Browse Category: Race, Culture, Ethnicity

Zoe Saldana to Star in Nina Simone Biopic: How the Dark vs. Light Skin Debate Misses the Point about Black Women and the Media

In case you missed it, Hollywood is gearing up to release a biopic of Nina Simone, an African-American singer, pianist, and civil rights activists whose music was highly influential in the fight for equal rights for blacks in the US.

I myself was only introduced to Nina Simone via a remake of her song, “Feeling Good.” I remember jamming to it in my dorm room when a friend of mine remarked that it was no where near being as good as the original. I promptly searched for the original on YouTube and was blown away by the command of her voice.

Further searches led me to “Strange Fruit“, a song (based on a famous poem written by Abel Meeropol) she performed about lynchings in the south, along with a slew of other noteworthy appearances that punctuated her career path as a Black woman singer-turned-political figure.

A biopic about Nina Simone will undoubtedly strike a chord with the African-American community. But given the recent controversy surrounding the project’s casting choices (i.e. Zoe Saldana, a Dominican actress as the lead), it’s not likely to be perceived as the “right” chord.

But when is it ever?

In a recent update on Facebook, Nina Simone’s daughter, Simone, shared her thoughts about the new film project. Here are, for me, the most important aspects of her comment:

Please note, this project is unauthorized. The Nina Simone Estate was never asked permission nor invited to participate.

If written, funded and CAST PROPERLY a movie about my mother will make an lasting imprint.

From Tragedy to Transcendence – MY VISION. The whole arc of her life which is inspirational, educational, entertaining and downright shocking at times is what needs to be told THE RIGHT WAY.

For all she endured while here and all of the lives she has touched, she DESERVES to be remembered for who she truly was; not some made up love story from a former nurse/manager (now deceased) who sold his life rights because of his relationship to Nina Simone.

You can read the rest of her comments here. In a nutshell, here are my two cents…. 

I’m not surprised that a movie is being made about Nina Simone without consulting her family or estate. Not one bit. We know this story all too well: The Help and Untitled Nelson and Winnie Mandela Biopic also moved ahead without consent from the source.

I’m also not surprised that the screenplay for the Nina Simone biopic wasn’t written by a black woman, and thus, per her daughter’s concerns, will use that as license to perpetuate inaccuracies.

And finally, though sadly, I’m not surprised that black women have busied themselves with the question of who will “play” the role of Nina Simone (Zoe Saldana vs. dark-skinned black actresses) rather than focus on the root cause of mis-representation in Hollywood: the absence of a strong network of black writers, producers, and studios.

This is the only comment I will be making on this issue because it’s always the same story, but even more frustrating, always the same rhetoric about how white people are appropriating our stories. As a community, we’re not doing nearly enough writing to make white people’s overly-simplistic, inaccurate, saviorist depictions of our lives irrelevant.

The hard truth is this: if we spent more time creating media instead of criticizing it, there’d be way more diversity in representation, and way more stories and perspectives to which white people can be more frequently held accountable. 

Pushing for ownership of both the infrastructure and content that portrays our lived experiences — that is the crux of the issue; not just the politics of light vs. dark-skinned actresses. So, whereas I am completely on board with calling out the colorism behind the biopic’s casting choices (and the harmful message that’s being sent to young, dark-skinned black girls everywhere by having a light-skinned woman play Nina Simone) there aren’t enough strong lead roles written for women of color in Hollywood for me to fairly tell Zoe Saldana, a hard-working, talented brown woman to “sit this one out.”

When will black women, LGBTI, Africans, everyone-that-has-been-screwed-over-by-hollywood finally get it that we need more autonomy over our media? When will we begin militantly fighting for mainstream media’s accountability to not just the story but the storyteller?

Whenever I pose this question, the conversation is almost always derailed by arguments that advocate about “allies” i.e. whether or not they have the right to be the owners and producers of our stories based on the fact that they have “skill”. Take for instance arguments that suggest the writer-director of the project, Cynthia Mort, doesn’t necessarily deserve the right to lead such a critical project with just chops from writing for shows such as Roseanne and Will and Grace. Or that Zoe Saldana is a brilliant actress regardless of her skin tone, and so will undoubtedly do a great job in her lead role as Nina Simone (and that therefore, black women shouldn’t be angry?).

But when we frequently prioritize debates about “industry expertise” vs. “authenticity/stakeholdership of the storyteller” we completely miss the point: our focus shouldn’t be just on the depiction of one character, or even the accuracy of one story, but about the (dis)empowerment of the storyteller i.e. who writes and owns the f**king book.

