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Illusions versus Reality Printable Version PRINTABLE VERSION
by Allison, United States Jul 18, 2005
Citizen Journalism   Opinions


There are several illusions that take place in this film: 1) the illusion of Ms. Dupree passing as white; 2) Ms. Dupree has illusions about her own capabilities to make a difference in the film industry; 3) assimilating into society so one can achieve something, even when one can’t fit in; 4) the illusion of the audience watching this movie and the movie in the movie; 5) Dash creates illusions to pass as a Hollywood film from the war era (old style film, bad sound quality, etc.), except in recognizing the actress and the address of issues --- a pretense but depends on who is looking: a split awareness; 6) is Ms. Dupree an illusion for telling the story of Julie Dash, the director, in the Hollywood film industry? This film has exposed the secret world of sexism and racism in the 1940s, as very apparent, and one could still apply this scenario to the film industry today.

In Coffee Colored Children (1988), directed and written by Ngozi Onwurah, Onwurah navigates her childhood feelings of isolation, alienation and self-hatred sparked by racism in her English society. The film covers the debacle of being the child of interracial parents and the suffering that follows when she becomes the butt of recess games and when her own home is vandalized. After suffering the aggression of racial harassment, Onwurah and her brother attempt to wash their skin white with Vim, a scouring powder similar to Comet, while testifying the profound internalized effects of racism and the struggle for self-definition and pride.

Onwurah’s parents are of different cultural backgrounds. Her father was a Nigerian doctor of the Ebo tribe and her mother was from England. Onwurah’s family lived in Nigeria until Onwurah was elementary school-aged, when her father left her mother, and her mother, brother and herself moved to England.

Onwurah uses repeated images of scenes with the children in the tub, washing their bodies until they bleed, and then repeats the image as the adult Onwurah and her brother in the tub scrubbing their skin. The viewer can feel the anxiety of torment and self-hatred in the childhood lives of Onwurah and her younger brother. They are children trying to cope with adult problems, and you can see their coping mechanism within the repeated words and images. As the words of a young Onwurah echo, “I want to be a princess” and you see the image of a young bi-racial girl in a frilly white dress with a blonde wig on, sometimes twirling and twirling and twirling, sometimes looking at her own reflection in the mirror, while applying the Vim powder to her face like it her face powder, so thick one can see it caked on. One can feel, actually feel, her need to feel loved and cherished. The wig and dress; the white powder being applied to her face, or scrubbed deeply into her skin; and the dancing and colliding in a circle repeatedly brings on an anxiety-like feeling.

These repeated images are effective in reinstating her daily childhood anxieties of not being accepted in her community. Child anxiety is the type that is repeated over and over again: the scrubbing of the skin with the cleaner Vim, repeating over and over again until it makes the viewer queasy in the stomach. When the young Onwurah repeats over and over “She is my mom… She is my mom,” it was like repeating it to believe it, to reaffirm it, but also as a tormentor in a bad dream. This is a common theme in many children’s films, such as the missing mother that is repeatedly present in Disney films, and by repeating “She is my mom” can help make it true, while also questioning herself: “Is she my mom?”

But perhaps it is this self-hatred and the “isolation disguised as independence” that has helped frame Onwurah as the open and free-spirited director that she is today. Her “melting pot versus incinerator” attitude has allowed her to further scrutinize and reexamine and explore her life, including issues with her identity as a black woman, in the past and present; and has opened doors, as a result, that were before firmly closed because of her childhood self-hatred.

These two directors are two very different people, being raised in very different environments (Dash in New York City and Onwurah in Nigeria, and then England); having very different experiences in their training as screenwriters and directors; but both of these womens’ issues grapple with the same themes. These themes transcend barriers as large as oceans for these two Black women, each offering their own subtle feminist voices in their films. Both films feature Black women’s issues in dealing with their racial identity; both films feature the discrimination Black women face, no matter their talent or intelligence; both films feature the unhappiness of Black women who are not content with themselves as women of color; and both films feature Black women finding solace in their race, either burning, washing or talking out their self-hatred or avoidance with their race.


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