Bridgett M. Davis on the Double Exposure of “Naked Acts”

There were certainly indications that Bridgett M. Davis was going to be a singular voice as a director from her debut “Naked Acts.” But she was never one to subscribe to the auteur theory. After being compelled to make the film as a dare from friends who thought she should take complaints about how women had been portrayed in other films, she made sure the same spirit of conversation was inherent in the creative process that she’d undertake without any film school ideas of how to make a feature, a particular necessity she felt when the story centered on an actress pressured to do her first nude scene.

“I wanted this to feel like this is a collaborative effort,” Davis recalled, not only writing the lead part of Cece for Jake-ann Jones, but having the multidisciplinary artist send notes on every draft of the script. “I wanted her to feel invested because it’s such a difficult role and a risky one for a Black actress to take on, and I didn’t want to be the director or the producer of the film in that the larger point as a filmmaker that I was trying to make is that there’s a way to do this if you bring people in to the process. It doesn’t have to feel exploitative, and I believed a more collaborative process could really work and it did.”

Upon reflection on the making of “Naked Acts” nearly 30 years ago, what may be most heartbreaking is that while Davis created a way of working that yielded a brilliant character study with a zesty turn at its center from Jones, the system as a whole failed the filmmaker when it came time to give her provocative debut a proper release. With no distributor wanting to take a chance on the film, Davis was left to four-wall a theater on the other side of town at the same time the New York Film Festival was going on in 1998 two years after it began its own festival run criss-crossing the country.

They may have told Davis at the time she knew little about the film business, yet “Naked Acts” shows remarkable insight into the industry as Cece weighs all that it’ll mean to enter into it as the daughter of a Blaxploitation legend (Patricia DeArcy) known for shedding her clothes, and after long having to live in her shadow, fruitlessly attempting to adjust her weight and appearance accordingly, she is offered a potential breakthrough role that she only learns after accepting will entail nudity. Watching the sly character attempt to wiggle out of the obligation while keeping a part in the film-within-a-film displays Davis’ wicked wit, but “Naked Acts” tucks an incisive critique of an artistic process that often works against personal expression in film production as the its producer Marcel (John McKie) watches over the film’s schedule like a hawk with a financial incentive to induce Cece to shed her clothes while the film’s director (the late, great Ron Cephus Jones) believes it’ll lend an artistic credibility, with the dilly-dallying hardly winning over her co-stars who have different attitudes towards nudity and what the film means as a whole.

In taking a wide-ranging look at the implications of all the individual motivations that ultimately have to cohere into a movie, Davis not only shows how remarkable that any reach the screen, but ends up with one that still seems a bit ahead of its time, remaining an all-too-rare portrait of a Black woman finding agency in a world where for as many obvious barriers, many are left unseen and outlines all the decisions and compromises that make movies what they are, for better or worse. With “Naked Acts” ripe for rediscovery, it is heartening that as the film collected more and more admirers since its initial release, a path was paved for a re-release worthy of it with the film recently restored by the Lightbox Film Center in collaboration with Milestone Films and a full-fledged theatrical run via Kino Lorber and Davis generously spoke about how this revival came about, never losing faith in the power of the film and how she was able to find confidence in herself as a filmmaker.

What’s this new wave of excitement around something you made 30 years ago like?

It’s really pretty magical and it’s validating [because] any artist wants people to see their work and people did see it — it went to festivals and it had a life. But I always wanted [broader] audiences to just have the chance to see it and there were gatekeepers – obviously a distributor and then other ancillary gatekeepers like critics — that would determine whether that would happen. It felt like such a missed opportunity that I couldn’t get someone to say “yes” [to distributing it] and that feeling never left. That’s what I’m feeling now like, “This is what I always wanted. This is the elation I wanted to feel.”

