It is exquisitely ironic – and fitting - that I ended up attending a screening of Victoria Mahoney’s directorial debut Yelling to the Sky, co-sponsored by ImageNation Cinema Foundation and the Film Society of Lincoln Center at the Walter Reade Theatre, about two weeks after seeing the movie The Help.
Shortly after publishing my review of the latter, I read lots of other reviews and opinion pieces about The Help. One of many recurring criticisms regarding The Help is the filtering of the fictional stories of Aibileen Clark (played by Viola Davis) and her friends through the burgeoning young white woman journalist Eugenia “Skeeter” Phelan (Emma Stone) in the novel on which the film is based - and the shortcomings of (albeit well-intentioned) Kathryn Stockett, author of The Help, as a voice of and for black women domestics in early 1960s Mississippi.
As a remedy for stereotypical renderings in the movie, for instance, many responses to The Help within the black blogosphere, especially, emphasize the need for films where black women tell our own stories. Accordingly, I have, likewise, read pieces that highlight black women actresses, writers, directors, and producers who are doing just that. Victoria Mahoney and Yelling to the Sky are formidable additions to this inspiring roster* of “sistahz … doin’ it fo’ themselves” and their impressive work.
Yelling to the Sky is the semi-autobiographical coming-of-age story of Sweetness O’Hara (Zoe Kravitz), who navigates mean streets and an extremely difficult home life, including a(n initially) abusive and often absent father. In the Q & A after the film with Mahoney, Zoe Kravitz, and Gabourey Sidibe (who plays Latonya Williams, Sweetness’ bully/nemesis), ImageNation’s Moikgantsi Kgama aptly described YTTS as driven by “emotions and moments.”
Indeed, as I watched the film, I was struck by its sparse dialogue and clocked its gritty, grainy, saturated texture. Along with these features, Mahoney explained in the Q & A how other cinemaphotographic and directorial elements like lighting and pacing illustrate various aspects of Sweetness’ journey. These aesthetic and technical choices place the audience in Sweetness’ shoes as she traverses her volatile world.
Moments of (sometimes seemingly prolonged) stillness and quiet and/or pleasantry are sometimes punctuated by (often brutal) violence. Particularly in the first half of the film, there is a suspenseful mood. I found myself on the edge of my seat, unsure of what would happen next, which mirrored the harrowing uncertainty of Sweetness’ daily life. A strong-willed young woman, she eventually takes matters into her own hands and fights fire with fire until she realizes that’s not the optimal way to survive.
When asked what she wanted people to walk away with after viewing the film, Mahoney said that she hopes it “touches the soul of everyone who comes to [see] it.” Mission accomplished via her poignant script, exquisite direction and cinematography, strong performances from a great cast – and an ending so moving that it will likely leave a lump in your throat.
Obvious differences between The Help and Yelling to the Sky aside and notwithstanding the strengths of the former, Yelling to the Sky is a prime example of the richness, depth, and three-dimensionality afforded by an idiosyncratic “first hand” account of a woman of color (fighting and) finding her way through adversity.
When Moikgantsi Kgama made the point that (even successful) first-time women directors of color often do not have a second project greenlit, Mahoney shared how she’s had to be proactive and “take” her place “at the table.” In so doing, she drafted her second script, Chalk, before shooting Yelling to the Sky. Kudos to Mahoney for seizing the reigns of her destiny (again), along with her brilliant (aforementioned) peers!
Click HERE for more information about Yelling to the Sky, including future screenings.
* See The Atlanta Post’s From Playing Maids to Calling The Shots: Black Women’s Hollywood Evolution and Clutch Magazine’s 10 Black Women Making Moves In Film.