Afrolicious, one of my favorite black woman media advocates says in her most recent blog post:

… we have so much work to do to get our stories spread. We need to build a media infrastructure as formidable as Hollywood’s that can distribute these stories and support those at the margins who are telling and creating them. We need to create platforms that we own, community-owned media centers that are not at the mercy of funding cycles or internet service providers. But most of all we need to keep telling our stories.

I couldn’t have said it better. Now, back to writing and documenting my work training and coaching African women and LGBTI groups in Southern Africa to tell their own stories, so that they can become thought leaders, and change the world.

NOTE 1: Correction added. Strange Fruit was based on a poem written originally by Abel Meeropol, and performed by a number of singers, including Billie Holiday. Thanks, Sarah J. Jackson for the tip!

NOTE 2: Updated to include black-owned studios as additional point at which we can subvert white-dominated film industry i.e. ignore them and create our own.

Reflections from a Woman of Color on the War on Women: “My Sisters-in-Arms, We Are Not United”

Yesterday, I took part in the MA Women United Against the War on Women rally at Boston City Hall. 

Across the US, thousands of men, women and children gathered in front of municipal buildings to voice their outrage at recent state and federal initiatives to propose and/or implement anti-women measures, including the GOP’s attempt to redefine rape, making abortions illegal or virtually inaccessible to low-income women, and removing government mandates for companies to include birth control coverage in the health insurance they offer to employees.

Despite the fact that it took challenging the white women organizers to include more women of color in their speaker lineup — as a little birdie told me — I was honored to be invited to participate, and share the stage with fellow women’s rights activists and feminists, Jaclyn Friedman, Sarah Jackson, @graceishuman, Idalia, and even Norma Swenson, reknowned author of the book, Our Bodies, Ourselves.

I found myself thinking about the concept of “unity,” and the fact that so many women of color, immigrants, transgender women etc are often left out of mainstream women’s movements. But this isn’t news to me, nor to my mentors separated from my experience by four whole decades — mentors who fought so that I would have something different to say to white women “united” for (white) women. It breaks my heart to tell them that we’re still having the same conversations after all their sacrifices.

Hence, for the rally, I decided to have an honest conversation about marginalization with the crowd via a call-and-response speech I partly improvised. Here’s the message I gave, in poem-ish form.

Post-Rally Reflection: To speak from a place of anger doesn’t always mean to speak from a place that is without love. How emotional I became when speaking to the rally yesterday has everything to do with how much I love my comrades of all shades and stripes, fellow women, my sisters-in-arms. And their response to my calling out to them, “My Sisters in Arms” with “We Are Listening” helped me through my anger to the other side… hope.


When I was younger, I dreamed of being part of a revolution.

I imagined it would feel very much like it did in the movies, like Braveheart for instance:

Mel Gibson riding back and forth on horseback, pumping his fist in the air
as he inspired the army before him to FIGHT for their freedom,
we would win this war together.

My Sisters-in-Arms…
(We Are Listening!)

Like every big budget Hollywood movie,
I’d be the handsome, mysterious, emotionally constipated protagonist
who never really wanted to fight,
but live happily ever after in the same village of my beautiful virgin wife-to-be…

until one day,
the fight came to me

and wiped away the smiles of my love, my family, my home.

Only THEN, would I charge forth, my spirit consumed by purposeful rage
and the moment — the moment I’d dreamed of having my entire life — would arrive…

the epic war speech.

My Sisters-in-Arms…
(We Are Listening!)

Yes, like Braveheart, my heart would be re-forged in stone; I would feel a bond with my comrades united in arms (and social media channels) like I’d never felt before.

And in that moment, against the violins and horns of a moving Hans Zimmer film score,
in the faces of all my sisters standing before me,
I would remember:

the battle, the war, the revolution
isn’t about me,
the battle, the war, the revolution
isn’t about them
but about US.

We would stand UNITED against whatever forces dared to oppose us,
and charge forth together.

My Sisters-in-Arms…
(We Are Listening!)

But the revolution hasn’t quite turned out like the Hollywood movie I’d imagined it would be.
For one, it actually never occurred to me that I wouldn’t be riding a horse.

Mel Gibson turned out to be one of the biggest bigots of all time.
And sexual assault has caused too much pain to the women I love to perpetuate the idea that virginity is a prize to be won,
not when rape is still being used as a mass weapon of war.

My Sisters-in-Arms…
(We Are Listening!)

It’s true, the revolution hasn’t quite turned out the way I dreamed it would be,
it never occurred to me
that battle after battle,
rally after rally,
I would find myself standing in front of a sea of white women who don’t look like me,
having to keep reminding them that:

United we stand, Divided we fall.
United we stand, Divided we fall

My Sisters-in-Arms…
(We Are Listening!)

