My mother was an actress. In some ways , she doesn’t look very different from the way she did back then. She still has honey-colored skin and eyelashes that make you think of fur or feathers. Her movies were all made in the early 1970s, before I was born. You know the titles of some of the big ones: Shaft and Super Fly and Blacula.
She wasn’t in those. Then there were the little ones that blew in and out of the dollar theaters in Cleveland and Detroit and Gary inside of a week, until the last brother who was willing to part with $1 had done so: TNT Jackson and Abby and Savage Sisters. She’s in some of those. You wouldn’t know her, though. She was no Pam Grier. These are her credits: Girl in Diner, Murder Victim #1, Screaming Girl, Junkie in Park. She was the third girl from the left in the fight scene in Coffy. When I was little, sometimes she woke me late at night and we sat down in front of the television to watch a bleached-out print of a movie with a lot of guys with big guns and bigger Afros. They ran and jumped and shot. They all wore leather and bright-colored, wide-legged pants made of unnatural fibers. They said, “That’s baaaad” as percussive, synthesized music perked behind them. The movies made their nonsensical way along, and then suddenly my mother said, “See, see, there I am, behind that guy, laying on the ground. That’s me.” Or she said, “That’s me in that booth.” Then Richard Roundtree or Gloria Hendry or Fred Williamson sprayed the room with gunfire, and my mother slumped over the table, her mouth open, her eyes closed. Blood seeped slowly out from under her enormous Afro.
I looked away from the television at the mother I knew. She smiled watching the gory death of her younger self. Her pleasure in her work was so pure, even though all she was doing was holding still as dyed Karo syrup drained from a Baggie under her wig onto a cheap Formica table.
My mother never said, but I knew, that I ended her acting career. I liked to think that my father was somebody like John Shaft, striding through the streets of Manhattan, a complicated man, a black private dick who was a sex machine to all the chicks. But I suspected that my father was a bit player like her. Thug #1. Or Man in Restaurant. Once I learned how dull a movie set is when you’re not running the show, I imagined the two of them, in those endless, drifting hours, slowly beginning to talk to each other, my mother looking up shyly but oddly direct, the low bass rumble of my father’s voice as he asked her name, then asked her out. They didn’t have folding canvas chairs, their names written on them, the way the director or the stars did. They would have started talking as they stood around in extras holding, a few words at a time. I imagine my mother looked at my father’s face and saw in it someone who would make everything perfect.
My mother believed in the power of movies and the people in them to change a life, change her life. I can count on my two hands the number of stories she’s told me about my father.
And then only when I’ve asked. She didn’t even tell me his name until I was grown. But exactly what she wore in the fight scene in Coffy? And what Pam Grier said to her before they started shooting? I’ve heard that story a thousand times. In that scene, Pam Grier rips my mother’s dress nearly off her body. It hangs, ragged, over her shoulders in two scarlet shards. She wears a fierce, sexy smile and a crooked, reddish wig. Her breasts are very beautiful. Here is what Pam Grier said to my mother right before filming began: “That dress looks good on you, girl. Too bad I gotta tear it.” My mother held these words as a talisman against whatever else life might bring her. Pam Grier thought she looked good.
When I told my mother I wanted to go to film school, she was silent for a long minute. Then she said, “Not too many women direct movies, do they?” “Not too many. But remember that movie The Piano? You never saw it, but that was a woman. And there’ve been others.” “Any of them black?
I hesitated. “A few. Julie Dash. Euzhan Palcy. Kasi Lemmons. You know how it is, Ma. Maybe I can help change that. Even if I can’t . . . it’s what I need to do.” “How you gonna pay for it?” “I’ll get a scholarship. I’ll borrow money. I’ll figure it out, Ma.” Ma looked at me. “Yeah, you probably will. I remember when I came out here. I was broke as hell. But it wasn’t much that could have stopped me. Guess that’s how I know you’re my girl. Hardheaded. Just like me.” So I applied to a lot of film schools.
I got into NYU.. I remember holding the admissions letter, staring at it, thinking, Spike Lee and Martin Scorsese, Spike Lee and Martin Scorsese.
Stupid, huh? But that’s all I could think. I’d lived in Los Angeles my whole life. I knew New York from only a thouuuuusand noir pictures and Mean Streets and Sweet Smell of Success. (Here’s my favorite, favorite scene: when Burt Lancaster gazes over the lights of the city, hot jazz blasting behind him, and he says, “I love this dirty town.” My second favorite scene: when Burt, a key light under his chin to give him a menacing glow, says to Tony Curtis, “I’d hate to take a bite out of you. You’re a cookie full of arsenic.”) I went to grad school in 1999. It took me three years after college, working like a dog, to get up the nerve and to earn the money to pay for it. I knew it wouldn’t be like a black-and-white movie. More like Do the Right Thing. But New York was still . . . so not LA. I thought it would be the home I never had, the place I should have been born.
I got in with a short I made about my mother. I did it in our kitchen. A couple of lights, my old video camera. I’d kept it working, even though I’d had it since I was twelve.
Her girlfriend, Sheila, was there, like always, but I framed the shots so that only her arm and hand were in the frame. The main thing you saw was my mother’s face. She was still so beautiful, her hair slicked back into a ponytail, her clothes just so, even on a Saturday afternoon. Maybe she had more lines around her eyes than she used to. I didn’t notice them until I looked through my viewfinder. “So, Ma,” I asked as the film rolled, “how’d you end up in Los Angeles?” “Couldn’t stand the country town I was from another minute.” She laughed. It was like the camera was her home.
“What country town was that?” “Tulsa, Oklahoma. You don’t get no more country than that, sweetheart. That is the countriest I ever hope to be.” “Did you always live there?” “’Til I was twenty.” A drag on the cigarette, a look out the window.
“Why’d you leave?” She looked back at the camera. Her eyes glowed in the late afternoon sunlight. “I was gonna be a movie star.” She smiled a little. “The biggest there ever was.” A slow lowering of the eyelids, another drag on the cigarette. “Didn’t work out that way, though. It hardly ever does.” “What do you think it would have been like if it had?” She smiled. “Good Lord, Tam, I don’t know.” She looked airily around our small apartment, then briefly at Sheila. “We’d have a house, that’s for sure. Not this ratty little apartment.
Maybe a pool. You’d have liked that when you were little, huh, Tam? I never really have been much of a swimmer. B...