‘Girls Trip’: a dose of Black Girl Magic

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When one discusses female comedy films, invariably “Bridesmaids” (2011) and “Mean Girls” (2004) are mentioned. This is not it. “Girls Trip” (2017) is new and different. There is the usual chaotic series of events that accompanies film comedies, but this movie has Black females friendships as a central focus.

Written by Kenya Barris (scriptwriter of comedy hit “Black-ish”) and Tracy Oliver, this film feels real, and it is my go-to choice for a laughter fix. This movie leaves the viewer with a warm and fuzzy feeling because it is based on the real-life female friendship experiences of the writers. The Flossy Posse quartet depicted have great chemistry on-screen so the story is even more believable, despite the use of the comedy genre of the reunion and wild weekend events.

“Girls Trip” is the first film by an African-American screenwriter to pass the $100 million mark. It was also the first comedy of 2017 to pass that figure domestically in the USA.

This film is a 117-minute turbulent portrayal of how individual life events can take you in different directions, but shows how the concrete connection of early friendships ground you when times are both good and bad. This is a situation comedy where nothing goes to plan, and it’s the way the four principal characters—the Flossy Posse—handle the unexpected moments that give rise to the best comedic reactions.

A prime example of this is when the four friends have an argument and all go their separate ways. Dina (Tiffany Haddish) says to them as she stomps away, “I hate you all. I love you, but I hate you, bitch!” Haddish has many of the best one-liners in the film. Dina is portrayed as the unrestrained, immature, reactive joker who is supremely confident about everything despite having just lost her job over a sandwich.

Liz Davelli (Kate Walsh), as Ryan (Regina Hall)’s agent, also shares the limelight as a comedy genius with her smart delivery of the culturally insensitive “white woman lines” along with the lingering hugs and inappropriate use of words and actions, such as ass smacking Stewart (Mike Colter) and whispering to him, “I am so lonely,” while she body hugs him in front of his wife, and then leering after him as he walks away, saying “Oh! Gosh, that man knows how to exit a room. Woof!”. She is brilliant as the token white woman.

“Girls Trip”‘s main focus is the story of Ryan who is on the edge of a major public breakthrough, although each of the other members of the Flossy Posse are equally represented with characteristics that are regularly found in female friendship groups: business-oriented, empathy, determination, and risk-taking. The performances of the main four characters is mostly balanced with fairly equal attention paid to the backstories and complex humanity of all members of the Flossy Posse, which are progressively revealed. “Girls Trip” subtly charts the changes in personal relationships and friendship dynamics and shows how each woman’s decision can impact the life and reality of her close friends.

Ryan is married to retired football player Stewart Pierce; they are the picture-perfect power couple who sell their dream lives as the template for people who want to “have it all”; however, the facade of their personal lives together soon shows cracks of infidelity and unselected infertility. Ryan and Stewart are content to exist behind an illusion of happiness for the sake of their public brand. Their friends, especially Dina, frequently call them out as “plastic” and “fake.”

There is an inevitable fallout, yet when the friends are finally reunited at the end of the film, Ryan says in her keynote Essence speech, “I have done such a great job of pretending so many times before, but there are some people, when you see them, you just can’t pretend anymore. Because they know … you. The real you.”

One of my personal favourite scenes is the dance battle in the nightclub. The reality and complete range of female friendship is right there: the bond of unity, the angst, the rivalry, the support, and the musical soundtrack. This scene shows that the Flossy Posse is a “ride or die” crew, especially when mild-mannered Lisa (Jada Pinkett Smith) starts the physical fight because her tsunami drink “wore off.” She fights like a mother bear whose cubs are under threat. They all do; they are totally united as one.

In this film, every detail counts, even the “You can’t buy Sisterhood” patch on Lisa’s denim jacket that is shown in the closing scenes, along with the music like “I’m Every Woman” by Whitney Houston.

It’s a film that makes you laugh and cry simultaneously, and sometimes cringe with embarrassment, but mostly laugh.

Ryan concludes the film with this speech: “I don’t know what the future will bring. Love or heartbreak, joy or pain, but right now it’s bright. The one thing I know for sure is my girls will be there. No matter who else steps in the picture, my girls are my constant. They give me the permission to be who I am. And I am going to be me. We’re going to be us.”

The film’s finale is a dance sequence in New Orleans after the weekend’s events that sums up the exuberance of Flossy Posse’s friendship as they sashay and sing their way along the streets both as a close friendship unit, but also as individuals dancing to their own beats.

“Girls Trip” is a film that highlights and celebrates Black womanhood in a variety of forms. This includes a honour roll call of Black excellence with people like Iyanla Vanzant, Mariah Carey, Mike Epps, Terry McMillan, Morris Chestnut, Estelle, Common, Ne-Yo, and Ava DuVernay who specifically talks about “Black Girl Magic”; DuVernay says, “It feels like a reminder, a rallying call, a term of endearment.” “Girls Trip” is all about the journey that is “Black Girl Magic.”

‘Moonlight’: removing the physical armour

“Moonlight” (2016) is a poetic and universal tale. It is a coming-of-age story for everyone who has every questioned “Who am I?” The central character in Tarell Alvin McCraney’s story is a Black American young man in Miami, yet he is also all of us, in all locations of this world growing up and coming to terms with our unique identities and surroundings.