I know why we’re here.
There is a war on women happening,
We’re angry — and we’ve had enough.
On that we agree.

But today, I want to make sure we do more than just agree.
I want to make sure we’re paying attention to our subconscious definition of “we”
I want to make sure we’re paying attention to who is missing.

Look around you, my Sisters-in-Arms…
(We Are Listening!)

I ask you to consider,
is the women’s movement making a stand, or falling into pieces?
Are we uniting through our differences so that we can be stronger?
Or reaching for something way less grand,
with way less hands,
hoping that our “good intentions” will pay off if we just wait a little longer?

Which members of this army — of our family — are missing?

Where are the voices of low income women of color?
Where are the voices of transgender women?
Where is the rest of our family?

My Sisters-in-Arms…
(We Are Listening!)

This women’s movement shouldn’t just voice the concerns of women who are pissed
that they may have to pay for birth control out-of-pocket,
but the concerns of low-income women who would have no access to birth control, period
because they rely completely on government-mandated coverage,
I know you agree, but…

My Sisters-in-Arms, are you listening?
(We Are Listening!)

we cannot profess to be building a movement for ALL women,
we cannot claim that we are UNITED against anything — especially not a war on women
when too many women of color, transgender women, women with disabilities — members of our family, are missing.

My Sisters-in-Arms…
(We Are Listening!)

When we picture the women’s movement what faces do we see?
What voices do we hear?
And are they reflected in our choices? In our larger strategy?
Are transgender women a part of this movement?
Have we done our jobs to make that clear?

If so, where is the outrage when transgender women are murdered at an alarming rate in this country?
Where is the feminist takedown when — even in death — the media refers to our trans sisters with male pronouns and the media suggests that their very existence warranted their assault and murder?

Too many transgender women are being left behind.
Too many members of our family are dying.
Too many members of our family are being  tortured and incarcerated, simply for surviving,
Just because we’re too busy “uniting” to look behind.

My Sisters-in Arms
(We Are Listening!) 

You must do better.
We must do better.

If I’ve learned anything about real-life revolutions
it’s that they sometimes can take on the form of the war you’re fighting.
it’s that it matters less what you’re fighting for, but who is fighting with you

The War on Women needs to mean more than reproductive justice for middle class white women.
The War on Women needs to mean more than the debate over abortion and birth control.
The War on Women must mean to us the impact of racism on women of color and our sons.
The War on Women must mean to us the impact of racism, sexism, and homophobia on transgender women of color.
The War on Women must mean to us the impact of un-checked privilege and ignorance within  our movement.
The War between Women is real.

And until we can be brave enough to face the truth —
that we have to END the war over who counts as “women” amongst ourselves
we are NOT united.

My Sisters-in Arms
(We Are Listening!) 

We are NOT united, yet.
But I know we can get there.

I believe in you, my Sisters-in Arms
(We Are Listening!) 

I know we can get there.
And so I dare to dream of the day
when I can finally show up to rallies and protests
and not have to say,
“Where are my sisters?”
but “Here are my sisters, united.”

I dare to dream of the day when we can all feel the impact of true sisterhood
and unleash the power of sisters-in-arms, united,
against those who dare to challenge our quest for liberation.

My Sisters-in Arms
(We Are Listening!) 

I believe in us.

My Sisters-in Arms
(We Are Listening!) 

We are not united, now.
Let’s do the work, now
To make sure that one day, we will be.

And when that day comes,

My Sisters-in Arms
(We Are Listening!)

God help them.

Spectra is an award-winning Nigerian writer, women’s rights activist, and the voice behind the African feminist media blog, Spectra Speaks, which publishes global news and opinions about all things gender, media, diversity, and the Diaspora.

She is also the founder of Queer Women of Color Media Wire (, a media advocacy and publishing organization that amplifies the voices of lesbian, bisexual, queer, and/or transgender women of color, diaspora, and other racial/ethnic minorities around the world.

Follow her tweets on diversity, movement-building, and love as a revolution on Twitter @spectraspeaks.

Racism and LGBT Rights: Where are the African Films in the South African LGBT Film Festival?

Originally posted at Gender Across Borders.

Today marks the 19th Out in Africa film festival, a South-African Gay and Lesbian film festival launched to celebrate the inclusion of the clause prohibiting discrimination on the grounds of sexual orientation in the South African constitution.

Headlining the festival is triple Oscar nominee Albert Nobbs, a film about a woman passing as a man in order to work and survive in 19th century Ireland. Additionally, A Marine Story, an award-winning drama about the US military’s invidious “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy told through the eyes of a white American female soldier, and Kyss Mig (Kiss Me), a lekker lesbofliek which was named Best Breakthrough Film by the American Film Institute last year, will make their African film festival debuts.

