It has already been a banner year for Black women filmmakers, with historic achievements like Nia DaCosta set to become the first Black woman to direct a Marvel film with “Captain Marvel 2” and Ava DuVernay selected as the first female filmmaker to receive the prestigious Dorothy and Lillian Gish prize. And film fans should add “(In)Visible Portraits” director Oge Egbuonu on the list of names to know.
“It’s unprecedented. I can’t remember a time where so many Black women were given an opportunity and a platform to tell their stories in such a beautiful and unapologetic and organic way. It’s a very beautiful thing to witness and to be a part of,” Egbuonu tells Variety ahead of a special presentation of her documentary at the Bentonville Film Festival.
“It’s very empowering for me as a Black woman to see these women who I consider to be my peers making huge strides in the industry. Because as a storyteller, like that’s what I aim to do,” she continues. “For me, it’s not about just creating stories, but being one of the best and greatest storytellers of all time is my North Star. And so, when I see my peers or even my elders, doing things in the same magnitude, it’s definitely inspirational.”
Egbuonu’s directorial debut explores the “otherizing” of Black women in America throughout history — deconstructing stereotypes like the “angry Black woman or the “strong Black woman,” outlining the archetypes of the mammy, the jezebel, and the welfare queen, and celebrating the beauty of Black women and the voices who’ve long gone unheard.
The documentary was selected as the opening night spotlight screening of Bentonville, the film festival co-founded by Geena Davis. This year’s event boasts a lineup of 68 films, where over 80% have been directed by women, 65% BIPOC and 45% are LGBTQA+. And though the event has gone largely virtual due to the coronavirus pandemic, Egbuonu is focused on the benefits of getting the film before a digital audience.
“The intention was for as many people to see it as possible, mainly because of what I realized [making the film] — the things that we’re taught in school is revisionist history,” she says. “I really want people to see and experience the true history of the Black woman’s experience in America, and not just serve as a re-education, but for people to walk away holding reverence for Black women.”
When it came to selecting the topic for her first film, Egbuonu says, “Well, it wasn’t that I chose it, it really chose me.”
In fact, nearly three years ago, the now 35-year-old was approached about making a film focused on Black mothers. After the first lunch meeting, Egbuonu thought through the idea and pitched a concept that focused on Black women and girls instead. Egbuonu’s financiers were quickly on board, but she was so fearful of directing the film, that she initially turned down the opportunity to move forward with the project.
“I said ‘No,’ because I was so afraid to take on the magnitude of the subject matter,” she says. “Plus, I had never directed before.”
Although she hadn’t worked as a director, Egbuonu is not new to the entertainment industry. While working at Colin Firth and Ged Doherty’s independent production company Raindog Films, she served as an associate producer on 2016’s “Loving.” Ultimately, her friend and mentor Halle Berry convinced Ebuonu to take on the challenge.
“I’m on her kitchen floor, and I’m bawling crying and I’m like ‘I can’t do it, I’ve gotta say no,’” Egbuonu recalls. “And she’s like, ‘What do you mean? Of course, you’re doing this. The story down found you. This is your calling. You embody all of this. You have to do this.’”
“[Berry] gave me a very deep pep talk and was like, ‘Do you know how many white men in Hollywood get the opportunity to direct before who’ve never done it? And they say yes,’” Egbuonu continues. “She was like, ‘Our story needs to be told. And if I have to pull the full force of my management and my agency behind you and my production team behind you, so that you feel supported, you’re going to do this. Who better else to tell our stories than a Black woman?’ It took that encouragement from another Black woman for me to actually really believe in myself and be like ‘You can do this Oge.”
So, she began the nearly three-year process of researching the history of Black women in America — reading the works of Dr. Joy Angela DeGruy, Dr. Patricia Hill Collins, Dr, Melina Abdullah and Dr,. Ruha Benjamin — and later interviewing them for the project. Egbuonu says that writing, producing and directing the film had a profound effect on her.
“This experience served as a rebirth for me. It gave me permission to show up fully and authentically as myself,” she says. “It made me realize that I shrink myself so much for so many people to just fit in and to be liked, to make it feel like I’m not the ‘angry Black woman’ in meetings when I say I disagree with something. Even being in community with other Black women, I would see them as competition versus as a collaborative partner.”
“And in making this documentary, it opened my eyes into how these systems has been set into place for us to operate in that manner,” she continues. “When I really dug deep into the systems of oppression that’ve been set up for us to not only dislike ourselves but not like each other, when I did the deep research of understanding the labeling of Black women, when I did the research of just truly knowing what it means to be a Black woman in this country, it literally rearranged me in the most beautiful way.”
Egbuonu says she was moved the most by the 25 young women (who were between the ages of 5 and 22) she interviewed for the film.
“I couldn’t tell you how many times I cried on set. I was sitting there thinking when I was 11 and 7 and even 20, I was filled with so much self-hate. I’m 35 now, and I’m just learning how to love myself. I’m just accepting who I am,” she says. “But I’m just so inspired [by these young girls], that the pain and the hurt that we have that has been passed on from our elders, it stops with us. Because with them, they’re just so inspired and they question everything that they’ve been told to be true, which I think is such a beautiful thing.”
And when Egbuonu asked them to name a Black woman who inspires them — whether it be their mother, a teacher, an author or an astronaut — she says, “without fail every one said Beyoncé.”
“Outside of saying their mothers and their sisters, they said SZA, they said Willow [Smith], they said Rihanna,” she says. “They said the people that they know through pop culture.”
And, honestly, Egbuonu has been inspired by Queen Bey too.
“I’m from Houston, Texas and I’ve been riding with her career from day one, when people didn’t know who Destiny’s Child was. I feel that she’s stepping into and embodying her full potential,” Egbuonu says.
“And the second person is [“I May Destroy You” creator] Michaela Coel. I think that she is so wise and that she’s so brave and she pushes the envelope in creating what’s possible and not just creating things,” she says. “That’s the same thing that I live by; the things that I create, I want to be beyond entertainment. I want it to educate and empower. And I think that the things that Michaela creates, do just that.”
“(In)Visible Portraits” is available on Vimeo on Demand and the Bentonville Film Festival runs from Aug. 10-16.