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‘Beba’ Film Review: Insightful Self-Portrait Broadens the Documentary Landscape

First-time director Rebeca Huntt turns the camera on herself in a way that Black and Brown women are rarely allowed to in U.S. cinema

Conceptually “Beba” is a welcome departure from the usual void of Afro-Latinx women’s voices on screen. Turning the lens on herself in ways in which we rarely see women of color do, first-time feature filmmaker Rebeca “Beba” Huntt exhibits a vulnerability that is incredibly brave.

It’s never easy for anyone to offer themselves for public inspection, even when personal expression is the key. So what unfolds in “Beba” is wrought with contradictions, as well as portraits that Huntt probably did not intend to paint.

Identity is at the crux of the real-life drama. As one of three children of a Dominican father and Venezuelan mother, both immigrants, Huntt uses this cinematic memoir to try to reconcile her life as a product of multiple childhood realities that includes growing up othered. Even though Huntt describes herself as Afro-Latina and is centered in it, her childhood growing up in Central Park West in New York City seems to have essentially cut her off from the communal experience that one presumably finds in the heart of Spanish Harlem, Washington Heights, or other parts of the city where Latin American culture flourished during her childhood.

Complicating matters further, her family of five lived in a one-bedroom apartment. Being pushed back to that apartment post-college, coupled with the overspilling racial tensions of the day as well as personal insecurity — despite putting in the work for the American Dream of a good job and more — serve as the impetus for “Beba.”

What emerges is a highly complicated narrative, with individual nuances and twists that aren’t necessarily representative of a much broader group experience. In some ways, that’s liberating and in others frustrating. Without that communal embrace, Huntt personally struggles to find her footing in who she is and what it all means. There’s a sense that some of her questions, to her parents especially, are driven by outside ideals of how her parents should be and how her childhood should have gone.

Too often Huntt seems to lack empathy for her parents’ plight both as individuals and as a couple. At some points, she seems to have judgments instead of just allowing them to speak their truth uninterrupted. While her affection for her father is clearly much greater than what she has for her mother, Huntt doesn’t even allow him to express himself freely.

As a result, his responses unfortunately often feel defensive, as if he feels more judged than understood. There’s no clear appreciation of what it truly means to leave one’s country and all that he or she has ever known, even in dissatisfaction, for another one that doesn’t quite turn out the way you envisioned, or in the way it was promoted.

This perspective or even shortcoming is not especially unique to Huntt. It’s a common mistake not just of youth but also an indicator of our failure as a society to broaden the American curriculum beyond the idealized white American mainstream. And while Huntt shares teachings from such esteemed Black American intellectuals as bell hooks, James Baldwin, and Audre Lorde, her over-reliance on them further illustrates this void.

Where is the immigrant literature in our collective canon? Where in the curriculum are the Afro-Latinx historians and intellectuals, particularly in a city such as New York, where they represent a sizable and influential population? Even critiques of systemic oppression have specificity that adds to its impact rather than detract from it.

Recognizing and including those works might not ensure that Huntt and her mother won’t clash, for instance, as they do in the documentary; what could emerge is a deeper dive into the core issues behind that clash. When Huntt and her mother discuss the important issue of colorism in Latin American culture, for example, there is no sense that they themselves are dealing with the issue. Instead, Huntt brings a far more complex perspective to the conversation than her mother seems to possess and engages her on that level. Huntt never gives her mother credit for instructing her family not to use the term “pelo malo” or “bad hair” with her girls during family visits to Venezuela, which, frankly, was a hugely progressive move on her part.

The strained relationship Huntt has with her brother, while worthy of further exploration, is understandably difficult when the other party refuses to engage. His reticence hints at a complicated family dynamic that will seem familiar to others in similar situations, where blood ties force relatives to coexist instead of truly connecting or getting along. It’s a nod to real life, where there is no closure or conversation like in the movies. Arguably, the same is true with her relationship with a former boyfriend, who takes his life following their breakup.

In an age where Critical Race Theory dominates many conversations, it’s easy to highlight the disconnect between white Americans and Americans of color, particularly in discussing racism and white supremacy. But the promise of “Beba” goes beyond that discourse. Huntt’s interpersonal conflicts offer a lot of promise and humanize her in ways that might not always be flattering but certainly prove to be compelling. That “Beba,” is shot on 16mm and has a highly distinctive look and feel, enhanced by the cinematography and highly personal narration, lends validity to underrepresented narratives like hers.

The implication is that experiences like Huntt’s are just as important as other stories in the documentary space. Ultimately, the promise of “Beba” is that it can be a launching pad for more narratives that go beyond generalities to get more specific and more real, a welcome tree of possibilities that will, one would hope, bear fruit for years to come.

“Beba” opened Friday in U.S. theaters.

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