How poetry heals — Documentary film 'The Revival' centers black women poets past and present


The Revival: Women & the Word follows the progression of a poetry tour of the same name, as we travel through seven cities with the poets, artists, and volunteers of The Revival. The film lays out in an intricately nuanced way that yes, the world unfolds to women of color when we spread out into it, when we press our bodies against it and heave. But it also holds a truth which many in this society don't wish to acknowledge: when we push, the world pushes back.

Directed by D.C.-based filmmaker Sekiya Dorsett, the 2016 documentary pays homage to black women who have come before us — women who have carved out a path so that even when it becomes overgrown, black women can still find our way back. The Revival opens by paying tribute to Phyllis Wheatley, the first published African American woman and poet in the United States. It then goes on to root itself in the historical violence cited in words from South Carolina-raised poet Nikky Finney during the National Book Award ceremony for poetry in 2011.

Finney says:

"We begin with history, the slave codes of South Carolina, 1739. A fine of 100 dollars and six months in prison will be imposed for anyone found teaching a slave to read or write, and death is the penalty for circulating any incendiary literature..."

This is such a deep moment. To sit down and watch The Revival: Women & the Word from beginning to end is to journey through time. By beginning in 1793 with the mother of poetry for black women, Phyllis Wheatley, and ending with glimpses into the futures of the artists, the viewer is left feeling they have never left the side of the women of the Revival.

Black women in cinema are often denied depth in our portrayal; this film does not have that problem. While being interviewed before the first performance in Brooklyn, Be Steadwell, an exceptionally talented queer musician and member of the tour is asked, "How are you feeling right now, in one word?" To which she replies: "Um, nervous."

This is beautiful because it allows another dimension to how we perceive the black woman and her experience. It suggests that brilliant women throughout history who we have deep respect for — Harriet Tubman, Rosa Parks, June Jordan, Alice Walker — experience the same emotions as the rest of us. It allows for their experience to be informed by society and circumstance, just like our own.

When T'ai "Freedom" Ford — a poet, high school teacher, and tour member — performs in her home town of Atlanta, the viewer is granted admission to how poetry and art can aid in healing familial rifts and historical trauma. The viewer is truly given a sense that what the women in the Revival are doing is revolutionary.

Common themes woven throughout The Revival are sacrifice, family, home, and churchThese are each words rooted deeply in history, sense of belonging and self. The women in The Revival allow the viewer access to their world in a vulnerable, honest way which I have never before had the honor of witnessing on film. Artists expose key elements of how these things have informed their gender, their sexuality, and presentation.

This film takes the viewer on a journey into their own self through the eyes of The Revival — wizened and queer — and they come out on the other side with a deeper understanding of the black woman's experience and the ways in which it affects the viewer and the world around them.

The Revival: Women & the Word is a revelation for some and a reminder for others. We are reminded that we are standing on the shoulders of those who have come before us, and drives home that others will stand on our own in days to come. We need to make sure they are strong.


The Revival: Women & the Word | with "BloodLetting: Poetry readings," | Mon, September 11, 7 pm | SPACE Gallery, 538 Congress St., Portland | $8 |  

LaLa Drew can be reached at 

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