Browse Tag: media

In Honor of Nina Simone: Why Black Women Must Re-Frame the Conversation about Racism in Hollywood

A few weeks ago, I wrote about the internet’s sensationalized debate over Zoe Saldaña playing Nina Simone in a Hollywood biopic: How the Light- vs. Dark- Skinned Debate Misses the Point about Black Women in Media.

In summary, my post called for marginalized communities–especially, in this instance, black women– to be more aware of the way the mechanism of racism and colorism in Hollywood too often keeps us sensationalizing debates about Hollywood’s perception of our beauty (and even, as in this case, pits us against each other), rather than embracing the opportunity for us to affirm our collective power as both media producers and consumers.

For me, this debate was yet another moment in the cycle of abuse between the black community and the gatekeepers that control white media; the fact that Zoe Saldaña, another woman of color was getting a lot of backlash (via comments that suggested she was hijacking a role meant for black women, dismissing her self-identification as a Black Latina, not to mention personal attacks against her character etc), was discouraging, to say the least.

It’s one thing to criticize the white supremacist media machine that is Hollywood; it’s another thing entirely for us to let that criticism distract us from seeing how that machine is designed to keep us fighting each other over scraps (e.g. debating over who gets the few lead roles written for women of color) more often than we brainstorm how we can work together to grow and harvest enough seeds to keep nourishing us all.

As long as we keep Hollywood and mainstream media at the focal point of our discussions (and criticisms) around media representation, we will remain stuck in a very unproductive cycle.

Same Ole’ Mainstream Media vs. Nuanced Alternative Media

Case in Point: The New York Times published a story this week, summarizing the debate around Zoe Saldaña’s casting for the lead role of Nina Simone. (Please note: My comments are based on the article published online, and not what made it into print, as I’m currently in South Africa).

Despite being interviewed by the reporter, and sharing my thoughts about the importance of black communities recognizing the ways in which alternative media–and initiatives to produce more black-owed and -directed content–could lead to  better representation in the future, the article didn’t do much at all to move the conversation forward. In fact, it maintained the status quo.

The NYT article‘s framing of the issue was barely nuanced. In a nutshell, here’s how it went: black people are angry because Zoe Saldaña doesn’t look like Nina Simone, here are other examples of black people protesting the casting of light-skinned actresses, Hollywood is racist and will always prioritize profit, oh well.

Panelist, Salamishah Tillet
Source: Wikipedia

Conversely, Huffington Post Live was able to expand the conversation beyond the sensationalized polarity because black women actually led the conversation.

The segment, titled “50 Shades of Black,” featured an impressive panel of five black women commentators, including Ann Daramola, Michaela Angela Davis, Salamisha TilletTiffani Jones, and Gayla Burks.

Further, this lively panel was facilitated by Dr. Marc Lamont Hill, an academic, activist, journalist, and television personality (i.e. the male version of my idol Melissa Hill Perry). Hence, the collective response to the messy biopic debate was way more nuanced, poignant, and thought-provoking.

Marc Lamont Hill, Huffington Post Live Host

In this case, black women’s voices didn’t just play a supporting role; the panelists had more control over the conversation, the media through which they were sharing  their perspectives, and thus, the outcome.

Even though I wasn’t particularly thrilled with the way the conversation was framed (or even the way it ended), the segment, for me, proved that the more ownership we take of media, the better we have of ensuring that our stories and perspectives are authentic, complex, and representative of the plethora of issues we care about.

Black Women Must Re-frame (Then Lead) the Conversation

In the NYT piece, Cynthia Mort, the director, of the biopic is quoted as dismissing the historical implications of her casting choice by stating, “It’s a Biopic, not a Documentary,” and thus, a creative take on Nina Simone’s life. Her response offers more proof (as if we needed any at this point) of how rampant white privilege is in Hollywood; that a white director gets to use an African-American socio-political icon as formidable and celebrated as Nina Simone as creative fodder with no consequence should be scaring folks into finally moving beyond these cyclical conversations that aren’t getting us anywhere.