Barry Jenkins, the screenwriter and director, takes McCraney’s story of one person’s lifetime and makes it into a filmic triptych that relates to three seminal stages of that life: preteen, teenager, and young adult.

Jenkins uses separate actors to portray the same character at three distinct iterations of personal growth: the first section of the film shows Little (Alex Hibbert), age 11; then Chiron (Ashton Sanders), age 17; and finally Black (Trevante Rhodes), age 25.

Little (Alex R. Hibbert)

Little inhabits a world of silence, fear, and anxiety; he is selectively mute because of the sadness of his home environment—where he lives with his drug addict mother Paula (Naomie Harris)—and the isolation he experiences when he cannot vocalise his feelings. Like many young people on the cusp of a shifting physical and emotional landscape, Little is quiet and brooding; he spends the majority of his time watching his peers and the adults around him.

Little uses his physicality more than words, with the majority of his communication being shown through the longing silently etched in his eyes. However, the film is not silent; the score by Nicholas Britell, the musical interludes, and the background sounds of the Miami ocean create a moving emotional landscape from the opening scene to the final frame.

McCraney and Jenkins both grew up in Miami and worked together to produce a film about identity and early life in a location that was simultaneously beautiful and a nightmare. Jenkins ensures that the audience sees that people can live a life of poverty, hardship, and emotional turmoil in the middle of picturesque surroundings.

McCraney and Jenkins both grew up in Miami and worked together to produce a film about identity and early life in a location that was simultaneously beautiful and a nightmare. Jenkins ensures that the audience sees that people can live a life of poverty, hardship, and emotional turmoil in the middle of picturesque surroundings. He uses the images, sounds, and feelings in the film to show a juxtaposition of intense emotions, alienation, and loneliness amid a stunning physical landscape. Jenkins directs the film to portray the main character as physically adrift, alienated from his community, and travelling within himself yet surrounded by space at all times.

The introduction of Little on-screen occurs in the first few minutes of the opening credits as he is running and being chased by his childhood bullies. This theme of escape continues throughout the majority of the film. Little is rescued from the junkie den he hides in by Juan (Mahershala Ali), the local drug dealer. Juan’s character is a magnanimous father figure toward the vulnerable Little whom he nurtures rather than exploits. “C’mon now, can’t be no worse out here,” he says as he entreats the scared child to go with him for a meal. Those few words cement a lifetime relationship of trust between Little, Juan, and his partner Teresa (Janelle Monáe) that is based on a mainly one-way verbal communication method. Juan and Teresa become surrogate parents, the anchors in Little’s life. They save him from drowning in the questions of his own identity.

Teresa (Janelle Monáe) speaking with Little

Little, Chiron, and Black expertly portray the internal silence and loneliness of a coming-of-age experience. The main character is like the water that is the soundtrack to his life: fluid and constantly changing.

Little, Chiron, and Black expertly portray the internal silence and loneliness of a coming-of-age experience. The main character is like the water that is the soundtrack to his life: fluid and constantly changing. Little has a baptismal-like experience when Juan teaches him to swim in the Atlantic Ocean, as in that moment he symbolically and literally learns life lessons on how to stay afloat and trust other people.

Juan cradles Little in his arms in the expanse of the ocean with the reassuring words, “Relax. I got you.” When Little is ready, Juan releases him, saying, “You in the middle of the world… There you go, I think you ready.” Little finds safety and constancy with Juan and Teresa.

Illustration by Tavi Veraldi

Little/Chiron/Black experiences a harsh reality of toxic masculinity and homophobic hatred from his school friends, yet Juan is a constant and caring male figure who gently teaches the young boy identity politics when he tells him that “there are people who look like you everywhere,” and “At some point you gotta decide for yourself who you gonna be. You can’t let nobody make that decision for you.”

Paula (Naomie Harris)

Little’s mother Paula is inconsistent and angry and frequently forces Little to look inward or to Juan and Teresa’s for clarity, especially about his own sexuality and the local trap (drug scene). At Juan’s home he learns about complex adult relationships and behaviour, including the fact that Juan sells drugs to Paula. Silence and secrets are a constant thread in this film. Before he betrays Chiron, Kevin, a childhood friend, shares a story of his own sexual experiences but insists that the tale “must stay between us,” adding enigmatically, “… I know you can keep a secret.”

Chiron (Ashton Sanders)

Teenage angst is pivotal in deciding the direction of Chiron’s life. Kevin succumbs to masculine peer pressure when he chooses to fight Chiron in the schoolyard, which leads to Chiron transforming into Black after subsequent events lead to a prison sentence. When Kevin and Black meet in the third part of the film, Kevin notes that Black is “still fronting.” However, both men eventually discard their facades and recreate a tender moment from the beginning of the second part of the film when they were intimate with each other.

Black (Trevante Rhodes) with Kevin (André Holland)

“Moonlight” is a worldwide story about being able to love yourself before you can love others.

“Moonlight” is a worldwide story about being able to love yourself before you can love others. It is a journey of silence, recognition, and acceptance of self and also connections with others. It is a tale about situations that may appear calm on the surface but underneath the physical armour is a state of chaos.

