‘Subjects of Desire’ documentary examines relationship between race, power, beauty from history to present

Grace Barnes

TW: This story contain descriptions of enslavement and sexual violence. 

A timely follow-up to Channing Godfrey Peoples’ 2020 narrative film “Miss Juneteenth,” which follows a former Miss Juneteenth pageant winner as she guides her daughter through the competition, “Subjects of Desire” explores the history of Black beauty against the backdrop of the annual Miss Black America pageant.

Directed by Jennifer Holness, the documentary premiered at the South by Southwest 2021 Film Festival online Wednesday. The film explores the shift in beauty standards toward appreciating Black aesthetics and features, taking a deep dive into history and interweaving important cultural moments of the present. 

“Subjects of Desire” seamlessly blends topics of Black women in the media and popular culture, sexual violence against Black women, colorism, and appreciating versus appropriating Black women. It spends a significant amount of time breaking down the three major stereotypical representations that have trapped Black women for centuries: the Mammy, the Jezebel and the Sapphire. The film argues that these three roles have shaped how Black women are viewed in the media and in broader society.

The film’s editing is smooth, never drawing too much attention to itself or making the viewer too aware of it. A lot of ground is covered, but the pacing feels neither too rushed nor too slow. The strategy “Subjects of Desire” employs, alternating between interviews with professors, experts, artists and activists and a roundtable of young Black women, works well. 

It is strengthened by the addition of text overlay depicting news headlines from recent years, powerful statistics and still images of Instagram influencers and the #BlackGirlMagic phenomenon. 

One statistic from the U.S. Department of Justice shows that 40% of confirmed victims of sex trafficking in America are Black women, while 25.6% are white women. It is followed by a disturbing but important fact: For every Black woman who reports a rape, 15 do not report, while for every white woman who reports a rape, five do not report. 

These statistics might be hard to swallow, but the film’s deep dive into the Mammy and Jezebel stereotypes make clear the influence those representations have had on society. According to the film, the Jezebel stereotype came out of the history of enslavement and asserted that Black women who were enslaved were hypersexual, the opposite of the Mammy. As the narrator explains, the “seductive, alluring Black woman was created to negate the systemic and violent sexual exploitation of Black women.”

“Subjects of Desire” illustrates the brutal history of sexual violence against Black women, from enslavement to the Jim Crow era, and argues that Black women remain unprotected today. The familiar names of Black women killed by police or while in police custody, including Breonna Taylor, Sandra Bland and countless others, flash across the screen over Martin Luther King Jr.’s words: “The most neglected woman in America is the Black woman.”

Despite the harsh reality presented in the film, there are many moments that celebrate Black beauty and Black joy — the Miss Black America pageant contestants cheer each other on as they practice their runway walk, and they sing together in between group dance rehearsals. 

The conclusion of the film also presents a few small victories, such as some cities and states changing laws in 2019 that dictated Black people could no longer be discriminated against based on their hair and PepsiCo’s announcement in June 2020 that the Aunt Jemima image and name would be retired.  

Ultimately though, the film argues Black women are still undervalued, underappreciated and unprotected. Ryann Richardson, the 2019 winner of the Miss Black America pageant, sums up the powerful documentary with the words, “We’re still fighting just to be human.” 

Holness has made the documentary Black women deserve. 

Rating: 5/5 stars