So, for instance, instead of a segment titled “Why Does Hollywood Light-Wash Blacks?” (’cause, seriously, we already know the answer to that), how about we as media professionals and activists get into the habit of tackling more action-elicit questions e.g. “How Can Black People Combat White-Washing of Our Images in the Media?”, especially when we have five brilliant black women social commentators on standby? Just a thought.

Cynthia Mort, Nina Simone Biopic Director
Source: NYDailyNews

When I was interviewed by the reporter for NYT, she revealed that she’d spoken to a high end stakeholder in the biopic, who said, and I quote, “Listen, Zoe is hot right now,” as justification for the casting decision.

Need I elaborate? This is — and always will be — about money. This movie will be made, online petition or not. Per my rant on Tumblr,  Hollywood will not suddenly wake up one day and prioritize our authentic histories over their capitalist projects. The situation is not going to change. So, we need to change our strategy. Thankfully, there are others in the media sphere calling for this as well.

Yaba Blay, Africana Studies teacher, scholar, and consultant to CNN Black in America recently commented:

… although I think casting Zoe is a bad move (and disrespectful to Nina’s image and estate), I also think we have to hold “us-folk” accountable. Why haven’t any Black filmmakers made a film about Nina yet? Doesn’t the late, great High Priestess of Soul deserve more than one movie? Or is it only now that a White filmmaker is doing her own thing with Nina’s image that we recognize/remember her legacy? Rather than (or in addition to) complaining, we need to be creating.

Similarly, amidst the familiar stagnant critiques of racism and colorism in Hollywood that were saturating the Huffington Post Live segment, Ann Daramola , stated repeatedly, “Why are we surprised? Why should we continue to expect that Hollywood will tell our stories for us?”

In her post, Zoe Saldaña as Nina Simone is a Reminder to Keep Telling Your Story, Ann offers more than just a fluffy call to action, but calls for strategic investment in black media infrastructure that will give us more autonomy over the creation, curation, and distribution of our stories.

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.

To Ann’s point, if we can accept that we are actually not surprised, and we know that Hollywood won’t change, I think we’d naturally focus more of our efforts on highlighting and supporting solutions, of which there actually are many.

We Need More Than Black Media Producers; We Need Black Media Consumers, Too

Source: Madame Noire

During the Huffington Post Live segment, Michaela Angela Davis highlighted a few of these solutions: AFFRM, an African-American film distribution company dedicated to diverse cinematic images; Image Nation, a film production company nurturing a strong local film industry in the United Arab Emirates; Nollywood, Nigeria’s thriving film industry (and the 3rd largest in the world), which produces and distributes films made with very small budgets.

Still, what good are black-owned film production initiatives if we as a community don’t call for more strategic consumption and critique of the media produced by them? What value are we assigning these solutions in the media if we ourselves reduce them to being one-off mentions, tangents in the larger conversation about racism and colorism in Hollywood?

Source: Wikipedia

In a 25 minute segment, a total of about 3 minutes (yes I timed it) was dedicated to highlighting solutions already in place, before getting right back to criticizing Hollywood.

It isn’t enough to simply mention that there are minority film professionals already contributing to part of the solution (i.e. by creating more media). We need more discussions around their work’s value and potential to subvert the power structure in the film industry.

I don’t doubt for one second that criticism of Hollywood plays an important role in keeping Hollywood accountable. I just question how often that phrase (“keeping Hollywood accountable”) keeps our voices restricted to being reactive, when we are way more powerful when we use our voices in service of others; young black women, for instance, who need to know that there is hope for them to have flourishing careers in film and media; older black women who are tired and frustrated with Hollywood’s chronic appropriation and alteration of our histories.

