Seeing filmmaker Jane Campion go crazy on Sunday, identifying with and then insulting Venus and Serena Williams at an awards event brought back memories of my own misguided night of glitz and glam that went horribly wrong. My friends and I went to attend a Faith Ringgold retrospective at the New Museum in the day, and then Norm Lewis sang at Carnegie Hall in the evening, on a couple of Fridays ago. (It was a one-person excursion.) I dressed in a suit on both occasions.
In addition to her 1967 masterpiece “American People Series #20: Die,” the Ringgold exhibition takes up three floors and includes a blunt, bloody racial-rampage frieze that would be pure physical comedy about the time period’s racially motivated cataclysms if it weren’t for the helpless terror on the faces of the people she’s painted (Black men, women and children; white men, women and children). The size of the canvas is beneficial. It’s a substantial amount of money. Ringgold has always shown Black women in a variety of moods, sentiments, situations, and levels of physical attractiveness. She offers them expressions that are both personal and indicting, displaying both tranquilly and concern.
It was a narrow corridor with three works at the extreme end of things – the “Slave Rape” trio from 1972 — that I chose as my location for the night. Each piece is a warm, imposing painting depicting a woman bare and agape, framed by patchwork quilting, which is a Ringgold characteristic. Two strangers (both white women) parked themselves between me and a piece titled “Slave Rape #2: Run You Might Get Away” — the woman is mid-flight, loosely shrouded by leaves, a big gold ring in each ear — and continued a conversation I had overheard them having in an adjacent gallery while I was looking at the piece. There was no sign of my presence, not of the expressed sorrow, nor of my involvement with it. When I waved my hand, they looked to become a little annoyed, so I waited more than a minute before continuing.
After a week had passed, I was still thinking about my night out when, during an acceptance speech at the Critics’ Choice Awards, one of the world’s finest directors paid tribute to two of the world’s greatest sportsmen. The award for best director went to Jane Campion for her work on “The Power of the Dog,” a slyly dark rural drama with a lot of heart. Campion (a white woman) addressed the audience from the platform, saluting Venus and Serena Williams and announcing that she had attempted to take up tennis but that her body had told her to quit. Campion was lovely, even in the midst of her tense enthusiasm. She then made an amusing observation about her predicament as a woman in the film business by telling the Williamses that they had no information on her. “You are such wonders,” she said, a smile on her face. “However, you do not have to compete against the males the way I do.”
The Williams sisters were in the room that evening because “King Richard,” a sharp, tart film about their family that was nominated alongside Campion’s, was also in the running for an Academy Award. The film “King Richard” is not about the 2001 incident in which a California audience booed and ridiculed Venus and Serena Williams, as well as their father, Richard, at a top-level tennis competition. It’s not about the many mischaracterizations of their bodies, abilities, and intentions that have been published in the news and made by their peers. Not about the insidiously unending misunderstanding of one sister for the other, as was shown on a page of this newspaper only a few weeks ago. It’s about something else entirely. In fact, it isn’t even about their struggle, particularly Venus’s struggle, to compete for women’s prize money on par with men’s “King Richard”; it is about how their parents raised and loved and coached them into the kinds of people who can deal with both sharp and backhanded blows with the same power and poise.
Despite the fact that Campion’s wayward backhand had sailed wide, the audience erupted in applause nevertheless. Some of the clapping came from Serena Williams, who has seen many a long-range shot fly by her in the past. I had to stop myself from delving any further into the implications of Campion’s aside. It was a jumble of words. Specifically, was this a desire for the construction of gendered guardrails for award show directors, or for the removal of such inequalities in athletics? Is it true that there are no guys to compete against in tennis? The boundary between debate and accusation, as well as between accusation and self-aggrandizement, was blurry at best. Instead, I considered the financial implications of the fog.
On Sunday afternoon, the Williamses dressed up to celebrate the creation of some artwork. And someone appeared in front of them and called into question the legitimacy of their membership in Campion’s narrow definition of sisterhood. Campion apologised profusely the next day. She and her family came out to take up even more of the adoration that has been bestowed on the artwork depicting their lives. They were invited guests who were transformed into interlopers in an instant, presenting one minute before being sucked through a trap door the next. Faith Ringgold would be able to identify with the discomfort. She repainted the picture over and over again. If you run, you may be able to escape. You, on the other hand, are unlikely to do so.