The story of Pecola Breedlove is a haunting heartbreak. Toni Morrison’s first novel, The Bluest Eye (1970), introduces her as a poor, “ugly,” Black girl in the small town of Loraine, Ohio. Here, the psyches of a Depression-era Black existence are carefully constructed, and white supremacy is implied, more than inflicted, to underscore its insidious warp on the mind. Her life is a study of the White gaze, how it’s absorbed into self-hate, and how that hate is projected back into the world. The work, narrated in the third person by a nine-year-old girl named Claudia, is intricate in structure, beautiful in prose, and unapologetic in its message. A timeless offering, it’s hard to imagine what a visual response might entail.
In her short film Quiet As It’s Kept (2023), Ja’Tovia Gary captures the essence of Morrison’s fictional account with the same foreboding precision. The experimental film, which premiered at the BlackStar Film Festival in August, simulates Pecola’s descent into madness in a similarly winding narrative composed of moving pictures, interviews, and social media clips held together by what feels like the fraying strands of sanity.
Central to this fragmented headspace is an intergenerational conversation that unfolds between interview segments of Toni Morrison, Kimberly Jones, aka Lil’ Kim, and Dr. Kovahvah Zauditu-Salassie, author of African Spiritual Traditions in The Novels of Toni Morrison (2014). Their responses circle one another, never connecting directly but still entirely in sync. In one scene, Dr. Zauditu-Salassie speaks of an alignment with whiteness as a proximity to hierarchical power. In the following clip, Lil’ Kim explains changing the color of her eyes and hair as “her style,” followed by Morrison describing her desire to write a book centered on the lives of young Black people in the Midwest.
Gary mirrors Morrison’s aspiration to reclaim specific figures, positioning Kim as a modern-day Pecola. Over the years, the rapper has been criticized and ridiculed for multiple plastic surgeries that have left her face almost unrecognizable. In her explanation of power, Zauditu-Salassie notes the blame is not to be placed on “those in the dark but those whose hands are on the light switch.” A revelation that recasts Lil’ Kim’s preoccupation with the superlative as a consequence of the gaze instead of personal failure.
Gary employs various cinematic techniques and visual cues from the story to create a heightened eerie awareness. Starting with the menacing tale of the green and white house with a red door, we are granted entry into the distorted norm of Pecola’s home life. In this non-existent support system, the ties that bind are more of social obligation than genuine care. The marigolds that refused to bloom appear in all their glory only to be picked apart and eaten alive. It’s a subtle reminder that some things are simply beyond our control. No matter the outcome, Pecola’s baby would still die, and she’d still be lost. Scratches in the film and strokes of paint echo Claudia’s contempt for the anti-blackness she encounters, while an omnipresent blue eye bedevils the screen.
Woven between the layers of conversation are the most up-to-date manifestations of the novel’s prevailing metaphor. In her use of social media, Gary locates colorism, classism, and the spectacle of privilege, reminding us how they continue to shape our reality. Set against the menacing perfection of Shirley Temple, viewers are presented with performances of blackness that can only be described as trivial depictions of the culture. These videos eschew nuance and individuality, confining an entire race to sensationalized caricatures. In another clip, actress Thandie Newton’s mea culpa further complicates the exchange as she oscillates between victim and villain, bringing the character of Maureen Peal to mind. In the final clip, Azealia Banks appeals to Beyoncé for the right to remix her hit song “Brown Skin Girl.” In her closing words, Banks goads the popstar, calling her “Bianca,” provoking us to examine the chasm between accepted visibility and who can be empowered by it.
Given only seconds to contemplate, we are thrust into the ultimate break with reality. Dr. Zauditu-Salassie describes this removal from the gaze as the mind’s response to trauma stored in the body. Gary and Morrison want you to feel it. The film ends with a blue-lit liturgical dance that’s hard to watch and lasts too long. Much like reading Pecola’s closing dialogue with herself, where she believes she’s being taken out of school because of jealousy over her new blue eyes. In actuality, it’s because she is pregnant with her father’s child. Her doomed little soul surrenders to madness, and the reader is left unwell.
In the novel’s opening pages, Morrison tells us, “There is really nothing more to say — except why. But since why is difficult to handle, one must take refuge in how.” Yet, it’s through the “how” that we demystify the “why.” In the long afterlife of slavery, it’s too late for Pecola and Lil’ Kim, but there will always be something to learn from their stories.