There is, obviously, no shortage of films about women in the festival — an achievement worthy of note given how often the LGBT community is depicted as male. Yet, within the context of Africa, the LGBT community is also frequently perceived (and depicted) as white and western. So, the question is: where are all the black South African films in this African LGBT festival?

Out in Africa — which runs from March 23rd to April 1st, 2012 — states that its mission is to address the lack of visibility of Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender and Intersex individuals (LGBTIs) in South African social and cultural life in order to counter negative images of LGBTIs that prevail in traditional and religious communities after decades of apartheid repression i.e. segregation by skin color. Given the historical context of their mission statement, it’s hard not to wonder about the lack of racial diversity in the feature films.

Out of 9 feature films, just one of them is based on a black South African narrative: The Secret, a film about a married man in denial about his sexuality. This feature film is being paired with Paving Forward, a 16-minute short about the evolution of gay rights through the eyes of a lesbian love story. The pickings are slim for black South Africans eager to see their experiences reflected on film, but to be fair, these selections are part of just the first installment of the festival’s three-part format.

Last year,  rather than showcase new films in one long weekend (as is typical for many film festivals), Out in Africa implemented a new format of hosting three mini-festivals spread out over the course of the year in different parts of the country in order to optimize their outreach efforts (perhaps also to include more racial and class diversity?).  The 2012 second edition is planned from 27 July-5 August, with the third edition scheduled for 17-28 October 2012. So there’s still a chance that future installments will showcase narratives from South Africa’s black community, which faces marginalization not just along the lines of sexual orientation and gender identity, but race and class as well.

The task of depicting LGBTI Africans in a manner that presents multiple and intersecting facets of their experiences is far from easy. But Out in Africa was the only LGBTI film festival shouldering this burden until Kenya made its debut with its OUT Film Festival in Nairobi last year. Originally meant to cater to just 60 people, the Kenyan festival ended up having to turn people away after over 200 people showed up, proving that there is a thirst for Africans (straight and LGBT alike) to see the lives of LGBT Africans reflected on screen.

However, film festivals can’t meet this need alone; the world needs more filmmakers to brave the relatively uncharted territory of producing films for and about LGBT Africa, a sure challenge given that many African countries have outlawed homosexuality, not just reinforcing the subject as taboo but threatening the lives of those who dare to even broach the subject with imprisonment and even the death penalty.

Hence, documentary films like Call Me Kuchu (about David Kato, the prominent Ugandan LGBT activist who was murdered last year), along with other South African films such as The Sisterhood (which follows transgender women farmers competing in a beauty pageant) and Waiting For (which explores the controversial issue of white lesbian couples adopting black children) are rare gems, which we should never take for granted; the filmmakers have taken huge risks in order to give LGBT Africans — whose identities are too often silenced and erased  — a chance to feel seen, a chance to feel hope.

From across the ocean in the US, a country with a deep-rooted history with racism and thus similar in context to South Africa, an African-American actress comments on the importance of seeing one’s identity reflected on screen:

The way I watch movies, I’m really searching for myself, because I don’t get to see enough of myself, and I don’t get to like myself enough…. But if I get to see myself on screen, then I know that I exist.

To follow, Africans — perhaps even the ones who claim that “homosexuality is unAfrican” — will know that LGBT Africans exist if they see their lives represented more frequently on screen. Thus, beyond empowerment for the individual, the potential for cultural shifts brought about by nuanced LGBT films makes pushing for greater inclusion of African and Diaspora LGBT films in film festivals absolutely critical, especially if they’re taking place in Africa.

For its constitutional protections based on sexual orientation, South Africa is often hailed as the leader of gay rights in Africa. But it’s deep-rooted issues with racism and segregation, including the continued marginalization of black South Africans (LGBT or not), warrants that LGBT activists and filmmakers go the extra mile to ensure black South Africans are included in this post-apartheid’s picture of freedom.

