5 films to watch that proclaim Black Women's Lives Matter too

These films serve as a reminder of how crucial it is that Black women's lives not be left out of the conversation

By Melanie McFarland

Senior Critic

Published June 16, 2020 9:37PM (EDT)

On The Record, The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, and The Rape of Recy Taylor (HBO/Warner Media/Augusta Films/Harpo Films/Salon)
On The Record, The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, and The Rape of Recy Taylor (HBO/Warner Media/Augusta Films/Harpo Films/Salon)

Frequently overlooked in the conversation revolving around Black Lives Matter is the foundational role Black women play in this movement – and, truly, every other major civil rights and social justice movement that took place over the last century. Black Lives Matter was founded nearly seven years ago by Alicia Garza, Patrisse Cullors, and Opal Tometi. The #MeToo Movement may have catapulted into the into the public's consciousness in 2017, but it was founded in 2006 by Tarana Burke.

We say their names now, and frequently, with the knowledge that in saying their names we ensure their voices are not diminished or drowned out – knowing that along with being overlooked, Black women also tend to be silenced or ignored.

One recent, painful example is the early omission of emergency medical technician Breonna Taylor's name in the context of demonstrations that sprang up around the world directly in the wake of George Floyd's killing. Taylor was shot to death in her own apartment by Louisville, Ky., police after they entered her home on serving a questionable no-knock search warrant as part of a narcotics investigation in March.

Yet only after public pressure was brought to bear by activists has the demand #SayHerName been heard.

As white America shows signs of starting to understand the economic disparities and injustice endured by Black Americans, it is vital they also recognize the specific and historic challenges and burdens Black women contend with. To that end, we offer this short list of a few readily accessible titles both new and recent that add context to the nation's still-developing dialogue around civil rights and equality.

"On the Record" (Available on HBO Max)

As we charge ahead in what optimistically feels like a different frontier in race relations, it is important that we not get too far ahead of ourselves in declaring that we're making true progress, let alone achieved any sort of victory. Offered as evidence is the backlash against #MeToo which, in case people have forgotten, failed to achieve a reckoning for women of color across the board.

Remember that before "Surviving R. Kelly" became a phenomenon, Robert Kelly and Bill Cosby walked free for decades before any semblance of justice was served. Even then, the survivors aren't universally believed. Many vilify these women.

What we witness in the documentary "On the Record" occurs in a post-Cosby, pre-"Surviving R. Kelly" world. But in any context, Drew Dixon's hesitance in coming forward to publicly accuse hip-hop Russell Simmons of sexual assault is understandable. The former music industry executive, who worked in the A&R department at Def Jam while Simmons ran the label, is among the first women of color to come forward, adding her voice to a list of Simmons' accusers beginning with model Keri Claussen Khalighi and screenwriter Jenny Lumet.

Filmmakers Kirby Dick and Amy Ziering gingerly walk with Dixon in the earliest moments of her decision to be named in a New York Times article that published in December 2018, capturing every painful pause and flicker of trauma in her eyes as she lays out her case for going on record.

Notably, though, "On the Record" grants an extensive hearing to Dixon's talents and contributions to hip-hop from its earliest days, capturing her light up as she remembers befriending the Notorious B.I.G. and playing a part in bringing together Mary J. Blige and Method Man for the now-classic 1994 duet "I'll Be There for You/You're All I Need to Get By." This makes "On the Record" something more than a chronicle of one woman's experience in taking her personal pain public – it is proof of Dixon's instrumental role in shaping parts of modern hip-hop, a celebration of the music and the culture that poses the difficult question whether the people who love the culture are willing to come to terms with the alleged misconduct and crimes its heroes may have committed.

And Dixon quite obviously loves the culture. She bore her wounds in silence, walking away from the industry and, she says, the creativity and talent that are her lifeblood, for the culture. With its inclusion of fellow survivors Sheri Sher and Sil Lai Abrams,  "On the Record" poses the question of why Black women's pain is minimized and their cries for help met with gaslighting while white women appear are more readily believed – to a point – with the #MeToo movement.

That the documentary was made available at launch for HBO Max subscribers is something of a mixed blessing. "On the Record" made news prior to Sundance when its original executive producer Oprah Winfrey dropped the film after being pressured to do so by Simmons, but carefully saying that the reason was "creative differences" with Dick and Ziering and doubts concerning elements of Dixon's account. Pressure from a fellow billionaire who has since rebranded himself as a meditation adherent and yogi had nothing to do with it, she said.

The film was originally to air on Apple TV+ as part of Winfrey's overall deal with the service, but when she abandoned the film so did Apple.

The HBO brand probably has a broader reach than Apple (which, like other streaming services, does not release viewership data) but, as customers grapple with accessing the new service, "On the Record" has largely gotten lost in the shuffle. But this story remains relevant to conversations about unequal justice. The world still harbors a lurid fascination for Jeffrey Epstein, who is dead, and Harvey Weinstein, who is in prison.

Simmons has sexual misconduct or assault allegations from more than a dozen women in addition to others who have declined to be named. He stepped down from executive roles at his companies and remains a free man.

