“The Water Phoenix” : On Narratives About Female Agency & Black Mermaids
Black people exist in the future.
Black people exist in outer space.
Black people exist under the sea.
Written, directed and starring herself as the dazzling sea creature, Bola Ogun expressed great frustration on trying to get films made as a marginalized person, as herself — a first generation Nigerian-American filmmaker. So, if I’m getting the story right, she turned to crowdfunding to get some of the funds needed for this short film to finally get a finished film completed and uploaded to Vimeo last year. The synopsis is pretty straight forward:
When an imprisoned mermaid is betrayed by her caretaker, she must find a way to escape the aquarium alone.
The film opens to a voice over of Ogun’s character: “Sometimes you meet the love of your life…and sometimes that love betrays you” From a black screen to a view of her lying on what looks like a gurney being rolled somewhere. She’s looking disinterested, disheartened and not feeling it as the camera shows us, a man. A man who is busy apologizing and making excuses.
The camera only then, reveals her whole body a moment later when she’s seemingly dumped into her tank and the film’s title appears on screen. Before then, the shot focused in not too much below her shoulders, possibly to emphasize her face and start to cue us, the audience in on her hopelessness of her situation. It’s almost as like she’s just a slab of meat on a tray or a decoration.
As far as short films go, this is one that does much with the little it has.
It’s a pretty impressive effort with the high concept and the visual effects, of course. And there’s the cinematography, the attention to detail in the mermaid tail (Designer Eric “The Mertailor” Ducharme”) and I have to mention Ogun’s performance under the water along with the phenomenal team of persons who helped film those scenes, (there were even mermaid consultants! Seriously! Check the credits!)
What makes this film most memorable to me is its story, its narrative which is simplistic. Simple, yes. However, that is not a slight against the filmmaker, her script or the finished product. Nope, The Water Phoenix’s narrative doesn’t need to be super complex to be one that sticks the landing and measures what storytelling can be with some imagination with fantasy elements.
On Narratives About Female Agency
Anya, the mermaid is unhappy.
This is a given through her facial expressions and body language throughout the film.
In the opening scene, we see that she looks detached from the world but most immediately from the conversion happening with whom we discover is Jack, her former lover and her caretaker who bailed on helping her escape. In the next scenes we see her in a tank, just another pretty fish to behold at an aquarium.
She’s forced to smile, wave and interact with a visiting tour of people against her will as we see a device fashioned as a necklace emitting some harmful sensations if she doesn’t comply. It’s also explicitly hinted that she’ll be force fed — because in a show of rebellion but also a testament to her being broken hearted, she’s been starving herself. She’s locked into a cycle of performing femininity on what looks like a near, daily basis and she doesn’t have a say in any of it.
There’s only one other person who inquires about the mermaid, and it is also the only other female character with onscreen lines. It is a child, a little Black girl who curiously asks; “Can the mermaid gets legs?” to which the marine biologist Jack, Anya’s former lover who she distrusts greatly now, replies “Not anytime soon,” quite possibly in a gesture to assure the little one.
We could chalk this up to a child’s curiosity and innocence — yet in this narrative of this female character getting free and making the change happen on her own terms with her own hands, I’d argue that she’s a sympathetic character. A girl child concerned using her own eyes and pondering about the life of another, woman. Another woman with skin and features not too far away from her own and curious on what will happen to her and envisioning what freedom could look like for her.
In the climax of the film, where Anya is taken to a room to prepare her for transport to another country, farther away from her home, her quick thinking overpowers those who imprisoned her and makes haste for her getaway. Using Jack and holding him at gunpoint, she is able to transition to her legs from her tail and force him to get her clothes to wear and even drive her to the ocean.
There’s no long, action packed fight, there’s a moment where Anya works fast to immobilize those who keep her and gains the upper hand by grabbing hold of a gun as a weapon and thus, gains a hostage. The special effects aren’t emphasized so much on the quick struggle and violence but on Anya’s transformation towards the end.
Falling out of love with the man who once promised her to help her get back home and making it happen on her own terms, using her own hands and her own two feet makes for a narrative that’s satisfying and one that subverts the story we known of mermaids — the Hans Christian Andersen version of where she goes from mermaid to human to nearly becoming seafoam. For love, she nearly perishes and her life is a account of not having agency and of being left with few options. This was true for the little mermaid and it is true for Anya here.
