I first heard of the film, Descent, at the 2010 National Council of Black Studies Conference. At a panel on popular culture and representation, a colleague presented an essay analysis of this moody, 2007 film starring Rosario Dawson, sparking an interest that I didn't follow up on until this Thanksgiving weekend. Needing to unwind after a day full of meetings with end-of-the-semester-anxiety-ridden undergraduates I picked up some guacamole hummus, tortilla chips, and two movies: Descent and Brown Sugar, the hip-hop rom-com I knew would take my mind off Dawson's rated NC-17 film, which promised to be profoundly disturbing.
Descent did not disappoint. Even without the spoiler of the NCBS presentation on the film and the back copy of the case, the atmosphere lets you know that at some point, the protagonist, Maya's life will be dramatically changed. Long, slightly shaky takes; rich, subtle lighting; and the lack of a consistent score to signal how one is supposed to feel create a sense of real-time and of discomfort as the viewer watches Maya move throughout her world. The intelligent, quiet-spirited, book-smart protagonist has a touch of sadness, but her smile and warmth throughout the opening scenes of the film indicate an openness to possibility. This innocent openness that leads her into a first cautious, then sweet courtship with a charming frat boy football player who first charms her, then rapes her, a trauma that she never fully confronts or processes. The stylistic elements of the film shift after this moment, indicating that Maya's entire world has changed. The coloring darkens, and scenes are separated by brief blackouts. Maya's barrage of reactions, from drawn, aching silence to drug and alcohol abuse to experiments in sexual play and domination to pure and utter rage offer a powerful and intentionally uncomfortable rendering of the complicated impact of sexual violence. Brought back into contact with her rapist through a TA position, she plots and executes her revenge. I won't spoil the culminating scene, as much as I would love to dissect the commentary that the graphic images provide on the making and subversion of gender, race, and sexuality.
Other reviews on this film have criticized it as too slow or as missing the opportunity to convey a serious portrayal of rape by collapsing into a simple story of revenge. I think that both of these perspectives miss the point. The slow development of the plot and the long takes enhance the feeling that everything in the film is happening in real-world time, a feeling that heightens the tension, anticipation, and the trauma. And as the title implies, Maya's revenge embarks her on a psychological descent. The vengeful satisfaction that the viewer expects as Maya seduces her rapist soon descends into a moment of deep tragedy, when it is clear that the replacement of one domination with another does not resolve her pain.
What I also find interesting is the film's exploration of race, ethnicity, and sexuality which are never “issues” in the film, but constantly inform its subtext. Initially, the clearly multi-racial Maya seems to live a post-racial existence. In the opening scene of the film, when young women who appear to be of a similar racial background as her attempt to engage her in ritual venting, she is unable to communicate with them in any way indicative of the sense of identification they clearly see with her. However, her experiences with a white professor, white friend, and initially Jared, indicate a sense of comfort with whites and confidence that she can be defined more by her character and abilities than by the meanings attached to her physicality. As Jared rapes her, he utters racial epithets, painfully initiating her into a racialized, gendered reality. Only after the rape do we see Maya interacting with other characters of color, frequenting a hip-hop club and developing a relationship with the DJ/drug-dealer/guardian angel Adrian who she enlists in her plan of revenge. We also see at least as many expressions of close physical intimacy and/or sexual activity between the same as well as opposite sex characters, indicating a sexual fluidity that never demands sharp definition.
My interest in the portrayal of race, gender, and sexuality in film is not always in the effort to identify problematic images or to label representations as positive or negative. I agree with neither the use of flat Black characters to signify the comedic, dangerous, inferior, or comforting presence or the idea that the use of Black actors in roles that “could have been written for a white actor” always signals an improvement. I would like to see more portrayals of Black characters in which their racial/ethnic identity is neither foundational nor dispensable. I would like to draw attention to Descent as a film in which race is integral and essential because it is part of life and of who the characters are, and that this does not negate the need to write, and convey a good story.
I know this review was a bit scholar-speakky, but these are the kinds of thoughts that Descent provoked. My comments won't always be this heavy. Check it out and let me know what you think!
Click photo above to view the trailer.
P.S. Dawson's acting is superb! Even the moments when you want to look away, you can't.