How Black Women Have Reimagined Nature On-Screen

For decades, Black women have been injecting ecology and climate change into pop culture. From Kasi Lemmons to Beyoncé, Black women are transforming how we consume environmental themes in the media. Dr. Chelsea Mikael Frazier takes charge in this special edition of The Frontline.

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Do y’all remember when Naomi Campbell graced MTV’s Cribs with her presence in 2003? Because I do.

 

I was a teenager, and nothing impressed me more than big stars and their even-bigger homes. But her appearance on the show stunned me—not because of a 16-car garage, jacuzzi, or 15 walk-in closets laced with designer garments like all the other celebrities. Not even because she was one of very few Black women featured on the show. No, it stunned me because her bungalow in Jamaica was incredibly… simple? As she walked us around her non-air conditioned house, she spoke of keeping things easy and the utility of mosquito nets.

 

In that moment, when the world was worshipping the most garish toys made of inorganic materials, Campbell pointed to her modest canopied bed and bragged about how peacefully she slept in it. Forget the cars. This stunning Black woman reconfigured my understanding of what wealth was in eight minutes or less: peace, plants, outdoor showers, and a touch of couture peeking out of the closet in a tasteful house hugging the beach.

 

Even though the mainstream media loves to paint us as excessive and materialistic, Black women have consistently taken hold of key cultural moments to paint an alternative (though not necessarily corrective) portrait of themselves. Despite this, if there are two things people struggle to take seriously, it’s popular culture and the Black women spearheading most of its innovations. When they release a film, song, or Instagram post, people often use it to critique Black women’s labor, sexuality, (non)beauty, or mothering. Very rarely do they pay attention to the ways that Black women interact with their physical environments, the way they tell stories about those environments, and the ways that their centeredness weaves a very different cloth.

 

Take 1997’s Eve’s Bayou,for example. Eve’s Bayou, a horror drama written and directed by Kasi Lemmons and starring Jurnee Smollett, is a classic coming-of-age tale of Eve, second-born daughter of the wealthy Batiste family in Louisiana. While many stories about wealthy Black families signal a proximity to or aspiration toward white culture and customs, Eve’s Bayou veers into a world-opening alternative. Instead, the origins and maintenance of the family’s prosperity is rooted primarily in their being descendants of a powerful land-owning African healer woman. Moreover, because the family’s patriarch (played by Samuel L. Jackson) is a doctor and his sister is a community-revered medium that quietly practices African traditional religion, the family’s health and wealth continues to be inextricably linked to their ability to heal themselves and their communities.

 

Despite the Batistes’ heavy troubles that mobilize the story (mainly surrounding an adulterous father), Lemmons’ portrait never lets us forget that this family is materially healthy and well cared for. She communicates this by drenching the characters (who open the film attending a rousing party) in glamour with a capital G! In later scenes, the characters wear the finest 1960s fashions while taking in fresh air among abundant flora on leisurely strolls. And sweeping willows atop bright green grasses cradle the ivy-lined homes where most of the scenes take place. The story—set in the 1960s—took its time to remind its late 1990s audience that access to glamour and greenage was a Black family’s birthright too.

“Blackness and femininity sit squarely in the center of the ways we imagine our environments.”

DR. CHELSEA MIKAEL FRAZIER

Relatedly, Beyoncé’s 2016 film Lemonade referenced and extended many of the themes introduced in Eve’s Bayou. The visual album focused much more intently on what happens after a Black woman and her family sustained a deep injury due to infidelity. This project peers into a Black woman’s journey of introspection and renewal. Integral to the aesthetic and aural healing motifs that recur throughout the film are powerful elements of what we call “nature.” Fields of tall wheat that match the shades of Beyoncé’s skin, and textured tresses remind us of Black women’s embeddedness and connection to the soil. Her various moments of being partially or fully submerged in clear waters helps us recall the ancient West African deities of freshwater: Oshun and Yemonja.

 

Yes, much like Eve’s Bayou, this is a story about Black women’s heartache. But even more powerfully (as the title suggests) Lemonade is about the creative practices and revivals that rise when Black women are aligned with and make use of powerful organic elements: plants, water, air, and fire—that which we call “nature.”

 

In 2020, Beyoncé raised all our vibrations by giving us a taste of the gifts and fruits of ecological healing in Black Is King, the musical accompaniment to The Lion King. In this project, flushed with dazzling coasts, sparkling waterfalls, red clays, and technicolor Ankara prints that dot many of the landscapes across the African diaspora, a jovial marriage between Black masculinity and Black femininity are put on full display. In Black Is King, Black masculinity is no longer conceptualized as the perpetrator of emotional injury. Instead, the loss of Indigenous African cultural practices and communities functions loosely as the antagonist. Triumphantly, it is the waters, stones, fabrics, soils, and the extravagant feminine spiritual forces (most often portrayed by Beyoncé herself) that whisper to the lead character Simba in order to help him find balance and remember himself.

 

And to appropriately round out 2020 (the year of reckoning), Michaela Coel gave us the visual and narrative masterpiece I May Destroy You. Written by and starring Coel, the show provides a nuanced portrait of a talented, flawed, pleasure-seeking Black woman writer named Arabella. While on the precipice of professional success, she navigates her recovery from a brutal rape. Coel effectively interweaves several devices to tell this story, like using multiple perspectives or constantly moving backward and forward in time to flesh out her characters’ experiences. But one of the most intriguing devices is the consistent references to environmental degradation in nearly every episode.

 

In I May Destroy You, the threat of catastrophic destruction looms over nearly every intimate interaction. At best, the most emotionally intimate relationships—such as Arabella’s with her best friend, Terry—are constantly jeopardized by withheld truths and barely articulated assumptions. At worst, many casual dalliances between characters are stoked in outright violence. Due to casual anti-Blackness, homophobia, sexism, and class oppression, nearly every character’s connections are polluted. That said, it’s a subtle but unmistakable stroke of Coel’s genius to plant all these failed or fraught relationships within a larger visualization of a degraded and imbalanced global ecosystem. As children of our ailing Mother Earth, it’s almost as if the show asks what kinds of relationships we possibly expect to be birthed on a planet consistently harmed by its very offspring?

 

So what do we make of all this? First, Blackness and femininity sit squarely in the center of the ways we imagine our environments. This centering reminds Black women (and everyone else) that it is normal, appropriate, and bewitching to witness us luxuriate in our environments and that these resources that we call “nature” are available—not just for our work—but for Black women’s leisure, healing, and living! And, finally, it reminds Black women (and everyone else) that the issues that seem to only affect us most sharply—anti-Blackness, sexism, class oppression—are everyone else’s (ecological) problems, too.

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