At the end of the film, we understand that every life is a palimpsest of earlier identities—where one finds a way to handle the crises of young sadness, numb oneself to anger and confusion, and eventually navigate a pathway to personal happiness.

Sisters, doing it for themselves

Everybody loves an underdog story, and everybody loves a sports story. “A League of Their Own” (1992) is a combination of both genres. The underdog is this case is the average American woman left behind as the ravages of World War II has stripped the country of its fit and healthy young men.

While American male bodies are being destroyed by bullets and bombs fighting overseas, the country is feeling the void of masculinity in homes, factories, and sports arenas. The film starts with the portrayal of male absence by the initial images of playing children and lonesome wives followed by long lingering shots over photographs of men who do not exist in the present or the recent past. The film shows the route from relative rural isolation to public community and unity of purpose.

The Queen of Diamonds, a recently bereaved grandmother Dottie Hinson (Geena Davis), bookends the film as she reluctantly revisits her memory of her younger days journeying from a member of the country baseball team, Lukash Dairy, to the star of the national Rockford Peaches team; it was something, she says, that “was never that important to me. It was just something I did.”

Fundamentally, “A League of Their Own” is a story of sisterhood in the narrowest sense. The siblings Kit Keller (Lori Petty) and Dottie join the first female professional baseball league and they struggle to help it succeed amidst their own growing rivalry; additionally the sisters join a wider sisterhood of the women of the league when they get to Chicago and become members of the All-American Girls Professional Baseball League. While Dottie professes her reluctance to leave her rural farm life for the city and baseball prospects, her younger sister Kit pleads with Dottie—the favoured star prospect—to accept the opportunity because for Kit it is a chance to break free of the strictures of the family home: “Please Dottie, I’ve gotta get outta here. I’m nothing here.” It is sisterly sacrifice that leads to the two sisters joining the inaugural intake of the first female professional baseball league; they join the national campaign to help the league succeed amidst their own personal growing rivalry.

Sacrifice is a continuing theme of the film: Dottie, apparently happily married and settled in her job and home, gives up her country life to give her sister Kit a chance to fulfill her own dream; Marla Hooch’s father, a widower from Fort Collins, Colorado, actively encourages the baseball scout Ernie Capadino (Jon Lovitz) to take his skillful daughter because “nothing’s ever gonna happen here. You gotta go where things happen”; the selected baseball players agree to impractical baseball uniforms along with charm and beauty classes because “every girl in this league is going to be a lady,” according to the sales requirement of Ira Lowenstein.

Lowenstein, working for the baseball league owners, led by financier and chocolatier Walter Harvey, is tasked with filling the temporary gap in the sport and making the women’s game into a salable product. Naturally, some women in the 1940s who are the depiction of propriety—notably four portly Chicago middle-class, middle-aged women in matronly patterned dresses, with matching handbags and pearls—publicly express their disgust at the prospects of women in sports by using a language of violence to describe women outside of the home, in both education and in baseball, as “leading to the masculinisation of women with enormously dangerous consequences to the home, the children, and our country,” and “the most disgusting example of this sexual confusion” as “young girls are plucked from their families… to see which one of them can be the most masculine.” It was the general contention that women were to be kept separate from baseball and public displays as sports ignited the passions and therefore it should be avoided by the “fairer sex.” The position of the staid homemaking American woman alters by the end of the film when, at final of the Women’s World Series, the national anthem is led on the baseball field by a doppelgänger of Maida Gillespie, the woman who spoke so ferociously against the idea of sportswomen being highly publicised.

The central premise of the detractors of women in sports was that the world worked well because it was organised on simple binary oppositions of men and women, work and home, country and city, and these boundaries should not be breached. Dottie and Kit’s parents were portrayed as the ideal image of family life: a homely couple on a farm with the mother fussing around the needs of the central father figure. Their daughters both abandoned the stereotypical role of women by becoming baseball players in the city showing a contrast to the traditional roles of femininity and the modern rise of feminist personal agency outside of the home. Throughout the film, women are seen as being catapulted from the comfort of the contained family hearth into the open centre of the competitive baseball field. A place where they were encouraged to identify as people with desires, people who wanted to win.

The game of baseball becomes an intense and passionate experience for everyone involved right from the spectators, the reluctant coach, to the highly competitive leagues of women players.
Other themes central to the film are misogyny, feminism, and masculinity. The Rockford Peaches’ coach, Jimmy Dugan (Tom Hanks), is portrayed as an alcoholic former World Series calibre baseball player being given a second chance to redeem his status as a baseball legend. Dugan views the women’s baseball game with disgust and turns up drunk for the first several games when he is nothing more than a token—a gender role reversal—used to promote the status of the game. Dugan is initially portrayed as a weak persona, a position usually reserved for the females in a film. “A League of Their Own” is full of usual and unusual contrasts, many of them based around the 1940s public image of femininity related to the home and sports.

