Thursday, October 16, 2008
A GIRL LIKE ME
A GIRL LIKE ME
Directed by Kiri Davis, United States, 2005, approx. 7 minutes.
A Girl Like Me begins with a simple premise: the director seeks to recreate Dr. Kenneth Clark's famous 1940 doll experiment, in which black children were shown to prefer playing with white dolls. The experiment was a landmark study of the overwhelming effects of internalized racism, and were incorporated into the Brown v. Board of Education ruling in 1954.
But the director, a high school student named Kiri Davis who received funding from HBO to make the film via the Reel Works Teen Filmmaking Program in New York City, includes the doll experiment as part of a larger examination of beauty standards for black women in the United States. The film begins with a series of interviews with young black women discussing the stigmas surrounding everything from natural hair to darker skin. The interviews are shot as close-ups, which both increases the intimacy of the girls' stories as well as serving as a way of reminding the viewer of the racialization of beauty; when looking at each girl's face, the injustice of being deemed unattractive based on something as fundamental and immutable as skin color is painstakingly evident.
After her montage of interviews, Davis narrates the segment that recreates the doll experiment. Again, even though she's making a low-cost production on a handheld camera, her keen eye for perspective and portraiture in film comes through as she captures the reactions of the children in her study. She places the camera directly across the table from the children so that every nuance of their responses is captured. In a particularly tragic moment, a four-year-old girl is given two baby dolls, one black and one white, and is asked which is the "good" doll. In accordance with Dr. Clark's study, she picks the white doll, and designates the black doll as "bad." Then, Davis asks the child which doll looks like her, she pauses for a moment as if realizing the implications of her words, and then somberly picks up the black doll she had just referred to as "bad."
The film was debuted as part of the Media That Matters Film Festival, which highlights short films about issues of social, cultural, and political importance. I first came across it shortly after it was released in 2006, when it was discussed on Debunking White, a Livejournal commmunity that examines anti-racist activism and white privilege. Since then, it's been shown in two of my classes at AU, and my reaction is always somewhat paradoxical. On one hand, it's a great piece of documentary filmmaking, especially coming from a student filmmaker who had not yet graduated high school. At the same time, its subject matter is so disheartening that I find it difficult to watch, especially the segment involving the young children. But my guilt aside, I think it's an incredibly important issue, and I'm glad that Kiri Davis handled it so artfully. In fact, I hope to run into her sometime now that she's studying at Howard.