Arts + Culture

2017 Was the Year of Black Women Living Dynamic Sex Lives on TV

This year's television illustrated black women's sexual narratives through a handful of groundbreaking, yet problematic personalities—and we're here for it.

This fall, a humorous sexual moment swept over the internet. It was an ongoing freestyle, where the lyricist articulated the extreme lengths they'd go for good dick. Introduced by Gameova Reedy, the "For the Dick Challenge" inspired celebrities like Erykah Badu, Issa Rae, Regina Hall, Cardi B and Gabrielle Union to share their own versions, equipped with dickmatized, ridiculous bars. A "For the Pussy Challenge" started as well, but that's another essay.


The "For the Dick Challenge" was met with general praise and affirmation, because who hasn't found themselves doing something out of character for great sex? But naturally, there were some who found this social media performance thirsty and degrading to black women. As Tamara Winfrey Harris points out in her essay for Bitch Media, society claps back when black women assert and express our sexuality, but rarely defend or support us in issues of sexual assault or abuse. This double standard is rooted in decades long stereotypes about us being inherently hypersexual beings with no say or ownership over our bodies.

Black women having sex—on our own terms—is still seen as a revolutionary act. Our culture tries to diminish us to "hoes" and "sluts" when we own our sexuality: a slur for being promiscuous or curious that we have recently turned into a label of pride.

Yet, 2017 has seen a surge in representation of women of color in media as healthy, sexual beings with agency over our pussies. Sex and body positive rapper and comedian Cardi B, hit movie Girls Trip and Kelela's sci-fi musical joyride "Take Me Apart," are some of the contributions to the conversation on how Black women manage our bodies and bedrooms.

However, I'm most interested in how this year's television illustrated black women's sexual narratives through a handful of groundbreaking, entertaining and sometimes problematic personalities. There's Chewing Gum's Tracey, a religiously sheltered 20 something year old living in the projects who anxiously loses her virginity; Issa and Molly of Insecure, two single women navigating the complexity, and confusion, of online dating, casual sex and devastating breakups, and Nola Darling of She's Gotta Have It, a young artist looking for validation for her "abnormal" sexual appetite from her three male lovers, amongst other fabulous and flawed fictional personalities.

Now is typically the time when women are encouraged to think about marriage and children, but most of us would rather focus on our career, personal growth and maintaining dynamic sex and love lives. These characters exhibit the various ways black women engage in and navigate sex and emotions, without feeling bogged down by gender roles and society's expectations. Although some representations were more effective than others, they serve as rousing topics for a wider conversation on where we are sexually and cinematically and how much farther we need to go to include stories about all sexualities and relationship structures.

In Netflix's reboot of She's Gotta Have It, we are introduced to a millennial version of Nola Darling, a liberated, petulant and self-absorbed woman with a trail of captivated lovers. Jamie Overstreet, Mars Blackmon and Greer Childs are the most prominent partners in her bedroom. With them, she has fulfilling sex under her terms and at her convenience, but they all try to sway her into monogamy.

Nola defines herself as a pansexual polyamorous person who wants to commit, but her emotional reliance on her lovers proves otherwise. Here polyamory is inaccurately dressed up as an excuse to be a dishonest, inconsiderate and selfish lover: Nola takes phone calls from other lovers while in bed with one, is unjustifiably jealous over Jamie's wife and forces her lovers to meet against their will—over Thanksgiving dinner, where she unveils a nude painting featuring them as a 3 headed monster.

Her truest relationship, with a woman named Opal, is as heartwarming as it is poorly executed. Nola only seeks Opal when she goes on a dick strike—as if queer women choose to date other women as an affront against men. Although their chemistry is undeniable, and Nola recalls feeling her purest, safest self with Opal, she is still unable to commit in the simplest ways, completely disregarding that relationships are a two-way street. Nola is supposed to represent a black woman on a sexual journey, but instead she's perceived as a woman who won't grow up and uses her rules and standards as an excuse to disregard others feelings.

I've written about the importance of Chewing Gum's Tracey and Insecure's Issa and Molly as leading ladies sharing a variety of black women's stories. This year we saw Tracey lose her virginity, Issa embrace hoedom and Molly enter an open relationship, a decision that may prove perilous to her heart next season, but for now seems sexually enticing. These characters prove that our partners, and the reasons we choose them, don't always depend on commitment, a future or romantic expectations—some are just funny, our friends, or live downstairs.

