Movies

Who Benefits From Watching Black Trauma on Screen?

The death of 15-year-old Latasha Harlins inspired one Oscar-nominated filmmaker to challenge our perspective on Black girlhood.

A Black girl stands surrounded by wildflowers in a still from the movie.
A Love Song for Latasha. Netflix

Ma’Khia Bryant. Latasha Harlins. These are the names of two Black girls whose lives were stolen from them, 30 years apart. Sixteen-year-old Bryant was shot and killed by a police officer in Columbus, Ohio, on April 20, 2021. And 15-year-old Harlins was shot and killed by Soon Ja Du at Empire Liquor in South Central Los Angeles on March 16, 1991.

Bryant and Harlins, like so many Black girls in America, have had their lives reduced to the circumstances of their deaths, as videos and images of their final moments continue to circulate for the world to see. Meanwhile, their loved ones and communities are left upholding the truth about who they were, while media reports and larger conversations might not include aspects of these girls that point to their humanity, such as their favorite hobbies, their career aspirations, or how they were doing in school. So what will it take for Black girls to just exist on and off screen?

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Disrupting American society’s harmful tendencies to portray Black girls as more mature than other children their age—to deny them of their childhoods—is key for experimental documentary filmmaker and photographer Sophia Nahli Allison, whose work aims to portray young Black girls as just that: young girls. The Los Angeles native’s documentary short A Love Song for Latasha, which was nominated for an Oscar this year and is streaming on Netflix, is a moving tribute from Allison and Harlins’ loved ones to the young girl’s life. The film captures the essence and showcases the fullness of Harlins, something that reports on her death always failed to do. (Harlins’ death was one of the inciting incidents of the 1992 L.A. race riots, and the trial against her killer, store owner Soon Ja Du, garnered national attention; although Du was found guilty of voluntary manslaughter, she received a light sentence of probation and community service.)

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Throughout the 19-minute film, Harlins’ cousin, Shinese Harlins, and her best friend, Tybie O’Bard, share their memories of Latasha—like her aspirations to become a lawyer, her love of basketball, and a memorable poem that she wrote just one month before her life was tragically cut short. They also share the impact that Harlins’ death has had on their own lives. Atop these voice-overs, there are photos of Harlins and footage of the South Central community in which Harlins grew up. The film also uses experimental animation and music, such as Noname’s striking “Don’t Forget About Me,” in which she sings, “I know everyone goes someday/ I know my body’s fragile, know it’s made from clay/ But if I have to go, I pray my soul is still eternal/ And my momma don’t forget about me/ I pray my momma don’t forget about me/ I pray my granny don’t forget about me.”

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I spoke with Allison about the process of making A Love Song for Latasha, its Oscar nomination, finding parallels in Ma’Khia Bryant’s recent death, and representations of Black girlhood. Our conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Jasmine M. Ellis: What inspired you to make A Love Song for Latasha?

Sophia Nahli Allison: There were so many intersecting reasons that I wanted to pursue this story. One, as an L.A. native, this is a story that was important, one that had not been discussed in the fullness of who Latasha was. And I’m someone that deeply wants to interrogate and reimagine parts of the archive that are left intentionally blank or that are erased or destroyed. And so thinking about this young Black girl who was taken from everyone, whose life was lost, [I wondered] why this story didn’t exist beyond the headline and discussions of trauma and visuals that really produced triggering reactions from the community, from family members and friends that knew her and loved her.

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For myself, growing up in Los Angeles as a young Black girl, I always want to really document these different stages of Black girlhood. And when I was 15, I actually lost my dad. So understanding this idea of how loss can deeply affect and disrupt Black girl childhood, I thought it was important for us to talk to the women who were then young girls [when Latasha died, in 1991,] about who Latasha was to rebuild the story, to engage in this process of collective memory and rebirth and archive. And I was even thinking about just how Black girls are continuously having to deal with the adultification bias, how Black girls are not protected, wanting to hold space for this young girl who deserved so much more.

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In the documentary, you juxtapose the voices of Latasha’s loved ones reminiscing about her life with images of her community today, 30 years later.  Did you feel it was essential to the film to center it around those who were close to Latasha?

I wanted to tell Latasha’s stories from those that knew her best. I really want to interrogate what it means to not take the time, care, and intentionality to speak to those who were directly affected by this moment in history. And something that was really important to me is, what does it mean to speak to people like her cousin, Shinese Harlins, and her best friends, like Tybie O’Bard, who were the same age as Latasha? So often we hear from elders, adults, or community activists, and I’m always really curious as to how our children process this moment. How did the young Black girls, the young boys that knew Latasha—how were they affected by this? And I really believe in collaboration to inform the process, to help inspire the visuals, and I wanted to share their truth, their memories, as a way to fill in this archival gap.

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Was there a moment when you were filming that really resonated with you and your own experiences growing up as a Black girl in America?

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I think every single one of them deeply affected me. We [talked to] real girls, and I never wanted the image of any of the girls in the film to feel like something that was curated or feel like it was of an actor, but for other Black girls to just see themselves reflected. And something that really deeply touched me was some of the young girls that I featured, I went to high school with their parents. So it was this really beautiful coming together with a community, and of me engaging with my own childhood, my own path. These are people that I knew in high school when I lost my dad, and now their children are a part of this story.

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One of my favorite memories is just wandering into a church in South Central and then being allowed to film … the granddaughters of the pastor, because their parents remembered Latasha. They remembered being young when Latasha was killed. And so it just became this collective moment of everyone wanting to remember Latasha together, of all these different moments in time connecting for us to share this story. [I had these] young girls who represented the future, Ty and Shinese who represented the past, myself, us representing the present—just all these different understandings of time and conversations with each other.

