The dedication for (In)Visible Portraits, the new documentary from Oge Egbuonu, calls it a “love letter to Black women and a reeducation for everyone else.”
Egbuonu says the project was born when an investor saw Isaiah Thomas’ NBA Hall of Fame induction, in which he thanked his mother for her countless sacrifices, and decided someone should make a film to honor Black mothers. Egbuonu was interested, but said she would want to focus on Black women, because mothers are women first.
“When you do the research, you start to realize that this country was built on the backs of Black women,” Egbuonu told MovieMaker.
Egbuonu started (In)Visible Portraits three years ago, but the film debuts today amid a racial reckoning brought on by the Black Lives Matter movement — and nearly 100 days after the killing of Breonna Taylor, one of many unarmed Black people killed by police. Its release is also on Juneteenth, which has gained greater recognition this year as a celebration of the end of slavery.
(In)Visible Portraits is composed of interviews with scholars Joy Angela DeGruy, Patricia Hill-Collins, Melina Abdullah and Ruha Benjamin, who tell the stories of women who suffered atrocities from enslavement to forced sterilization. They explore stereotypes that continue to harm Black women, such as the Mammy, the Jezebel and the angry Black woman. (In)Visible Portraits dismantles their otherizing and erasure.
One of the women the film honors is Henrietta Lacks, whose cancer cells were taken from her and used by the Johns Hopkins Hospital without her knowledge or consent. The film shows how a nurse was only reminded of her humanity when she saw her toenail polish during Lacks’ autopsy.
“Society tends to dehumanize black folks, especially Black women,” Egbuonu said. “It was important to name and put a face to these women because it makes them real.”
Egbuonu says that though these stories are painful, acknowledging deep-rooted pain is necessary to heal.
“Until you tackle history, you can’t tackle the present,” Egbuonu said. “By coming to a reckoning with the things that Black women have experienced in this country, you’re able to heal from those experiences and change the narrative.”
Egbuonu’s journey as a filmmaker is somewhat unconventional: She got her first job in the film industry while she was teaching yoga at a studio in Los Angeles. A client, producer Ged Doherty, offered her a position at his production company, Raindog Films, co-founded by Doherty and actor Colin Firth, in London. While Egbuonu had the idea of creating a documentary about Black girls years before she was in the entertainment industry, her vision became a reality after she worked on Raindog’s films Eye in the Sky and Loving.
(In)Visible Portraits includes powerful spoken word poetry by Jazmine Williams, and glimpses of a masterpiece by painter Victoria Cassinova are woven in between interviews. “I wanted it to feel like poetry,” Egbuonu notes. “I had to think about the different mediums that we create that feel like poetry to me. To me, that’s music, visual art and poetry.”
Remembering Civil Rights leaders like Ella Baker, Fannie Lou Hamer and the three women who created the Black Lives Matter movement — Alicia Garza, Patrisse Cullors, and Opal Tometi — Egbuonu honors the women who fought through victory and heartbreak.
“To have this film come out now will not only honor their voices, but the women before them,” Egbuonu said. “I can’t think of any greater release than the current moment.”
(In)Visible Portraits is now available to purchase through Vimeo and will be released on iTunes, Amazon and Roku in July.