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Carol Film Review Spectra Speaks

CAROL Film Review

#RoadtoOscars… Reflections on CAROL.

I must confess — I have been avoiding this film. There was something about the wistful trailer overlaid with piano music that signaled the kind of drama I would resent for its resonance, particularly given all the crap I’ve had to deal with in Nigeria. It seems it doesn’t matter what time period or continent I escape to; girl meets girl can never just happen in peace.

In Carol, the film’s subtle narrative is sporadically interrupted by reality, be it sudden jolts back to the present from a female utopia with the intrusion of men’s voices; or stunning street scenes that the camera can’t seem to hold in focus. And while watching two women wade innocently towards their curiosities makes for good melodrama, the world all around them, made simple and nonsensical in juxtaposition, brought my own discouraging circumstance to the forefront.

I recall an evening my partner and I went out to dinner for a semi-business meeting. One of the men began to hit on me hard, and then put his hand on my thigh. I winced, and after a few minutes of my courage failing, asked him to remove it. I felt my partner freeze next to me, then reach for my glass of water, from which she took a long slip, most likely to keep from screaming. Loud music played in the background. The guy removed his hand laughing, then rubbed my shoulder in parting, almost the way you would pat a dog on the head for bringing back a ball. And our bond broke a little, in that moment, as we shared the dessert he had paid for, and then again, as the two girls who sat across from us chair-danced in sync. No one would know.

In Carol, much like being in love with another woman in Nigeria, the building and breaking of a forbidden intimacy in between the tiniest cracks of conversation, lingering moments, and the invisible parts of the mundane carry all the weight, and yet yield so little satisfaction. Girl meets girl and chases a happily ever after that seems to be constantly around the bend, and yet somehow, always out of reach, or dangerous, or both.

Cate Blanchett gives an absolutely breathtaking performance (as always). And Mara Rooney, though I don’t quite get the Supporting Actress nomination (more on that later), captures the curious innocence that so many of us, now fully bloomed rogues, can recall from our early days awkwardly navigating the thick hegemony of heterosexuality all around us, burdened by a latent, yet gnawing dissatisfaction, and armed only with a gut feeling that we could be loving, laughing, and f**king so much harder. Incidentally, Cate and Mara’s on-screen chemistry is refreshingly convincing, a testament to the two actors, and delicate direction by Todd Hayes.

The Verdict: I’m not sure this film will stay with me the way the “Saving Face,” or “Pariah”, pioneers in queer POC cinema did — two white ladies trying to figure out their lives and damning everything in the process, though typical of mainstream lesbian dramas, ain’t all that relatable on the surface. Yet, it’s hard not to appreciate the deference the film grants so many of us, especially those like me, worlds away, who have had to conjure and re-conjure love for each other, and ourselves, within the confines of society’s outdated definition of “normal.” CAROL’s courage to imagine a world in which girl meets girl could end with a happily ever after, though predictable, is perhaps exactly what we need to keep fighting for the same in ours.

Queer POC Holiday Media Gift Guide

10 Books, Films, and Music by Queer People of Color That Would Make Excellent Gifts

Shopping is Personal is Political

For Him For Her... Bullshit

It’s the last (shopping) weekend before Christmas. But if you’re anything like me, braving large, busy malls filled with mainstream goodies fueling the hyper-consumerism evident just one week before Christmas isn’t your cup of tea. Online shopping, despite the lure of its crowd-less aisles, fancy pop-ups, and steep discounts hasn’t proven to be that much better.

Constantly having to decide between clicking on “Gifts for Him’ and “Gifts for Her” irks the LGBT activist in me. Then there’s the constant temptation to forgo spending your hard earned money on holiday shopping (for family members who aren’t as supportive as they should be) altogether and getting yourself, instead, that heavily discounted Xbox with Dance Revolution bundle, flashing obtrusively on the top right corner of your screen just as you’re about to check out… Wait, I’m sorry, this isn’t about me. I digress.

*deletes Xbox Dance Revolution package from shopping cart… (for now)*

Luckily, I don’t have to deal with (most of) the Christmas shopping madness this holiday season. As per  my last post, in an attempt to facilitate important conversations with friends and family about my sexuality (so that I can make it through dinner without bursting into tears… or flames), I plan on giving the gift of media created by queer people of color. Luckily, over the past few years, there’s been a steady release of media that reflects the lives of LGBTI people with complex racial and ethnic identities while navigating a diverse landscape of cultural and religious beliefs.

