Sometimes my students and I get into lively discussions about popular movies featuring Black characters. When I ask critical questions about the mainstream media and motion picture industry's embrace of certain images of African American people (Why did Zoe Saldana have to run around in her panties for so much in Columbiana, and what does the gum-smacking, loud-talking, dragon-nailed Black receptionist at the police station say about what the makers really think about Black women? Why so much financial backing, media promotion, and industry award attention to films like The Help and Precious? Why does Tyler Perry get to make 50 melodramatic, poorly written, colored-girl-in-distress movies a year?) my students often challenge me in turn, shouldn't we support Black actors and filmmakers just because they are Black? Why do I have to take movies so seriously? Would I rather there were no movies with us in them at all? Don't white people make bad movies, poorly written movies, movies with stupid, stock, and stereotypical white characters as well?
Of course they do. But my argument is not between positive and negative images (God forbid I though the word positive when setting out to create a great character), but for balance. Yes, we should be able to be silly, sexualized, funny, vicious, shiftless, servile, but not more than we should also be able to be heroic, genuinely loving, sensitive, complex, multidimensional, human. And this is why I love, and constantly point students toward the Pan African Film Festival held in Los Angeles in February of every year. The fact is, we have all kinds of movies, they just don't get the play they deserve. And maybe that is what makes so many of these films so good; for the artists trying to get the stories made that the industry believes no one wants to see, dollars, Oscars, and product placement deals are simply not the goal. Movies are most often works of art and labors of love, though the intentions behind them, and the films themselves are mixed. There are movies that I am surprised slip in (I am reminded of the particularly painful experience of Suicide Dolls at last year's festival) but that's ok. In a collection of movies as large and diverse as that exhibited at the PAFF, there are bound to be some hits and misses, and there should be different things to appeal to all the different tastes of the Diaspora as well as the mix of Afro-Bohemian, funky artsy, chic Hollywood, buttoned-up scholar, and down-home South Central (Yes, I still call it South Central) that is the LA PAFF crowd.
I only make it out to PAFF a couple of times a year, so I am overwhelmed by the movie options available. While I could painstakingly research trailers and look for advance reviews, I often just step out on faith. I took a step in the right direction last night in choosing Yelling to the Sky, starring Zoe Kravitz, with a small role by Gabourey Sidibe. One of my favorite genres, coming of age, this film beautifully follows Sweetness O'Hara, a biracial teenager struggling to survive as her family (made up of her alcoholic father, psychologically withdrawn mother, and protective, pregnant older sister) collapses and re-knits itself together. Like many independent films, it moves slowly and save for a few memorable girl-fight scenes, it is not action-packed. You have to check yourself, realizing the ways in which modern mainstream media and film have corrupted your attention span before you can appreciate the tension of those drawn-out real-time moments and the complicated simplicity of one family's drama and its impact on a teenage girl. Sweetness turns to drug dealing to alleviate her from the humiliation of teenage poverty, drugs and alcohol to numb her pain, bullying to protect herself against those who once bullied her. And for the whole film, you are right with her, even as she makes choices you scream against from her shoulder. She is both an observer and a catalyst in the midst of her family's love and dysfunction. You don't know anything that she doesn't and you understand everything that she does. Zoe Kravitz carries the film so well that you completely forget the star parentage that may have drawn you to the short synopsis in the PAFF program. Whether she's being bitchy, destructive, high as a kite, or tender, you love her and are as scared for her as if she was your own little sister on that screen. Her father, played by Jason Clarke, is by turns terrifying and heartbreaking, and the chemistry between Zoe Kravitz and Antonique Smith as sisters struggling to survive their flawed family is perfect. I have two sisters, and from the wrestling and shouting to the fewer and more far between moments of tears and embraces, these two actresses capture the love between sisters which is so dense and powerful, it often has no choice but to be wordless.
Another great feature of PAFF, the film was followed by Q&A. While I like the Q&A, I often skip out on it when it seems like its going in the direction of a bunch of smart Black people showing how smart they are as they grill actors about elements of the film that were clearly beyond their decision-making power. But I stayed at this one when I saw that the screenwriter/director herself was taking questions. Victoria Mahoney was straightforward, honest, hilarious, and engaging, and she inspired me as she talked about the choices people had tried to push her into to make the film more “marketable”: making the story more about the white father than the brown girls; picking a big-name actor who she didn't want for a part; filling in more holes rather than trusting the audience's intelligence, patience, and ability to be touched by the story without knowing everything; and, my favorite, adding a voice-over the make the story seem like it was in retrospect, and adult looking back at a troubling time in her life. I got the very same advice as I wrote and rewrote my novel, Butterfly Jar. I wrote one particularly horrible draft full of phrases like “I would think back later” and “When I was older I would look back on this” and another book-ended by flash forwards when my protagonist is 26, before I decided that I could have a book about an 11 year old girl without specifically targeting a young adult audience. Yelling to the Sky made me more confident in my ultimate decision, that children and adolescents are valuable, interesting, complex emotional beings worthy of telling their own stories, from their own perspectives, that anyone can watch and find compelling.