In the "Blaxploitation" films of the 1970s, a certain kind of woman ruled the screen--a righteous, merciless woman who stopped at nothing in her drive for vengeance. A castrating bitch--often literally. Stylish and deadly, with names like Foxy Brown, Cleopatra Jones, and Coffy, these characters lent big-screen visibility to African-American women. But the price for that visibility was high, notes video artist Ayanna U'Dongo.
"Was this Aunt Jemima on steroids?" U'Dongo wonders with a laugh. "You have this buxom, beautiful black woman who can work her way out of almost any situation, always getting caught up in a sexual furor of some kind, getting out of it, and rescuing her man or her brother, always rescuing men, always in a heterosexual perspective, reacting not very well if at all to women. It was like all this misogynistic weaponry coming through."
But such roles could be considered a step up from the pickaninny and mammy stereotypes that black women had put up with before. Though an ass-kicking superwoman and a cute harebrained maid both stretched credibility and responsibility, U'Dongo thinks the law of supply and demand assured that black female moviegoers would settle for what they could get: "If you're living in a desert and somebody gives you a cracker and some urine, you're going to eat and drink!" Still, these movies did eventually inspire her to dispel such exaggerated representations of black women.
"I'm a self-taught artist," says U'Dongo, who grew up in South Bend. "I started with the cheapest art form, which is dance. All you need is music and your body." After moving to Chicago and landing a job at the Video Data Bank, widely regarded as the nation's most comprehensive collection of video art, she resumed her self-education. "I got a chance to teach myself again because I was looking at the best. I just saw the cream of the crop."
U'Dongo began teaching video production to teenage girls on a volunteer basis through Street Level Youth Media, a program that puts out issue-oriented tapes such as Sync Sisters With Style, which will be shown this weekend as part of the Women in the Director's Chair festival. With a confrontational camera zeroing in on its neighborhood subjects, a group of girls take to the street asking blunt questions about sexual values, not wasting time on standard interview small talk. The interviewees match the girls' candor, particularly one bitter young mother who warns that teen fathers won't honor their responsibilities.
U'Dongo, who helped direct the video, particularly likes the scene in which the girls question a huge, shirtless bodybuilder. "This girl puts a microphone in his face and says, 'What do you think of marriage?' and 'How's your relationship with your woman?' and 'Why is a man who's sexually active a stud, and a woman the same way a whore?'" By getting answers where there would otherwise have been silence, says U'Dongo, the girls use the video format to its fullest potential. "They understand this is a powerful weapon. You use it right, you can change worlds."
Sync Sisters With Style plays Saturday at 1 PM as part of the program "Keeping It Real: Young Women Speak Out!" at the DuSable Museum of African American History, 740 E. 56th Place. At 3 PM U'Dongo will participate in a panel discussion, "Badass Supermamas?: Black Women Heroes From Foxy Brown to Set It Off," which will include a screening of works about Blaxploitation superstar Pam Grier by video artists Renee Davis and Etang Inyang. Tickets for the video program are $7, $5 for students and seniors. Admission to the panel discussion is also $7. For festival information, call 773-281-4988. --John Sanchez
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Ayanna U'Dongo photo by Nathan Mandell.