Queer women in film: an open call to write them into existence
Writer/director Abena Taylor-Smith on why onscreen representation matters
Ladies Day, image by Rachel Clark
I’ve been asked numerous times why I decided to write my short film, Ladies Day. It’s an eight-minute joyful drama about a young black, queer woman spending the day in her local hair salon.
When I saw the music video to Ray BLK’s 50/50, directed by Hector Dockrill, it made me realise that I had never seen my experiences in UK salons captured on screen before. I’d seen the high-energy arena of black men’s barbershops depicted plenty of times; but in 50/50, here were black women like the ones I grew up with, lounging in a hair shop, looking bored and imperious; then in the music video to Patience, also by Ray BLK, I saw an unapologetic love letter to the beauty of dark-skinned, femme black-British women. I felt like somebody “got” me.
Rewind nineteen years to my first trip to my aunty’s hair salon. I was around four years old, sat at a wash basin on a small tower of cushions. My parents took me to my aunty because they were sick of me screaming loud enough for our whole street to hear when they tried to wash my hair themselves. I hated the whole experience: the water in my eyes, the harsh combing, I was scared of the shower. I enjoyed the communal experience of the salon, and all its distractions, much better.
Salon talk is real. The maintenance advice and chat, the laughter and cautionary tales, the discussions about who’s cooking what for dinner and a detailed, step-by-step breakdown of the method, soliloquies on sea bream and red snapper, updates on the best new products, damning reports on which brand changed their formula and thought nobody would notice, Hallam FM on the radio, somehow, in the early noughties, Heaven Is A Place On Earth by Belinda Carlisle was always playing - at the time, I hated it - I love that song now. There was also unsolicited relationship advice, weekly commentaries on current affairs, and extraordinary life stories dropped into conversation at unexpected times. All this mingling with the smell of sweet hair oil smoking on hot straighteners. Going to the salon, for me, was never just about a hairstyle: it’s a therapy session, a makeover and a community meeting in one. It’s also an escape from the outside world. But what happens when your life outside the salon follows you in?
Ladies Day, image by Rachel Clark
As a film-lover, I wanted to see something that represented black women on-screen, going about their daily lives without trauma. A light-hearted film, that instead of putting its characters in jeopardy for owning their sexuality, chose to depict femme invisibility and everyday homophobic microaggressions from a queer perspective.
I’ve complained to my friends countless times that most of the LGBT+ films available in the mainstream are about white, gay men leading tragic lives. There is a striking absence of lesbian and bi characters on screen, in film and television. Where are the black people? Where are the non-binary and trans people? Where is the joy in their stories? I was inspired by television writing and web series such as Sidetrack (scr. Kayla Kumari Uppadhaya), Brown Girls (scr. Fatima Asghar, dir. Sam Bailey) and Ackee & Saltfish (scr./dir. Cecile Emeke). These were full of queer women and women of colour, being free to enjoy their lives without being dragged down by trauma or doomed, short-lived affairs.
Telling a story automatically confers it with a certain level of importance, but the way we tell those stories matters even more. From the start, I was determined not to be the only queer person of colour on set. I knew I wanted an all-female black and brown cast as well as a diverse crew. The technical roles are just as important in deciding the focus and tone of the film as the script and direction. We all worked together to tell the same story and I wanted to create an atmosphere that made everyone feel as comfortable as possible on the shoot. I was very lucky to be supported by an excellent producer and ShortFLIX/ Creative England/Sky Arts executive team who enthusiastically helped me to achieve these goals.
So why did I make this film? Because I lived it. Because I saw a Creative England competition that seemed like it reached out and spoke directly to me. Because I’d run out of lesbian films to watch on Netflix. Because I wanted to see more women on screen who look like me and the women I know. Because I wished I could have seen a film like this when I was 12 or 13 years old.
Ladies Day airs on Sky Arts on 24 May at 10.30pm as part of the ShortFLIX miniseries.