BLACK SEXUALITY ON-SCREEN IS THE NEW/OLD INVISIBILITY
By T.T. Stern-Enzi
Film anniversaries keep coming, and a host of memories tag along for some wild rides.
I find it hard to believe that Spike Lee’s first film, “She’s Gotta Have It,” is about to celebrate its 30th anniversary later this summer. Lee stormed onto the scene as a brash wunderkind, full of film school style and burgeoning hip-hop flavor (that in the moment we would not have referred to as “hip-hop”), but looking back, what I remember most about the film is its heroine, Nola Darling (Tracy Camilla Johns) because she was such a sexy darling.
Nola lived life and spoke about it, as only she could. She was a woman, not one quickly or easily defined by the times as a feminist, but that’s what she was, in a humanly complicated fashion. Nola was young, single, and black, with three very different lovers (Tommy Redmond Hicks, John Canada Terrell, and Lee) vying for her time and affection. She worried about the idea of settling down with one of them, mainly because her perfect guy was probably a combination of all three, which was impossible.
What truly stood out for me about Nola, though, was the fact that she enjoyed sex in all of its glory and variety with these three men, and she had sexual fantasies beyond even them. I had never seen such a sexual character, a purely sexual being on-screen like her before—especially a black woman who wasn’t using her body as a tool or weapon for some other objective. Nola wasn’t confined by notions of cultural myths about black sexuality, at least not to me (not then, and curiously not
I ventured onward from Nola Darling (and Johns), ready to encounter other female characters and performers with such freedom. I might have returned to the idea of Darling/Johns a few years ago when “Blue is the Warmest Color,” easily one of the sexiest films I have ever seen, emerged. I raved about the full flowering of emotion on the face of Adèle Exarchopoulos, the hunger for love, the discovery of passion.
Tunisian director Abdellatif Kechiche (“Black Venus”) mines similar territory as Lee in his debut, although Kechiche’s character and actress, who happen to share the same first name, immerses herself into one person—Léa Seydoux’s slightly older Emma—rather than three men, but the sexual odyssey has a familiar ring to it.
And in between these instances, I marvel at the emergence of modern sex symbols—I tend to focus on the likes of Monica Bellucci (“Irreversible” and “She Hate Me”) and Juliette Binoche. I lose myself in the filmography of Binoche and the sexual hunger, which went from raw, opposite Lena Olin and Daniel Day-Lewis in “The Unbearable Lightness of Being” to coldly calculating in “Damage” to something more reserved and romantic in “The English Patient” and continues on, with no end in sight, despite Binoche reaching an age when actresses must settle into cinematic matronhood, effectively shutting off their sexual urges.
But what a run she has had. Isabella Rossellini is another iconic sex symbol in my esoteric book. Thanks to “Blue Velvet,” my all-time favorite film, which is also celebrating its 30th anniversary—what a year, 1986—she (as Dorothy Vallens) had the opportunity to brazenly shift from fetish object to objectifier, uneasy in her victimhood, and then nakedly upending suburban norms.
You could argue there are few female characters for actresses today to sink their teeth into, to shed clothing and cover for to reveal their sexual beings and natures, but what about the even more infrequent opportunities for women of color—and when I say “women of color,” know that phrase is coded ‘cause I’m talking about black women.
When was the last time a black female character owned and expressed sexual desire with the kind of freedom of Binoche or Rossellini? What bad mama was able to float like a butterfly and sting like a bee in some approximation of Ali’s transcendent power and charm?
She’s might have had it once, briefly, in the form of Nola Darling, but if you look up Tracy Camilla Johns on the Internet Movie Database, she’s only got six acting listings and when you consider the list of movies since then with black females seeking to embrace their sexual natures—films like “Love Jones,” “Love and Basketball,” “Medicine for Melancholy,” and “Beyond the Lights”—what becomes apparent is a decided lack of raw sensual passion. While these movies may do it for me intellectually, in my loins, I’m not feeling that “Last Tango in Paris” stirring.
But I ache for Nia Long, Sanaa Lathan, Tracey Heggins, and Gugu Mbatha-Raw to have those moments like Binoche and Bellucci. Who needs love? I want to see them, the boldness of their sex.