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There have been conversations surrounding diversity and inclusion within the film and television industry for years now. A Love Song for Latasha was nominated for an Oscar. What do you think this says about the academy’s ability to recognize Black stories, especially those about Black girls?

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I think we have a very long way to go. I think there’s a difference between inclusivity and agency. …  I should say between diversity and agency. Diversity, I think, is a really watered down word just for visibility. Diversity means we see you, but we really don’t need to engage with you. But inclusion and agency means that we as Black folks, folks of color, queer folks, trans folks, are the ones who have power, that are making decisions. And we are the ones that are understanding how important it is that art is a representation of our current times, that we are forced to confront and be uncomfortable. And that’s the only way for us to really begin to engage with inclusivity. So I think we have to move past “diversity” and understand what it means for Black folks to have power and agency within the industry.

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What do you make of police violence and racism continuing to rob Black girls of their childhoods and, in some cases, their lives? For example, a police officer in Columbus, Ohio, recently killed 16-year-old Ma’Khia Bryant, and I’ve seen people online blaming Bryant for her own death. What signal does this send to Black girls about how society sees them in life and even in death?

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Ma’Khia Bryant’s murder really makes me upset. It hurts, because I think the only answer is to defund the police. I think the police need to be stripped of all of their power. I don’t believe in the term reform. I hate the word reform. And I think people will always blame young Black girls for their outcome. When we look at Latasha Harlins, even Judge Joyce Karlin [who presided over the trial following her death] understands why Soon Ja Du reacted the way she did. There is no space held for what it means when a Black girl is threatened, when a Black girl is accosted, when a Black girl does not feel safe and does not have protection.

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I wish Ma’Khia had someone else to call rather than the police who could have helped in that situation, because there’s just no protection when it comes to police. And there’s no protection for Black girls when we have to rely on a system that is deeply rooted in white supremacy. And I wish she still had her life and was here.

What do you believe that we as a society must do in order to better protect and support Black girls?

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I think we have to first acknowledge that there’s an issue. I think that’s why movements like #MeToo and #SayHerName have to exist, because people still refuse to think there’s a problem. People think that for Black life to matter, it has to be a cis-hetero life, and until we acknowledge all of the intersections, all of the existences within Black identity, Black women, Black girls, Black queer folks, Black trans folks, Black nonconforming folks, there will never be a solution to this issue. And so that’s the only way toward liberation for us—to understand how young Black girls are some of the most vulnerable people, and how we have got to dismantle the root that has created an environment for Black girls to not be protected, for Black girls to be seen as threats. And so I think that’s when the nation has to really acknowledge how many of the folks here have been complicit in watching and witnessing young Black girls be stripped of their lives.

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When you say dismantling the root, what do you think that looks like?

For me, dismantling the root is through my art, through my work as a storyteller and as an artist. But I think there are so many ways to dismantle the system. … I think I’m just grateful that we have Black folks who are willing to do the work that is necessary, folks that are willing to challenge policies that are being set in place, people that are willing to march in the street, people that are willing to lay their lives down on the line, people that are willing to tell truth through art, through film, through music, scholars that are giving us the language to understand what it means to build new futures.

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Black folks have always been doing the work, but what dismantling the system for me means is that others acknowledge how they have been a part of the problem, how they have been complicit, how they have allowed the systems to continue, and that no one is challenging or wanting to make others uncomfortable. And so for me, dismantling means making people uncomfortable and building something completely new.

Sophia Nahli Allison smiles while posing on the red carpet.
Sophia Nahli Allison at the Oscars last Sunday. Chris Pizzello/Pool/Getty Images
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Why is it so important, especially now, to humanize Black girls on the screen?

I think about when I was a young girl and the films that really inspired me. I remember when I watched Eve’s Bayou and when I watched Just Another Girl on the I.R.T. When I would watch Moesha or Sister, Sister, it meant so much for me to see my existence reflected. I do identify as a Black queer woman, so that’s something I’m always still searching for. But just for me, as a young girl, acknowledging that there was this secret language happening on the screen, it made me feel like I had a community, a place to be seen and understood. And so I think it is so important for that visibility to exist so Black girls know how worthy their lives are.

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I never want to believe that a film will humanize anyone, because I really believe humanizing comes from folks in their own consciousness. We could make the most beautiful films, and there are still people that would not understand what the conversation is, would not understand why it’s important. So for me, it’s always about creating a secret language for other Black girls, so that they know they are seen, they know that their existence is important, they know that there are other people believing in them, supporting them, rooting for them. It becomes more important for Black girls to see themselves reflected on screens and others to see us reflect it, to humanize them, to provide some form of consciousness and some understanding of why their lives are important in general.

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What are you hoping that people take away from your documentary about both Latasha Harlins’ story and the larger concept of Black girlhood?

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I’m hoping that people … really begin to engage with new ways of discussing Black trauma. A Love Song for Latasha is not about Black trauma, but the most important part about this film is that we did not incorporate the footage of Latasha’s death. That footage has been widely circulated. People have seen it, and I think we really need to interrogate what it means to constantly think that it is necessary to see Black trauma, to see Black death as a way to make some sort of connection or as a way to make people understand the importance and the significance and the core of it. Who is that really benefiting? Who is it harming?

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I want people to remember that Latasha was a girl, that she was a child. It really bothers me when I see people talk about these young girls that we have lost to violence and they describe them as a young woman, when actually they were just a child. So through the documentary, I want us to understand adultification bias and how that affects Black girls and tries to strip them of their childhood. And I want Black girls to see themselves and understand how beautiful and special and just deeply full of grace they are, and how they can be imperfect, unapologetic, and don’t have to shift or mold themselves for anyone. They don’t have to perform for anyone to be important.

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