By Tami Winfrey Harris and Andrea Plaid
Dreams Of A Life, the 2011 “drama-documentary” about the life and death of Joyce Carol Vincent, a mixed-race woman of color found in her London flat in 2003 three years after she died, definitely made our race and gender antennae go up, mostly because we were so angry over the disrespectful depiction of Vincent by people who claimed to have known her. Keep the “people who claimed to know her” in mind as we drop in on this Table for Two…
Andrea: The race/gender axis gets really weird with this film, at least to me…
Tami: At first watch, it seems like the film and Joyce’s friends created a lot of drama around this woman’s life because they couldn’t sit with her death–and the idea that sometimes pretty, young people die. They are inclined to portray her as a tragic figure, but some of the evidence of her tragic downfall (Joyce working as a “cleaner,” i. e. maid) is ridiculous. What truly bothers me is that they continually paint her as “lonely and sad” when there is no evidence that she ever expressed those things. I don’t think people would talk about a young single man that way–even one who died alone in his apartment.
Andrea: Because they can’t believe that “one of their own” is a house cleaner. Paging Janelle Monae…
But it’s the “tragic mulatto” narrative to me. That she couldn’t find love in the black or white communities in the UK that’s so bent.
Tami: And there is lots of exoticizing about her rare beauty that men couldn’t resist. And “re-enactments” of her moping, stumbling around her apartment, and looking forlornly out of windows. It is as if any near-40-year-old woman living alone in a city must be tragic.
Andrea: We hear next to nothing of substance in Joyce’s own words. Instead, there are a lot of people who were supposed to be close to her–folks who you’d think would notice that she was missing for three years–who project a story onto her. And then the fact that she’s 37–the Tragic Mulatto Spinster. I was like, “Really, y’all?”
Tami: That is the perfect title for this documentary.
Tami: Okay, here is the other thing I noticed. Not only did the people interviewed project emotion and experience onto the missing woman, but they also painted themselves as heroes. For instance, Martin, her ex-boyfriend, was positioned as a (literal) white knight. Then, near the end, we discover that perhaps all was not well–that his family’s racism may have driven a wedge between them. Gosh, how awesome could their relationship have been if you were hiding her from your family? (More on Martin later.) Nevertheless, Martin waxes on about Joyce, framing her as the tragic and exotic beautiful girl he tried but couldn’t save.
Andrea: Yes, he completely rewrites her to fit his ideas as, like you pointed out earlier, does everyone else. The journalists cast the story about her death as their scoop of a lifetime. And the black guy (another boyfriend) was a “failed” knight…and no one addresses that she’s also living in poverty. So, she’s literally the Poor Tragic Mulatto Spinster. As Fanny Price says in the movie Mansfield Park, “a woman’s poverty is far worse.”
Tami: Apart from the guesswork in the documentary, the story seems rather mundane. Things like this happen all the time. She was a person estranged from family and, seemingly, without other close ties and, by chance, she passed away alone in her home. That sadly happens more often than is reported. I think the fact that she was young and pretty contributed to the interest in this story.
Andrea: But then the question becomes “why *this* story” when it’s such a mundane event.
Tami: These things happen most often to the elderly. And no one cares about the old. It is the same reason that missing young white women get tons of press coverage, yet you or I could go missing tomorrow and Nancy Grace wouldn’t give a shit. It’s about power and social value.
Andrea: Yes! But also there’s the scare tactic of, as one of the interviewees said, “It’s bad enough being 40 and alone.” And we know how US culture tends to give turning 30 and older major side-eye. It’s the same ageist panic that fuels comedies like Sex and the City. And fiction like Mansfield Park.
Tami: …and the too-many-single-black-women panic, too. I thought the dramatizations were a poor storytelling device, too. The doc, to me, felt dishonest, like it wasn’t about telling the truth but sensationalizing a story…perhaps serving up a cautionary tale about being single, flighty, unattached, and mixed-race.
Andrea: I’ve seen re-enactments done well, like the doc Thin Blue Line. But it also plays into the lethal anonymity of “Big City Life.” There’s a phenomenon that refers to that ignoring crime in big cities because there’s the idea of not wanting to get involved–the Genovese Syndrome.
Tami: I think dramatizing so many moments that could not be documented, either by Joyce’s words or even those of her friends and family, was a huge misstep. How do we know this woman was lonely? Not because of anything she said or did. We assume we know because the people interviewed assume a woman who lives alone in the city must be lonely (sexism). And because the documentarian kept throwing in shots of an actress rending her garments alone in a flat.
Andrea: No, the documentarian could have made other choices, like showing her having a great time at a party with other people. At the same time, I know that, visually speaking, it would be boring to simply watching the people comment on her life. The re-enactments give the viewer something else to look at, if that makes sense.
But watching this, everyone’s casting her a benighted soul, with her single-lady office-support job and her poor single-lady flat.
