Producer Oge Egbuonu’s directorial debut “(In)Visible Portraits” arrives having perhaps committed the first-feature error of wanting to say everything. Even so, the documentary’s emotional generosity and mindful elegance impress. A rumination on Black women in America, the film’s release was moved up from fall 2020 to June 19. The timing couldn’t be more resonant. The spirit of the documentary sways and marches to chants like “Say Their Names” and “Justice for Breonna Taylor.” Not only does “(In)Visible Portraits” amplify Black Lives Matter critiques of institutional racism, it shows that whatever enduring change is gonna come will be shaped by and include Black women.
There is a poetic justice to releasing the film on Juneteenth, the holiday that celebrates emancipation even as it reminds us how diabolical racism was — and remains. (The date marks the moment slaves in Texas learned that they’d been freed by the Emancipation Proclamation — signed nearly three years earlier.) With the assist of a number of female scholars, the film dives into the traumatic legacy of slavery but also pays tribute to the fortitude of Black women, and the possibility of recovery and healing.
“(In)Visible Portraits” opens with a poet and a painter plying their art. The director weaves each throughout. Four scholars offer historical and sociological grist: Joy Angela DeGruy, Patricia Hill-Collins, Melina Abdullah and Ruha Benjamin. DeGruy’s 2005 work, “Post Traumatic Slave Syndrome: America’s Legacy of Enduring Injury and Healing,” lays the foundation for a discussion of intergenerational distress and grief.
How much audiences find the doc’s first half to be overly didactic may depend on individuals’ personal familiarity with the country’s Jim Crow sins and the ways that popular culture — with its mammy, Jezebel, angry Black woman archetypes — has aided and abetted the nation’s crimes against its Black citizens. There is no shortage of horror stories and no paucity of clip-reel evidence of how complicit Hollywood’s dream machine could be in maintaining a white supremacist nightmare.
But one could legitimately balk at categorizing Josephine Baker as a “Jezebel”; the dancer-performer decamped to Paris in order to own her persona more than she was able to in the U.S. And decades ago, film scholar Donald Bogle in “Toms, Coons, Mulattoes, Mammies and Bucks: An Interpretative History of Blacks in Films” took a hard look at racist stereotypes but also created room to ponder the agency and craft of Hollywood’s Black actors — among them “Gone With the Wind” star Hattie McDaniel. At times, the film’s use of film clips and stills is too utilitarian; it’s return to the archives for images of lynchings and firehosings too expected. But then as the poet Jazmine Williams recites at one point, “I’m tired of announcing my strength with heartbreak,” which articulates an emotional truth but also provides a structural critique of the film.
The documentary’s collection of PhDs offers a place to start another fresh — and deep — reading list. Not to take anything away from their scholarship, but these academics are most affecting when they hint at their own stories, when they join in the movie’s vibrant procession of other Black women, young and old. Because it is Sheila Thomas, Cora Matthews, Bonnie Gatson and Helen Jones, as well as a sweet slew of ridiculously bold and charming, focused and hopeful girls and young women, who make “(In)Visible Portraits” a balm.
The film’s well-wrought wisdom lies in the lived and blossoming authority of these women, who, with the exception of Jones, aren’t well known. You may recognize Jones. Her son John Horton died in the custody of the L.A. County Sheriff in 2009. She was told he committed suicide. She has every reason to doubt this and has been doing the work of finding justice for John and others killed by the police.
One thing the onscreen interviews make clear: A producer on “Loving,” Egbuonu has a gift that will continue to buoy her films. She has empathy. We seldom hear what she asks her subjects, but their responses point to a rapt and compassionate listener. Often, the interviewees offer signs of the importance of speaking and of being heard: tears of release, smiles of shared comprehension. On separate occasions, Dr. Abdullah’s and Dr. Benjamin’s eyes unexpectedly brim with tears. Both instances are among the movie’s most touching — and illuminating.
Late in the film, Egbuonu has a few of her subjects look in the mirror and talk to their 14-year-old selves. It’s powerful stuff, beautifully shot. Of course, a movie with the word “portrait” in its title sets a high bar for its cinematographer. Jessica Young clears it, offering up the beauty of so-called ordinary women by turning a sumptuous, loving gaze their way. Egbuonu, Young and editor Josh Snyder switch up the film’s visual rhythms, keeping things fluid even as the movie delivers potent moments of stillness. Although you have to wait until the credits to learn their names, the braiding of poet Jazmine Williams and painter Victoria Cassinova throughout the film adds another layer of texture. Composer Jamey Heath’s score hits solemn notes. A woman’s loamy humming has a take-me-to-church quality but it’s the hushed piano etudes that put the meditative offering in the plate.