An often overlooked element in the film is the role of Black people. They are viewed in mainly service roles: as musicians or cleaners. However, there is one moment, halfway through the film, when a stray ball is picked up by a Black woman on the boundary of the baseball field, then when Dottie Hinson calls for her to throw the ball back, the Black woman throws it with ease so it soars past Hinson to a farther placed catcher. Hinson visually expresses surprise, the Black woman sadly acknowledges the regularity of her overlooked skill, and she is left to return to the sidelines where a group of other similarly isolated Black men and women stand. This short scene references the informal segregation of sports that was in place in the early 1940s. The colour bar was broken in the men’s game when Jackie Robinson was signed for the Brooklyn Dodgers in the 1946 baseball season. Marcenia Lyle Stone, commonly known as Toni Stone, was the first Black woman to join a professional baseball team, although she did not join a women’s team as they were still segregated; Toni Stone joined the Indianapolis Clowns and crossed a gender line into the men’s team where she played professionally, in traditional baseball uniform—not skirts.

The images of beauty, Eurocentric ideals, are one of the major factors that decide which women throughout the countrywide sweep for talent gets picked for the tryouts in Chicago. Despite Marla Hooch’s skill, the baseball scout openly rejects her when he first sees her face. This is regardless of the fact that he was amazed by her performance. What Capadino does not expect is that his position of ultimate power is instantly challenged when the bond of sisterhood is immediately portrayed as the Oregon sisters refuse to leave Colorado without Marla.

This is a drama, a sports movie, and a comedy combined. The comedic elements are usually visual or one-liners by Jimmy Dugan, Evelyn Gardner (Bitty Schram), or the crudeness of the baseball scout Ernie Capadino.

The visual comedy centres, in a frequent misogynistic gaze, on moments when the boundaries of decorum are breached like when the drunken Jimmy Dugan turns up on the first match day and urinates for an exceptionally long time just out of the visual line of the women in the changing room. “All the Way” Mae Mordabito (Madonna) is central to this scene as a curious and intrigued onlooker. Madonna, and her on-screen comedy partner Rosie O’Donnell, as Doris Murphy, have several two-hander moments including watching and timing the sot who is forced on them as a coach, and other risqué encounters.

Initially the new recruits, dressed in physically unsuitable short skirt uniforms, are discouraged by the unsupportive baseball fans; however, they are admirably portrayed by the director, Penny Marshall, as women who are encouraging of each other despite their obvious team rivalry. Marshall manages to show how American women of the ’40s were often conflicted between their personal ambition and their nationally prescribed duty. Eventually the public begins to appreciate the women’s league for both their skills and their looks with newspaper headlines eventually conceding that “Girls really do play baseball.”

The women of the baseball teams grow in respect and support of each other, and mutual respect is also nurtured between coach Dugan and the women after their initial opposition toward each other. Dugan’s emotional journey is shown as the most altered because at the end of the war, when the baseball-playing men are set to return from overseas, he is offered a new position in the male league, but he refuses it to stay with the women’s league.

“A League of Their Own” is a film that is still celebrated as a great sports movie after over a quarter of a century since its release. It is a film than depicts women as the central characters on the screen and gives them varied and detailed storylines. This film highlights the fact that women playing major league baseball was a significant event in the history of sports and society in the 1940s, and ensures that this event is never forgotten or discarded.

Many female sports movies focus on the athletic goal usually as a secondary matter; director Penny Marshall highlights the women’s athleticism and also uses this film to accentuate the everyday adversities, boundaries, and glass ceilings that women outside of the home, outside of the current “norm,” will face.

The underdog in this story is Kit Keller who ends up achieving the final win, while eventually gaining a better understanding of her sister Dottie. Kit and the other female players are repeatedly told that there’s “no crying in baseball”; however, they retain their full emotional range and still succeed in the sports arena. In the regular reunions of the cast since the release of the film, art reflects life as the depictions of the sisterhood of the Rockford Peaches has lasted offscreen as well.

The women’s league teams are base stealers in the sports arena: slowly but surely they creep their way into the hearts and minds of the American public, both in the 1943 to 1954 All-American Girls Professional Baseball League and in the canon of favourite sports movies. What was supposed to be a temporary measure to entertain the American public during the horrors of war became a successful “product” with nearly a million spectators at the peak of their games. At the final of the World Women’s Series, Hinson says to her sister and team rival, “Play great,” as sisterhood trumps game rivalry.

The film concludes with a reunion of the women league players, but most significantly with the reconnection of the sisters Dottie and Kit who through time had become estranged because of baseball and team rivalry and then individual family dynamics.

“A League of Their Own” is a monument to the collaborations, relationships, and friendships of women both on-screen and behind the camera. The female writer, Kim Wilson, manages to intricately portray the familiar struggles of women, and for nearly three decades viewers of all genders and ages have recognised themselves in the characters portrayed. This film has been the vehicle by which many people have decided that it is OK to get “dirt in the skirt” on the way to achieve their personal goals.

The contours of fear: a documentary elegy

The sound of repetitive, relentless punching against a fixed piece of board starts this documentary, and a world upside down and back to front ends it. Every frame of the 107 minutes in between reinforces the idea that the director, Yance Ford, is sharing his personal elegy of grief with the camera. This is a story for everybody, but specifically for you, the person listening and watching right now. This is the message that is transmitted.

