TWO FILMS BY

FRONZA
WOODS

FROM 1 DECEMBER

Programmed by Daniella Shreir
Texts edited by Missouri Williams & Daniella Shreir
With major gratitude to Fronza Woods,
Cases Rebelles & Yasmina Price
Design by Daniella Shreir

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INTERVIEW WITH
FRONZA WOODS

This is a modified and expanded version of the transcript of an interview between Fronza Woods and the French collective Cases Rebelles conducted during the Festival des 3 Continents in 2019. Carried out in English, the interview was originally published in translation here.
Cases Rebelles is a France-based, anti-authoritarian, panafrorevolutionary, Black political collective fighting against all forms of oppression. Please see their website for a collection of brilliant interviews and critical writing.

Could you introduce yourself?

My name is Fronza Woods. Pleasance is my married name. I’m a filmmaker. I was born and raised in the US and immigrated to France in 1987 after I met my husband. My filmmaking career wasn’t taking off, Mr. Reagan was in office, and I’d had enough.


I’m a Detroiter, a proud Detroiter. A lot of people think of the city in its current state, in ruin, of boarded-up houses, or streets lined with vacant lots where family homes used to stand. But this doesn’t resemble the city I grew up in. In the forties and fifties, Detroit was a very rich city and regardless of your race or financial situation, you had access to a good education.

First we lived in a very poor neighbourhood but the neighbourhoods then were not like they are today when, consciously or unconsciously, they tend to be segregated by race and class. When we were growing up, just after the war, there was a more organic ethnic mix, the common denominator being that we were all poor, working class people living side by side: blacks from the south, generic ‘white’ Americans, and then recent immigrants who were Italian, German and Polish. It wasn’t so much a conscious integration as an integration forced by circumstances. Most of the parents had jobs in one of the car factories.

When I was about 10, my father managed to save enough money to make a down payment on a house, our first home, in a better neighbourhood on the East side of Detroit. I think this was at the very the beginning of white flight: white people were selling their houses inside the city to Black people and moving to the suburbs, which were a new phenomenon at the time. Once a Black family moved into the neighbourhood, ‘For Sale’ signs started to go up in the front yards of houses still occupied by white people, who were probably afraid their property would lose value with Blacks in the neighbourhood, or because they didn’t particularly want to live around Black people. There were also white people for whom this wasn’t a problem, or who didn’t have the means to sell up and move to the suburbs even if they wanted to, so had to make peace with the situation. We grew up in a neighbourhood on the border of Grosse Pointe which, at the time, was probably one of the wealthiest neighbourhoods ‘enclaves’ in the U.S. I mention this because, being on the edge of Grosse Pointe and with a good portion of its student body from Grosse Pointe, our high school was very well endowed. We had certain luxuries that high schools in more modest, poorer neighbourhoods didn’t have.

Thanks to the prosperity created by the automobile industry, Detroit had a world-class art museum as well as a symphony orchestra and a theatre. It was not uncommon for public school students to go on class trips to the museums or to hear the Detroit Symphony Orchestra. It was a time when education really was for everyone.

I remember a few occasions from my childhood when my father came home from work and told us he’d been stopped by the cops and frisked. I was quite young, so I didn’t understand how humiliating this must have been for him. At that time, the police weren’t trigger happy the way they are today, but they had the power to humiliate decent, law-abiding Black citizens like my father, who never broke a law in his life. I know he felt the humiliation very strongly. I’ve seen that same humiliation reflected in a lot of the films shown here [in Nantes] – especially the older films, the ones made around the same time I was making mine… In the films by Billy Woodberry or Charles Burnett, the kind of harshness with which the parents treat their kids is a reaction to being humiliated all the time. It’s anger – they can’t take it out on the person who has control over them, so they take it out on those over whom they have control.

Did you always know you wanted to be a filmmaker?

When I was a kid, I thought I was going to be a plastic surgeon then I quickly realised that our family didn’t have that kind of money. (Laughs).Then I got interested in dance and my mother – who was very clever – wanted to test if my interest was genuine. We didn’t have the money for real tap shoes and so she got me loafers and put taps on them and I was so ashamed that I gave up classes after a week. She was right! I was only interested in tap dance because I wanted those patent leather shoes. At university I studied theatre. I thought I was maybe going to be an actress. I liked theatre but, like a lot of black families, mine didn’t encourage an interest in theatre because they knew the obstacles that were in the way for Black people in the performing arts. I’d already had a taste of that when my high school, a predominantly white school, was casting for the school play. I went up for one of the roles, and our drama teacher pulled me aside and told me: “I can’t cast you as one of the sisters because you’re Black.” When my mother got wind of that, she was furious. She argued with the school but nothing was done. Multi-racial casting had not been invented at that time.

 My first job, after graduating from university, was with a small advertising agency in Detroit where, since I was a fairly good writer, I was hired as a junior copywriter. I worked there for about a year and half, maybe two years. I had a boyfriend who said, “You gotta get out of Detroit!”

When I got to New York, I made the rounds of the advertising agencies with my writing portfolio in hand and in no time at all I was hired by one of them. I’m sure that’s because, even more than my writing skills, I was benefitting from the hard-won gains of the Civil Rights movement. A lot of companies were looking for young, educated Black people. So I came along at exactly the right time. I didn’t last long in advertising. I hated it, and so I was back on the temp trail. One of the temp jobs I got was for one of the very rare female executives in TV news at the time, at ABC. She really liked me and asked if I had a CV. I said yes and gave it to her. It was a while before I would hear back from ABC. I had gone on to other temp jobs in the interim. Then one day, out of the blue, I got a call from ABC, “Would you be interested in our journalism training programme?” Journalism had never appealed to me, but of course I said ‘Yes!’.

