Filmmaker Jennifer Holness explores power and black beauty in latest documentary

By Sadaf Ahsan, The Canadian Press on January 30, 2022.

Jamaican-born filmmaker Jennifer Holness is seen in an undated photo. Although she has powerful black role models like Rihanna, Beyonce and Lupita Nyong’o, Holness says she’s watched her three daughters struggle with the same feelings of inadequacy as she grew up in Toronto. Holness’ new documentary “Subjects of Desire” will premiere on TVO on Tuesday. THE CANADIAN PRESS/HO-Rafy Photography, *MANDATORY CREDIT*

TORONTO — When Jamaican-born filmmaker Jennifer Holness was growing up in Toronto, she says she never felt she had the kind of face that could “launch a thousand ships.”

Although she felt good about herself, growing up as a dark-skinned black girl often made Holness feel that “however beautiful I was, she wasn’t mainstream.”

Today, powerful role models such as Rihanna, Beyoncé and Lupita Nyong’o inspire young black girls to recognize a wider range of beauty that includes them as well. Despite this, Holness says she watched her three daughters struggle with the same feelings of inadequacy as her.

That’s why her latest documentary, “Subjects of Desire,” examines ongoing racial biases around notions of beauty. Holness’ goal was not just to inspire her children, but to undo some of her own deep-seated insecurities.

“Through the damage that was done to me, how society saw me and how I was taught to see myself â?? – even against the backdrop of all these powerful women â?? – I almost to fail [that] my kids were having the exact same experience I had as a kid,” says Holness, who directs, writes and produces the doc.

“When I realized that, I had to make this movie. I had to look at what these stories are, why are they so powerful and how they have a hold on us.

“Subjects of Desire” is just Holness’ latest effort to shine a light on black experiences through Hungry Eyes Media, the production company she runs with her husband Sudz Sutherland, known for telling authentic and often untold stories. .

Some of their work includes the CBC series ‘Guns’ and ‘Shoot the Messenger’, the documentary ‘Stateless’ and the feature film ‘Home Again’.

“Subjects of Desire” airs Tuesday on TVO and streams nationally on TVO.org and YouTube. The February 1 air date coincides with the start of Black History Month.

Holness placed her film at the epicenter of a celebration of black beauty: the 50th anniversary of the Kansas City-based Miss Black America pageant.

It was established in 1968 amid the civil rights movement. Although Miss America began allowing black contestants at that time, Holness says black women did not feel “attractive” in the sense the pageants demanded and so had not yet competed.

Miss Black America provided them with a welcoming and nurturing space, demanding that the world recognize black beauty.

“[It] tells us in an instant how completely different the experiences of black women and white women were around the world,” says Holness.

“Glorifying the beauty of a black woman was a political act.”

Despite the competition, an obvious brotherhood is evident between the contestants. The eventual winner of the competition, Ryann Richardson, says in an interview with Holness that “beauty is power”.

“What she’s saying is, ‘I’m beautiful, but even my beauty doesn’t excuse the fact that I’m black,'” Holness says.

“People see his darkness first and always, [and that] diminishes its power in some respects. Historically, black women have not had the power accorded to white women, and much of this has to do with notions of femininity and beauty.

“Subjects of Desire” explores harmful and persistent stereotypes of black women, starting with the Mammy, the greatest black woman enslaved to the white family. Then there is the Jezebel, the sexually promiscuous black woman; and the sapphire, the angry black woman.

While these scripts still exist on and off screen, a recent societal shift has decided that traditionally black features and aesthetics are desirable, including tanned skin, fuller lips, and thicker body types.

While this has led to greater recognition of black beauty, it has also given way to dangerous concepts, including blackfishing, in which some social media influencers have attempted to appear racially ambiguous. Then there are those who claim to be transracial in the vein of Rachel Dolezal, who came out publicly as a black woman despite being born to white parents. All of this suggests that black traits are only attractive when possessed by white women.

The remedy, suggests “Subjects of Desire,” is to continually examine who defines beauty and how. And, as one of the doc’s commenters noted, to “take up space,” regardless of how society perceives you, the size of your hair, or the volume of your voice.

That’s exactly what Holness has done throughout his career. In fact, his other recent “passion project” is the upcoming four-part docuseries “BLK: An Origin Story,” which will explore the untold black history of Canada. It will also premiere during Black History Month, February 26 on History.

“We think this will bring out a story that has been completely erased from the Canadian landscape,” says Holness. “It’s powerful, and I’ve waited almost my whole life to tell a story like this.”

Also a founding member of the Black Screen Office, a national organization providing financial support and mentorship to Black Canadian creators, Holness has been dedicated to advocating for diversity.

More than anything, however, she says her two-decade career has been a love letter to her daughters, for whom she hopes ‘Subjects of Desire’ will give them the ‘permission to take up space’ that she would have. liked to have when she was Young.

“I had this incredible desire to tell stories that can shape the way we see ourselves,” says Holness.

“I really wanted to tell a story with grace and love. I wanted to celebrate darkness and also make the story digestible to those who are not black…. I wanted people to understand that these ideas you have about us are not necessarily true, that they come from somewhere and that there is a program behind these images and these ideas.

This report from The Canadian Press was first published on January 30, 2022.