“Strong Island” (2017) is a documentary that does not pull any punches. It is a stark, literally in-your-face look at the justice system from the point of view of a Black man in twenty-first-century America. This is not an unfamiliar story. It is, however, a highly personal journey that amplifies other similar stories. Yance Ford, as the director and an active subject in the documentary, is endeavouring to reclaim his family’s history and to rewrite the stolen identity of his murdered brother, 24-year-old William Ford Jr.

Twenty-two years after his brother’s death, Yance Ford faces the camera and starts a quest to find answers: “I’m not surprised that the case didn’t go to trial. I just want to know, exactly, all the reasons why.”

The gravity of the decades-long exodus from private shock to this public statement of grief is shown in the first full frame of Yance Ford speaking directly to camera. Ford warns that the film will be uncomfortable to watch; it is, if one does not want to face the truth. Fade to black. The transitions between the majority of shots are black screens. Just blackness. No sound. No words. Silence and darkness—a parallel of the family journey.

Central to the questions Ford asks is a pair of contrasting cases of shootings: William Ford’s and David Breen’s. Viewers subtly become aware of the differences between the circumstances of teacher William Ford’s shooting and subsequent death, and that of lawyer David Breen, 25 years old at the time, a former assistant district attorney (ADA) who had the Brooklyn Bridge shut down to transport him to a hospital after he was shot at a cashpoint mugging. Breen’s attacker, 18-year-old Kenneth Martinez, was charged with attempted murder, first-degree assault, robbery, and criminal possession of a weapon.

William Ford was one of the two men who assisted Breen when he was assaulted—by apprehending the fleeing assailant who was armed with the gun—and was subsequently a witness for Breen’s case. Ford was later described by Ed Boyar (former Brooklyn ADA) as performing a “fearless … heroic act”: the evening Ford was killed was at the end of a week of appearances in court as a defence witness for the shooting incident relating to David Breen. The legal system he was participating in, the legal system in which he was trying to obtain employment as a correction officer, was the same system that turned its back on him later that day.

David Breen and William Ford both got shot, yet David Breen’s story had a different outcome. Breen was rushed to a hospital with major road closures and his attacker was brought to court. William Ford was left to die alone on the ground and his attacker walked free, sanctioned by the courts.

Barbara Dunmore Ford raised her three children with the principal aim to love one another, and to see character, not colour. The sad truth of this film is the understanding that despite his family’s standards, William Ford was judged primarily on his colour, not on his character.

The character was unseen. The grand jury deemed William Ford’s murder as a “justifiable shooting.” The police evidence in the investigation focused on the deceased victim’s height, weight, and exercise routine, not on the facts around the vehicle in question or the behaviour of the murderer, 19-year-old Mark Reilly. Reilly had an extensive criminal record; it is a matter of record that he used a rifle to shoot William Ford once in his chest. It is a matter of record that the murderer is white. It is a matter of record that the victim is Black. It is a matter of record that the defence system contended that the killing on April 7, 1992, was based on fear. Fear of blackness dictated that justice went absent in the grand jury hearing, which decided that the murder was a case of self-defence because reasonable fear existed. This decision was reached because the victim was deemed the prime suspect in his own murder.

“How do you measure the distance of reasonable fear?” Yance Ford asks. Additionally, he wants to know, “What are the contours of fear? Whose fear is reasonable?”

“Hidden Figures” (2016) noted, “Every time we have a chance to get ahead, they move the finish line.” Yance Ford’s experience shows that it is even difficult to get equal standing, so there is no hope of getting ahead in his personal experience.

“Hidden Figures” (2016) noted, “Every time we have a chance to get ahead, they move the finish line.” Yance Ford’s experience shows that it is even difficult to get equal standing, so there is no hope of getting ahead in his personal experience.

The documentary invites the viewer to see William Ford not as the newspapers, the grand jury, the murderer Mark Reilly, and the police saw him, but as his family, specifically Yance Ford, saw him. Yance has multiple reasons to be passionate about directing the gaze of the viewer to the personality and character of his brother, because he himself has specific identity questions, being a transgender man. He has also stepped into the role as the only surviving male member of the Ford family following his brother’s murder, and his father’s rapid decline and death from illness after that unresolved tragic event.

The filmmaker narrates the film with a steady voice and invites the viewer to see his brother as his family knew him, flaws as well. His whole humanity is displayed. The people interviewed are generally sat centre frame in upright chairs, facing the camera. This is a direct interaction between each speaker and the viewer. Yance Ford is the sole person whose face takes up the whole screen, looking directly into the camera. We only see Yance’s hands as he shares family photos and disseminates the family history and personal portraits as he saw and knew them.

“Strong Island” is a powerful indictment on a legal and social system that continues to fail the Black American community. Yance Ford is harnessing the power of the gaze in this documentary to make his own memory, his personal journey, and his family’s grief readily accessible to everyone. Yance Ford, as a filmmaker, highlights William Ford’s death and thereby removes the anonymity of this case from the never-ending list of publicly ignored Black men’s unjust deaths. To Yance and his sister Lauren, William Ford was a hero, so Yance Ford recreates the legally tarnished name of William Ford in the image of him that they held as a family. The content of this film is the reason why #BlackLivesMatter continues to be relevant as we slink through the first quarter of the twenty-first century.