A List of Books, Films, and Music by Queer People of Color

Any item(s) from the list below would make great holiday gifts to family, friends, or even to yourself. After all, getting our loved ones to accept us whole is as much of an ongoing process as it is learning to celebrate who we are for ourselves, so why not nourish your spirit this holiday season too?

Note: Because my experience is trans-continental, I’ve prioritized media created by LGBT people of color with various cultural, ethnic, racial, and national contexts. Also, if I’ve mis-labeled or mis-represented any of the media producers’ identities below, PLEASE let me know as soon as possible (with source) so I can update! 

 

Pariah Movie

PARIAH (Film)
Written and Directed by African-American lesbian, Dee Rees.

Themes: African-American, Family, Coming Out, Religion, Gender Identity.

This isn’t just another queer “coming out” movie. The main character, Alike, already knows that she likes girls; it’s coming out to her parents while exploring her gender identity (i.e. more masculine/feminine) that makes this one of my favorite films of all time. This coming of age film is packed with moments familiar enough to resonate with even the most conservative: first crushes (and first kisses), father-daughter bonding, mother-daughter loathing, and siblings who remain annoying as hell but will always be there for you. I loved Pariah so much that I wrote about it twice: My Afrofeminist Review and Coming Out as a Nigerian Boi.

Great Gift For: Everyone, really.

Saving Face Movie

SAVING FACE (Film)
Written and Directed by Chinese-American Lesbian, Alice Wu

Themes: Chinese Culture, Family, Career, Marriage

If I had to put my film picks in order, this would really be at the top. Saving Face is a drama-comedy about two young adults, who are driven by their careers and commitment to family, and thus, find love a tad inconvenient. Saving Face strikes the perfect balance between heart-warming and hilarious. I recommended it to my sister when I first came out and it helped her understand my sexuality, not through the white, class privileged narratives of the L Word, but in the context of our culture. Indeed, part of the film is in Mandarin as the lead characters search for acceptance in a small community in Chinatown, New York.

Great Gift For: Siblings

 

Circumstance Movie

CIRCUMSTANCE (Film)
Written and Directed by Iranian-American, Maryam Keshavarz

Themes: Iranian, Family, Religion, Government, Censorship

Two young women find love and attempt to escape their -er – circumstance of family and politics. What I love about Circumstance is that the lesbian relationship, though central, isn’t the only theme (or issue the women have to worry about) in the movie. Hmm, feels like real life, when religious dogma, traditional parents, and an oppressive government regime are equal (if not greater) thorns on the sides of LGBT  people in non-western countries–a reality that quite often goes above my white gay American friends’ heads. In any case, there’s an (awesome) sex scene that may be awkward to watch with parents (so you may wanna go grab some leftovers during that bit).

Great Gift For: American LGBT friends.

 

 

Gun Hill Road Movie

GUN HILL ROAD (Film)
Written and Directed by Latino straight ally Rashaad Ernesto Green

A Latino man is released from prison only to find that his son is in the process of saving up for gender reassignment surgery (i.e. transitioning from living as a man to living as a woman). To cuta a long story short, drama happens, followed by a stereotypical (yet believable) display of machismo, such as forced attendance at baseball games, and an awkward scene with a prostitute. But hey, that’s apparently how to be a “man’s man” (forget not doing things that land you in prison so that you’re around to love your wife and raise your children — that’s for sissies). There’ll be no shortage of issues to discuss after viewing Gun Hill Road, including the trappings of masculinity, femininity, culture as a barrier to individual expression, and really good acting. Says, the LA Times: “… the quietly commanding turn by newcomer Santana — whose outward embrace of an already well-internalized transformation leaps off the screen with equal parts joy, melancholia and bravery — is a standout.”

