When NO! The Rape Documentary first debuted at the Pan African Film Festival in 2006, it was received with critical acclaim. Among the 50 documentaries and short films invited to be a part of the Open Frame Film Festival in 2009, NO! took home the Audience Choice Award and a Juried Award at the 2006 Sandiego Women Film Festival. It also won the award for Best Documentary at the 2008 International Women’s Film Festival.
Now, for the first time, the film’s Essex Hemphill segment has been made into a stand-alone video. “I decided to make it a stand-alone short video this year because I believe it’s very important that we hear from Black men who are unwavering about the imperative need to address and end sexual and domestic violence in our communities,”Aisha Shahidah Simmons, director of NO!, told CASSIUS. “I worked with my friend and colleague Dr. Kai Green, who helped me create the stand alone video in his office at Williams College.”
I believe it’s very important that we hear from Black men who are unwavering about the imperative need to address and end sexual and domestic violence.
Simmons began working on NO! in the fall of 1994. “During that time very few people wanted to touch a film that examined the global pandemic of rape and other forms of sexual violence through the testimonies, scholarship and cultural work of African-Americans,” she says. “During that time, the internet that we know and use it today was non-existent.”
She adds, “I was a very outspoken 25-year-old Black feminist lesbian incest and rape survivor who was committed to using the camera lens to break silences about sexual violence.”
CASSIUS caught up with the award-winning Black feminist lesbian documentary filmmaker to discuss Essex Hemphill and what his legacy means in the age of #MeToo.
CASSIUS: This segment was filmed five months before Hemphill’s passing and made into a standalone video this year. How did that come about?
Aisha Shahidah Simmons: The Essex Hemphill segment is featured in my Ford Foundation-funded film, NO! The Rape Documentary. I never envisioned the segment as a stand-alone video until recently. It was always one integral part of the feature-length documentary. I worked with my friend and colleague Dr. Kai Green, who helped me create the standalone video in his office at Williams College.
C.: Can you tell us a little about raising funds to have the segment edited back in 1997 and why that was important?
A.S.: Fundraising for the making of the film was a hardcore Black feminist and LGBTQ grassroots effort. In the early days of the 12-year journey, I relied heavily upon the communities from which I come to support this vision. Award-winning poet and activist Sonia Sanchez and longterm activists Inelle Cox Bagwell and Pat Clark were the first people who gave major donations in support of the making of NO! The Rape Documentary. The Astraea Lesbian Foundation for Justice was the very first foundation who said, “YES! to NO!” Their collective funding enabled me to create two trailers, which featured the Essex Hemphill segment and testimonies from Black women rape survivors. I screened these trailers extensively across the United States and in several European countries including England, The Netherlands, France, and Italy at numerous educational fundraising screenings. The money raised at those screenings went directly into the making of the feature length documentary film.
C.: What went into making the decision to release this segment this year? Was it meant to be released sooner?
A.S.: The decision to release the Essex Hemphill segment as a standalone video separate from and still related to NO! The Rape Documentary was based on my desire to celebrate Black women in Women’s Herstory Month, and to lift up Hemphill’s radical vision of a world that respects and cherishes Black women long before it was trending. Hemphill’s poem, “To Some Supposed Brothers,” is a powerful acknowledgement of the wounds that so many Black women have to live with. Written almost three decades ago, his words and delivery have a compelling way of drawing you into a painful reality, while simultaneously calling the viewer into action to co-create a world without violence. Hemphill’s work was so piercing. He didn’t feel the necessity to sugar coat his words or images in order to make the audience feel good. His intention was to make you uncomfortable in order to affect radical social change.
C.: Can you talk about this video segment in the context of #TimesUp and #MeToo, as well as within the general context of women and men working against sexual violence throughout history?
A.S.: In our current heightened awareness of misogyny, rape culture, bigotry, homophobia, and patriarchy, Essex’s words are a timeless reminder that none of us are free until all of us are free. The eradication of white supremacy alone will not make our communities safe. Anti-Sexual Violence work in our communities has been taking place for multiple generations. Written in the late ’80s and published in the ’90s, “To Some Supposed Brothers” was a precursor to #TimesUp and #MeToo. When Essex wrote the poem years before I filmed him performing it for NO! in 1995, he was among a small but mighty chorus of known and unknown Black activists, cultural workers, organizers and scholars who were speaking loudly against all forms of sexual violence in our communities. Tragically, at that time, very few were listening. Hemphill was calling out ALL brothers. The focus of his poem is on the violence that Black cisgender men commit against Black cisgender women. However, I believe his message, as an out Black gay male activist, was an all-inclusive “alter call” to Black male perpetrators who cause harm to Black women and femmes everywhere.
When we filmed Essex, he was very ill. Despite his illness, he miraculously pushed through the filming during that emotionally intense day. He was unwavering both about his support of my vision for NO! and about his commitment to perform “To Some Supposed Brothers” in the film. Essex was razor sharp in his clarity about the critical need for our communities to address and end homophobia and sexual violence in our communities. He also took no-prisoners when it came to addressing white supremacy and racism. Five months after the filming, he joined the ancestral realm. Essex Hemphill was a man who lived and died before his time.
C.: What do you hope viewers take away from this segment?
A.S.: By releasing this segment of NO! The Rape Documentary, my goal is the same as Essex’s original intention: to make the viewer so uncomfortable they are moved to make a radical shift. The shift starts in the mind, and hopefully moves into actions.