Each essential and celebratory, Jennifer Holness’ packed and penetrating documentary “Topics of Want” offers an excellent overview of how Black tradition has influenced, and been influenced by, up to date magnificence beliefs from Civil Conflict occasions to #BlackGirlMagic and past. Solidly if modestly offered — often the photo-montage-and-voiceover sections really feel a bit of bit PowerPointy — this energetic and provocative movie lives simply on the small display screen, although a really enterprising outlet or streaming service would be aware of what number of fascinating avenues Holness’ dexterous arguments open up and order it to sequence.
The movie is loosely structured across the fiftieth anniversary of the Miss Black America Pageant, however “loosely” needs to be pressured: The place a pageant’s suspense-based construction and inbuilt spectacle may show too tantalizing a draw for many filmmakers, Holness has larger fish to fry than backstage drama, wardrobe malfunctions and spangly tiaras. As a substitute, she makes use of the pageant’s historical past to get straight into the fraught backstory of Black magnificence requirements in relation to white society.
The primary Miss Black America was held in protest towards the standard exclusion of Black ladies from the Miss America pageant, which was occurring proper throughout the road, and was itself being protested by (white) feminists for its perceived objectification of ladies. As creator and educational Dr. Cheryl Thompson remarks, already in 1968, these contradictory protest occasions positioned the progressive agendas of Black and white ladies “on reverse sides of the sweetness paradigm.”
Skipping from archive footage to informative montage to movie clip to speaking head, Holness then embarks on a whistle-stop tour by way of the evolution, typically the revolution, of that paradigm. Hair is a good living proof: within the Reconstruction period, Black ladies took to straightening their hair, a grooming method not obtainable to slaves, to sign their free standing. Later, the civil rights motion considerably reversed that affiliation — Malcolm X’s “Who taught you to hate the feel of your hair?” speech reverberates right here. And over the previous 50 years or so, problems with appropriation, particularly round braids and dreadlocks; the policing of Black ladies’s employment and social alternatives primarily based on their hairstyles; and the tangle of class- and labor-related struggles that infuse tonsorial selections with deeper significance, have ensured that the aesthetics of hair stay a remarkably energetic political battlefront within the magnificence wars.
Holness additionally teases out the event of the three conventional stereotypes of Black womanhood — the mammy, the Jezebel and the sapphire (aka the indignant black girl) — and the way perniciously they persist even in our supposedly extra enlightened occasions. All of the whereas, she cuts forwards and backwards between point-making pre-existing footage and warmly shot interview segments with a different however uniformly engaged and illuminating lineup of interviewees. They embody singers India Arie and Jully Black, a number of writers and lecturers, former Miss Black America winner Brittany Lewis and three of the yr’s hopeful contestants. Oh, and sure, Rachael Dolezal.
Not going to lie, when Dolezal first seems, it’s a shock. Infamously a white girl who rose to prominence claiming to be Black (and even now nonetheless “identifies culturally” as Black) her inclusion briefly threatens to derail Holness’ movie. Dolezal is such a particularly peculiar outlier, to not point out such a pariah amongst each Black and white communities, that it feels such as you both make your complete film about her otherwise you ignore her altogether. However on one other stage, her look right here, although it may solely scratch the floor of the numerous supplemental points her story raises, is emblematic of the open-mindedness of Holness’ method. Although her movie is an invigorating alternative to showcase Black ladies negotiating their very own phrases of engagement with the sweetness best, additionally it is admirably unafraid to the touch on extra controversial areas. Colorism, light-skin privilege and the attitudes of Black males towards Black ladies’s appears to be like are additionally investigated, acknowledging divisions and hierarchies that exist throughout the Black group too.
On the one hand, that is an astonishing quantity of floor for one 103-minute movie to cowl. On the opposite, it’s inevitable that among the points raised should not as totally explored as others. The ethics of magnificence pageants, for instance, should not a lot examined. And the influence of the Black Lives Matter motion on the imagery and aesthetics of resistance, which is recommended by the frequent use of the enduring 2016 image of the Black girl protester dealing with down a phalanx of cops in riot gear, is rarely completely scrutinized. It’s a notable omission in an in any other case fantastically full movie that may be a convincing corrective to the concept that discussions about magnificence are trivial. Quite the opposite, “Topics of Want” reveals how politically vital such dialogue is, particularly when it provides voice to the very ladies who should transfer by way of this world with these social constructs inextricably encoded in pores and skin and sexuality, in historical past, and in hair.