"The Rape of Recy Taylor." (Available on Hulu)  

If you want to comprehend one of the core aspects of the American justice system's sustained failure to offer equal protection and legal recompense to its Black citizens, Nancy Buirski's 2017 film breaks down one of the central morally reprehensible tenets of Jim Crow that permeates society to this day. Utilizing a wrenching level of disclosure, Buirski tells the story of Taylor, a 24-year-old mother living in Abbeville, Alabama who was walking home from church one night with another man and woman from church when she was abducted at gunpoint by six men. They took her out into the woods and raped her, one after the other.

Taylor knew some of the men who committed the crime, and reported it, but a local grand jury refused to indict them. Even when the N.A.A.C.P. became involved, sending Rosa Parks to investigate and eventually making her case a national cause, none of the perpetrators were ever brought to justice.

In fact, among white men in the South, being able to take Black women against their will and assault them was seen as a right and a privilege of race and class. (One local white historian to whom Buirski speaks disgustingly characterizes the rapes committed by white men against the Black women they had enslaved as consensual.) And if you're wondering what these past, unanswered-for crimes have to do with systemic racism as it manifests today, look at the delayed justice in Taylor's case, as well as Ahmaud Arbery. Look the health care inequities Black people face in comparison to their white counterparts.

"The Rape of Recy Taylor" is about one woman, what she survived and how so many systems failed and abandoned her, civil rights organizations included. But it is also a specific representation of a commonly held view, in the eyes of a society built to favor and cater to the security of white people, that Black bodies are disposable. They never were, of course, which is the point of declaring that Black Lives Matter.

"What Happened, Miss Simone?" (Available on Netflix)

As we process the contributions Black people have made to American society – its economy, infrastructure, art, music and culture, it is important to refrain from evaluating an entire people's experience by way of a few distinct and exceptional beings. Famous people make convenient and natural symbols because they represent a broader concept, and they do so in a way that is commercially appealing and to a certain degree consumable.

Even so, such work has its utility. I've previously written about "Chisholm '72: Unbought and Unbossed," currently streaming on Amazon, and how ably it shows how the political system is aligned against outside candidates. Coming on June 23 is the broadcast debut of "Toni Morrison: The Pieces I Am" as an installment of PBS's "American Masters" series, which is part tribute and partly an exploration of America's history through the viewpoint of Black women, voices not typically considered or taken seriously.   

Liz Garbus' 2015 documentary about Nina Simone was released while the nation reeled from murders of nine Black parishioners engaged in Bible study at the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina. In that time, and in ours, her experience and voice amplify a cruel reality of every struggle, which is that regardless of how many strides a movement makes and how much of the mainstream signs on, the trauma absorbed along the way becomes its own poison.

"What Happened, Miss Simone?" is a biography that doubles as a study in what happens when a people is forced to swallow gallons of anger in exchange for continuing to live, let alone thrive. Simone's daughter Lisa Simone Kelly talks about how these emotions weighed on her mother, especially how the singing of her seminal song "Mississippi Goddam" breaking her voice to the point of changing the way she sang.

"How can you be an artist and not reflect the times?" Simone offers in one of many interviews, in a film that illuminates how trying it is to be a mirror in profoundly fractured times.

"Miss Juneteenth" (Available via digital services and video-on-demand on June 19)

Among the many films whose distribution plans were changed drastically by the pandemic is this tender story from director Channing Godfrey Peoples that tells the story of Juneteenth, the day in 1865 when news of the Emancipation Proclamation in 1863 reached Texas, freeing those who were still enslaved there. Freedom is still a hard road for Turquoise (Nicole Beharie, in a sensitive performance), a single mother who works multiple jobs to support her daughter Kai (Alexis Chikaeze). Turquoise is a dream deferred rendered in flesh and blood: she won the Miss Juneteenth pageant when she was Kai's age but was never able to avail herself of its winnings, a scholarship to the Historically Black College of University of her choice.

"Miss Juneteenth" never explicitly states how Kai diverged from her path but instead examines the ramifications of placing her hopes in Kai to claim the opportunities she let slip through her fingers.

Beyond being a moving portrait of a mother's and daughter's contentious bond, the film also delves into the power of legacy – not merely in terms of history and pride but the tangible need for Black people to attain and hang on to wealth, underscoring what a rarity that is in a country that regards inheritance and prosperity as a birthright.

"The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks" (Available on HBO Max)

In a perfect world you'd read Rebecca Skloot's book on Henrietta Lacks, a woman whose cancer cells were harvested without her consent and used to create an undying cell line known as HeLa.

Among other accomplishments, HeLa has played a key role in the battles against viruses, cancer and treatments for Parkinson's disease, in addition to enabling research on gene mapping and cloning to move ahead. Odds are you probably won't.

Instead we suggest this 2017 film starring Oprah Winfrey as Lack's daughter Deborah, who never knew what happened with her mother's cells. One might argue that this is not expressly a story about Black women, but about science in general. Skloot's book is in part a biography of a major scientific breakthrough, and the frustrating account of a family taken advantage of many times over the years, and intentionally kept in the dark about what happened to someone they loved.

But it also looks closely at the toll being kept in the dark about the research and the fear surrounding the medical community's exploitation of Black people, and how what might be seen by most of the world as a breakthrough can rightly be interpreted as a violation.


By Melanie McFarland

Melanie McFarland is Salon's award-winning senior culture critic. Follow her on Twitter: @McTelevision

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