Filmmaker Daphne Valerius takes a stark look at the relationship between media images and the self-esteem of African American women in her moving documentary The Souls of Black Girls. Here, she shares the purpose behind her passion, and thoughts on what it takes for us all to start loving what we see in the mirror.
Q: What made you name your film, The Souls of Black Girls?
The title “The Souls of Black Girls” derives from the seminal book by W.E.B Dubois “The Souls of Black Folks” where he discusses the double-consciousness condition where there is a duality of being a Negro and an American in the United States. I was inspired and intrigued by this concept when I was first introduced to it and I was inspired to name my piece, The Souls of Black Girls because I attempt to expand upon the duality of people of color but I wanted to include gender within that very same concept presented by Dubois. So I’ve chosen to expand on the idea that as Black women we have a “triple consciousness” condition where we have to be a Negro, a woman and an American and within that identity we also struggle to define our own standard of beauty.
Q: When did you find that film making could be your “voice” to speak out or express yourself?
This piece was done as a journalistic broadcast piece and so when given the opportunity to focus and concentrate on one area to develop my final master’s thesis I chose to focus on this topic and issue building upon research that I conducted as a Ronald McNair Scholar on this very same topic. So I found my “voice” by during my studies as a graduate student of Broadcast Journalism at Emerson College
Q: A documentary of this poignancy is much needed in today’s oversaturated culture of bling and booty. When did you get to the point where you decided to do something about what we see on the screen and in the magazines?
This piece actually came about as a result of my own insecurities growing up as a young black girl in our culture and society. For me I was always very much “into” media images and entertainment as an aspiring performer but I always felt very much invisible and uncertain of myself as a result of not seeing a reflection of those who look like me in magazines, advertisements, or television and of the women of color that looked like me there were few. And in my youth I can say that I felt very much like Pecola Breedlove of Toni Morrison’s “The Bluest Eye” to a certain degree. So for me in putting together this documentary, it was very much a selfish exploration of my own feelings and understanding how and why I was influenced by media images. But also realizing that this can’t just be me and so as I was in search of trying to answer these questions of myself I was also hoping to foster open and honest dialogue among women because I knew it wasn’t just “me.”
Q: The documentary includes interviews from some of the most intelligent and passionate voices of our community; most importantly—voices that work directly in the media in some form (film, print, television, etc). How did you decide on who all to include and/or interview?
I can honestly say that God decided for me who would be included in this piece. But it also came as a result of relationships that I had built over the years. Chuck D was the very first individual attached to this piece. I had a relationship with both Chuck D and Regina King prior to me putting together this piece and so I simply asked if they would be interested in being a part of this piece and God took care of the rest.
Q: What was the most interesting interview during the film?
Interviewing Chuck D was probably the most insightful for me because he is a natural human encyclopedia and he is so very knowledgeable being an artist himself and a part of the media industry. Then interviewing Regina King was also very special for me as it was a very special moment for the both of us after having developed a mentoring relationship with one another, so her interview was also very special and insightful. But not to mention, my interviews/focus group with the young girls where I got a chance to really talk to the new generation of young women being affected by media images.
Q: Let’s talk about a woman’s self-esteem. Today, little black girls have so many role models to look up to. Women like Ann Fudge, Oprah Winfrey, Ruth Simmons, Donna Brazile, as well as host of others who have accomplished a great deal and have overcome some incredible adversity. But why is it still so hard for us as black women to see ourselves as worthy . . . or special . . . or any other positive adjective that can describe the beautiful and talented beings that we are?
The best way to put it is such that there was a time in our society when we were dealing with the issue of the fatherless boy, but now we are in a day and age where we are dealing with the issue of fatherless women and so many Black women are desperately looking for love in all the wrong places. Looking for love outside of themselves and not understanding the importance of loving yourself before you can love someone else. So that being said, Black women are hurting, in a way that is almost unexplainable and it doesn’t matter how long or blonde the weave is, how fake the nails, how blue or green the color contacts are, or how much make-up you put on to make yourself look better on the outside when you’re hurting on the inside–a result of not loving themselves enough. You have to love yourself to know that you can and will become somebody and that’s why you have the Ann Fudge’s and the Oprah’s and the Donna Brazile’s because they loved themselves to know that they can and will become someone and not allowing anyone to take that away from them.
