Filmmaker Natalie Bullock Brown to examine beauty standards in 'baartman, beyoncé & me'

Natalie Bullock Brown. Photos by Beth Mann.

The documentary will seek to, among other things, “challenge and complicate our most fundamental notions of what it means to be beautiful.”

Director Natalie Bullock Brown is an award-winning and Emmy-nominated producer and consultant, and the assistant professor of Film and Broadcast Media at St. Augustine’s University.

The Chicago native holds a Master of Fine Arts degree in Film Production from Howard University and a Bachelor of Arts degree in English from Northwestern University.

Read our Q&A with Brown below. Donate to the making of the film here.

ArtsNow: How did you arrive at the decision to make “baartman, beyoncé & me?” This is your first feature length documentary; did you feel compelled to make it because of a precipitating event or was it an idea that had been brewing for some time?

Natalie Bullock Brown: Yes, this is my first feature length documentary as producer/director, although I have worked with other filmmakers, most notably Ken Burns. But it was a series of seemingly unconnected events took place that led me to decide to pursue making “baartman, beyoncé & me.” About five years ago, I had pretty much determined that because I was married with kids and working full-time to help support my household, my time to be a filmmaker had passed. But I was enjoying teaching film, and I invited an established filmmaker friend — whose several films have appeared on PBS — to come to St. Augustine’s University and spend 10 days as an artist-in-residence.

After a few days on campus, my friend asked me outright: “What do you really want to do professionally?” And without hesitation, I answered, “I want to do what you do!”

“So why don’t you do that,” he said, as if it were the most logical thing in the world for me to begin a filmmaking career in my 40s. I lacked both the confidence and the practical know-how to get started, so it took me a few years to get to the point where I had an idea and the spark to pursue it. In the meantime, I saw a film about Sarah Baartman (better known as the Hottentot Venus) that really moved and troubled me. That film caused me to do a lot of reflection, and I began to make some cultural connections between myself as a black woman and Sarah Baartman.

This reflection led me to write a blog called “The Girdle Notion,” which took an honest look at my feelings about my body, stemming from childhood. And I really just began an exploration into deep-seated feelings of inadequacy and ugliness around my “Africanized” body and facial features, which led me do a film that interrogates the impact of the white beauty standard on black females through the lens of Sarah Baartman, Beyoncé, and my own journey.

AN: When tackling such a huge social issue that affects many people, how do you put together a plan to make a documentary like this in order to break it down?

NBB: Wow, what a question! I’m still trying to figure that out. All I can say is one step at a time. Filmmaking is a process that you cannot rush. It requires patience with that process.

I started out by writing down my idea, and first trying to articulate it. I began to read books to research my topic, and then did more writing. I talked through my idea with a few choice people who challenged me to think about what I was trying to communicate, and how I would make both an intellectual and emotional appeal in my message.

I had to think visually, which is super difficult when you have no idea what your film is going to look like. It’s like trying to imagine a world, in detail — the colors, textures, people, everything — that doesn’t yet exist. And then at some point it was time to attempt to begin to piece together my vision for the film and shoot something. That’s where my Kickstarter campaign came in, because I needed seed money to shoot. And once I shot, I wrote a script to try to once again articulate in clear and fairly concise terms the focus of my larger film. I have a really good editor whose own creativity played a large part in helping me to realize my vision.

I’ve been sharing and showing what I have in a few community screenings, and the feedback has been incredibly affirming. I am encouraged that my project has great potential to do some good and promote healing in the world. Now, back to the drawing board to revise and tweak how I communicate the message of my film, and most importantly, how I will tell the story in which that message is embedded.

AN: Given that your personal struggle with beauty standards was an inspiration for the film, how does that affect you in the actual filmmaking? Does the emotional connection to the material make it harder?

NBB: Great questions. I think for me, my film developed out of questions and issues I was examining at a particular time in my life. Certainly, the work I have done on the film, and the conversations and research I have undertaken in order to make sense of how the white beauty standard impacts black females has produced healing in my own life. I don’t think I’m at the end of my journey when it comes to contending with my own feelings about my own beauty, but I feel like I’m in a really great place. I have learned to appreciate and embrace my unique beauty as an African-American woman, and I am learning how appreciating the beauty in other black women and girls helps to bind me to them.

The more clarity I have been blessed to access around these issues in my own life, the easier it has been to think about them for my film. But that is not to say that any of the filmmaking process is easy! There is so much to think about, and so many choices to consider. Filmmaking is like an elaborate puzzle, I think. You have to choose very carefully what pieces you will place together in order to maximize the desired affect on your audience. I think I’m on my way, though.

AN: Finding the right subjects and anchors for your film is an important part of the process. How did you decide on Beyoncé and Sarah Baartman? How do their differences work to tell a complete picture about the struggle over time?

NBB: Sarah Baartman and Beyoncé Knowles entered my work because of the way each woman has impacted me. And since my film is a first person autobiography, it just made sense that I bring Baartman and Beyonce into the mix, given their stories and legacies.

I see Sarah Baartman and Beyoncé as book ends of sorts in the story I’m trying to tell. Sarah’s story really illuminates the very destructive ways that black female bodies were exploited and hyper sexualized in service of white supremacy and white fascination with the “other” at a time when the slave trade was at its height.

And if we think about Beyoncé and all that she has come to represent in American popular culture in terms of her beauty, but also the shape of HER behind and all that suggests, I think there is a connection to make crystal clear between the way enslaved black women in America were imagined as hyper sexual beings, the ways that hyper sexuality was projected onto Sarah Baartman and the ways that black women are seen and regarded today.

AN: Your film seems to be a departure from the pattern of many documentaries: to fully explore a problem but present no solution. Instead, it seems to hopefully suggest that, by embracing one another in the fight against impossible beauty standards, black women can actually heal their own inner selves and thoughts. Did you know that was the direction the film would go when you began?

NBB: I’m glad you picked up on the “solution” I hope to offer through my film, because I’m not sure it was a part of my original idea. But at some point, as I was going through my own growth around these issues, I realized that jealousy and competition — as another of my interview subjects remarks — cause women of all shades, but certainly black women, to look each other up and down and regard each other as the enemy. And, frankly, I was tired of experiencing that separation.

I need black women in my life, and I need my connections with them to be loving, founded on a deep sense of sisterhood and all about liberation so we can, as the saying goes, “be dope together.” So at a certain point, I realized that I want my film to be transformative in helping black women and girls to love themselves, and in so doing grow closer to each other.

In a phrase, I want to promote healing. And that has required me to model that type of transformative, transcendent love for myself and my sisters more and more in my own life.

“baartman, beyoncé & me” is in progress. You can donate to the project through the Southern Documentary Fund.


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