In the hierarchy of documentaries, beauty documentaries are rarely at the top. Instead, it is usually technology, environment and design (i.e. the TED in TED Talks) that are highly rated and discussed. As an interviewee explains in the documentary Subjects of Desire, this is a codified way to equate beauty with vanity, implying that we do not need to unpack it to understand the systemic social issues associated with beauty. We make it the individual’s choice to be resilient. But how, she asks, can one person take on a system?
This is an interesting question and the subject of Jennifer Holness’ documentary. In this engaging and celebratory film, she provides history and context for the evolution of beauty and how African-American women have either adapted or challenged it. It is a fast-paced documentary that tackles everything from the idea of femininity across centuries to #blackgirlmagic and overlays it with the omnipresent stereotypes of African-American women as Mammy, Jezebel and Sapphire.
The documentary is bookended by prep for the Miss Black America pageant which is an interesting choice since beauty contests are often considered anti-feminist. But as we learn, this pageant was created 50 years earlier to protest mainstream pageant rules which required contestants to be ‘of white background’. This was no trivial matter as it affected how women tried to fit the preferred aesthetic for decades.
In that context the Miss Black America pageant is a joyful celebration. We see contestants rehearse for the event and share what it means for them, but this is no Miss Congeniality. Instead, the event is a foot in the door to understand micro-aggregation and racism that permeates the life of many African-American women.
Holness uses a mix of interviews, media flashbacks and voiceovers to cover at least 200 years of Black beauty standards in the United States. There is understandably more emphasis on the past 30 years because it represents the lived experience of the interviewees and it shows how social media has changed the ‘game’. They talk about how their natural hairstyles can get them fired, how it is considered not professional and how they internalised the hatred for their hair. They commiserate about a lifetime of being teased and bullied for their braids, curvy figures, fuller mouths and dark skin, only for those features to be popular when the Kardashian-Jenner clan embody them.
These interviewees include academics, beauty contestants and singer India Arie whose song Video remains a beauty anthem. Perhaps more controversially, it includes Rachel Dolezal, a white woman who lived a large part of her life as Black and claimed she was ‘transracial’. Her presence is slightly jarring for a documentary that until then, centred on Black experiences. Holness lets Dolezal explain her points of view but also lets others critique them and underline the power dynamics that prevents them from changing their skin to become ‘transracial’.
The documentary is not ‘us vs. them’. It also interrogates the tiered treatment in the Black community such as colourism, men’s dating preference for light skinned women and the greater emotional burden placed on Black women to drive societal change.
In Holness’ hands, this is not an ‘educational’ documentary, and this directorial choice makes it really powerful. There is no guide on what to say or not say about Black women’s hair, no sidebar about the hairstyles and hair products mentioned and no recommendations about what comes next. Instead, it simply highlights how a range of Black women feel about beauty. Sometimes, they do not agree and there is no forced resolution for the sake of playing nice.
This is similar to Issa Rae’s series, Insecure, and its portrayal of Black culture as a spectrum rather than a box. There is no lengthy explanation about wigs, weaves, braids or the wobble dance because it assumes the audience already knows. For those who do not get it, there’s Google.
The final line in the documentary, by a pageant contestant, sums up some of what African-American women have to deal with and it is sobering. “In 2019, we are still fighting what it means to be human… fighting because the government doesn’t believe I can be shot dead in the street and the person could walk away scot free if they had a badge.”
“I wish,” she says, “I was concerned solely if people thought I was beautiful.”
Subjects of Desire is now streaming at SBS On Demand for a short time.