My Short Film, Billboard Envy, Hair Vampires and the Importance of Mirrors

So, I’m directing my first short film.

There. I said it.

Oh, and I’m back from hiding, hibernating, hiatusing or whatever you want to call my year-plus absence from the blog.

I hate the idea that I abandoned my blog. Beckyville was my digital block, my hood, a place where I felt at home and could express myself freely with my peeps. Being MIA is also akin to abandoning my dreams, although I do wrestle with that notion often, if I’m really worthy of them. I apologize to folks who were regular readers of the blog and often encouraged me along the journey.

So here’s the tea – freshly brewed, no Splenda. I returned to L.A. in December of 2011 after a four-month cross-country stint to promote my short story collection Escape from Beckyville. I enjoyed the time spent on the road and I wouldn’t trade that experience for the world. My mother, Lola, my road dog, accompanied me on this zany quest as I did readings in indie bookstores and cultural centers from San Fran to Vegas to New Mexico to Atlanta to New York and points in between. The highlight of the trip was when I was informed that the Purdue University Department of Anthropology would be teaching my book as part of their Blackness and Culture course.

Once in La La Land, I didn’t know how I would maintain the momentum and freedom I gained on the road. I fell into a serious depression. Blinds closed, lying in bed for days, walking around wearing the same crusty white robe that I hijacked from some hotel. I was pretty much on the verge of bankruptcy and feeling like a flop as a writer. I had to pawn jewelry, borrow money, even recycle bottles just to put gas in my van and pay some bills. Top ramen with frozen veggies was my nightly cuisine.

I had to get a job. Cube life can be soul numbing for the creative person, especially if you feel like an automaton who’s merely following orders and not engaged in any meaningful work. It felt like I had returned to Beckyville, the very place I was doing my damnedest to avoid. I was ashamed because I was so convinced that I could sustain myself as a writer and here I was feeling like a character from one of my short stories, being dragged into another dimension where goblins lie in wait for black women, rasping, “Can I touch your hair? Can I touch your hair?”

Ever since I packed two suitcases and hopped a Greyhound Bus from Pennsylvania en route to Cali, my goal has always been to create compelling, intriguing (some say dysfunctional) work where black women take center stage. I moved to L.A. in the hopes of becoming a screenwriter. When I began my master’s program in Creative Writing, black speculative fiction resonated with me. Spec fic became a quirky but powerful way for me to critique issues we face daily – race, hair and rage.

I haven’t given up on Escape from Beckyville, although I took a break from promoting the book. I am still driving the Beckyville bookmobile, but that wasn’t my original intent. When I initially had the van wrapped in the neon purple colors of the book, it was a unique form of advertising during my cross-country escapades. I had a second vehicle, a “normal” car, but I had to sell it while I was on the East Coast so I could survive.

There are days when I do wish for anonymity, when I wish I weren’t behind the wheel of a big purple van, especially when my friend is plucking her chin hairs in the passenger seat and folks in passing cars are staring at her in disgust. I’m like, “Sis, you’re bringing down my brand,” but then I think, I never wanted to be a brand. I just wanted to be a voice.

This is going to meander a bit, but you can handle it.

When I traveled back east last Christmas to visit family, I couldn’t believe how many acres and acres of land were unpopulated by billboards advertising movies or sitcoms. In Hollywood, new entertainment billboards sprout up along the urban landscape daily like colorful, but toxic, mushrooms. But not so in my small town. A bus would roll by, pristine, unfettered by an ad for a TV show, and I would stare at it in wonder as if witnessing a mobile anachronism, a horse-drawn carriage clopping down the turnpike in rush hour traffic.

It was so blissful not to be bombarded with movie and TV signage every few yards during my sojourn to PA, but my joy was quickly deflated when I landed in Los Angeles. To be real, I doubt I would mind the ads for hot new shows or blockbuster movies if they actually featured faces of color. If aliens were sent to L.A. to observe us, and their findings about life on earth were solely based on the people depicted in our billboards, I can imagine the debriefing in the mothership: “Earth is a great place to live for beautiful, sad, glamorous, heroic white people.” People of color, not so much.

For a minute there, I suffered from extreme billboard envy. Any time I spotted a sign looming in the distance, awash in the soft glow of whiteness, I would feel furious, even averting my eyes. If I had a paintball gun and an invisibility cloak, I could do some serious damage in this town. But I do feel like I’m wearing an invisibility cloak. Every day of my life. And I realize how deeply ironic it is that as I’m rolling down the block, feeling invisible, wishing for anonymity in my purple van with the larger-than-life-sized black woman emblazoned on the exterior, she is the only advertising for us that anyone is apt to see in a ten-mile radius.

Junot Diaz captured this lack of representation for minorities in pop culture, and feelings of frustration and helplessness associated with it, so perfectly. He says, “There’s this idea that monsters don’t have reflections in a mirror. And what I’ve always thought isn’t that monsters don’t have reflections in a mirror. It’s that if you want to make a human being into a monster, deny them, at the cultural level, any reflection of themselves.”

I was feeling pretty monstrous for a while. So do I not exist because no one who looks like me is smiling down from a 40-foot billboard on the 405? No. I don’t get my self-esteem from external sources. It just saddens me because writers and actors of color have dreams too, or else we wouldn’t be boarding cross-country buses or thumbing rides or driving rusty cars from our native land to this Siren’s isle of steel, smog and silicone. I also realize that a lot of non-black actors work hard to make it in this industry. It’s not their fault that we live in a broken world where it’s more palatable for, say, a show to get picked up about a plucky white woman and her daily high jinks in her apartment building than a movie about vampires who prey on black women’s hair.

So now I’m meandering back to my original premise. Thank you, Fab Reader, for coming along for the ride. I’m directing my first short film. I wrote it about a year ago. Back then, I wanted to produce and have someone else direct, but at this juncture in my life, I want to explore storytelling behind the camera. Directing is a natural extension of the movies that were always playing in my head as a kid, where the little girl in fuzzy pigtails (well, me) is dancing for a faceless audience, relishing the applause, feeling beautiful and happy and free.

This short film (which shall be nameless for now) is a departure from Beckyville but change is good. Like Junot Diaz, I too want to make some mirrors, even if they’re cracked, even if I only have a shard to show the world a woman with a face like mine. Mirrors are the only antidote to billboard envy … other than paintball guns and invisibility cloaks.

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