 

My first assignment was on the news desk – a huge round table surrounded by huge round white men smoking like chimneys as they sorted through news coming hot off the wire. After I’d been there for a year, I was assigned to the documentary unit as assistant director on a religious affairs program – right up my alley! (Laughs). I was really out of my element! But it was a real eye-opener. I made a lot of friends. There was a Black camera guy, a Black sound guy and twin brothers who were sound engineers. In a way, that was my introduction to film, spending a lot of time in the editing room with two of the editors. I really thought: “Hmm this is something I like, it looks interesting, piecing things together so they become a story.”

I stayed with ABC for about two years, before I cracked. I couldn’t bear working in such a blatantly racist and sexist environment. When I turned in my notice, I included a list of all the things I found unacceptable. They were pretty upset. Someone asked if I wanted to get a lawyer and open a civil rights lawsuit. But I was so broken, I just wanted to protect myself because I was really at the very edge. I thought I was having a nervous breakdown. I took a brief hiatus from the U.S. after that, and when I returned, I accepted an offer to teach Pilates. That’s how I met Fannie Drayton [of ‘Fannie’s Film’].

As much as I enjoyed teaching Pilates, the creative side of me was longing for something more. One day I looked in the Village Voice classifieds, and came across an ad for basic filmmaking classes at the Women’s Interart Center. I tried it and loved it: that’s how the filmmaking began.

Almost nothing I’ve done in my life has really been by choice. I went into advertising because I was offered a job, I went into television because I was offered a job. The first time I chose something, it was movies.

But by then I was in my thirties which, in those days, was considered old to be embarking on film studies. I was a late bloomer. And that added to the tension for me because I was always the oldest on the shoot, or in the group. Naturally I had ideas that were a little more mature than the people I was working with and this became frustrating. Filmmaking was a very macho field, a little less so now. There were very few women and certainly very few Black women, period. I was trying to feel my way through and not get too frustrated. Luckily, Ellen Hovde and Muffie Meyer, the two women who were teaching the class, could not have been more wonderful! They were established editors in their own right. Both had worked in documentaries and had very solid backgrounds.

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How did the idea for ‘Killing Time’ come about?

‘Killing Time’ was a student film. We had to make a film and I had no ideas. I suffered from depression on and off, and I think a lot of it had to do with not finding my place in the world, and then of course there was racism, sexism, just many things. I remembered a friend once said to me, “Oh, you’ll never kill yourself because you wouldn’t know what to wear”. Of course, she was absolutely right! That was the idea for ‘Killing Time’. I would have a protagonist whose inability to decide what to wear in order to kill herself would ultimately save her life. It was never a film about suicide. It’s a film about what you think will happen if you kill yourself. I don’t want to make light of suicide, it’s not a light matter. But I think that when a lot of people imagine it, they picture how people will react. If I kill myself everybody will cry, and so on. Well, you don’t know if they’ll be crying or laughing… (Laughs). And then there’s the idea that you want to look nice when they find you! For ‘Killing Time’, I didn’t really have a script. I treated it as a silent film with a monologue track and I thought it might as well be nonsensical. What I was trying to recreate was an internal monologue. I don’t know anyone whose mind isn’t going all the time, so it really is supposed to be about things passing through the head and the fact that a lot of time your thoughts are very silly.

So I made ‘Killing Time’ and I was just going to put it in a closet. I didn’t mind it but I didn’t think it was a great film, just something curious. But then my friends began to ask, “When are you going to show us your film?” I said, “I’m not showing it.” “You have to show your film,” they said. They kept pushing me and I finally caved. A very lovely friend organised a screening for me in her apartment. A lot of people came and one of them suggested I enter it into a film festival in Houston. I thought I could put her off by saying I’d do it but when I didn’t do anything she brought me the entry forms. Now I had no excuse. So I sent it off and forgot about it.

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I was already enrolled in a second session at the Women’s Interart Center and was starting to think about a second film. I kind of knew it would be about Fannie, who I often crossed paths with when she came in to clean the studio, and when I was either taking my own class or about to go home.

 

I found her interesting because there were lots of things about her that reminded me of my father. My father was a workaholic, and, like Fannie, fastidious about everything he did; he could not stop working. And this meant that we were always expected to be working, too. I think it’s a Southern thing. When he came home, we made sure to look like we were busy even if we weren’t. (Laughs). In a way it was good training for work because often I would finish whatever job I was given way before deadline or the end of the day, so then I would just pretend I was still working. Fannie has this Southern thing about her, a kind of reverence for work which I didn’t have. I liked working but never had a reverence for it. So I was thinking about Fannie, how I could work with her in the context of the exercise studio. I imagined she would be the vehicle for my anger, because I was really fed up with rich white people. Some of them were wonderful, some of them really helped me, but there was this divide in how easily they wore their privilege and the way that they would talk about people in their service. One time I was teaching and one of our regular clients came in and got into a conversation with another client about their ‘maids’. When I heard “Oh, my girl doesn’t even know how to use a vacuum cleaner.”, I wanted to murder the woman. My girl! My hackles were raised. How dare she refer to a grown woman like that?

 

Then one day I received a letter telling me that ‘Killing Time’ had won the second prize in the short film category at Houston. I was stunned, absolutely stunned, and deeply indebted to my friend who pushed me to enter my film. This was a source of encouragement to keep going. I started to think about ‘Fannie’s Film’, mapping out, in my head, how I was going to approach it. I knew I wanted to juxtapose images of Fannie at work with those of people exercising, kind of like two complementary dances. I knew I wouldn’t interview her straight on, because I felt she would stiffen up and I would lose all her charms. I wanted to make her invisibility visible through her words and her presence on the screen.

