This weekend, British filmmaker Cecile Emeke published the third episode of her fictional Web series “Ackee & Saltfish,” which takes its name from the traditional Jamaican dish of salted cod and fruit. In it, she captures best friends Rachel and Olivia, two 20-somethings living in London, being foolish in a carpet store as they try to amuse themselves while waiting out the rain because neither has an umbrella.
They dance. They hide themselves in the folds of hanging rugs. Eventually, the shopkeeper tells them to leave when he realizes they aren’t going buy anything. It doesn’t matter. The two of them have a blast because they have each other.
Emeke’s work is the sort that intersects perfectly with the thinking behind #BlackOutDay, the project that started on Tumblr and quickly spread across social media as an exercise in self-love. #BlackOutDay drew such an overwhelming response that participants soon stretched the project, originally 24 hours of self-affirming black beauty in all its various forms, to #BlackOutWeekend. Its creators on Tumblr were sure to say they were hoping to draw in participants across the black and African disapora.
At its heart, “Ackee & Saltfish” is a series of vignettes about the beauty of friendship. The premise is simple. Its implications are profound.
The same could be said of “Strolling,” Emeke’s ongoing documentary series that aims to capture the full range of the black and African diaspora, especially in Europe. The interview series begins in France, but Emeke talks to blacks in Britain who give their thoughts on everything from feminism, to the prevailing (and misguided) notion that to be black in Britain is to be Afro-Caribbean, to disengaging in mainstream British art institutions such as the Tate because black artists are so sorely underrepresented in them, to the gentrification of traditionally black neighborhoods in London.
“‘Strolling’ was born out of a desire to capture and share intra-communal discussions within the black community in hopes of affirming others and relieving alienation,” Emeke said recently in an interview with The Washington Post. “I started off capturing conversations with friends, but since ‘Strolling’ has grown, the conversations have grown to include people all over the world. I’m aiming to touch every corner of the diaspora.”
While #BlackOutDay became a social media hit, some questioned its rules. The creators requested that non-black people only reblog Tumblr posts to show support but not upload pictures of themselves and label them with the hashtag. One of the top Twitter search suggestions for #BlackOutDay is “BlackOutDay racist,” questioning the hashtag’s explicit exclusivity. The creators wanted to be firm about soliciting selfies of everyday, non-famous black people because the project served as an antidote to a white gaze that informs larger ideas about what type of blackness is understood to be beautiful.
“We need a unified agreeance that ALL black people are beautiful and worthy of praise and admiration, and Blackout day is a step towards that,” co-creator T’von wrote.
Gaëlle and Christelle, the two black French women who Emeke interviews in the first episode of “Strolling,” offer forceful rejections of the white gaze when they express their frustration with “Girlhood.” It’s a film by a white director, Céline Sciamma, that received heaps of praise for its depiction of black girls in the projects of Paris when it was screened at the Sundance Film Festival earlier this year. Emeke wasn’t impressed by it either, writing in an e-mail:
It’s problematic that people feel they are entitled to tell black people’s stories. It’s as if people have forgotten that for the last 500 years black people have not had the full agency of self-determination and self-definition. France colonized and enslaved black people, just like America and Britain, thus black French people have had their own struggle that most of us are unaware of. After erasing black French people for so long, I don’t think anyone but them should be telling their stories.
I can only talk from my perspective, as a black British person. I’ve grown up seeing black stories in the U.K. being framed by a white gaze and it’s infuriating. From the many black people I’ve spoken throughout the black francophone diaspora, it seems there is a similar sentiment towards these white filmmakers telling black, French stories.
It’s neo-colonization and it’s exploitative. Blackness is not a natural resource to be mined and sold when it’s in “trend”. Why should any white, French person be making money off of stories about black French girls? The solution to obstacles faced by black, french filmmakers are not white savior directors or stories told through a white gaze to appease an anti-black film industry. I want to support black French filmmakers and artists who are telling their own narratives and creating their own stories about their culture, the way they want them. I think we’ve had enough privileged people telling oppressed people’s stories to last us a lifetime.
You can watch the first episode of “Ackee and Saltfish” below:
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