We owe it to each other to more frequently use our voices to highlight our resistance, and use our collective power to increase support and visibility for the projects that will get us closer to the future we wish to see, because it is possible. Here’s how:

  • Black People Are Repeat Consumers of Blockbusters, Why Not Redirect the Dollars?: A quick scan of this study on black movie-goers from BET Networks shows that the black community has way more power than it’s using e.g. African-Americans go to the movies 13.4 times a year vs. 11 times for general market, they’re repeat movie-goers for films they like, and are heavy consumers of alternative media. However, in this same study, when listing the top films supported by black audiences, only 3 out of 19 films featured a prominent African-American character. What would happen if we changed that? What would happen if made it a priority to only support the films we want to see? Think on that.
  • Hollywood Taps into Their 1% and So Should We: When I published my call for more creation and support of black media, the most popular attack at the plausibility of profitable black media infrastructure was limit to capital. That is certainly an obstacle to contend with, but from the recent successes of the Tyler Perry franchise, Steve Harvey’s Think Like a Man, and other projects, not one that’s insurmountable. There is a black middle class and elite in the entertainment industry, creating and leading their own projects, raising millions of dollars for Obama. Let’s not erase their accomplishments by continually perpetuating the idea that there is no capital for projects we’d like to see at all.

There are so many other avenues to explore when it comes to black alternative media, even if for the purpose of mainstreaming that media eventually. So why do the most vocal commentators on this issue keep reverting to the same old conversation i.e. the “problematicness” of Hollywood?

Michaela Angela Davis,
Image Activist and Consultant

As one of the panelists, Michaela Angela Davis noted, the colorism evident via this casting decision is very triggering for black women, who constantly have to defend their right to feel beautiful, appreciated, and respected. I imagine that’s part of the reason it’s been so challenging for us to break this cycle; our feelings regarding the media’s (mis)representation of our beauty and aesthetics have been either continually invalidated, or worse, ignored.

Still, we cannot let our pain keep us lingering outside of Hollywood’s gates, hoping for an apology, expecting retribution, or worse, throwing stones at the few of us who have managed to make it inside. We must embrace the idea that we can be gamechangers, that our collective power is formidable, that we can create media that’s better and more representative of who we are, for the sake of young black girls everywhere, for the sake of  Nina Simone herself. Time to change the game.

Gabby Douglas, Olympic Gold Winner, 16-Yr Old Role Model

Food for Thought: When the facilitator stated that he didn’t want his daughter growing up to think Nina Simone looked like Zoe Saldaña, it would have been incredible to have all those brilliant minds put their heads together and offer, from their various perspectives, ways in which we as community could ensure such a thing never happens.

Instead, via a vote about who each panelist would have liked to see play Nina Simone, the conversation ended with these black women on the bench as spectators of Hollywood’s game.

After such a lively conversation, I couldn’t think of anything more disempowering to end on a note that ultimately suggests to young black girls that Hollywood will always be upheld as the ultimate validation of their voices, their stories, their work. Can we please change this?

Here lies an opportunity for us to commit to handling the next conversation like this differently, to frame future conversations around racism, colorism, and media around solutions, which tap into our power as a community, and send the message to future generations that change is indeed possible

Even though we have very far to go, I believe this conversation was a solid start. Take a look. And let me know what you think.

 

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.

Our Voices, Our Stories: Training African Women’s & LGBT Organizations to Use Social Media is Critical

“Until lions write their own history, tales of the hunt will continue to glorify the hunter.” — African Proverb

Despite the richness, diversity, and complexities that shape the landscape that is my homeland, Africa is often depicted as one big safari (or war zone). Why is that? Because Africa’s stories are rarely told by Africans themselves.

This is no different for the African LGBT movement. For every western media news story I hear about LGBT Africans being murdered, raped, living in fear etc., there is an untold story of resistance, progress, and change. As a queer Nigerian writer, I have made it my responsibility to cover that change, to document our history as told by us — not through the eyes of western imperialists or saviorists, and to amplify the voices of my brothers and sisters who are leading the way.

For instance, on a recent trip to South Africa, I met an African transgender man who told me that he’d gotten most of his hormone therapy and sex reassignment surgeries covered by the government. In MA, where I’ve been living for the past ten years, we only just recently passed a workplace anti-discrimination law that includes gender identity. Many of my friends still have to work several jobs at  a time, throw fundraisers, and run online fundraising campaigns to pay for their gender reassignment surgery. But before I could congratulate him on such a feat, he dismissed the achievement almost entirely. “They can do better. I’m going to make the government pay for all the surgeries. What nonsense.”

