#52FilmsByWomen: Daughters of the Dust

By Andrea Thompson

What with the first two movies for my #52FilmsByWomen project being rewatches, I knew it was time to watch something new. To truly make the third time the charm, I chose one of the most groundbreaking films I still hadn't seen, “Daughters of the Dust.”

That said, some of the ground broken with “Daughters of the Dust” is less an inspiration that an indictment. It was made in 1991, and it was apparently the first film directed by a black woman to receive a theatrical distribution in the U.S. Director Julie Dash would not go on to have the illustrious film career she earned, despite the near universal critical acclaim (the film has a rating of 97% on Rotten Tomatoes) “Daughters of the Dust” received.

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Because “Daughters” isn't just good, it's spectacularly good. Roger Ebert called in a “tone poem,” and it's quite accurate. Set in 1902, the films tells the story of the Peazant family in the isolated Gullah community on the islands off the South Carolina coast who still practice many of the customs and culture of their formerly enslaved ancestors. The family is experiencing a series of crises, the main one being the desire of many to immigrate to the north and embrace a more modern lifestyle. Many among the younger generations have already left and adopted many of the beliefs they've encountered, including Christianity, which is in stark contrast to the pagan traditions of the elders. Others have yet to make a decision about whether to leave or stay.

Watching it is really a marvel, and I am frankly baffled that Dash ever managed to get it made. The film is told in a nonlinear fashion, and is narrated by the yet unborn child of Eula Peazant (Alva Rogers), who has her own problems. When she was on the mainland, she was raped by a white man. We know the child she's carrying is her husband Eli's (Adisa Anderson), but they do not. Eli is struggling with his feelings of helplessness over being unable to avenge his wife. It's made him ashamed of himself, and he's transferred those feelings of shame to Eula. But as matriarch Nana Peazant (Cora Lee Day) points out, Eula never belonged to him, and her rapist didn't steal her. She's his wife, not his property.

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Eula is actually coping with her rape far better. She is the one who is able to speak the truth about how she and other black women move through the world weighed down by history and self-hatred. Unlike other movies that see black women permanently damaged and sidelined by their struggles, they are able to live with what's happened to them without being defined by it. This is due to the strength of Dash's filmmaking abilities, as she embraces a deeply feminine gaze, infusing her female characters with strength and beauty without idealizing them, just as she does for their lush surroundings. And why not? She's telling the story of her ancestors as a descendant of the Gullah culture who chose to leave for New York.

“Daughters of the Dust” has been experiencing a revival in the last couple of years, partly due to Beyonce's visual album “Lemonade.” The latter work was actually the reason I was able to see Dash herself speak about making “Daughters” at a screening of “Lemonade.” Dash related her desire to depict black women, especially former slaves, in a different, more accurate way. The director reminisced about the old photographs she discovered in her research, and how the long, flowing white dresses of the women in them were a far cry from the drab garb and head scarves audiences saw on-screen. She also wanted to acknowledge slavery's effects on the black body in a less exploitative fashion. In her film, we see no scars or marks from the lash. Instead, the older generations have permanently discolored hands from their labor on the indigo plantations.

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The fact that Dash was unable to have a long career in film isn't just deeply unfair, it's a tragedy. She has gone on to inspire so many, from the aforementioned Beyonce to Ava DuVernay, but she seems unable to have the career she was born for, while so many male directors are allowed to fail upward. And after inspiring so many others, here's hoping she'll soon be able to again dream on the big screen herself.

#52FilmsByWomen: The Babbadook

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By Andrea Thompson

For Week 2 of my #52FilmsByWomen project, I decided to do another rewatch. But where last week's viewing was about kicking off the project in a fun, lighthearted way, viewing the horror offering “The Babbadook” was about being made uncomfortable in entirely new ways.

Make no mistake, Jennifer Kent's “The Babbadook” aims to make you uncomfortable, and it should. In the tradition of classic horror, it uses the monstrous specter that may or may not be terrorizing widowed mother Amelia (Essie Davis) and her son Samuel (Noah Wiseman) as a vehicle for the more everyday pressures Amelia is subject to, which threaten to blossom into something truly horrific.

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When the movie starts, Amelia is already beginning to break under the weight of all the responsibilities she is expected to carry. As a carer for the elderly, she nurses others for a living, while at home she must provide all the financial, emotional, and physical support for her young, troubled son. But his difficulties are not the real reason Amelia seems to have trouble bonding with him. Seven years ago, she lost her husband Oskar in a car accident en route to the hospital to give birth to Samuel. Amelia has been unable to move on, and her child has become a living reminder of what she has lost. Samuel can sense this, and his behavorial issues can be traced directly back to this one day, his birthday, and his mother's inability to fully accept what happened.