That’s a crazy part of this story to me is that from what I understand, you were carrying prints around from place to place, actually seeing there was an audience for this, but then having to talk to distributors who were telling you there wasn’t…

It was so frustrating because the first validation came from those audiences. When you take a film around to two dozen festivals around the world, you see all kinds of audiences and they were all responding and resonating with it, so I knew the film was touching people. Even when I would come back and report to various distributors what I was witnessing, it wasn’t enough, so basically I self-distributed, luckily getting into one theater in Manhattan, but still it was one theater. I thought this [run] was a proof of concept and if we stay there for four weeks and it was good box office, now someone will step forward. In a way, that did happen because I was able to get a DVD deal, but I was hoping for more more opportunities for audiences to see it in a theater, so I carried that desire for over 20 years before it got rediscovered.

This was always one of those films I had heard about, but didn’t know could be accessed until 2014 when there was the anniversary screening at Indiana University. Did that actually plant the seed for eventually bringing it back for a broader release?

I had no idea I was planting that seed. What I thought I was doing putting it in a beautiful bed to lay it to rest because at that point it had been 20 years since I shot it. It felt important to archive and preserve it, so now scholars and maybe film students can see it and it’ll have a life that way. I was pretty content, but thank goodness the Black Film Center and Archive did a special screening back then and they brought me and one of the actresses in. I really thought, “ All right, that’s it. I’ve done my job. It’s in good hands, but then fast forward to 2022 and Maya Cade had started her own Black Film Archive, this incredible online site, and she just sent me a DM on Twitter. Luckily, I already knew who she was and the funny thing I remember is that I thought “Wow, I hope one day she learns about my film” and then there she is sending me a message saying I’m in the archive and “I’ve just watched your film and would you like distribution because I think I know someone who would be interested?” That was the beginning and barely a year later we were premiering at the Rotterdam Film Festival.

I know there were a bunch of impulses that led you to make this – from discussions you’d have with friends about how women were portrayed in Spike Lee films to the exploitative nature of some old photos of Vanessa Williams that were published when she won Miss America – and there were 14 drafts of the script. What made you feel like you had gotten your arms around such a tricky subject?

All that’s true. So much was happening in the culture that I was being influenced by as a young woman in the ’90s and I just reached a point where I thought, “All right, I have a lot to say about this subject and I think it’s important to comment on the medium in the medium itself.” That was really what put me on a journey to not just learn screenwriting, but to learn filmmaking so that I could really make this statement about what I felt was really both powerful and disappointing about this art form I love so much. I grew up on film and I came to New York to live in this city because of how the city was portrayed in films, so it’s as though this thing that I love so much was also breaking my heart a little bit when it came to Black life and Black women and how they were represented on film.

It was fascinating to me that you actually cast a few people like Renee Cox, the photographer that becomes a confidant to Cece after she needs headshots, who were actually playing a role similar to what they did in their professional lives. How did that inform this?

I was just lucky that I mentioned to [Renee] when I met her that I was writing a screenplay. I didn’t know what she did, but I said, “I’m writing a character who takes nudes of Black women as a Black female photographer and I don’t know if that person really exists.” She said to me, “That’s what I do,” and I thought “wow.” Our relationship formed from there and that was one example of bringing artists who understood the role and what I was attempting to do [because] they believed in my vision and they were living a similar kind of vision that helped me as a first-time filmmaker who maybe didn’t have a lot of experience working with actors. It was a little meta.

One of the things that are I found so interesting was that when it was your first time on set, what’s so beautifully expressed in the film is all the competing agendas that happen in a collaborative medium like this. Everything I’ve heard about the making of this was the opposite of that, but was it actually easy to sympathize with all the people putting pressure on Cece as you make it look, regardless of what they’re pressuring her to do, when you make it clear where everyone’s coming from?

I felt like I was living the story I was telling. A funny joke is that Marcel is really, shall we say, the man with standards right, so he is this really strict producer and in a way, I was channeling Marcel because it required such a clarity of vision because we had limited resources and time, so they’d call me Marcel behind my back. And in those ways, it played itself out certainly with the actors and the actresses being conscious of being on film but embodying characters who were grappling with that image of themselves on film.

