What does it mean to be a black woman in America? On the one hand, we are absolute magic, influencing everything from fashion to music to culture. And as we saw in the last election, the sistas have the political power to move the elections and save the democracy and the nation of this nation from itself. However, as Malcolm X once said, we are still “the most disrespectful person.[s] in America.”
Even in this, we persist, and Oge Egbuonu’s new documentary (In) Visible portraits (now streaming on the OWN app) conveys that sentiment beautifully. During her directorial debut, the film producer-turned-director seamlessly combines first-person interviews with everyday black women, a sharp analysis of beloved black cultural critics, and a historical perspective of our own. collective trip to this country. Most importantly, Egbuonu isn’t afraid to go, tackling a range of issues including the intersections of race and gender, colorism, reclaiming our bodies and sexuality, dismantling tropes such as the “angry black woman” and the “Jezebel”; and the lasting effects of slavery and medical racism on black women. Fortunately, Egbuonu’s vision does not remain in darkness all the time; she makes sure to create a space for black joy, happiness and optimism for our bright and promising future.
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ELLE.com caught up with Egbuonu to discuss the process of writing his love letter to black women, why it’s our birthright to own our anger, and why his movie feels right on time.
How did you get involved in making films?
I have taught yoga, artificial respiration, and mediation, and a private gym asked me, would I be interested in doing restorative yoga for a VIP client? At the time, I didn’t think I had the ability, so I refused. They offered to pay me triple and I always said no but when my schedule ran out I said yes. The client was Ged Doherty, former president of Sony Music. One day, he asked me if I had ever thought about working in the cinema. I immediately said “absolutely not”. [Laughs]
He then told me that he had started a production company with actor Colin Firth and that he would love to bring me in, and I was like, “Who?” [Laughs] Honestly, I didn’t know anything about the film industry. But I sat and meditated on it for a few weeks, and my mom suggested trying it for three months, so I agreed. At first I was shopping, but I went to London for two weeks, and what really sold me was talking to Colin. He shared that there were so many stories he wanted to tell, but as an actor he can only play a white man, but he can help others tell. their stories as a producer. It really resonated with me.
You’ve since produced the Oscar nominated film 2016 Magnet and tried to act. How did these roles prepare you for your (In) Visible portraits directorial debut?
It taught me the power of storytelling and how it can truly be powerful and transformative when done right in this medium. I knew that to tackle a vast and intense subject, you had to be right: I had to know the object. I went into nine months of research, six days a week, 14 hours a day, reading books and delving into the library archives. The only day I didn’t do that was Sunday, and on those days I would stay in bed crying until 4 p.m. I had to get into therapy, and it really saved me and helped me figure out how to make this movie and how to tell these stories and tell them with intention.
As a black woman labeled “angry” more than once in my life, I appreciated that the film began with a discussion of our rage and our right to possess that emotion. Why was this important?
Anger has been a weapon used against black women and yet anger is such a human experience that most people are allowed to go through it except us. I wanted to tackle this head-on. We have a right to be angry and have so much to be angry about, so it’s important to accept that and socialize to embrace that – it’s our birthright. Only a white supremacist society could dehumanize us, make it harder for us to develop a sense of worth, and then project onto us that anger is not allowed.
I also love that the film creates a space for women to talk about their individual and collective joy – something we could all use, especially now.
From the start I wanted (In) Visible portraits to create a full spectrum of who we are in this world. Yes, it includes suffering and pain, but it also includes the joy and the importance of healing. As black women, we carry so much, give so much to other people, and in return we walk around with our cups so empty. We need personal recovery and happiness, and emphasizing our joy is so important – it humanizes us. Yes, in the doc we talk about how we were dehumanized, but we end up picking up and celebrating each other.
The power of your film is in the voices and vulnerability of these everyday black women. How did you get them to sign up and trust you?
I didn’t want to use celebrities. I only want academics, writers, and ordinary women. My assistant contacted non-profit organizations that catered to black women and girls, and I was in contact with Sheila Thomas of the Watts Labor Community Action Committee. But she made it very clear that people come in, exploit their stories and never hear from them again. So she introduced me, but it was up to me to build my own relationships and trust these women and girls. I spent a lot of time getting to know them, but making it very clear that there was no obligation to be in the movie. Lucky for me, after a few months they wanted to participate and I’m very happy they said yes. I also think having an all-female crew helped create a safe, gentle and loving environment that fostered the openness you see on screen.
You started making this movie in 2016, and yet you feel right on time, especially as we approach the first anniversary of Breonna Taylor’s death.
(In) Visible portraits feels more relevant and important right now, but it’s also a timeless piece. Black women have carried and continue to carry this society on their backs because we understand that no one is free unless we are all free. It is up to us to free ourselves and, in turn, from the rest of society. Just watch Black Lives Matter. Created by queer black women. Most of the organizations that currently save our democracy are run by black women. It’s us.
As we go through a sad time filled with so much injustice, it is also a beautiful time as we reinvent ourselves, our art, our impact and our power. This is necessary because we have so much at stake. We have spoken our truth and have taken our power to dismantle the system. This film honors and talks about all of that.
Finally, why the “in” of invisible in parentheses in the title?
No one has ever asked me this before. [Laughs] Parentheses are important because they represent the story. While society has gone out of its way to dehumanize black women, it is built on black women. So even if you try to make us invisible, erase us and break us, you can’t. We will always be seen and shining. It’s embedded in our DNA.
(In) Visible portraits streams for free on the OWN app during the month of March and will rebroadcast on Saturday, March 13 at 12 p.m. ET to mark the anniversary of Breonna Taylor’s death.
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