On Thursday, June 9, I attended a Gen-Art sponsored screening of Victoria Mahoney’s independent feature Yelling to the Sky in Manhattan. Starring Zöe Kravitz and co-starring Gabourey Sidibe, this film has had significant buzz. It made its debut at the Berlin Film Festival and was workshopped via Sundance Institute’s Screenwriters and Directors Lab. Based on synopses I read prior to the screening, I was curious to see if the portrayal of black women(hood) would be complex and fresh (as it was in Ava Duvernay’s wonderful I Will Follow) or if it would stick to the usual, shopworn portrayals that sometimes plague even independent feature films. I was especially interested to see whether Sidibe’s character would be similar to the one she played in Precious or if that image would be turned inside out (Sidibe was actually cast as Latonya Williams in Yelling before being slated to play Precious Jones).
In Yelling, Kravitz plays Sweetness O’Hara, a biracial high school student coming of age in New York City while managing a difficult home life. Quiet (at least for the first part of the film), sensitive, introspective, and intelligent, Sweetness has to contend with an alcoholic father, a mother with emotional (and possibly mental) issues, an older sister coping with young motherhood, bullies at school, and urban poverty. Zöe Kravitz did a great job with the script she was given; her performance was nuanced and quite believable. Actually, most of the actors in the movie were strong (including Tariq Trotter, better known as Black Thought of The Roots). However, despite the actors’ efforts, they could not overcome the disjointed storytelling nor the director’s inability to avoid well-worn tropes of the “coming of age in the ‘hood” drama. And whether intentionally or not, the director played into common cinematic (and real-life) racial memes. There were four that stood out.
Dark(er)-skinned black people are mean and like to victimize light(er)-skinned black people. The opening scene of Yelling involves Sweetness, accompanied by a friend of similar complexion, riding her bicycle right into a group of kids from her high school who in short order take her bike and beat her down in the street. Gabourey Sidibe’s character Latonya is the ringleader of this group, initiating the bullying and fighting, and ultimately ordering her boyfriend to viciously finish the job. The assault only stops when Sweetness’ sister Ola, who like Sweetness is very fair, brutally assaults her sister’s male attacker. While the director may not have intended for this scene to evoke intraracial stereotypes and conflict about skin color, it certainly looked that way on screen. Also, while Sidibe’s character was well put together (her hair was laid and her makeup was popping), she was still an (physically) intimidating bully.
Girls/teenagers/women who are “authentically” black are bad. They fight, party, don’t care about achieving anything in life, and use illicit substances. After yet another incidence of family trauma, Sweetness reinvents herself. She starts selling drugs, begins cutting class, seemingly abandons her aspiration to attend college, and gets a makeover courtesy of two of the (darker-skinned) girls who were involved in her initial beat down. Her new look involves rocking doorknocker earrings, sashaying down neighborhood streets and school hallways in tight jeans, putting on lots of eye shadow and lip gloss, and a wearing a cornrow on the right side of her hair. She also enacts revenge upon Latonya, again with assistance from her two new friends, beating her bloody between classes. Near the end of the movie when it seems that Sweetness in trying to return to her old ways of being, she distances herself from her friends, apologizes to Latonya for beating her up, and pleads with her school’s guidance counselor to get her into any college that will accept her. Sweetness’ trajectory is not uncommon to young people of all races and ethnicities, especially when dealing with challenging life circumstances. But in this particular film, her journey to and return from darkness are literally marked by her association with and ultimate dissociation from those who are dark (of skin).
Dark(er)-skinned black male patriarchs mean well even when they’re doing bad, and they always abandon their kids in the end. When Sweetness wants to get into the drug game to supplement her family’s meager (non-existent?) income, she seeks out Roland (Black Thought’s character). He’s an educated hoodlum…you know, the black man that would be a CEO, were it not for America’s racist brand of capitalism. Roland resists Sweetness’ initial requests for him to put her on. But after being worn down by her relentless requests, he acquiesces and becomes her mentor and supplier. His daddy-figure drug dealer status is cemented when he also rejects Kravitz’s character’s romantic advances after a night of partying. Contrasted with the stoner sellers that Sweetness sometimes works alongside in her school’s stairwells, Roland’s selling of illicit substances seems almost righteous. In that way, he’s not dissimilar from other sympathetic drug slingers like Ice Cube’s Doughboy (Boyz ‘N The Hood) and Chris Tucker’s affable Smokey of Friday fame. But in the end, Roland puts Sweetness in harms way when he brings her to a drug pick-up that goes wrong. He ultimately ends up bleeding on a neighborhood basketball court after getting shot in retribution for the deal gone bad. Sweetness witnesses his murder after playing ball with him minutes earlier. But it’s not surprising. Black men always end up leaving their children to fend for themselves.
Interracial relationships are dysfunctional and make everyone involved unhappy. Sweetness and Ola have a white, alcoholic father and a black, emotionally impaired mother. Their mother seems shell-shocked and is actually missing-with little explanation-throughout most of the movie. Earlier in the film, it seems that she literally abandons her children, but later it’s hinted that she was in a mental institution. The father physically assaults everyone in the house at least once during the film and regularly metes out verbal punishment. Near the end of the film, again with little in the way of explanation, Sweetness’ father decides to actually attempt to parent her. He tries to keep her off the streets and pull her off the dark path she’s started to follow, becoming her savior. The O’Hara’s family dynamic embodies three classic celluloid tropes: black mothers are bad and/or incompetent, white people/men are the ones who save the day, and (female) children who are the products of interracial relationships have tragic lives.
Zöe Kravitz as Sweetness, good girl gone bad.
Though I enjoyed the visual quality of this film and at times, the lyrical storytelling, I felt that Victoria Mahoney tread well-traveled ground. Yelling to the Sky seemed to me a mash-up of Kids, Larry Clark’s tale of urban teenage nihilism, and Proenza-Schouler’s controversial Act Da Fool; visually captivating, emotionally brutal, and unstereotypical in its presentation of stereotypes of black/biracial women and urban blackness.
While Mahoney is black and/or a woman of color (she was profiled in the April 2011 issue of Essence in an article about black independent filmmakers, “Independent Women”), that does not mean that she is incapable of promoting prosaic images of black women and people. I was unable to unearth much about Mahoney’s background, except that she worked as an actress, then moved into directing/writing/producing. I have no idea what her experience as a non-white woman has been. However, whether or not she meant to make statements about race, the images she has put forth still speak to some “truths” held by her and/or a society steeped in white supremacy. As bell hooks said in Outlaw Culture, “Whether we like it or not, cinema assumes a pedagogical role in the lives of many people. It may not be the intent of the filmmaker to teach audiences anything, but that does not mean that lessons are not learned.”