Monday, August 29, 2016

Reflections on the Dorothy Dandridge Quilt and the Genius of Halle Berry

Dorothy Dandridge as Carmen Jones, 1954

Halle Berry as Carmen Jones, 1999

Views of the Dorothy Dandridge quilt in art studio during several stages of composition

“Dorothy Dandridge Playing Carmen Jones” Installation-style quilt. Includes sound technology features. Composition 2012-2014.

The 1954 musical film Carmen Jones starring the legendary and iconic actress Dorothy Dandridge, alongside the actor Harry Belafonte, is one of the most famous productions in African American cinematic history. When I watched it growing up, I most enjoyed it for its dynamic singing performances, including the riveting performance of “Dat’s Love” As an adult, I’ve recognized the deeper contours of the title character, including her wise, memorable and witty lines, such as the one “Bait your hook on fish you can fry” spoken to a younger woman. I also love the film for memories that my grandmother, Emma Lou Jenkins Richardson, shared with me as I was growing up about its impact among some of the women she knew when it came out. She said that some women she knew at home in Montgomery, Alabama actually went out and bought their own “Carmen Jones” outfits, and that some women in our extended family also started a group that they named “The Carmen Jones Savings Club,” including one of her sisters-in-law, my great uncle’s wife, “Aunt Honey.” His brother’s wife also had the nickname “Honey,” and nieces and nephews called her “Aunt Honey,” too. So sometimes, as part of hearing the story, I would get clarification from my grandmother by asking, “Which one?” She said that the group even elected officers and met regularly. She said that she wasn’t a member herself, but clearly enjoyed witnessing the fascination that many of the women she knew, along with their friends, had with the film. She usually told the story when Carmen Jones was on television. The profound influence of the film Carmen Jones among some women of her generation of black women is palpable in her stories of how paeans to it seeped into their everyday lives and underscores how deeply Dandridge inspired her contemporaries through her talent, beauty and glamour on screen.

As an art quilter, all of this is mainly what influenced me to develop an art quilt in honor of Dorothy Dandridge for my Hollywood Series. For me, the quilt of her simultaneously recollects the larger cultural influence of Dandridge as an actress as well as the powerful stories that my grandmother told me about the impact of Dandridge’s famous character. In making this art quilt, whose various stages of development are illustrated in the photos above, I decided on a sepia background to invoke 1930s aesthetics from Hollywood’s golden era and underscore the common ground shared by Dandridge’s beauty and glamour on screen as a black woman actress with that of actresses from the golden era who were typically white and blonde, even though Dandridge was associated with later decades as an actress, and the film itself is from the '50s. While they are unseen, the backs of my art quilts are also always carefully designed. In the case of this quilt, I chose to make the back out of synthetic fur, again, to invoke 1930s glamour.

Like the Marilyn Monroe quilt that I discussed in a recent post, my art quilt featuring Dorothy Dandridge was developed as a larger, installation-style work, includes a soundtrack component and highlights more of the body as a “torso quilt.“ Like the Monroe quilt, it was developed with many of the design principles from engineering, architecture and geometry that come to a head in the large Debutante Triple Quilt installation that grounds the “Portraits II” exhibition and features quilts of my grandmother, grandfather Joe Richardson, and aunt Pamela. Its visible cleavage, curvy form, graceful hands and tilted head celebrate and showcase the femininity of the character Carmen Jones, and more broadly, that of Dandridge. Like the Monroe quilt, it is veiled, which helps to add another layer of mystique and heightens the glamour, while hinting at the status of Monroe and Dandridge as contemporaries in the sense that the Dandridge film biopic portrayed. I used the red nails left over from the Josephine Baker quilt for Dandridge’s manicure. The red rose that the hands are holding had to be special ordered. Because they are on such prominent display in this case, the hands do not include the cardboard inserts that typically underpin my torso quilts, although the quilt is grounded by the typical sculpted and stuffed body. I bought the red fabric for the skirt new, as is the case with most of the fabric I use for my quilts, but the black lace was thankfully among the materials in my fabric files (I keep just 3 small boxes of fabric on hand in a closet). Rooting the hairline a few strands at a time, as is the case with all of my quilts, was very painstaking and time-consuming work. The hair, too, is designed to capture the glamour of the Carmen Jones character.

