SXSW 2021: ‘Subjects of Desire’ is an Empowering & Provocative Documentary

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Subjects of Desire

Subjects of Desire makes its world premiere at this year’s SXSW Film Festival in the Documentary Feature Competition. The 101-minute documentary is directed by Jennifer Holness, narrated by Garvia Bailey, produced by Holness and Sudz Sutherland. The film’s screenwriter is Holness, the cinematographers are Iris Ng and  Ricardo Diaz, and the editor is Lawrence Jackman. The other interviewees include Miss Black America contestants, notable musical artists such as India Arie and Jully Black, college professors, media personalities, and more.

Subjects of Desire is a thought-provoking and timely feature documentary that examines North American beauty standards’ cultural shift towards embracing Black female aesthetics and features.  From society’s new fixation on the ‘booty,’ fuller lips, the dramatic rise of spray-tanned skin, ethnic hairstyles, and athletic bodies, some argue that Black women are having a beauty moment.

Others, however, primarily Black women, argue that traditional Black features and attributes are seen as more desirable when they are on White women.  Subjects of Desire is told from the perspective of women who aren’t afraid to challenge conventional beauty standards. The documentary weaves through the past and present, exploring the positive and negative portrayals of Black women in media and examines their impacts today.

From the start of the film, Subjects of Desire makes a poignant statement on the targeted hate, mistreatment, and problematic issues such as appropriation and blackfishing within the first few minutes of the film. This is done through the use of showing numerous headlines that involved events where Black women. All whilst playing a clip of Civil Rights leader Malcolm X’s Who Taught You To Hate Yourself speech.

These first few minutes of the film truly help to set the tone for the documentary. As it makes abundantly clear, this isn’t just a documentary about celebrating the acceptance of Black women’s features as beautiful by mainstream standards. It is also about examining the issues of racism, produce, stereotypes, and appropriation specific to Black women.

During conversations with the Miss Black America pageant contestants, it is discussed how Black women have been denied the power of beauty throughout history and explains the importance of celebrating Black features as beautiful within the Black community through the events, such as the Miss Black America beauty pageant.

I thoroughly enjoyed that the film explored and explained the history of the Miss Black America beauty pageant. The pageant was originally established and organized by J. Morris Anderson and Brenda Cozart in 1968. The pageant was created in protest against the Miss America beauty pageant that originally excluded Black women contestants. Former Miss Black America Brittany Lewis states what she loves about the pageant, “It creates a space for us to continue to celebrate Black beauty, Black excellence, and the Black experience unapologetically.”

Another part of the documentary that I loved is how it explores and deconstructs three stereotypes that stem from slavery and used in media to label Black women for years; the Mammy, the Jezebel, and the Sapphire. The Mammy stereotype is labels Black women as caretakers and maids that only exist to nurture,  serve, and solve problems for white people. The Jezabel is a stereotype that labels Black women as over-sexualized and exoticized beings that constantly crave sex. And the Sapphire stereotype is the perpetually angry Black woman.

Subjects of Desire explores how these stereotypes have impacted how Black women are perceived by others and their effects over time and how they are used today. For example, the Sapphire, also known as the “Angry Black Woman,” is a commonly used stereotype in media towards Black women. The film discusses how it has affected how people perceived Black woman’s anger by presenting them as mean, overbearing, and quick to violence. “The public image of Black womanhood is we’ve got it together, we’re strong, or we strong, and we’re angry, we’re always aggressive,” Dr. Cheryl Thompson notes on the effect that stereotype has on society’s perception of Black women.

The dissection and explanation of these stereotypes are thought-provoking. Several moments throughout it made me stop and think of how I have experienced being labeled as one of those stereotypes throughout my life. And now, to know the intensive history behind them, it very eye-opening to see how they are created to denigrate, belittle, and unjustly so much of the Black woman’s experience for so long. Our autonomy, emotions, and even our own capacity for sexual desires and feelings. The film truly makes the audience stop and wonder how much of how we perceived stems from the stereotypes born from racism.

Another thing that I appreciated about this documentary is that it touches upon the problematic issues of acceptance and standards for beauty within the Black community, such as colorism and preferences. In this part of the documentary, interviewees recount their various experiences with how Black men degraded them for their features and skin tone. These conversations show that Black women do not only have the struggle of having their beauty judged outside of their community but within it as well.

Subjects of Desire is a shining example of acceptance and unity among Black women of all different shapes, sizes, and personalities. Some of my favorite scenes in the film are when the Miss Black America contestants show support and encouragement for one another when they dance, sing together, and practice their catwalks. Those moments to me felt so relatable and exemplified beautiful moments of Black woman and girl joy. Seeing those moments throughout the film made me smile nonstop, and I appreciate these great examples of Black women empowering and uplifting one another.

One moment that caught me by surprise was the appearance of Rachel Dolezal in the film. If I am honest, her presence in this film slightly angered and confused me. At one point, I literally yelled, “Why is she here” because I truly did not understand at first. I can’t say I agree with giving Dolezal a platform to speak on the topics of Black beauty standards, especially if the reference of her might has done just as well. However, as the film goes on, I can understand the filmmakers’ decision to include her as a part of this project because Dolezal is a prime example of someone who appropriates Black features out of a place of desire for said features. So much so that even after five years of being exposed as a white woman, she still identifies herself as Black.

The reasoning for having Dolezal interviewed makes more sense as the film further explores and dissects the issues of appropriation and blackfishing. Problematic activities that white men and non-black women have participated in, particularly when it comes to celebrities like the Kardashians and Instagram influencers. The film touches on how these problems activities are not an appreciation of features but instead reduce Blackness and its features to an aesthetic.

Subjects of Desire discuss these issues in detail and gets various opinions from different interviewees regarding the uptick in appropriation and blackfishing because white and non-black people consider them to be “trendy” now. One statement regarding this issue that I especially liked came from Miss Black America 2019, Ryann Richards. “For some reason, greater American culture has a fascination with taking whatever has been done by Black people for years, and years, and years and putting it on a white girl and call it the new trend,” Richards states.

Overall, the cultural significance of this film is immeasurable. Subjects of Desire is a profound documentary that takes the audience from the past through the present as it examines and deconstructs the stereotypes that have been forced upon Black women for decades. The film challenges what has been told or what we have been taught to believe about race, power, and beauty. It does not hold back in its exploration of problematic issues regarding acceptance and beauty standards within the Black community. I highly recommend watching this empowering and provocative film created by Holness and her team. Subjects of Desire exemplifies black women’s joy, unity, and empowerment in a relatable and inspirational way.

Subjects of Desire
  • 9/10
    Rating - 9/10
9/10

TL;DR

Overall, the cultural significance of this film is immeasurable. Subjects of Desire is a profound documentary that takes the audience from the past through the present as it examines and deconstructs the stereotypes that have been forced upon Black women for decades. The film challenges what has been told or what we have been taught to believe about race, power, and beauty. It does not hold back in its exploration of problematic issues regarding acceptance and beauty standards within the Black community. I highly recommend watching this empowering and provocative film created by Holness and her team. Subjects of Desire exemplifies black women’s joy, unity, and empowerment in a relatable and inspirational way.