6 Happy Black Films at TIFF

I kept looking at Danny Glover, trying to recollect where I knew him from. Did we meet at a concert, at an office party, or was he an ex-boyfriend of my friend?

Someone called out his name. Glover turned, smiled and waved. The posse of photographers swarmed and jostled each other for the shots. It felt like I was trapped in the middle of a rugby scum. And I was the only woman in there. And the smallest person too. A photographer pushed me in front of him, and hovered over me so that I too could take a snap. I was playing paparazzi. These guys were professionals.

That was a years ago at the Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF). I learned then that I was not cut out to be an entertainment blogger. After spending hours memorizing the faces of visiting film stars I had not recognized the one right in front of me.

It got worst.

At a special screening I did not get why the slim guy entering the discussion stage, wearing a suit, dark glasses, and get this, gleaming white running shoes, got a standing ovation. It was Taye Diggs.

TIFF – the world’s biggest film festival – starts this week in Toronto. Black film stars are regulars at TIFF. I can still remember the champagne style buzz when Chiwetel Ejiofor walked the red carpet. Lupita Nyong’o was then a beautiful but unknown starlet. Their film 12 Years A Slave went on to make box office and Oscar history.

There are plenty of films with Black actors for viewing at this year’s TIFF and some of the stars will be in town. Look out for Halle Berry, Idris Elba, Kevin Hart and Octavia Spencer.

TIFF films are categorized by region, and not by race or ethnicity. I scrolled through several regions to find what I was looking for. I wanted films with Black actors, shot by Black directors, with happy endings.

So here is my list of six happy Black films at this year’s Toronto International Film Festival:

  1. The Royal Hibiscus Hotel. Will the cook open her restaurant or will the rich playboy burn her dreams? Got to find out in this Nigerian romantic comedy.
  2. Felicité. A Senegalese film about a plucky Kinshasa nightclub owner learning how to ask for help, before her club goes under.
  3. Looking for Oum Kulthum. An Egyptian-Persian film about a legendary singing diva.
  4. Sergio and Sergei. How a Cuban radio operator connects with a Russian astronaut stuck in space as both wait out time.
  5. Sheikh Jackson. A comedy on how the death of Michael Jackson shakes a huge fan – an Egyptian imam.
  6. Grace Jones. A documentary on the Jamaican-American model, singer and out and out diva.

Heartbeats in Africa: A Memoir of Travel and Love

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Depression and the PhD

Are PhD students depressed or do depressed people tend to study for PhDs? The issue came up in a roundtable discussion on what we needed to be fully present in the classroom. Four out of the thirty graduate students mentioned anxiety or depression.

Praise to the first person that revealed his anxiety. His words had a domino effect. It gave the rest of us permission to talk about our own struggles with mental health. Depression has no respect for appearance. It gnawed away at the manly forty-something guy with the patrician face. It nibbled the petite woman with a voice like a bear.

They did mention mental health services at the PhD orientation. At the time I paid little attention to it, as it was just another speaker among the many. I was already overwhelmed, feeling like I was in over my head.

Generally, about ten per cent of the population suffers from depression. So us graduate students were just slightly just above the average. But this is based on the ones who spoke up. My feeling was that the rate was probably a bit higher.

The rates of depression vary by gender, age and ethnicity. Twice as many women suffer from depression compared to men. The rate is higher among people of colour compared to whites.

Depression seems to follow the general rule in society – the closer you are to the top of power pyramid, the better your health, including mental health.

Treating depression is relatively easy. Lots of talk therapy usually does the trick. Sometimes it has to be combined with medication. The illness might be easy to manage, but the hard part is getting to the help.

Access to mental health services is also stratified. The lower you are on the totem pole the less likely you are to receive help. Black men are the least likely to seek or receive any kind of help for mental health issues.

I could see, and feel the many triggers for depression among PhD students. First, is the loneliness. The work that is fascinating to me is tedious to most people. It’s easy to lose friends and family and get buried in theorizing. Isolation is never good for the soul. Even the hermits took a break from their religious-imposed loneliness. Either that or they went mad or died.