Robert, my boss, agreed that I could use the studio to film her. I asked people who were taking classes if they were willing to be in the film in return for a free class. We shot it over two days. A very dear friend who is also in the film pretended he was giving the class. So it is kind of a cheat because it’s semi-orchestrated. We filmed the people in the class one day and I filmed Fannie on her own the next day. I did my interview with her separately. I sat alone with her and asked questions. I was trying to get out of her what she really felt about cleaning up after white people because I was just so angry. But every time I would try to go down that street, she refused to follow me. So I gave up and said to myself, you know what, this film isn’t about you, it’s about her. After all, it’s ‘Fannie’s Film’, not ‘Fronza’s Angry Film’! If Fannie complained about anything, it was that her daughter was lazy. I chose not to put that in the film. I had heard it too many times from my father, that if you weren’t always doing something you were lazy. I didn’t want that to be a part of my film. I wanted it to be about all the positive things about her. I wanted it to be a full portrait of a Black woman because people never really see Black women. You only see us either in relation to or in comparison to what we’re doing for white people. I didn’t want comparisons. You know, this is a woman and she takes care of herself! She has things she loves to do, she makes her own living, she has her house, she keeps it in a very special way. She talks about ironing. I loved that. That is such an expression of a kind of care and respect for oneself.

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You may have noticed that the subtitle of ‘Fannie’s Film’ is ‘Invisible Women Part I’. My plan was to continue making films about people who have invisible roles in society, people I would observe but didn’t know personally. I just happened to know Fannie in the sense that we talked to each other a lot at our workplace, but we didn’t go out or hang out together. I wanted to explore many areas, not just focus on Black women; they could have been Hispanic women, or white women, for that matter. The not heard, the not seen.

I remember there was a screening by the Black Filmmaker Foundation (BFF) with its founders, Reggie and Warrington Hudlin. Reggie made a film called House Party that kind of took off but mainly they distributed Black films because no one else was doing it. They were having their first awards ceremony and wanted me to submit my films. The films were supposed to have been made after 1980so, because I’m sometimes foolishly honest, I had to enter ‘Fannie’s Film’, even though ‘Killing Time’ was the film they really wanted me to enter. I went to the ceremony and when ‘Fannie’s Film’ was shown it became clear that hardly anybody got it. In fact, I think I heard someone laughing at Fannie in the audience and that just destroyed me. And I realised that maybe Black people aren’t interested in Black people, either. Not interested in that kind of Black person, in any case. They are interested in Hollywood versions of Black people. It really knocked me for a loop.

Eventually, I was fired from teaching Pilates not because of my teaching but because I had lost interest and my attitude was really bad. I wanted to be making films, not pressing people’s thighs. I don’t really remember why I left the BFF for good in the end, it was probably because I didn’t feel I couldn’t make the kinds of films they wanted. Following the reception of ‘Fannie’s Film’, I must have thought, “Well, time to move on.”

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 I let go of the 'Invisible Women' project when I got this bee in my bonnet to make a feature film about Myles Horton, co-founder of the Highlander Folk School in New Market, Tennessee. Highlander was one of the few places in the South where integrated meetings took place and it served as a site of leadership training for southern civil rights activists, including Rosa Parks. I happened to see Horton interviewed on Bill Moyers’s show. I just thought, this man is incredible! I got in touch with Highlander and they very warmly invited me to come down for their 50th anniversary celebrations. It was a grand, gay, very uplifting gathering, attended by Highlander alumni that included, amongst others, Rosa Parks and Septima Clark. Myles very kindly met with me, but when I proposed to make a film about his life, he said no. He really wasn’t someone who wanted to be in the limelight. He suggested I make a film about Septima Clark, instead, and offered to put us in touch. I was so fixated on Horton and the film I’d already created about him in my head, that, fool that I was, I didn’t even bother to find out what it was about Mrs. Clark that he thought would make a good subject. I knew nothing about her role in the Civil Rights movement. For example, the fact that she and her cousin Bernice Robinson created the first citizenship school to educate blacks in literacy, state government, and election procedures.​

Well, I would find that out many years later, and after she had died. To this day I regret my pigheadedness and my ignorance.

 

What did you do next?

I don’t remember how it came about, but in 1984, the summer before I was going to sign up for classes at NYU Graduate Film School, I got wind that John Sayles was looking to hire Black crew members for his next feature, The Brother From Another Planet [1984]. Because it was about a Black man from outer space, he wanted to hire as many black crew members as he could. I thought it was a neat idea. I was given the job of assistant sound engineer, i.e., boom operator. I loved working on the film; I loved everything to do with the techniques of filmmaking. I really thought this was going to be my entry into the professional world of cinema. I was hoping that maybe John would hire me for his next film, but that didn’t happen for me nor, as far as I could tell, for the majority of the Black crew members who had worked on the film. It began to feel like it was nothing more than a token gesture on the part of a well-meaning white man. Of course, it could be that I deluded myself, and that I hadn’t done as good a job as I thought I had. Whatever the case, the beginning started to feel like the end, and, I wasn’t getting any younger.

