andrea thompson

52 Films By Women: Hustlers (2019)

STX Films

STX Films

By Andrea Thompson

Once upon a time, I hit something of a low point. Actually it wasn't something of a low point, it felt like rock bottom, or perilously close to it. I was unemployed, spat out of a city I had moved to in hopes of a fresh start and better career prospects, and struggling to pick up the financial and professional pieces while crashing on a relative's couch. Feeling stuck in a city and situation I was desperate to escape, it didn't much help that I was heading to a job interview waiting tables at a comedy club in a part of town that looked like where dreams go to die.

Much to my fascination, I discovered the venue shared a building with a strip club. Due to a still healthy sense of curiosity and no doubt a desperate desire to make as much money as I could, I decided to head over and check it out. To my untrained eye, it seemed like a less seedy example of the business, which was probably helped by the nonexistent crowd, hardly surprising on a weekday afternoon. To my shock, a fully clothed woman who worked there (or claimed to) spoke of the close-knit bond among her coworkers as well as their artistic endeavors outside of the club, revealing my own preconceptions about the women who earned a living there.

She encouraged me to apply, and I soon found myself discussing the requirements of the job with a male manager, including the seeming lack of complexity there was to the dancing. I wasn't so sure about that, as the stripper I saw working the pole possessed a flexibility it didn't look like I could approach, let alone replicate. The really profound moment was a relatively small one, and it involved the various styles of revealing attire the dancers wore. Whatever their style of dress, the manager referred to their work clothes as a costume.

STX Films

STX Films

Such an insignificant issue of semantics, but it helped me realize why I found stripping so unsettling in spite of my firm commitment to sex positivity. I realized that stripping was only a two-way exchange in terms of services rendered and cash given. Nor was it simply a commodification of sexuality. What it was really selling was male fantasy, and the job of the women was to cater to that above all else. Their desires weren't a part of the equation. A simple conclusion? Perhaps. Yet it allowed me to form my own convictions about an ongoing debate in the feminist community about whether various expressions of female sexuality were demeaning, empowering, or both.

I never ended up taking either the serving or stripping job. But this experience came to mind while I was watching and very much enjoying the movie “Hustlers” at the 2019 Toronto International Film Festival. It's got the usual “inspired by a true story” qualifier, but the movie seems to share a remarkable number of similarities with the article that is its source material. Both tell the story of a group of strippers who came up with a very much illegal scheme to scam their Wall Street clients out of their money.

Much of the enjoyment is due to writer-director Lorene Scafaria embracing the magical ingredient essential to this movie's success: centering the women. Whether their sexuality is empowering or not is almost beside the point, not to mention an oversimplification. It's how they chose to use it which matters. And hey, let's face it, it's also a large part of what makes their story as fun as it is fascinating. Countless movies have at least a scene or two at a strip club, and they often have strippers who function as living set pieces to make the movie sexier, edgier, or a combination of both. Few bother to give them speaking lines, let alone any kind of storyline devoted to them.

STX Films

STX Films

In “Hustlers,” the female gaze is centric from the start, as is control. The first thing we hear as we meet our viewpoint character Destiny (Constance Wu) is Janet Jackson's 1986 hit song “Control.” These women have to fight not just for money, but power over their lives and bodies, and Destiny is still getting accustomed to this world and how to make a living in it. At first at least. Once she meets Ramona, gloriously played by Jennifer Lopez in full diva mode, she thrives as Ramona decides to take her under her wing. Or perhaps it's more accurate to say, under her fur coat as she purrs, “Climb in my fur.” Their friendship is the gateway into the supportive world they and the other women create for themselves, and we see their camaraderie, and how playing sex objects affects their personal lives. Although any music fans will be disappointed, since Cardi B and Lizzo don't have roles as much as extended cameos. And since it's 2007, there's no need for schemes. The Wall Street types they cater to are able and willing to spend the money that allows Destiny and the others to live the good life.