Great Gift For: Dads, Uncles, All the People with Testosterone in Your Family

 

 

Other Side of Paradise

THE OTHER SIDE OF PARADISE (Book)
By Chinese-Jamaican lesbian, Stacey Ann Chin 

Themes: Jamaica, Adoption, Family, Womanhood

The first time I saw Stacey Ann Chin speak, I thought to myself, “Damn, I need to be louder!” She’s known for thunderous performances, her constant swearing, her political poetry that takes no prisoners. But, if you’re a writer, you know how much it takes to bleed the way Stacey Ann does anytime she speaks. And when she writes… goodness, there are no words. Her memoir is a glimpse into the circumstances that birthed the beast: growing up in Jamaica, being raised by her grandmother, and the thrill, pain, hilarity, and confusion that comes with discovering womanhood. A must-read.

Great Gift For: Poets and Writers

 

Memory MamboMEMORY MAMBO (Book)
By Cuban immigrant lesbian, Achy Obejas

Themes: Cuba, Immigration, Culture, Family, Gender

So, I’m cheating here; I really want to suggest two of Achy Obejas books. The first, “We Came All the Way from Cuba So You Could Dress Like This?”, is a rich, diverse collection of short stories about a Cuban family’s journey from their homeland to the beautiful and broken promises of the United States, all the while grappling with new ideas of culture, gender, and sexuality. Her second, Memory Mambo, is a full-length novel centered around a familiar, yet nuanced immigrant narrative; Janua, a 24-year old Latina lesbian, searches for an anchor in the terrain of an new country (with a band of crazy cousins–blood and adopted–who keep dragging her into trouble).

Great Gift For: Cousins, Extended Family

 

Zami Audre LordeZAMI: A NEW SPELLING OF MY NAME (Book)
by African-American Lesbian Poet, Writer, and Activist, Audre Lorde

Themes: New York, the 50’s, Working Class Black Women, Class

From GoodReads: “Audre Lorde recounts the first half of her life in an amazing blend of her own poetry, popular songs, journal entries, and memories that are startling in their exactness and fairness. Her ability to recount her extreme loneliness and desire for companionship at being Black in gay scenes, gay in Black crowds and female and working class in the U.S. is a testament to her desire to create bridges…” I started reading this book and had to stop because I began resenting my work for constantly interrupting my love affair with this breathtaking novel about living “life at the intersections”, a subject for which Audre Lorde is well-known. Zami is moving, powerful, and filled with a tender, vulnerable love for humanity, despite its shortcomings.

Great gift for: Black women (who experienced the 50s in the US e.g. older Aunties?), feminists of all backgrounds

 

Ash Malindo LoASH (Book)
Written by lesbian Chinese-American immigrant, Malindo Lo

Themes: Fairy Tales, Cinderella, Love and Romance, Self-Determination

Who doesn’t love fairy tales? This re-telling of Cinderella’s love story is appropriate for ages 8 and up, says Amazon.com, making it the perfect gift for young cousins, siblings, and adult friends alike. Apparently, rather than fall for the prince who rescues her from an enchanted slumber, Cinderella starts a love affair with the woman her evil queen mother sends to kill her. I haven’t read it myself, but after reading glowing reviews I decided to gift myself the Kindle version. Incidentally, an accompanying book, “Huntress”, about Cinderella’s love interest, was published shortly afterwards. And, the author just released the first book in her new young adult sci-fi series. Juicy. Visit www.malindolo.com to learn more.

Great gift for: Young Children, Parents

 

OI AM (Music)
Jazz composition by gay Guyanese-American, Omar Thomas Large Jazz Ensemble

I grew up listening to Jazz, from the smooth of Miles Davis to the soul of Anita Baker to the afrobeat of Fela Kuti–my father’s influence. So when I left home, and became separated from my father, a part of me distanced myself from his favorite music as well… until I met Omar. I fell in love with Omar’s love for classic R&B, soul, jazz, and his talent for bringing those genres together in his compositions, which feel old school enough take you on a walk down memory lane, and new school enough to warrant Ne-Yo’s replacement as the official baby-making musician of the 2000s. “I Am” will be released on January 15th, but you can pre-order now on iTunes. I’ll be getting two copies — one for me, and one for my father, as a reminder that even though we are now worlds apart, our struggles and our love for each other remains, through heart, through life, and through music.