Check out the Synopsis of The Secret and Paving Forward (the two black South African films featured): 

The Secret (Imfhilo): The closet was never fashionable, but living the DL is super trendy. Down Low means living under the radar as a straight man having gay sex, or having two separate lives. In Fanney Tsimong’s soap opera-like story of a gay man’s affair with a closeted married man, it gets neatly transported across the Atlantic from the US into aspirant township life. Generations actor Sipho “C-ga” Masebe’s plays Mandla, openly gay, good looking and searching for love. He bumps into old college buddy Thoriso at a birthday party. Thoriso is married to the controlling Thuli, bent on nothing so much as getting ahead in the upwardly mobile world of the BEE nouveau riche. As Mandla chases Thoriso, worlds and assumptions are overturned and lives altered forever. The climax of the film is a credit to the writer – there’s no preachy quick-fix, rather a reality check of what’s really going on out there. Intriguing contemporary South African cinema. (Dir: Fanney Tsimong SA / 2011 / 45min)

Paving ForwardMosiuoa Lekota is hardly the man you’d expect to be headlining Lembethe’s snapshot of where black gay rights are today. But, keeping it real is Nosipho Mahola with a tale of lesbian love that has torn her family apart. (Dir: Mthokozisi Lembethe SA / 2011 / 16min)

For more information about the Out in Africa film festival, visit

Not (Just) Another Queer Movie: My Afrofeminist Review of Pariah

Originally published at

Wait a minute, not all lesbians in movies are white, rich or middle-class with no bills to pay? You mean “life” doesn’t get put on pause so that all gay people can experience the thrill of coming out at summer camp? And, there are other LGBT issues worth talking about besides marriage? Gasp! And Hallelujah for Spike Lee protégé Dee Rees’ Pariaha film women of color (and other marginalized groups) can truly relate to.

On the surface, Pariah is a coming of age story about an African-American lesbian, Alike (pronounced “Ah-LEE-kay”) in Brooklyn. But dig deeper, and you’ll see a smart and layered tackling of gender, sexuality, religion, and even class — an essential layer of complexity needed to accurately portray the diverse experiences of queer people of color, long been absent from mainstream LGBT films. Rather than depicting homophobia as the only kind of oppression experienced by the LGBT community, Pariah’s world is a varied socio-cultural landscape in motion featuring an all-POC cast, led by Nigerian actress Adepero Oduye’s performance as 17-year old Alike.

Pariah’s urban setting almost eliminates the need to discuss race at all (or, as in popular case of experiencing race through white characters, explain it). The audience is plopped, un-apologetically, right in the middle of a story filled with black characters, making way for intersectional observations about class and gender roles within the story’s cultural context.


The film opens with an unfocused, low-level street shot of baggy jeans, dangling belt chains, hard-soled shoes, and the dirty pavements of Brooklyn. We hear the sound of women socializing, and then some unexpected song lyrics:All you ladies pop your p-ssy like this. We’re immediately placed in the scene of a nightclub, in front of a stripper who is somehow managing to slide up the pole, and slapped in the face by Rees’ over-the-top interpretation of coming of age as a young lesbian of color: loud club music, a hyper-sexualized social environment, a group of tomboys (“studs”, “butches”, “aggressives”) throwing money at a stripper in a bothersome (yet, admittedly, amusing) re-enactment of heterosexual masculinity, while a small voice in our heads may be wondering if we’re supposed to be down with all of this.

But just as we are beginning to question what we’re doing in the theater, we meet Alike and see that her world is upside down, too, literally. The frame is rotated upright to reveal a slender Alike, dressed awkwardly in a wide-striped, oversized polo, black do-rag, and fitted lid, staring at the pulsating pelvis of the stripper, and doing so with a confused, yet curious expression on her face.

Her discomfort is made even more apparent when we meet her best friend, Laura (Pernell Walker), a huskier and much more aggressive tomboy (who claims to “get more p-ssy than yo’ daddy”), acting as Alike’s enthusiastic chaperone in this bizarre rite of passage. Dressed in a red lid and popped-collar track jacket, Laura embodies masculinity more confidently; after she finally gives up trying to get Alike to “get that punani“, she proceeds to grind with a heteronormatively feminine (“high femme”) black lesbian in a gender-polarized mating dance.

Conversely, as Alike heads home on the bus alone, we see her vulnerability exposed under fluorescent lights: she begins to slowly strip herself of the masculine lesbian identity she’s hiding from her family. She reluctantly slides the lid and do-rag off her head to put her natural hair (twisties) in a ponytail, pulls off the over-sized polo to reveal a fitted tank top hidden underneath, and finally, puts a pair of earrings back on her ears in a heart-breaking act of gender conformity.

Despite the nuanced depiction of gender and class, Pariah doesn’t hit us over the head with analysis: the characters don’t explain why they each dress differently (urban streetwear to preppy to chic, and more), why they are of different financial circumstances, or why their accents are different; they just are. Alike, for instance, is evidently a “softer” tomboy as described by some girls at her high school. She’s also an aspiring writer, and (most likely due to the part of the city in which she was raised) has very different diction from Laura, whose vernacular is filled with slang, curse words, and the N-word as a term of endearment. In turn, Laura’s friends behave in a manner that’s very similar to cisgendered masculinity: they wear all men’s clothing, drink beer, play poker, and (of course) have beautiful girls sit on their laps as trophies. Yes, lesbians can be sexist too, but Dee Rees’ thoughtful character development steers the screenplay away from the danger of telling a single story.