Yet, I especially appreciate how these tales illustrate fucking. Most of Insecure and Chewing Gum's sex scenes are candid, hilarious, unsatisfying and awkward—a direct deviation from 90s movies that usually depict Black lovemaking as hyperromantic, orgasmic and ultimately perfect. Love Jones' Nia would probably cringe at Issa's clumsy first time with neighbor bae, while the women of Living Single would cheer her on and give a few pointers. That's what makes their stories, although exaggerated and amusing, land close to home: it breaks past the sheer, sensual curtains of how media usually displays romance, and busts into our messy, tornado-driven bedrooms.

But for these characters to truly feel authentic, inclusive and progressive, writers have to dig deeper into the intersections of black women's experiences and identities to project characters that truly push past stereotypes or misconstrued ideas about black sexuality. Nola Darling would have been a grand opportunity to explore polyamory and queer identity, but instead her multiple relationships are fueled by narcissism, insecurity and uncertainty; the best part about this show is the fine-ass cast. Where Insecure succeeds at showing the intensity and discomfort of sex and dating, addressing stigmas around sex, and forgiving character's mistakes, it can feel as though the writers are persistently striving to prove a point about sex and black women without tightening the loose ends they want us to pick at (i.e. the unresolved oral sex episode and Molly's homophobia).

Thankfully Empire's Becky is representation of a full figured sista having sex and enjoying it, and How to Get Away With Murder's Annalise, a middle aged black woman, is never shy of inviting men and women into her bedroom. Queen Sugar's Nova is another shining example of a sexually fluid black woman living her truth, however I'm not caught up on this series to say more. And Netflix's Easy—an anthology series that delicately pinpoints the intricacies of relationships—features few, although wonderfully written, black women. Jo and Chase, an interracial lesbian couple, raise thoughtful questions about feminism, art and veganism—and engage in sex scenes that feel fluid and fulfilling. But in 2018, I'd like to see even more diverse representations of intersectional and marginalized identities rustling their sheets.

I am on a sexual and romantic journey of my own. After exiting a 4-year monogamous and long distance relationship a year ago, I've been actively, but not always successfully, relearning my desires, sexual expectations and boundaries. Watching these women navigate complicated, sensational and awkward sexcapades is like witnessing an exciting and emotional parallel universe in action—except these characters have had way more action than I this year.

Yet, as many inspiring, relatable or conflicting characters there are embarking on sexual awakenings, nothing can ever prepare you for the real thing. There is personal, intellectual, emotional and physical work us black women do to untangle the internalized ideas on sexuality and gender that society has conditioned us into: a process that far exceeds eight episodes.

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Photo courtesy of Sam Soko.

Interview: Sam Soko is the Kenyan Director Behind Sundance Hit, 'Softie'

We meet filmmaker Sam Soko who has made a stirring documentary about the Kenyan protest leader Boniface Mwangi

Filmmaker Sam Soko didn't intend on making a documentary about Kenyan photojournalist-turned-politician Boniface Mwangi.

The original idea he had was to make a manual of sorts, a short video guide, on how to protest, the do's and don't's. Soko, himself an activist artist who cut his teeth convincing friends to let him create political music videos for their apolitical songs, knew Mwangi's experience on the streets both photographing protests and staging them meant he had a lot to share with others.

But then came the blood. A thousand litres of it, to be precise. And the pigs. Dozens of them, with words like MPigs written on them. Like the graphic photos Mwangi had become known for taking—it was a sight you couldn't look away from. It was a protest Mwangi organized, in 2013, to decry corrupt members of the Kenyan parliament who had decided to increase their salaries, 2 months after taking office. And at his side, through the thick red liquid of it all, was Mwangi's wife, Njere, ready to be arrested with him.

"Once I was witness to his relationship, I started seeing him as a family man," Soko tells OkayAfrica. "Because he's planning a protest and all, but when you look at the footage, you start seeing the kids and you start seeing Njere. That's when it started hitting me, in the sense, that she was with him in such a crazy space."

Soko formed a creative and activist hub, called PAWA 254, with Mwangi, as they became part of the groundswell demanding democratic reforms in a country still left scarred from the division sewed between Kikuyu and Luo people by British colonizers. "We had a new Constitution at the time, and there was this hope that we finally could picket without being tear-gassed or being beaten, Like, our civil liberties could be held up." Instead, the government strengthened its police force into a notorious organization condemned by human rights activists. "That's very salient in the film," says Soko. "If you see how the police dress, for instance, at the beginning, it's very different; they become more militant towards the end."

