The last Shades of Noir event was a panel discussion about Intersectionality in the film industry. We were joined by practitioners Grace Barber-Plentie, Joseph A Adesunloye and Laura Kirwan-Ashman.
Intersectionality itself has recently become a buzzword, and when that happens to a word, it loses its meaning, becoming simply a way of separating good from bad. For example “ hi, i’m an intersectional feminist and I like cats”,is a very likely online biography you may come across on social media and even online dating platforms like tinder or OkCupid. Making such academic words into a buzzword can reduce their importance. We have witnessed this happening with the word sexism and racism. You’re either sexist which means you’re a bad person, or you’re not, which would mean you’re a sensible person. To be intersectional is to admit to having an awareness of systematic oppressions, so how can a film be intersectional?
“Representation has to come from the source that it seeks to represent” – Laura Kirwan-Ashman
The quote above, an important point raised by Laura Kirwan-Ashman , one of the co-founders of Sorta Kinda Maybe Yea film collective, brings up one of the biggest issues in the film industry: the fact that the filmmakers are not diverse. The outcome might be a diverse image, representing people of all backgrounds and identities, but the characters will lack depth as the people who wrote their stories would have not had first hand experiences that real people could relate to. These characters and stories usually end up being based on stereotypes or caucasian actors playing roles of the characters of colour , and examples of these films are more than we could count. These examples include the Smart Asian exchange student in 16 Candles, the funny black friend that nobody remembers the name of, Mr. Yunioshi in Breakfast at Tiffany’s, the list goes on.
We are craving real stories coming from real people, because when the stories are told by the real people, that’s when they become truly an art piece. For example the play In Moonlight Black Boys Look Blue, which was adapted as the film Moonlight, was originally written as first hand experience of the writer, even though Barry Jenkins doesn’t identify as LGBT+ himself, he valued the importance of closely working with Tarell Alvin McCraney the original writer. Together they created a story that was so rich in concept and beautifully narrated, and the fact that two black men shared their stories and experiences is why this movie was so successful.
If we are aware that representation matters, then why isn’t it granted equally to everybody? We clearly know why.
We are not Begging
When the topic of representation came up at the event, Joseph A Adesunloye said “We are begging for representation, but we are not the minority…”. It is an obvious fact that people of colour are not the minority on the planet. However some of us who live in the western world have taken on the ideology that they are an ethnic minority. As people of colour we need to thrive from the cultural heritage we have, and stop seeing ourselves as the minority, because being viewed as the minority tends to show a lack of importance, especially under the utilitarian laws that are set.
It is also important for us to acknowledge that diversity in the media is an issue across the world, films are made in all countries, but many fail to paint a truly intersectional and multi-dimensional image of the lives of the real people.
As an example many films made in countries where homosexuality is illegal, the system fails filmmakers to showcase real people in their films. These false representations then lead into segregation and prejudice ideology.
We Are Here
Even Though there is a lack of diversity in the mainstream film industry, it doesn’t mean intersectional films are not being made. They are being made everyday by new generations of diverse film-makers. Young film makers of colour have always found ways of putting out their voices though many do not want to hear them.
At the event Grace Barber-Plentie provided us with a footage of The Watermelon Woman, a film made by Cheryl Dunye, a film all about the search for intersectionality. Another example is the short art film Free, White and 21 by the artist Howardena Pindell, which makes very controversial commentary on race and gender politics from the point of view of a black woman, commentary that even can be found controversial today. As she dresses up as a white woman and famously repeats racism comments that she and many black women continue to receive from white women about the erasure of their experiences.
Examples like Pindell and Dunye prove that the lack of diversity in the industry doesn’t stop filmmakers of colour, if anything it makes them stronger and more creative towards finding new ways of telling their stories. With the birth of online web series made by women of colour, we are now witnessing intersectional stories being told that more people can relate to. In a way we are paving the way for our own success, for example the webseries Ackee and the Saltfish by Cecile Emeke which has now been commissioned for TV. However as it was mentioned in the event, maybe it’s time to stop looking at the mainstream media as the best example of film, and give more attention to low funded and DIY films made by passionate young artists.
You can now view Intersectional Film’s Online Zine:
You might also like other SoN blogs on film:
A collective of POC film-making taking over a digital space “POC” showcasing People of Colour’s film and virtual reality work.
A communal meeting place for Black people to nurture the Black creative spirit, to facilitate connections and to realise the potentiality of a Black collective consciousness