As you may already know if you attended SIFF's Opening Night, The First Grader goes down easy, despite pedestrian scripting and direction. Quickie'd and ranked (C+) weeks ago by Entertainment Weekly, this forgettable flick about a onetime Mau Mau warrior determined to learn to read in his old age relies on two attractive performers—Naomie Harris and Oliver Litondo—to gin up inspirational glow. Such feel-good fakery requires the glossing over of inconvenient historical nastiness: Mau Mau butchers morph into Kikiyu Freedom Fighters, while the Brits darken the hero's memory as brutish killers of women and children.
Like The First Grader, Abdellatif Kechiche's Black Venus, also based on actual events, deals with troubled relations between Africans and Europeans. But Kechiche's film breaks your heart and hurts like hell to watch. Black Venus insists that we put skin in the game. It won't allow us to lean back and look at this African life through a happy haze of unreality.
That short, sad African life was Sarah (Saartjes) Baartman's, a young black woman brought to England by a South African Dutch colonist around the turn of the 18th century. There she became a circus freak dubbed the "Hottentot Venus," her huge buttocks (steatopygia) and pendulous genitalia ("Hottentot apron") the drawing card.
Our first sight of Sarah, cowering in the corner of a cage, reveals an obese, subhuman creature, entirely Other. Uncaged, the leashed "beast" growls and paws at the audience, but is soon induced to dance. Clad in skintight red longjohns and divers exotic trinkets, the female crouches to better display that gigantic rear-end—like some scarlet-assed orangutan in heat—bouncing and rolling the fat directly in the fascinated white faces of her audience ... which must include us.
From the start, this movie is about the prolonged, dehumanizing rape of a woman by means of many ravenous eyes (and later lascivious hands). Much has been written in film theory and criticism about the killing power of the male gaze over women in the movies. In Black Venus that violating gaze is democratic, including colonizer, slaver, white supremacist, porn addict, cinematic thrill-seeker, freak-show aficionado, whatever our epistemological coign of vantage.
The New York Times' Manohla Dargis complained about Kechiche's "exploitational camerawork"—and some shots in Black Venus are well-nigh unbearable—but I am on the side of this French-Moroccan filmmaker, an immigrant artist who knows the sharp edge of living between cultures. Kechiche means to make us participate in the exploitation of Sarah Baartman, not simply bemoan it from some emotional distance. Watching the movie produces a profound shame, as though we were one of the brutes who display her body as exotic meat, one of the jaded aristos who fondle her supine flesh, one of the cold-eyed scientists who coveted her parts for racist research. It's all theater in the round, Sarah's body the spectacle.
Sarah Baartman, as powerfully incarnated by Yahima Torres, is a point of stillness, a sort of moral touchstone in the loud, crowded theater of Black Venus. For this African woman is truly a Venus, if not a European's idea of a goddess. Confounded by incomprehensible people, culture, and language, Sarah retreats into silence. But that silence speaks, becoming judgment.
It's Sarah's own eyes that draw our gaze, even away from the lushly colored and curved landscape of her body. Dark, deep pools, wet with gin or tears, her eyes register the horrorshow in which she lives and performs, as though she was a sister from another planet. There's no rage or condemnation in her gaze, but rather a kind of wonderment and grief. Bent back over an ottoman so that her exotic genitalia can be better viewed and handled, the mother of three dead children weeps, as though grieving not just for her own fall into degrading performance art, but for all of humankind. Even her depraved audience has the grace to withdraw when they see the tears of a fertility goddess brought low.
I've never experienced a film that so cruelly and relentlessly portrayed the objectification of a woman, tapping into all the ways that men claim to "own" female flesh. Watching Black Venus is to be mesmerized by a spectacle of terrible beauty, in which you may have played a villain's part.
Sunday, May 29, 8:30 p.m. at the Egyptian