Better late than never . . .
While I am inspired by all of the black women directors who manage to get their films to the screen, Kasi Lemmons holds an important place in my intellectual heart b/c her films have not only moved me to think but also have had a profound effect on black feminist educators, students, and my mom. :D There is something about her cinematic vision that draws me to her films and keeps them with me long after I’ve watched them. Of all the Directors I will highlight this month, Kasi Lemmons is the only one whose entire directorial offerings I own and whose work I watch and teach regularly.
Lemmons began her career as an actress in tv like Spencer for Hire and The Cosby Show and films like School Daze and Candyman but soon felt the urge to have her own powerful vision reach the screen. While her first film Eve’s Bayou veers slightly from the traditional contributions to history I’ve been marking in black women’s films, her latest film Talk to Me falls within this pattern. I would also argue that Eve’s Bayou is a non-traditional intervention into feminist herstory in the sense of creating a lineage of black women’s knowledge, citing alternative spiritualities as space of knowledge, and addressing issues often not discussed in either community. In so doing, she points the way to doing a historiography of black feminism in a period with very little record and tho “folk” has always been popular in anthropology, Lemmons insistence on linking folk and theory is not.
While she says she never has a “message” in her films, they always seem packed with them to me.
Her first film Fall from Grace was a documentary short about women and homelessness filmed in 1994. It reflected her original training in documentary filmmaking and her desire to highlight the voices of women seldom given other venues. However she quickly transitioned into making feature length fictional films where her creativity as both a director and writer shined.
Though Lemmons is never one to take herself too seriously, she did describe the process of becoming a feature film director in terms of its important to both gender and race in Hollywood:
Acting is like my first love but I have a lot more to offer as a director. I also feel that it is rarer—and I guess that this is where it does matter to me that I am a black woman. I feel like we need our black women directors. We need women directors! (Lemmons Movie Maker 10/15/07)
Eve’s Bayou (1997), Lemmons’ feature length directorial debut, was a powerful meditation on abuse, coming of age, and women’s knowledge. It is considered to be her feminist debut because of not only the centering of women in the story but also the discussion of “women’s issues” like infidelity and child sexual abuse. It revolves around the most prominent black family in Louisiana, the Batiste, the relationship that young Eve and Cisely have with their father, and a female centered social world that includes their mother, aunt, father’s lovers, and Obeah women.
As the film begins, Eve tells us that the story is about memory and murder both of which will shop up again in Lemmons second film as well. Instead of giving us a static mystery wrapped in Hollywood-sanitized vodoun, Lemmons creates an atmospheric film meant to mirror the hazy recollections of a pre-adolescent girl. At times the film is filled with music and the crush of bodies mirroring the energy of a party through a child’s eyes, the vantage point always at her eye level rather than that of an adults. At others, it simply unfolds with the sweetness of remembered days of youth or sliced through with the intensity of remembered characters that are not quite real – the mother whose to blame, the sister who is a know-it-all, and the dad who is larger than life. Lemmons is at her best when she lays out the internal on the screen; she hits every emotional mark perfectly.
Lemmons developed the concept and wrote the screen play over a period of several years. In a sad, but typical turn, she had to fight to be the Director, auditioning with others the studio had in mind. The film was praised as the return of the gothic to modern cinema because of its atmospheric tale riddled with magical realism and vodoun.
We say we want something different from our cinema … I’m not saying ‘Eve’s Bayou’ is the answer, you know, because some people will like it and some people won’t. But I think it is one of the answers. … I wanted to create a piece that was visual and lyrical with characters speaking in the rhythms that I remember from my childhood … (Kasi Lemmons to Los Angeles Times, 11/6/97)
It was also widely praised by black feminists and WS professors who quickly adopted it into their classrooms. It won several awards including a Spirit Award, several NAACP awards for director and cast, and in 2008 Time Magazine named it 1 of the top 25 films in black cinema. It also launched the career of Jurnee Smollet who would go on to appear in such films as Selma Lord Selma, Ruby’s Bucket of Blood, and the Great Debaters. (you can watch this amazing film on youtube if you have not seen it yet. start here.)