The reality behind “Strong Island” is not a new story; it is an old story that is always fresh and relevant. That fact is this film shines a light on an individual experience, on humanity at the most raw and vulnerable moments, when sudden and unexpected death crashes into a family, and it is all completed with a mostly calm and always tender attention to the facts as viewed by the surviving family members.

In this portrayed behaviour, Yance Ford mimics his mother, his father, his sister, his community, his “race,” all who have been conditioned by repeated traumatic situations to retain a mainly calm demeanour in the centre of an anger storm. This film clearly demonstrates that any “Angry Black Person” is stripped of their right to be angry, or their right to be viewed as a person: “Angry Black Person” becomes “Angry Black Person.” Black is seen and judged according to the centuries of institutional racism and structural discrimination, and not as Barbara Dunmore Ford had taught, on character.

Viewers may comment that this is a biased, one-sided documentary. I am sure the director would concur: this film was created to balance the view of William Ford as seen by the community and legal structures of Long Island.

As standard justice seemed unobtainable, Yance Ford has taken his case notes in documentary form, to the public. This film is worthy of its Oscar nomination, and it must be a bittersweet moment for any filmmaker. It is a film that should never need to be made, yet the direct personal appeal of the Ford family to see their son and brother as a human being who had been unjustifiably murdered, is overwhelming in its dignity and sadness.

It is a pessimistic view of life in America, and for Yance Ford and millions of people who look like him, it is a daily reality: living with the fear of being treated as a second-class citizen in school, housing, employment, and the law.

This documentary is a dissection of the reality of fear viewed from different spectrums of America. It is an investigation of how the justice system systematically protects white people from just punishment and unjustly castigates Black people as criminals, merely by virtue of their black bodies, even when the Black person is the victim. This is a stark portrayal of the impotency of Blackness when confronted by whiteness and civil justice, the impact of social segregation that nonchalantly draws lines around lives with the same ease it constructs chalk outlines around the fallen Black bodies.

This documentary is the world through Yance Ford’s eyes. It shows how white people imbue black bodies with monstrous characteristics that justify all their actions toward them, including murder. The American legal system seems not to question what reasonable fear is when a white man kills a Black man—it accepts all manifestations and actions against Black people as reasonable. Why?

Yance Ford asks many questions in an attempt to understand what happened to destroy his family, and why the expected murder trial never materialised.

Why? He repeats.

This is the one question Ford leaves with the audience.

Why is this OK? Why does this keep happening? Why don’t you believe what you see? Why do you deny our humanity? Why?

These questions remain unanswered because the Ford family is still waiting for justice, and the American legal system responds: no comment.

Case closed.

The Women of Wakanda

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The film “Black Panther” (2018) is a typical Marvel action movie that’s not typical in its casting. A large amount of the action is performed by the women, main characters who don’t exist solely to assist the goals of a male character. They each have their own agendas and missions.

The groundbreaking film “Black Panther” features Chadwick Boseman as the eponymous superhero from Wakanda who officially spearheads the battle on the villainous players, while surrounded by the skills and expertise of an army of women. The film is exceptional for a number of reasons, and this essay will focus particularly on the power of the female agency in the film. This agency is heralded in the opening sequence when the panther goddess Bast is highlighted as the fountain source of truth and power in Wakanda. Bast’s gift of the secret, potent, heart-shaped herb is handed to the Wakandans via a vision, and is tended and guarded by mainly female gatekeepers.

The film’s principal stars are the country of Wakanda and the many women, not the titular “Black Panther” persona. The strong representation of women gives innumerable female characters a performance range and depth that is not traditionally seen in superhero films or mainstream movies.

The all-Black female characters are not conflicted by their roles; they are strongly independent, unflinching, loyal, reliable, and trustworthy in varying measures. From Angela Bassett, as the ever-elegant Queen Mother Ramonda, to the reclusive warrior women of the Jabari Tribe who fight to rescue Wakanda from the outside villains, the women of “Black Panther” teach the viewer about feminism without the need for a single white woman saviour feminist in sight.

The first human females introduced set the tone for the entire film: When the highly trained royal guard, Dora Milaje, knock on the door of Californian-based Wakandan spy, N’Jobu (Sterling K. Brown), he immediately shows both fear and respect to their presence. He says to his soldier companion, “Open it. They won’t knock again.” Throughout the movie, the ceremonial honour guard and high-security protection duties for the royal Wakandan family and status of the throne are led by the all-female Dora Milaje.

During the entire film, Okoye (Danai Gurira), general of the Dora Milaje, commands respect from everyone with her quiet, dignified presence, her ever-ready status, and her unflinching loyalty to her position within the royal household. The female “Black Panther” characters are multidimensional and able to show both strength and tenderness without fracturing their personalities. An example of this occurs when General Okoye stops the rebellion of the Border Tribe, led by her “love” warrior W’Kabi (Daniel Kaluuya), with the following exchange:

“Drop your weapon.”

“Will you kill me, my love?”

“For Wakanda? Without question!”

