Students often enter the histories of women in late twentieth-century social movements through mythologies of spectacular presence or false narratives of absence. Even in gender studies classrooms, grand myths sometimes stand in for critical historiography: organizers, artists, thinkers, and philosophers like Audre Lorde are known by students, if at all, as exceptional figures to be worshipped rather than engaged. Using interviews, archival footage, photographs, conversations, poetry, and first-person narratives, feminist film historiography challenges students’ assumptions by documenting women’s involvement in twentieth-century social movements through the visual language of intimacy, embrace, and collective action.
Ada Gay Griffin and Michelle Parkerson’s A Litany for Survival: The Life and Work of Audre Lorde, available in both 60- and 90-minute versions, has already proven a productive text in courses on feminist theory, queer studies, and black women’s writing. The film uncovers the trajectory of Audre Lorde’s literary, theoretical, and activist work, telling of her childhood; her years as a student at Hunter College; her involvement in the civil rights, women’s rights, and gay and lesbian rights movements; her work as a teacher; and her battle with breast cancer. Strategically juxtaposing Lorde’s own words and interviews with her partner, family members, friends, her students, and other poets such as Sonia Sanchez, Jewelle Gomez, and Essex Hemphill, the film imagines relationships, collaboration, and intimacy as the fuel for political and artistic labor.
The film subverts the conventions of documentary biography: rather than offering a linear narrative of development, Litany weaves a tapestry of voices, faces, bodily movements, and geographies. Lorde’s voice—reading her poetry and essays, telling stories—overlaps in a layering of sound that compels the film’s narrative movement and challenges viewers to participate in the weaving of the tapestry of Lorde’s biography by piecing fragments together. The overlapping of voices and the progression from archival footage to interview to video of Lorde in St. Croix are central to Litany’s revision of 1960s history. In one scene, for example, Lorde says “Let me tell you first about what it was like being a black woman poet in the sixties” as she speaks over black-and-white footage of women in white dresses marching at the front of a protest. “[It] meant being triply invisible as a black lesbian and feminist.” Offering a collection of images and poems that supplement stock footage of the 1960s and 1970s social movements, Litany is, as its title suggests, a recitation, a series of revelations that unfold piece by sacred piece.
The Edge of Each Other’s Battles: The Vision of Audre Lorde, a 59-minute film directed by Jennifer Abod, complements Litany’s history by documenting “I Am Your Sister: Forging Global Connections Across Difference,” a 1990 conference that honored Lorde’s work and social vision. By way of interviews, video from the conference, and dialogues between and among Audre Lorde and the conference organizers, the film documents a critical moment in women-of-color feminist history. Scenes of women on the conference stage reading poetry, giving lectures, and dancing are intercut with images of the twelve hundred conference participants talking, listening, taking notes, singing in vestibules, drumming on lawns, and embracing each other in and between conference sessions. All these scenes show how one moment—a single conference in 1990—can provide a ground for teaching how feminism is constituted by difference, dialogue, and the difficult work of organizing across state, regional, national, and identity borders. The dangers and possibilities of difference motivate the film’s narrative.
The film balances a celebratory narrative of the conference with an honest portrayal of the difficulty of negotiating race and class privilege in women-of-color feminist settings. It documents, for example, the conference organizers’ efforts to make sure that the conference attendees were at least 50 percent women of color by showing letters and registration applications from conference attendees. But it also shows Hitaz Aziz’s conference presentation on classism, in which she discusses with affecting candor how difficult it was for poor women to attend and speak at the conference. The film uses Lorde’s closing speech to offer a vision for the future centered around affective labor and collaboration. “To recognize that we move against a common enemy does not mean that we all beat the same drum or play at the same time,” she says. Edge thus offers to students an honest yet hopeful history of feminist organizing that might well be placed alongside writing by Lorde or others on coalition building, women-of-color feminism, or fractures within the women’s liberation movement.
While Litany and Edge place Lorde’s emergence as an artist and activist within the context of the post-World War II social movements, C.A. Griffith and H.L.T. Quan’s Mountains that Take Wing — Angela Davis and Yuri Kochiyama: A Conversation on Life, Struggles, and Liberation offers a refreshing counterhistory of the twentieth-century U.S. freedom struggle, documenting conversations that the two women had over a twelve-year period. Davis, an internationally renowned scholar-activist, and Kochiyama, a grassroots community activist and 2005 Nobel Peace Prize nominee, share their histories of captivity as political prisoners, discuss their passion for justice, and cover subjects ranging from the public erasure of the history of women in twentieth-century social movements to the prison industrial complex, war, and the role of expressive culture in producing and sustaining social change.
The intimate two-shots and close-ups of the 97-minute documentary lend the film a calm pace while archival footage and documents reveal a sixty-year history of social activism and the two activists discover how their paths have crossed in uncanny ways since the 1960s. One of the most important contributions of Mountains is its repositioning of political history: rather than telling the story of late twentieth-century social change as a story of gifted leadership, the film insists on friendship, affection, and love as the building blocks of radical transformation. “People in the movement sustain each other—it’s because their spirit is so contagious and I think we all get … well, hooked,” Yuri tells Angela. “But I think you’re one of those people whose spirit is contagious,” Angela tells Yuri. Mountains, like Litany and Edge, privileges a cyclical kind of unfolding over a teleological narration, presenting the work of the two activists as an unfinished dialogue between the two players rather than as a closed product—with discrete beginning, middle, and end—for simple consumption.
The title of this most recent film, Mountains that Take Wing, recalls the lines of Langston Hughes’s 1941 poem, “Love,” which, indeed, captures the spirit of all three films: “Love is a wild wonder / And stars that sing / Rocks that burst asunder / And mountains that take wing.”1 Telling the story of twentieth-century social change as a chronicle of affection, of correspondence in postcards and letters, of mutual admiration and activist friendship, of embraces between comrades, Mountains, like Lorde, reminds us that the “wild wonder” of liberation struggle is not only ours for the taking but already—literally—in our own hands. It will no doubt prove useful in undergraduate and graduate courses on history, social movements, ethnic studies, and women’s and gender studies.
Erica R. Edwards is Assistant Professor of English at the University of California, Riverside. She has published in American Quarterly, American Literary History, Callaloo, and Women and Performance. Her first book, “Contesting Charisma: Fictions of Political Leadership in Contemporary African American Culture,” is forthcoming from the University of Minnesota Press.
1Langston Hughes, "Love," The Collected Poems of Langston Hughes, ed. Arnold Rampersad (New York: Knopf, 1995).