When Oge Egbuonu pitched her directorial debut, (In)Visible Portraits, to film festivals, she received a confusing response. Everyone agreed that her film, a searing documentary exploring the experience of Black women in America, was wonderful. But no one could quite figure out how to categorise it, let alone market it. In the end, (In)Visible Portraits was rejected from both the Sundance and Tribeca film festivals — a movie about Black women calling for visibility was silenced by the industry’s narrow mainstream understanding of what that should look like.
“The distribution part has been the most eye-opening experience to me as a filmmaker,” Egbuonu told Refinery29 over the phone. “Acknowledging that the film is great, but then being like, we don't know what to do with it — that part for me has been very challenging. But it's also been empowering because I have used that sort of rejection as a redirection of how I do things.”
A former producer, Egbuonu is self-releasing the movie on June 19 — Juneteenth or Freedom Day — which celebrates the date the Emancipation Proclamation (issued on January 1,1863) was finally read to enslaved African-Americans in Texas. The date has special significance to Egbuonu, who was herself raised in Houston,TX, by Nigerian-born parents.
“I couldn't think of a better day to release a film that celebrates Black women than on the day that celebrates Black freedom,” she pointed out.
Still, Egbuonu never expected that the release would also coincide with a wave of unprecedented upheaval and social change, as thousands across the country joined protests calling for an end to police brutality and systemic racism.
On the day of our phone interview, just two days before the film’s release on Vimeo on Demand, Quaker Oats announced that after more than 130 years, the company was finally retiring its Aunt Jemima syrup brand-name and logo, with an acknowledgement that it perpetuated a racist and harmful stereotype of Black women.
Aunt Jemima’s likeness appears in the first 20 minutes of the film, as an example of what Dr. Patricia Hill Collins — one of the several scholars featured in (In)Visible Voices— refers to as a “controlling image,” created to keep Black women in their place.
Egbuonu stresses that changing the name and logo is the bare minimum.
“It's not impressive to me,” she said. “I won't give you a pat on the back for realising 130 years later that the marketing you use to promote a product is racist. You’ve made billions of dollars off the likenesses of real Black women. Donating to or reimbursing their estates will be what’s impressive, what’s remarkable. Until that happens, I’m like Okay, what’s next?”
Since 1890, Aunt Jemima’s smiling face has been used to sell a sweet pancake topping — but also normalise the idea of The Mammy, a mythical representation of Black women as jolly, servile domestic workers, who cheerfully raise white children without complaint. The name comes from “Old Aunt Jemima,” a song historically performed by minstrel shows in blackface.
It’s precisely that kind of dehumanizing depiction of Black women that Egbuonu seeks to counter with (In)Visible Portraits. She spent eight months researching her documentary, which mixes interviews with prominent Black women thinkers like Joy Degruy, author of Post Traumatic Slave Syndrome: America’s Legacy of Enduring Injury and Healing, Dr. Melina Abdullah, professor of Pan-African Studies at California State University Los Angeles and co-founder of BLMLA, and Dr. Ruha Benjamin, Associate Professor of African Studies at Princeton University and author of Race After Technology: Abolitionist Tools for the New Jim Code, with original poetry by Jazimine Williams, and art by Victoria Cassinova. Egbuonu worked 14 hours a day, six days a week, a routine that eventually took a toll on her mental health.
“It was really hard reading these slave narratives and reading about these girls aged eight and nine being raped by different slave owners and then being impregnated and having to give birth,” Egbuonu said. “How do you have those conversations? Reading about Black women witnessing their children being harmed, being lynched in front of them. I went through a plethora of emotions. I went through a lot of sadness and rage and anger. And then I also went through periods of disappointment in myself that I didn't know these stories.”
“I had to put myself in therapy,” she continued. “There was just no way that I could carry all these stories and the weight of this project [by myself]. On that one day a week that I took off, I couldn't get out of bed. It was a challenging experience, and one that has forever changed me.”
The strain of the constant emotional labor demanded of Black women, who bear the burden of fighting both the patriarchy and systemic racism, is something Ebuonu and her subjects stress throughout (In)Visible Portraits.
“When you think about the civil rights movement, that was built on the backs of Black women,” she said. “Ella Baker, Septima Clark, these are women that people don’t know about because we only study and recognise the faces of it, which were Martin Luther King Jr., and Malcolm X. But it was these women who helped strategise their speeches, and made sure communities got organised and educated. When you think about Black Lives Matter — that was created by three Black women. Society has perpetuated the erasure of Black women, and I’m hoping that this film sparks a reeducation in the way that [we] handle and reference Black women.”
In one of the final and most moving sequences in the film, Egbuonu asks her subjects to look into a mirror and say kind things to their younger selves, giving themselves the love and acceptance they may never have received as girls. Similarly, the filmmaker hopes this film will act as not only an educational tool, but also a balm for young women who see it.
“A line you hear from all the women in this film is: Do I matter? Do you see me? Do you hear me? I hope that they take away that I do, and that society eventually will.”