In the past, the dominant movie narrative that existed for lesbians on screen, for many, depicted an unrealistic social context: all lesbians are white and heteronormatively feminine (AKA “lipstick lesbians” like Gina Gershon and Jennifer Tilly in Bound), they have sex by making a performance of moaning the same way the women in straight porno films do (too many to name, but the most annoying sex scene for me comes from indie flick Chloe — an extended makeout session, really?). Meanwhile, no one seems to have any money problems as they can throw huge weddings they don’t even show up to (Imagine Me and Youthe infamous L Word non-wedding) and 2-dimensional side characters with no real lives of their own, exist simply to react (whether negatively or positively) to the “lesbian” issue (a la the saintly and unfortunate husband archetype in The Hours).

In many of these films, homophobia (besides the expected relationship drama) was often presented as the singular obstacle to the main characters’ happiness. Thus, the combination of the afore-mentioned archetypal elements and the perpetuation of single-issue hurdles for LGBT characters, for me, wove together a series of feel-good lezzie flicks that all said the same thing: “Please leave these two pretty and privileged white girls who just want to fall in love and live happily ever after in their color-blind world (which, by the way, contains no people of color) alone, okay?”

Considering what the film industry was like even just a decade ago, most people would concede that in the face of Hollywood’s focus on hegemonic straight relationships, movies that featured gay or lesbian characters at all were pushing the envelope. Indeed, many of us queer women were thrilled when The L Word came out. After all, it was on Showtime — widely accessible to our straight friends, who we eagerly organized viewing parties with so we could watch them experience what our lives as lesbians were like, sort of.

We didn’t all wear high heels and runway dresses; the lesbians at the clubs I went to certainly didn’t sport that level of Hollywood glam. Many of us were puzzled by the main characters’ financial means to spend lavish amounts of money eating out at fancy restaurants, throwing parties in LA mansions, and getting married, but we tuned in every week to follow the lives of a group of rich white feminine lesbians, because there weren’t any alternatives. Plus, sitting through a film with gay characters was a sure way to test a reaction from your friends before you came out. The show’s false sense of reality gave us hope that if we were to come out to our friends and decided to live our lives openly as gay people, life would remain relatively normal; we’d have girlfriends, get married (that’s what all gay people want to do, right?), adopt children, experience the occasional awkward family dinner, but ultimately, live happily ever after.

This is what sets Pariah apart from (white) singular-narrative LGBT films; it debunks the myth that life begins and ends between the point of self-acceptance… and a wedding.

The movie’s skillful orchestration of empathic story-telling and strong performances enables us to move beyond the scope of Gay and Lesbian 101 to tackle other kinds of oppression, including the further marginalization of LGBT people of color. Alike’s family lives comfortably, allowing her to spend most of her time socializing and pursuing her interest in the arts. But Laura, who is the same age as Alike, was forced to drop out of high school when her mother kicked her out, and works overtime to help her sister (who she lives with) pay the bills while studying for her GED. Through Laura’s narrative, the audience is given a glimpse into the experience of many LGBT youth, who are forced to seek refuge and community outside of their families, risk being homeless for being themselves, yet, must keep on.

It’s a sad observation, but then again isn’t it high time that gay films which grab major distributor attention do more than just perpetuate extremely tragic or fairytale conclusions to a now-engaged and curious public, and present LGBT stories in all their diverse manifestations, which does include the narratives of people of color, working class people, homeless youth, and sometimes, people who are all of the above? It’s no wonder thatPariah — along with peer releases Circumstance and Gunhill Road — has received critical acclaim for its much-needed exploration of LGBT people of color living life at the intersection of many types of societal challenges.

But don’t get it twisted. Pariah is definitely not a sob story. In fact, the movie is filled with timely and endearing moments of humor and awkwardness that make the hold-no-punches backdrop easier to swallow; the familiar sibling banter that ensues when Alike’s younger (and brattier) sister threatens to tell on her for having a “gross” flesh-colored dildo, a cringe-ful dinner table scene during which her parents describe how they “hung out on prom night”, and Alike’s frequent and ill-timed giggle spells whenever she’s around the girl she likes. The film’s strong undercurrent of family and relationships guarantees that there is something in it for everyone (no need to fear the discomfort of watching a lesbian sex scene with your parents either — Dee Rees keeps it PG).