Then there is the money. A full scholarship does not cover all the expenses of living in a big city. The first term I bought all the books for my courses. I treated myself each day to a fresh mug of tea. I did not repeat that mistake. Books were read at the library, tea was made from home. Economise became my new mantra.

Trying to figure out the unwritten rules of academia can lead to depression. There is the competition among students, and competition among academics. Navigating one’s way through the politics, without exploding any mines, is stressful.

Next is the self-doubt. Original thinking is hard work. It is tough to be enthusiastic when my bright idea seems so dull compared to the vast literature on the topic. There is no guarantee that I will produce anything significant at the end of four or more years of thinking. That is a depressing thought.

The depression rate does tend to be higher among graduate students. The best way of avoiding it is self-care. It is doing all the stuff that our mothers nagged us to do: eat well, go to bed early, go out with friends. And the best advice for me is get outdoors. A hike, a bike ride a canoe trip all bring me back to nature. She refreshes and sustains me.

50 Places: A Black History Travel Guide of London

Meet the New Minorities in PhD Programmes – It’s Men

Thank goodness I am doing a PhD at mid-life. I don’t have to worry about trying to find a husband among the fellow graduates. As it is, I am having a hard time trying to find the men in the seminars. They are outnumbered, almost five to one, by women.

This was surprising to me as I had expected the reverse. I guess a lot has changed since the days of my first degree, where women were the minority in most subjects. From the latest Statistics Canada report the majority of graduates are now female, from the first all the way up to the third degrees. We have left the men behind. They are struggling, trying to dust themselves off as they face the new competition – the one dressed in heels and pink lipstick.

Female graduates dominate the traditional feminine fields of health and education – so that explains why there are so men in my education department. The number of female science graduates is increasing faster than the men are able to hold the line. Engineering is the last area where men are a clear majority, outnumbering women three to one. But even here women are making slow but steady gains.

Back in the day, way back when I was doing my first degree, my friend and I stood out in the faculties. There were about 120 male undergraduates in her department. She was one of only three women studying physics. And she was the only Black person there as well. I had better odds, as there was another Black woman finishing a chemistry degree. And there was a Jamaican guy doing his PhD in the department. They did their best to mentor me.

Why are women doing so much better in universities today?  A century ago, we were not allowed to even enter the buildings. Our brains were supposed to be so feeble that an abstract idea could permanently ruin them. Women were first allowed to enter university in Canada in 1877. In Britain it was 1878 and in the USA it was 1831.

So what has changed? Over the century, have women gotten smarter and men dumber? That can’t be right as evolution does not move that fast – usually.

It seems to be a combination of reasons. Women are better at learning: we know how to sit still, listen to the teacher and we do the homework. All of this leads to higher grades and therefore a better chance of getting into university.

The job market has shifted from brawn to brains, increasing careers options for the educated, and decreasing it for those who are not. This means women have an incentive to stay in school and profit from the knowledge-driven economy.

The third reason is sex. Women can have the fun without the risk of getting knocked up thanks to the contraceptive pill. As they can control their fertility and have fewer children, it leaves more time to get an education and pursue a career.

We will need an equity programme for the next generation of PhD students; to ensure that the men, the new weaker sex, will have a chance to sit at the academic table.

50 Places: A Black History Travel Guide of London

Hidden Figure: Race and Space on Film

Computers used to wear skirts, heels and lipstick. Hidden Figures is a gorgeous drama about three African American women, the human computers at NASA in the 1950s.

Black women mathematicians working on the space programme seems so far-fetched. And yet NASA employed hundreds of them. The film excavates their story, bringing back into the light the geeks who made space flight possible.

As I am interested in how race and space intersect, I will focus on these here. The outdoor and indoor shots in the film capture the American racial-spatial dynamic. There is a classic film scene of people stranded on the side of the road as the car has broken down. The scene takes an unexpected turn, as the legs sticking out from under the car belong to a Black woman, wearing heels. Octavia Spencer is beautiful as Dorothy Vaughan the mechanical genius who get the car going. This skill comes in handy later, as she figures out how to programme the first mechanical computers, when the white male experts could not do so.

