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.

12 comments:

Michael said...

I agree this film's montage is absolutely exceptional and the message it conveys is disheartening. However, disheartening because of bias. One, children's opionions are relatively underdeveloped. Two, if Davis had shown the six children who chose the black doll, her conclusion would have been a little easier to swallow. In the posting of "I Have Tourettes But Tourettes Don't Have Me," it was said that documentary film's are analogous to professors. In this case, science professors. Judging by my criticism, Davis did an excellent job of dictating the emotions of sympathy and, perhaps, dispair to her audience, but I would, certainly, disagree with the conveyed message.

Ashley Joyce said...

In response to Michael's comment, I agree that children's opinions are undeveloped - that's exactly why the study works. These kids aren't putting racism into a social context, keeping emotional distance, and weighing the political correctness of their response. Instead, they are reacting to pervasive messages in American culture, namely that white is superior to black. The doll experiment isn't about an opinion, it's about implicit association.

Jen said...

wow, what a bummer. that short definitely raises a lot of interesting questions. i agree with you that kids are great at putting these things into perspective.

Anonymous said...

I watched the film before I read that it was made by a student. That's really impressive.

-Rob

Anonymous said...

Kiri Davis raises a great point about how racialized standards of beauty and physical appearance are in our society. I hope she makes more films about important social issues, because she has a flair for tackling controversial and emotional subject matter.

Rachel said...

I watched this movie as part of a class I took on race in the United States. Very thought-provoking!

Jocelyn said...

That was really sad. I didn't know that things had changed so little since the 50s. I wanted to cry during the part where the children chose the dolls.

RYAN said...

I guess i dont know about some of this stuff because i'm a guy and i think the standards for guys are not so high. the movie was really made well though, im surprised that her school gave her professionial cameras.

RYAN said...

I guess i dont know about some of this stuff because i'm a guy and i think the standards for guys are not so high. the movie was really made well though, im surprised that her school gave her professionial cameras.

troy said...

I agree with michael i dont think kids always understand what they are saying. but you could be right that there's a lot of racism.

Ashley Joyce said...

Ryan,

We discussed that very issue in one of my classes - whether or not men are subject to racialized standards of beauty. I will not bore you with our conclusions, at least not until you are stuck in a car with me :)

Sarah B said...

Brilliant choice of film and great commentary, both provoking loads of responses on the issues it raises.