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‘(In)visible Portraits’ is the history of Black women, told by Black women

Filmmaker Oge Egbuonu and interview subject Cora Matthews during production of the documentary '(In)visible Portraits."
Filmmaker Oge Egbuonu, left, and interview subject Cora Matthews during production of the documentary '(In)visible Portraits.”
(Changing the Narrative)

For her directorial debut, the documentary “(In)visible Portraits,” Oge Egbuonu decided to survey the history of Black women in America. Egbuonu was an associate producer on the 2016 film “Loving,” which earned an Oscar nomination for actress Ruth Negga and told the story of Richard and Mildred Loving and the landmark Loving vs. Virginia court case that struck down prohibitions against interracial marriage.

In “(In)visible Portraits” Egbuonu talks to noted academics such as Joy DeGruy, Patricia Hill Collins, Melina Abdullah and Ruha Benjamin, as well as grassroots activists Sheila Thomas and Helen Jones. As a structuring device, the film also features the work of poet Jazmine Williams and visual artist Victoria Cassinova.

Egbuonu is releasing the movie straight to Vimeo, with availability on other platforms planned to follow. The multiyear process of making the film has had its own emotional ups and downs for the filmmaker. “It was a huge undertaking without a doubt,” she said. “I had to get back into therapy, because to hold those stories was a lot.”

People have been talking recently about Breonna Taylor and Oluwatoyin Salau and how it seems like Black women too often are fighting for space within larger cultural narratives. What has it meant to be creating this project that’s specifically looking to make space for the stories of Black women?

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Egbuonu: It’s why we play on the words “invisible portraits” in the title, with the I-N in parentheses, because as much as this society tries to erase Black women, it can’t, because the society was built on the backs of Black women. When you think about just the era of slavery and the rape culture that goes into that — when you think about who we call the father of modern gynecology, Dr. James Marion Sims, and how he became that off the backs of Black women, involuntarily. When you think about the movements that occurred in this country, the civil rights movement, those are built off the backs of Black women like Septima Clark, Ella Baker — these women that we don’t know their stories, most people don’t know their names. They only know about Malcolm X and Martin Luther King.

When you think about the uprising that’s happening now with Black Lives Matter, three Black women created that movement. So when you think about the different contributions made to society, it’s largely through the lenses and the work of Black women. And so I felt that it was really important to bring that to the forefront in this film, because we do a great job of erasing that in the history books that are currently written.

There is a moment in the film where Ruha Benjamin, an associate professor of African American studies at Princeton University, starts to cry on-camera. If an academic, someone steeped in these ideas and issues everyday, finds this an emotional subject, what was it like for you in making the film?

It was a lot of tears, because you’re cultivating space for these women, most of them telling their stories for the first time, and then to remain open and vulnerable, to hold their truth and knowing that it’s a safe space. So you have Dr. Joy DeGruy, you have Ruha Benjamin and Dr. Abdullah and Patricia Hill Collins, who all do this for work. You would think you’ll have your quote-unquote “emotions” in check, but one thing I know to be true is when you cultivate space for people to feel safe and vulnerable, anything is possible. And so we did that and I made sure at the very beginning that everyone felt comfortable. Just getting to know the women before the process, I spent a lot of time building rapport, that was important to me. And so it cultivated a space for them to be open and vulnerable and share things they probably hadn’t shared before, even in the role of a scholar or an author.

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When you cultivate space for people to feel safe and vulnerable, anything is possible.

Oge Egbuonu, director of "(In)visible Portraits”

You submitted the film to a few festivals and were rejected. After working on the project for years, what was that like?

I submitted it to Tribeca, Cannes and Sundance, and the first two rejections were really hard. I remember getting an email from Sundance and I cried for hours that night; I cried myself to sleep. And then when I got the rejection letter from Tribeca, it was a little less of a blow. Because I think I was just numb to it all. And I was like, “You guys just don’t get it and you don’t understand it.”

And so I had to use those moments to fuel me. And so I took those rejections as a redirection. I was like, “OK, you guys don’t get it. So I’m going to show you why this is important. I’m going to show you why you should invest in Black filmmakers; I’m going to show you why you should invest in Black stories.” Because Hollywood follows trends. They tend not to create them. And so I was like, “OK, noted. I’m just going to do what I have to do to get this story out, to amplify the message. And you’ll eventually come back around.” And they always do. That’s what they do.

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Interview subject Sheila Thomas and director Oge Egbuono during production of the documentary "(In)visible Portraits."
Interview subject Sheila Thomas, left, and director Oge Egbuono during production of the documentary "(In)visible Portraits.”
(Changing the Narrative)

And now you’ve pivoted to self-distributing the movie. That must be a whole new set of challenges.

Oh, yeah. It’s definitely a whole new set of challenges, and it’s a complete learning experience too. I just got tired of waiting for Hollywood to validate me and to validate this film. And so I was working with a post producer and I was like, “What are the best ways we can get this out now?” And I called my investor and was like, “Listen, I know you wanted to go the conventional route. I tried that and they don’t get it. Can you continue to trust me in this process and just support the decisions that I make?” And fortunately for me, he said yes. And so then I got on the phone with my team and was like, “OK, let’s research the best way to get this out.” And we came up with Vimeo. Luckily for me, my team was like, “Oh, this is so unconventional. We don’t know what to do, but we support it. Let’s just do it.” And now we’re doing it.

Considering the amount of research that you put into this, all the interviews that you’ve done, now stepping forward into distributing the movie yourself, what’s been the big takeaway of this for you? What do you feel like you’ve gotten from the process of making this project?

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I think I’ve learned that it’s OK to be fully who I am. I think I was given the permission in making this to embrace all that I am as a Black woman. It’s taught me so much about my history that I didn’t know. It’s given me space and grace to give myself permission to bloom in such an organic way and in such an unconventional way. And I just really hope that this film starts as a reeducation to society on the contributions of Black women.


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