No such thing as a “positive” representation of the Black woman: The screening of “Black Venus” at the NYFF

First, let me say that I appreciate this filmic interpretation of the story of Sarah "Saartjie" Baartman, also known as Venus Hottenot in Tunisian director Abdellatif Kechiche's film Black Venus.  Regardless of the veracity (I would argue that there isn’t even such a thing) of the facts presented in the film, conjuring up her essence, or at least her journey as a cautionary tale can be useful to American history and the cinema. With that said, I can understand what some Black intellects, much like the woman I will talk about later, find problematic with these types of representations. The lack of mainstream knowledge about her character paired with the film’s ability to present itself as historical drama can lead many viewers to interpret fictional content as fact -- namely her incessant drinking and oversexualization in the film. I am certainty no authority on the life of Baartman or her life as the performer Venus Hottentot, so I just took the film with a grain of salt. I appreciated the bravery of the Cuban lead actress Yahima Torres and felt that she portrayed the role with a genuine effort. And let us not forget that this film is a work of ART, an arena for subjective, personal expression – not the place to create or validate social standards. Kechiche has absolutely no obligation to satisfy a “positive” image of Black women through his film.

First of all, what in the hell is a “positive” representation of Black women? Should he have cast Claire Huxtable in the role of Black Venus? Trying to satisfy ridiculous demands, like creating "positive" images for the entire Black community only creates shitty art that is one-dimensional and fundamentally a lie. Since when is popular culture or art responsible for creating idealistic views of how people should be? Isn’t that what the Bible is for? #Letmestop.

Moving on. Without getting into details of the film, largely resembling The Passion of The Christ with a Black female protagonist as Jesus, I found that what took place in the theater resonated with me more than the film did. After the film was over, we were lucky enough to share a brief talk-back with Ms. Torres. The credits rolled, the still teary eyed audience rose for a standing ovation like a kid getting up from a school yard beating (see the film and you will know what I mean). A spotlight rose on her and I was met with those eyes. She just stood there, stiff and nervous with that eerie look. It shook me a little because it was that same look I had acquainted with her character in Black Venus, but the film was over. Yet, we were invited to stare at her once again. Throughout the film Ms. Torres had very few lines and did most of the talking through her body and gesture. Her body was a canvas for us to see at the same time what she wanted us to, and what we wanted to. But when I looked at her standing there, the object of a collective gaze once again, I wondered if she would say anything at all.

The house lights rose and we were met with Ms. Torres on stage with a mediator (she’s fluent in Spanish and French, but not English). I found a strange parallel between her living self and the character Black Venus. Both living in a foreign country, both accidental performers, both mediated by a white counterpart at some level (this is what spoke to me visually at the talk-back) and that reciprocal gaze.

It could have been my poor comprehension of Spanish or the mediator was definitely changing her sentences around, adding in some flowery language, making her sentence just a bit more “sophisticated” than she had originally said it. He told her when to sit, when to get up, and even in the lobby when I just wanted to shake hands with her, he was right over her shoulder monitoring her. I saw a brave, beautiful girl regimented to mesh with high-class art patrons.

Or maybe I’m just looking too much into it.

Possibly  the most disturbing event of the whole night occurred after leaving the theater, I wandered into a 24-hour diner to get some coffee and ran into a few people who I recognized from the screening, especially the aforementioned Black woman with the neat dreads and beautiful orange head wrap that commented during the talk-back. It wasn’t really a question, as is the standard,  but a comment – which I thought rude and unnecessary at the specific moment –  (and I am paraphrasing) about how she didn’t agree with the film because of the fictional life that was created for Baartman. She said we should be careful to note that these additions are not historically verified and are made-up. Her point was as I said earlier, people who don’t may interpret the film as fact.

I sat down and immediately and rather boldly (go me!) challenged her on her view and quickly realized  the dynamic at the table. She was the professor (figuratively and literally) and they were the students. That night on the train home I was a bit discouraged because I admire almost any Black woman with a PhD, but I don’t understand this either/or mentality. She didn’t like Suzan-Lori Park’s play Venus because it wasn’t accurate, she didn’t like the film because the dancing wasn’t South African (Baartman’s homeland) but West African, which is incorrect and the list goes on.

To me, that view is tyrannical and counterproductive. Are there some things that can be considered fact, yes? Are all facts true to all people? No. Is the method for categorizing and gathering facts problematic? Absolutely. So, how can an artist grapple with trying to satisfy some random and arbitrary notion of authenticity?  The answer is not in one single film, book, or play – but in a multiplicity of expressions and representations. That is the only way. Allow Kechiche to have his view, and then you make a drama that has your view, and then I make a play that has my view – and together we create a more complete, fleshed out version of not only Saartje Baartman – but of Black women, the Black race, etc. Let’s help build a proliferation of Black LIFE experiences and stop trying to own and conquer other people’s artistic liberties.

"I write plays because I love Black people. As there is no single "Black Experience," there is no single "Black Aesthetic"and there is no way to write or think or feel or dream or interpret or be interpreted. As African-Americans we should recognize this insidious essentialism for what it is: a fucked up trap to reduce us to only one way of being. We should to show the world and ourselves our beautiful and powerfully infinite variety."

-Suzan Lori-Parks, Playwright and Author