Great gift for: Dads

 

VicciVICCI
by queer Latina, Vicci Martinez

I don’t often have time to watch TV, but I remember when I heard that a queer Latina musician was rocking out on The Voice, a show similar to American Idol, in which contestants compete to be named “The Voice” of America; I looked her up on YouTube immediately and was blown away by the power of her voice (from a relatively small person!). She’s been quoted as saying, “I don’t look the way I sound”, which, though I get what she means, isn’t quite true; she’s absolutely beautiful in her gender non-conformity, and her voice, a reverb of yearning to live beyond measure, beyond bounds. The acoustic version of her new single, “Come Along” is a tantrum of emotions, familiar to anyone who may still be wondering how they survived being a teenager, and — as a member of the LBGT community — how to continue singing for freedom in a world  where your kind of love is seen as an act of rebellion.

Great gift for: Angst-Filled Teenager

 

Discuss! What do you think? Would you consider gifting any of these items to yourself, friends, or family? As an ally, have you read / watched / listened to any of the media above? What did that do for your understanding? Also, I’d love to open up this space for recommendations. Which books, films, and/or music or poetry albums would be great additions to this list?

0sh72

How to Increase Media Diversity: 3 Lessons from the London Feminist Film Festival

A few months ago, the London Feminist Film Festival approached me for help in reaching out to African feminist filmmakers for their open call. The media activist I am, I admit that I did make them jump through hurdles before I agreed to help them spread the word of the festival on my blog. But it was only fair.

In my relatively short experience as an activist (who is also a person of color), I’ve received so many requests from white-run organizations and campaigns asking me to “help them create more diversity”, often without any proof that they’ve attempted to do any of this outreach on their own. It’s almost as though they view brown people as the people primarily responsible for alleviating the “burden” of creating the diversity they claim to want in their spaces. Oh, who am I kidding? 9/10 times that’s actually the case. But I digress.

After a series of sharp-shooting, poignant questions to the committee (“What have you done to reach out to feminist filmmakers of color?” “Who is missing from your lineup, and why?” “What have you done to make this relevant to African feminists, specifically?”), and receiving thoughtful (and honest) responses, I found myself in a strange place: satisfied, and affirmed enough to see myself as partly responsible (as an afrofeminist) for ensuring their success. I didn’t just write about the festival; I volunteered to be one of their media partners and a judge for one of their jury awards as well.

Why am I telling you this? Well, there are lessons about diversity to be learned (and shared) here. 

It’s only been a few months since the LFFF’s initial email to me, but judging from the film festival’s program, the organizers efforts have really paid off. The lineup of films included in the program look fantastic; the panelists and jurors represent a wide range of perspectives, aaaannd (so far), they’ve avoided appearing to be The London White Feminist Film Festival, which is quite commendable. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve witnessed “universality” (i.e. lack of intersectionality), result in the white-washing of so many spaces which would — with some effort — have the potential to truly empower and unify communities within communities.

It’s not every day I get to see I’m impressed with an organization’s outreach efforts (and results). So, I’d like to take this opportunity to highlight A Few Awesome Things the London Feminist Film Festival Did to Support Media Diversity:

1) They Avoided the “We Are One” Trap: In my post calling for support of the London Feminist Film Festival (LFFF), I talked about the importance of diversity in media, especially in the context of solidarity groups; it’s actually quite easy to let diversity slide under kumbaya umbrella politics i.e. “we’re all feminists, women, etc,” ignoring inequalities as we embrace sameness. But the festival organizers, tempting as it may have been to default to what was familiar, made a commitment very early on in their organizing process to keep the inclusion of minority groups in mind, including queer/LGBTI women, African/Black women, etc.

2) The Organizers Did Their Own Outreach Before Contacting Minority Stakeholders: As I mentioned at the beginning of this post, there’s a different between being asked to solve an organization’s (lack of) diversity issues for them (i.e. being tokenized) and being asked to lend your efforts and guidance to work with them towards a more inclusive space. As my communications with LFFF revealed a progressive approach to diversity, I was happy to become more deeply involved in ensuring the festival’s success. When I asked the organizers what they’d done to reach out to other minority groups, I was pleased to hear about their efforts, as well as their honest observations about audiences they were having trouble reaching, making it easy for me to see my role as offering support vs. being saddled with the entire responsibility of creating a diverse program for their festival. Still, I’m obviously not the only partner LFFF has been working with obviously; the LFFF committee has done a phenomenal job building a team of partners, community stakeholders, vendors, and feminist advocates with unique perspectives and talents to both both shape and amplify the 3-day event this weekend. So, this is a PSA to festivals, organizations, campaigns everywhere: outreach isn’t a buzz word, it’s work that needs to be done. So please do it vs. asking marginalized people to do it for you.

