Why have African-American women become so maligned by popular culture that we have a Pulitzer Prize-winning author, Karen Hunter, writing a best seller seriously posing the question, “Are black women necessary?” And how has this shocking state of affairs affected the psyches of the sisters of the Hip-Hop Generation shaped during the dominance of gangsta’ rap, an age marked by misogyny and an embracing of a European standard of beauty?
These are the questions posed by The Souls of Black Girls, a provocative documentary which suggests that African-American females are suffering from a form of self-image disorder. Produced and directed by Daphne Valerius, this provocative examination of a timely subject features sage contributions from such icons as actresses Regina King, Jada Pinkett-Smith, Juanita Jennings and Amelia Marshall, PBS news anchor Gwen Ifill, Public Enemy’s Chuck D, BET producer Darlise Blount, Essence Magazine fashion editor Pamela Edwards, historian Dr. Lez Edmond and cultural critic Michaela Angela Davis.
These famous faces share screen time with several representatives of the demographic being discussed, articulate teens who weigh-in with their heartfelt feelings on hot-button issues ranging from their dating desirability to skin color preferences to hair straightening to absentee fathers to promiscuity to their weights and shapes. The overall point being driven home is that they are generally frustrated by their inability to measure up to an unachievable ideal which places thin white females with hour-glass figures up on a pedestal.
Apparently, out of a sense of desperation to be seen as attractive, some girls compromise their values by engaging in binge dieting and unprotected sex in an attempt to mimic the lewd behavior of the scantily-clad dancers they see cavorting seductively in rap videos. Unfortunately, in those exploitative, masturbatory male fantasies, as Dr. Edmond points out, “Black women are very rarely presented as something to be respected.”
The film also asks, “Have black men abandoned black women?” with one expert suggesting that slavery might be responsible for that fragmented relationship. Others, however, see the phenomenon as a relatively-recent development, an outgrowth of a BET-led trend toward a sexualizing and debasing of the African-American female.
Ms. King bemoans that we have “a whole generation of lost women who don’t that it’s okay to be you.” Meanwhile, Jada reflects upon having herself gone “through a period of shame.” Fortunately, the participants are ultimately optimistic and offer positive solutions, such as Ms. Ifill who proudly asserts “My beauty has value” and finds satisfaction when greeted by young aspiring journalists who see her as a role model.
An overdue debate about who gets to define what is beautiful.
Excellent (4 stars)
Running time: 52 minutes
Distributor: Femme Noire Productions