“The tone set by the Trump administration set us back as a nation. The Black Lives Matter movement demonstrates how poorly Black people (and women of color specifically) are being treated in the public sphere. Think about the fate of women like Breonna Taylor or Lajuana Phillips shot by police. There have been nearly 250 women fatally shot by police since 2015”. Mia Mask
Mia Mask, is an important voice in African American cinema, she received her Ph.D. from New York University. Prior to Vassar, she taught Film Studies at The College of Staten Island-CUNY, graduate Media Studies at The New School, and Film History at Tufts University, where she was a Multicultural Teaching Fellow. At Vassar College Ms. Mask teaches African American cinema, documentary film history, seminars on special topics such as the horror film, and auteurs like Spike Lee. She also teaches feminist film theory, African national cinemas, and various genre courses. She is the author of Divas on Screen: Black Women in American Film, published by University of Illinois Press. Divas on Screen was featured on the radio program “Tell Me More.” Formerly an assistant editor and regular contributor at Cineaste magazine, she has written film reviews and covered festivals for IndieWire.com, The Village Voice, Abafazi: Simmons College Journal, Film Quarterly, Time Out New York, Brooklyn Woman, and The Poughkeepsie Journal print and online editions. Her criticism was anthologized in Best American Movie Writing, 1999. In the spring of 2003, she was a Visiting Professor of Film Studies at Yale University. She has twice been a visiting scholar at New York University. Her scholarly essays are published in the African American National Biography, Screen Stars of the 1990s, Film and Literature, and American Cinema of the 1970s. She is editing an anthology entitled Black American Cinema Reconsidered. Her television interviews include appearances on “The Full Nelson” and “American Movie Classics.” In 2006, 2007 and 2008 she served at the Institute of International Education as a member of the National Screening Committee assembled to select Fulbright scholars. Her cultural commentary can be heard on National Public Radio. ALT caught up with Mask to talk African American cinema as Mask was about to host a conversation with Pam Grier at the BFI for which you can book tickets HERE
Q: How much do you think the treatment of Black women in America has evolved looking at the response to Chris Rock’s comment on Jada vs Nicole Smith-Brown?
Are you asking about black women in film or black women in American society in general? If we’re talking about women in society, we’ve not only seen stasis, but we’ve also actually witnessed regression rather than evolution. The tone set by the Trump administration set us back as a nation. We can see it in the police violence. The Black Lives Matter movement demonstrates how poorly Black people (and women of color specifically) are being treated in the public sphere. Just think about the fate of women like Breonna Taylor or Lajuana Phillips who were shot by police. There have been nearly 250 women fatally shot by police since 2015. Eighty-nine (89) of these women were killed at homes or residences where they resided. So, police brutality and violence against black women is not in decline.
Now, if we’re talking about evolution in film and popular culture, we’ve seen some increased diversity and inclusion, but research shows that women of color are still under-represented. Look at research by the Annenberg Inclusion Initiative. They demonstrate that there’s still a long way to go before we reach equitable inclusion.
Q: Does being an icon protect Black women from racism in America?
Well….I’m not an icon. So, I can’t answer that question from the personal perspective of an icon. But I would surmise it does not. No. It doesn’t protect black women from racism or the intersectionality of racism, sexism, classism, heterosexism. There’s a myth that celebrity somehow insulates people. And, to some extent it might enable someone to avoid day-to-day encounters with the ugliest elements of discrimination. But it will not protect you from prejudice and bias everywhere. When you travel; as you age; or when people don’t recognize you; you’re going to be viewed as an ordinary Black person and possibly be subjected to the same mistreatment or bias experienced by everyday people in the public sphere. Ask Oprah Winfrey… or any celebrity. They will tell you that there are circumstances in which they, too, have been followed in clothing stores because someone suspected they were shoplifting simply because they were Black. Oprah once told a great story about not being admitted to a store because she is African American. And catching cab in Manhattan is still an issue for people of color. Believe me, I know.
Q: In your book Diva’s on Screen: can you elaborate on how female stars like Pam Grier have complicated the conventional discursive practices through which blackness and womanhood have been represented in commercial cinema, independent film, and network television etc?