In a literal sense, Cece’s image changes a lot throughout the film with some canny costume and hair looks. How did you think about the character’s expression in that sense?

Even in the script stage, I understood that I wanted Cece to be complicated and complex and it’s very hard in film to show someone’s inner life, but I thought, “What if I am making her visual appearance play against what’s happening for her emotionally? She’s trying to hide, but at the same time she really feels like she wants to be seen.” I think both are true and the wigs are a way to manage that [where] they are elaborate in a way that you often see with a lot of Black women — we want to be stylish and be seen, but that doesn’t mean that we want to be exposed. They’re different and if you notice the wigs get less elaborate as the story progresses.

You use music in really wonderful ways as well. From the theme song on, it really becomes a part of the narrative of the film. What was it like to work with Cecilia Smith on the soundtrack?

Cecilia Smith was a friend and I knew she was a talented composer/vibraphonist and she wanted to get into scoring film, so that was a great collaboration. And the opening credits song was written by Sandra St. Victor, an incredible songwriter, and it’s being sung by Carla Cook, another incredible jazz singer, and what I loved so much and still do about film is that it is really many different art forms coming together, so [the film] was an opportunity for me to showcase all the individual artists whom I adored — that included the musicians, and the visual artists and as well as the actors — and it was equally important to me to bring those artists work into the film.

All the art [on the walls] comes from actual artists — Renee Cox lent her own work to the film, and we had another young painter [Laurence Gomez] who donated his portrait towards the end of the film and another photographer [Donn Thompson] included some of his work in the studio scene at the end, so it was just knowing about all of these creatives and wanting to bring their work into the story. This felt like a great platform for that.

I can’t help but wonder when Cece goes on this journey of finding confidence in herself while putting herself out there, whether you felt the same way?

You really hit the nail on the head because I wasn’t an actress, but I understood Cece’s journey. Then I was making this film at this juncture where I felt so frustrated as an artist. I had tried to write a novel, but it didn’t work out and I was trying to really determine what kind of artist I could be. So I really understood Cece as a character because I wasn’t that far removed from her — not in the the biography of her story, but just in that quest to really figure out what kind Black woman and artist am I going to be in the world and let me push through the resistance from others from inside myself to figure it out.

Have you found satisfaction as an artist? You did eventually succeed at becoming a novelist, but it was disappointing for me to learn that was after you couldn’t find backing for a planned second feature, “Abbey’s Road,” which from the title alone, should’ve been made.

It’s been a journey. I did go through disappointment. I was heartbroken because I found that I absolutely loved filmmaking and I wanted to really be that person who explored stories through the medium for as long as I could and to keep working with the same group of actors. It just felt like this is the thing, yet I could not get that second script funded. And I just knew I can’t do this a second time this way, which [involved] devoting many years of your life and giving yourself over to it [completely]. I believed in doing that once, but I just couldn’t a second time, so what do you do if the gatekeepers are saying no, but you still have things to say? I did turn to novels [because] you don’t need a group of people and a lot of money to do that. But here’s something I didn’t admit before the film was rediscovered — I never lost my desire to make film. I just didn’t talk about it anymore when people would ask. I’d say, “Oh I’ve moved on,” but it was because I didn’t see a way to do it. Now strangely enough there seems to be possibilities, so it’s a little crazy to do a second film 30 years later, but maybe it’s going to happen.

“Naked Acts” is now open at the BAM Rose Cinemas in New York and will open in Los Angeles at the Los Feliz 3 from June 18th-22nd, Austin at the AFS Cinema from June 19th-24th and in Seattle at the Northwest Film Forum from June 20th-27th. It will later play at the Jacob Burns Film Center in Pleasantville, NY on July 16th and the Wadsworth Antheneum Museum of Art in Hartford, CT on August 18th.

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