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What makes a womanist film?

30 May 2017


1. From womanish. (Opp. of “girlish,” i.e. frivolous, irresponsible, not serious.) A black feminist or feminist of color. From the black folk expression of mothers to female children, “you acting womanish,” i.e., like a woman. Usually referring to outrageous, audacious, courageous or willful behavior. Wanting to know more and in greater depth than is considered “good” for one. Interested in grown up doings. Acting grown up. Being grown up. Interchangeable with another black folk expression: “You trying to be grown.” Responsible. In charge. Serious.

2. Also: A woman who loves other women, sexually and/or nonsexually. Appreciates and prefers women’s culture, women’s emotional flexibility (values tears as natural counterbalance of laughter), and women’s strength. Sometimes loves individual men, sexually and/or nonsexually. Committed to survival and wholeness of entire people, male and female. Not a separatist, except periodically, for health. Traditionally a universalist, as in: “Mama, why are we brown, pink, and yellow, and our cousins are white, beige and black?” Ans. “Well, you know the colored race is just like a flower garden, with every color flower represented.” Traditionally capable, as in: “Mama, I’m walking to Canada and I’m taking you and a bunch of other slaves with me.” Reply: “It wouldn’t be the first time.”

3. Loves music. Loves dance. Loves the moon. Loves the Spirit. Loves love and food and roundness. Loves struggle. Loves the Folk. Loves herself. Regardless.

4. Womanist is to feminist as purple is to lavender.”

The above opens Alice Walker’s book of essays, In Search of Our Mother’s Gardens, and much like most of the author’s work, is a quiet, understated revelation. Like some of the very best activists (and, in fact, like the ethos behind gal-dem), Walker could not see a space for herself in the second wave of the feminist movement, and so rather than conform and hang her head in silence, she created a space for herself. While I accept and use the label feminist, I find womanism to be a much more inclusive of queer and transgender women and non-binary people than traditional feminism, and the movement takes more of a community focus.

For the subject of my dissertation last year, I chose to investigate the relationship between womanism and film. Could it be considered that there is a womanist film theory in the same way that a feminist film theory has developed thanks to academics such as Laura Mulvey and Vivian Sobchack? What does a womanist film look like? What is a womanist film about? My thesis mainly focused on Steven Spielberg’s adaptation of Walker’s The Color Purple (spoiler alert: not a womanist film) and the ways in which Spielberg stuck to and erased the novel’s radically womanist content. But as well as this, I turned to works by black female directors such as Julie Dash, Kathleen Collins and Michele Parkerson to provide an alternative to Spielberg.

So, what exactly is a womanist film? Well, to pull apart Walker’s quote, a womanist film is one that is preoccupied with the subjective experience of being a black woman or non-binary person. But while these films are focused on the subjective experience of being a woman, they are larger than this. Taking the “it takes a village” motto literally, womanism is pre-occupied with their community, sometimes including men, “sexually and/or non-sexually”. That’s why, for example, Daughters of the Dust shows the experience not just of the women of the Gullah community, but also their husbands, brothers and sons. Women are placed first and foremost and are never defined entirely by the men in their lives. So while in Kathleen Collins’ Losing Ground, the protagonist Sara is affected by the actions of her awful husband Victor, she is able to live life and find herself out of his shadow.

Some of the most poignant scenes in Losing Ground are the ones that Sara spends with her mother, talking about everything and nothing; careers, love, sex and men. This is definitely one of the film’s strongest womanist traits and indeed one that runs through many of the very best womanist films – they show the ways in which women love and support each other. In Kasi Lemons’ Eve’s Bayou, it is the indiscretions of Eve’s father that affect that whole family, but Eve’s relationships with her mother, aunt and sister are absolutely crucial to the heart of the film.

The women in Daughters of the Dust are able to push through their collective and individual struggles together, and one of the things that bonds them is the unborn daughter of Eula, who narrates the story. Just as important to womanist films as showing black women engaging in non-sexual relationships are those where women are allowed to be sexual and free of judgement. Dee Rees coming-of-age story Pariah explores her protagonist Alike embracing her sexuality and coming into herself. Yet while the story is partially about Alike’s sexual relationships with women, it’s also about her non-sexual ones – is there anything more supportive and utterly womanist than the scene where her best friend Laura buys her a strap-on? Michelle Parkerson’s short Storme: Lady of the Jewel Box is another perfect example of womanist cinema: she allows her subject, Storme DeLaverie a rare luxury in the form of a space where she is allowed to speak and be herself. What’s radical about this film is the way that whilst dealing with someone highly involved in the LGBTQ community, Storme’s sexuality is never once raised in the film.

Ackee and Saltfish (via BFI)

Many people could argue that womanist cinema faded into obscurity after films like Daughters of the Dust and Losing Ground, but I believe that it’s still going strong. The womanist spirit is still there with the work of Cecile Emeke, particularly her Strolling and Ackee and Saltfish seasons, which gives black women a space to be open and themselves. And I’d argue that Just Another Girl on the IRT as just as feminist as any of the more “serious” films by black female directors – proven by its incredible soundtrack of black female rappers. And has anyone ever embodied the ideas of womanism – “loves music. loves dance.” like Chantel does through an incredible dance number in a party scene in the film?

At the time of writing my dissertation, I thought I’d never get to watch some of the films I wrote about. I lamented whilst watching Daughters of the Dust on the sole DVD that mysteriously appeared in my university’s library that I would probably never get to watch it on the big screen. And no matter how hard I searched, watching Collins’ masterpiece Losing Ground seemed nothing but a pipe dream. So I’m absolutely heartened to see so many of these womanist films being screened in the BFI’s Unbound: Visions of the black feminine season, which takes over the cinema for the month of June. Just like black women ourselves, womanism in cinema has grown and adapted to deal with the changing times, and in the Unbound season, the womanist spirit can be found flowing through every film.

This article is part of a series exploring the films that make up Unbound: Visions of the Black Feminine season at the BFI. As part of the season, gal-dem is hosting a day of short films and discussion. Tickets and the full programme can be found here.