“Death is desire—the place where there is no time, no present, no past.” — bell hooks, Wounds of Passion: A Writing Life (1997)
Grief is an act of service. bell hooks taught us that to feel grief is to open yourself up to the wounds in the place where we would know love. But what’s love and grief got to do with watching film? Across her 40 years as an author, hooks prioritized film as the leading site of insurrectional possibility that could radicalize the body to practice love. Across criticism, theory, and interviews with filmmakers, hooks wrestled with the liberatory possibilities that Black feminism specifically brings to image-making. She used her lived experience as a way to articulate the impact that images have on the construction of the self. I am endlessly moved by her description of love-making with a former partner as a “heartbreak church” in her memoir Wounds of Passion (1997). hooks described heartbreak church as that immaterial space of recognition where one could mourn or seek emancipation. In being a frequent mourner at heartbreak church, hooks and her work became an extension of that recognition for others. In heartbreak church, grief becomes passion and arms us with a cardio muscular action against the anti-love of imperialist white supremacist capitalist patriarchy.
hooks’s legacy with film criticism is largely distinguished by her singular essay “The Oppositional Gaze: Black Female Spectators” (1992). The oppositional gaze defines a methodology of looking at film generated from Black women’s cultural production as witness bearers to both their erasure and violence committed against them on screen. Through absence and assault, Black women crafted a methodology to analyze film that accounts for its intersectional relationship with imperialist white supremacist capitalist patriarchy and, more importantly, what images are needed to resist it. The oppositional gaze can also be seen as a parable for how the absence of one generation of Black women’s visibility made love onscreen possible for another generation. How we make and experience images is an extension of how we love. hooks reminded us that film is a site of radical image making possibilities that opens us anew to one another in the world.
hooks lived what she wrote and gave Black women a model by which their flesh becomes word. In a revealing text for artist Shu Lea Cheang’s installation, Those Fluttering Objects of Desire (1992), hooks delivered an erotic letter she wrote for a lover that audiences had to pay a token to hear titled, “OPEN YOUR HEART AND EXPOSE IT.” She recounts the moment of true recognition when her lover’s flesh pressed against her thighs and left her wet and pulsating with desire. In that moment he “restored a part of herself back to her, that which she did not know was missing.” She made no differentiation in language and style across works—thus, the fact that her erotic letters, memoirs, film criticism, and pedagogical pamphlets bear the same stylistic rhythm is key as they come from the same source: her body. hooks’s work was meant to be read widely so that we could connect how her description and vernacular on love making mirrors the same radical possibility of Black women’s roles as cultural producers and spectators.
There is great joy in bringing pleasure to the body (yours or another), for it offers a momentary respite from the daily assault that capitalism inflicts against the body. Pleasure, affection, and fucking remind us of what our bodies are capable of feeling, and how good it is to feel good. hooks argued for a commitment to making each other feel good as a restorative practice, that within those encounters of deep intimacy of nakedness and vulnerability we would learn to be accountable for one another. She understood that the screen and the politics and pedagogy of filmmaking and teaching are an extension of that restorative practice and a space for those relations to emerge.
However, practicing a pedagogy of love meant that she clashed with the majority of popular images of Blackness. This clash is evident in her criticism on Spike Lee in “Whose Pussy is This: A Feminist Comment” and “Crooklyn: The Denial of Death,” as well as popular Black performers in “Selling Hot Pussy.” Love enabled her to resist ethno-essentialist methods on Black images that represented transference without transformation. Those popular images of representation do not replenish the self; they simply exist to turn the capitalist trick, to keep you consuming more from their load. And there is much violence on the screen in relation to Black life. Black images are branded, marked images entangled with our subjugation by imperialist white supremacist capitalist patriarchy. hooks theorized in “Loving Blackness as Political Resistance'' and “An Aesthetic of Blackness: Strange and Oppositional” that the image of Blackness needs to be rooted in a radical space of creation and empowerment, not in response to being wounded. For the latter often colludes with images of injury as entertainment. Images that reproduce violence as a demonstration to others is not an intervention. To build from a source of creation is to invent with the world and to practice an act of service—it is literal world-building. Working from a place of love fortifies the body against a totalizing system of dehumanization that strips ourselves from pleasure. That the images we produce are extensions of our acts of service, of care, was and remains revelatory.
In this way, hooks amplified the work of experimental film by Black feminist filmmakers, finding their kit contained sharper tools that disrupt conventional stereotypical representations of Black women to introduce new radical points of departure. She shared space with Black feminist filmmakers through the structure of the interview that allowed them to speak directly about their practice and their influences. hooks was committed to sharing with others the type of images that gave her recognition because they resisted the system of representation and offered “new transgressive possibilities for the formulation of identity” (“The Oppositional Gaze”). Recognition can come from a lover, but through the revolutionary image-making by Black feminist filmmakers—like Julie Dash, Camille Billops, Martina Attille, Maureen Blackwood, Zeinabu irene Davis, and others—hooks expressed that their work can equally restore, like her love did, that which we did not know was missing.
It feels wrong to write about hooks in the past tense. Just two days before she passed, my students in my Media and Sexuality class engaged in a lively discussion of her work on sex and representation in the media. We looked at her Spin magazine profile with Lil Kim, her criticism of Madonna (“Madonna: Plantation Mistress or Soul Sister?”), and her sharp criticism of Beyoncé (which, in the years since Lemonade’s release, has been eerily prescient about images lacking a transformative practice that resists imperialist white supremacist capitalist patriarchy as not being sufficient to heal Black women.) Through her work across Teaching to Transgress (1994) and Teaching Community (1993, specifically “Eros, Eroticism, and the Pedagogical Process” and “Good Sex: Passionate Pedagogy”), we worked through her frankness and effervescent text and imagined together what a frank inclusion of love and sex could look like politically in the space of the classroom and on screen. We came to the conclusion that by not talking about love and sex as political sites of transformation, we ultimately harm our ability to imagine emancipation from white supremacy. That many of our relationships with others in the movement can be a source of deep woundedness should be a political concern. That our politics are not carried into the bedroom, or that the bedroom does not enter the streets or the classroom, is troubling. This disconnect makes us vulnerable to abuse because it demarcates our mission of political emancipation from the body when we know that agency over our flesh and what enters it is the first place we feel freedom in an unfree world.
With her passing we have learned another, painful, lesson on the need to take care of your dying. Taking care of others, both the living and the dead, turn our theories into acts of service that allow us to materialize what we are doing in service of what we say and hope for. While hooks and her lover built heartbreak church, she graciously made that space available to others. Through her work, she modeled what inclusivity feels like for Black women in the world. We can mourn at the heartbreak church, however it is precisely at that altar of grief that we leave our pain at to be renewed in opening ourselves to love once again as we exit to a world of daily assault and violence, both in image and practice. hooks’s work and her gracious theorizing of Black feminism on film is life-affirming work and thus becomes its own heartbreak church where she took us to that altar of grief and love again and again.