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Nick-Davis.com: 100 Favorite Films
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#50: Illusions
(USA, 1982; dir. Julie Dash; cin. Ahmed El Maanouni; with Lonette McKee, Rosanne Katon, Ned Bellamy, Jack Radar, Rita Crafts, Sandy Brooke, Lisa Phelps, Laddy Ashley)
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If Boyz N the Hood represents a high-water mark but also a truncated possibility within the black commercial cinema, Julie Dash's Illusions survives as a gleaming nugget of invaluable, underexplored, unfairly marginalized potential within the glorious black art cinema of this country. And of the feminist cinema, too, and the formalist cinema, and the cinema of counter-history, and the American cinema writ large, and all of the other cinemas that Illusions embodies, upbraids, and smartly reconfigures. Dash would eventually achieve greater notoriety as the director of Daughters of the Dust, a shimmering and polyvocal fable about the non-asssimilated Geechee cultures off the Carolina coast, and a complex and idiosyncratic miracle of markedly independent, culturally embedded filmmaking. A major foundation of Daughters' enduring mystique, not to mention a doleful fact about American movie culture, is that no feature film directed by an African-American woman had ever circulated in stateside commercial release until Daughters finally bowed in select American cities in 1992—a full year after causing a stir and winning an award at the 1991 Sundance Film Festival. Even without its consequent status as a cultural benchmark, the syncretic and oracular view of history in Daughters, simultaneously anthropological and mythological, as well as the detailed mise-en-scène and the ravishing manipulations of light and montage are the cornerstones of the film's success.

Illusions, though it lacks any trace of Daughters' dazzling visual palette, and though it concentrates on a smaller cast of characters, clearly prefigures the pliable and critical perspectives on history that would characterize the director's justly famous feature. Indeed, part of what makes Illusions so cogent and transfixing, despite an uneven sound mix and the other technical vicissitudes of a film-school project, is that its deceptively straightforward scenario is so rife with contradictions and diverse implications that, even as a half-hour film about a handful of people, it reverberates in so many directions and emits such powerful, lingering questions. Illusions's central figure is Mignon Duprée (Lonette McKee), a mid-level producer and project supervisor on a fictional Hollywood lot called National Studios in 1942. Few if any women of that time would have occupied a position like Mignon's, but her intelligence, diplomacy, and stern persistence quickly impress, and the wartime context furnishes its own alibi for Mignon's unlikely post. We see rows and rows of female telephone operators and office workers at National Studios, many of them charmed by the military officers who are "advising" the studio's output, though not all of them are charmed. Mignon certainly isn't. The present day's task requires her to oversee the re-looping of a musical whose soundtrack was poorly synchronized, and whose female lead isn't much of a singer anyway. Mignon, brusquely managing the technicians in the soundbooth, is calmed and then engrossed and ultimately a bit unnerved by Ester Jeeter (Rosanne Katon), the young, gregarious, and unsophisticated session singer whom the studio has hired to salvage the number. Ester sings beautifully, utterly unconcerned with the political frissons surrounding her recruitment as an invisible black vocalist to redeem an all-white film. Meanwhile, Mignon's behavior grows erratic and her comportment unsettled in response to Ester's singing, leading to the revelation that Mignon herself is passing as white in her professional life. Her intuitive connection to Ester and their logical alliance as African-American women within the ideological hierarchies of America's dream factory are nonetheless dangerous to Mignon's own security, not just in her job but in her very skin.

Illusions proceeds through some deft and subtle sleights of hand, building toward an emotional climax that may or may not qualify as "empowering," and demonstrating considerable resolve in leaving so many of its key questions unanswered. What is the nature or future of Mignon's acquaintance with Ester? How long has Mignon been working at National Studios, and how long will she remain there? Has she actively dissembled about her racial identity or has she simply (if "simply" is the right word) allowed her colleagues to naturalize or ignore the signs of her own otherness? These are all examples of the narrative riddles that Illusions elects not to resolve, but even more fascinating to me is the complexity, if not the inscrutability, of the film's politics. Is Mignon's labor, even her very presence in the flowchart of power at National Studios, a progressive achievement in itself, or must she use her position on someone else's behalf—and how or for whom is she to do this? What to make of the fact that the film's discourses on gender and race grow both richer and narrower as it continues, and Mignon's personal traits and circumstances subsume our earlier perspectives on other women, other races, other battlegrounds, literal and political? What to make of Dash's technical gamesmanship, using a vocal track of Ella Fitzgerald to dub Rosanne Katon in the role of Ester, such that the "real" singer isn't "really" singing, and thus refusing a clichéd linkage of blackness to authenticity? Illusions has been considered and critiqued from a multitude of positions in the decades since Dash made it, but rarely among more than academic audiences, and seldom with a full account of the movie's countless and enigmatic significations. Like Cheryl Dunye's The Watermelon Woman, another monument within black women's moviemaking, Illusions powerfully resists the occlusion of black women within documented history and within Hollywood scenography, not by excavating a true-life tale of improbable heroism but by fabulating a scenario that never exactly happened, tugging at our gullibility while nonetheless stating a persuasive case for the necessity of invented archives, new origin myths, nuanced politics, and historical revisionism. Illusions might speak most powerfully to and from the standpoints of black women's experience, but in one way or another, as we make our way through this nifty hall of mirrors, we're all liable to catch some wisp of our own reflections.

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