Liberation, Love, and Time Travel

Christina N. Baker

“Just because we’re living in dangerous times doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t enjoy the full pleasures of life. You know what I mean?” 

I am listening to two Black women take a moment from their chaotic lives to discuss their shared understanding of the joy of experiencing the “pleasures of life” in Zeinabu irene Davis’s film about embracing love, A Powerful Thang (1991). I know what they mean. Creating opportunities to enjoy life’s pleasures is like taking a breath of fresh air amid the omnipresent toxicity of current times

But Davis’s film was made during a different time. Viewing A Powerful Thang requires going back into film history, to the year of its release, 1991. 

The Liberation of Looking and Looking Back

As I view A Powerful Thang, I am aware of the sentiment in bell hooks’s essay “The Oppositional Gaze: Black Female Spectators” that film offers the possibility and power of “looking and looking back” with agency.[1] The liberation that can come from looking without limitations – free, too, from limitations of time – is powerful. Even in the worst circumstances, hooks argues, “the ability to manipulate one’s gaze in the face of structures of domination that would contain it opens up the possibility of agency.”[2]

I’m not always nostalgic, yet as I watch Davis’s film, I revel in the notion that I am able to peer back three decades to experience something that I rarely see in film or television today: a meaningful and joyous narrative about the “powerful” desire for (and realization of) intimate connection, and ultimately love, between two Black characters. 

Love is not trivial. As bell hooks explains in one of her many books about love, “Love is our hope and our salvation.”[3] Love is necessary for positive social transformation. For one of the leading feminist and anti-racist scholars to devote a significant portion of her career to writing about love is telling. Unfortunately, nuanced stories of black love are overwhelmed in the media landscape by images and messages of black violence and sorrow. Most film and television offerings suggest that love is a restricted commodity, an endeavor accessible only to a small, privileged population that can afford to engage in it.

Filmmaker Alile Sharon Larkin describes the scarcity of filmic love for Black characters in Hollywood as a form of “cinematic genocide.” When navigating this cinematic genocide, Black viewers, and Black women in particular, have frequently applied the “oppositional gaze” that hooks prescribed. It is through this oppositional gaze that viewers are able to critically interrogate and resist marginalizing and dehumanizing images of blackness, and, in the case of Black women filmmakers like Zeinabu irene Davis, often offer new transgressive images of Black womanhood, and Blackness in general. 

Throughout Davis’s film, there is a communal recognition of the importance of human connection and love. Yasmine (Asma Feyijinmi), a writer and mother, and Craig (John Earl Jelks), a musician, have been dating for a month and have yet to be physically intimate with each other. As they go through their day, a chorus of friends and family encourages them to enjoy the “full pleasures” of their evening together. This individual and communal anticipation is apparent as Yasmine sits at her computer to write an article, rehearses with her dance troupe, and talks to her father. It is apparent as Craig goes to the barber shop and as he plays his saxophone. During these activities, they are thinking ahead to their intimate evening together. Davis’s approach in depicting this individual and communal anticipation compellingly conveys the shared desire for connection and love on multiple levels.

Though the film takes place in the Ohio of 1991, in the present, my joy of anticipation is palpable as I watch Yasmine and Craig go through their day, looking forward to being together that evening. I feel their hope that something better, something liberating, is within reach. And the words of bell hooks reverberate in the present as I consider Davis’s narrative from the past and move toward the future: “Looking and looking back, black women involve ourselves in a process whereby we see our history as counter-memory, using it as a way to know the present and invent the future.”

Pleasure in the Past

It is freeing to realize that I need not limit myself to what the present provides: film and television offer the possibility of moving closer to the fullness and liberation of love by traversing time and space. I can visit 1898, if only temporarily, to experience the pleasure of watching a Black woman and man joyfully embrace and kiss in the recently rediscovered short film Something Good—Negro Kiss (William Nicholas Selig, 1898). This approximately thirty-second black and white silent film is thought to be the first cinematic depiction of Black affection. It is a seemingly simple film that opens with a medium shot of a Black woman and man, dressed in formal attire, kissing with both of their hands intertwined. After their first affectionate kiss, they laugh and then kiss a few more times, continuing to laugh and smile broadly between kisses. They display an embodied and emotional connection throughout the entire film: kissing, hugging, looking into each other’s eyes, and playfully swinging their clasped hands from side to side. This filmic display of affection from long ago is so significant that film scholar Allyson Nadia Field has declared, “I think this is one of the most important films I’ve come across.”