Q: Recently, rap music has come under fire more than ever as the culprit in perpetuating negative images of women—black women especially. I find it interesting because a lot of these rappers talk about growing up in households where grandma or mama raised them because daddy wasn’t around. So why is it so easy for them to serve as the driving force behind these constant negative images?
One misconception is that Black men who are behind the scenes “just happen” to be behind the scenes when in fact a lot of these gentlemen and educated Black men are merely profiting doing business the white man’s way of doing business. So the only driving force that I can say is profit and money. But the reality is that the same guy behind the scenes working on the set of the video or making executive decisions in the boardroom of King magazine or XXL is more than likely not bringing those ideas into his home and/or his family. As they say it’s just entertainment and it’s about making money—at the cost of black women consciously or unconsciously.
Q: When did things get so bad for us in the media? For instance, if you had to, could you pinpoint an exact reference where the representation of black women took a turn for the worse?
I don’t necessarily proclaim to be an expert in media images at all, if anything in putting together my documentary I was learning just as much as I was putting the piece together. But to answer your question, in the piece Chuck D makes reference to the fact that music past 1990 has been largely confrontational . . . and so if you go back to that time, I think that when you can say that things started to take a turn for the worse because we stopped saying I love you to one another and we started attacking one another not realizing it would get this far ,and even though Tupac was calling us a “ho” he also sympathized with our struggle as black women and told us to keep our heads up . . . and so I would personally want to hear what he would have to say about the state of hop-hop music and Black women right now.
Q: The chicken or the egg question: who is ultimately to blame? Is it the executive who controls what is being pumped into the TV set, or is it the willing participant who contributes to creating and ingesting these images?
Both. It’s the idea of hegemony, it’s not a one-way street. But I personally place blame on us as the individuals who consume and give permission to the media corporations to continue to spew out these media images without any protest to them. Until we are in a position where we are protesting shows like I Love New York then there is nothing for us to say and/or complain about. The executive only understands that I Love New York is one of the highest rated reality shows in VH1 history. Why is that? Because we’re watching it. So the bottom line is that unless the media executive has some personal and vested interest in women of color they have no reason to understand how these images are affecting us and the reality is that we have to begin to reject these images by not giving into them.
Q: What are your hopes for the film?
I hope that The Souls of Black Girls continues to foster open and honest dialogue with one another across races and gender and I also hope that it gives people more perspective how black women are subject to manipulating our appearances in order to look a certain way and be accepted and feel loved. I also hope to continue to influence men who are left with a better understanding of Black women and the pressures that we face on a daily basis. More than anything, we as people and as women need to get to the place where we are having a conversation with one another rather than pointing the finger or suffering in silence. And in that same vein I ask myself who is really having a conversation with Ms. I Love New York or Karrine Steffans or Melyssa Ford. And so I just hope that this piece continues to foster the dialogue while challenging us to take responsibility for ourselves and for one another. I think this piece resonates across race and gender because it is a piece that is the voice of the victim and not the voice of the victimizer or spokesman, it’s our hurts, our pains, our insecurities, our story that no one else can tell but us.
Q: What do you think is going to have to happen for things to change?
I honestly think that the remarks that Don Imus made towards the women of the Rutgers University basketball team was by far the worst that could have happened to get people to pay attention but I think it has also forced people to be more sensitive and willing to discuss the reality of these issues. So a white man has already taken the hit and/or blame for something and so I think that the next person that we must hold accountable is ourselves.
Q: Last question: Sum up in three words or less what makes up the souls of black girls.
Not so sure how to answer this but I’ll say that, we’re in a time where as Black women we must to begin to accept, define, love and promote ourselves—desperately. In three words: acceptance, love, forgiveness.