Women of the Bayou
At the center of this film is a series of strong black women and young girls trying to come into their own. Eve’s mother Roz Batiste’s refined black middle class facade masks her own keen understanding of the things going on around her. And as she struggles to maintain a lifestyle that is supposed to keep both her and her girls safe from the threats of poverty and abuse, both racialized through the lens of the South, we see how the realization that those external factors already being visited upon her family from within weighs on her. Roz is a woman who let love sweep her off her feet and let pride and position keep her there long after reality sunk in. And Louis Batiste knows it.
Mozelle, Eve’s fiery aunt, is far less refined, choosing instead to be raw, sensual, and ultimately real. As a psychic and possible vodoun priestess, who cannot tell her own future, she offers a picture of black womanhood that is both tragically flawed and deeply promising. Though she loves deeply her love is the kind that smothers but her power, a curse in her own life, is a helpmate to so many in the town. Eve gravitates to her precisely because of her air of freedom missing from Roz.
Both visually and in character trait, the Batiste girls mirror the early generation. Cisely is dark, stern, prim and propper, an almost perfect mirror to her mother. And while she is constantly schooling Eve and their little brother, and trying to appear the lady, she is as conflicted as Eve underneath. She wants to be a woman like her mother, who holds everything together and ensures their economic and social safety, while at the same time experiencing the unease of someone who recognizes the flaw in her mother’s facade. Cisely believes if she is “just good enough” she can save them, but she knows that means believing her mother’s “just good enough” game was not good enough. And like a child, she decides she will have to replace her mother to keep the family together rather than admit the lie she has been raised to mimic will save no woman.
Eve is far more drawn to Mozelle. Her wild child, flirtatious, free-spirit could easily be poured into the heart of her Aunt and vice versa. And as she rejects the facade of her mother and her sister, she still clings to the idea of being “daddy’s baby girl.” As everything crumbles around her, Eve looks out at her world, wondering what women to be and her answers are at the crux of the film.
Ultimately, Lemmons gives us a powerful meditation on the choices girls make to become women and that women make to protect their hearts, their families, or themselves. Both text and image weave a world that is true to the internal workings of memory, the Southern gothic world in which these characters create, and the critical subjects that the film tackles.
On Cavemen and Queers
Her second film, Caveman’s Valentine (2001) continued Lemmons fascinating vision of the internal as a space of knowing. Through the eyes of schizophrenic Romulous Ledbetter, the film unveils the murder of young Scotty Gates possibly by important artist David Leppenraub. Lemmons meticulously recreates the world of Ledbetter’s mind for the audience from the very first frame of the film. His internal world is a mix of concert halls remembered from his pre-onset days as a prodigy, hauntings from his wife, and the marching tumultousness of amazingly choreographed black angels. The latter are at times beautiful and others violently threaten to capsize Ledbetter’s tenuous grasp on sanity. The action of the film is also seen through Ledbetter’s eyes, making images on the screen washout in super bright white, flash into black and white, or fixate on certain colors (the color green) or images (Angels). In so doing, Lemmons hopes to recreate both the internal and external world of schizophrenia so that the viewers are experiencing the murder mystery in the same vein as the hero. Her film also shows a particular queer aesthetic that enhances a tale that could easily degenerate into “queer perversion” in less skilled hands. Thus she highlights strong bodies, angelic faces, and the repetition of Leppenraub’s angel art.
Lemmons unique vision combines with an attention to the details of the novel upon which the film is based in order to give equal and respectful time to her subjects. As the “detective” in the film, Ledbetter often takes center stage but his dilemmas only form part of the story. Ledbetter yearns for his daughter’s forgiveness and his ex-wife’s love but he is also unapologetic about who he is or the ability with which he grapples. His is not what disability theory calls a “super crip,” suddenly cured to solve the murder or magically clairvoyent; instead, Ledbetter is always teetering on the brink of rage or extreme clarity. And while he tries to hold on just long enough to solve the murder only he and Scotty’s boyfriend believe happened, he often loses his grip.