The Water Phoenix ends with Anya being able to return to the ocean, stepping into the water with her legs and then blissfully, having her tail return once in the water.
Before the final frames of the film, she’s seen with a brilliant and beautiful smile — a smile that was hard won and appropriate. It is a smile that those in the audience, too, can wear seeing this narrative play out with the heroine able to find her own path to being free and making her own choices about her life.
Mermaids are oceanic creatures, they live and thrive under the waves. Yet even the title, The Water Phoenix isn’t so odd now after viewing and witnessing Anya’s return back to the ocean and her narrative closing out: back to her roots, her being free and making the best choices for herself. In a way, she’s been revived, from the ashes of what she was forced to become, from the shell she was living in to something much more powerful: a creature that has survived.
One could very much liken Anya’s struggles — being stuck in a relationship that has died, being betrayed by a significant other, being incapable of making changes about her own life own due to a set of circumstances all seemingly relatable to women in audiences anywhere and everywhere, regardless of race, ethnicity, nationality or culture.
Having men in positions of power like the caretaker and lover who changes his mind on helping her escape and the man who claims her as his own and is making preparations to move her farther away from home to another country isn’t lost of me either. Having a Black woman centered facing these types of men and these issues, even in her portrayal as a mythological creature, as something from fiction, so fantastic that it can not exist still holds weight.
On Black Mermaids
Mermaids with skin not pale isn’t a new thing however Ogun’s treatment is a welcomed and timely one.
Disney has been outlining a roll out of live action adaptation of their most beloved properties and has chosen Halle Bailey to star as Ariel for The Little Mermaid come 2020. Throughout media but especially literature, black mermaids has existed for way longer than I’ve been alive. This makes sense as folklore and oral storytelling from around the world but especially within the vast African Diaspora ring true.
One of my favorite and the most endearing examples from my childhood is the “Mary Belle and the Mermaid” story from Her Stories: African American Folktales, Fairy Tales, and True Tales by Virginia Hamilton. (I’ve never forgot the iconic mermaid illustrations from the Dillions) Newer addition to mermaid lore range from children’s lit: Tracey Baptiste’s middle grade fantasy series The Jumbies to YA novel coming out this year, Bethany C. Morrow’s A Song Below Water to River Solomon’s The Deep, focusing on the water-breathing descendants of African slave women tossed overboard who have built their own underwater society.
The Water Phoenix is a remarkable short, one not only of nuanced representation of a Black woman in the realm of fantasy but also because of tightly written and portrayed narrative of a woman regaining her agency. That alone, is worth its weight in gold or mermaid tears.
Black women shift through myth and fiction all the time.
Yet they aren’t always allowed the space nor the chance to create and present art about about women who look like them across genre or medium.
In mythological fashion, Bola Ogun and crew get it right, captured in ten minutes, adding to my favorite short films and being a powerful piece of film making by Black women that I hope we preserve and study for years to come.
The Water Phoenix Credits:
Executive Producers: Rachel Bloom, Shawn Pipkin, Grayson Maxwell, Marci Skel-ton, and Eugene Skelton
Cast: Bola Ogun, Joseph Dixon, Garrett Sato
Producers: Bola Ogun, Blair Skinner
Bola Ogun’s second short film “Are We Good Parents?” had its world premiere at SXSW, took home 2nd Runner Up for Best Narrative Short at Urbanworld and won Best Short Film/Emerging Filmmaker at AT&T’s SHAPE Event. Her work has received positive reviews from Black Girl Nerds, Shadow And Act and was tapped by Essence Magazine as one of the 22 Black Directors Who Answered Hollywood’s Call For Diversity And Inclusion. She honed her strong filmmaking skills and knowledge by working in the production department for 8 years on notable projects such as “The Dark Knight Rises,” “Neighbors,” “Battleship,” “True Detective,” and “Friday Night Lights.” Which led her to produce the Emmy campaign music video for “Crazy Ex-Girlfriend”, Vanity Fair’s viral video “Ladyboss” and four Capital Records music videos.