The inaugural edition of Women of The Lens, a UK-based film festival “created to showcase the work and challenge perceptions of black women and women of color in front of and behind the camera” kicked off on Friday, 10 November, 2017 with a screening of Spike Lee’s Girl 6 and a panel titled Can She Get Her Sexy Back?

Set in the 1990’s, Girl 6 follows the life of a young black woman as she tries to break into New York City’s acting scene, the obstacles she comes up against, and the side-gig she picks up to pay her bills. The movie opens with the main character, Judy, auditioning for a screen role. The audition seems to be going well until the director, Quentin Tarantino playing himself, asks her to take off her top. Initially flustered at the demand, she complies after a few objections but eventually runs out of the audition embarrassed.

Disheartened by her experience on the casting couch and in need of a job, our protagonist begins working as a phone-sex operator and is given the titular moniker, Girl 6. Here, her acting skills are utilized as she is able to transform into any woman the caller desires. Judy is soon immersed in her new job but its mental and emotional demands begin to take a toll on her. She stops pursuing acting opportunities, has trouble preventing her client’s fantasies from encroaching on her reality, and eventually becomes burned out.

The film screening was followed by a lively panel discussion about the themes of the movie. Led by moderator Yvonne Connikie, the panelists Jana Sante, Kelechi Okafor, and Delia-Rene Donaldson shared their opinions on how the sexuality of black women is portrayed in the media. The room, panel and audience alike, agreed that there is little nuance in mainstream media’s depiction of black women’s sexuality. We are either hypersexualized and treated little better than objects, or desexualized and portrayed as having no sexual desire or undeserving of sexual desire. The opening scene of Girl 6 seems to begin on the hypersexual note but the story gains depth when she is in control of her sexuality. The protagonist’s pride in her work as a phone-sex operator demonstrates that it is not sex that causes her distress, but being in sexual situations where she has no agency.

The conversation then progressed to thinking about ways sexual agency can be fostered amongst black women and girls. Blogger and screenwriter Delia-Rene Donaldson pointed out that it ought to begin at home with frank discussions about sex. Young girls should know that sex is not what happens to them but ought to be what they participate in and enjoy. Actress and dance and pole fitness instructor Kelechi Okafor added another dimension to the conversation by encouraging women to stand in solidarity with sex workers. She relayed that her friends who danced in strip clubs felt safer, were less cowered, and experienced less harassment from men when women were amongst the audience. Sex workers remain one of the most vulnerable groups of people because their profession is often treated as an automatic revocation of their sexual agency. This attitude means sex-workers are often victims of sexual harassment and assault, and rarely get justice.

In all, Girl 6 and the ensuing panel were an impressive beginning to what promises to be an informative, layered, and entertaining film festival centered around black women. Organized by Jennifer G. Robinson, Women of The Lens resumes at The Cinema Museum, 2 Dugard Way, London, SE11 4TH and runs from Friday, 24 November until Sunday, 26 November, 2017.

Festival programme and additional information can be found here: https://www.womenofthelens.com/programme/