Catch up, Kechiche! – in response to ‘Venus Noire’ (Black Venus)
Abdellatif Kechiche’s Black Venus has to be the laziest, most cowardly attempt to summarize someone’s life. It’s not even a film, it’s a still of an idea without direction. Which, for a director, is problematic at best.
Kechiche failed miserably in his attempt to paint a picture of Sarah Baartman, the woman who is unfortunately best known as the Hottentot Venus. It, by lack of a word that’s even more nondescript, is purely a cinematic chain of catastrophes. Dancing, cracking whips, humiliation, drinking, humiliation, cracking whips, dancing… times a thousand. A change of scenery comes when we are introduced to Georges Cuvier and his hoodlums, a crew that tries to hide their cruelty under the cloak of science. Touching, poking, resistance, rage… Suddenly we’re in a brothel. A doctor tells Sarah she has a venereal disease, she continues to work as a prostitute, she dies and one of her abusers takes her body to Curvier. He, being the monster that he is, cuts off her genitals and breasts, removes her brain from her roughly opened the skull, peels the skin from her skeleton and double checks if the classroom is nice and tidy for his next lecture. The end.
As the closing credits roll, the left side of the screen shows no more than 2 minute worth of snippets of the return of miss Baartman’s remains to South Africa. On August 9th 2002, 192 years after after she was taken to London, Sarah Baartman is ceremonially welcomed back home. The P.S.-like manner in which this is shown clearly states that after 3 hours of abuse, sexual exploitation, intoxication and numbness director Abdellatif Kechiche ran out of time and the story behind the Sister didn’t make the cut. To Kechiche the fact that Nelson Mandela asked for the return of South Africa’s daughter in 1994 and it took the French Parliament 8 years to finally take their hands off her obviously wasn’t as interesting as yet another extensive scene in which she dances in front of a crowd consumed by horror and horniness.
Upon her return home president Thabo Mbeki delivered a powerful speech that included the following statement:
“As the French Parliament debated the matter of the return of the remains of our Sarah to her native land, the then Minister of Research, Roger-Gerard Scwartzenberg said: “This young woman was treated as if she was something monstrous. But where in this affair is the monstrosity?” Indeed, where did the monstrosity lie in the matter of the gross abuse of a defenceless African woman in England and France! It was not the abused human being who was monstrous but those who abused her. It was not the lonely African woman in Europe, alienated from her identity and her motherland who was the barbarian, but those who treated her with barbaric brutality. Among the truly monstrous were the leading scientists of the day, who sought to feed a rabid racism, such as the distinguished anatomist, Baron Georges Cuvier, who dissected Sarah’s body after her death.”
Doesn’t this statement deserve as much attention as the countless close ups of her bottom? Doesn’t Sarah?
Besides a short scene in an English court when she is asked if she has children and the scene when Hendrick Caezar, one of the two main abusers, yells something about how she used to breast feed his babies there isn’t a single moment that gives the viewer any insight in who she was. I’m not saying Kechiche should have summarized the complete colonial history of South-Africa but there’s at least one political event that should not have been left out. Why wasn’t there more emphasizes on the initiation of the law with the derogatory name ‘Hottentot Proclamation’? One would figure that anything that prohibits a Khoi woman from going anywhere without a pass and forces her abusers to literally smuggle her to London is significant enough to pay proper attention to.
To not mention any political events is one thing but failing to understand the necessity to give the audience something, anything that would connect the main character to a family, a people, a country, a town, a time and a tongue is an unforgivable shame. We needed to be taken back to 1789 to see the then still untouched Gamtoos River Valley where she was born and, where besides the constant threat of lions and Christian missionaries, her community lived peace. We should, be it in high speed, have been shown how the colonizers succeeded to make their way to Gamtoos and yes, there had to be at least one shot of a little 6 year old girl with eyes that mirrored a childhood drenched with fear caused by the violent wars between the original South Africans and the Dutch and other European colonists. Mind you that in none of the shots her father nor her Brothers, Sisters and the members of her community should refer this little girl as Sarah because ‘Sarah Baartman’ isn’t the name she was given at birth.
She should have been shown as a young woman who was engaged to a young man named Solkar who gave her the tortoiseshell pendant she continued to wear for the rest of her life. If not to show her as someone who loved and was loved then to at least pay subtle homage to the necklage that is depicted in so many of the drawings they made of her. Black Venus should have featured scenes of a young woman who, after yet another outburst of violence, lost her father and her husband-to-be but was bold enough to love again. There had to be a glimpse of the young soldier who stole her heart, took her out, found the house they called their own, was a father for their newborn but who left her in the midst of grieving the death of their baby. How would she later refer to these tragedies?
These events, questions and answers didn’t have to be shown in chronological order but somewhere throughout the story the unfamiliar viewers should have been given the chance to understand how we got to the point that’s being presented as ‘the now’. Without a proper preface to the present no film has the right to give the impression of being biographical. Kechiche’s little cinematic cringe looks, feels and smells the same as any history book that allows or even justifies people to think that slavery was the starting point of African history.
Black Venus is nothing but yet another cinematic crime in a long line of attempts to portray iconic Black figures in the Eurocentric history of slavery as symbols instead of syndromes. Symbols can spark a simple kind of sentiment while syndromes demand further investigation. One portrays a person, the other represents a people. With not paying any attention to the mosaic of personal, social and political misery that caused the numbness that Kechiche so rudely tries to play off as intoxication, he robs the viewers who aren’t familiar with Sarah’s saga of developing ideas about historical and contemporary fixations on Black bodies.
The legacy of her abusers finds its revival in every moment a Black woman is subject to Eurocentric ‘curiosity’ and unauthorized actions of affection, admiration or disgust. She is every girl who verbally, physically and/or spiritually revolts against people who ‘just’ want to touch her hair, skin or body and who feel they can do so without asking. She is Nicki Minaj when Regis Philbin decided the combination of white privilege and male superiority was justification enough to slap her booty and Whoopi Goldberg when stylists grabbed her dreadlocks and told her that they had no idea what to do with “that” hair. The ongoing obsession with Black women’s bodies continues to be more grand than anything Kechiche could ever squeeze into a vulgar, nylon body stocking.
I can’t help but be unpleasantly intrigued by Abdellatif Kechiche who wanted to make a film about a Black woman’s behind while all he did was make an ass… of himself.