Hot Docs 2021: Subjects of Desire

“Black women have historically been denied the power of beauty,” Ryann Richardson bluntly states. In that moment in time, she was a frontrunner for the 2018 Miss Black America pageant, and she speaks a truth that, in this moment in time, still follows us. Black beauty and culture have been mined for decades, with the world gleaning what’s cool, watering it down to an acceptable, appropriated version that everyone can easily absorb. We can’t lay any claim, denied ownership, ridiculed for the original only to see it skyrocket when a white person latches on to the idea. From cornrow plaits to big butts, our beauty has been something shunned and then scooped up and monetized. In Subjects of Desire, Canadian filmmaker, producer and most importantly Black woman Jennifer Holness talks to Black women in the forefront of the public eye about the impact of Black beauty in a white-dominant culture. What better opportunity to discuss this than at the 50th anniversary of Miss Black America? Here, she follows contestants as they prepare to compete in the historical pageant created in 1968 to defy the exclusion of Black women in the Miss America pageant.

Ryann Richardson

As the young women rehearse and get to know each other, three of the contestants are interviewed. Alexandra Germain, Ryann Richardson, and Seraiah Nicole (shown in the featured post photo) talk about how they perceive themselves, how they grew up as Black girls and what society at large does with the image and culture of Black people. Subjects of Desire is narrated by Canadian radio host and media personality Garvia Bailey, and the film goes deep into scholarly aspects with insights from former beauty queen, professor and activist Brittany Lee Lewis, Dr. Cheryl Thompson, Dr. Carolyn West, and Dr. Heather Widdows, who all talk about the historical impact racism, consumerism, and standards of beauty has had on Black women and black culture. Juno Award-winning Canadian songstress Jully Black, Grammy Award-winning Neo-soul singer India Arie and award-winning playwright and host Amanda Parris also add their experiences and observations as a Black woman navigating the world in the entertainment realm.

The women in this film talk about the harm done with appropriation, the inherent bias we deal with as the white standards of beauty have shaped how we are seen, regardless of how empowered we feel about ourselves. There’s also an interesting aspect thrown in as well. Rachel Dolezal, the white woman who claimed a Black identity and was outed in 2015, is interviewed, and it’s intriguing. The other guests of the documentary also talk about Dolezal and her skewed view of herself living as a Black woman, delving into her behaviour.

Subjects of Desire includes so many moments of validation, recognition and evidence of how we are treated as Black women, that it’s almost overwhelming at times. To hear your feelings acknowledged by other women who are complete strangers but to feel a sisterhood in how we have all been treated is so rare and special that this documentary should be mandatory in not just academic schools but those training in the beauty industry. As a makeup artist for 15 years, makeup and skincare were my bread and butter. I enjoyed the work, helping clients feel their best for a photoshoot, a night out or a wedding. I was always struck by the Black women who would gravitate to me at the makeup counter, and that my knowledge had to include a whole spectrum of women and skin tones, yet white artists working in the industry force Black talent to bring their own hair and makeup supplies (it still happens to this day on big-budget productions). This is and isn’t surprising. It’s surprising that beauty for all skin tones hasn’t been standardized in this day and age, and it isn’t because of the prevailing white aesthetic in the beauty industry that still dominates, still dictates and makes Black women fight to be seen, let alone seen as beautiful.

You’ll notice a common thread of how familiar Black women are of the blatant and subtle assaults to our appearance, something we deal with no matter what walk of life a Black woman comes from. It’s infuriating that we, as Black women, can see the immediate misrepresentation of ourselves; however, the ingrained standards fed to the world via the media and historical abuse still blind the average white person to our struggle. In my eyes, it’s not a wish to be accepted, but to be acknowledged as a whole, uniquely beautiful person and not as a stereotype.

The award-winning Subjects of Desire is a brilliant dissection of Black women and the struggle we deal with to stand above the stereotypes and impossible standards. See it from April 29 at Hot Docs.

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