Documentary to Watch, "Subjects of Desire"
by Filmmaker Jennifer Holness

A powerful documentary, that the beauty industry should cherish, is premiering tonight at 9:00pm on the Canadian TV channel, TVO. It streams nationally on and YouTube.

It is directed by a Jamaican-born filmmaker Jennifer Holness who grew up in Toronto, Canada. I cannot write any better than what Jennifer said on her Director's Note about this film, so here I am copying and pasting her words.

"I grew up feeling like I was outside the norm of conventional beauty. I had smooth chocolate skin, 4C hair and while I was considered nice looking, I rarely found products that enhanced my looks. Luckily, I was confident at being a ‘natural,’ and have literally jumped for joy over the past decade as products for Black women became plentiful and fantastic. As significant, Black women and girls started to embrace their beauty and the world began to emulate, buy, borrow and appropriate Black aesthetics. That’s when I realized I wanted to understand the structures behind the beauty standards we all accept.  I also wanted  to deconstruct why so many of us grew up feeling hurt, insecure and sometimes ugly. I wanted to be a part of telling our story as Black women and why our beauty holds power. 

I am blessed with three beautiful daughters, currently teenagers, aged 13, 17 and 19. Over the years, I’ve watched them develop into glorious young ladies and my hopes and dreams for them have soared. Like many mothers, I also want to protect them from the pain I felt growing up, before I grew into loving the skin I’m in. Then 5 years ago, a surprising thing happened my girls began to tell me how many of their non-Black friends coveted their beauty. Big booty – they want that. Fuller lips, – they are getting products for that, slim fit, slim-thick, small waists to full hips ratio, they are working out for that,  baby hairs, braids and extensions – they are buying that. Beyonce, Rihanna, Lupita Nyong’o, even Naomi Campbell ( this lady does not age), women who are considered the creme of the crop in beauty, belong in our camp. And yes white beauty standards have remained dominant, but an interesting shift is unfolding too. That’s when I began to understand that while many things remained the same from my youth, a great deal has changed too. I want to tell the story of whys and how this is unfolding."

Holness set her film at the epicentre of a celebration of Black beauty: the 50th anniversary of the Kansas City-based Miss Black America Pageant. It was created in 1968 amid the civil rights movement. Although Miss America had begun to allow Black contestants by then, Holness says Black women didn't feel they were "attractive" in the way pageants demanded and so had not yet competed. Miss Black America offered them a welcoming, nurturing space, demanding that the world recognize Black beauty.

"[It] tells us in one moment how completely different the experiences of Black women and white women were in the world," says Holness.

"Glorifying a Black woman's beauty was a political act."

Despite the competition, an obvious sisterhood is evident among competitors. The pageant's eventual winner, Ryann Richardson, declares in an interview with Holness that "beauty is power."

"What she's saying is, 'I'm beautiful, but even my beauty does not excuse the fact that I'm Black,'" says Holness. "People see her Blackness first and always, [and that] diminishes her power in some ways. Black women historically have not had the power afforded to white women, and a lot of that is lodged in what notions of femininity and beauty are."

"Subjects of Desire" explores long held, harmful stereotypes of Black women, starting with the Mammy, the larger Black woman in servitude to the white family. Then there's the Jezebel, the sexually promiscuous Black woman; and the Sapphire, the angry Black woman.

While those scripts still exist on and off screen, a recent societal shift has decided traditionally Black features and aesthetics are desirable, including tanned skin, fuller lips and thicker body types.

While that's led to a greater recognition of Black beauty, it's also given way to dangerous concepts including Blackfishing, in which some social media influencers have tried to appear racially ambiguous. Then there are those who claim to be transracial in the vein of Rachel Dolezal, who publicly presented herself as a Black woman despite being born to white parents. It all suggests that Black features are only attractive when they're possessed by white women.

"I really wanted to tell a story with grace and love. I wanted to celebrate Blackness and also make the story digestible to those who are not Black.... I wanted people to understand that these ideas you have about us are not necessarily true, they come from some place, and there's an agenda behind those images and ideas."

[This report is based on "Filmmaker Jennifer Holness explores power and Black beauty in latest documentary" by The Canadian, Jan. 30, 2022]


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