Oge Egbuonu’s New Documentary Is 'A Love Letter To Black Women'

The yogi and filmmaker talks about her new film, "(In)Visible Portraits," and why telling Black women’s stories is more important than ever.
Oge Egbuonu is the director of the new documentary film "(In)Visible Portraits."
Oge Egbuonu is the director of the new documentary film "(In)Visible Portraits."

Oge Egbuonu is no stranger to the ongoing journey of healing, so it comes as no surprise that her new documentary film, “(In)Visible Portraits” is all about healing — particularly the spiritual wounds of Black women in America.

In the film, which premieres March 2 on OWN, Black women get to tell their own stories in their own words. Through a series of interviews of Black women from across the country, Egbuonu explores the painful truths of Black women’s lives in the United States over the last several hundred years. But while the film delves into the histories of sexual violence, disenfranchisement and invisibilizing Black women have experienced at the intersection of racism and sexism, it also shines a light on the triumph, the joy and the beauty of Black womanhood.

The documentary marks the directorial debut of yogi and movie producer Egbuonu, who describes it as a “love letter to Black women,” a space for remembrance and healing. To hear her tell it, working on the film created space for her to heal, too.

In the latest installment of “Getting Through,” Egbuonu discusses the importance of community, navigating heartbreak and the isolation of the pandemic at the same time, and why telling Black women’s stories is more important than ever.

How are you, really?

I love that you asked that by adding the “really” part. Today has been a good day. Although it has just started, today has been a good day. Last week was not so great. I think that for me personally, [this time has] been an opportunity of growth or learning how to maintain and sustain my mental health. And so there’s some days, and oftentimes there’s been a week where I’m battling depression. And so I am on the emotional roller coaster. I’m experiencing the full spectrum of emotions. And today isn’t that day. So I’m grateful for that. But you know, it’s been an experience. I will say that.

Your new documentary “(In)Visible Portraits” explores the othering of Black women in America. What was the catalyst for you wanting to tell this story in this way, with these portraits?

The catalyst for me wanting to tell the story in the way that I told it was really that I wanted to create something that served as a love letter to Black women first and foremost, and something that served as a reeducation for everybody else. And I say that because, oftentimes, the way that Black women are depicted in narrative and storytelling isn’t one that is life-affirming.

And so I really wanted to create something that felt life-affirming but also told the history of how we got to where we’re currently at. In my research phase of creating this documentary, it really hit home for me how, for the most part, we’re taught revisionist history. We’re just not taught the true history of this country, which is inherently built off the backs of Black women.

And so I really wanted to create something that could serve as an entry point because, at the end of the day, there’s only so much you can get into in a 90-minute film. And also, the Black women’s experience is not a monolith, right? We have Black women that are cis and are trans, right? The nonbinary experience, the disabled experience. There’s only so much that I could really highlight in this. And I really wanted to create something that could serve as an entry point into that. And hopefully, I’ll be able to expand upon the storytelling, with a docuseries or just additional films around the Black woman’s experience in America.

There’s a point toward the end of the documentary where one of the women onscreen talks about how important it is to write Black women back into history. I think the film is part of that conversation and that effort. Can you talk a little bit about the impact of images, the impact of telling Black women’s stories and why it’s so important to the culture?

I think it’s important because storytelling, in my opinion, challenges the imagination. I was telling someone this earlier that the life that we are living, we’re really experiencing someone else’s imagination at every aspect of our lives. Right? Like you and I are on this call right now because someone imagined iPhones and enough people believe it to be true, that we now have it, right? The clothes that we wear, the houses we live in, the cars that we drive every day of our lives, every experience of our lives, we are experiencing someone else’s imagination. And when it comes to storytelling and culture or just Hollywood (because Hollywood is the gatekeeper of media), we’re constantly experiencing someone’s imagination. And for the most part, it’s white men.

Their perception of Black women is one that is very dehumanizing. And so for me, I wanted to create content that was not only life-affirming but that re-humanized us. And I think it’s really important because the mind is so powerful. It is really the entry point for us creating the experiences that we create.

“If you’re consistently only seeing yourself through the lens of someone else, and that lens is one that is toxic and dehumanizing, you then start to believe that to be true for yourself.”