Compounding Amelia's issues is the fact that she's struggling with the two of the most taboo subjects in modern society-death and abivalence about motherhood. You're not supposed to talk about people dying, and you're not supposed to admit you have difficulty truly loving and bonding with your child. When death occurs, people are expected to firmly adhere to the rituals around it, then move on. In regards to motherhood, you are not only expected to provide an endless reserve of unconditional love and care, you are supposed to do it effortlessly and without complaint.

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So when The Babbadook manifests via a terrifying children's book, it's a stand-in for not only her grief, but the mental illness that threatens to engulf her. Her isolation increases, as her work, Sam's school, the police, and even her sister seems uninterested in providing any real help. Only after her son and elderly neighbor Mrs. Roach tell her they love her unconditionally when she's at her worst is Amelia able to find the strength to fight the monster. It's no coincidence that both of them are also easily able to talk about uncomfortable topics. Mrs. Roach knows she needs support, and her son knows she needs saving.

Is the Babadook real? A shared delusion? Or just something that Amelia's mind has manifested? Much like the spinning top at the end of “Inception,” we'll never get an answer. Amelia may be able to build a happy life after her struggles, but there's no fairy tale ending. She'll have to cope with the effects for the rest of her life, but the point is that in the end she's able to have one again.

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Jennifer Kent, who also wrote the film in addition to directing, is able to very eloquently capture so many aspects of the female experience. She is able to not only capture but allow us to identify with Amelia as a single mother desperately trying to protect her son even as she herself feels increasingly vulnerable. Her transformation and possible possession by the Babadook is genuinely terrifying, and Kent's terrific filmmaking abilities make it and the buildup to it truly frightening and unsettling, rather than just another stereotypical caricature of a madness very specific to women. Often when male directors try to take on women's experiences, they result in supbar offerings that involve great skill but no real insight, with “The Neon Demon” or “mother!” being a few recent examples. But Kent is able to show us the worst case scenario of a mother-child relationship going south while keeping Amelia someone worth sympathizing with and investing in. Here's hoping more filmmakers take note of how to not just make a “strong female character,” but a good one.

#52FilmsByWomen: Look Who's Talking (1989)

By Andrea Thompson

When a film critic who specializes in writing about women in pop culture wants to start the new year off right, what exactly does she do? In my case, she decides to take the 52 Films By Women pledge, wherein the pledgee commits to watching at least one film a week that was directed by a woman.

But what to watch first? To kick off such a big undertaking, I wanted to watch something I knew would be fun, yet not too familiar. So I did what I usually do when I want film recommendations, and asked the ladies of Film Twitter for ideas. I soon got a lot of great ones, one of the most popular being Amy Heckerling's 1995 smash hit “Clueless.” It's one of those results that's hardly any less welcome for being predictable, but I know that movie a little too well (if that's even possible). And so much has been written about it, there hardly seemed more to add, what with there being an oral history now.

But I remembered enjoying another, lesser-known film Heckerling made between two of her most iconic ones, the aforementioned “Clueless” and “Fast Times at Rdgemont High,” which was the 1989 comedy “Look Who's Talking.” It was about a woman named Mollie, played by Kirstie Alley, who gets pregnant and rejected by her married lover, then connects with smooth-talking cab driver James, played by John Travolta. Providing commentary throughout (from womb to roughly toddler age) is Mollie's son Mikey, voiced by Bruce Willis, who doesn't even try to sound like a kid. Yet Mikey still remains an adorably watchable presence, even if babies hardly have to do more than just look cute on-screen to hold our attention.

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The movie was successful enough to spawn two sequels, each of which failed to fully capture what made the original so damn fun. Yet the first still retains its charm, albeit in a rather predictable way. Mollie is the funny, deeply imperfect heroine who can't seem to see that the guy who's perfect for her has been right in front of her the whole time. She and James come together, are in danger of breaking apart, then finally unite at the end. The journey may be familiar, but it has a few more unique touches than we typically see even today.

For one, there's Mollie's job. Mollie doesn't have a job that's overly glamorous or demeaning. She doesn't work at a restaurant, in event planning, fashion, or even a shiny media workplace. So nope, no concerns about publishing, the state of TV, and thank god, no women's magazine that purports to be feminist while reinforcing the same old regressive messages. So what exactly does she do? She's an accountant, and her job is just that, a job she's good at that allows her to earn a good living. Moving up or finding another profession isn't a concern for her.

