frenzied. Part of the music is original composed by Addison in collaboration with a musician; the rest is by Rhasaan Roland Kirk, Pharaoh Sanders, and Santana.

NAPPY-HEADED LADY, a work in progress by Melvonna Ballenger, will portray a young black woman growing up in the 1960s who rebels against her parents' desire to have her hair straightened, preferring an Afro hairstyle instead. The film will explore the effects of white standards of beauty on black women's self-concept. Documentary footage from the 1960s will connect the protagonist's struggle to the nationwide black movement. Shot in l6mm in black and white, the film is planned to run about 30 minutes.


A final theme is that of famous or influential black people. Among black works of art that pay tribute to influential black people, there is Sofia Sanchez's poem entitled "a/coltrane/poem" in her collection, We A BaddDDD People, Aaron Douglas' painting, "Portrait of Dr. Mary McCleod Bethune," and the Kuumba Theatre Company of Chicago's production, A Little Dreamer: The Life of Bessie Smith, by Ed Shock1ey.

VARNETTE'S WORLD: A STUDY OF A YOUNG ARTIST, already discussed, pays homage to Varnette Honeywood for her talent and her contributions to L.A.'s black community. Carroll Blue, who made VARNETTE'S WORLD, has been working on a film about Roy de Carava, a still photographer whose photographs were included in Steichen's "Family of Man" exhibit and who was the first black photographer to be awarded a Guggenheim grant. Entitled CONVERSATIONS WITH ROY DE CARAVA, it was funded through WNET's television laboratory.

Barbara McCullough is working on a documentary about Horace Tapscott, a black jazz musician who chose to remain in Los Angeles after achieving national acclaim in order to use his musical talent to help the community he grew up in, McCullough's film is titled HORACE TAPSCOTT, MUSICAL GRIOT. The film will explore jazz in LA. from the mid-40s to the present as experienced by Tapscott.

Vicky Thomas is making a videotape about a black minister in Los Angeles to document the dedication and influence of ministers in the black community. She wants to explore the power of Los Angeles' ministers to work for change, as in their active protest against the L.A. police department's use of the choke hold.

For now, we must not wait for black women's films to obtain widespread distribution; their films are available for rent, prints can be bought, and new projects can be sponsored.

These alternatives to Hollywood avoid the avant-garde trap of appealing only to an elite audience; the films are both original and accessible. All of the filmmakers told me that they use forms and techniques that allow their films to be easily understood and enjoyed by working class audiences. The women are critical of filmic experimentation that results in obscurity. As one woman told me,

"I ask myself, will my grandmother or mother or sisters understand this and relate to it?"

The women feel free to use classical Hollywood narrative techniques as well as to experiment, as long as the films convey their intended ideas. Whether they choose to work within the narrative, documentary, or experimental modes, or any combination of these, they are committed to communicating clearly.


J. Edward Atkinson, Ed., Black Dimensions in Contemporary American Art (New York: New American Library, 1971).

C.W.E. Bigsby, The Second Black Renaissance: Essays in Black Literature (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1980).

Arthur P. Davis, From the Dark Tower: Afro-American Writers 1900 to 1960 (Washington, D.C.: Howard University Press, 1974).

Dexter Fisher and Robert B. Stepto, eds., Afro-American Literature: The Reconstruction of Instruction (New York: Modern Language Association, 1978).

Addison Gayle, Jr., Ed., The Black Aesthetic (Garden City, New York: Doubleday & Company, 1971).

Alain Locke, Ed., The Negro in Art (New York: Hacker Art Books, 1971).

Roger Whitlow, Black American Literature (Chicago: Nelson Hall, 1973).


*  Anita Addison, 544-G East Magnolia, Burbank, CA 91501 213/468-5914
*  Ruby Bell-Gam (Iyam), Theatre Arts Dept., UCLA, Los Angeles, CA 90024
*  Stormé Bright, PD Box 1093, La Habra Heights, CA 90631
*  Karen Guyot, 2103 W. 109th, Los Angeles, CA 90047
*  Pamela Jones, 32081/2 Stocker, Los Angeles, CA 90008, 213/874-2200
*  Barbara McCullough, P0 Box 35462, Los Angeles, CA 90035, 213/734-1373
*  Mildred Richard, 2 Breeze, #2, Venice, CA 90291, 213/399-6046
*  Vicky Thomas, 1021 Pointview, Los Angeles, CA 90035
*  Melvonna Ballenger, 31161/2 Stocker, #4, Los Angeles, CA 90008, 213/299-8955
*  Carroll Blue, 20491/2 South Holt, Los Angeles, CA 90034
*  Carmen Coustaut do Clemons, 1532 Swann, NW, Washington, DC 20009
*  Ijeoma Iloputaife, P0 Box 2584, Palos Verdes Peninsula, CA 90274
*  Alile Larkin, Alile Productions, 1283 S. LaBrea, Box 192 Los Angeles, CA 90019, 213/939-8909
*  Anne S. Ngu, 3155 Sepulveda, #2, West Los Angeles, CA 90034
*  Ivy Sharpe, 4223 Garthwaite, Los Angeles, CA 90008