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Berlinale Bloggers 2018
Black Women at Berlinale: Gender and Sexuality

Bixa Travesty
© Nubia Abe

How are black women portrayed in film? Grace Barber-Plentie is tackling this question this week – looking into gender and sexuality in this first article.

De Grace Barber-Plentie

As part of my role as a Berlinale Blogger for Goethe-Institut, I’ve been encouraged to write not just about films from my country of origin, but also about a subject that’s important to me. Starting with my review of Game Girls, I’ve chosen to write about films about black women at Berlinale - it’s so rare to see so many interesting and dynamic depictions at a film festival. For this article I’ll be discussing two films that centre gender and sexuality at Berlinale - Shakedown and Bixa Travesty.

Bixa Travesty

An example of the weirdness of film festivals - I wrote this article whilst sitting (in my mind at least) inconspicuously opposite the star of this film, Linn Da Quebrada. The whole experience was surreal for me because, at least after seeing Bixa Travesty anyway, Da Quebrada is a superstar to me.
The documentary (which really feels more like a portrait) shows Da Quebrada both on and off the stage - onstage they command attention, spouting lyrics with the urgency of any political leader, with the sexuality and confidence of any pop diva. And off stage it’s much of the same - it’s extremely refreshing to see someone who’s completely unafraid to say what they want whether it’s in the comfort of their own home or to an audience.
What’s perhaps most refreshing about this film is Da Quebrada’s views about gender and sexuality - they insist on being described as a bixa travesty, or tranny fag. And the more we listen to Da Quebrada, the more simplistic their demands seem - why shouldn’t a woman have a penis? Why shouldn’t they be allowed to dress how they want, to be seen as soft one second and hard the next? Bixa Travesty not only shines a light on a superstar, it also goes a long way into exploring the fluidity of gender and sexuality.


Shakedown © Shakedown Film

I’m not usually prone to hyperbole when it comes to film, but sometimes you’ll get the chance to see a film that changes everything. That to me is Shakedown - Leilah Weinraub’s documentation of the queer black female strip club she frequented in the early and mid-2000s.
I’ve never seen a film that explores the many facts of queer black womanhood before. So many different kinds of queer black women are featured in the film - femme and butch, dark and light-skinned, fat and thin. And they are all sexual, without ever being unwillingly sexualised. The film manages to be extremely erotic without veering into the domain of leering. Is this what people felt like, I wondered throughout watching the film, when they first watched Paris is Burning? (more on that in my interview with Weinraub)
Similarly to Bixa Travesty, Shakedown feels more like a portrait of a specific period of time, and a specific group of people. Thanks to documentary conventions, and depictions of black women, we’re waiting to see the rise and fall of the women in this film, and it’s thanks to Weinraub’s fantastic filmmaking that this never happens.

It seems impossible that Weinraub is able to pack so much into an hour and twenty-two minutes, but watching Shakedown truly feels like you enter a new world. It was one that I never wanted to leave.