And Albert (George Segal), that married lover of hers? He's an executive who's not only married, he has kids. Wow. Even when Carrie cheated with Big in Sex in the City, there were no children involved. We never see the wife, but in a rather bold move, the movie does briefly show Albert with one of his kids, while Mollie is spying on him no less. Rather than this being a turning point wherein she contemplates how her actions might wreck this child's relationship with her father, Mollie chooses to dwell on how good Albert seems with his daughter. Such is the charm of Heckerling's script and Alley's comic chops that this moment manages to come off as funny rather than horrifying.

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Heckerling is able to pull this off (and more) mostly because her voice remains so strong throughout. It's very evident she wrote “Look Who's Talking” in addition to directing it. Or perhaps it's more accurate to say that a woman who knows what pregnancy is like had a large role in shaping this film. Unlike many movies today, which turn pregnancy symptoms into gross-out humor, the jokes in “Look Who's Talking” come from the woman's view of what's happening to her body, not a male writer trying to use humor to deal with his discomfort over how a pregnancy conflicts with everything a woman is supposed to be. When Alley gets morning sickness, she doesn't vomit on anyone. When she can't stop eating, it isn't viewed as disgusting. When her breasts become enlarged, rather than being used as fuel for schtick, it's humorous because she looks so unlike herself. The movie even briefly mentions postpartum depression and does kind of a good job making it funny.

But one of the most striking things about Look Who's Talking is its casual depiction of how men feel entitled to comment on how women live their lives. When she is on the way to the hospital and experiencing her first pains, people constantly instruct her about Lamaze breathing, and how much better it is for the baby rather than drugs. She is really the only one who takes her pain seriously. It reminded me of my mother's stories of giving birth to my sister, and how she had to grab the doctor by the collar in order to get pain-reducing meds. It leads to a very funny baby stoner scene. Just trust me, it works. There really was a time when people weren't quite so hysterical about baby health.

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However, what really makes the movie unique is Mollie's love interest. John Travolta's James is a cab driver who drives her to the hospital as she's going into labor. He escorts her in, so James is assumed to be the father and ends up witnessing Mikey's birth. It's one of the more unusual meet-cutes, and they only end up meeting again afterwards because they decide to use each other. Mollie leaves her purse in the taxi, and James uses her address to fraudulently establish residency so he can put his grandfather in a good care home. Mollie decides to allow this, but only if Travolta agrees to babysit Mikey, and their resulting scenes together become some of the film's highlights. James isn't exactly an unambitious slacker; he has dreams of becoming a pilot. But he's also a bit of a hustler who's developed a number of tricks to avoid paying for anything. In any other film, James would be the bad boy who keeps Mollie hooked and unable to see the dreamy rich guy who could give her the life romcoms dream of. But it's James who turns out to be the responsible one who Mikey ends up seeing as a father, while Albert is the uncaring womanizer who refuses to be there for either Mollie or Mikey.

Perhaps this lack of concern for time-honored tradition was the reason “Look Who's Talking” received such mixed reviews. Most of them seemed to focus on the opening scene of the talking sperm who all journey towards the egg in the conception scene. It's an early indicator that the movie doesn't intend to take the male ego, pregnancy, or sex that seriously. Sure, “Look Who's Talking” is predictable in many ways, but critics have lauded other movies with that quality if they were enjoyable, which this movie is. Most just didn't seem to find the screwball antics funny even if they did happen to enjoy the performances. But the main, unspoken reason for the lack of appreciation seemed to be Heckerling's complete lack of interest in soothing the male ego, and perhaps that's what so many male critics found frustrating. This is a comedy about a deeply imperfect woman finding her happy ending in a New York that comes off as livable. It's telling that none of the characters are artists, or trying to be. They're just living regular lives, and she made that funny and interesting.

When asked in 2012 about about the fact that “only 5% of movies are directed by women,” Heckerling responded, “It’s a disgusting industry. I don’t know what else to say. Especially now. I can’t stomach most of the movies about women. I just saw a movie last night. I don’t want to say the name – but again with the fucking wedding and the only time women say anything is about men.”

Yet Heckerling managed to make movies that took women and their concerns seriously. Now that the industry is, or seems to be, undergoing some radical changes, hopefully films like hers won't be considered a rarity for much longer.

Women Discuss Horror At The Milwaukee Twisted Dreams Film Festival

By Andrea Thompson

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Well, the Twisted Dreams Film Festival, Milwaukee's own film fest for horror movie fans, is over. This is a film fest I enjoy, and not just because I do some communications work on their behalf. The fest is now in its third year, and the men behind it, Stephen Milek and Chris House, have made a habit of showcasing at least a few films that put women front and center. This year, they got even more inclusive by not only featuring an entire shorts block devoted to female directors, but also a panel discussion on women in horror. I found it quite interesting, sometimes in a depressing way.

