Words: Roberta Graham
Kenyan born British activist and filmmaker, Pratibha Parmar, has been celebrated internationally for her politically focused and often controversial documentary work.
She is known for tackling subjects which today still fight to be recognised. Her 1994 film, Warrior Marks, made in collaboration with Pulitzer Prize winning author, Alice Walker, was praised for its frank discussion of female genital mutilation. She later worked with Walker again in her documentary feature, Alice Walker: Beauty in Truth, (2013) made by her own production company, Kali Films.
Parmar’s work examines the creativity of women of colour alongside the politics of oppression, to give a voice to the marginalised, telling their untold stories often with the view of depicting the strength of womanhood. Influenced by her personal history – being of Indian descent and therefore from a family history of migration across three continents – themes of diaspora, colonisation and persecution lie at the heart of much of her work.
Having gained critical acclaim for her work internationally she was awarded The Visionary Award for her body of work from the One in Ten Film Festival in October 2007. Amongst many other awards throughout her career, her most well known film, A Place of Rage, was also named Best Historical Documentary by the National Black Programming Consortium in the U.S. in 1992, and has become a piece of classic feminist cinema.
To mark its 25th anniversary last summer, A Place of Rage was honoured by the London Feminist Film Festival with a special screening held at the Rio Cinema. Its anniversary alone was enough to warrant its place on the schedule but as Dorett Jones of the LFFF points out, “it was chosen as LFFF's Feminist Classic not only because it is a classic film by a British filmmaker - and we need to recognise that… [but] it's important to say how timeless the film is.”
A Place of Rage celebrates the work of African American Women involved in the civil rights, Black power and Feminist movements in America through discussions with Angela Davis, Alice Walker and the poetry of June Jordan. The documentary explores the women of colour who changed American society whilst recognising those who continued in the struggle.
However, in light of the eerily familiar global events of the last year this empowering representation of the force of women to effect change can make for slightly uncomfortable viewing for a contemporary audience at points. Alice Walker seems to speak to us directly when she says of our collective history, “we don’t want to repeat it”.
With the history of this struggle clear in viewers’ minds it could be easy to feel disheartened by its renewed significance in today’s society as the fight for equality feels as necessary as it ever has. Dorett Jones explains this makes the film “even more urgent and poignant given what is happening globally for black women, with the rise of oppression and fascism.” It is for this reason too that A Place of Rage was such an important feature for a 2016 audience.
The film’s opening shots lead us through the looming concrete of New York City in the 1980s. The cinematically familiar streets – intimidating yet dynamic – move to the sound of Prince’s ‘Sign of the Times’. A song which couldn’t be more suited to its original context, it can make a modern audience squirm to realise how befitting it also is of our own; almost serving to taunt us at how far we have fallen behind.
The parallels continue in the “crucial, powerful and energising” words of June Jordan. How can we fail to be moved and disturbed by the ever-relevant words of Jordan’s ‘Poem about Police Violence’ in the light of the murders of more than 250 black men and women in the United States at the hands of police over the last year alone?
‘Tell me Something
what you think would happen if
everytime they kill a black boy
then we kill a cop
everytime they kill a black man
then we kill a cop’
Have we in the West progressed so little over the last 25 years? Or rather, how have we regressed so far?
June Jordan & Angela Davis in Place of Rage
Recognition of the revived urgency of Parmar’s work, and the similar work of others, is not limited to its celebration by the LFFF last year. Her film Sari Red has been included in the current show, ‘The Place is Here’ at Nottingham Contemporary until April 30th, which also included a special screening of A Place of Rage as a part of its ‘The Time is Now’ events programme.
The exhibition revisits the important conversations which arose around the “form, future and function of black art” in 1980s Britain at a time of ‘civil unrest and divisive national politics’ when artists were ‘exploring their relationship to Britain’s colonial past as well as to art history’.
It could be easy to get wrapped up in the notion that revisiting these movements and holding them with the heightened significance they deserve within our current climate, can be seen as a way of lamenting our failure to uphold the changes so many have fought so hard for.
However, June Givanni, founder of the Pan African Cinema Archive which features in the exhibition, reminded me that although the fight for racial and gender equality “is still at the forefront of social struggles, [it] does not mean that things have not been achieved or battles effectively waged: It means that it is a perpetual battle as it re-appears in various forms and in various ages and needs to be addressed and challenged whenever it does”.
Pratibha Parmar’s unique approach to addressing this battle within her own generation contributes to the influence of her work.
Her sensitive portrayal of women is one of beauty, strength and honesty. The relationship she creates between women and the camera is very real but firm, soft and casual yet consciously powerful. Free of voyeurism, women relate to the viewer on their own terms.
Favourably, this gaze offers a rare glimpse of Angela Davis the woman; gardening, running, playing squash. Softening the edges of the infamous activist into a ‘normal’ human being, Parmar encourages the audience to see Davis as an ‘everyday’ wonder woman, in much the same way they themselves can be. In her analysis, Dorett describes this angle as highlighting “the importance of self care in how we organise and resist, and shows Angela Davis as we've never seen her before… taking care of herself”.
Most striking is that for all its power Parmar’s work loses none of its femininity and relatability, lending the film its strong sense of positivity. The honest and engaging power of June Jordan’s words remain “crucial, powerful and energising” whilst her optimism, (“we will get to some place where tenderness is possible”) offers hope in these frightening times, creating a sense of camaraderie and connection with the women on screen.
In contrast Jordan’s words to congress, “listen to the people”, resonate as we continue to embark on a future decided by the disillusioned, misled by the lies and promises of rich men.
Theatrical poster for Place of Rage, dir. Pratibha Parmar, 1991
We are living in a new age of necessary resistance, and as Givanni puts it “each generation has its role to play.” Now it is our turn. “That is the crucial message that films like this bring to contemporary and future generations” Nothing could be truer of A Place of Rage and now is the time for it to be properly heard again.
Many have already taken up this torch. Young voices like poet and activist Zariya Allen are rising up alongside female politicians such as Kamala Harris to make themselves heard. Whilst here in the UK, organisations like Galdem magazine, championing the work of young creative women of colour, are being met with widespread praise and multiple awards.
In film last year, Ava DuVernay’s multi-award winning and Oscar nominated 13th, focused our attention on the racial inequality of the American prison system. Get Out, a comedy horror exposing the sinister and extremely damaging subtleties of white supremacy earned over $100 million in its first two weeks, while Raoul Peck’s I Am Not Your Negro, written by James Baldwin, (set for general release in the UK in April), has already been lauded as one of the best movies about the civil rights movement ever made.
As history threatens to repeat itself, black voices and stories are being told- and heard by huge and receptive audiences. Parmar’s work is not only a part of this but in itself is a key component in a history of creative resistance.
Her passionate acknowledgement of our heroines past and present does not lament the struggle nor complain of their hard work, it graciously and gratefully shares their strength with us as “the ones who hold things together and make things possible”.
So whilst the onscreen smiles and optimism in the final shots of A Place of Rage – accompanied by The Staple Singers ‘If You’re Ready’ – may sting a little, as we watch from our front row seats of the Trump show, they provide the clear boost of courage we need to continue to step forward rather than back.
Kali Films are working on funding 'My Name is Andrea' a documentary about Andrea Dworkin, please donate (http://www.kalifilms.com/