And so I think it’s important for Black women, whether trans or cis, able or disabled, young or old, to see themselves in life-affirming ways. Because if you’re consistently only seeing yourself through the lens of someone else, and that lens is one that is toxic and dehumanizing, you then start to believe that to be true for yourself. I really wanted to create something that challenged the current societal narrative of Black women and that also cultivated space for us to start healing.

Because I think that’s also a very important aspect of it, right? In my opinion, there has never been a space where Black women have been able to heal. We had slavery and then went to Reconstruction, went to Jim Crow, the Civil Rights era, and where we are today. I think that in order for us to even begin to reimagine something different, we first have to heal. There have to be spaces of healing. And so I really wanted to create something that could serve as an entry point to that. And I hope that it does.

What was the first life-affirming image of a Black woman that you remember having an impact on you?

It was Oprah, to be honest with you. It was seeing her on TV and being like, oh wow. Like, people respect her and people are actually listening to her. And then as I got older, I realized not only do people actually listen to her. She was cultivating space and content that’s life-affirming. She’s cultivating space and content for people to reimagine something different and to believe in themselves and to heal. And for me, that was the first time that I was like, oh, wow. Like shit, OK, I can do this.

How have you been finding ways to connect with people?

I’ve actually found it challenging, to be honest with you, but for reasons outside of the pandemic. Prior to making this documentary, which I often tell people has served as a rebirth for me, I was very much so an island. I would literally isolate myself and I had a hard time trusting people. I kept people at a distance, so I really didn’t have a community around me. I had associates and then I had like three friends that I will call and talk to all the time and that I would trust.

And this period of lockdown that we’ve been in for almost a year now has really highlighted to me the importance of community. In making the documentary, that was my entry point to understand that you can’t do life isolated.

It also was my entry point to understanding that I had a lot of healing to do. And so even in making this documentary for about three years, the three years of me making it was also three years of me beginning my healing journey. And then the pandemic hit, and then the pandemic really highlighted the importance of community and how that would play a huge, significant part in my healing journey. I learned that in isolation. I’ve really been trying to cultivate deep connections with the people that have been associates in my life. I’m seeing if these connections are worth deepening or had they always just been superficial.

But for the most part, I’ve been diving deeper into my healing process, which has been a lot of therapy, a lot of meditation and breathwork, me taking long walks by myself. Because so many people are, you know, still kind of being reckless with the whole COVID thing. I know a few people who are having house parties and things like that. So it’s really been a challenge to build community during this time. But I’ve found ways to deepen connections with people who want that.

It sounds like you’re also finding a deeper connection with yourself. I feel like the more that we can connect to ourselves, the easier and the deeper our connections to other people come.

That is so true. I’ve been doing a lot of inner child healing. It’s been a lot of me doing meditation and bringing her into the space. When things are coming up for me, when I’m experiencing emotions, I used to just suppress them or lash out. But now, when I start to experience low-level energy, I tend to sit with it. I breathe with it. I call my younger self in and say, OK, what’s coming up for us? What are you experiencing right now? What is this reminding you of? And so I agree, it’s really teaching me to return to myself, to return to love. It really has been this unimaginable human experience that I’m currently in.

“In my opinion, there has never been a space where Black women have been able to heal. ... I think that in order for us to even begin to reimagine something different, we first have to heal.”

What was the hardest thing that you had to get through last year?

The hardest thing I had to get through last year was heartbreak. Unfortunately, a person that I was seeing and I decided to just part ways. It didn’t happen in a healthy way, and it was really hard and it still is really hard because I still love this person and it has been challenging for me at the current moment, especially in the pandemic, to do life without them.

But once again, I’m using this as an opportunity of growth for myself. It is an invitation to get closer to myself so that I can understand the ways I showed up in that relationship and the ways that I didn’t show up in that relationship. And so, outside of the pandemic also being challenging, I will say navigating heartbreak has also been challenging for me.

Wow, a double whammy; the universe is nothing if not darkly funny.

Yeah. The universe was like, “You about to get this dark night of the soul, girl, you about to get it and you’re going to grow from it!”

What was something really amazing that happened last year?

