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How one documentary reframes the history of Black women


Black women are the mules of the world, Zora Neale Hurston wrote in 1937. More than 80 years later, Hurston’s words in “Their Eyes Were Watching God” still ring true, but one filmmaker is on a journey to both expose that truth and alleviate it.

Oge Egbuonu’s new documentary, “(In)visible Portraits,” is what she calls a love letter to Black women, and a reeducation for everyone else.

The 90-minute feature, set to premiere on Oprah Winfrey’s OWN on March 2, reexamines the history of Black women in the United States, calling into question long-held myths about them while, at the same time, affirming Black women as seen, heard and valued.

The documentary unravels over three parts — “hurt,” “resilient” and “beautiful” — and uses that framework as a way to trace the story of Black women all the way from the physical and sexual abuse during slavery to present issues like hair discrimination and the stereotype of the angry Black woman. But the documentary is not simply an overarching review of Black women’s suffering. Throughout the film, Egbuonu makes a point to highlight the grace, the magic of Black women (they are “divine,” says Dr. Melina Abdullah, a professor at Cal State, at one point in the film).

“We’re taught a revisionist history,” Egbuonu told CNN in a phone interview. “We’re not taught the true history of this country.”

Aunt Jemima, and how society views Black women

That “true history” is part of what Egbuonu wanted to uncover. At one point in the documentary, she picks apart the three archetypes of Black women — the mammy, the jezebel, the welfare queen — that frame society’s views of Black women, still to this day.

“Those are all created to dehumanize Black women,” she said. “And also to (cause) Black women to forget their innate power and innate beauty. So until we see different stories…those labels will continue to lead the narrative for how society views Black women.”

And these depictions are everywhere. One example given is the Aunt Jemima brand and logo, a depiction of an older Black woman based on the archetype of a mammy. After years of calls for it to be changed, Quaker Oats only just retired the brand and logo last year, in the midst of a larger racial reconciliation.

“As we work to make progress toward racial equality through several initiatives, we also must take a hard look at our portfolio of brands and ensure they reflect our values and meet our consumers’ expectations,” the Pepsi-owned company said in a statement provided to CNN Business at the time.

‘Reminding Black women of our power’

Egbuonu’s documentary doesn’t stop there.

“Everything was set up for us not to survive,” says Abdullah in the documentary. “Our perseverance, our survival, our resilience is a form of rebellion — refusing to succumb to the oppression that we live under.”

In an interview with CNN, Abdullah put it like this. Black women were brought into the US as cattle, into a White supremacist, patriarchal system, and treated as property instead of as people.

“And I think that hasn’t been fully abolished,” she said.

The statistics speak volumes. The maternal death rate among Black women is three times the rate for non-Hispanic White and Hispanic women, according to a report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. They’re paid just 63% of what White non-Hispanic men make, according to a report by the American Association of University Women, and are consistently one of the lowest paid groups across education levels. In the midst of Covid-19, Black people are almost three times as likely to be hospitalized and twice as likely to die from the virus compared to White men, the CDC states, and one study points to Black women as being particularly vulnerable.

Even in social justice movements against racism and sexism, which uniquely affect women of color the most, studies have shown that Black women are often overlooked.

“This film,” Abdullah said, “is about awakening society to its attempt to make us into mules, and reminding Black women of our power to cast that off.”

But it’s only a first step, Egbuonu said. There needs to be a period of healing, she said, and then a dismantling of the current systems in place in society that have tried to keep Black women, and all people of color, down.

“How can we reimagine what else is possible?” Egbuonu asked. “Because you cannot incorporate diversity and inclusion into a system that is inherently oppressive.”

The next steps

Her film is not comprehensive, she admits. It doesn’t delve into classism, or the trans Black woman experience, or the disabled Black woman experience. All these stories are where the next steps lead, she said.

Until then, the film is an entry point.

Abdullah watched the completed documentary with her 70-year-old mother in a small movie theater at the end of 2019. When the lights came up at the end, the theater, filled with mostly Black women, was completely silent. When she turned to her mother, she was in tears.

“As a 70-year-old Black woman, everything she’s seen of herself, or almost everything, has been diminishing,” she said.

It’s a testament to both the documentary and the power of being seen, of being allowed to open up. Plus, to leave her mother speechless, Abdullah laughed, is truly saying something.

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