Then the financial crisis hits, and both Destiny and the country are thrown into disarray. She becomes pregnant by her boyfriend, and the two part ways a few years after their daughter is born. Once Destiny exhausts her meager options, she returns to stripping, only to find that her former workplace has become a far harsher place that's mostly populated by Russians who are willing to give the men blow jobs. Most of the women she knew have moved on, but Ramona still frequents the club and recruits her for her new hustle. She and the others she works with lavish suitably wealthy men with attention and drinks, drug them to encourage higher spending habits, take them to the club where they worked, and take a percentage from what they spend there.

And it actually works for quite a long time, with Ramona and Destiny relishing the money and the power they find scamming the scammers. It's hard to blame them, as it was painfully clear just how disposable these women were when they were doing legit work. Before, the top CEO clients, whom Ramona referred to as “axe murderers,” were given free reign and never faced any consequences for their actions because everyone wanted what they had, whether it was their privilege, status or wealth. I've never seen “The Wolf of Wall Street,” but I'm willing to bet this one sentence is a better analysis of this world than the entire three hour runtime of “Wolf.”

STX Films

STX Films

Women are a rarity in this world, often limited to a select few who managed to fight through the bro culture and somehow get to the top, or more commonly, as wives, mothers, and mistresses. So the deeply feminine perspective is what makes this story feel so refreshing, despite its familiarity. If you've seen any kind of gangster or mafia movie, you know how this goes. Destiny and her friends make money and they simply don't know when or how to stop. They then make the mistakes that will bring them down. As Destiny puts it, hurt people hurt people.

While the pain they caused is acknowledged, but most of the men don't earn our sympathy, from the main characters or the female journalist they recount the story to years later. These men stole from others with no consequences in a game rigged in their favor, and the movie makes most of them as expendable as Destiny and her cohorts generally are. It wasn't just that these women were dishing out the pain so routinely heaped on them, it was the vicious cycle of exploitation they were perpetuating. Even the drugging seemed normal to them, given how much illicit substances were already a part of their world. “Hustlers” merely shows us a world where our most common beliefs about money, beauty, and power are taken to an extreme that ultimately devalues everyone, even those who initially appear to benefit from it most.

52 Films By Women: Set It Up

By Andrea Thompson

I had high hopes for the Netflix film “Set It Up,” which looked like a delightful romantic comedy that was just as invested in the heroine's career as it was in her love life, which of course she and her requisite male lead insisted on complicating. Instead, it's an example of how women can also get invested in sexism if it gives them a kind status that can result from buying into it. After all, when you are able to gain quite a bit of social cache by following the rules, you're less likely to advocate for those rules to be broken.

Rom-coms are tricky anyways. They depend more on conventions than other genres, which means there's little chance for suprises. They also obviously depend on romance, and that said romance will run into some obstacles before the two leads realize what everyone – from the people around them to any audience who happens to be watching – around them already knows. They are meant to be together!



Forestalling such an obvious truth is tricky, and that's why so many rom-coms buy into pernicious stereotypes, not only about love, but about gender and the so-called differences between them. It's a lazy way to create conflict when there's a very real danger of not there not being enough of it. “Set It Up” doesn't so much buy into traditional mores as the new ones which sprung up from the old, and are about as damaging. The fact that it's written and directed by women adds insult to injury.

First, the premise. It's actually an interesting one, as Harper (Zoey Deutch) and Charlie (Glen Powell) are long-suffering, overworked assistants to demanding, workaholic bosses. It's strongly indicated that Charlie's boss Rick (Taye Diggs) is a venture capitalist, but it's not made quite clear aside from the fact that Rick's job involves a whole lot of money. Harper's boss Kirsten (Lucy Liu) is the formidable head of a sports journalism site that Harper longs to be published on.



