Monday, June 01, 2009

Film Review #196: The Souls of Black Girls
Director: Daphne Valerius

As part of its participation in Th3, the monthly city-wide arts night held on every third Thursday, the Community Folk Art Center (CFAC) often screens a film with a discussion afterward, in case gallery visitors wish to stop awhile. While these are sometimes movies you could rent or buy on DVD and just watch at home, CFAC programmers have demonstrated a talent for pairing their visual arts gallery shows with cinema in ways that engenders lively discussion.

This month’s film – which screens Thursday the 21st at 7:00 PM – is Daphne Valerius’ 2006 documentary, The Souls of Black Girls. This too is available in commercial DVD format. But in screening this film at the same time as the wonderful 37th Annual Teenage Art Competition Exhibition, CFAC makes an added point about the power of images to sway how the young feel about themselves – and indeed how we feel about them too – on the one hand with images imposed upon us and on the other, those we bring ourselves to create.

Souls examines how media images – both historic and current – have established and maintained standards of beauty, and the corrosive effects on women of color from an early age of the pull toward European standards of what’s desirable, or even acceptable, in terms of color, hair, features, body size and type.

Valerius is herself a rising young media professional, now based in Los Angeles – reporter, broadcast journalist, producer, filmmaker, TV host, actor and speaker – born in Brooklyn of Haitian immigrant parents. She says The Souls of Black Girls emerged from her own struggles with self-image as a woman of color growing up in the US, and she calls the damage that can result – if one cannot, as actress Regina King says in the film, “shake it off” – a self-image disorder.

Hence The Souls of Black Girls begins with retro images of little girls in beauty parlors, copying Mom and avidly discovering fashion magazines. Periodically we see montages of contemporary magazine covers, splashed with Ashley Judd, Michelle Pfeiffer, Jane Seymour. Valerius’ parents moved away from Brooklyn while she was still little, taking her and two younger siblings to Rhode Island, where she says, “I was always that one Black girl in the white neighborhood who liked the white guy and didn’t know why he didn’t like me.”

Like the Delaware artist Lori Crawford – whose Bag-It examined the old practice of measuring skin color by the “brown paper bag test” and came to CFAC in the summer of 2007, provoking lengthy audience response during her crowded gallery talk – Valeruis’ film was once a masters’ school project. In fact, it started earlier, with undergraduate research on self-image and media at St. John’s University in New York in 2003 that she then continued as a broadcast journalism masters student at Boston’s Emerson College.

Valerius first envisioned a short film of perhaps 15 minutes distilled from focus groups with teenage women, and some of the most powerful moments in the film occur in the clips she uses from this material. (One young woman elaborates on the simple dictum, “Suck in your stomach!” A white student talks about the case of BeyoncĂ©, saying, “She’s got this long hair and that perfect color – nobody even thinks of BeyoncĂ© as ‘Black.’”)

However, along the way, Valerius met Public Enemy’s Chuck D while still at St. John’s and the actor Regina King at a film festival; both became involved in the project’s development and Valerius added other interviews as she went. These include Pamela Edwards of Essence Magazine (a publication that has waged its own campaign to clean up the misogynist branch of Hip-Hop lyrics), cultural critic Michaela Angela Davis, actor Juanita Jennings (who was written out of TV’s As the World Turns when she refused to cut her dreads), BET producer Darlise Blount (TV is “where women get instructions,” she says), actor/producer/children’s author Jada Pinkett Smith, and PBS journalist and moderator Gwen Ifill (“My father told me to say thank you if anyone called me ‘black.’ It shut people up. Second, I internalized it.”), and a host of others. Chuck D’s inside views of the music industry culture and executives, Black and otherwise, are especially trenchant. Regina King (currently Det. Lydia Adams in the new cop series Southland) discusses seeking roles, from Shalika in John Singleton’s early Boyz n the Hood (1991) on, in which “there were a bunch of girls all across the country saying, ‘That’s me!’”

The Souls of Black Girls is accomplished, eloquent and vivid filmmaking. Valerius wrote, directed, produced, shot the interviews and background footage, and edited the film herself. Since then, she’s also completed another documentary about those caught in Rhode Island’s juvenile court and detention system, The Voices of Project Peer.

Daphne Valerius’ The Souls of Black Girls screens this Thursday at 7:00 PM at Community Folk Art Center, 805 E. Genesee St., part of this month’s Th3 city-wide arts night.

A shorter version of this review appeared in the May 21, 2009 print edition of the Syracuse City Eagle.