Black Venus / Vénus Noire (2010) Film Review

The film explores the worst capabilities of human beings and their yearnings to manipulate and take control of others; it addresses multi-tiered issues of race, class, and opportunity and does so with faithfulness to realism, even when realism is uncomfortably atrocious.

Directed by Abdellatif Kechiche
Written by Abdellatif Kechiche, Ghalia Lacroix
Starring Yahima Torres, Andre Jacobs and Olivier Gourmet

Black Venus is a film centered around the life and death of South African woman Sarah Baartman. Nicknamed Hottentot Venus, Baartman was exhibited as a freakshow attraction in 19th century Europe and lived a life that was unbefitting for even the vilest of human creatures. Her “career” began in Britain, where she was a performer wearing tight garments which showed off her enlarged bosoms and buttocks to a relatively poor British audience. The performance soon enraged the British community, however, resulting in much controversy and the show’s eventual export into to the homes of the French upper-class.

What Black Venus grimly captures is not the glitz and glamour of “show business,” but what happens when a naive young woman is misled by the promises of opportunity. The film explores the worst capabilities of human beings and their yearnings to manipulate and take control of others; it addresses multi-tiered issues of race, class, and opportunity and does so with faithfulness to realism, even when realism is uncomfortably atrocious.

One of the most powerful scenes in the film takes place in a courtroom, where members of the jury, the public, and the defendants all sound their wildly conflicting opinions about Baartman’s life decisions. The opinions, though logically sound from each individuals’ point of view, flail wildly in the grand scheme; the scene offers fascinting insight into “civilized” Western thinking at that time.

Black Venus is riddled with portrayals of sexual abuse, physical abuse, and alcoholism — but it is emotional abuse and its many offshoots, into depression, helplessness, apathy, and the like, which weigh the heaviest. And just when circumstances seem as though they can get no worse, they always do.

Black Venus is a 159-minute downwards spiral of shame, and it is raw, sparing viewers none of the brutality found in Baartman’s life. One feels her shame as she performs for groups of people who treat her like a circus animal, understands her destitution when she begins to prostitute, sympathesizes when her body is callously used to satisfy scientific curiosity. As a piece of fiction, Black Venus might be painful enough to watch, but as a work of historical dramatization, it is gripping and unsettling in its jaw-dropping, stomach-churning qualities.

Seen at Seattle International Film Festival 2011

Written by
Vee Hua 華婷婷

Vee Hua 華婷婷 (they/she) is a writer, filmmaker, and organizer with semi-nomadic tendencies. Much of their work unifies their metaphysical interests with their belief that art can positively transform the self and society. They are the Editor-in-Chief of REDEFINE, Interim Managing Editor of South Seattle Emerald, and Co-Chair of the Seattle Arts Commission. They also previously served as the Executive Director of the interdisciplinary community hub, Northwest Film Forum, where they played a key role in making the space more welcoming and accessible for diverse audiences.

In 2017, Vee released the narrative short film, Searching Skies — which touches on Syrian refugee resettlement in the United States — and co-organized The Seventh Art Stand, a national film and civil rights discussion series against Islamophobia. 2022 sees the release of their next short film, Reckless Spirits, which is a metaphysical, multi-lingual POC buddy comedy for a bleak new era, in anticipation of a feature film.

Vee is passionate about cultural space, the environment, and finding ways to covertly and overtly disrupt oppressive structures. They also regularly share observational human stories through their storytelling newsletter, RAMBLIN’ WITH VEE!, and are pursuing a Master’s in Tribal Resource and Environmental Stewardship under the Native American Studies Department at the University of Minnesota.

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