This historic film footage of affection captures the sentiment, too, of literary artist/activist/playwright Lorraine Hansberry. In 1964, she hearkened back to a time far removed from the present (both hers and ours) when considering love between Black people. “Love? Ah, ask the troubadors (sic) who come from those who have loved when all reason pointed to the uselessness and foolhardiness of love…Out of the depths of pain we have thought to be our sole heritage in the world – O, we know about love!”[4] 

By depicting the unbridled joy of a Black couple expressing affection toward each other, Something Good—Negro Kiss represents liberation through love.  This unwavering enthusiastic expression of love constitutes a highly rebellious act, for as Black feminist scholar Patricia Hill Collins notes, it is rebellious whenever love between Black people is embraced in a society saturated with anti-blackness. Something Good—Negro Kiss provides contemporary audiences with a transgressive narrative of a past era in which blackness is often defined through the lens of the inhumane Jim Crow segregation. It opens up a narrative that defiantly shouts “O, we know about love!”

Filmmaker Julie Dash turned back to WWII-era Hollywood to reimagine possibilities for Black women in the film industry in her early, acclaimed short film Illusions (1982). Illusions offers a direct commentary on the racialized and gendered structure of Hollywood in the 1940s and provides a narrative that directly calls out and reframes the history, culture, and practices of the film industry. Dash re-envisions history in a way that empowers Black women with agency within the structure of Hollywood during that time. It is significant that the impetus of this agency within Dash’s film is the developing intimacy – the connection – between the two Black women who are the lead characters, Mignon (Lonette McKee) and Ester (Rosanne Katon). 

Mignon is working in Hollywood as a film studio executive. She is “passing” as a white woman because of discriminatory practices that excluded Black women (and typically white women as well) from positions such as the one she holds. Mignon and Ester meet when Ester is hired to sing and then directed by film studio executives to stay hidden, off-screen, as she covertly dubs the singing voices of the studio’s white women starlets. When they are with each other, Ester and Mignon easily pierce the invisibility caused by Hollywood’s exclusion and objectification of Black women. Alone together, they listen, they connect, they see each other, and they are seen. In bell hooks’s terms, “the direct unmediated gaze of recognition” is a pleasurable source of connection and power between Ester and Mignon.[5] 

The Liberation of Limitless Love

Returning to the present, I could not help but view the first season of the popular series Modern Love (2019-) through an oppositional gaze – employing the power of looking to interrogate, contest, and resist what I saw. I tuned in to the contemporary series with the progressive-sounding title only to find that “modern” love is depicted as being accessible to everyone but women of color. The series however did not actually offer visions of love that were progressive. Admittedly, it did present an array of characters experiencing love: young and old, men and women, gay and straight, dating, married and widowed. 

In “Take Me As I Am, Whoever I Am,” a white woman with bipolar disorder named Lexi (Anne Hathaway) experiences shame and isolation related to her bipolar diagnosis – feelings that cause her to hide her diagnosis and miss out on potential romantic connections for fear of being rejected. That is, until Sylvia (Quincy Tyler Bernstine), enters the picture. Sylvia is Lexi’s boss turned friend and one of only two Black women in the first season of the series.[6] Sylvia selflessly listens and provides a welcoming and nonjudgmental space for Lexi to open up about her mental health. Sylvia’s compassion for Lexi serves as the catalyst for Lexi to love herself as she is and find the courage to make herself vulnerable enough to embrace the possibility of romantic love. Without hesitation or expectation of reciprocation, Sylvia supports Lexi’s journey toward love. Whether Sylvia experiences love is an irrelevant and unimagined question.   

It is paradoxical then that this episode that highlights the value of loving someone as they are represents the epitome of the series’ pattern of denying that love exists for women of color. The series’ conspicuous and problematic omission of women of color from its vision of modern love was a reminder of the limitations of the present time.

The lauded futuristic series Black Mirror does what the purportedly “Modern” Love show does not: it includes Black women in its vision of love. Black Mirror’s “San Junipero” (2016) episode, written by Charlie Brooker and directed by Owen Harris, is a joyful representation of love that transcends the constraints of time and space that are normally placed on human connection. Although the Black Mirror series generally offers an ominous vision of the future, “San Junipero” features Kelly (Gugu Mbatha-Raw), a Black woman who finds and chooses love with Yorkie (Mackenzie Davis)—evidently for all eternity, in a futuristic vision of the afterlife.  