African Americans in the outdoors tend to be wary – on guard waiting for something to happen. In this case it is the white policeman, hand on gun, with all the subtlety of an elephant, demanding to know who the women were and what they were doing.  The wide open road ahead, is suddenly not so wide nor open.

The church picnic, a staple shot in African American films, gives another perspective on being Black in the outdoors. The church in the background of the scene, is large, stolid and comfortable. Much like its congregation. The picnic in the church’s garden is an excuse for food, gossip and the first smiles of a romance. In the domestic confines of the church’s garden, outdoors is a safe space for Black people.

Hidden Figures switches between the lives of the women at home and at work. At home they are surrounded by children and loving husbands. This point is worth noting, as it is still too exotic to see Black men as tender, loving figures.

Work life was so much harder. The USA lost the space race to the Russians as they could not figure out how to get the astronauts safely back to Earth. The mathematics for that had not yet being invented. When all the white men failed to work out that calculation, NASA put out the call to find ‘a genius among the geniuses.’ No one expected that it would be a Black woman. Taraji P. Henson steals the film as Katherine Johnston. She strikes the right balance between developing as an intellectual powerhouse and staying humble so that she would not be lynched on the job.

NASA was also short of talented engineers. The department opened up the gate to these top paying jobs, and promptly tried to shut it again when the best applicant was Mary Jackson, an African American women (Janelle Monae).

Watching the work battles of the women is so familiar. The signs for the segregated coloured toilets, water fountains and coffee pots have long gone. But the invisible ones are still cemented into place. Black people are the last hired, the first fired, and need to be twice as goods to get half as far.

Hidden Figures is set against the backdrop of the space race, Civil Rights and the dawn of the computer age. The women had the audacity, not just to hope, but to demand to be part of that new future.  Katherine Johnson went on to do the maths, enabling the US to win the race to put the first man on the Moon. A new $30 million computer research lab at NASA is named in her honour.

Hidden Figures has been nominated for an Oscar for Best Picture. It has made about $123 million at the box office, making it one of the most profitable films of 2016. This challenges the stereotype that dramatic films about Black people don’t sell. Hidden Figures is required viewing for all those trying to get more girls into science, engineering, technology and mathematics fields. The film shows that being a woman and being a geek is a recipe for success.

Heartbeats in Africa: A Memoir of Travel and Love

 

 

Choices: Marriage or Academia?

Like mosquito bites the professor’s words stung. The more she talked the more the bites itched. I willed myself to continue listening, ignoring the angry rash spreading in my spirit.

The professor introduced herself in class by summarising her accomplishments and climb up the academic ladder. Her achievements were many. Then she added a few personal details. She was married, this I expected. She had two children, this I did not expect. It was the first mosquito bite.

I did my first degree in England, switching from chemistry to international relations. As expected, there were no female professors in the science faculty. There was only one in my social science department. Three years of school and only one woman to show the possibilities of an academic career. At that point I decided it was not for me.

I did not want to end up at aged thirty, single, childless and old, facing a group of adolescents dissecting me with their pitying looks. Scanning my fingers for a ring, ears pricked for any hint of a life outside of lectures, books and exams.

Male professors aged thirty were fanciable, even in their corduroy pants, sensible shoes and jackets with elbow patches. A whiff of Old Spice enhanced their appeal. Female professors were a different a different chemical combination, smelling more like hydrogen sulphide than Chanel No. 5.

A decade later I did my master’s degree in Canada. Half of the professors were women (White). Hiding behind the gender parity was another reality. Most of the female professors were either single, divorced or childless. The male professors were the ones who were married with children. Once again, I decided that academia was not for me. Female professors were lonely old maids – albeit superbly educated lonely old maids.

And now, some two decades later, in my PhD class orientation, was a woman living the life that I had walked away from. She was my age. She was an academic. She was married with children. It should have been me. The mosquito bites blistered in my spirit.

Heartbeats in Africa: A Memoir or Travel and Love