3) The Film Festival Resisted the Urge to “Caucus”

Instead of creating a ‘special’ track for Black films, LGBT films etc, the festival opted instead to create special tracks for their “outreach”, in order to improve representation in the larger pool. The result is an impressive festival program that reflects a range of perspectives and experiences, rather than the separation of “main” from “other.” Now, can everyone just adopt this policy? I’m tired of having to choose between discussions, sessions, films etc that represent fragments of who I am, and I’m pretty I’m not the only person with multiple identities that feels this way. Check out some of the films that I’m most excited about (and the range of countries represented), which will be screening next weekend:

  • Lesbiana – A Parallel Revolution is a documentary about the lesbian writers, philosophers, and activists who were key players in creating a revolutionary sisterhood in the 1980s (USA)
  • As a Warrior (Como una Guerrera) is a drama about a victim of domestic violence who finds the strength to be her own knight in shining armor (Argentina)
  • Sari Stories is a short about women in rural India documenting their everyday lives and talking about the problems of growing up as women in a patriarchy as they’re trained to become video journalists (India)
  • In Beautiful Sentence, women prisoners experience the therapeutic effect of creative writing (UK)
  • The Witches of Gambaga is an award-winning documentary about a community of women condemned to live in a camp for ‘witches’ (Ghana)
  • Audre Lorde – The Berlin Years 1984 to 1992 highlights the contributions of award-winning, African-American, lesbian, feminist poet, Audre Lorde, to the Afro-German movement (Germany/USA)
  • And last, but not least, Kung Fu Grandma is about elderly women in Kenya undertaking a self-defense course to help protect themselves from rape by young men in their community (Kenya)

Note: Some of these films are available for free viewing online, so I encourage you to check them out. The LFFF has also granted me access to a few of the features as well, so I’ll be publishing my reviews (and reflections) of several of these films leading up to the festival. I’ve already published a few. But stay tuned for more!

Taxi Sister Film

4 Powerful Documentaries about African Women Everyone Should Watch

The London Feminist Film Festival opened with a bang last night — a sold out viewing of the UK premiere of Lesbiana, about the lesbians, philosophers, and activists that were key players in creating a revolutionary sisterhood. This weekend, audiences interested in more (Black feminist) lesbian history can look forward to the documentary, Audre Lorde — The Berlin Years 1984 – 1992. Note: This show is sold out — seems it’ll be a packed house!

But lesbians (and everyone else who loves them) aren’t the only group that’ll get to enjoy the London Feminist Film Festival. The organizers have made sure that the interests of African Feminists have been woven into the program as well. Four powerful documentaries highlighting the lives of African women in Kenya, Ghana, and Senegal will be making their debut with feminists this weekend.

I’ve gotten a chance to watch a number of these films, and I can assure you, they are not to be missed. So, if you’re based in London, and are on the fence about attending the inaugural festival, I encourage you to check out the synopses (and mini reviews) below.

4 Power Films about African Women at the London Feminist Film Festival

Taxi Sister (UK Premiere)

Mini ReviewTake a drive with Boury, a taxi driver in Dakar, Senegal, as she forges her way through a male-dominated profession. “There are no such things as Taxi Sisters!” a man growls. He towers over Boury, his voice loud and thunderous as he attempts to get her to submit to the idea that she is an impostor in the popular Dakar taxi stand. Boury vacillates between shaking her head and pacing back and forth in frustration while also keeping her eyes open for customers; she’s not driving a Taxi to make a point, she’s trying to make a living to support her family. When she’s on break, she and another Taxi Sister talk about being single working women, dating and relationships, and American tourists: “Watch out for people with big backpacks. They just walk.” Charting its own course, Taxi Sister takes viewers on a tour through Dakar’s streets, segregated by gender, class, and tourist visas, offering poignant, insightful, and humorous insights along the way.

