Comm 137 Spr 2016
Within the film industry, black women filmmakers are forced to be cautious of the boundaries of creating art in response to industry reactionism versus contesting outside influences to dictate their art. According to the Merriam-Webster dictionary definition, reactionism or being reactionary is, “relating to, marked by, or favoring reaction; especially: ultraconservative in politics” (merriam-webster.com). To thoroughly explain this definition, reactionism is a type of political viewpoint in which a group of people is rejecting progress. The popularized structure of Hollywood films is valued over new media or anything outside of what that structure is, which is a resemblance of what reactionism is. This is an obstacle that must be overcome by filmmakers, especially for black women filmmakers when trying to portray the black experience through their own depictions. When this is done, criticisms of their works are addressed and are done so because of the depiction of politics that derive from prototypes. Because of these depictions, black women filmmakers are put into a vulnerable position of receiving harsh criticisms for simply trying to illustrate truth and identity of the self or the self amongst the black experience. The criticisms black women filmmakers receive from film industry leaders and critics resemble reactionism perfectly as these leaders become fearful of change the structure they created that makes the works and identities of these women invisible at the same time.
An example of this is Ava DuVernay’s approach to directing and screenwriting Selma. As DuVernay had the opportunity to direct the film, she took it upon herself to not depict the reality of Dr. Martin Luther King of this historical time period, however she made the film more subjective to African Americans. She did this by portraying how she thinks he may have felt and designing the film with more perspective to the black experience. Ava DuVernay is known as an independent filmmaker. By having this label, DuVernay has been able to navigate through the reactionism of the film industry with her own authentic experiences and honest quality of art portrayed in her films. When working with Selma, DuVernay was able to navigate away from the effects of reactionists views of critics. DuVernay had the advantage of depicting the Selma in the light of the black experience that was honest to herself and own experiences that she endured. She never compromised the quality of the film and disregarded the constraints of Hollywood pressures. As an independent filmmaker, she was the best choice for directing Selma since she was able to wear several hats and not become overwhelmed to feel constrained to these roles. DuVernay depicted President Lyndon B. Johnson from a black perspective, which she received criticism for.
Criticisms of the film made by David Edelstein suggest that DuVernay’s portrayal of Johnson display historical inaccuracies. In comparison to DuVernay’s portrayal of Johnson shaped in the lens of the black perspective, Edelstein suggests that although he was in fact manipulative, DuVernay failed in a sense to show that he was an avid supporter of African American’s voting rights, “…but he was a persistent and masterly behind-the-scenes manipulator. He fought passionately for voting rights without any push from King” (Edelstein). He continues his criticism, ”Selma” is still a great move. The LBJ-King scenes are taught, each giant staking out his claim” (Edelstein).
However, she disregarded such criticisms in order to focus more on the important roles of other characters that illuminated the black experience. By continuing to make the film within the lens of her own experiences and aligning those experiences to the black experience, she focused on people in the film that surrounded Dr. Martin Luther King in order to give agency and visibility to their roles in support of him. Ava focuses on individual members of the Southern Leadership Christian Conference and the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee. On a logistic level, DuVernay created an emotional arc through the representation of these characters by creating a context for most of these individuals. She created a story of the people and their emotional journeys in order to let the audience feel struggle for personal dignity through a narrative of surviving the South at that time.
In further discussing DuVernay’s framework for Selma, online article written by Laura Berger analyzes an interview with the filmmaker on ‘60 Minutes’ as she describes her intentions opening doors for more black women filmmakers and not creating a white savior film. In making Selma, DuVernay explains how she did not intend to make a white savior film. She wanted to explore the interests and visibility for people of color. She explains in the interview, “We do not have to have someone sweeping in on a white horse or someone saving the day or assisting us in our own narrative” (Berger). Further into the article, Berger quotes DuVernay explaining how she is capable of opening doors for more filmmakers to illustrate their authenticities through film but she can’t be the only one doing so on her own. She explains, “Because I can open a door, but if there’s no one coming through it or if the door is allowed to close right after me, it doesn’t mean much” (Berger). Berger further explains the meaning behind Duvernay’s analogy by saying how she is capable of creating more opportunities for other filmmakers, particularly filmmakers of color, to create changed narratives as she did with Selma, it’s just a matter of who is willing to follow those same courageous footsteps.
Overall, DuVernay is an example of not responding to reactionism within the film industry and does so with perseverance and disregard to criticisms that are not true to her works but rather true to her own portrayals of black experience. In some instances, the pressures of these film industry leaders lead towards certain filmmakers feeling obliged to respond to reactionism. Reacting to reactionary views is also a form of validation. When it comes down to responding versus not responding to reactionism within the film industry, one must look at the intent of the filmmaker. When looking at the films in Siren Spirits such as White Men Are Cracking Up, the stance that director Ngozi Onwurah treads between reacting to reactionism versus not considering criticisms to dictate her work, lean more towards reacting to reactionism. Simply looking at the title of the first film exerts a notion of a power dynamic between the race and gender of the central character, Maisie Blue and the white men she interacts with. The suicidal white men she comes into contact with fetish and fantasize over her seductions prior to committing suicide. The detective that follows her every move then also becomes victim to her as he too suffers from personal issues of his own just like the white men Maisie has previously seduced. The overall content of the film is representative of contesting to white male dominance over women and women of color and also understanding the power the female body has over them in a psychological and physical state. The film overall challenges diversity dilemmas by illustrating inversions of power of the female body and using that power to manipulate the gaze of white males. The quality of film I would argue is also reaction to reactionism as it is formatted in a non-Hollywood fashion.
Ngozi Onwurah’s work in the film White Men Are Cracking Up is an example of reacting to reactionism. The stance that director Onwurah treads between reacting to reactionism versus not considering criticisms to dictate her work, lean more towards reacting to reactionism. Simply looking at the title of the first film exerts a notion of a power dynamic between the race and gender of the central character, Maisie Blue and the white men she interacts with. The suicidal white men she comes into contact with fetish and fantasize over her seductions prior to committing suicide. The detective that follows her every move then also becomes victim to her as he too suffers from personal issues of his own just like the white men Maisie has previously seduced. The overall content of the film is representative of contesting to white male dominance over women and women of color and also understanding the power the female body has over them in a psychological and physical state. The film overall challenges diversity dilemmas by illustrating inversions of power of the female body and using that power to manipulate the gaze of white males to women of color. The quality of film I would also argue is reaction to reactionism as it is formatted in a non-Hollywood fashion. The grainy VHS quality is a way to emphasize that the film does not conform to Hollywood film standards.
Berger, Laura. “Watch: Ava DuVernay’s ‘60 Minutes’ Interview on Opening Doors and White Savior Films.” IndieWire. Web. 8 June 2016.
Edelstein, David. “The ‘Selma’ Criticism For How It Portrays Lyndon B. Johnson: Is It Fair?” KPBS RADIO. NPR. 9 Jan. 2015. Radio. Transcript.
Merriam-Webster. Merriam-Webster, n.d. Web. 08 June 2016.