Given all the negative news we hear about gay Africans (as well as either the apathy or aggressive criminalization by African governments), who would ever have suspected that a black, transgender South African would not only have gotten gender reconstructive surgeries covered by the government, but that he would be so bold as to demand for more,  i.e. full coverage for anyone transitioning, when countries like the US are still debating the recognition of gender identity in basic healthcare policy?

I immediately began to interrogate him about his experience advocating for trans-inclusive healthcare, and LGBT activism in general. Soon, we discovered a way we’d already been connected; I’d recently written about his organization in a recent article (“Will Transgender and Intersex Activism Unite Africa’s Movements?“) for Gender Across Borders. Small world. But he’d had no idea. So, before we parted ways, we exchanged emails, and he gave me a T-Shirt with his organization’s name and logo on it. I was so happy to have met a fellow gender non-conforming African, and resolved to keep in touch, and follow his work more closely.

But here’s the thing: after I got back to the states, I searched for his organization online and all I found was a website with no content. Not even a contact link. His umbrella organization had an active Facebook page, but the major new initiative he’d shared with me, along with some of the programs and work he’d talked about, weren’t mentiond in their updates. Basically, my new friend — and all his passionate trans advocacy — was invisible.

Two weeks ago I heard about the brutal murder of an LGBT South African, Thapelo Makutle, described by western and African news and media outlets as gay. Thapelo had recently competed (and won) a beauty queen pageant, was seemingly self-described as trans, but I had no idea which pronouns they went by; almost all the news stories I came across had been written by people outside of the  community most familiar with Thapelo’s work. I wondered if my friend had known Thapelo personally. I wondered what he would have written about the crime, and what steps he would have suggested to happen next in order to honor and continue to build on the work of a fellow transgender activist.

As the story spread far and wide, framed as an anti-gay issue in Africa, Thapelo’s trans identity taking a back seat — I began to feel frustrated. Now, news of the crime was being picked up by western media sites, who barely cared to include any details beyond the murder method and a reiteration that South Africa was unsafe. Where were the other less-sensationalized truths? What were they? Who could we trust, then and now, to deliver them to us? And, how will these voices be able to reach us in crucial times such as these?

These are all questions I’m hoping my new project — Social Media & Communications Training for African Women’s & LGBT Organizations — will address. For the next 6 months, I’ll be traveling through 6-8 countries (including South Africa, Swaziland, Lesotho, Namibia, Botswana, Malawi, and more), hosting workshops on social media, writing and storytelling, branding and communications, blogging, tweeting, and more.

My goal is to support my brothers and sisters in leading the conversation about the LGBT African movement and the impact of their work, so that it isn’t reduced to a series of atrocities and vigils due to the west’s tendency to “re-tell” reductive stories about Africa (and the Diaspora in general). 

However, I must reiterate, that in addition to lending my hand to the fight for liberation at home, I am eager — and excited! — for the opportunity to learn from activists who have been creating change with little to no resources.

As the founder and lead-organizer of a nationally-recognized grassroots organization, and executive editor of a media advocacy and publishing organization, both of which serve queer people of color, including the Diaspora, I’ve had to learn to be resourceful in a variety of ways; but I’ve done all this from a very safe distance away from draconian anti-gay laws that threaten imprisonment and death (at least most of the time). I can’t imagine the hardships queer African activists face under such a climate. Yet, in spite of this, they persist, they survive, and often, against all odds, they thrive.

I will never forget how much the passion and conviction of my friend inspired me that day; it still encourages me to have courage, push through the fear, whenever I begin to doubt myself. I need this trip just as much as my brothers and sisters need my — and all of our — support for healing, for hope, and for affirmation.

So, goodbye to the overly simplistic, dehumanizing narratives western dogma continues to perpetuate about African; and hello to authenticity, autonomy, and self-determination. Instead of constantly being disappointed by reductive narratives about LGBT Africans (in the rare occasion they’re presented at all), I’m focusing instead on arming my community with tools and strategies to amplify of our voices. As far as telling our story of the LGBT African movement? I think we can take it from here.