I love the way that the piece turned out. At exhibitions, I am always intrigued and inspired to hear word of who likes what and why. For some, it was interesting to hear that this quilt was their favorite one of all in the show, including my mother’s close friend Zandra Moore. My aunt Pam liked it a lot as well, as I saw when she went back to take just one more look at it before we left the gallery room, when 60 of my art quilts that made up “Portaits II” were on public exhibition in Montgomery last year from January 10-March 27, 2015 as part of the 60th anniversary of the Montgomery Bus Boycott and the 50th anniversary of the Selma-to-Montgomery March. I went through the gallery room several times with her and my mother and they also saw it several times on their own. I was glad that my uncle toured it, too.

The art quilts that make up my Hollywood Series always honor actors and actresses “in action” in one of their most memorable roles. This quilt honoring Dandridge, because Halle Berry is one of my favorite actresses and portrayed Dandridge so compellingly and so spot-on in the biopic Introducing Dorothy Dandridge (1999), to the point of becoming visually indistinguishable from her in my mind in a way, makes me think about Halle Berry as well. The compelling visual similarity to Dandridge as an actress in this film reminded me of her portrayal of Queen, Alex Haley’s maternal ancestor, in the television miniseries by that same name in 1993. The amazing back story about Berry being born in the very same Cleveland, Ohio hospital as Dandridge is just one factor that makes me agree, like so many, that Berry was born and destined to play this role. And like so many, I won’t ever forget that night at the Oscars in 2002 when Berry became the first black woman in history to win an Academy Award for Best Actress. She became the fulfillment of dreams for many other black women, including Dandridge, and as Berry said in her tearful and heartfelt acceptance speech, opened the door.

However, I learned another valuable lesson that night that always comes to mind for me when I think about Halle Berry, though it was less obvious. Let me explain. I was fascinated by her story of the lengths that she went to in preparing for her first major film role as the character Viv in Spike Lee’s 1991 film Jungle Fever, to the point of getting so into her character as a crack addict that she said she did not bathe for 10 days! Once she got her first film role, and even for a relatively minor character, she gave it everything she had. She went on to hone her craft and build a body of work throughout the 1990s in films such as Boomerang (1992) and Losing Isaiah (1995). In spite of our hardest work, sometimes it feels as if we do not always get the recognition or respect that we deserve, and it can feel as if our best efforts and most beautiful work is invisible. It seemed as if the Dandridge role made critics notice and appreciate Berry in an entirely different way. I thought it dazzling when she was invited to introduce the work of film sound technicians at an awards show, and mimicked the various sound effects on stage that go into film, a routine that alone showcased so much talent and wit. During one of her first major acceptance speeches, it touched my deepest heart when she said that for the first time, she felt as if she was really a part of Hollywood. In spite of her years of hard work, she was likely referring to having had a lingering feeling of being an outsider in the industry, or of still being on the margins. For example, for most of the 1990s, as Berry went about her work, Denzel Washington was an actor who was widely known. Much of her hard and passionate acting work, including the brilliant body of work that she was building, was not as widely known. Yet, I noticed that both she and Washington received the ultimate award and recognition as Best Actress and Best Actor, respectively, on the very same night! Their walks down very different paths extraordinarily converged that historic night. It was a moment that inspired me deeply and reminded me to continue to do my best work and be my best no matter what, and no matter who ever recognizes, validates it or sees it. It reminded me to keep running my very best race. It reminded me that God knows and cares how hard we work even if no one else seems to notice. Hers is a story that inspired me to keep walking by faith.

I value and treasure the mentoring that I have in my family, in academia, and among friends in the profession. In my life, I have always kept an open mind and operated on the premise that I can potentially learn from many people, including those far beyond the worlds in which I primarily move and live. I find my mentors far and wide. For example, I believe that the playbook and professional insights that I developed as a teen by reading biographical accounts and hearing about business projects of women such as the supermodels Beverly Johnson, Naomi Sims, Iman, Carol Alt, Naomi Campbell, Veronica Webb, and Cindy Crawford, and others, helped me a lot, inspired me, taught me well and are a big part of why I approach all of my work in the way that I do now. As I continued my work as a scholar in California, I even eventually came to see Halle Berry as a kind of mentor, too, for the principles that I began to learn from her as I navigated my academic career.

My view of her in this sense fully consolidated when I read a piece on her in the March 10, 2002 New York Times, which described just how long and how much she and her manager persisted until finally winning the rights to the Dorothy Dandridge film. I admired the commitment of her manager to her, realized how serious she had always been about what she was doing and what her goals were, and liked her tenacity. And even as she celebrated the contributions of black women the night of her Oscar win, it was not like she was sitting around to waiting to be validated by anyone or seeking anyone’s permission or approval to do her work. She just threw herself into it and worked her hardest and her best to achieve her goals. All of that deeply influenced and inspired me and helped me to just work hard and focus on my goals, regardless of what anyone was doing around me and of who thought what. To just be true to your craft and let your passion drive you is a major lesson that I have learned from Halle Berry.

