Evangeline Mensah-Agyekum: Filmmaker Discusses Black Women, Aging And ‘Internal Cracking’ You Don’t See

The photographer and filmmaker Evangeline Mensah-Agyekum is no newcomer to conversations about Black women’s self-esteem and how it is serially buffeted by the compound effects of patriarchy, social media, youth culture, and racism.

In her still work and previous short film projects, the self-taught Mensah-Agyekum has proven herself a master of portraiture and a composer of striking images; Pittsburgh residents may remember her work as part of the Emerging Visions exhibition in 2023 that brought “the gallery to the street” by displaying the work of three emerging local artists in street-level downtown storefronts. More recently, her work was exhibited at the 2024 Distillery artist-in-residency exhibition at Brew House Arts.

The point of this film is to highlight the beauty in aging to bring it to a more neutral space.

Mensah-Agyekum’s new documentary, No Age to Beauty, expands her range and reach as a storyteller by offering a sustained meditation on the aging process, honing in on the experiences of Black women through the lens of hair, while seeking to decenter the narratives that have narrowed how society tells us it is acceptable to look.

Evangeline Mensah Agyekum. | Source: Kitoko Chargois

You’ve said that No Age to Beauty, your new documentary project about Black women with gray hair, was inspired by your mother. Is there a certain moment that stands out in your mind – a conversation, incident, or observation – when you said to yourself, I must make this film?

The moment that stands out is back in 2019 when I was photographing my mother in the backyard of [my] house. Prior to that photo shoot, my mom would speak about how excited she was to one day have a head full of gray and white hair. And even the patch of gray she had at her temple, she was excited about that.

And seeing how she was embracing and looking forward to [going gray] made me really think about how I viewed aging myself, especially since what I was seeing in media and movies of older women was with more of a negative perception and a fear around it. Aging felt like something you had to avoid at all costs.

I want Black women to benefit from this film the most.

And seeing that contrast, I started to think about how I viewed it myself. As a young woman, and even as a teenager, there’s a fear [of aging] that I’ve experienced and seen with my peers as well. I want to explore the why behind these perceptions, to explore the why behind these decisions that are made to, for example, dye your hair and completely erase any trace of gray.

Can you talk about some of the other subjects of the film, besides your mother?

We’ve actually extended the [production] timeline to better learn who the other subjects will be, because we do want to build out more of a relationship with the other women who aren’t my mother. We’ve spoken to about ten women already, but we need to finalize who’s going to be in it, in what way, and what that’s going to look like.

With the acceptance of natural hair and the whole natural hair movement – that embraces the natural and changes of the natural self – I didn’t really see that extending to natural aging, to the natural graying that occurs as you get older. And it’s been interesting speaking and interviewing the women who we already have. One said she doesn’t feel like she’s somebody who gives into societal standards. Yet, when she saw her first gray hair, she immediately plucked it out without even thinking twice about it. It was just instinctual.

On the other side, there’s this cracking, this internal cracking that is occurring.

Some people may have never questioned those instincts until sitting down to talk to you.

That kind of instinctual decision to immediately pluck it out is what I want to look at, challenge, and understand—and share with others. And just talk more about everyone’s personal experiences and what’s influenced them, not only social media and what we see in general, but also what we see from the women in our own family—the women around us, from our own grandmothers, from our own mothers—as they enter the various stages of their lives.

Source: iOne Digital Creative Services

This isn’t your first foray into the subject of Blackness and hair; in 2022 you did a project called Don’t We Look Pretty that came out of your own experience dyeing your hair, and which dealt with minstrelsy and colored Afros. What’s the relationship between that work and this?

Both are questioning and challenging how we perceive stories that tend to be overlooked within Blackness and within womanhood—giving people a chance to control their own narrative and have another perspective on how to view things, rather than automatically resorting to how they’ve been told to [respond].

These are stories and conversations that I feel haven’t been had enough, especially in the context of hair—which is already such a big topic within the Black community, and [especially] for Black women. So, with these two projects, I don’t want to say it’s to control a narrative, but rather to give or add another voice to how these topics may be perceived. And each looks at reasons, including the social and historical context.

Can you talk about your intended audience or audiences? Who do you hope most benefits from this film, and what do you want them to take away from it?

The primary intended audience is Black women. But I would also say that it’s for women in general. And beyond that, these are conversations that can be had amongst various groups, including men and how they engage with women and how their lens and comments contribute to this conversation in regard to the effects of patriarchy.

I want Black women to benefit from this film the most because we’re also talking about “Black don’t crack,” which we tend to hear in the media regarding pretty much any Black woman who’s older. But on the other side, there’s this cracking, this internal cracking that is occurring that’s affecting our health and making us age more rapidly than our biological age.

Source: Evangeline Mensah Agyekum

I want to give or add another voice to how these topics may be perceived.

I want people to see another perspective, another angle, another voice of aging, of aging as a Black woman. And [for me] there are themes of age, beauty, health, culture as a Ghanaian American, and also legacy. [But] most of all, I want people to question their why and really dig deep into [the origins of] those gut reactions and initial impressions and perspectives.

And the point is not to say that one thing is better than the other. The point is not to say, “Oh, don’t get any work done, be all natural!” The point of this film is to highlight the beauty in aging to bring it to a more neutral space, so people aren’t getting comments like, “Oh, you have gray hair. Wow, that’s so brave of you.” So, people don’t feel any external pressures when it comes to making those sorts of decisions, and they can truly make them for themselves.

Adam Mansbach is a novelist, filmmaker (Barry), and writer whose work has appeared in The New Yorker, The New York Times Book Review, Esquire, The Washington Post and The Guardian. The Golem of Brooklyn is his latest book.

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