David Kato. Thapelo Makutle.  And too many whose names we will never know. This trip is my homage to you. 

 

Support Africa Social Media Project

I’m aiming to raise more than $7500 by July 31st. I’m embarking on this trip completley on my own, and relying on individual donations; no sponsorships, no grants, just me. So, please consider donating if and as much as you can. I’ll be gone for 6 months, and am hoping to not become another “starving child in Africa”!

Suggestion: A good way to calculate a donation would be to think about what you’d be comfortable giving me as a one-time contribution, then multiply that by six.

All details about my project are available at http://www.indiegogo.com/africansforafrica

You can follow my journey @spectraspeaks and hashtag #africansforafrica on Twitter, or my Tumblr blog http://africansforafrica.tumblr.com/.

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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 www.oia.co.za

We Are Not Invisible: 5 African Women Respond to the Kony 2012 Campaign

The Kony 2012, a campaign launched recently by Invisible Children to raise awareness of the issues of child soldiers in Uganda in which they propose what they believe to be the ultimate solution — arrest Kony, the LRA rebel leader responsible for over 30,000 child abductions — was met with overnight “success” (i.e. over 50 million views on YouTube) and then heightened controversy; there are critiques that suggest the video promotes a white saviorist approach to humanitarianism, others that applaud the effort but challenge the film’s inaccuracies, and many more that call for the inclusion of more African voices in Invisible Children’s advocacy efforts.

Almost overnight, the web was flooded with so much commentary from western media on the erasure of African voices that it became challenging for me to even locate perspectives from fellow Africans; ironically, African voices weren’t initially just being drowned out by the success of IC’s viral campaign, but by western voices sharing their own take. Fortunately, African voices stepped up to the  plate, offering a wide range of perspectives; you can find a compilation of African responses to the campaign here, and a more general roundup of the Kony2012 issue here.

Nevertheless, I’m (as always) acutely aware of the amplification of male voices on the Kony 2012 campaign. Hence — and in the spirit of women’s history month — I’d like to highlight African women’s voices. The 5 women below aren’t just adding to the conversation, but inspiring critical thinking about how we can be more conscious about the media we consume, more humble in our efforts to provide support to fellow global citizens, and mindful of the gift social media has given us. Africans now have the power to combat harmful narratives about Africa simply by telling our own.

So, here they are: 5 responses from African women to Kony 2012, and westerners seeking to support Africa, ethically and responsibly, now and in the future.

1) Solome Lemma
Involve African Leadership, Work with Organizations on the Ground

Soon after I heard about the Kony 2012 campaign (and watched the video), I read “You Do NOT Have My Vote” written by Solome Lemma under her Innovate Africa Tumblr.

Solome is also the Co-Founder of HornLight, a platform to share diverse, complex & nuanced narratives on the Horn of Africa. In this post, she stresses the need for African leadership:

…when your work and consequence affect a different group of people than your target audience, you must make it a priority to engage the voices of the affected population in a real and meaningful way, in places and spaces where programs are designed, strategies dissected, and decisions made.

Read the full post at innovateafrica.tumblr.com, and follow @InnovateAfrica on Twitter.

 

2) Rosebell Kagumire
Respect Africa’s Agency, Don’t Paint Us As Voiceless

While the cyberspace heated up with written critique upon written critique, Rosebell KAgumire, a Ugandan blogger and journalist that covered the LRA several years ago, decided to post a video summarizing her thoughts.

In this video, she passionately asserts the danger of a single story to dehumanize a people:

“How you tell the stories of Africans is much more important that what the story is; because if you are showing me as voiceless, as hopeless [then] you have no space telling my story. You shouldn’t be telling my story if you don’t believe that I also have the power to change what is going on.”

Rosebell also stresses the importance of including African leadership, as well as engaging other political players such as the Ugandan government and other African countries before attempting to implement any solutions.

