Image: Ranzie Mensah performing on an Italian TV show in 2010
Course: Film as a Tool for Public Discourse: Race and Gender
Faculty Mentor: Christina Wright
When I began the course Film as a Tool for Public Discourse: Race and Gender, I set goals to read and study the Bahá’í Writings on race and gender equality, reread a book on racial discrimination in America, and watch films on the relevant issues with a critical eye. Focusing on these issues allowed me to gain deeper perspectives into the Writings and the example of ‘Abdu’l‑Bahá, especially during His travels in America after His release from 60 years as a Prisoner.
I also watched the following films, TV series, and documentaries, with their themes identified:
1. “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom” (Music, racism, Black-on-Black anger, segregation)
2. “Trial 4” (Biased justice for Blacks in America and the corruption of the perpetrators of racism)
3. “Da 5 Bloods” (The usually untold story of Blacks in the Vietnam War and the price they paid)
4. “Hidden Figures” (Black women and excellence, backdrop of segregation and breaking the barriers through excellence—an untold story that was finally told)
5. “Sweet Magnolias” (The friendship and bond of 3 women—one Black and two White—and their loyalty to each other)
6. “El Inocente” (Spanish 8-episode limited series thriller on crime and prostitution interwoven with religion; the fascinating, intricate relationship and bond between women)
7. “One Night in Miami” (Fictional get-together of prominent Black activists during segregation period and their reflections—absolutely awe-inspiring!)
8. “Chadwick Boseman: Portrait of an Artist” (The man and actor is celebrated in this 21-minute portrait by his fellow colleagues in art; he comes across as removed from any classification, in a firmament of his own. A couple of inspiring statements: “In acting, most people just want to be famous. When it comes to the real work, a lot of people fall away, they lose their focus.” -Viola Davis. “You should rather look for PURPOSE than a job or career. Difficulties on your way are only meant to prepare you for your PURPOSE.” -Chadwick Boseman
9. “Self-made: Inspired by the Life of Madam C. Walker” (The story of one of the first Black women entrepreneurs and millionaires)
10. “Good Girls” (Another series on the friendship and bond between three women—one Black and two White—and their loyalty to each other…even in crime!)
11. “Free State of Jones” (Segregated America, freed slaves and deserted Confederate soldiers bond)
12. “Overcomer” (The relationship between a White family and a Black orphan girl, achievement in sports despite real challenges, and the strong bond that ensues between them. Religion is the thread that holds the story together).
Through this survey, I found that film has been an enormous tool to promote change in the thinking and behavior of the broader society toward accepting humanity as one single race and recognizing that women are as capable as their male counterparts if given equal opportunities for education and professional achievement.
Even though early films such as “Gone with the Wind” raised a lot of concern and criticism on the racial issue, the Oscar collected by Hattie McDaniel, a first achievement by any Black actress, was indeed a trailblazer. It opened the doors for many other Black American women to follow. Sidney Poitier’s interpretation in “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner” cast a spotlight on the excellence, elegance, wit, and intelligence of Black people. It was the beginning of daring to address the issue of racism openly. Mr. Poitier also became an inspiration for many Black actors to follow.
Film has now taken leaps and bounds regarding the issues of race and gender. We had “Thelma and Louise”; Will Smith has played starring roles that were formerly reserved for White protagonists; and, before him, Eddie Murphy. Denzel Washington is a household name. Whoopi Goldberg hosted the Academy Awards twice! Viola Davis is my hero. And there is Oprah Winfrey, strong and bold, taking center stage. There are many outstanding examples for all to acknowledge. A long list of films address these issues with a bold touch and provide opportunities for Black female and male actors to shine. The taboo about openly discussing or addressing “uncomfortable” issues has lifted. LGBT issues are now being openly portrayed in films and TV series.
Film unites different art forms that collaborate and enhance each other in the final product: acting, music, cinematography, costume designing and fashion, make-up artistry, dance and movement, writing, directing, producing. It can be a very powerful tool for dialogue.
My perspective on issues of racism and gender has expanded as a result of the course. I was born in Africa and lived there during the formative years of my life, although I have been living in Europe (Italy) for 30 years. Although I have been a victim of racism and sexism repeatedly, I realized that the racial aggression that Blacks in America endure is far, far greater than what I have ever endured in Europe. Africans who live in Africa, even though they are very aware and sensitive about racism, do not go through the stress, the fear, the constant micro- and macro-aggressions that African Americans face in their country.
I understand now why African Americans are sometimes suspicious, sensitive, and bitter. We Africans notice this when we mingle with them or when they come to Africa. They have really been through a lot since their ancestors were brought from Africa; ‘Abdu’l‑Bahá understood this fully when He urged that the work toward racial unity in America was an all-important and supreme task. Africans, Asians, Native Americans, Hispanics, Europeans, and other groups make up the population of the U.S.A. It is a beautiful tapestry of diversity, yet it is the most divided nation that I have ever visited! There is a lot of work to be done, and film has been and will continue to be a great tool for change. America has been the trailblazer in daring to begin this conversation.
I will use the insights and skills acquired in this course during the production of my documentary film, ‘RABA TUM TUM (“Black Lady”), a film about European women of African descent. It is time for European women of African descent to raise their voices and take ownership of their narratives in Europe. Our challenges, our dreams, our successes and failures can only be recounted by us, through the lens of the reality of our identity and mixed cultural experience. Whether we belong to the first, second, or third generation of immigrants, whether we are old or young, we are the unsung heroes of a rapidly changing social scenario in Europe. My mission in this documentary is to give a voice to these unsung heroes.
Filming of the documentary begins in June. I am presently in the process of setting up a cultural association called “YENKASSA” (“Let’s Talk!”), through which I will be able to apply for funding for the film and later present the film in festivals in Europe and America. This film— and further films on intercultural issues—will be used as intercultural educational material in schools for social and emotional learning on this theme and in public conversations through the organization of live cultural events.