The panel consisted Susan Kerns, a professor at Columbia and one of the co-directors of the Chicago Feminist Film Festival, Wendy Keeling, a writer, director and actress, Theda de Sade, a burlesque dancer, actress, and writer, and panel moderator Josephine Yanasak-Leszczynski, a film critic and author.

Some of what they had to say was pretty positive. The mindset really is changing, with everyone on the panel describing how there was less hoarding of opportunity. Women apparently no longer feel they have to fight for the one place traditionally allotted to a female filmmaker, and they described a more helpful, supportive environment.

There was also a discussion of those issues which are especially relevant to the horror genre: the violence routinely inflicted on female characters. The panel described how most of the brutality seemed less about trying to tell a story or even deliver frights than just some guy trying to see how much he could get away with, or worse, fulfilling his fantasies. One of the women described how she heard an actor brag that he got to rape a woman.

It was a disturbing point that led to what they called the “50 Shades effect.” For Theda de Sade, it meant many people assuming she likes being hit since she's a “goth girl.” All of them also talked about how “50 Shades” and the subsequent mainstreaming of BDSM has led to more exploitative stories. Kerns mentioned that the Chicago Feminist Film Festival has gotten a lot more rape revenge films, since people seem to think these kinds of films are feminist as long as there's a revenge element. Really, when will people learn it takes more than that?

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One thing the panelists all strongly agreed on was having different kinds of people on set. One thing I've noticed is that when people who aren't straight white men talk about diversity is that these discussions tend to take on a greater sense of urgency. To these women, having different kinds of people on a film set wasn't just a business or even a moral issue. It helped improve their work and their lives. They talked about how the quality of the movie itself improved by having such a range of experiences, and how it helped everyone feel safer. For them, this wasn't an afterthought; it was essential.

But then, they opened it up for questions. There were a lot of men in the audience, and it actually made the talks more depressing rather than uplifting. The very first comment involved a guy talking about how many of their problems seemed to more revolve around being an independent filmmaker rather than being a woman. Another guy remarked that he didn't care about whether the movie he saw was directed by a woman or a man, he just wanted it to be good. Problems with funding was much discussed. Really, were these men not listening? The first more seemed to be another instance of a guy telling women what their problems were, the other seemed to be more of a case of something that should be positive coming off as another male fan patting himself on the back for not being “that kind of guy.”

In the end, the impression I got was the same one I tend to get when I go to a lot of these kinds of events. I loved how far we've apparently come, but it was VERY clear just how far we have to go, especially once it became clear how a large portion of audiences still viewed these women and themselves.

I'm Giving A Mini-Lecture On Comic Books

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By Andrea Thompson

I have an announcement that is both exciting and nerve-racking. I'll be giving a mini-lecture about the increased presence of women in comics for the Comicbook Symposium at Cardinal Stritch on May 5!

It should surprise no on that in addition to being a huge movie fan, I'm also a comic book fan. I especially love the way comic books have expanded far beyond superheroes over the years. Not that there's anything wrong with superpowered adventures, but for the most part they used to be the only type of stories told in this particular format.

Needless to say, this is no longer the case. Not only are heroes getting more diverse, the stories they tell are too, with graphic novels often subverting the classic conventions of the genre (with Watchmen being the most well-known example) and becoming the go-to format for memoirs as well as other more complex genres and subjects.

And more variety means those who were traditionally sidelined or not represented at all are increasingly taking center stage. So for my talk, I'll be discussing how women have become more prevalent, both as characters and as creators.

The event will take place at Cardinal Stritch University at 6801 N. Yates Road on May 5 in Milwaukee. Doors open at 5 pm, with the event starting at 6. More info about the event can be found here.

For Janelle Monáe, Empowerment Comes In PYNK

By Andrea Thompson

So Janelle Monáe just dropped a new video, “PYNK,” yesterday, and it is...something. Something as in possibly the most open celebration of the vagina ever. Janelle Monáe dances in pussy pants. If you somehow haven't watched this video and think that's a euphemism, just see below:

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Monáe's latest music, such as “Django Jane” and “Make Me Feel” has been even more female-centric, but in this one she really doubles down, with practically every frame shaded pink and purple, a neon sign in the background reading “pussy power,” and lyrics like “Pink like the inside of your” while opening and closing those pants. In case the meaning is somehow lost on us, there's also images like grapefruit, with other lyrics such as “Pink like your fingers in my” and “Pink like your tongue going round.”

