New Negress Film Society looks for what’s missing

Patrick Dunn
Special to The Detroit News
The film “Seventh Grade” is a tale of a young girl reckoning with the sudden realization of her adolescence.

Ja’Tovia Gary says she was “grateful” when “Moonlight,” a film by a black writer-director about a black gay man, won this year’s Oscar for Best Picture. But that was just one small positive sign for Gary’s personal crusade for a more equitable world of cinema.

“It’s not just about one amazing moment, and then we go back to normal,” Gary says. “It’s about being able to destabilize that entire system to where we begin to think, ‘Well, what other stories are we missing here? Who else isn’t being represented … and how can we rectify that going forward?’”

Gary is one of four New York-based black female filmmakers who founded the New Negress Film Society in 2013. The society is devoted to showcasing black women in film, as well as advocating for better cinematic representation of black women and black LGBT individuals.

Gary and fellow NNFS member Chanelle Aponte Pearson will present a lecture and screening of several short films titled “I am a Negress of Noteworthy Talent” at the Michigan Theater tonight as part of the Ann Arbor Film Festival.

The society’s name, and the title of its presentation here, are both inspired by black artist Kara Walker, who has repeatedly used the antiquated term “negress” in her exhibitions, including her 2011 show “A Negress of Noteworthy Talent.”

“We thought we’d pay homage to that in reclaiming this colonial term ‘negress,’ but placing the word ‘new’ in front of it to make it distinctive that we are basically anti-respectability, just a bit more radical,” Gary says.

Diverse talent will indeed be on display at the Ann Arbor engagement, which will showcase several works by NNFS members.

Films will range from “Afronauts,” an Afrocentric retelling of the space race, to “Seventh Grade,” a tale of a young girl reckoning with the sudden realization of her adolescence.

“You’re going to get a really wide swatch here of work from all of us, which will give you a sense of how diverse black women filmmaking can be,” Gary says. “It’s not just one thing, one singular story.”

Gary and Pearson also will discuss the ideology behind NNFS and their other work at the event.

Gary and her fellow co-founder Kumi James informally started the society in 2013 with a similar event, also titled “I am a Negress of Noteworthy Talent.”

Gary says she and James were spurred into action by the lack of support their ideas received while attending grad school at New York’s School of Visual Arts.

“It’s up to us to create these kinds of environments for our work and ourselves,” Gary says. “I think we often give ourselves a lot of credit for how far we’ve come, and I don’t want to detract from the work of people who have made sure that we have made some strides. But I think that there’s a very, very long way to go.”

‘I am a Negress of Noteworthy Talent’

5:10 p.m. Thursday

Michigan Theater

603 E. Liberty

Ann Arbor


(734) 668-8397