Spelman is full of traditions: There is an arch that no one is to walk under until they graduate or they will be cursed to spend more than four years pursuing their degree; All Spelman Women must wear a pure white dress with sleeves and a hem that falls past one’s knees for momentous traditional events, such as your first Founder’s Day; There is an age-old preconceived notion of how a “Spelman Woman” should dress, talk, and act that is prominent on our campus.
Spelman is also full of opposition to those traditions: People dismiss the arch lore as merely superstitious. Many argue that the white dress represents dated ideals of femininity and purity that contradict with the progressiveness of the school. Pushback against the traditional “Spelman Woman” is also prominent on our campus.
Faced with such either/or situations, I am often tempted to choose a side when it comes to the complexities of Spelman. But if there is one thing Octavia Butler has helped me come to grips with this semester, it is truly embracing the idea of nuance. None of her novels allow you a black and white, good and evil interpretation of anything. She gives an almost inordinate amount of care with her gray spaces, lavishing in them, whether it be through the exploration of the relationship between Nikanj and Lillith in Dawn or in the evaluation of consent between Shori and Wright in Fledgling. Octavia doesn’t allow you to pick a side by quickly pointing out that the sides are not as easy to define as we would like to believe. What she is more concerned with is how we navigate the space we are given, how the choices we make influence our realities.
As the Octavia E. Butler Celebration of Arts & Activism Short-Film Festival approached I found myself immersed in a story of disappearing time and disappearing women and that was all behind the scenes. After plans for one short film fell through, I set to work on another, writing the script in a few days and cobbling together a makeshift crew and cast. I had my DSLR camera, a borrowed tripod, and some enthusiastic volunteers: I was ready to go. Of course, like most well laid (if somewhat last minute) plans, I found my film schedule falling apart as I faced my deadline. Two separate actresses casted for the lead ended up backing out of the project last minute and so I had to take on the role myself. One of the big scenes I planned on filming needed too many people and I had to rewrite. And then, perfectionist that I am, I spent all of my free time leading up to the festival editing. The morning of the event I fell asleep at my computer as I waited for it to upload and woke to a tweet from Professor Tananarive Due asking for my link. In the end, things fell into place and Winds of Change debuted as the first film in the festival and the only student film.
Winds of Change revolves around Cassandra, a gifted psychic who, at fourteen, was approached by the being Oya to be a warrior of change and bear the responsibility of changing the world for the better. Cassandra, however, could not bear the burden of this responsibility. Years later, Oya, recognizing that a single human couldn’t accomplish her goal, begins collecting a variety of world-changers to merge with her and become one super-warrior. The film focuses on this process, called “The Claiming”. It begins with two girls who dare to walk through the arch and are absorbed by Oya. The climax is a face off between Cassandra and Oya after Oya claims Cassandra’s best friend, Talibeh. At the heart of the story is Cassandra’s horror at the thought of Oya’s super warrior, a conglomerate of young women who lose their free will in pursuit of Oya’s “healing”. But Oya argues that the woman who are claimed share the same will, to make the world a better place, and that their merging will allow that on a scale never seen before. In a way these issues mirror the issues I find myself confronted with on my campus, the issues of being a “Spelman Woman” without losing my identity. To what point is the adherence and love of our school and tradition a betrayal of my free will? To what point does “A Choice to Change the World” become a choice to stop making choices? And the ultimate question: Is it worth it?
Winds of Change doesn’t answer any of these questions. It was written in three days and filmed in two but more than that, it is embedded with an Octavia Butler ethos, her rejection of simplicity finding its way into my five minute short without much conscious effort on my part. Instead of allowing a simple good/evil dynamic between Cassandra and Oya, I presented two beings who are equally flawed, Cassandra by such a desperate desire to keep her life as her own that she is unable to sacrifice anything to fulfill her destiny, and Oya who requires such a complete sacrifice of self, individuality is completely lost. But Cassandra and Oya are also equally strong, Cassandra loyal and freethinking, Oya determined and full of good intentions. The ending of the film still unsettles me because though it implies “The Claiming” is inevitable, it refuses to confirm whether this is good or bad, because it doesn’t acknowledge if Oya is right or wrong. After a semester with the Oankali and the Ina, I find this discomfort familiar if not enjoyable.
At first, as I reminisced about the film, I thought that with more time I might have ferreted out some kind of middle ground between Cassandra and Oya that truly captures what it means to be a Spelmanite who adorns both her white dress and free will with pride. But the more I think about it, the more I realize that both Oya and Cassandra have the capacity to fill that role, to choose differently, to shape their reality in a way that allows this nuance. For me that is my next step, to not only write a gray area, but to also allow my characters to dive into it headfirst.
The Octavia E. Butler Celebration of Arts & Activist was full of brilliant activists and storytellers from Dream Hampton to Junot Diaz who discussed how Octavia had shaped the way they saw their worlds, both fictional and physical. Winds of Change has many flaws, the worst of which being my acting, but I know that I will always prize it, not only because it is my first truly eerie wor, or because the sound wasn’t as horrible as I feared it would be, but because it is a crucial part of my Octavia Butler story.
And it just makes sense that that story is inextricably linked with my Spelman story as well.