The other thing that helped me begin to see her in this way was an interview with her that I saw on Actor’s Studio in 2007. While a lot of media tends to play up the beauty of her face, for an hour, it was nice to see the spotlight focus primarily on her high level of intelligence and beautiful, articulate voice and to hear her discuss in a sustained way what it means to be an artist and how she goes about her work. At one point, she began to describe what it had meant to “work with” various directors and what she had learned from them in the process, including ones like Benicio Del Toro. I liked that outlook. It resonated with how I also view my career. It helped me to make the most and learn the most from the expertise of various colleagues and to understand what it means to work with them for the time that I have to do so, and to recognize the privilege in having such opportunities, which do not last always and eventually come to an end. For example, in this sense, I fully appreciate what a privilege and honor it was to have my first job in a department for ten years where the writer and artist Clarence Major was my senior colleague in the field of African American literature. I am proud and thankful that to this day he thinks of me as a friend. I can say the same thing about the profound impact that the historian Clarence Walker made on my life and career and continue to value his mentoring. Similarly, I have learned a lot from the work of the scholar Patricia A. Turner, including her campus leadership, work in folklore and outstanding research on quilting for which she has interviewed me and documented my work. I am very proud and honored to have worked with them and so many others, and very thankful for what I learned.

I realize that it can be challenging to work in some places and have definitely had challenges of my own; my work has by no means been all sunshine and roses all the time. But I always say that the world can always send you a bigger enemy, and so believe that it’s best not to ever invest too much time or energy in fighting metaphysical battles about any folks on the job. It amazes me now that people whom I linked to big problems or struggles at various points are no longer even in my life now. I think of all of the wasted time spent worrying about this and that, which was pointless, really. Life would have been a lot better if I had just listened to my grandmother and forgotten about all of it, and not thought about it because "They're not thinking about you." Indeed, my life and perspective changed altogether when I asked her at age 89 in 2007 what her best time had been so far, and she told me “the time when I was in Florida.” She was referring to her work in the Navy Yard in Pensacola during World War II. She kept her identity card and even took my mother and uncle down there during the 1950s so that her colleagues could see them. That was my wake-up call. My rant sounded like this: “I could not say that about my job in a million years! My grandmother feels that way, though that was during the era of Jim Crow. Generations should move forward, and not back! This is the 21st century and I can't say that I feel that way, even now. Ten years is a long time to be in any place. If I lived to be 100, then 10 years would be a tenth of life! I won’t ever stay 10 years in another place again where I am not entirely happy.” I also vowed that from then on, it would be important to me that my work also be “happy and fun,” if I am to be in a place and do it. I choose to view the glass as “half full,” rather than “half empty.” I tend to view my work environment in a far more optimistic way and keep the bar for it set high because of the perspective that I learned from role models such as my grandmother and Halle Berry.

I use the word “genius” very purposely in describing Halle Berry because I believe she is one. She has always had the courage, ambition and drive to “think outside the box” and march to the beat of her own drum while working very hard to achieve her goals and in a way from which many people can learn. I know I have. In the month of her 50th birthday year, I honor her for all of his and more.

Of Halle Berry, I sometimes say that I believe that she has the “gift of contentment.” I admire the sincere love that she showed children well before ever having children of her own, including the little girl who starred as her daughter in the Dorothy Dandridge film. I actually met the little girl who played Berry’s daughter in this film with her family in Sacramento at a group art show in Florin Mall sponsored by Les Belles Artes in 1999 when I was exhibiting two of my early quilts, and after I had made my very first portrait quilt.

I’m tremendously thankful for Berry’s work to bring the film about Dorothy Dandridge to the big screen, and for how, momentarily, she, too, recaptured and embodied the power and charisma of Carmen Jones and helped to share the story of Dorothy Dandridge with the world, including newer generations. In my mind, I already have the image of the quilt that I would make of Halle Berry if I ever did. There’s something in particular about her image in the James Bond film Die Another Day (2002) that jumps out for me as an artist, and so it’s perhaps the story about Berry that I’d be most interested in capturing in my medium. I am also one those people who liked and learned from the film Catwoman (2004) and think that it had more to offer than the critics recognized.

Finally, I grew up mainly hearing about Malibu as Barbie’s hometown. The other artistic thing that jumps out to me and that I appreciate about Berry is her white “dream house” on the beach in Malibu, whose photos I love. It is an amazing piece of architecture.

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