BHM: Friday Director’s Series – Angela Robinson

Today’s Friday Black woman director is a little on the fluffy side, but in that great fun fluffy way.

Angela Robinson

angelarobinson(Getty image)

Unlike the other directors I have highlighted here, Angela Robinson is bringing a black lesbian sensibility to to the action/adventure genre. She has offered campy goodness and thoughtful insight to vampires, ganstas, spies, and even the L Word. Her work also expands the focus into a multicultural cast that is some times effective and sometimes recreatesdebsshort the same old stereotypes that most black women directors are trying to dismantle. It is a hard line to walk between artist and cultural figure and Robinson’s unabashed commitment to keeping her tongue firmly in her cheek defies such distractions while sometimes failing to deconstruct dominant paradigms as a result.

Her first film was the short Chickula, a clear nod to the first widely released black vampire film series Blackula, which yes I loved. Its run time was only 4 minutes and yet it managed to offer up a unique melding of Buffy and Blackula that should be recognizable to fans and media critics alike.

Robinson is most known for writing and directing the short film D.E.B.S that was later picked up and expanded to a feature length film of the same name. The original short, included only one woman of color and featured Tammie Lynn Micheals in her first really recognized role since Popular. The original plot was a basic spoof of the hyper-heteronormative-humor of the Barrymore revamped Charlie’s Angels franchise. Though only 11 minutes, it set the independent and queer film circuits a buzz.

As a feature length film, D.E.B.S. became far more multicultural, including a core cast made up of an African American, Asian American, two European Americans, and the Latina villain, Jordana Brewster, that set both straight and lesbian audiences to drooling. (For those who do not know, Brewster is half Panamanian and half Brazilian.) The movie, debslike the short, centers around young girl spies (think She Spies 10-15 years younger) who are out to stop an arch thief, Lucy Diamond, played by Brewster. Underneath this plot however is the budding love affair between Diamond and the best D.E.B. agent, Amy.  As they spirit off together in a secret hideout that rivals any bat cave, the rest of the team works first to save the world and then to save their friend.  The dialogue is almost always funny and sharp, though it has its trite moments, and the camp is almost always spot on.

The only negative in this campy farce is that the black character is cast as the stereotypical angry black b-ch and I do expect more from a black female writer and director. Interestingly, the role was played by an actress featured in last week’s black women directors post: Meagan Good. (All though Meagan Good is listed as having originated the role on wikipedia, her part was originally played by a much lighter biracial actress named Shanti Lowery.)

Many complained that the feature length film was not as edgy as the 11 minute short. The addition of a prominent competing heterosexual relationship storyline and other characters made some in the queer community lament the supposed loss of rapid fire dialogue and the narrowed focus of the original. Others speculated that the problem was simply the loss of snarky Tammy Lynn and a supposedly more commercially viable cast in general.

Sadly, straight audiences also seemed to miss the point, complaining, as Ebert did on one broadcast, that “If there weren’t lesbians in this would I even care?” Rather than looking at what Robinson was trying to accomplish, which was both to queer the genre and to ultimately offer us something that questions the roles and images we were being sold as brewsterpost-feminist empowerment, most straight reviewers wrote it off as a “lesbian gimmick.” This showed their ignorance of the director’s filmography and the origin of the film both of which required some commitment to knowing queer media.

Comments like Eberts, who also recently got in trouble for a similarly dismissive review of Tru Loved, also begs the question: if there weren’t scantily clad straight girls in the Barrymore version of Charlie’s Angels would anyone have cared?

Asking that question, seriously, in turn forces us to look more deeply than many post-feminists did at the supposed empowerment Barrymore’s films were offering us through shots of Diaz’s butt, and upskirt or down shirt looks at Lucy Lu And Barrymore herself. While the franchise can be applauded for bringing back Demi Moore as a sexy villain in an industry that continues to discard actresses over 25, with rare exception, or relegate them to unsexy and unappealing parts, Demi Moore was little more than a bikini wearing Bond Girl with attitude while Jordan Brewster, much younger to be sure, offered a Get Smart (the tv show) like villain that was both camp and complex (as complex as cheesy camp can be anyway). Ultimately, D.E.B.S offered a more insightful discussion of sexuality, both straight and gay, the meaning of good and evil, and the choices we make as women, friends, and lovers. And it wrapped it up in the same eye candy camp that made similar heterosexual movies and tv shows hits with a consciousness about what it was doing that those shows often lacked.

Since D.E.B.S, Robinson became one of the writers and directors for the L Word. She helped pen and/or direct 9 episodes of the show from 2004 until now. This includes three episodes for this seasons “Litmus Test” – which tested Helena’s love interest to see if she was still shady – and “LMAO” when the gang discovers that Jennie and Shane have hooked up. Like her film offerings, her stint on the L Word has emphasized humor and pop culture.

Robinson also wrote and directed an independent off shoot of the L Word for their Our Chart site called Girl Trash.

The series offered an edgy side of Robinson’s camera work, using tight cuts and odd angles, as well as playing with light and dark (black and white, use of red film, etc.). It also continues her committed foray into established genres that often lack queer subjectivity, this time looking at gangs and inner city poverty.  While the series is not as polished as Set it Off, it does feature Rose Rollins in a role that seems made for her mix of hard and sexy. All though it should be noted that Rollins’ part is also easily received as stereotypical despite the fact it is comedic. It also shifts the focus to an almost all white cast in a genre that has often been centered around supposed black or brown pathology. In so doing it might encourage some to think beyond racialization to the questions of poverty and the deliberate making of an underclass. Given the current economic crisis that is certainly something to think about.

At the same time, it does represent a far less diverse cast than her previous efforts, despite the occasional inclusion of Margaret Cho, Jordana Brewster, and Rollins. (Her commercial debut as the director of the remake of Herbie the Love Bug may have had more diversity.) Unfortunately, when the our chart website was shutdown, oops I mean “merged with showtimes regular station site,” Girl Trash was not transferred. However, you can watch the first 8 episodes (run time about 3 minutes each) on youtube.

Her upcoming project returns her to the large screen. She is slated to direct a film she co-wrote with Alexander Kodracke tentatively entitled Jenbot.  The current plot revolves around a queered Bionic Woman, hence the fembot reference in the title. In this version, the titular character Jen has been targeted by the government to be turned into a cyborg for their own purposes. The film is likely to parody and/or expand the themes of  both the 70s tv show and the failed update from last year. Given her other work, I don’t doubt it will be much more recognizable to those of us who were fans of the original.

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