The tripod of power that is central to “Black Panther” is embodied by two women and a man: King T’Challa, General Okoye, and international spy Nakia (Lupita Nyong’o), who are present at the high points of the movie, especially at the beginning—in the first ten minutes when their triangular connection is established—and later in the centre, and at the conclusion of the story when they resurface together to restore equilibrium to Wakanda and expand its global reach. Ayo, another senior Dora Milaje, joins the trio at the United Nations press conference in Vienna at the film’s ending, making the concluding image of the Wakandan Empire mostly female.

From a Black female perspective, “Black Panther” is the cinematic equivalent of Michelle Obama’s 2018 book “Becoming”; it is a testament to the reality and life of a people who are often ignored. Both pieces of media focus specifically on the individuality of the Black female body, and the movie, like the Obama book, is a celebration of a circle of strong women who always lift each other up.

“Black Panther” disrupts the social constructions around the portrayals of race onscreen. From the protagonist (Chadwick Boseman) to the antagonist Killmonger aka N’Jadaka (Michael B. Jordan), this film populates the story with a wide range of dynamically complex characters who are a mixture of realistic positive and negative traits. Even Killmonger’s female partner is depicted as a highly skilled hacker and undercover agent, despite the fact that she is later assassinated when she is of no further use.

“Black Panther” is a revelation and celebration of Black spaces personified by Wakanda that have been protected from the disruption of Western influences. It is also a filmic imagination and cultural restoration of the possibilities that may have occurred if Black African history was uninterrupted by white colonialism.

The women in “Black Panther” are central to this story; they are never invisible. They are the scaffolding, spine, and substance of the action within this epic creation; their actions and individual choices are essential to the shape of the narrative. In the closing scenes of the film, the titular Black Panther thanks Nakia for saving him and his family, before the powerful Wakandans stand before the world at the United Nations to reveal their true identity and offerings of their rich culture to the world.

Director Ryan Coogler uses a firm yet delicate and detailed touch with the direction of this film. The inclusion of historical and traditional African tribal garments is a bow to the long history of the African continent, and the oft-overlooked strength, innovation, and intelligence of the people who originated from there (production designer Hannah Beachler and costume designer Ruth Carter).

The character of Princess Shuri (Letitia Wright), along with her female design team, mirrors the vibranium that is at the centre of the story, and is an illustration of the hidden riches of Africans. Shuri is a perpetual innovator and a punmaster whose philosophy is summed up in the following sharp dialogue between her and her brother, King-elect:

“How many times do I have to teach you? Just because something works doesn’t mean that it cannot be improved.”

“You are teaching me? What do you know?”

“More than you!” Shuri counters and walks away to continue her research.

Realistically, not all members of the Wakandan Tribes accept Shuri’s technological advancements. M’Baku (Winston Duke) from the Jabari Tribe demeans her with his initial reference to her as “a child” and views her position as a researcher as a person “who scoffs at tradition.”

M’Baku has some of the funniest lines when he interacts with the American CIA agent Ross (Martin Freeman) in the mountain home of the Jabari. The humour of the film is not to be overlooked, especially when it so smoothly tackles both patriarchy and white supremacist ideals. An example of this is the discussion of beauty in the scene in South Korea. The film covers individuality and the choice of whether or not to wear Western hairstyles. When Okoye comments on the wig Nakia wears to blend in on their mission, Nakia—referring to American singer Willow Smith’s 2010 song “Whip My Hair”— smoothly responds, “Just whip it back and forth, eh?”

The normally naturalistic women complete their mission and eventually capture the elusive villain Klaue and, in the process, humorously use the abhorred wig and necessary high-heeled shoes as weapons against their opponents in the Busan, South Korea, nightclub.

The message of “Black Panther” is that the potential and influence of women must not be ignored or discounted. From the strategic actions of Nakia as an undercover spy and refugee saviour on a personal mission who will not abandon her calling, to the knowledge centre of Shuri, who has the final words of the film when she says to the injured Westerner Sergeant Barnes, “Come, there is much more for you to learn,” all the women excel as examples of depth and variety of the Black woman.

The women of Wakanda break all current Black women stereotypes: the Wakandans are strong, they have choices, and they are independent. Nakia, from the River Tribe, was T’Challa’s chosen one, yet she left him and her home in Wakanda to follow her calling and her dreams for happiness by using her skills to emancipate and aide others in the world beyond the Wakandan borders. Nakia reinforces her agency when she reminds King T’Challa that she could be a great Queen if she wanted to, but her choice is to do something else.

The central question of this epic movie is “Who are you?” and what do you choose to do with all of who you are.

The Wakandan women are glorious from the commencement of the film to the closing credits and they present a varied representation of Black women’s lives. However, the follow-up Marvel story of the Dora Milaje is eagerly anticipated with the hope that the role of Ayo—a high-ranking royal protection officer—will be expanded to include more of the same-sex relationships that exist amongst women.

The watchers: the compelling gaze in ‘The Virgin Suicides’

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“The Virgin Suicides” film is a feast of watchers: it confirms that we are all watched and we all watch. Like George Orwell’s “Nineteen Eighty-Four,” this film reminds the viewer that we are all under constant surveillance.