Harper and Charlie work in the same building and are at work before everyone , which is how they happen to meet, and Charlie quickly establishes his jerk bonafides. Harper is just barely able to persuade him to split the food that she ordered, but Charlie is quick to take for his own boss since Harper doesn't have the cash required. After Harper and Charlie meet up again and swap horror stories, as well as their complete lack of personal lives, they start to consider how their jobs would get a lot less demanding if their bosses Rick and Kirsten were seeing each other. And since Harper and Charlie control their schedules and nearly everything else in their lives, they can actually arrange this.

So Harper and Charlie decide to do just that. They get Kirsten and Rick trapped in an elevator together, only for that to go hilariously awry when a claustrophic deliverman gets trapped in there with them. Their second meeting, where Harper and Charlie arrange for them to sit together at a baseball game, goes much better, and Kirsten and Rick actually start dating, freeing up their assistants' time.



It's when this relationship starts that “Set It Up” gets problematic. Or rather, its leads prove to be as shallow as much of the corporate world the movie tries to criticize. Much of Kirsten's personality, time, and workaholic tendencies are assumed to revolve around the fact that she's not only a single woman of a certain age, but a woman sans children. Kirsten mentions that a lot of men proposed to her in her 20s, as if male attention suddenly dries up when you hit 30. Near the end of the film, she tells Harper, “Men don't want to date you when you're beating you to a story. But I've met someone who wants me to be strong, and he likes that I'm successful. I mean, he's a goddamn unicorn!” In the world of “Set It Up,” men who date women their own age aren't just rare, those who are attracted to women with power are apparently almost nonexistent.

Needless to say, Rick's behavior doesn't need to be similarly explained. He's barely humanized at all, and the moie seems just fine with this. While dressing down Charlie, Harper even says that he can be better, and that Rick can't help being an asshole. Really? Rick doesn't have the capacity to be a better person, or even the free will to do so? It's a rather disturbing justification of male behavior.



At least the movie knows where to draw the line. Harper and Charlie may be desperate enough to arrange for Kirsten to have a bikini wax once they learn that Rick is completely turned off by hair, but at least Harper isn't willing to hide Rick's plan to continually cheat on Kirsten with his ex-wife, even after he decides to marry Kirsten. Shockingly, Charlie is at first willing to in order to gain a promotion, and thus financial security from Rick, but his eventual decision to run to the airport to break up a romance is at least a nice twist on rom-com conventions.

Then again, Harper and Charlie don't seem much worth investing in either. Charlie is continually a jerk to her, and has a habit of, among other things, hanging up on her when they're in the middle of a conversation. Harper also comes off as little more than a Cool Girl cliché. She's into sports in a way only unrealistic female characters are: when it's convenient. And of course, she totally goes crazy on unhealthy snacks when she's sitting in the apartment by herself while somehow maintaining Hollywood beauty standards, even when she's at her lowest.



At least “Set It Up” places a lot of emphasis on Harper's career and her complicated relationship with Kirsten, deeply humanizing her boss by the end. But the movie's attempts at female empowerment ring rather hollow when it invests so much time into many of the beliefs that hold women back. Then there's the topic that goes completely unadressed: race. Their bosses are both minorities who worked their way up in corporate environments that still openly favor white men. The movie does dip a toe into how draining capitalism can be for those on the lower rungs, but it doesn't even approach as to how race might play a factor into Rick and Kirsten's personas and just how isolated they are. Rom-coms have come a long way recently, but “Set It Up” shouldn't be praised when other films have taken the genre much further.

52 Films By Women: Little Women (1994)



By Andrea Thompson

After I watched the 1994 adaptation of Louisa May Alcott's classic novel, it felt that a more accurate title for the film was “A Little Woman” rather than “Little Women.” Josephine “Jo” March (Winona Ryder) was always going to be the sister who stood out the most. Not only is she the author surrogate, she's also an aspiring writer who has the biggest ambitions, a lively rebellious streak, and the personality to match. She's also deeply, realistically flawed, a tomboy who is fiercely loyal to her loved ones. Already, she threatens to run away with this whole essay.

