March 13, 2017

The opposite of “Mirror Girl”: Notes for an impossible biopic

(How to write about Lil’ Kim now that she has been deemed obsolete by the course of time, and, more importantly, now that she has radically betrayed herself by altering her appearance?

How to “visualize” this dysmorphia, this inability to see herself (which would be the dramatic parts of the biopic) without falling into psychological simplicity, without letting her pathologies overdetermine her story and without losing sight of her capacity for reinvention throughout her career. As much as I feel like I know her, that I can do her justice, there is an aspect of her that remains and will remain mysterious.

What images to retain, then? All biopics have a duty of reconstitution, of providing familiar images to the spectators. There are so many of them:

Lil’ Kim on Instagram, at Biggie Smalls’ funeral, with Diana Ross at the VMA’s, at Yeezy’s next to the Kardashians (the irony not lost on me), her mugshot, photographed by Dave LaChapelle for the magazine VIBE, in “The Rain (Supa Dupa Fly)” video her face so close I could feel her skin — here still dark. And many more, many more. To the point that I ask myself: is a biopic necessary? Isn’t the form too disciplining to tackle this subject? Isn’t a biopic being made as I write on Tumblr, YouTube, in conversations, in essays, in comments made about her?)

But I would invoke three images:

IMAGE 1. Many ways to flee

(Voice over) Before the Red, Yellow, Green, and Blues of the “Crush On You” video, there was a bedroom and a mirror.

Kim Jones runs fast in front of the mirror in her father’s bedroom. The large, ornamented object, an inheritance from her father’s father, goes from one side of the bedroom wall to the other, opposite the equally opulent bed. She has been playing this game since forever. Since she was eight, to be more exact — her age of déraison. The game is simple: running from each side of the room and catching a glimpse of her reflection right when she passes in front of the glass. She had stopped fixing herself in a mirror the way most people do. Standing right in front of it, immobile, only the head moving, examining themselves. She already knew what she looked like. She had been described by her own father,

(dark short ugly)

by the men around her, and the words had shaped an image which coincided with her own perception of herself. Still, it was from a need to determine that image that she had started this game, something that was more like DIY therapy, more a coping mechanism than a form of play.

But she took pleasure in it. Each run gave new answers. The purpose was to blur, to rectify, to correct a reflection she could no longer accept. The further from the inherited body the better.

Her case is not one of typical self-loathing. Kim Jones is not trying to negate her image. By running, she’s looking for what is possible. What can exist from the source. Unlike me, she doesn’t avoid mirrors. Rather, she confronts them creatively. In fact, these images are her best friends. Perverse Black Woman Narcissus (oxymoron). Unlike me, Kim Jones is not a coward. (There is a difference between a traitor and a coward.) I have, a long time ago, buried a reality in which I could change anything about my self-perception and appearance. I inhabit my skin forcefully. Kim Jones remodels, paints, reconfigures. She’s made of lines made to be shifted and displaced. She sculpts herself so as to live in the world. I’ve given up on that too: living in the world.

IMAGE 2. Les statues vivent toujours

Pearl Bailey photographed by Carl Van Vechten. Black and white. She’s on her knees, her breasts and belly apparent under a mesh shirt, she’s holding a small statue. It’s an African statue, country of origin unknown. Why does this picture move me this much? I first saw it while scrolling my Tumblr dashboard and was stricken by the mutual recognition between the woman and the object. They belonged to the same world. They had similar profiles. They looked alike! My reaction was the amazement of the child who sees herself in the mirror for the first time and who recognizes herself not only as a person but as a person who was an integral part of the world. The reaction of the one who had lost herself, who has been so far away from herself. There had been a separation at some point. For me, it was at once imposed and the choice. In Bailey’s case, it was more tragic. The statue and her had been separated by an entire ocean, by history.

“How do I fit in?” wondered Kim Jones. She chose the easiest road but also the logical one: turning into what is most desired, most human. Blonde wigs and peroxided hair, tiny nose, bleached skin. Surgery after surgery. Relief.

IMAGE 3. Missed encounters

(Voice over) Long after seeing that picture of Pearl Bailey and the statue, I had asked myself whether looking at it for a long period of time would revise, restore what has been lost. Back to square one. Is that even possible?

In Untitled (Mirror Girl), a painting by Black American artist Kerry James Marshall, a tall, dark-skinned Black woman is staring at her own reflection, holding her breast, giving us a face. Her pose is insolent, hailing the spectator like: “Yes, right, you’re seeing it right. This is real, I am real.”

The first time I came across Kerry James Marshall’s art I was filled with anger. Anger that I had not met the many characters in his paintings, whose blackness was made intentionally abrasive, magnified, exaggerated (they all belong to the same tribe of dark-skinned Black people) before giving in to white supremacy. Underneath, there is this belief that his art could have saved me. And I asked myself many times, and I hope that no condescension or paternalism will be perceived in this question: Had Kim Jones encountered the work of Kerry James Marshall as a child… would she…? Would she be who she is…? Is that even possible?


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