summer in martha's vineyard
six years ago. i am 20. an undergrad at oberlin college. major in black studies and visual arts. i study betye saar, carrie may weems, robert farris thompson. i study art. i make art. my world as a human, as a visual artist explodes. i obsessively pour myself into west african altar-inspired installations. i utilize photographs and sculpture, music, performance and light. tell stories. with every medium i can find.
but. i stayed away from film. there were certain classes at oberlin I stayed away from. those art classes full of rich white kids who owned the fanciest, finest equipment since their teens (classes like film and photography)-generally repelled me. those kids knew what "film noir" meant. those kids already knew how to shoot on 16mm. they knew clever jokes about terentino and coppolla. they studied BIRTH OF A NATION for its technical achievements. they loved woody allen. now and then- i feel a tiny pinch of regret. i was afraid to fight for a place in those classes so. i stayed away from film.
six years ago, somehow i end up at the martha's vineyard african american film festival. i'm not a connoisseur of film, but i go. why not? at the festival, i see some good films, some so-so ones. some very high quality films, some very very low budget ones. Most of them are dripping with drama-a side effect of the burden of representation. for example, there are NO romcoms about BLACK LOVE so THIS ROMCOM will explain EVERYTHING about BLACK LOVE. or, AIDS AND HIV ARE SO IMPORTANT IN THE COMMUNITY and NO ONE IS TALKING about it. THIS FILM WILL CHANGE EVERYTHING. The hunger for blackness in representations in film and tv is so great-it left no room for subtlety. and the audience's hunger (including my own) is so great-we eat every morsel served. laugh at bad jokes, look past plot holes. because we have to start from somewhere.
then. in that dim, carpeted room, siw years ago- a short film called "Pariah" lit up on the screen. this film was unlike any i'd ever seen. the images. the colors. brown skin accented in oranges and blues, reds. rich, vibrant. characters. complexity. humanity. and most striking and rare of all it's qualities I found SUBTLETY. subtlety in a film festival sea of hammed up sex jokes and slapstick. in an ocean of black actors over acting and attempting to speak the way black people on tv are supposed to speak. i found subtlety.
yes. being black and queer drew me into the story. but. this film told a story that was very different from mine-still i saw myself in it. the seed was planted. it took me another three years. but. once i saw that film-i knew i could no longer stay away from the medium.
six years later, august. my film Vow of Silence is accepted into the Martha's Vineyard African American Film Festival. so my producer Brenda and I drive up to martha's vineyard.*
*an aside about "the vineyard", or "the yard" as it is called by some. Yes. it is where bourgie black folks go to summer. yes. it is where the obamas, the clintons, kennedys, and other wealthy folk have gone to summer. yes, it is where my bourgie family goes to summer. it can be a very silly place. sometimes i didn't understand why people would spend the insane amount of money, time and effort it takes to get and stay there. but sometimes i get it. the light through the trees. brown skin on the beach. quiet. sometimes, peace.
on a clear and bright august afternoon- we drive through the trees of oak bluffs. in a beautiful theater, we watch people file in. mostly older Black folks. the room goes dark. after an hour or so-our film lights up the screen. i stand and walk to the back of the theater. there is something strange about being nervous at a screening. the work is already done. what are you afraid of? a technical glitch? the speakers clipping on the score. someone standing to leave. as the film plays, i bite my nails-listening closely for laughs or scoffs of protest.
our first "straight" audience. I wasn't sure how it would be received. but. nothing goes tragically wrong. people laugh at jokes. they are still when the story is still. and when the screen cuts to darkness, i am full. this feels like a beginning and an end all at once. my parents, some of their friends were there. graduating from howard. completing this film. being so proud and feeling so right about the work you've done. there is nothing like it. the audience was very generous. "thank you. thank you for art." One woman said to me. and that was. Everything. because that's what i wanted all this time. to see blackness in art. to see our films go beyond entertainment. that's what i saw in the pariah short six years ago. art inspires.
My body buzzing with joy-i tiptoe out of the theater during the final q&a. when i opened the door to that gorgeous august breeze-spike lee stands at the door. I awkwardly tell him, "hello" and scurry away. later on, everyone i tell this to will say FRANtiCALLY- "why didn't you tell him about your movie?" "why didn't you tell him he inspired you?" and i will wish in my heart that he had at least seen the piece and given me a moment of advice, of encouragement. well. he didn't. and i didn't approach him because he probably wouldn't care. and that's all right. i saw him. and that was affirmation enough for me.*
*an interesting connection- spike lee was dee rees' advisor at NYU on her thesis project. a film called pariah.
*another interesting connection-the DP on pariah, an EXCEPTIONALLY talented guy by the name of Bradford Young- became my inspiration to study cinematography at Howard. I find out some years later that Young also studied at howard and I have the opportunity to meet him in my second and third years in the MFA program.
after the screening, we celebrated brenda's birthday. brenda ate her first lobster, and bought a GALLON of clam chowder. yes. a gallon. on my birthday, i drank lots of beer. the next day-my sister laura and i decided to go sober* for the rest of our vacation.