However, Alcott not only based Jo on herself, but the other sisters on her real life ones, and their adventures were drawn from much of their lives, even if they occurred earlier than the novel's Civil War setting. So Alcott lavished attention and care on each one, giving them distinct personalities and flaws that not only made them recognizable and just as relatable, but also just as worth rooting for. It's why, in spite of the novel's endless moralizing, generations of girls – and women! – have returned to it again and again. But the film doesn't show that same care and attention.



There's certainly a lot to like about it. For one, it's directed by Gillian Armstrong, who also directed a young Judy Davis and Sam Neill in the 1979 film “My Brilliant Career.” A primarily female cast isn't enough to make a film feminist or even feminine, but Armstrong's directing prowess, and the warmth and skill of the cast and crew makes “Little Women” absolutely burst with feminine energy. When Meg March (Trini Alvarado) tells Jo, “You've ruined me!” after poor Jo burns off part of her sister's hair, we feel her pain. We laugh and ache with them as they struggle to make do with their more humble clothes when they head out to various social engagements.

The rest of the cast is also just as spot on, with Susan Sarandon as the girls' mother, whom they call Marmee, Claire Danes as the delicate Beth, a young Christian Bale as Laurie, and Gabriel Byrne as Friedrich Bhaer. Every actor who plays Jo's eventual husband has to earn forgiveness for having the audacity to marry Jo, rather than her lifelong friend Laurie. Byrne more than earns it, turning on the charm as the passionate intellectual who is supportive of Jo's ideas of equality and encourages her to write what she loves, rather than what her publishers desire. We don't have to wonder why she's drawn to him. Yet it's the decision to cast two different actresses, Kirsten Dunst and Samantha Mathis as the younger and older Amy respectively, that is the savviest. Unlike other adaptations, the film can allow the youngest March girl to act her age, and it also makes Amy's eventual romance and marriage to Laurie a lot less creepy. Even with all that, the refined Amy is the weakest link in the sisters, with her elegance being off-putting more often than not.



Then again, it doesn't help that the entire film feels more episodic, merely skipping from one adventure to the next rather than functioning as a cohesive whole. Perhaps that's more due to sketchy editing, since screenwriter Robin Swicord did incredible work on other films, writing not only “Matilda,” but “Practical Magic.” Here it's hard to feel invested in many of the other characters, who come off as mere sketches. Meg and John Brooke (Eric Stoltz) barely share any scenes together before they start making out, and Brooke comes off more like a prig, leaving Meg's attraction to him something of a mystery. It feels more like they come together due to a mutual primness rather than an actual passion.

Amy and Laurie's courtship feels just as lifeless. Amy mentions she's considering accepting a wealthy man she doesn't love, but it never feels like she'll actually go through with it. As she and Laurie form a connection, Amy mentions she doesn't want Laurie to marry her so he can be a part of the March family, but they're so stiff together, with Amy especially coming off as remote and moralizing, that it's hard to perceive what else Laurie could see in her. Sure, he's still smarting enough from Jo's rejection of his proposal to grow a beard and drink out of a flask, but apparently a few conversations with Amy is enough to set him on the proper path.



One of the only major events that hits home is Beth's death. Claire Danes does great work with a character that could easily come off as angelic, and she imbues Beth with enough feeling to make her recognizable as an actual person. She is unafraid of death because she realizes that her sisters must leave the home she loves and is content to remain. In the film, death becomes a way for her to go ahead of her sisters.

For this version of “Little Women,” little that Jo doesn't witness is deemed relevant. The end of the movie culminates in Jo turning its events into the novel many of us know and love. It's a good, even expected, device, but it also makes the sisters' lives even less valuable in themselves and merely fuel for the enjoyment of others. From what I've seen of the 1933 version, it seems to capture the novel better, more seamlessly transitioning to various stages in the lives of the March sisters, with Katharine Hepburn probably more accurately embodying Jo's boyishness, mischieviousness, and more masculine energy. With Greta Gerwig writing and directing a new version next year with a cast consisting of Saoirse Ronan, Florence Pugh, Emma Watson, Eliza Scanlen, Laura Dern, Timothée Chalamet, and Meryl frigging Streep, it's guaranteed to be a memorable one if nothing else.

