by Guest Contributor Tracy M. Adams, originally published at Monday’s Baby
On Thursday, June 9, I attended a Gen-Art sponsored screening of Victoria Mahoney’s independent feature Yelling to the Sky in Manhattan. Starring Zöe Kravitz and co-starring Gabourey Sidibe, this film has had significant buzz. It made its debut at the Berlin Film Festival and was workshopped via Sundance Institute’s Screenwriters and Directors Lab. Based on synopses I read prior to the screening, I was curious to see if the portrayal of black women(hood) would be complex and fresh (as it was in Ava Duvernay’s wonderful I Will Follow) or if it would stick to the usual, shopworn portrayals that sometimes plague even independent feature films. I was especially interested to see whether Sidibe’s character would be similar to the one she played in Precious or if that image would be turned inside out (Sidibe was actually cast as Latonya Williams in Yelling before being slated to play Precious Jones).
In Yelling, Kravitz plays Sweetness O’Hara, a biracial high school student coming of age in New York City while managing a difficult home life. Quiet (at least for the first part of the film), sensitive, introspective, and intelligent, Sweetness has to contend with an alcoholic father, a mother with emotional (and possibly mental) issues, an older sister coping with young motherhood, bullies at school, and urban poverty. Zöe Kravitz did a great job with the script she was given; her performance was nuanced and quite believable. Actually, most of the actors in the movie were strong (including Tariq Trotter, better known as Black Thought of The Roots). However, despite the actors’ efforts, they could not overcome the disjointed storytelling nor the director’s inability to avoid well-worn tropes of the “coming of age in the ‘hood” drama. And whether intentionally or not, the director played into common cinematic (and real-life) racial memes. There were four that stood out.
Dark(er)-skinned black people are mean and like to victimize light(er)-skinned black people. The opening scene of Yelling involves Sweetness, accompanied by a friend of similar complexion, riding her bicycle right into a group of kids from her high school who in short order take her bike and beat her down in the street. Gabourey Sidibe’s character Latonya is the ringleader of this group, initiating the bullying and fighting, and ultimately ordering her boyfriend to viciously finish the job. The assault only stops when Sweetness’ sister Ola, who like Sweetness is very fair, brutally assaults her sister’s male attacker. While the director may not have intended for this scene to evoke intraracial stereotypes and conflict about skin color, it certainly looked that way on screen. Also, while Sidibe’s character was well put together (her hair was laid and her makeup was popping), she was still an (physically) intimidating bully. Continue reading