I decided that if I was going to go on making films, I needed to be technically more proficient and NYU is one of the best film schools around. I wasn’t sure they would take me, but they did. I got a scholarship. The problem was that I was so much older than the other students. The level of teaching was excellent, but these film schools are kind of racket in the sense that the fees are so big. So I went for one semester and I knew I wouldn’t be able to afford a second semester unless I found somebody somewhere who would be willing to help me financially. A lot of these schools are filled with kids who have parents who can pay for this stuff and it’s very easy to think you’re in the movies when everything is being paid for. I needed to pay rent, to eat, to clothe myself. That’s when I got the offer to teach at the University of Wisconsin, Milwaukee. One of my professors at NYU told me not to go, that it wasn’t a good school. But I couldn’t go on like that, living such a financially precarious life, also, I was just too old to be in a circle of very macho young men. You put one of them behind a camera and they thought they were Rambo or something.

Shortly after I’d said yes to UWM, the sound engineer from the Sayles’ film phoned to say that they were looking for someone to do sound for a documentary being directed by Henry Hampton, and that I should go for it. Since I had just accepted the teaching job in Milwaukee, and being a person of my word, I felt obliged to say no. The documentary turned out to be Eyes On The Prize [1987–90]. I could kill myself over this to this day. But if I’m brutally honest with myself, I didn’t feel I had the skills to take on such a big project on my own, so maybe it was more about saving face. I felt like a jack of all trades, not a master of any of them.

When they hired me in Milwaukee, they asked me if I would create this outreach program for the city’s Black community. I started to create a festival. We had monthly screenings, usually of two or three films. They were almost exclusively movies by Black filmmakers, but I also showed Satyajit Ray because I felt Black people should know that they’re part of a greater community, certainly a greater community of people who’ve been oppressed by white people. They should open up their vision. It started kind of slowly, but it really worked out very well. People became very excited about seeing Black films. There weren’t many feature films around at the time. There were the old ones, the blaxploitation films but films not about violence and guns and men were rare. I think they were very well received, not just by the university population but also by the people from the neighbourhood the programme was meant to be addressing, i.e., working-class and underprivileged Blacks. It was a very good experience. I had fun doing it, I had fun making posters, and I took great pride in showing Black films.

 

I showed one of my favourite films, From Harlem to Harvard [1981], by Marco Williams, now a well-known documentarian, whom I met working on the Sayles film. Even now nobody seems to have heard of the film. It’s about a very bright kid from Harlem who gets a scholarship to Harvard. He’s kind of overweight and very ill at ease, socially. And then he’s housed with a guy whose father used to be a lawyer for John Kennedy or someone like that, so you can imagine…I showed La Rue Cases-Nègres, Euzhan Palcy’s movie. It’s the kind of film that wouldn’t have been in the cinema there. I showed my films, Julie Dash’s Illusions, as well as Hair Piece: A Film for Nappyheaded People by Ayoka Chenzira, a very original and delightful animated film about hair. I don’t think I showed any old films, like those of Oscar Micheaux. I was trying to remain quite contemporary.

 

What films do you like? Are you influenced by other arts, by other art forms ?

 

I have always loved art – fine arts, painting. I worked my way through college in the fine arts department at university so I was surrounded by images and all forms of art. And I’ve always loved movies, ever since my mother took us to see them when we were kids. A lot of television movies too. One of the filmmakers I love the most is Satyajit Ray. I love Fellini, Keaton, Chaplin and Wilder.

I really love Ousmane Sembène’s films. Unfortunately, I’m not a huge fan of many French filmmakers. I’m not a Godard fan. (Laughs). I know it’s forbidden but I’m not! (Laughs). Who else have I always liked… Oh, I love Fassbinder! When someone asks you, you forget all the people whose work you love, you forget everything.

I was trying not to recreate but be influenced by the films that I loved. In a way, ‘Killing Time’ is a fusion of a Chaplin film and Some Like It Hot. Its really a silent film with words added to it. That’s my favourite film of all time: Some Like It Hot. I wanted something that was kind of wacky like that, something that had no spare flesh on it. I wanted it to be that you couldn’t take anything more out of it, for it to be as bare as possible. I think my biggest criticism of most films is that they’ve got too much flesh on them. It’s very easy to get seduced by your own work, by images you create. There was a scene in ‘Fannie’s Film’ that I loved but I decided it was draining the film so I got rid of it. When a scene isn’t contributing, it’s draining. That’s all there is to it.

I definitely knew of Camille Billops, through a woman who became a friend, Loretta Campbell, who interviewed us all. I knew about Camille Billops, I knew about Julie Dash. I had seen Kathleen Collins’s Losing Ground, a very original movie. When ‘Killing Time’ came out, it was shown in Créteil, at the first edition of their International Women's Film Festival in 1979. And in 1986, ‘Fannie’s Film’ was programmed by Valerie Smith at the Whitney Museum of American Art along with 12 other movies by Black women filmmakers. It’s only last April that I finally saw Suzanne, Suzanne, at the Courtisane Festival in Ghent. I was just knocked out by it, I couldn’t stop crying. It’s just beautiful. So unusual and so raw. I always forget that a lot of Black Americans moved to California early on and also that in those days, not many people, especially not Black people, had the means to make family films. To see the footage of their families way back then – it must have been the fifties – was really interesting for me. At this festival I made it a point to see all the old films of the people I’m sharing the stage with: Charles Burnett’s films, I know them very well because I programmed them, I have them at home. I’m a real fan. I think his films are beautiful. Larry Clark, I just know titles, but I’ll know more today because I’ll be seeing them for the first time. The same goes for Ben Caldwell’s movies. You don’t have to like everything in these films. It’s such a treasure trove of how America was, how people were, what has changed and what hasn’t. Some are a bit dated, but even so, they each have something special in them, and it’s really interesting!

