Northwest Film Center: Constructing Identity at Portland Art Museum

Black Cinema Past and Present

Northwest Film Center’s recent film series, Constructing Identity: Black Cinema Then and Now, explored black cinema from the 20th and 21st centuries, focusing on the construction of black identity in film.

Documentaries varied in style, giving voice to important storytellers willing to examine the real lives of African Americans. Black filmmakers probed families and communities to portray accurate struggles and triumphs falling outside Hollywood set tropes. The focus of these documentaries was to bring black identity to the forefront and explore the lived experiences of black and African American families.

The film series was curated in conjunction with Portland Art Museum’s Constructing Identity exhibition. The two documentaries I watched were Suzanne, Suzanne and A Dream is What You Wake Up From.

Suzanne, Suzanne

Suzanne, Suzanne is a 1982 documentary following the life of a young black woman as she navigates a history of domestic violence and drug abuse. Directors Camille Billops and James Hatch shadow Suzanne and her family, more specifically her mother, as they try to uncover the truth about Suzanne’s father. In a series of questions, Suzanne discovers why her mother never stopped the father’s physical abuse, and how domestic violence led Suzanne into a spiral of drug abuse.

The documentary itself may be from the ’80s but retains its relevance for today’s media. The importance of Suzanne, Suzanne is in how it examines a real family and their struggles, focusing on reconciliation and forgiveness. In the end, Suzanne asks her mother: Why? Why couldn’t she stop her father from abusing her? In this pivotal moment, her mother answers with remorse—she was afraid. The film may have started with the looming question of why her father abused the family, especially Suzanne, but it ended with understanding—understanding not necessarily of her father’s motives, but her mother’s. And through understanding, the family could begin their road to recovery following the father’s death. Ultimately, the documentary was created for the purpose of truth-telling and exploration of violence and family, and as a means of intervention.

A Dream is What You Wake Up From

A Dream is What You Wake Up From is about black families in ’70s New York City. Directed by Larry Bullard and Carolyn Johnson, the film follows the lives of three separate families in suburban New York and urban projects as they try to navigate an economic downturn. The film itself is not just about the economy; it’s about marriage, family, and existing in a disadvantaged time. Part documentary and part drama, the film switches between fictional and historical re-enactments, documentary style interviews, and eavesdropped scenes.

The film explores the roles and everyday lives of three black families in the United States, each family facing a different struggle and taking on a different approach for survival. One family rethinks safety in suburbia, while the others face marital issues as a consequence of their economic disadvantages. Past and present converge in this intimate film on livelihood and family.