Sofia Coppola directs her own screenplay adaptation of the novel by Jeffrey Eugenides from behind the director’s lens, and she uses immense finesse to craft this voyeuristic piece of art that portrays the moral and social decay of a 1970s American neighbourhood. This modernist metadrama observes the theatre of people of all ages closely scrutinising each other; with this approach, Coppola destroys the illusion of reality and demands the critical involvement of the neighbourhood boys (as narrators), and the audience (as spectators) to the whole performance.

The film is ostensibly about the suicides of five teenage sisters, yet death is not purely physical or limited to the siblings. The parents, Mr. and Mrs. Lisbon, both lose their dreams of the perfect suburban family life, and stability of employment and home when the sequential demise of their daughters impact their lives like falling dominoes.

Mrs. Lisbon (Kathleen Turner) is the primary, often overlooked, watcher in this film; she is always on guard against the invasion of uncontrolled life and the influence of the outside community into her fortress home. Mrs. Lisbon uses religion, clothing, and even the physical positioning of her body to shield her family—especially the girls—against the pervading influences of the external environment.

To Mrs. Lisbon, the only safety is to be found in the house where she can monitor the family from close quarters. However, Mrs. Lisbon’s concrete belief in the security of the home is shattered when Cecilia uses the house as a springboard and a landing mat for her own death. This death is the start of the “poison in the air” that invades the entire neighbourhood.

Ronald Lisbon (James Wood) watches and reacts from behind his wife; he is an outsider in his own home, and he sits in the corner of the room while his female family members appear to freely occupy the rest of the house. When other men, such as Trip Fontaine (Josh Hartnett) and the family familiar priest (Scott Glenn), come into the living room of the house, they occupy the outer edges of the designated female portion of the space.

Trip Fontaine is uncomfortably placed in a corner of a sofa and physically blocked from looking at Lux (Kirsten Dunst) by Mrs. Lisbon who observes the movements of all her girls while they are under the gaze of any young male interloper. In contrast, the priest is granted freedom to wander through the house looking for the female occupants without a chaperone—his male gaze has been muted to neutrality by the cloak of religion.

The devastating concept of loss is also experienced by the neighbourhood boys who watch and occasionally socialise with the Lisbon sisters. They are unsuspecting witnesses to the first death, and later they recall the history of their experiences from the prism of adulthood. As grown men, they admit that they have been “scarred forever” with the memories of the past “making us happier with dreams than wives.” Their gaze is subjective because of their distance and their gender.

The five siblings are viewed and treated like raffle prizes; the boys discuss which one they will “win.” The Lisbon girls’ separate identities are shown at the beginning of the film, however, with the exception of Lux, the other siblings behave the same way and look the same with their repeated blond personas. The film projects an overriding white and middle-class sense of perfection that is slowly destroyed.

Despite many whispers and intense speculation, the popular blame for the pervading community decay is firmly placed with the foreign “other” personified by “the immigrant kid” Dominic Palazzolo (Joe Dinicol). Palazzolo is portrayed as both ungodly and worldly because he is quickly captured by uncontrollable passion for Diana Porter—another blond teenage girl in the vicinity—who goes to Switzerland on vacation leaving Palazzolo so bereft that he denounces God and jumps off the roof of his relative’s house as a demonstration of the validity of his love. This mature uninhibited behaviour is viewed as the trigger that sparks the desire to die in Cecilia and her sisters. This causes the main group of male teenage observers to conclude: “We knew the girls were really women in disguise, that they understood love, and even death.”

Everybody—the male and female actors and the audience alike—is captivated by this film that is a meditation on the existential horror of teenage life. We are all voyeuristic and as awkward as the teenagers portrayed because we don’t avert our gaze. We are compelled to watch as the dread of multiple deaths play out in front of our eyes. This is a public yet personal observation because we have all experienced the angst of being a teenager with the ever-present heaviness of being misunderstood.

Everybody—the male and female actors and the audience alike—is captivated by this film that is a meditation on the existential horror of teenage life. We are all voyeuristic and as awkward as the teenagers portrayed because we don’t avert our gaze. We are compelled to watch as the dread of multiple deaths play out in front of our eyes. This is a public yet personal observation because we have all experienced the angst of being a teenager with the ever-present heaviness of being misunderstood.

The film ends with the complex self-reflectivity of the continually self-conscious boys who have been looking at the Lisbons for what seems like their whole lives, but is in the pseudo-reality of the film only a year. One of them symbolically holds a lighter aloft while they stand staring at the mausoleum that the previous summer contained a seemingly normal vibrant family—Lux (the central light) and the symbol of decaying white suburbia is therefore present in the opening and closing scenes of the film as the empty house looks back at them.

The mundane lives and quietly observed deaths are the constant threaded spectacle that Coppola weaves throughout the film: from the neighbourhood boys constantly watching the Lisbon sisters (and even eating popcorn whilst viewing Lux’s nightly sexual trysts) to the local woman who serves refreshments on a tray whilst people watch as the railings where Cecilia was impaled are ceremoniously removed. “The Virgin Suicides” is prime heteronormative theatre and a white cultural spectacle for all observers compelled to watch and who are, at the same time, helpless to do anything about what is taking place.