Theresa Traore Dahlberg / Senegal / 2011 / 30 mins / Wolof and French with English subtitles

 

 The Witches of Gambaga

Synopsis: This award-winning documentary is about a community of women condemned to live in a camp for ‘witches’ in Northern Ghana. More than 1000 women accused of witchcraft in northern Ghana live in refuges, where they pay for protection from the chief who runs them. The Witches of Gambaga follows the extraordinary story of one of these communities of women. Made over the course of five years, this exposé is the product of a collaboration between members of the 100-strong ‘witches’ community, local women’s rights activists, and feminist researchers, united by their interest in ending abusive practices and improving women’s lives in Africa. Told largely by the women themselves, this is a uniquely intimate record of the lives of women ostracized from their communities.

Yaba Badoe / UK & Ghana / 2010 / 55 mins / English and local languages with English subtitles

 

KungFu Grandma

Synopsis: Elderly women in Kenya undertake a self-defense course to help protect themselves from rape by young men in their community. The rape of elderly women by young men is a big problem in the slums of Korogocho, Kenya. This documentary follows a group of elderly women who are taking a self-defense course to enable them to better protect themselves. The daily realities of the slums and the myths that may contribute to these violent attacks are explored. A powerful portrayal of women who have come together in solidarity to teach each other self-defense skills and to fight back. The film was shortlisted for an award at the One World Media Awards 2012.

Jeong-One Park / UK / 2012 / 27 mins / Swahili and Kikuyu with English subtitles

 

Ladies Turn

Synopsis: In Senegal, as in most of the world, football is largely considered a sport for men not women. Ladies’ Turn is a non-profit organisation working to give Senegalese women and girls their turn to play football and to develop important leadership and teamwork skills. Ladies’ Turn recognizes women’s football as a powerful tool for promoting gender equality, both by empowering the women who play and presenting new role models to other women and girls. This film shows the determination of the players and of the Ladies’ Turn organisation, despite the challenges and prejudices they face. With the help of Ladies’ Turn, Senegalese women fight to follow their passion for playing football all the way from small neighborhood fields to the tournament finals in Dakar’s newest stadium. An inspiring story of women pushing boundaries.

Hélène Harder / France & Senegal / 2012 / 65 mins / French and Wolof with English subtitles

 

About The London Feminist Film Festival

LFFF was set up as a response to the under-representation of women in the film industry, as well as to the lack of films addressing feminist issues and the fact that the representation of women on screen is often narrow and stereotypical. The festival will be a celebration of feminist films past and present, and aims are to inspire discussion about feminism and film, to support women directors, and to get feminist films seen by a wider audience.

Catch the London Feminist Film Festival this weekend at the Hackney Picturehouse. Check out the full program at the festival’s website: www.londonfeministfilmfestival.com

Beautiful Sentence on Vimeo

Afrofeminist Film Review of “Beautiful Sentence”: Women in Prison Write Poetry for Healing and Salvation

A Beautiful Sentence, A Short Film about Women in Prison

When I read the title and synopsis of Suzanne Cohen’s short documentary about “women in prison as they experience the liberating effect of creative writing,” in the UK, I assumed that I would be watching a feel-good film about the wrongly accused; that I’d get to play jury over a group of alleged femme fatales gathered in a sister circle, discovering together the power of words as they wrote down “what really happened”.

But, thankfully, what I got instead was a poetic exploration of the meaning of “freedom”, and a refreshing re-framing of a familiar narrative, from the political and theoretical to the personal and heart warming, from the black and white of “issues” to vivid, colorful stories; from the sensationalism of harsh sentences to the mundane of living through them.

The first frame usurps the audience’s freedom as passive witness and replaces our eyes with that of a prisoner’s, through which we are forced to view the gray nothingness of the story’s landscape for three whole seconds: a barren prison ground from behind bars.

We soon meet poet Leah Thorn, a writer-in-residence at the high security women’s prison; she is standing outside an iron door as she offers instruction on “line breaks” into the window of a solitary confinement unit through which we see only a middle-aged woman’s head bobbing up and down, her eyes squinted as she smiles from ear to ear awaiting feedback on her latest poem; the contrast between the joy radiating from her face and the dark, rusted, metal door that separates her from the source of her temporary happiness takes a beat to digest.

In Beautiful Sentence, director Suzanne Cohen, holds no punches; this is a film about women in prison, in varying phases of searching and knowing, denial and confession, using poetry as a vessel to transport them to meaning, perhaps some form of self-determined salvation. Each scene in itself, feels like a poem that intentionally feeds the audience’s minds with enough personal truths to shatter single-minded perceptions, to know the prisoners as people, perhaps even, people like us.

