SXSW 2021 Doc Competition: “Subjects of Desire”, “United States vs. Reality Winner”

Subjects of Desire / United States vs. Reality Winner (SXSW)

From depictions of Black beauty to the ethics of whistleblowing, two female-focused docs out of SXSW struggle to hammer home a central message. 

(This dispatch is part of our coverage of the 2021 SXSW Film Festival.)

Subjects of Desire, from director Jennifer Holmes, looks at the way Black beauty has changed over the last century. Holmes examines the boxes that Black women have been forced into through the lens of the Miss Black America beauty pageant. Interviewing a range of contestants, coupled with small group sessions of Black women of varying ages, Holmes’ film forces you to reckon with the sexualization of this unrespected and often disregarded group of people. 

Subjects of Desire (SXSW)
Subjects of Desire (SXSW)

The film will surely take flack for its inclusion of Rachel Dolezal, the white woman who passed as Black for years, heading up her local NAACP chapter and teaching Africana studies at Eastern Washington University before her facade came crashing down. Dolezal plays the victim and includes herself in the talking points of the film, used as an example of the difficulties faced by Black women. Other interviewees are even asked about Dolezal, most of which want her to admit her actual heritage and acknowledge her whiteness. Dolezal becomes a 15-minute distraction, an odd side plot in a film that should have given that time to others. 

How society treats Black women remains a vital issue, one that has been talked about by Black activists for decades, and the subjects deserve to be heard, but Holmes’s documentary becomes bloated at a 101-minute runtime. She looks at the stereotypes of a “mammy” in great detail, reminding us of Black depictions in film and television. Subjects of Desire offers real perspectives from women that have lived with these presupposed roles since they were kids, chatting candidly about the lightness or darkness of their skin, and how Blackness cannot be put into neat, little boxes for white cultural consumption. 

The film ends without action, though, as it serves a more informational purpose. Holmes’ documentary doesn’t dig deep enough, understandably not forcing these Black women to do the emotional labor for white audiences. 

United States vs. Reality Winner (SXSW)
United States vs. Reality Winner (SXSW)

United States vs. Reality Winner focuses on a white woman living in Georgia, the leaker of a government document about Russian interference in the 2016 election. Reality Winner, a 25-year-old Air Force veteran, gives this document to The Intercept, a publication with a track record of exposing witnesses, specifically whistleblowers. Director Sonia Kennebeck’s film takes a true-crime approach to its subject, unfolding the case bit by bit, interspersing the chronology with snippets from federal agents coaxing a confession out of Winner in her home. 

Featuring interviews from Edward Snowden and other whistleblowers, who obviously take Winner’s side in these proceedings, United States vs. Reality Winner attempts to reckon with the Espionage Act, the idea of a “classified” document, and the vilification of those that expose our government’s failings. Unveiling Winner’s case and trial, the documentary has issue with the cherry-picking of government attorneys, and their willingness to dig into personal conversations, diary entries, and any possibility that she “hated America.”

Kennebeck doesn’t place blame on any one entity, though, even indicting Winner herself to a certain degree. She didn’t deserve her vast punishment, but several people and places are at fault, including the laws and system that put her in this precarious position.

Still, the most damning piece comes towards the end of the documentary, as Snowden, who becomes an almost-pseudo narrator, explains the government’s joy in putting Winner in prison. They aren’t disappointed in their role. They aren’t even apathetic about having to prosecute her for breaking the law. They rejoice in her extended sentence and her guilty plea deal. Their level of pride is shown on their faces during press conferences. It leaves a sour taste in your mouth and anger that doesn’t quickly subside. 

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