52 Films By Women: Eve's Bayou

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By Andrea Thompson

Perception is everything, and “Eve's Bayou” is very aware of how the stories we tell our ourselves shape, and sometimes destroy, our lives. It seemed fitting that the first film I watched for Black History Month was also a delicately beautiful exploration of personal history.

It's no accident that many of the reviews and think pieces about “Eve's Bayou” also begin with the film's opening lines. They're thoughtful, insightful, and...startling, to say the least. “Memory is the selection of images, some elusive, other printed indelibly on the brain. The summer I killed my father, I was 10 years old.”

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How and why would such a thing occur? It first seems unlikely, or even unthinkable, as such developments often do. In their prosperous 1960s Louisiana Creole community, Eve's family stands out, in all the right ways. Her father Louis (Samuel L. Jackson) is a prominent, respected doctor, with a beautiful, loving wife Roz (Lynn Whitfield). Eve also has two other siblings, the teenage Cisely (Meagan Good), who is clearly her father's favored child, and a younger brother, Poe (Jake Smollett).

But the facade comes crashing down when Eve accidentally witnesses her father having sex with another woman. At first, it seems as if Louis is able to smooth things over, but things deteriorate as Eve discovers more evidence of Louis's constant unfaithfulness. Cisely refuses to believe any of it, leading to more conflict between the sisters and Cisely and Roz. This conflict becomes less surprising as we learn more about both mother and daughter. 14-year-old Cisely is eager to grow up and embrace her womanhood, and she is her elegant mother in miniature. She idolizes her father the way Roz once did.

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“When I first met Louis, I watched him set a boy's leg who had fallen out of a tree,” Roz muses. And I said to myself, here's a man who can fix things. He's a healer, he'll take care of me. So I leave my family, and I moved to this swamp, and I find out he's just a man.”

With such turbulence at home, Eve natually searches for a safe haven, which she finds with her aunt Mozelle (Debbi Morgan). Mozelle has the gift of sight, which allows her to see everyone's future but her own, with all three of the men she loved having died. Her abilities are unquestionably real, magic being a regular part of the film's unique setting. Not all of it is benevolent, and it is to the less benevolent forces that Eve turns to after Cisely reveals that Louis tried to molest her one night, deeply traumatizing her. Eve then turns to a local witch to put a fatal curse on her father, which she soon regrets and tries to undo. Less easy to reverse are the hints she drops to the husband of the woman Louis is seeing.

Even in the midst of a vibrant time for black cinema, “Eve's Bayou” stands out for its compassion, and the riveting performances that make the stories of people's lives, in which love, sex, violence, and death are constantly interwoven, far more than sheer melodrama. Debbi Morgan is the film's standout, with Mozelle revealing herself to be as passionate as she is vulnerable, particularly when a new man brings love into her life, and she fears that their marriage would be the death of him. Writer-director Kasi Lemmons has become primarily known for her work as an actress, and watching her feature film debut, it feels like a loss. Lemmons imbues her story with a strong sense of Southern Gothic, effortlessly fusing the town's history, which claimed to be founded by a freed slave named Eve and the man who freed her, to the family at the film's center, who are their descendants.

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The real tragedy of “Eve's Bayou” are Eve's realizations that the supposedly stalwart adults around her are just as frail and human as she is, especially her father, who has a different story about what happened between him and Cisely. He is no villain, merely a man with a deep need to be a hero, and to be seen as a hero to those around him, which ultimately proves his undoing. When our protectors, our trust, and even our memories, prove so unreliable, perhaps the only thing we can truly rely on is love, even if our loved ones are just as flawed and unsure as we are. The film ends with Cisely and Eve realizing that they may never truly know what happened, but they can nevertheless always find a kind of peace in the loving bond they share.

