2021, Movies

Subjects of Desire (2021, Jenifer Holness)

This is a thought-provoking and compelling documentary about the changing cultural standards around black women and black beauty in the US (and Canada to an extent) that is just too ambitious for its own good. Partway through my “first time feature director” radar went off and, sure enough, it’s her first feature length film as a director.

This is not a topic I know much about and so I’m happy to watch a film about it. But I think there are multiple topics for a film here and the movie doesn’t really settle on which one it wants to tackle. There are the historical stereotypes of black women, there are the changing standards of black beauty (maybe those two could be successfully combined), there is blackfishing, and there’s the story of people like Rachel Dolezal. Each of these could be its own movie. (And the film mentions there is a film about Dolezal). To me, as a lay (white) person, the film could have explored all of these in more detail but didn’t because it was too busy jumping from one to the other. The Dolezal tangent in particular feels like an unnecessary can of worms to open given how fraught that behaviour is.

I also find the framing device, of the Miss Black American Pageant, to be somewhat inadequate for the task of the film. It might have worked if the film was only focused on the changing nature of cultural standards around beauty for black women but I sort of expect this kind of framing device to be used in a film that is more a history of participation and exclusion of black women from these types of pageants.

This sounds like I didn’t find the film worthwhile and that’s not the case at all. I am very unaware of these experiences and a film like this is good for me, to understand how people different than me (both in terms of gender and ethnicity) feel about something I pay very little attention to (cultural standards of beauty). Despite the film’s flaws as a film, I still think there’s a lot of thought-provoking content, both from the interviewees and from the sort of scrums the film assembled to replicate casual conversations about these topics.

A tighter film would have zeroed in the focus.


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