Though the film revolves around a pathological artist who tortures his young gay subjects “in the name of art” it never pathologizes queerness. Lemmons parallels Ledbetter’s mental ability with Leppenraub’s artistic drive in order to locate the disconnect not in desire for the flesh but desire for vision. His queer misogyny and sadism is juxtaposed against the loving relationship of Scotty and Joey. The impetus for Ledbetter’s quest is a pained and passionate visit from Joey, Scotty’s lover. Joey saves Scotty from complete insanity after his abuse at the hands of Leppenraub. When Scotty dies, Joey is destroyed. Lemmons described wanting to get someone who could look like “they needed both a hug and a fix” (director’s comments on DVD); in so doing, she lets one scene, one tear, and a series of close ups, show the audience the incredible marginalization and humanity of gay homeless youth.
Lemmons also makes wealth into a character of its own, embodied by the Leppenraubs, the man in the tower, and Bob. All of these characters represent the hypocrisy of wealth: the artists whose visions are more important than humanity, the mythic oppressor who crushes Romolous for daring to be brilliant and challenged, and the doo-gooder who thinks he can give a homeless man a shower and a suit and he will instantly return to middle class respectability. Like the questions about the price of bourgeois accoutremont in Eve’s Bayou, Caveman’s Valentine illustrates what happens when power meets privilege, and then dials it up one more notch with prejudice.
The Original Superfly
Her last film Talk to Me (2007), is a biopic of a larger than life misogynist DJ who first helped radicalize mainstream radio and then helped heal a nation during riots that threatened to destroy it. In this film, Lemmons did her best to research both the character and the period to ensure the most accurate picture of Green and his contemporaries. While the film revolves largely around the homosocial relationship between Green and his producer, Dewey Hughes, his girlfriend Vernell Watson is a constant presence.
Like Green Watson is over the top. Her version of power is both a fierce loyalty to her man and the decision to punish his infidelity with public sex with his nearest rival. It isn’t feminism but Lemmons argues it was real.
More exciting, is how deftly Lemmons handles the political transformation of Dewey Hughes which even at his most radical is mired by bourgeois aspirations that ultimately drive a wedge between he and Green, and her recreation of the riots. As I watched the city come undone, I couldn’t breath, it felt so real. Beside me, my mother held her breath as well. Even when James Brown took the stage to calm the people down, we were hushed in the moment of history rather than our usual jovial selves who would have happily sung along or made a James Brown joke.
Lemmons said she chose to do Talk to Me because she was concerned about the political climate of the nation. She said she watched people censor themselves in fear and that Petey Green was an ideal character to remind people to never censor their political ideas. He had been a strong and honest voice when he desperately needed a job, when the nation desperately needed a hero, and even in his dying days when all his bridges were burnt. Petey Green inspired, amused, and helped changed the world just by talking truth into a microphone. Lemmons “wanted to inspire people to speak out” as well. And I think she succeeds with this film. Everyone leaving our theater was deep in discussion about the things they did not know about this moment in history and about Green’s politics as we left, my mother and I talked about it the entire long drive home.
Lemmons managed to blend humor, racial justice, sexual politics and the contradictory yearnings of black America in one film. It was a powerful piece despite its depictions of women as sex objects. And while it would be nice to see Lemmons return to the more overtly feminist visions of her first film, Petey Green was a real man, not a fictional superhero, so those depictions were necessary to accurately reflect Green’s world.
There is a magic to Lemmons cinematic vision that shines through in every film she makes. When you look at them together, her ability to move between different genres, the real and the imagined, the sane and the magical, is inspiring. Like other directors highlight in this Friday series, Kasi Lemmons helps to ensure that films about black people not only appeal to a wide audience but also do not consistently degenerated to the Next Friday Barbecue around the corner from Medea’s Barbershop, and for that alone, we can all be eternally grateful. If you haven’t watched her films, I suggest you go rent them. Start with Eve’s Bayou.