Up until the 1960s black women were still playing maids and mammies. They were usually type-cast in roles as domestic servants. In fact, there’s a great book about racial stereotypes in popular films. It is by Donald Bogle and entitled: Toms, Coons, Mulattoes, Mammies & Bucks: An Interpretive History of Blacks in American Films. Bogle discusses the fact that with some exceptions, roles for African Americans limited them to servant caricatures. The talent was present. There were some wonderful actors (i.e., Cicely Tyson, Diahann Carroll, Eartha Kitt, Rosalind Cash, Carol Speed, Vonetta McGee among others). But they were under-employed, underutilized. Grier was fortunate because producer Roger Corman and director Jack Hill developed her career. And her star persona resonated with both Black and mainstream white audiences. She was willing to be tough and sexy. Grier was able to do it all and stand proud. Consequently, Grier came to represent or symbolize a mythic version of real Black women artists and activists.
Q: How would you say Pam Grier fits into the narrative of the now, how is she an agent for social change?
Grier was an agent of social change in the popular imagination. Think about Coffy and Foxy Brown. In these films Grier was the mythic incarnation (in cinematic myth and popular entertainment) of strong women who were agents of change on a political stage. I’m thinking of women like Shirley Chisholm, Angela Davis, June Jackson-Christmas, Kathleen Cleaver, Barbara Jordan, Sonia Sanchez, Nikki Giovanni and other activists, politicians, and artists. They were activists in the “real” world. Whereas Grier was a manifestation of these formidable, iconic women in the “reel” world…the world of popular imagination. Today, artists like rapper Foxy Brown and directors like Tarantino are indebted to her. And, a whole host of contemporary action characters allude to her.
Q: What would you say was important about the Blaxploitation era/genre: why did it not survive?
Black action cinema was important because it changed the conversation. African Americans were no longer assimilationist or integrationist as Sidney Poitier had been in many pictures. Although I think he made an intervention with those films too. Instead, the characters of Black action cinema fought back against the structural racism, drug dealing cartels, corrupt police, and “the system” or “the Man”. In celebrated New Hollywood movies like The Godfather, it was acceptable to depict organized crime mafias as exploiting Black communities. “Let the niggers lose their souls” is the infamous line. That’s why Black action cinema sought to turn the tables on that social reality. Pam Grier’s characters pursue drug kingpins exploiting Black communities.
Why do you say Blaxploitation didn’t survive? I wonder about that. I’m not sure all of it should have survived but I think Blaxploitation aesthetics are very much alive today. For better or for worse, I think it is alive in what I call “neo-Blaxploitation.” For example, I look at movies like Hustle & Flow (2005), Get Rich or Die Tryin’ (2005), Death at a Funeral (2010), Straight Outta Compton (2015), and even television shows like Empire and I see elements of Blaxploitation — or Blaxploitation outright. I also see it in music videos. Music video culture is deeply indebted to Blaxploitation cinema.
On the film side, there were certainly wonderful parodies of Blaxploitation like I’m Gonna Git You Sucka (1988) and Don’t Be a Menace to South Central While Drinking Your Juice in the Hood (1996). But even parodies don’t mean something hasn’t survived or died. Don’t Be a Menace is a great critique. It is a searing critique with which I agree because it shows how stereotypical and silly many of the tropes and conventions are. But to be honest, the aesthetics and the sensibility are still with us. I’m not a fan of Blaxploitation. I’m a fan of Pam Grier.
Q: What are some of you favourite Pam Grier movies in this season?
The Big Doll House, Coffy, Foxy Brown, and Jackie Brown.
Q: What do you like about film, how did you become interested in it?
I have loved movies since I was a kid. I like all kinds of movies: documentaries, classical Hollywood, experimental, avant-garde, arthouse. I love good cinema. I became interested in studying film at college. Initially, I wanted to be a full-time film critic.
Q: Is this a good time for women over 50 on screen?
Not really. There’s still not enough opportunity to play substantive roles in front of the camera or to direct interesting projects behind the camera.
Q: Where do you call home?
Brooklyn, New York. I was born and raised in Brooklyn. I still have family living there. And we go back to visit family. I love the country. But I’m a city girl at heart.
List of PAM GRIER films to book:
Sunday 18 September 2022 13:00
Tuesday 20 September 2022 20:30
Thursday 22 September 2022 18:00
Saturday 24 September 2022 20:50
Monday 03 October 2022 18:10
Sunday 18 September 2022 18:30
Tuesday 20 September 2022 21:00
Wednesday 21 September 2022 20:40
Thursday 22 September 2022 21:00
Saturday 24 September 2022 17:30
Tuesday 27 September 2022 18:15
Tuesday 27 September 2022 20:50
Friday 30 September 2022 20:50
Monday 03 October 2022 20:50
Tuesday 04 October 2022 18:20
Please be advised: some films do contain offensive content including sexual assault, racist language and violence directed against women.
Marketing partnership with Dark Matter.
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