Available on Blu-ray Mon 21 May 2018
Entertainment in 2018 is currently in the middle of what one hopes is a cultural shift. Beginning late last year, the notion that powerful men could continue to have their way with women was torn down. The treatment & portrayal of minorities continues to generate louder and louder protestations if deemed to be insensitive. This is surely a long time coming, but just how long exactly? In Abdellatif Kechiche’s Black Venus – the true story of Saartjie “Sarah” Baartman (a wonderful Yahima Torres) – we are subjected to the brutal realisation that this exploitative behaviour in the name of entertainment is, at the very least, over 200 years old.
The year is 1810. The location: London. A white man, complete with a whip, leads a young South African Khoikhoi woman out of a cage and onto a stage to perform for a shell-shocked audience. She is presented as a savage and humiliated as a freak: The Hottentot Venus! And while the abuser – Hendrick Caezar (Andre Jacobs) – might initially appear to be the villain of the piece, it becomes sadly ever clearer that our audience is just as complicit.
Black Venus is a methodical film. Kechiche’s matter-of-fact directing style doesn’t heighten tension or awkwardness with easy editing tricks and clever musical cues; the camera simply floats effortlessly from face to face, adorned with smiles & humour. Through this disciplined approach, the message is as plain as the nose on your face: the audience want it, pay for it, love it and ultimately cause ‘it‘ – the abuse. “Can I write that you’re a princess?” Asks a journalist. Nobody wants Baartman’s real story, nobody wants pain and torture. People want fantasy, and the whole world – from those entrusted to report on mistreatment, to those who we expect to lead us forward in exploration and understanding of the world around as – are all too happy to play along.
As a film made in 2010, it’s engrossing to watch, but as a statement that exists in 2018, the comparisons to our post-Time’s Up world are too grand to overlook. The faux-outrage of the crowd who state that Baartman’s suffering is “no fun anymore, not if she’s crying,” is no different than those of us who protest at Roman Polanski or Woody Allen or Casey Affleck being given the chance to continue to work in cinema, yet pay to see their latest work regardless. Baartman’s story is a tragic one, but not one that should be forgotten or ignored. She endured the indignity of that constantly throughout her life, the best we can hope for is to change that in death.