Collectif Cases Rebelles is a France-based, anti-authoritarian, panafrorevolutionary, Black political collective fighting against all forms of oppression. On their website, they publish a monthly podcast, political essays, interviews, reviews and articles on black cultures and struggles across the world. In 2017, they wrote 100 portraits contre l’état policier, and in 2018, they released the film Dire à Lamine. They also edited and translated the first French edition of Assata: An Autobiography by Assata Shakur (PMN, 2018). In 2020, they launched their small press, Les Éditions Cases Rebelles.

 

NB: FILMS APPEAR WITH FRENCH SUBTITLES AUTOMATICALLY  AS THESE ARE CURRENTLY THE BEST QUALITY VERSIONS OF THE FILMS. FOR LANGUAGES OTHER THAN FRENCH, CLICK THE 'CC' ICON

KILLING
TIME
(1979)

WITH ENGLISH CAPTIONS AND SUBTITLES
AVEC SOUS-TITRES FRANCAIS DE 
HELLALI PENANGUER
COM LEGENDAS EM PORTUGUÊS DE CATARINA BOIEIRO & RAQUEL SCHEFER

CON SUBTÍTULOS EN ESPAÑOL DE LUCIA DE LA TORRE
CON SOTTOTITOLI IN ITALIANO DI MIRKO CERULLO
최모니카의 한국어 자막으로
字幕翻訳:浜崎史菜
РУССКИЕ СУБТИРЫ МАКCИМ КАРПИЦКИЙ.

This programme is free but distribution, subtitling, writer and translation fees aren't. We receive no funding so please consider donating to us so we can keep this project available to all. We have a Patreon for regular supporters, or you can make a one-off donation here.

 

FANNIE'S
FILM
(1981)

WITH ENGLISH CAPTIONS AND SUBTITLES
AVEC SOUS-TITRES FRANCAIS DE HELLALI PENANGUER
COM LEGENDAS EM PORTUGUÊS DE CATARINA BOIEIRO & RAQUEL SCHEFER

CON SUBTÍTULOS EN ESPAÑOL DE LUCIA DE LA TORRE
CON SOTTOTITOLI IN ITALIANO DI MIRKO CERULLO
최모니카의 한국어 자막으로.
字幕翻訳:西山敦子
РУССКИЕ СУБТИРЫ МАКCИМ КАРПИЦКИЙ.

ON THE FILMS OF
FRONZA WOODS

BY YASMINA PRICE 

 

Sage Brush is the charming stage name Fronza Woods gives herself to play the nameless woman in ‘Killing Time’ (1979), one of just two films she made, both vivacious shorts. Slipping easily between registers, from flippant to sincere, exasperating to reassuring, Woods documents the daily rehearsals that make up the labour of living – even on one’s way to dying. ‘Killing Time’ follows a woman’s drawn-out attempt to stage her suicide. Perched on the edge of a bed and looking critically at herself in a hand mirror, she says: “You know what it is, it’s this bed […] It’s just so tacky looking.” Then, “I don’t care how many tops you put on, it’s just not chic.” She wants to die but first she needs to orchestrate how she will be seen. Things just keep getting in the way of her grand departure. A mysterious smell turns out to be the smoking remains of a pair of underpants she had washed and put in the oven minutes earlier for expedient drying. One dress she tries on gets discarded because it’s a bad colour and makes her look like she’s going to a funeral. When it finally seems as if this erratically fastidious main character has resolved to jump off the roof – after some truncated fidgeting with a razor blade – and is about to make her way over the wall, the sound of fabric tearing cuts the tension. Her carefully chosen outfit has betrayed her. You can’t die with a rip in your trousers. She sheepishly goes back in through the roof door.

 

Taken together, ‘Killing Time’ and Woods' second short, ‘Fannie’s Film’ (1981), barely run to half an hour, but they are enough to distinguish her as a filmmaker of uncommon flair. Each focuses on a Black woman supposedly at the end of her life: one young, dissatisfied, ready to cut it short; the other, much older, content to live out the rest of her days. Different as they are, both women are determined to fashion their own circumstances, no matter how little room they are given. For all its comedic anglings, there is nothing mocking about ‘Killing Time’. The unnamed woman is claiming the little fragments of control and beauty we wrest from even the most unlivable circumstances. We are not given any background as to what might have brought her to this point, and the only traces of uncertainty are expressed in the terms of method and presentation. Her many outfit changes are the conduit for all her hesitation – perhaps displaced into a more manageable sphere. Both as the unexpected mechanism of suicide prevention and as the means by which we discover something of her character – aesthetically minded, picky, careful – ‘Killing Time’ is traced through clothing. The first image of the unnamed woman is of her laying obliquely on an unmade bed, with her head hanging off the right side and one arm dangling to the floor, doubled by a girlish cutout figure on her white dress. The outline resembles the visual shorthand for a women’s restroom or the contours of a child’s cutout in coloured paper. Positioned over her stomach, it also has the disquieting symbolic charge of a phantom child. Woods is skilled at saying a lot with a little. Though the entire film takes place within the cocoon of her small apartment, this place is heavily marked by the demands of the outside world. Looking in the mirror while trying on a floppy hat with a feathered trim, the unnamed woman says, with a tone that could lean either towards self-admiration, or exasperation at her own indecisiveness: “Honest to God, you could really drive a person nuts.” Other details suggest she is trying to discipline her body according to the punishing pressure to be slim. When she initially tries to set the scene, she wonders, “How do they do it in the magazines?” and later observes that the last book she will have read will be Fasting as a Way of Life. She notes, wryly, “The most lethal thing I have is a herbal laxative.”

