By Nijla Mumin | Shadow and Act December 5, 2011 at 6:10AM
In Alile Sharon Larkin’s 1982 film A Different Image, main character Alana, played by Margot Saxton-Federella says to her male friend Vincent as she motions to her breasts and butt: “All they see is this and this. The rest is invisible.” Of all of the films I’ve viewed at the UCLA’s L.A. Rebellion Film Series, I found this to be one of the most timely and relevant. Relevant to the verbal harassment that women endure when walking down the street, relevant to the commodification of the black female body and personhood in the media, and finally to Eurocentric and Western standards of beauty that leave so many black and brown women out of its limited frame.
In the film, Alana, an art student, attempts to carve out a different image for herself, removed from American patriarchal ideals of womanhood and sexuality. Larkin demonstrates a gift at evoking sharp contrasts in images, not only through her use of paintings and photography of black women juxtaposed with scantily clad women on billboards, but in communicating a distinct directorial point of view. This contrasting was done particularly well in the development of Alana’s character. She rocks long, fake red nails reminiscent of SWV, sits with her legs open, engages in intelligent conversation with her close friend Vincent, paints and photographs black women, and possesses a wealth of knowledge pertaining to different African cultures.
Vincent doesn’t know how to interpret some of these traits and in describing her to his chauvinistic friend, is encouraged to “get over” on her. Aside from Adisa Anderson’s (of Daughters of the Dust) absorbing performance as Vincent, Alana’s “undefined” aura is one of the strongest elements here. That she can’t be defined by popular Western ideas of sexuality makes her intriguing, but also frustrating to him. Larkin draws out Alana’s character with the kind of complexity and simplicity that so many women inhabit, disrupting common associations to what is commonly seen as “ghetto” or “unladylike.” Larkin repositions these discussions by bringing them into global gray areas where a women sitting with her legs open could mean a variety of different things depending on what culture you place it in. The question asked is, why must we always place it in the Western context?
Alana complicates the narrative, and in doing so ruffles other characters her who insist upon viewing her within a limited gaze. In one scene, Larkin lets the camera breathe in a stationary wide shot as Vincent and his Playboy-reading friend engage in a conversation about Alana. His friend is sure she is bait to be taken but Vincent is unsure, urging his friend that she is different. The conversation is natural, troubling, and candid, and I wondered if improv techniques were employed to get those types of performances. Another more humorous scene shows three black men- two older and one younger- argue outside of Alana’s window about who has the best game, who is going to get some ass, and who needs to give it up, all as Alana uncomfortably moves about her bathroom. Their voices become a continual chorus, attempting to dictate her body, sexual needs, and agency.
There is a persistent theme echoed in the film, and that is invisibility. During the post-screening Q&A, Larkin discussed black people’s near-invisibility from film when she was a child, and how that served as one of her main motivations for making films at UCLA. She wanted to make them visible, to shade in the spaces where black people had been erased. In this film, she counters women’s invisibility. Her use of African drums and instrumentation serves as a sort of awakening each time the characters connect outside of the binaries surrounding them. In one scene, Alana and Vincent dance and walk down the street, the drums providing the score to their freedom. Vincent's male friend looks on, seemingly confused and unable to connect to the inner rhythm that they share. Fueled by this scene, this film engages with the possibility of intimacy in friendship between a man and a woman, and how enjoyment between two people can come in a variety of indefinable ways that aren’t mitigated by sex, lust, or any forced interaction.
For all of these very exciting cinematic layers, I wouldn’t doubt this film’s relevance and appeal for young and adult audiences of today. During the post-screening Q&A, there was much discussion about where these films will go next- will they be given a wider release, placed in schools and libraries, screened in more cities around the country? No definite answer or solution was given but when I considered the vast amount of aesthetic beauty and thematic richness that I’d witnessed over the course of the series, I was saddened at the thought of more people not seeing these works, especially this one. It’s integral to so many discussions of women’s ownership of their bodies, of our agency, and our power to define our own self-concepts. It is also a remarkable character study and merging of art practices. I’m not sure yet how we’ll get this film back out into the public sphere, but there must be a way. Who wants to join me?
"The L.A. Rebellion: Creating a New Black Cinema" Film Series series runs until December 17, 2011 at the UCLA Hammer Museum in Los Angeles, California. For more information, visit http://www.cinema.ucla.edu/.