Visit Rosebell’s blog here, and follow @RosebellK

 

3) Betty Oyella Bigombe
Historical Context is Necessary for Any Future Solutions

Although Betty isn’t currently directly involved with peace efforts for the LRA, nor has she written a formal response to the Invisible Children campaign, she has been quoted and cited several times as a notable Ugandan peace-seeking activist the Kony2012 video erases by suggesting that there’s been limited attention called to the issue. Not only was Betty previously tasked with convincing the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) guerilla rebels –negotiating with Kony himself over 10 years ago — to lay down their arms, following the failure of military efforts to defeat the rebels, her shared experiences working from all sides of the conflict provide counter to IC’s claim that there are just good guys and bad guys. From CSMonitor.com:

Bigombe has seen the LRA’s brutality first-hand. In 1995, when she was a government minister, she was the first outsider on the scene of one of its bloodiest massacres. Rebels attacked a town and captured about 220 men, women, and children. The villagers were marched several miles to a riverbank and all methodically executed.

Yet sometimes Bigombe sees glimmers of humanity, too. Once, one LRA commander grew pensive during a conversation. He wondered how his fellow northerners would perceive him after all the terrible things the LRA has done. He asked plaintively, “Can I ever go home again?”

Read her full story here, watch a video of Betty speaking here, as well as this recent interview with her on Enough Project.

 

4) Dayo Olopade
Support the Mundane March Towards Progress, Not Just Internet Sensationalism

As a fellow Nigerian, I was thrilled to see Dayo mentioned in this list of Africans commenting on the Kony 2012 campaign. She recently wrote an opinion piece for the New York Times about the gap between what the the Kony 2012 campaign suggests as a solution and what Ugandan people dealing with the daily impact of this conflict actually need. Here is an excerpt (edited for brevity):

In Kampala last month, I met Hadijah Nankanja, the local director of Women of Kireka, a collective of women touched by Kony’s marauding violence… Hadijah and I tried to come up with a way forward. Food production? Tailoring? Hair salons? And so forth. We didn’t come up with a concrete plan, but opening a small restaurant seemed to be the front-running proposition. Our informal brainstorming session took about the same time as does watching “Kony 2012.” I dare suggest that time spent marshaling such reserves of imagination, communion and capital to support jobs for displaced victims is far more helpful than this sort of advocacy. The kinds of problems Hadijah is trying to understand and solve are less sexy than the horror stories trailing behind Kony. But they are the nut worth cracking. The mundane march of progress in poor countries is what ‘awareness’ campaigns often miss. And when, as in this case, success is determined by action from outside the region, cries of a new imperialism should be taken seriously. Few international NGOs working in Africa define success properly — as putting themselves out of business. Invisible Children seems no better.”

Dayo is a Nigerian-American journalist covering global politics and development policy. She is writing a book about innovation in Africa. You can follow her at @madayo on Twitter.

 

5) Semhar Araia
Use Media to Amplify African Voices, Not Just Your Own

Semhar is the founder of the Diaspora African Women’s Network (DAWN), which “develops and supports talented women and girls of the African diaspora.”

In her opinion piece at the Christian Science Monitor, “Learn to Respect Africans,” Semhar refocuses the conversation on the impact of media on young people thirsty for information:

… young people’s minds are open and hungry. They should be inspired by knowing Africa is empowered, saving itself, and working with partners to remove Kony. That is the real story. Invisible Children must be willing to take their followers on a journey through the Africa that Africans know. They must be willing to inspire – but also to  manage – their followers’ expectations. They must be willing to use their media to amplify African voices, not simply their own.

It’s no wonder she started the twitter hashtag, #WhatILoveAboutAfrica. In response to negative portrayals of the continent put forth by western media, and most recently, through the Kony 2012 campaign, Semhar commands that we do more than just critique visions of Africa, but create them ourselves. Follow @Semhar and @DawnInc on Twitter.

 

So, that’s the word — African women have spoken. If you’re interested in supporting the people of Northern Uganda, but would like an alternative to donating to Invisible Children, consider supporting organizations such as Hope North Uganda and The Women of Kireka. In fact, Invisible Children has recently shared a list of other organizations working on the this issue in Uganda.

Finally, if you’re itching for a new video to share, share this one, make this one go viral. Viva Africa.


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