 

Speaking from across a few generational divides, Mrs. Fannie Drayton, the 65-year-old cleaning woman who is the protagonist of 'Fannie’s Film', has is seemingly free from such self-punishing habits. It could be more than the wisdom of age which stands between Fannie and the unnamed protagonist of ‘Killing Time’ – while one strength of the films is their non-prescriptive openness, it’s possible they are also conditioned by different class positions; the directionless and somewhat detached approach of the protagonist of ‘Killing Time’ is cinematically familiar as something within the scope of bourgeois ennui, and is entirely antithetical to Fannie’s energetic satisfaction with her life. This is not, however, to oppose leisure and labour across class lines. Fannie says she looks good precisely because she takes care of herself and allows herself leisure, describing her after work routine as “Rest, dinner, TV, sleep.” Noting how careful she is about ironing her sheets, Fannie says “My linen closet is out of this world the way I fix it. I love my place looks nice.” Fannie works at the Robert Fitzgerald Pilates studio, and Woods met her when employed there as an instructor. The film begins with a slowed-down close-up that is revealed to be her reflection in a mirror when, cleaning spray and rag in hand, she wipes it down. We hear Woods’ voice first, asking Fannie how she started working there. Though Fannie is initially introduced through her labour, this frame is eroded over the course of the film as she weaves a biographical tapestry of her life before and outside of her workplace. Dressed in a crisp white smock, Fannie explains, somehow without a detectable trace of annoyance, that the white patrons of the studio behave as they might at home, leaving dirty clothes and wet towels all over the floor. She offers glimpses into her past, describing her youth in Georgia as one of six children spoiled by their father, a “shrimp boat man” and how she met her adoring husband, who managed to approach her despite the fact, “I don’t like somebody the first time I see them. […] Sometimes I want to talk, and sometimes I don’t, see.” Fannie’s film is also notable for how it upends the hierarchical scaffolding of the filmmaker/subject division. In a 2019 Q&A at the Courtisane Festival, Woods said they met during a “very angry period” in the filmmaker’s life, recounting her hope that Fannie would function to channel that anger.[1] But Fannie would not be a puppet-performer in someone else’s vision. Woods gave in: “She could be as nice as she wanted to be and I would take my anger elsewhere.”[2] With this concession and with the title, she ceded partial authorship to Fannie.

This willingness to be flexible – a generous methodology – flows across the two films. Woods creates cinematic frames in which Black women, “real” and “fictional”, can freely appear as themselves. Both ‘Killing Time’ and ‘Fannie’s Film’ are also a strong expression of her unique visual language, which is bold, grounded, magnetic, and never too polished. If the films are twinned at the narrative and thematic level, there are also echoes between them on a formal level through a cinematic attentiveness to detail. As noted, Fannie is introduced as a reflection, and her younger foil uses several across her suicidal choreography as she arranges her posture, does her makeup and tries on her many outfits. This creates a circuitry between the two films, one that encompasses both how these two black women see themselves and how Woods sees them. In ‘Killing Time’, the final sartorial decision the nameless woman makes concerns her shoes – a close up at ground level shows her trying on a few pairs before settling on one, and the camera stays close to the floor as she opens the door and steps across the threshold, whistling jauntily; in the other film, a clip of Fannie getting ready to leave the studio for the night as she talks in voice-over about her plans to go to Canada and “the gambling places” in Las Vegas is followed by a shot of her neat black shoes, as though she might walk out of the frame right there and then. The effect of these fragmented shots is to give a true tip-to-toe portrait of these women, assembled from many carefully curated parts. Another parallel is found in the films’ use of sound – Fannie hums and the younger woman whistles – a kind of sonic weft that connects their interior rhythms. ‘Killing Time’ is filled with the nameless woman’s inner soundscape: her mysterious murmurs and mutterings (“I’m not a cactus, I need a lot of watering”; “No more alfalfa sprouts”) are interspersed with snippets of wordless singing. Fannie’s soft crooning and humming similarly provide the soundtrack of her film. Woods isn’t interested in the spectacular. Instead, through mundane details like these, she creates a cinematic universe characterised by the warmth of minute gestures. In one instance, Fannie’s singing creates a comical dissonance when it accompanies shots of white women exercising in the studio: she comes off as unaffected, her expressiveness highlighting the calculated nature of their robotic movements. The intimacy with which Fannie is recorded is contrasted with the almost ethnographic gaze directed at the white women: a charged and fitting inversion given the powerfully colonialist and anti-Black foundations of both ethnography and cinema. The efficient elegance of this irony is typical of both of Woods’ films.

 

