The Cinematic Jazz of Julie Dash. Directed by Yvonne Welbon. New York: Women Make Movies, 1992. 27 minutes.
Sisters in the Life: First Love. Directed by Yvonne Welbon. New York: Third World Newsreel, 1993. 30 minutes.
The New Black. Directed by Yoruba Richen. Brooklyn: Promised Land Film, 2013. 80 minutes.
Sister in Cinema: The Career of Yvonne Welbon
Yvonne Welbon has been making films about Black women’s experiences for over twenty years. Since 1991 Welbon has written and directed and produced over twenty films. Her work has been shown on PBS, Starz/Encore, TV-ONE, IFC, Bravo, the Sundance Channel, BET, and HBO and has been screened in film festivals around the world. She is mostly known for her award-winning documentaries, Living with Pride: Ruth Ellis@100 (1999) and Sisters in Cinema (2003).1 However, Welbon has had a rich and varied career that deserves closer scholarly attention. I am particularly interested in the experimental quality of her early work in The Cinematic Jazz of Julie Dash (1992) and Sisters in the Life: First Love (1993), as well as her impact as a producer.
Welbon is especially concerned with conveying the struggle and beauty of the art of filmmaking from the perspective of Black women. Twenty-two years after it was made The Cinematic Jazz of Julie Dash remains one of the most insightful interviews with the now iconic filmmaker, Julie Dash. Shot using primarily interview footage and clips from Dash’s films, Cinematic Jazz reveals the male-centered, white-dominated world of independent filmmaking. Dash is lit with a warm red light that highlights her skin tone, but although the camera is set to give a close-up of Dash’s face throughout the film, the dark lighting and black background make it difficult to see her. The effect is that the viewer is encouraged to search the contours of Dash’s face as she relates her experience of determined resistance in the context of tremendous adversity she dealt with while making her early films.
After the film’s title, Cinematic Jazz begins with a definition of jazz that focuses on its origins and function as opposed to the structure or aural properties of the music: “jazz may be said to have been born in the work songs, laments and spirituals of slaves and southern Black communities and to derive ultimately from African music.” This definition of jazz as a collective practice of resistance and community building in a context of exploitation and violence reflects the narrative that Dash tells about the purpose of film and the hostile environment of the filmmaking industry. As Dash states, it is hard to be a woman in Hollywood, but “it’s a miracle that any Black woman could survive. . . [and] most of them don’t survive very long” in the industry. The interview was shot soon after Dash’s masterpiece Daughters of the Dust was completed.2 The lighting makes it hard to distinguish whether Dash’s eyes are filled with rage or on the verge of tears as she relates her difficulty finding a distributor for the film. At the moment of the interview, the future of wide distribution for Daughters was uncertain as Dash describes that she was told, “the general public doesn’t want to see this type of film.” Of course, Daughters went on to be nominated for best film and to win the award for best cinematography at the Sundance Film Festival in 1992. Much of what Welbon is demonstrating in Cinematic Jazz is that part of the exceptional art, or the jazz, of Black women’s filmmaking is making it through the minefield of misogyny and racism to get a product from conception to audiences. Welbon expands on these questions of Black women behind the camera in her 2003 documentary Sisters in Cinema that chronicles an overlooked legacy of Black women filmmakers from the early days of the twentieth century to the more well-known artists like Dash, Kasi Lemons, and Euzhan Palcy.
The neglected craft of telling Black women’s stories is at the core of Welbon’s 1993 short film, Sisters in the Life,in which she pushes the line between narrative and documentary film. Welbon plays the part of an unnamed filmmaker, shooting a documentary that she says is “about first love.” As the first frames unfold, we see a medium shot of a Black woman, who we later find out is named Donna. Donna sits in front of the camera and tells Welbon about her first loves as a teenager in the 1970s. This is more than a retelling of Donna’s memories; it is also partially a period piece about remembering the 1970s through the re-enactment of Donna’s story with teenage actors.
Welbon experiments with the idea that Black young women’s memories, feelings and experiences about desire for other women 1) could be the subject of documentary and 2) could inform how we shape our understanding of a Black queer past. Donna invites the filmmaker into her story by referring to the historical actors and aesthetics of the 1970s, opening the door of her trip down memory lane. She says, “Remember the dashikis? Watu wazuri? Afro Sheen? The beginning of the Black Panther party?” Six years later Welbon will explore these issues of Black women’s history and memory, as well as desire, in her 1999 film, Ruth Ellis @100, but even as an early consideration of these topics, Sisters in the Life asks important questions in this experimental piece.
Told mostly in flashbacks played by young actresses, the story of Donna and her best friend, Karen is interwoven with the account of adult Donna’s lesbian relationship. We see Donna in the present as the fulfilled erotic potential of young Donna’s arrested desires. The girls’ friendship protects the vulnerability of their young love through their daily interactions that are considered “innocent.” Despite their closeness when the two girls have a conversation, their feelings for each other roll out into an uncertain future. Karen, for example, asks, “but how could we get married?” The girls are caught in a bind. They understand that a public acknowledgement of their relationship will make it all but impossible to continue, but that they do not want to continue without being able to be together openly. Donna’s perspective as an adult looking back on her relationship with Karen provides a rare view into the intimacies of Black female friendships. Donna’s first boyfriend, Felton, and Karen are overlapping relationships. Felton is the father of Donna's child, so it is clear that they consummate their relationship physically, but her emotions for Karen take precedence in memory. The film thus overturns the normative narrative that privileges the heterosexual couple.
Welbon returns to the issue of marriage and the public acknowledgement of Black lesbian and gay partnerships and families in her role as producer in the 2013 film The New Black. Directed by Yoruba Richen, The New Black follows activists in the days leading up to the passage of the Maryland gay marriage law in 2012. The film includes interviews with prominent pro-gay marriage activists, celebrities, and clergy, such as Bishop Yvette Flunder, veteran activist Julian Bond, Sharon Lettman-Hicks from the National Black Justice Coalition, Reverend Delman Coates, and gospel singer Tonex (B. Slade). However, the most compelling footage comes when we see African American families working through the contradiction between their religious convictions and their unconditional love for their lesbian and gay family members. One such moment happens in the kitchen of Sharon Lettman-Hicks’s in-laws. She asks her husband’s aunt, Mrs. Annie Whitmore, about her reaction to her granddaughter’s coming out as a lesbian. The aunt’s touching response is that, “I don’t care which way you go, Grandma gonna love you.”
Welbon is an important reminder that it is vital to have Black lesbians not only in control behind the camera but also driving the production process. Welbon has producer credit on almost a dozen feature-length and short films, including Cheryl Dunye’s 2001 film, Stranger Inside, produced for HBO, and thus continues to make her presence felt in independent film.3 Her vision of supporting fellow Black women filmmakers and representing Black lesbian stories has raised awareness on issues of civil rights, history and memory, and on the hidden history of Black women in the film industry.
1 Living with Pride: Ruth Ellis@100, directed by Yvonne Welbon (Ho Ho Kus, NJ: Sisters in the Life, 2000), 60 min. and Sisters in Cinema, directed by Yvonne Welbon (Harriman, PA: Our Film Works, 2003), 62 min. Welbon has also developed a website to accompany Sisters in Cinema (http://www.sistersincinema.com/index.html), which she describes on the home page as “a resource guide for and about African American women feature filmmakers.”
2 Daughters of the Dust, directed by Julie Dash (New York: Kino International, 1991).
3 Stranger Inside, directed by Cheryl Dunye (New York: HBO, 2001).