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DOC NYC Film Review: ‘Subjects of Desire’ is an Honest Reflection on Black Beauty

The term “Black Girl Magic” has become an almost ubiquitous expression of Black pride throughout the African diaspora. But the pop culture prominence of Black women is a fairly new phenomenon, particularly in Western society. In her new documentary Subjects of Desire, director Jennifer Holness examines the intertwined histories of Black beauty and Black pride, inviting women from various walks of life to share their illuminating stories. 

Early in Subjects of Desire, we are reminded of a pivotal moment in Black history, when Black women won five of the world’s most prestigious beauty pageants – Miss World, Miss Teen USA, Miss America, Miss USA and Miss Universe. In an industry where Black people were outright excluded throughout history, it served as symbol of changing ideals. But while it took decades for Black women to be so explicitly embraced as beautiful, pageants like Miss Black America provided that platform as a corrective to the status quo. As Holness traces the impact of America’s oppressive past on the perceptions of Black women, she frames this insightful documentary around the Miss Black America pageant and its recent contestants, proving the continued relevance of such initiatives that uplift “the most disrespected person in America.” 

Those famous words uttered by Malcolm X feature prominently in Subjects of Desire, audibly replayed and emblazoned across the screen. And while Malcolm X and like-minded viewers may balk at the film’s focus on the superficial or objectifying tradition of beauty pageants, Holness succeeds at showing the correlation between beauty ideals and social justice. From the earliest “beast-like” descriptions of Black women to present day rejections of Black women’s features as being “too ethnic”, she thus contextualizes their rape, murder and discrimination through straightforward but astute observations.

Subjects of Desire won’t win any awards for groundbreaking style, but its interview-heavy approach proves effective. As a spectrum of Black women, including academics, popular musicians, pageant contestants – in addition to the controversial Rachel Dolezal – explain their own experiences with racism and the associated insecurities, the film feels like an open and honest conversation. And when the film explores the stereotypes of the Mammy, Jezebel and Sapphire perpetuated by media, these women effortlessly debunk these egregiously false caricatures.

Crucially, Holness doesn’t shy away from the more contentious issues of appropriation and colorism. Indeed, the discussions surrounding hair are particularly instructive in understanding the cultural shifts in appreciation of Black aesthetics. But through it all, Subjects of Desire makes one thing abundantly clear. Black was always beautiful, even when the world refused to admit it.

SCORE: ★★★

Shane Slater is a passionate cinephile whose love for cinema led him to creating his blog Film Actually in 2009. Since then, he has written for AwardsCircuit.com, ThatShelf.com and The Spool. Based in Kingston, Jamaica, he relishes the film festival experience, having covered TIFF, NYFF and Sundance among others. He is a proud member of the African-American Film Critics Association.

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Written by Shane Slater

Shane Slater is a passionate cinephile whose love for cinema led him to creating his blog Film Actually in 2009. Since then, he has written for AwardsCircuit.com, ThatShelf.com and The Spool. Based in Kingston, Jamaica, he relishes the film festival experience, having covered TIFF, NYFF and Sundance among others. He is a proud member of the African-American Film Critics Association.

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