Dee Rees has created a motion picture that the larger LGBT community can be proud of, and in which people of color can see themselves carefully and sensitively projected. She may be the black lesbian Tyler Perry (in a good way). Let’s hope we see more of her.

An Immigrant’s Halloween: Blackface, Ghetto Parties, and Disney Princesses

Dear Readers,

I have a confession to make. But before I tell you my secret, you have to promise not to laugh at me. Okay? Alright, good. Here it goes:

I’m thirty years old and I’ve never once dressed up for Halloween.

There, I said it. Is that a big deal? Apparently, it is. I had someone go “Aww, you must have had a rough childhood!” and pout at me the other day. I felt so immigrant, in the way I’m sure many immigrants would understand. Kinda like the way you mispronounced words until someone finally corrected you, and you wondered how long you’d been mispronouncing them and why no one had ever said anything. Poor African. Funny accent. How unfortunate. Don’t laugh. Let her keep talking… and no Halloween? Oy. But I digress.

I’m from a place in the world (Nigeria) where black magic isn’t just found in the movies; stories of husbands attempting to poison their wives in order to sacrifice them to some Babalawo that promised riches in return aren’t told around a campfire; they’re relayed with the seriousness of a child kidnapping (which happened often for similar reasons) and a firm warning for everyone to keep praying for protection because you never know what spells, juju, or whatever else someone may be chanting about you.

Where I come from, Halloween only happened in the classrooms of white/foreign-run primary schools in which little white girls in swinging ponytails dressed up as sparkling fairies, bright-colored caterpillars, wealthy blond princesses, and an occasional culturally appropriated icon — Nefertiti, Cleopatra, a Geisha. Their mothers would sometimes bronze their faces with brown makeup — bought specially for the occasion? —  to make the costume appear more “authentic”. I remember wishing that I could be Nefertiti, or Cleopatra… they were beautiful African goddess, but usually portrayed as light-skinned (which both the cute mixed heritage boys and dark-skinned Nigerian boys at my primary school seemed to like).

I was one of the darkest skinned girls in my classroom, and though I had really long hair, I knew that I would never be able to get it to fall (or sway) like the swinging ponytail leads that dominated our school plays. I also knew that my parents would never have spent money on shiny gold material and Egyptian arm bracelets for a holiday they believed was just about “white people celebrating witchcraft”, so I looked forward to attending school in the United States, where I could fully immerse myself in Halloween, just like in the movies; I’d actually get to see, touch, and carve a real pumpkin, trick or treat without worrying about being kidnapped and sold for parts to juju people, and finally wear a witch costume — complete with a tall hat, green face, and yellow teeth — without teachers accusing me of selling my soul to the devil. I had such simple aspirations.

But during my first semester of prep school in the US, the costumes I saw were less childhood coloring book and a little more… R-Rated. My first Halloween weekend was freezing cold. Okay, it was just 60 degrees, but it felt like the Himalayas to me back then. So, there I was wrapped unfashionably and unfestively in heavy fleece layers of brown and black that resembled a moving laundry heap, while my classmates pranced around in adult-sized furry onesies and hormonal teenager garb. I remember the long line that stretched like a Noah’s arc procession of adult fairytale creatures from the the student assembly hall into the common grounds outside.

I recall the familiarity of the swinging blond ponytails — it seemed they ruled playgrounds even tens of thousands of miles away from my home across the Atlantic. I remember noting, however, that the innocence of their white privilege had re-branded itself post-puberty as intentionally provocative personas — naughty school girls, beauty queens, and virgin cheerleaders. The “pretty girls” of the world who once flit around small classrooms in bright pink Disney princess frocks, now strut down hallways in crimson lipstick and black fingernails, wearing ultra short booty shorts, pleated mini skirts that exposed un-aged butt cheeks, and baby Ts that said things like “Cherry Pop” and “Eat me, I’m Sweet”. Needless to say, to an African immigrant who was still trying to make sense of her surroundings, I was pretty sure that my parents would have placed Halloween on their Things That Will Destroy Us with Shame list, right at the top with drugs, prostitution, and MTV’s Spring Break.

So I searched to find space for myself on the flip-side of risque; the kids who fell outside the “cool” crowd — the politically inclined, the art geeks, the emo goths — all seemed to embrace Halloween as an excuse to make bold statements (usually against the dominant vanilla school culture) about who they were. I could have been down with this idea, but the only costume themes I surmised warranted presenting oneself as alien and/or depressed: dead presidents, political revolutionaries, witty takes on vegetables and/or fruit, and apathetic versions of “just myself since I’m always weird and scary anyway”. In college, however, costumes did more than make statements, they pushed buttons, and at times, caused so much controversy, the dean needed to send an email to quell the uprising of a student protest.