The video is also provocative in other ways:

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Also, how can you avoid a more political callback? It's already inspired Planned Parenthood.

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And since “PYNK” is another one of Monáe's best offerings, both musically and visually, it wouldn't be complete without Tessa Thompson being featured heavily. The duo is quickly becoming iconic, and here's hoping she keeps showing up. One of my favorite reactions to this video involves people calling Janelle Monáe and Thompson a “music video couple.” Uhh, really?

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Let's call it like it is. They're clearly ready, and so are we. I would go into detail about this, but Autostraddle already did. For me, I love how many different black women are in this video, and how Monáe manages to celebrate them even when she's sexualizing them.

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Draw your own conclusions about what else this is celebrating; it's not hard. The female gaze really does feel revolutionary in this, and it's a great sign of the times when something like this is mainstream. And if you've managed to miss this video, educate yourself:

How Do Women Deal With Beauty Standards Today? It May Surprise You.

 Photo credit to The Cut

Photo credit to The Cut

By Andrea Thompson

One of the most painful truths every woman has to reckon with is that her actions don't matter nearly as much as her looks. For most people, this will define a woman. It's not how hard she works, how smart she is, or how much she achieves. Attention will only be paid if you are considered beautiful enough to warrant it.

Today, two very different stories have discussed this, and it's brought out some of the ugliness women are capable of inflicting upon each other. One of them is less easy to sympathize with, admittedly. Yesterday on The Cut, there was an article published. The title? “What It's Like to Go Through Life As a Really Beautiful Woman.” It's hardly surprising that this has attracted a lot of negative reactions, and you can hardly blame a lot of women for having some trouble sympathizing. But as others have pointed out, there's also a lot of examples of how women absorbing all the insane beauty standards they're subject to can affect how we treat each other so drastically. There are stories of other women trying to make it look like she was an alcoholic, of breaking up her engagement, and of isolating her socially.

 
 

To her credit, this woman also recognizes many of the incredible privleges her looks have given her. Well, to a certain extent. Her beauty opened so many doors that now that she's older, she seems unsure of how to cope with that lack of attention. She worked on the issues in her marriage less because she wanted to stay, and more due to a fear of rejection from men, which was something she'd never experienced. It ends up being heartbreaking in ways she probably didn't intend. Sure, beauty will get you in the door, but there has to be more to you than that. You have to work hard to stick around, and this woman just took the easy way out. She basically coasted on her looks without wanting the party to end. Now she feels lonely and starved for attention, even though her experiences later in life have made her a better person. So in the end what this article makes clear is just how much beauty standards end up hurting the women who somehow manage to meet them too. When so much comes so easily, it ends up not leaving you with much at all.

On a lighter note, some women have decided to have a little fun with this concept. There have already been examples of how women are treated by many male authors in the literary canon, but podcast host Whit Reynolds (@whitneyarner) challenged women on Twitter to describe themselves the way male authors would. And the results have been hilarious. Of course, some guys have described how insecure this has made them:

 
 

And have been reassured that there is a solution:

 
 

There just may be hope for us all.

Teen and Preteen Girls are At The Forefront In The March For Our Lives

What a time we live in. Activism is back, and it's bigger than ever. People are FINALLY starting to do something about the gun violence epidemic, and companies are responding by actually breaking ties with the NRA. It seems like even those who've done business with them have wanted to sever ties for years; they just feel like they have permission now.

And why not? An estimated 20,000 people attended the march in D.C., celebs of all kinds, from Paul McCartney to Kim Kardashian, also joined. My social media exploded with images of them not only them, but practically everyone in my network, who also went out to march. Thousands also registered to vote.

But one of the most remarkable things I noticed was who was taking the lead for the most part. In past progressive movements, we typically saw women and their concerns get shoved to the side, but not so much this time around. The future is truly female, because it's women, hell, teens and preteen girls really, who took the lead. Martin Luther King's 9-year-old granddaughter Yolanda Renee King recalled her grandfather's words as she shared her own dream of a world without guns. 11-year-old Naomi Wadler made sure the pain of girls and women of color were not forgotten. And of course, 18-year-old Emma González, a survivor of the Parkland shooting, has become a major force in the fight for change. Her time at the podium, which lasted exactly as long as the shooting at her school, was brilliantly heartbreaking.

This type of movement seems to be the one we need. It is inclusive, driven by the young, and frightening the people on the far right. Already, false stories about González have been circulating, as these young people passionately refute the claim that they're unable to understand the policies they want to change. And many of them will be old enough to vote before too long.

As Cameron Kasky, another Parkland student said, “Welcome to the revolution.”