Something really amazing ... two things. The first thing is that I’ve gotten closer to myself. That has been the most incredible thing that has come out of this time. I’m getting to know myself again and I’m rediscovering myself and I’m loving myself in all of my complexities. And then the second thing is getting to partner and create a campaign and a PSA with Levi’s. I worked for them for three years when I was in college. And so, to have this moment come back full-circle has been absolutely amazing.

So you mentioned that you’re doing breathwork, talk therapy, taking long walks. In what other ways are you currently nurturing yourself and practicing self-care?

I have this routine on Sundays where I give myself a facial, which is so amazing because I didn’t used to do that prior to the pandemic. I would just go get facials done, but now I’m really paying attention to my skin and pampering myself. I’m allowing myself to be in a state of luxury and not feel guilty about that. It’s really allowed me to just pay attention to my skin and pay attention to what my skin is asking for and what it needs.

Breathwork is another way that I’m immersing myself into self-care. Breathwork and meditation have literally saved my life, and it has been saving my life for the past nine years. Another thing that I do is read poetry. During the day I’m either on back-to-back meetings and calls or I’m in deep research mode, so I’m reading books, and sometimes the books could be heavy. Every night, I give myself permission to just decompress. I’ll do a few stretches and then I’ll put on some jazz music. I’ll dim the lights and I’ll just let myself get lost in poetry.

What other music, art, books, films, etc. have been getting you through this time?

I mean, all of it; I love art. So I’m always constantly, like, researching people who I call my mentors even though I’ve never met them before in my life. Like Carrie Mae Weems, I’m constantly studying her work. Lorraine Grady. I’m constantly studying art or I’m reading poetry, whether it’s Sonia Sanchez or June Jordan. I don’t really watch film and TV. I know I should because I’m in the industry, but I really find a lot of my inspiration from mediums outside of that. I find it in music. I find it in the books that I read. I’m a voracious reader. I’ve been really immersing myself into Audre Lorde and James Baldwin and Lucille Clifton. So that’s where I really get my inspiration from. If we were not in a pandemic, I’d be visiting museums, going to poetry slam sessions, going to listen to live music in intimate settings. That’s really where I get my inspiration from.

I can’t wait until outside opens up again. Just to be able to sit and listen to live music is such a gift, such a joy. And you forget that you kind of take it for granted when it’s not there anymore.

It’s so true. I think that although the pandemic has been a space of pain for so many — especially given the over 500,000 deaths and the unnatural disasters that are currently happening — I also feel that like it’s really teaching all of us how to be grateful. It’s a master class in having gratitude for the life that we have, the breath that we have, the space in which we get to commune. I’m hoping that people come out of this with a deeper sense of self and a deeper sense of the importance of community and communion.

What are you imagining and manifesting for 2021 and beyond?

For myself or for the world?

For yourself and for the world.

For myself, what I’m manifesting for 2021 and beyond is a deep knowing of myself. That’s first and foremost because I think that our greatest fortune yields from our interconnection of self. I’m really manifesting that I continue this practice of getting to know myself and falling in love with myself. And from that, I think all my heart’s desires will manifest: the desire to write a children’s book, the desire to continue to create content, the desire to do more public speaking engagement, the desire to collaborate and create with people that I don’t know yet.

And for the world, I would say my hope is that what I said earlier: that folks come out of this time [of isolation] with a deeper understanding of self, a deeper understanding of the importance of gratitude, and a deeper understanding of the importance of community.

So many people are only making it through because of community, right? Because of the importance and significance of mutual aid, which is basically a system of care. I’m really hoping that the values of the white patriarchal capitalist society, which is one of just take, dehumanize, exploit, criminalize, is one that has fallen away at the wayside. And that we’re currently right now reimagining and setting the scenes for a society that is full of care, that is full of love, that is full of compassion and understanding, and one that’s inherently rooted in community.

This interview has been lightly edited for clarity.

This interview is part of the “Getting Through…” series, which explores the ways in which people from all backgrounds and walks of life — artists, scientists, entertainers, healers, activists, entrepreneurs and “everyday” folks — are processing, connecting and taking care of themselves and others during these wild times. Hopefully, these conversations will serve as a record and a guide for anyone who reads them. Read interviews with author Fariha Roísín, yoga instructor Mominatu, writer and actor Tavi Gevinson, singer Shingai Shoniwa, and actor Taylour Paige.


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