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FEATURES Nov 8 2012 11:23AM

Refocus: Girl Power in Film

by Danielle Eliska Lyle, @danielleeliska
I recall listening to a woman (let’s call her “Don’t-Know-No-Better” for the sake of this article) express her dream of a “knight-and-shining-armor” situation.  I was in utter shock to hear Pretty Woman fall from her lips.
“Come again?” I said.
Pretty Woman, starring Julia Roberts and Richard Gere, was Don’t-Know-No-Better’s idea of saving grace.
Here’s my impromptu version of a bona-fide logline for the 1990 hit film:
By the power of a wealthy man’s pocket book, a genuinely good-hearted strumpet is rescued from all life’s woes and all she had to do was lay on her back.
Who knew falling in love consists only of off-tuned Prince songs in a Jacuzzi, a little knee action and floss? Hey, I’m not against it. Don’t get me wrong—I know tons of women who found the film downright endearing, but I would never coin it as a surefire way to fall in love and stay there as Don’t-Know-No-Better did. I fully understand this movie will always be a classic on the shelves of women around the world, but we must learn to raise the bar on our standards of how we are depicted in film and television—and it starts with female writers and filmmakers.
Let’s face it: A lot of these films are men writing out their fantasies and editing it enough for it not to be filmed in “San Pornando Valley.” Who can blame them? I mean, I’d like to write a film some day that objectifies a group of gorgeous men of all cultures who are at a female protagonist’s beckon call, wearing nothing but a single, oversize, golden leaf. I’m sure it will win the hearts of every female stricken with the reading epidemic of 50 Shades, but that’s beside the point.
I’m joking.
I’ve seen more films where women are objectified sexually and mentally. She’s either not enough or too much to handle; too combative or invisible. Her larynx is removed so she’s never heard, but only seen in one dimension.
I find more young ladies desiring to emulate Basketball Wives and not enough seeking the refinement and wisdom of respectable women. It’s not like these pioneers are invisible to the naked eye, but it is about perspective. As female writers and filmmakers, we must utilize our gifts to outshine the dumbing down of our young girls, and I’m convinced it’s not hard to do. But until we bedazzle audiences with our breathtaking, trailblazing scripts and films that will soon hit theatres worldwide, we must do with what we have. And what we have is not bad at all. We stand on the shoulders of women, and men alike, who understand the need for women to shine in all their Queendom and glory.
Here are a few movies of past, written and directed by both genders that depict women empowered.
Daughters of the Dust is a classic. Earlier this year I attended a 20th Anniversary viewing. I heard Julie Dash talk about her experience first-hand: budget, the years invested in the project, the impact and the outcome. I sat and listened in awe to heartfelt, tear-jerking speeches of women who were among the first in theatres back in 1991. Daughters of the Dust is a multi-generational story of women and the migration of a family rooted in West African culture in search of a new life, told from the perspective of an unborn female child. It is a keyhole into a history and culture that many outcast and criticize because of its mystical properties. But it is in that element of the film that many find themselves.
One woman told J. Dash, “You changed my life,” and I understood what she meant. For it was the words of the grandmother of the film, Nana Peazant (similar to the words of Gnostic Egyptian poetry), that influenced mine.
Frida. She made the uni-brow look so flyy and did it uncompromisingly and unapologetically. No other woman is allowed to pull that off. Frida Kahlo was one of the baddest women in history. Tragedy inclined her destiny. Frida is a film based on the explosive life and death of this historical figure. Filled with images that were once deemed taboo—from stunning canvases, marriage infidelity and bisexual freedom to politics, communism and murder—Frida Kahlo was in and of herself, a Mexican Revolution.
We watched Far from Heaven in a film story analysis class and outside of Julianne Moore’s stellar performance of the 1950s perfect housewife, I was astounded by the plot elements of racism, sexual orientation, gender and class. Whenever I think of this film, I weep because I know somewhere on earth, this film is a grandmother’s or great-grandmother’s documentary.
Homemaker’s life changed once she spotted her Exec-Hubby getting busy in his office with Johnny-The-One-Night-Stand. In 1950, that was an illegal dose of a testosterone booster. After Exec-Hubby’s failed attempt at love-making that even a Trey Songs sex mix tape couldn’t fix, Homemaker finds “love in a hopeless place”—the arms of a smokin’ hot, 6’3”, 220lb, Black man. And this is where the plot gumbo is seasoned, leaving a taste in your mouth—neither good nor bad. Just a “taste” that will never go away. The crane shot from the trees above at the end of the film had me wanting a sequel just to know if this poor woman found a beat of happiness.
These few named films have something in common—female protagonists who came into their own strength through adversity, learning valuable lessons and arriving at a place of self-definition that nobody could rewrite or alter. So when the young girls come asking, tell them these are examples of women worth watching.


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