“Beba” Is an Intimate Self-Portrait and a Grand and Mighty Drama


Everyone lives in the crosswinds of history, and one form of privilege is to feel those winds only at one’s back rather than in one’s face. (An even more rarefied privilege is believing that there are no winds at all, and that one moves through the world solely on one’s own strength.) You may not have to be a weatherman to know the difference, but you have to be a poet to aptly describe their sting and their thrust, and that’s what Rebeca Huntt achieves in her first feature, “Beba,” which opens Friday. It’s a documentary self-portrait by a young filmmaker, whose sense of identity is bound up with her family and their place in the times—the political currents and societal events that have shaped their lives and senses of self. The movie is, in large part, one of racial and ethnic identity, the blessing and the burden of a legacy that’s both familial and collective. As a result, “Beba” is an intimate film with a grand scope; Huntt recognizes herself and her family as characters in a mighty drama. She conceives the complex course of intertwined personal experiences and public events as a kind of destiny.

Huntt’s trenchant voice-over provides the movie’s mainly chronological framework and its reflective tone. There’s an essentially literary element of narrative and poetry that sustains “Beba,” and Huntt’s own experience of literature (call it her literary coming of age) is built into the story as well. “Beba” is held together by Huntt’s voice—her voice-over declares, “You are now entering my universe. I am the lens, the subject, the authority”—yet the film is a contrapuntal symphony of voices. It’s a blend of various documentary elements, including recordings of events from Huntt’s daily life, images of places that figure in the story, and audiovisual archives from family and public sources. (Kudos to the cinematographer Sophia Stieglitz; the editor Isabel Freeman; and the composer Holland Andrews, for their contributions to the film’s fine-grained yet emphatic textures.) It features Huntt’s interviews with her parents and siblings, impressionistic images that evoke events, and also inchoate, subjective depths. Huntt’s very acknowledgment of—and confrontation with—her complex conceptions of selfhood is matched by the movie’s intricate, iridescent form, and the stories that she brings to the fore, in the film’s blend of voices, are impassioned and engrossing.

Huntt’s father provides something of the movie’s geographical motor. Her father, who is Black, was born in the Dominican Republic to a poor family and grew up there amid political and racial violence during the military dictatorship of Rafael Trujillo. He moved to New York in the mid-sixties (because, he says, of the newly liberalized immigration law of 1965). Shocked by the dilapidation of his neighborhood of Bedford-Stuyvesant, he vowed to live along Central Park—and, despite his moderate income, he managed to rent a one-bedroom apartment on Central Park West, which is where Huntt and her two siblings were raised. Huntt’s mother, who is from Venezuela and was raised in comfortable circumstances there, fled a nonetheless troubled home life—dominated by her own mother’s mental illness—and went to study in New York.

Early on, Huntt makes clear that her family legacy, along with its steadfast determination, is one of violence and pain, and the ingrained political dimension of that violence—the legacies of enslavement, colonialism, political oppression, and white supremacy—provides another crucial through line to Huntt’s narrative. Growing up in a relatively poor corner of the Upper West Side, Huntt experienced blatant racial discrimination, as when she and her older sister, Raquel, were turned away from a community garden run by white residents as a quasi-private social club. Raquel talks of getting in trouble at school when, for a show-and-tell assignment about the students’ neighborhoods, she brought in crack vials, not knowing what they were.

Huntt is an extraordinary noticer and rememberer, whether recollecting a school assignment, in which she portrayed Harriet Tubman and created a plantation diorama with a white Ken doll as the master, or detecting her father’s gestures in the working movements of a sugar-cane cutter in Ghana; whether culling romantic details from her family visits in Venezuela or recalling a dispute with a Black student who dared to call her Black. She talks of being wildly inspired by Shakespeare and thanks a teacher for introducing her to the term Afro-Latina, which she came to embrace as her identity. Accepted to Bard, she belonged to two cliques, of Black artists and white socialites, that never overlapped. Huntt credits a biracial professor (whom she interviews) with crucial aspects of her education; she interviews this professor about her intensely personal intervention in Huntt’s conflicted path through college, an intervention which Huntt later derides as an exercise in “respectability politics.” A scene of Huntt talking with apparently well-meaning, but oblivious and aggressive, white friends during the protests of the summer of 2020 spotlights her sense of the pointlessness of trying to “assimilate into a system that is designed to destroy you.”

The furious private dramas of the Huntt family have a similar literary power, which Huntt, with her fine discernment, tracks in their intimate details, both reaching back to the family’s emotional heritage and spotlighting her own failings and misdeeds. She recalls secretly throwing away food that her mother cooked; she shows herself interviewing her mother with a confrontational energy that drives her mother to tears. Her brother, Juancarlos, doesn’t appear on camera but is heard speaking with her; Huntt traces their troubled relationship to their father’s blatant preference for her, even as she recognizes their shared analytical love of hip-hop as a formative intellectual and literary experience.

Though Huntt is the heroine of her own coming-of-age story, which culminates in her postgraduate efforts to become a filmmaker, she’s more critical of herself than she is of others, confessing to hostility and aggression toward her family that far exceeds any that she endured. Her celebration of her family—along with her candor about their own struggles—is also an unfolding, she says, of its “curses,” and her telling of the story is a part of her effort to break it. Huntt often puts herself in a far-from-heroic light, and she builds her own film and filmmaking into her sense of guilt: “I fear my family will never talk to me again; I promise this is the last time I’ll snitch.” Huntt is so candid that I believe her. But she’s such an artist that I can’t imagine she’ll be able to keep her promise. ♦



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