WASHINGTON, D.C. — After watching a 22-minute film on the hair salons in Ghana, it was quiet in the Sub level 2 lecture hall of the Smithsonian National Museum of African Art. The screen went blank and the lights were up. Yet no one spoke, just the sounds of teens scribbling in their journals.
Their eyebrows furrowed, their heads rested on their fists. From the looks of their poses, they were mini replicas of the famous sculpture, “The Thinker.”
And like that chiseled man of bronze and marble they, too, were meditative or battling some internal struggle as they tried to identify the filmmaker’s purpose and point of view while examining her techniques. It’s “Flipping the Script: An Introduction to African Cinema.”
This past week, from August 2-6, about 20 DC-area teens (ages 14-17) gathered boardroom-style around several tables pushed together to flip the script on a number of media images used to portray Africans. “We really started, in the beginning, [focusing on] stereotypes and how people look at other people,” Nzingha Kendall, workshop leader, told the youth during the August 6 workshop. “We had looked at all these Hollywood films and how white Hollywood looks at Africans and the African continent.”
The teen media literacy workshop is among the museum’s outreach initiatives. The National Museum of African Art also offers hands-on workshops, performing arts, teacher training workshops, storytelling, lectures and interactive sites. The education department is also a source of curriculum materials on Africa and African art for local schools.
Nicole Shivers, the museum’s education specialist, noted that this was the first year for the teen media literacy workshop. She said, “I just wanted to facilitate a week-long series of workshops introducing young people to African Cinema.”
That tradition started in the ‘60s when African filmmakers fought against the colonial portrayal of African people as uncultured people, according to various sources of the art form. Social and political themes dominate African cinema instead of commercial interests. Shivers said she would love to do the workshop next year, adding, “it’s just a matter of funding.”
When Esther Iverem, founder and editor of Seeingblack.com, heard about the teen media literacy workshop, she called it a noble effort on the museum’s part. “Any comprehensive effort to educate the public about African film is great,” said Iverem, a former staff writer for the Washington Post, New York Newsday and the New York Times.
She’s written about black film online for 10 years. She noted that people are still unaware of Africa’s film industry. “Many of us still don’t realize…that some of our most creative storytellers are telling stories from that continent,” said Iverem, who’s also a contributing critic for Tom Joyner’s BlackAmericaWeb.com. “The fact that young people can get this knowledge means that those young people will have a leg up in appreciating the diversity of narrative.”
Flipping the script, in rap battles, involves an emcee taking his opponent’s words and using them against him. That same concept, applied through group discussions on topics raised in the film, teaches youth, like Norris Sydnor and Johnna Moore, how to gain control in the dialogue about them that’s dominated by powerful people who don’t look like them.
Sydnor, 16, who noted he wasn’t a big talker before the group discussions, noticed a change in his behavior. “During the week…I’ve participated in the discussions on what we saw in the movies,” he said. “I saw everybody contributing and I didn’t want to be the only one not contributing.”
The discussions had a different effect on Moore, 15. After watching a movie earlier that week about a mixed race boy, she recalled the dialogue on skin color among African Americans being an emotional one. In the movie, “He [the boy] had problems knowing that he was lighter” than his black peers, Moore said. “There was a scene in the movie where he was putting his mother’s foundation on to make himself darker.”
Kendall and Richard Collins, who also coordinated the workshop, flipped the script to offer another perspective. Kendall said, “We’ve seen there’s a difference in the way that Africans are portrayed when shot by themselves.”
During the last workshop on August 6, Kendall showed “Me Broni Ba” by Akosua Adoma Owusu, a Virginia born Ghanaian filmmaker and artist. The documentary opens with shots of hair salons in Kumasi, Ghana. Airbrushed signs of popular U.S. rappers sporting various haircuts are outside barbershops. On the exterior wall of the salon are airbrushed replicas of women in African American hair magazines. Several shots show women practicing hair braiding on discarded white baby dolls from the West. The film’s title, me broni ba, is an Akan term of endearment that means “my white baby.”
Owusu noted her travels to her home country as the inspiration for the film. “When I started going back to Ghana, I was just so fascinated by these hair salon signs that were painted so differently,” she said, noting it was an art form disappearing because of photography and other advancements in art technology. “A lot of people aren’t painting these signs anymore,” Owusu said. “So I wanted to document them.”
The teen media literacy workshop gave Kephren Pondexter and Nailah Penic, both aspiring filmmakers, a way to advance their craft. “It’s a nice way for me to go back and feed information to my classmates and my teacher, and to be ahead of the game,” said Pondexter, 15.
Penic, who agreed, can’t wait to tell her friends at school what she did over the summer. “I’ll tell them that while they were at water parks, amusement parks and concerts… I had a great time just being here and experiencing African films,” the 14-year-old said. Thinking ahead, she added: “It’s going to look good on my high school transcripts that I’m sending to colleges.”
Collins and Shivers watched as the teens savored their last day together. This past week, they’ve flipped the script on how they communicate with one another. At first shy and hesitant to speak during the group discussions, the teens had taken down their walls and formed new friendships. “It was great to see the students open up the dialogue more with each other as the workshop progressed,” said Collins, who served as museum contact and was responsible for recruiting and screening all of the students that participated.
Shivers echoed Collins’s sentiment. She smiled after hearing two aspiring filmmakers talk about using what they’ve learned from the workshop in their own projects. “You don’t really know the impact,” Shiver said. “You always hope something will resonate and stay with them as they grow.”