52 Films By Women: A New Leaf

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By Andrea Thompson

When I saw Elaine May's “The Heartbreak Kid,” possibly the greatest anti-romantic comedy of all time, May became one of my favorite filmmakers. When I watched May's “A New Leaf” at the suggestion of my friend Sydney, I became convinced May is a national treasure.

“A New Leaf” was made in 1971, a year prior to May's far more famous work, “The Heartbreak Kid.” In the latter, she directed. In the former, she directs, writes, and stars. “A New Leaf” is also a far darker, and funnier movie. The premise? After wealthy playboy Henry Graham (Walter Matthau) discovers he's spent all of his money and is now penniless, he decides to marry a wealthy woman. Then kill her and walk away with the money.

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May quickly establishes the meaningless, heartless world Henry resides in, where people care about possessions above all, and getting new ones as quickly as possible. It's just as quickly established that Henry isn't an outlier at all. He's lazy, uncaring, spends money on useless crap on the slightest whim, and that's just how he likes it. He has no ambitions to be anything else, and even if he did, he doesn't have the skills required to do anything practical or useful. It makes the scene with his accountant, who has the task of telling him he has exhausted his wealth, not only humorous, but delightful. May gives us even more reason to relish the jeopardy with overwrought, dramatic music as Henry imagines a life without all the opulence he's become accustomed to.

“A New Leaf” also puts a hilarious spin on the loyal butler trope. Henry's valet Harold (George Rose) stands by him, not out of loyalty, but because Henry is one of the only men left who would actually use his services, or as Harold puts it, to “keep alive traditions that were dead before you were born.” Yet Harold is the closest thing Henry has to a friend. He is the only one who knows what's going on (except for Henry's murderous intentions), and encourages his employer to fight for his right to remain among the idle rich.

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Henry's attempts to find a wife fail quite hilariously until he meets Henrietta, a botanist, at a tea party, who is played by Elaine May herself. In any other movie, their first moments together would be a meet-cute. She drops her glove, and her tea, in what would now be called adorkable. Henry comes to her rescue due to his discovery that Henrietta is both wealthy and without relatives. This not only causes Henrietta's to spill even more tea on their host Mrs. Cunliff's immaculate carpet, it inspires said host to call Henry a son of a bitch. Unfazed, Henry delivers one of the best retorts in cinematic history.

“You dare call me a son of a bitch?” Henry responds indignantly. “Madame, I have seen many examples of perversion in my time, but your erotic obsession with your carpet is probably the most grotesque, and certainly the most boring I have ever encountered. You ought to be scorned and pitied. Good day, Mrs. Cunliff.”

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“A New Leaf” doesn't cater to our expectations of the genre. This isn't a story about two ridiculously attractive people falling for each other in a series of outrageously comic adventures. Nor is Elaine May interested in making Henrietta relatable. Just how would a woman so shy, inept, and isolated actually live? May shows us, especially after Henry overcomes a few obstacles, such as the objections of Henrietta's lawyer, and manages to marry her. He discovers his wife's life is in complete disarray. The mansion she lives in is a mess. The people who work for her take shameless advantage of her. And the lawyer who seemed to have Henrietta's best interests at heart turns out to have been in on everything. Henry quickly straightens things out, and takes over the management of Henrietta's life and accounts, all so he can use it to his advantage after he disposes of her. In the process, he actually becomes quite a competent, knowledgeable person who learns some useful skills, almost without becoming aware of it.

Of course, his fondness for Henrietta grows, in a fashion similarly unknown to him. Henrietta truly does change him for the better and make him more responsible and competent, even if he does have to check Henrietta's clothes for crumbs and price tags before she leaves for work every morning. The most touching moment is when Henrietta discovers a new species of plant and names it after Henry, thus granting his wish for a kind of immortality. His realization that he loves his wife is sweet, but it's more an acceptance that nothing in his life will turn out as he's expected from now on. When they walk off into the sunset together, we too breathe a sigh of relief that the danger is past.

#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.