‘Fannie’s Film’ is a rare filmic foregrounding of a Black woman worker, but it is not an entirely isolated example. It fits into a lineage of films preceding it, such as Madeline Anderson’s ‘I Am Somebody’ (1970), which is about the strike of hospital workers in South Carolina, and films that came a little later, such as Lyn Blum and Cynthia Ealey’s ‘A Mother is a Mother’ (1982), which tracks the social reproductive labour of unwed mothers, and Muriel Jackson’s ‘The Maids’ (1985), which is about the historical continuum of the gendering and racialisation of domestic labour. (A significantly more recent work in a similar spirit is Loira Limbal’s Through the Night (2020), a documentary about the tenuous balancing act of child care for working class mothers in New York.) What these films share is also a subversive way of seeing. Looking at what is left out of dominant narratives, they enact exactly what bell hooks describes in her 1992 essay ‘The Oppositional Gaze’. Here, hooks writes that “The extent to which black women feel devalued, objectified, dehumanized in this society determines the scope and texture of their looking relations. Those black women whose identities were constructed in resistance, by practices that oppose the dominant order, were most inclined to develop an oppositional gaze.” Although “run[ning] out of steam and money”[3] prevented Woods from being able to make the entire series she had planned about “women who work in the background”, as signified by the ‘Invisible Women: Part 1’ subtitle of ‘Fannie’s Film’, the works she did produce explore such oppositional ways of looking. ‘Fannie’s Film’ not only makes an “invisible” subject and her labour visible but also offers an entry point to considering the multi-faceted nature of visibility more broadly. Fannie validates her own appearance, making no concessions to being recognised or represented in mainstream terms. To be seen through the hostile rubric of the dominant visual order would at best be a tepid victory: the obtaining of some sort of recognition is not a guarantee of its adequacy, nor is it a metric of improved circumstances in any other respect. Woods offers something of an antidote, not only because her work is a refutation of that visuality but also because she doesn’t attempt to compel Fannie to conform to her vision either. ‘Fannie’s Film’ has an elastic quality, one shared by many (not all) Black women filmmakers who refuse to push Black women into a stable category. The film presents a dynamic of looking at one another that allows for the unpredictable autonomy of each. Meeting in the well-manicured moral oblivion of ladies who lunch, Woods and Fannie obviously saw each other. Fannie’s family and husband saw her. More importantly still, even in the film, she is visible to herself, reflected in the mirror, a shot which both opens and closes the film. 

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Woods’ films have circulated in two acts. Initially, they were screened across festivals in the years following their production, though only erratically. Both were shown at the 1983 International Women's Film Festival in NYC (which showed everything from Lizzie Borden’s Born in Flames to Trihn T. Minh-ha’s ‘Reassemblage’), the UCLA Black American Independent Film Festival American Black Film Practice in 1984 (which also included, amongst others, Pearl Bowser, Barbara McCullough, Julie Dash, and Kathleen Collins), and were included in a program titled ‘We are not sugar and spice and everything nice’, a 1989 video tape series “combining vintage and contemporary television with the works of over 30 of the most innovative women working in film, video and the visual arts” put together by The Video Data Bank at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago.[4] 'Fannie’s Film' was also shown as part of ‘The Black Woman Independent: Representing Race and Gender,’ a series put together by scholar Valerie Smith at Whitney Museum of American Art in 1986.

 

The second act came when her films were included in a 2017 BAM Cinématek in New York, titled ‘One Way or Another:  Black Women’s Cinema, 1970–1991.’ The series was co-programmed by Nellie Killian and Michelle Materre, whose capacious professional work as a scholar, programmer, and more has contributed significantly to the circulation of Black Cinema. This series was followed by more like it: in 2019, Woods’ two films were shown in the Festival Confrontation 55 at Institut Jean Vigo in Perpignan, the Festival des 3 Continents in Nantes and the Courtisane Film Festival in Ghent. Of course, the resurfacing of Woods’ film follows a regrettably familiar script for filmmakers operating at the margins of mainstream film industries. While there are key differences in terms of their professional trajectories and cinematic particularities, Woods’ contemporaries Julie Dash and Kathleen Collins are comparable examples. They were similarly obstructed from being able to produce the many films they had planned and were later ‘re-discovered’, receiving their well-deserved flowers with a punishing time-lag. There is a demoralising lack of mystery to why the work of these exceptional filmmakers was suppressed. Fronza Woods is an artist of evident talent who was failed by an industry characterised by unforgiving financial barriers as well as racialised and gendered exclusion. An incomplete list of what Woods has done includes work as a camerawoman, an assistant sound designer, a script reader, a film educator and in a community outreach capacity.[5] Unable to ‘make it’ in the traditional sense, she found other avenues of work and eventually left the United States during Reagan’s reign to join her husband in the Aude, a region in the South of France. What matters is that Woods managed to create despite everything and that her work survives: ‘Killing Time’ and ‘Fannie’s Film’ are circulating as they always should have done, and the films can be seen now with a clear-eyed reckoning of the historical realities of their production and distribution and, importantly,  without the treacly recuperative overtures that deny filmmakers their place in the present in order to sustain a bad faith nostalgia. A necessary accompaniment to the belated appreciation of Woods’ cinema is a lucid confrontation with the conditions facing Black women artists in the same position today. Is it any easier for these filmmakers to create now? The problem remains. There are barriers of race, gender and class, along with a lack of financial support and industry infrastructures suited to the realisation of films that don’t fit the tired mold of liberal representational tactics.

 

As Michelle Materre has noted, during the time frame within which Woods was working in New York “filmmakers were typically producing totally on their own, without limited support and resources from institutions.”[6] If the various Black cinematic collectives formed before and contemporaneously with Woods’ work had the potential to be correctives to this, it was also the case that while the endeavors of the L.A. Rebellion made black filmmaking on the West Coast more cooperative and therefore abundant, communities in the East remained scattered, or “splintered”, as Woods recently termed it.[7] In a 1983 interview, Woods said: “I am not in touch with other Black women filmmakers.”[8] The burden on these artists to both navigate the material difficulties of making films at all when so little support was available could understandably have left little room to figure out how to establish collective formations, and it should not be assumed that this would have been desired by everyone. The touch of loneliness in both ‘Killing Time’ and ‘Fannie’s Film’ perhaps reflects the circumstances of their making. What is certain is that Woods made two exquisite films. In less than 30 minutes, she carves out two ordinary stories with extraordinary deftness, showing that on both sides of the camera Black women are not limited to being any one thing, on anyone else’s terms. Sage Brush and Fannie are a perfectly discordant pair – one ready to end her life and the other so content with it that she would live it again.