Soko's debut feature-length documentary, Softie, which became the first Kenyan film to ever premiere at the Sundance Film Festival, earlier this year, is at once a love story between Mwangi and his wife and their three children, but also between Mwangi and his beloved Kenya, under president Uhuru Kenyatta. Central to the film is the tussle between how these different loves bump up against each other: what comes first — love of country or love of family?

We spoke to the Nairobi-based director about making the film, which opens in virtual cinemas, starting this Friday, September 18th.

Boniface Mwangi with his wife Photo courtesy of Sam Soko


OA: Early on in the film, we learn how steadfast Boniface Mwangi is — he talks about being willing to die for the ideals he believes in, which made me think of Nelson Mandela and his Rivonia Treason Trial speech. Boniface is someone in the present day who still shares this belief?

When we were working on the edit, and kind of crafting and thinking about what the story was going to be, something that we found that was really, really interesting is, with a lot of the stories, like the story of Nelson Mandela, you'd never see the other side. That's something we see later, up ahead, as a retrospective. We'd hear about Martin Luther King and then we'd read about Coretta Scott in, I think, 1990, like, 'Oh, this his was her struggle.' That sort of thing. But for me, Boniface and Njere represented a present day reality struggle that showcases what Mandela was going through, what Martin Luther was going through. That was kind of like unravelling the curtain; when you see Martin Luther marching, Coretta's at home, trying to help their kids do their homework. And this is the reality.

OA: And the film poses that question of love for your country versus love for your family, and which one should come first?

Exactly. They see it in different ways. Boniface sees it that if you improve the country, you improve the lives of those who you love. Njere's like, you have to have your family's back first. And that means everything else comes second. And she's right; she's not wrong. And he's not wrong.

OA: The film really is privy to some really private moments in Mwangi's life — how did you gain his trust?

When we started filming the short video, he was really involved with the protests, and we started doing the protests with him. So we were—quote, unquote—in the trenches with him in the protests, and somehow that's how he kind of welcomed us to his home. When you've been with someone in the streets, and you're tear-gassed together more than once, you already have a common bond. But then I started developing a relationship with him that was beyond the streets. Just checking up on him and asking, what's going on, what's taking place? That sort of thing. I think it took a while. And I think even from Njere, we kind of developed a kind of camaraderie that was separate from my relationship with Boniface, because I would actually be like, 'Hey, he said that, how does that make you feel?' And not necessarily on camera. But over time, he kind of accepted us to be there with a camera. At some point, I kind of felt like they were talking to me, and not necessarily the camera; like, the camera is kind of this thing that's there, but not there. That kind of trust, again, was built on a respect that I have for them and their values and what they're doing. I think that's something they saw. It made them trust me with their story and trust me with their family.

You're the director of the film, but you're also producer, writer and cinematographer. Did Boniface's own style as a photojournalist influence you in any way?

The film has three cinematographers, and a lot of my cinematography is within the intimate moments, because that's when they would only engage with someone they trust. But him being a photographer actually, to a point, made the work a bit hard because he's constantly looking at how you're doing it. He's in your face about the angle. He's like, 'Hey, why are you standing there, you should be there.' But in some places he did help 'cause he's been filming in the streets and filming protests for a very long time. So when you're there filming, he'll easily tell you, 'Dude, don't stand there. They're about to start tear-gassing. Go to the other side.' And it's weird, when you're on the other side and you're filming, and all of a sudden you see tear gas, you wonder, 'How the hell did he know?' You do that 234 times and you start knowing yourself, 'Oh, this is how,' and he was really helpful in that sense.

I can imagine that filming during the protests must have been one of the big challenges of making this film but what else did you struggle with? There were death threats for Mwangi, did that happen to you as well?

It's so funny, when you're filming and when you're in the protests, it's adrenaline talking. So you're not really thinking about whether you're going to be okay. This one time, I got arrested because the cop said I was a spy for the protesters. [We had everything] from cameras breaking to sound equipment messing up, but when it became a more political story, with death threats, it became scary even for editing the film. Because you don't know who's watching you. This one time, I was with him in the car, filming, and we were being followed. So we kind of had to be very careful who we are telling about the story. It was a very deep secret that we were making this film and there are people who are watching it now asking, 'How could you keep this from us from all these years?' Because we had to do that. Especially when the family was in the US. We had to do that for the sake of safety for him, Boniface, for his family but also the film team. I remember doing the pitches with different names. But then we were also lucky that we had our co-producing partner in Canada, Eye Steel Film, so they were able to house the edit there. I went to Canada to edit and that kind of also gives you a kind of freedom to think and work and create. That was the reality, and now I think we have PTSD from the film. I can't film another protest. I'm sorry. I'm out. Like, it tapped me out.