For instance, in my freshman year of college, a group of white (and queer) kids thought it would be funny to throw a “ghetto” party for Halloween, for which people were required to dress up as pimps, hos, drug dealers, and crackheads. Even “gangstuh” rap music was promised (by a white hipster DJ no less — Boston, don’t you dare act surprised).

That same weekend, a white friend of mine turned heads when he dressed up as Bob Marley, in full on brown body paint. I looked up the meaning of “blackface” after being the only person of color at the party in which he debuted the outfit, and having to smile as white people kept stealing glances at me for a reaction. But that experience doesn’t even compare to the party I attended the following day (80s themed) that included a room full of tall white guys wearing black Afro with pick combs in them, an even more R-Rated version of the swinging ponytails (now barenaked playboy bunnies), and an obnoxious prick that kept following me around all evening, demanding to know what I was supposed to be and drunkenly proclaiming that his Afro was bigger than mine. That experience wasn’t awkward — it was downright infuriating.

So, I vowed to wash my hands of the political farce that had become Halloween, and avoid the entire fiasco like the plague each year, because quite frankly, I had plenty of opportunities to remain angry at the stupid shit that ignorant white people said to me throughout the year — whether about my accent, my blackness, my African-ness, etc.  Too much of the other 364 days of the year contained insensitive, xenophobic, culturally appropriating, and downright racist incidents; I deserved at least one day off.

Incidentally, whenever I did entertain the idea of venturing out on Halloween weekend, I would fantasize about being reverse-offensive, culturally subversive, and extremely political — the angry fucking black woman that showed up with a blond wig and all white body paint talking in a valley girl accent, chewing gum with my mouth open, and humping the bar stool for attention (cause that’s how offensive it becomes when Halloween costumes insult entire cultures). One year, I actually thought of a black T-shirt for myself that said, “All the Bob Marley Costumes Were Taken by White People.” But plotting my reverse-offensiveness tactics for Halloween weekend didn’t make dealing with it any easier — it just kept making me angry. And who wants to spend a weekend that is supposed to be fun, angry? I don’t know what’s gotten into me this year (oh right, I just turned thirty), but I find myself yearning for the experiences I almost had in my youth.

For the first time in my life, for Halloween, I want to dress up, go trick or treating, and pose with a wicked pumpkin. I want to buy a sword and defend my woman’s honor like the dashing prince I always pretended to be when I was a kid and my siblings were asleep; I’d beg my girl to dress up as Xena Warrior princess so she can continually reject my grandiose displays of machismo, but make out with me in the car train when no one is looking.

I want to be Elphaba from Wicked, and represent the experience of every black girl that was called ugly by their white school teachers, who felt green with envy over the fact that they weren’t pretty white princesses with glittered wings and minions, yet who discovered their inner magic, their inner will to defy gravity and lead uprisings that made the world better, and less vanilla. And goddamnit, I want to be Storm. Yes, Storm. I know ti’s cliche — a black girl wanting to be Storm, but I don’t care. Storm was the one African superhero I had as a child. I woke up every Saturday to watch her kick ass in the X-men cartoon series. I still pretend Angela Basset played her (and that Halle Berry didn’t completely destroy my favorite afrofeminist heroine with her weak ass performance — ugh, I can’t even talk about it). I should be able to want to be a black female character on Halloween without worrying that I’m being ‘typical’, because goddamnit, Storm kicks ass!

But now what? After thirty years of getting no practice being creative for Halloween, I am stumped for ideas for a costume. Moreover, I’m no longer limited to the middle class earnings of my parents, but to the emptiness of my do-gooder wallet; purchasing a costume isn’t an option. And even if it were, there’s no way I could pull off a costume a la carte e.g. the latest, Nathalie Portman’s Black Swan, the classic Marilyn Monroe, or sexy swinging ponytail school girl. And yes, yes, I know Disney finally gave us poor little black girls a princess (and a racially ambiguous frog, I mean prince), but I’m not twelve anymore so I’m not sure that’s going to work for me.

Am I the only person of color and/or immigrant in this predicament? I’m still doing some research, but in the meantime, I’d really like to know: What costume choices are available to people of color on Halloween (besides Barack and Michelle Obama)?

[box type=”shadow”]Is race still a hot button issue during Halloween? Or is everyone just being way too sensitive? I’d love to hear what you think. Meanwhile, I am thinking about compiling a list of Top 10 Halloween Costume Ideas for POC, so please comment with your suggestions, both for the post, and for me, ‘cause this immigrant African girl is on a mission to get some candy this year.


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