The episode is named for the fictionalized San Junipero, a pleasure-filled beach town that exists in a simulated reality where people are free from the limitations of time. It is an imagined place where the elderly can briefly visit (embodied as younger versions of themselves) or potentially choose to stay in the afterlife, and where visitors/residents are able to select the decade in which their time in San Junipero takes place. During their courtship, Kelly and Yorkie jump between decades within San Junipero, and between San Junipero and the “real” world. Kelly’s eventual choice to stay in San Junipero and be with Yorkie is a choice to experience love that is not bound by time. That this envisioning of love is widely regarded as the “best and most beloved episode of Black Mirror reflects a contemporary societal yearning for the revolutionary possibilities of love.

Traversing time in search of a more liberated existence is part of what makes speculative fiction, such as Black Mirror’s “San Junipero” and numerous texts of Afrofuturism so intriguing. Black speculative fiction and Afrofuturism transcend the here and now “to imagine alternate possibilities of Blackness that can be lived in safety, creativity, and freedom,” explains scholar Hope Wabuke

It is perhaps no surprise, then, that pioneering filmmaker Julie Dash leveraged the transgressive, oppositional gaze through the frame of speculative fiction when she made Daughters of the Dust (1991), the first feature film written and directed by a Black woman in the U.S. to be given a theatrical release. As in Illusions, Dash re-envisions the past in Daughters, placing Black women at the center of her vision of African American history. Daughters of the Dust features several Black women characters who represent multiple generations of a family living on South Carolina’s St. Helena Island at the turn of the twentieth century. 

In Daughters of the Dust, Dash imagines alternate possibilities of blackness in which the characters are connected through love’s boundless and timeless possibilities: “What if we could have an unborn child come and visit her family-to-be and help solve the family’s problems…what if we had a family that had such a fellowship with the ancestors that they helped guide them.”[7]  Indeed, through the lens of speculative fiction there are infinite what ifs that can be imagined, created, seen, and experienced across time. Importantly, love in many forms is essential to Dash’s speculative narrative, as exemplified by her purposeful inclusion of a newlywed couple in which “all you see of them is their making love, embracing one another, caressing whispering sweet nothings…every time we see the Newlywed Man and his Newlywed Wife, they are expressing their love.”[8] 

It is liberating to embrace the possibility of love and its attendant “pleasures of life” anywhere and anytime and freeing to know that love from times past need not remain in the past, that a future inclusive of love is within sight. If love between Black people is rebellious, then black love unbounded by time is revolutionary. I do not advocate blind nostalgia nor do I wish to ignore the present (I do on occasion find joy in stories about the present) but rather seek to come closer to a more expansive and holistic experience of love than what the here and now allows. Vision is expanded by traveling back in awe and appreciation before traveling forward. I move through time in the hope that such past and futuristic stories of love will stimulate more love, liberation, and much-needed social transformation right here, in the present.

[1] bell hooks, “The Oppositional Gaze: Black Female Spectators,” in Black Looks: Race and Representation (Boston: South End Press, 1992), 131.

[2] hooks, “The Oppositional Gaze,” 116.

[3] bell hooks, Salvation: Black People and Love, (NY: HarperCollins, 2001), 225.

[4] Lorraine Hansberry, To Be Young, Gifted and Black: Lorraine Hansberry in Her Own Words, Edited by Robert Nemiroff. (New Jersey: Prentice-Hall, 1969), 256.

[5] hooks, “The Oppositional Gaze,” 129.

[6] The episode entitled “So He Looked Like Dad. It Was Just Dinner, Right?” centers on a young white woman, “Maddy” (Julia Garner), who has ambiguous feelings for an older man. “Tami” (Myha’la Herrold), a friend of Maddy’s, is a Black woman in whom Maddy regularly confides her feelings.  Additionally, it is worth noting that there are two Black male characters in the first season of the series who are partnered with and/or dating white characters – one of whom is Lexi’s love interest in “Take Me As I Am, Whoever I Am.”

[7] Dash, Daughters of the Dust: The Making of an African American Woman’s Film (NY: The New Press, 1992), 29.

[8] Julie Dash, Daughters of the Dust, 55.

Image sources and credits: Header: production still from A Powerful Thang (Zeinabu irene Davis, 1991), from Women Make Movies; Something Good—Negro Kiss (William Nicholas Selig, 1898), from University of Chicago website; Illusions (Julie Dash, 1982), from Women Make Movies; and Black Mirror, “San Junipero” (screen capture).

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