There are similarities to the Black Lives Matter protests here in the US, against police brutality and violence but the slogan takes on a different resonance in places like Kenya, where the police force is particularly heavy-handed. How do you see these protests as being similar but also different?

There are two things that you learn with the film. One, our voices can never be silenced. They will try, but I think humanity is like a pressure cooker. The more you boil us, the more you put that heat, the more explosive we become. And through people like Boniface's life, you see that there are human beings who exist, who do extraordinary things.

The other thing is the idea of activism doesn't necessarily just speak to the person who's on the street. It doesn't necessarily speak to the person who's holding the placard. An activist is someone like Njere and her life, and her family. And Khadija [Mohamed, Mwangi's campaign manager]. She's such a strong and powerful activist in her own right. She was Boniface's campaign manager for free. The work they did was so powerful. And you have these other people in the background who are doing such incredible things. The sum total of what they've done is [to] instigate… We have an election next year, but I am so sure that we are going to have so many candidates who are going to be like, 'We want you to donate to our campaign. We have these values and beliefs; this is what we want to do.' That is how we need to go about change or add on to the conversations of change.

The same thing that's happening with the Black Lives Matters movement. Yes, there are people going to the street and we should keep going to the street. But we need to push people to engage in policy and make sure these policy changes are made.

We need to stand for what we believe in, as filmmakers in spaces where we feel oppression exists. Like the rules that have come out with the Academy Awards, these are rules that should be celebrated because they add on to that conversation of diversity and representation. All these things—that sum total—is what makes the difference. It's going beyond the streets and going beyond our Tweets, going beyond our Facebook messages, making films and sharing films. We just need to keep pumping up the volume, keeping the heat up, keep pushing. It's gonna take a while, but we'll get there.


Photojournalist-turned-politician Boniface Mwangi during a protest in Nairobi, Kenya Photo courtesy of Sam Soko


That's where you as a filmmaker come in—this film was the first Kenyan film to get into Sundance, where it won a special editing prize.

There's another film I'm producing and, and, yes, I had my film at Sundance, that's great. But there's this other filmmaker who's making another film, and it's so cool, and this is the thing—we need to keep bouncing off this energy and this light and this vibe, and just keep pushing and making sure that the wheels keep turning. That's what we're all about.

How do you renew your strength, as a filmmaker but also as a Kenyan and as an African?

Being a Kenyan is hard. I think being an African is hard. Like, it's hard. There's a line I heard Boniface say once: 'I love my country, but I am afraid of my government.' But the way in which, personally, I find energy is when I meet new filmmakers, or you know, people who are like starting out and they want to make films that sound totally crazy. And they believe that they can do it. And I'm like, 'yes, yes, keep going!' We are planning to do a premiere. We have not confirmed the date yet but we're thinking it's around going to be early October in Kenya, because Kenyans haven't watched it. The government gave us an adult rating. They're putting us on the same level as porn.

This is the same government that banned Wanuri Kahiu's Rafiki because of its homosexual theme…

Exactly, that's what we're getting but the lemonade that we've made out of all this is, 'Guess what? This is cinema!' We're going to take it to a cinema. People are going to come to watch it in a cinema or watch it at home or watch it in the best way possible. And the people who've watched it have appreciated it as a film and a story, and their story. They've seen a reflection of themselves. That gives me so much joy because the Kenyans who've watched it, when they give you feedback, they say, this is truth; this is our truth. And they don't see just an activist. They see a couple struggling with love. They see our history in the last 10 years. And they're like, 'What the hell, we lived this?' and they see the things that are unresolved — and many things are unresolved. Seeing that reaction gives me so much strength and hope. But it's hard. It's very hard. Because, you know, you have to wake up and see the policeman getting a bribe. And you're like, 'Homie??'


"SOFTIE" Movie Poster



Watch the trailer for Softie here.

Softie | Official Trailer | A film by Sam Soko www.youtube.com

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