Tami: Yeah, I get why the documentarian used re-enactments. You’re right about the talking heads and there aren’t many photos or film of her. The problem is that the vignettes were not so much re-enactments as fiction. I can understand if the filmmaker has letters or other documentation that formed a basis for them, but that wasn’t the case.
Andrea: So, we’re getting into the “eyewitness not being the best witness,” or, in this case, a reliable narrator.
And, of course, they play up that she died surrounded by gifts, adding to the fear-driven sentimentalism.
Tami: These people weren’t even eyewitnesses. They had lost touch with her. Some of them didn’t even recognize her voice on tape. And surely they weren’t very close because they didn’t know she died and never checked on her.
Andrea: I guess what I mean by “eyewitness” is the idea that these are the people who the documentarian is offering to the viewers as people who “knew” Joyce. So, as close to eyewitness as much as the documentarian could get to and offer a semblance of a story.
Andrea: But what you’re talking about is the question that hangs over the film: How are these folks even reliable? How can they be considered people who “knew” Joyce, if they can barely remember her?
Andrea: So, can we really call this a documentary?
Tami: See, I think we cannot. I would call it a dramatization. It’s sort of like the movie Titanic. It is based on something factual with a sprinkle of hearsay and a heaping helping of fiction.
Andrea: That I can agree with. But I find it interesting that this is a dramatization of the missing-girl story of a woman of color. In the US, this story wouldn’t have been greenlighted. It may have been a Find Our Missing segment, but that is about it.
Tami: I agree. In fact, after I moved out of one studio in Chicago, I learned that my super’s wife had found my neighbor dead in her apartment. It had certainly not been three years, but may have been days or weeks. She went to check on my neighbor either because she hadn’t seen her in a while or she missed her rent. I don’t remember. But my neighbor was an older woman–60s maybe. Black. Lived alone. She was always smiling and pleasant. I know she had people in her life, because someone used to pick her up every Sunday to take her to church and she’d be dressed to the nines in a black and gold cape. Still, when she passed, it was a while before anyone found her. I think that is sad. But nothing about her ever said to me she was a tragic figure. By the way, I learned about my neighbor’s death from another former neighbor, not because it became a major news story.
Andrea: There’s a lot of “little girl lost” motifs all through this doc. Lost regarding her racial identity, lost through the cracks of big-city life…
Tami: I just hate the sad, single woman in the city theme–especially as it was based on fuck all.
Andrea: I also think Dreams Of A Life plays into the “this is your fate, black woman, if you don’t settle and marry” narrative.
Tami: I wondered about that. I know it’s a British doc. I wonder if that messaging is as strong across the pond. Is there an English Steve Harvey?
Andrea: Jesus, I hope not!!
Tami: I can’t square the zoot suits and flat-top wig with, say, a Cockney accent.
Andrea: Naw…and…here’s the victim-blaming from the Black guy…
Tami: What was that bit of the film from Joyce’s friend about her just needing to find a good black guy?
Andrea: Girl…smh. And the armchair psychology of her looking for her (Black) daddy.
They do call this a “drama-documentary,” by the way.
Tami: Ah! I missed that. I wonder what other docs fall into the spectrum. Like, it that a true genre?
Andrea: I know there are docudramas and experimental documentary.
Tami: Did you see this NYT review? The Village Voice nails it, though: “Left with barely any there there, Morley compensates with long reenactments starring look-alike Zawe Ashton that are never quite convincing but instead suck more air out of the haunting vacuum left behind in Vincent’s wake.”
Andrea: About Joyce’s boyfriend, Martin: one interviewee says he told Joyce that he didn’t want to have “tainted” (i.e. mixed-race) children. I think Martin’s racism halted their relationship…
Tami: And he had the nerve to be tearing up over her, too.
Andrea: Then, the pat-ass, platitude-y ending doesn’t help this doc at all. Martin can kiss my Black ass, with his not-wanting-to-have-“tainted”-babies ass.
Tami: I think the fact that this is a compelling mystery makes this documentary watchable. I think, unfortunately, there wasn’t enough story to do a true documentary. No “there” there.
Andrea: Then, what I would have done is made a shorter documentary.
Tami: Ultimately, I suppose the film is revealing but I suspect not in the way the documentarian and Joyce’s friends might hope.
Andrea: Exactly. It exposed a huge flaw regarding the “truth” and “facts” about the narrative. What one trusts about a doc is you’re watching some sort of veracity. This doc makes you doubt the story and, unfortunately, the woman’s life. Which is ultimately disrespectful. The people talking about Joyce, like you said, barely knew her. The “re-enactments” played too much with the sexist and racist stereotypes.
Tami: I know. I found myself feeling angry for Joyce and wanting to protect her from her so-called friends.
Andrea: Because it’s bad enough Black women are unintentionally disrespected while we’re alive. To see this with a Black woman’s death…I was too annoyed with this. But I thought I was being my usual harsh self. So, I’m glad to chat about this with you to check my reality.
Tami: No, you are dead on. Bottom line, I wouldn’t want a guy who didn’t want my “tainted babies” being the one to eulogize me after my death, y’know?