Monday, October 11, 2010

BLACK VENUS

As flawed as Black Venus may have been (it's pretty long & grueling), it's still a step forward for Black film/Black stories. And flawed isn't always a bad thing. Sometimes flawed = challenging and that's definitely the case here. It's not your typical movie. For once I didn't have to sit through a movie about the first black athlete to slam dunk a basketball at an ivy league school (we certainly have enough of those to last a lifetime), or a struggling single teen mother (yes I'm taking a shot at Precious), or an aspiring rapping pimp (Hustle n' Flow), or a black sidekick character with an unreasonable loyalty to the white main character (a prototype kept alive by Morgan Freeman & Whoopi Goldberg) or a biopic about a predictable civil rights leader. Black Venus tells the story of Saartjie Baartman (aka "Hottentot Venus") - a South African woman who was shown as a sideshow attraction in a traveling carnival in Europe during the 1800's because of her curvy physique (something Europeans hadn't really seen yet). In her short life not only was she exhibited in what was a essentially a "freak show", but she was used as entertainment for private sex parties, studied by scientists, and even had to work as prostitute in order to make money towards the end of her life.

for those that don't know - the Hottentot Venus has been referenced in pop culture over the years in a pretty distasteful manner...

Even though this was star Yamiha Torres's first time acting, she gave a performance reminiscent of Charlotte Gainsbourg in Antichrist or Isabella Rossellini in Blue Velvet. I make those comparisons because every one of those actresses had to let their guard down and allow themselves to be put through the ringer almost to the point where you kind of feel embarrassed for them at certain points in their respective movies. Naturally Black Venus will draw comparisons to movies like The Elephant Man or even Todd Browning's Freaks the subject matter (not to say that either Saartjie Baartman or John Merrick were freaks, but they were unfortunately treated as such).
Black Venus has the same natural feel as Abdellatif Kechiche's other movies like; Secret of The Grain & Blue Is The Warmest Color (another film, like Black Venus, that pushes boundaries in terms of sex, sexuality and possible exploitation of the female body). My only issue with this movie is that it went on too long (Black Venus clocks in at over three hours). I thought there were WAY too many scenes that focused on her being shown as a freak and hardly none that focused on her back story (outside of a few references here & there). All the scenes where she was paraded around like a sideshow went on for way too long to the point where you want to scream; "ALRIGHT, ENOUGH! WE GET IT!" The last half of the movie in particular has its share of scenes that are very difficult to watch as well.

But Black Venus is also a history lesson (and an important history lesson at that). This is a side of African history/culture that's either brushed aside or ignored. Saartjie Baartman'S story is just as important as Solomon Northrup or the Amistad Slave revolt. In fact - Black Venus is one of the earliest and most prominent films to truly explore the first generation of post-slavery/Black people born in to freedom before 12 Years A Slave. So again - no matter how difficult or flawed this movie may be - it's an important part of history that's never been explored on the big screen which makes it a success in my book.

This is a lot to take in. But perhaps that's the point. The story of the Hotentot Venus can't be fit in to a nice neat 100 minute (most biopic can't). If you follow the career of John Cassavetes you hear lots of stories of people walking out of his movies in the middle due to frustration & fatigue, but they eventually made their way back in to the screening. Black Venus has the same vibe. Sure, the length of the movie is grueling but what other way could Kechiche get his point across without making a grueling film? Her story was hard and he probably wanted the audience to experience a fraction of that.
The ending sequence in Black Venus was very similar to David Lynch film; Inland Empire. Both Black Venus & Inland Empire are very intense and take a lot out of you, but the also feature ending sequences that act as a sigh of relief  (Black Venus ends with actual footage of Saartjie Baartman's remains being shipped back to South Africa after years of being exhibited in a french museum).
Black Venus was a bit of downer. Had I known this would've been such an intense experience, I would have seen one more (lighter) movie to end the festival on. Still - 2010's NY film fest was much better than last year. Even though last year brought us The White Ribbon, (one of the best films of the last decade), it still brought the disappointing Life During Wartime from Todd Solondz and the strange Trash Humpers (another frustrating movie that left a lasting impression on me).

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