 

As such, ‘Killing Time’ and ‘Fannie’s Film’ are also a portal into considering that Black audiences are not monolithic. The notion that a Black filmmaker’s film would have some universal appeal to Black audiences erases the plurality on both sides of the equation. The unevenness of reception is made especially clear with oppositional forms of filmmaking. Speaking about her work in 1983, Woods said:

 

“Audience reaction to my films has been very favorable, especially toward ‘Killing Time’, a comedy, which is more accessible to the public than ‘Fannie’s Film’, which requires a real commitment by the audience. It is interesting that although ‘Fannie’s Film’ is about a Black woman, often white people in the audience will tell me how much she reminds them of their mothers or grandmothers, and will be quite moved by the film. It is not unusual to find people, especially older people, with moist eyes after ‘Fannie’s Film’.”[9]

 

In a more recent interview, Woods also spoke about how ‘Fannie’s Film’ did not resonate with audiences in the context of awards for the Black Filmmaker Foundation in New York. Hinting at a chilly if not hostile reception during the screening, she speculated they “Didn’t want to see a black cleaning woman. […] I think they want to see Hollywood, they want to see glamour, stuff that’s funny and fun. Maybe they didn’t want to see a cleaning woman who was happy with her life, as simple as that, that offends people, because you’re supposed to aspire for more.”[10] The last comment shows how we might interpret the question of class raised by the film. With her uncompromising personal satisfaction, Fannie rejects the grammar of upward mobility and the ‘American Dream’. The danger with dominant forms of filmmaking is that they teach a hegemonic form of viewership, one that reflects a capitalist and white supremacist context unwilling and unable to accommodate a work like ‘Fannie’s Film’. Films like Woods’ are instructive – not because they are explicitly pedagogical, but because they demand more pliable forms of reception, inviting us to un-learn and re-learn how we watch. The claustrophobic room in ‘Killing Time’ contains the uncontainable – the vast inner life of an utterly ordinary, familiar, and simultaneously unusual and unsettling young black woman. ‘Killing Time’ is a reminder of the undignified silliness and exquisite marvel of the little things we do to either stave off the crush of mortality or run headlong towards it, preparing our entrances and exits. And it really is funny how seriously we try, the film insists through its infusions of glitteringly morbid humour. In a 1983 interview, Woods stated: “I like films about real people. I am inspired by almost everything but especially by struggle. I am interested in people who take on a challenge, no matter how great or small, and come to terms with it. What inspires me are people don’t sit on life’s rump but have the courage, energy, and audacity not only to grab it by the horns, but to steer it as well.”[11]

[1] Courtisane Festival Interview https://vimeo.com/361861950

[2] Courtisane Festival Interview https://vimeo.com/361861950

[3] Courtisane Festival Interview https://vimeo.com/361861950

[4] Heilbrun, Carolyn G. Review of Parallel Lives, by Sandra J. Peacock and Margaret M. Caffrey. The Women’s Review of Books 6, no. 8 (1989): 8–10. https://doi.org/10.2307/4020408. P. 9

[5] https://www.wmm.com/filmmaker/Fronza+Woods/

[6] Materre, Michelle. "Capture and Release: Curating and Exhibiting the East Coast Independent Black Film Movement, 1968–1992." Black Camera 10, no. 2 (2019): 149-158 p.157

[7] Courtisane Festival Interview, https://vimeo.com/361861950

[8] Loretta Campbell “Reinventing Our Image: Eleven Black Women Filmmakers,” p.62 Victoria Schultz, ANNIE GOLDSON, Michelle Parkerson, Lizzie Borden, DeeDee Halleck, MIRIAM HANSEN, Micki McGee, et al. “Heresies: A Feminist Publication on Arts & Politics.” Heresies: A Feminist Publication on Arts & Politics 4, no. 4 (16) (January 1, 1983): 1–100. https://jstor.org/stable/10.2307/community.28038314.

[9] Loretta Campbell “Reinventing Our Image: Eleven Black Women Filmmakers,” p.61 Victoria Schultz, ANNIE GOLDSON, Michelle Parkerson, Lizzie Borden, DeeDee Halleck, MIRIAM HANSEN, Micki McGee, et al. “Heresies: A Feminist Publication on Arts & Politics.” Heresies: A Feminist Publication on Arts & Politics 4, no. 4 (16) (January 1, 1983): 1–100. https://jstor.org/stable/10.2307/community.28038314.

[10] Courtisane Festival Interview https://vimeo.com/361861950

[11] Loretta Campbell “Reinventing Our Image: Eleven Black Women Filmmakers,” p.59 Victoria Schultz, ANNIE GOLDSON, Michelle Parkerson, Lizzie Borden, DeeDee Halleck, MIRIAM HANSEN, Micki McGee, et al. “Heresies: A Feminist Publication on Arts & Politics.” Heresies: A Feminist Publication on Arts & Politics 4, no. 4 (16) (January 1, 1983): 1–100. https://jstor.org/stable/10.2307/community.28038314.

Yasmina Price is a writer and PhD student in the Departments of African American Studies and Film & Media Studies at Yale University. She focuses on anti-colonial cinema from the Global South and the work of visual artists across the African continent and diaspora, with a particular interest in the experimental work of women filmmakers. Her writing has appeared in Artforum, The New Inquiry, Hyperallergic, Film Quarterly, and elsewhere

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