Table For Two: Dreams Of A Life, Or The Tragic Mulatto Spinster Goes To The Movies

By Tami Winfrey Harris and Andrea Plaid

JoyceVincent

From the joycevincent.com, a website set up by Dreams of a Life filmmaker Carol Morley

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 thJoyce-vincent-007e 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.

 

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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.

Tami: Yeah.

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?

Tami: Right.

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 reviewThe 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?

 

  • ladyfresh

    I’m torn i want to watch this but being single and in my late thirties and a black woman do i really need to depress myself with a hyperbolic docudrama which is apparently depressing. hrm

  • Africameleon KM

    So, I’m watching the docudrama now, and you are totally right! WTF?

    Ex boyfriend (black): “joyce died alone because she wanted to be alone… in the end she has to take responsibility for a lot of that.”

    Bald black guy (green eyes): “i don’t understand how she let herself go done that road.”

    Um, all of this being said when considering why she died alone and both of them NOT KNOWING exactly why she died. FOH!!!!! They don’t know what “killed” her or if someone killed her. Maybe her appendix burst? Maybe her gall bladder f’in exploded? Brain aneurysm? Blood Clot? Massive Heart Attack at 37? Who knows.

    It also felt like they used her “youth” against her. Really, who doesn’t “sing into a brush” every now and then?

    I completely agree with your article. This film was actually disrespectful. They just made shit up really in order to vindicate themselves.

  • keeks

    I opted out of watching this doc once I discovered how much this film didn’t even know about Joyce. Like the fact hat she was in a shelter toward the end of her life, trying to hide herself from an abuser. I believe that the apartment she was in was not well known of for that reason. That’s why she left her glamorous job. And based on descriptions of what people said about her, esp the men, I got the impression that some of them tried to rape her or force themselves on her. I know one guy said he kicked her out in her hour of need b/c she didn’t want sex or a relationship with him. What a wonderful friend he was. So I personally did not want to watch this piece of shit movie that knows nothing about her whatsoever. Her sister was looking for her. It wasn’t like nobody cared about her. She had family. It’s just due to some perceived racial self-perceptions she perhaps only hung with mostly white upper-crust folk. But she ran into some interesting circles, for instance even having a meal with Stevie Wonder.

    But anyway, I would say Joyce is like Nicki Minaj, who is also a woman with Indian background. But pretty much culturally black.

  • http://twitter.com/tonpetitrenard Kelsey

    Great insights here! I stumbled across the film on Netflix a couple weeks ago, thought it looked interesting, and then turned it off about halfway through. There was just something unsettling about the whole thing. I think Tami is correct in saying that the interviewees projected emotions and experiences onto Joyce’s memory, it was clear that none of them knew her that well.
    One thing I found striking that wasn’t mentioned here was the repeated claim that Joyce never had her own interests outside of her relationships, that she just adopted the interests of whoever she was dating. I found this a little hard to believe. It seems more likely that these people just never acknowledged her individuality, not that she didn’t have any. It just reinforces the idea that Joyce was doomed to die anonymously because she was unattached, since it is OBVIOUSLY through marriage that a woman defines herself and stays engaged in society as a whole.
    Thanks for this discussion! It really helped me think through the icky feelings I had while trying to watch the film.

  • Londoner

    Thanks for this. I just have two comments:

    I wonder about the employment of the term/trope ‘tragic mulatto’ here. Joyce Vincent was of African/Indian origin from a Guyanese background. She wasn’t half white, and her origins were not unusual for a Caribbean person. I mean, I think a lot of the critique here is valid but – and this is often the case when non- US Black subjectivities are discussed on US forums -this seems to be coming from a particularly American mentality. I would argue this gets in the way slightly when the subject – both the person and the work – is from another culture. As ‘Medusa’ has mentioned the Steve Harvey / Unlovable stereotypes aren’t really relevant here.

    Also, I imagine the ‘shock’ re. Vincent working as a cleaner was due to the contrast between her previous professional and social situation and where she ended up (not the act of being a cleaner itself.) It definitely denotes a certain (very English) snobbery, but it would also be surprising for someone to move for working for Ernst & Young to being a cleaner, living in a bedsit in Wood Green. It’s a grim, depressing place, not somewhere a person with options would be likely to choose. It’s not an unheard of situation for someone experiencing a decline in mental health …

    • whattamisaid

      Thanks for this comment. Am I mistaken that Joyce was mixed race? The dramatizations seemed to reflect that, but then, we’ve discussed what I think about the veracity of those dramatizations. Here is the definition of the tragic mulatto trope that I’m working from: “The “tragic mulatto” is an archetypical mixed-race person (a “mulatto”), who is assumed to be sad, or even suicidal, because they fail to completely fit in the “white world” or the “black world”.[1] As such, the “tragic mulatto” is depicted as the victim of the society they live in, a society divided by race. They cannot be classified as one who is completely “black” or “white”.” The definition uses the black/white binary, but I think this carries over beyond that. Whether or not Joyce truly is mixed race, the filmmaker certainly leaned on this stereotype. There was lots of talk about how exotic she was…talk about how her white boyfriend and his family ultimately rejected her…talk about how all she needed was a good black man…but then how that black man couldn’t help her because of her “demons,” which no one in the film could fully articulate…and then the constant sadness about…something. Maybe her errant father or maybe something else. Explained this way, do you still disagree with the use of the term? We understood going in to this that we were viewing the film from a decidedly American lens. I appreciate both you and Medusa weighing in from the perspective of folks who actually living in England.

      • Londoner

        hi @whattamisaid:disqus Thanks for your thoughtful response.

        Joyce was definitely of mixed heritage, but Afro-Asian, not half white. I guess my point was that ‘mixed-ness’ doesn’t have to involve white folks, and therefore -in this instance – Joyce should not be seen through the lens of the tragic mulatto. She was a different mix, and exoticised through being Afro-Asian. (Mulatto is a detestable term anyway and not one that we would use.) I’m familiar with the ‘tragic mulatto’ trope, I just don’t think it applies in this case.

        Also in terms of the Caribbean community in the UK (of which I am a part) a ‘good black man’ could just as easily be from the same ethnic mix as Joyce, as our islands are multi-racial to begin with. Although there are many racial classifications on the Islands, within the diaspora they became largely irrelevant within the framework of a historically white society. The Asian Caribbean people I grew up with – including close family and friends – were part of the ‘black’ community. An Indo-Trini is a Trini, as opposed to being an Indian and so on. Culture denotes ‘race’ more than ethnicity due to our essential hybridity.

        (Of course, the suggestion that a ‘good black man’ was the answer to her ‘problems’ was complete rubbish.)

        Hope this makes sense.

  • Medusa

    Thanks for this. I remember reading about this before and being vaguely weirded out by the whole project.

    I live in England, and the “black women will be forever unloved because they are unlovable” stereotype doesn’t seem to exist over here, despite this country’s issues surrounding race and gender.

  • littleeva

    I am confused about this. If she lived in an apartment building, didn’t her neighbors complain about the smell? What about the TV blaring for years? Who was paying her rent, utilities all that time?