5. “The Anatomy of a Black Actress: Viola Davis” by Fanta Sylla (me!)
This piece I wrote on Viola Davis is very dear to me, much like the piece I wrote about Raven-Symoné for Cléo journal (shameless self-promotion, as we say in France, “oklm”). These two pieces are actually related. They are related to the reading of another piece, a profile the great James Baldwin wrote on the actor Sidney Poitier. I cannot write anything about Black actors without quoting James Baldwin, whose careful examinations of Black actors position in theater and film are still, sadly, relevant today. He wrote about actors the way he wrote about artists in general, as people with craft and vision, rigorously, with an empathy and generosity that were nurtured but that also signaled a shared experience.
Writing about these actresses was two different exercises. To go back to Wilderson: Writing about Viola Davis, who has been outspoken about censorship due to misogynoir in film, was writing about the impossibility of the Black actress. Writing about the exceptional and short comedic career of Raven Symoné permitted by That’s So Raven was the opposite: What happens when we let a Black actress express herself, move, and exist on-screen? When there is a creative collaboration between the director and the actor? And when it does happen, how do we as critics write about them? This question has no single answer, because actors have different styles. It really depends on your sensibility and the way you personally and intimately relate to an actor’s presence.
Further reading: Divas on Screen: Black Women in American Film, by Mia Mask
6. “What My Fingers Knew: The Cinesthetic Subject, or Vision in the Flesh” by Vivian Sobchack
There is an entire field of Film Studies dedicated to philosophy, more specifically phenomenology—the study of first-person structures of consciousness. During my brief experience of French university last year (three months, then I gave up), my favorite class was a course on phenomenology and perception. To be honest, I wouldn’t be able to define phenomenology here without sounding like I just copy-pasted the definition from an obscure book I found on Google Books’ library, but I got it right away. It spoke to me. It was a space where “being sensitive” took on another meaning. To be sensitive was to be knowledgeable about the world around you. It wasn’t about political correctness or being “weak.” Just knowing. We talked about knowing through perception and the senses—seeing, touching, tasting, smelling, hearing. In short, phenomenology privileges lived experience. And as the film phenomenologists would like us to remember, watching a film is first and foremost an experience, a body experience, a sensory experience.
Vivian Sobchack starts her essay with an observation: “Nearly every time I read a movie review in a newspaper or popular magazine, I am struck once again by the gap that exists between our actual experience of the cinema and the theory that we academic film scholars write to explain it–or, perhaps more aptly, to explain it away.”
This disconnect between film theory and the “actual experience of the cinema” that Sobchack describes is something that I experienced myself, when I first started reading and engaging with cultural criticism. At some point, I stopped writing about my impressions and feelings, about how my body reacted (I was also depressed, so there was kind of nothing to report on) and started writing about film in very abstract ways. It’s funny that it took a film like Frances Ha—from which I left the theater practically running—to make me think about how I write about movies. There is also the fear of reporting on impressions and feelings that are perverse. For instance, loving a film that has racist, sexist elements, and loving it with and not in spite of those elements. When that happens, I recognize how enmeshed I am with the structures I’d like to see disappear.
The writings of Vivian Sobchack, and the many smart women who are calling for sensual readings of the screen, tell us that there are means to write about your personal, sensory, bodily experience of film in an engaging, provocative way, and, above all, in a way that doesn’t obscure the object of analysis: the film. ♦