I’m reminded of a line in a recent piece that called for transgender women to embrace writing as creative healing: “Poetry is the way I reveal the vital force that creates my being. It is the vehicle by which I can tell the world who I am,” writes Morgan, a transgender woman of color from Texas.

Incidentally, I first learned about the hardships faced by women behind bars when I became interested in better informing myself about issues facing transgender women, including the compounded hardships faced by transgender women of color.  In the US, trans women of color are particularly at risk, as they are more frequently arrested due to a racist criminal system, and experience the highest rate of hate crimes against any subset of the transgender community. And on top of that, they experience harsh sentences for their crimes, such as CeCe McDonald, a transgender woman of color who was jailed for defending herself against a violent assault.

Hence, as an LGBTI activist, I  learned to question prisons as an intrinsically flawed, racist, and sexist system. Thus, even though I hold the names and faces of the trans women of color I know in my heart as I unleash my critique of this system, my almost exclusive focus on the crimes, the sentences, the statistics, has held my perspective captive; admittedly, I’ve only been able to understand the impact of the prison system on a small segment of women, and in theory, until now.

For many of the women in Beautiful Sentence, poetry is freeing, but freedom from the confines of their quarters, and even from the memories of their crimes, and the circumstances that led up to them, remains an ever-elusive concept.

In the middle of a lively group workshop, Leah, the workshop facilitator, fans herself before she suggests, “It’s hot in this corner. Maybe we should go outside.” A woman shackled in prison garb eagerly replies, “Think we’d be allowed to?” to which Leah replies, “God, I forgot where we were.” They all laugh.

Perhaps some of the women are guilty of committing crimes, and some are not; Suzanne Cohen clearly isn’t interested in passing judgment, again. Her film doesn’t cast its subject into a shade of guilty or innocent, but rather, pleas “human”. From the margins of faceless prison statistics, she reveals her subjects as so much more: hopeful, anguished, flawed, good-humored, regretful, silly, an ambitious undertaking for 20 minutes, but, a beautiful sentence, indeed.

“This is more of a prayer than a poem,” a woman living with mental illness writes.

Narrated through vivid poetry, the experiences of these women living behind bars evoke a wide range of emotions: guilt, sadness, anger, hope, even pride. Though these women are behind bars, their lives and their feelings are familiar to those of us on the other side. Beautiful Sentence offers a poignant reminder to extend our hands (and our love) to our sisters behind bars, to celebrate their stories as our own, so that we too are never forgotten.

How to Support Women in Prison

I don’t know about you, but it’s hard for me to watch documentaries without experiencing emotions that demand I take some kind of action. So, if you’re interested in supporting women in prison, or learning more about how the prison system impacts women in general (including the LGBTI community), here are a few resources:

1) Documentary Films about (Trans) Women in Prison: Check out Beautiful Sentence at the first annual London Feminist Film Festival being held at the Hackney Picturehouse from Thursday November 29th – Sunday December 2nd. Also, check out Cruel and Unusual, a 2006 documentary about the experiences of male-to-female transexual women in the United States prison system. You can order it from Outcast Films to support conscious filmmaking for social justice, or you can watch it via this upload I just found on YouTube.

2) Women in Prison (WIP), a UK-based organization (founded by a former woman prisoner) provides specialist services to women affected by the criminal justice system. On their website, WIP offers a number of ways for people who are interested in supporting prison reform, including writing a letter to government officials, making a donation, or joining their SWAP network which organizes campaigns to educate the general public about the impact of prisons on incarcerated women’s lives. Visit www.womeninprison.org.uk for more info.

3) Black and Pink, a US-based prison abolitionist organization, is an open family of LGBTQ prisoners and “free world” (i.e. not in prison) allies who support each other through education, direct service volunteering, and letter writing. Their pen-pal letter-writing program has reached hundreds of LGBTQ prisoners, especially the most marginalized, transgender women of color, throughout the US.  As the short film, Beautiful Sentence, highlights, writing comes with immense healing power. We may not be able to right the wrongs the prison system perpetuates against women, but through our words and our love, we may be able to make their sentences a little less gray, a little less hopeless, for them, and for us.


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