Bechdel Test Canon: Illusions

Despite its 34-minute running time, writer-director Julie Dash’s 1982 short film Illusions asks some mighty big questions. It is especially curious about the racial and sexual politics of the construction of the images and so directs its questions to the industry that finances the process and an American viewing public who renews its faith in Hollywood each time it invests in a ticket. Perhaps because of the challenges it poses, Illusions is rather difficult to watch. The going rate for renting or buying it through Women Make Movies is pretty steep and since I’m on a grad student’s budget, I filled out a library request form. However, the digital transfer wouldn’t play on my DVD player because of audio feedback. Luckily I could watch it on my computer without dealing with these sound problems.

I applaud WMM’s decision to include Illusions in its catalog. I am grateful that UW-Madison has such an amazing library system as well. But frankly, jumping through these hoops is ridiculous. Making a film as accomplished as Illusions so hard to see illustrates how we still marginalize racial minorities and their creative output. Illusions recently screened alongside Gay Abel-Bey’s Fragrance, Larry Clark’s As Above, So Below, and Melvonna Ballenger’s Rain at UCLA as part of a symposium on the L.A. Rebellion. The movement emerged out of the university’s film school from the mid-60s to late ’80s and claims director Charles Burnett as a member. A number of films associated with the L.A. Rebellion countered the Blaxploitation fare of the mid-70s, which some believe rehashed minstrel tropes, by incorporating the aesthetic and narrative conventions of various world cinemas, experimental film, and the French New Wave to tell stories about black American experiences.

In short, this is an accomplished group of filmmakers whose work we should support alongside Ava DuVernay and Dee Rees. Kristen Warner at Dear Black Woman correctly referred to Red Tails producer George Lucas’ appeals to a black audience as extortion. This bold statement made me think about what films are accessible, which ones are not, and why. I’m not sure what the holding rights look like, but if the filmmakers are willing and richly compensated, Criterion or some other video distribution company needs to put out an L.A. Rebellion box set. They should issue a reprinting of Burnett’s Killer of Sheep while they’re at it.

Rosanne Katon in Illusions

Illusions and Red Tails might actually make for a fascinating double feature. Dash’s film takes place during the 1940s and its characters are preoccupied by African Americans’ involvement in World War II, though it is also reflecting on the racist strategic practices upheld by American military during the Vietnam War. And it is especially interested in film images—specifically white feminine spectacle and glamour—though with a far less nostalgic and utopian outlook and an investment in the black women back home.

At times, I’m reckless with the parameters of the Bechdel Test. I’m upfront as to why: Though it’s certainly a useful and well-regarded measurement of feminist representation, it’s not perfect. It doesn’t allow consideration for the feminist potential of female characters’ relationships with boys and men. It also doesn’t account for well-formed, nuanced exchanges and relationships between female characters. Technically, Bridesmaids passed the test. But that doesn’t mean it’s a perfect feminist film. In particular, I was dissatisfied with its treatment of fat women. We must be mindful of the impossibility of such a thing before we attempt to turn certain titles into political causes.

However, the test is useful in representing films which foreground women and girls’ interactions with one another. In Illusions, that relationship involves studio executive Mignon Dupree (Lonetta McKee), black voice actress Ester Jeeter (Rosanne Katon), white film star Leila Grant, and, as Wes Felton argues in his excellent article, Mae West. Jeeter is hired by the studio producing Grant’s latest picture to dub over the actress’ voice. Illusions focuses extensively on Jeeter’s labor and, in doing so, honors generations of invisible black creative labor, critiques a culture that continues to make such labor invisible, and illustrates race and gender’s double bind.

While Illusions is concerned with Jeeter’s interactions with Grant and the Mae West poster which hovers over both of them in the recording studio, it is especially invested in establishing a professional relationship between Jeeter and Dupree. Jeeter is seemingly the only person who notices that light-skinned Dupree is passing as white. They have a meaningful conversation about what drew them to careers in the film industry. Dupree reveals that she is bent on changing the system from within. However, she is deeply ambivalent about what she must sacrifice—her racial identity, for one—in order to have a career. Both of these women love their jobs. But, as is clear in a number of meetings and in Dupree’s final showdown with a racist white military officer who’s wise to Dupree’s secret, they have to fight an unfair battle in order to do their work.

Julie Dash with Lonetta McKee in Illusions

It’s a fight Dash continues to take part in. It took her nearly a decade to follow up Illusions with Daughters of the Dust, which struggled to find a distributor and was almost released with subtitles because producers didn’t believe American film audiences could understand its elliptical plot and Geechee dialect. Often, people don’t want to enact that process of translation, something people of color are expected to do in white society. Daughters was the first feature-length film directed by an African American woman to receive a theatrical release in the United States. Illusions’ brilliant formal composition and impassioned social commentary speak to Dash’s skill as a filmmaker and insist that it should be much easier for her to work and for her films to find an audience.

Previously: An Angel at My Table, Me Without You

by Alyx Vesey
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