Cine Suffragette
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Cine Suffragette

Seberg (2019): biopic doesn’t do its namesake justice

Kristen Stewart surprises as North-American actress Jean Seberg, but the film’s director doesn’t probe deeply into her story. Photo: Reproduction

[Spoiler alert!]

Jean Dorothy Seberg was born in 1938 in the state of Iowa, United States. In less than two decades, she’d know the sweet taste of fame which would turn out sour. Seberg made her film debut in the title role of Saint Joan (1957), by director Otto Preminger; which would foresee her martyr image. During the scene in which Joan is burned on a stake, the North-American actress suffered actual burns on parts of her body. The devastatingly realistic scene is reproduced in Benedict Andrews’ take on the most fraught moments that scarred the iconic muse of the French Nouvelle Vague.

Benedict’s ‘Seberg’ starts at the point whenJean witnesses a racist conflict on a flight involving the black activist Hakim Abdullah Jamal. The two rapidly get along and we see Jean volunteering in donating money to fund schooling for black children. She did much more than what’s shown to us. What about her acting career? Although she was crucified for her initial roles in ‘Saint Joan’ and Bonjour Tristesse (1958), both directed by Preminger, she became a favorite among emergent Nouvelle Vague directors such as François Truffaut and of course, Jean-Luc Godard, who cast Jean in his groundbreaking 1960 film Breathless. Her role as a passionate and existentialist student corresponded the reflexive character of women in the wake of women’s liberation. Her haircut, black eyeliner, capri pants and Breton striped tops, would be copied worldwide following the cultural impact of the flick. But Jean was far more than a style hero; she’d rather pave a thriving career in Hollywood than in France. ‘Seberg’ only shows glimpses of her movies, but it would have been relevant if it had shown how she fought for her career rather than being just a pretty face.

Besides, she’s been supportive to minority groups since she was a teen. According to Wikipedia, she also financially supported the NAACP as well as Native American school groups such as the Meskwaki Bucks, for whom she purchased US$500 worth of basketball uniforms.The problem is right here in the beginning of the film. Jean’s story is half told and there are so many ellipses that it’s actually a quasi-biopic. It’s a shame that her engagement to civil rights and anti-war politics isn’t well explored, rather used as a background for her affair with Jamal. It would have been an excellent biopic if it was given the fair chance and Kristen Stewart would surely have had her definitive role. She pulls off Jean’s haircut and introverted nature but wasn’t allowed a room for exploring Jean’s deepest nuances.

Jean Seberg. Photo: Silver Screen Collection/Getty Images/Getty Images

It was vital that her involvement with Black people’s movements needed to be accurately portrayed, not only for the sake of her name, but also because it’d set a perfect example of the role of a white person in the anti-racist struggle; and with the urgency of the Black Lives Matter movement, this biopic could have been a must-watch for white people. North-American activist whose work examined the connections between race, gender, and class, bell hooks, wrote about privileged women’s role in her visionary definitions of feminism in ‘Feminism Is for Everybody: Passionate Politics’:

All over this nation individual feminists with class power who support a revolutionary vision of social change share resources and use our power to aid reforms that will improve the lives of women irrespective of class. (bell hooks,’Feminism Is for Everybody: Passionate Politics, (2000,p.42).

In the late 60s, Jean proved to be way ahead of her time when she perceived her privileged position by endorsing the equality movement for black people before the peak of second wave feminism. However, the disgraceful FBI operation against her, directly supervised by J. Edgar Hoover — the bureau’s director who had for years been working to undermine anti-war protesters and civil rights leaders — used COINTELPRO tactics to harass and destroy her reputation as an ally to Black people, an actress, a mother, and of course, as a woman. The operation consisted of creating false rumors involving her personal life, and the movie focuses on the one that chewed her up which was that Seberg was carrying a child who was not fathered by her husband, Romain Gary, but either by Raymond Hewitt, a member of the Black Panther Party or Jamal — I don’t know why Raymond’s character doesn’t appear in the movie. It doesn’t really matter with whom she slept. What one needs to bear in mind is that Jean’s body and choices didn’t belong to her anymore, they were in FBI’s hands. She learned in the toughest way how cruel patriarchy can be to women who dare not play by the rules. Literally, she lost her body and soul to the unscrupulous agents as she had a breakdown and delivered the baby prematurely. Her daughter, Nina, only lived for two days and the Iowan actress held a funeral with an open coffin to prove journalists that the baby was white.

FBI inter-office memo: “… cause her embarrassment and cheapen her image”. The vicious treatment of Jean by the sadistic government leads us women to reflect on how we must remain vigilant about our rights. Photo: Wikipedia

Jean’s decline is depicted in the movie, but it would have worked better if it hadn’t focused so much on her affair with Jamal. Unfortunately, for those who will have their first contact with her story through this film, the impression is that Jean is solely engaged in the name of love. But the most problematic aspect of all is the character of fictional FBI recruit Jack Solomon who plays the improbable “good guy”. Was this redemption really necessary? It totally deviated the ruthless attempts to discredit and expose Jean Seberg! There wasn’t a guiltless side of FBI in her story at all. For how she fought for the truth about her story and was traumatized, neutralized and led to attempt suicide on several anniversaries of her child’s death; it’s utterly upsetting to see that the film makes us believe that she needed FBI’s help after all, as if she was a fragile character, to which facts prove the contrary.

Jean Seberg’s orchestrated downfall was unknown to many until the biopic’s release. She’s most remembered for her signature look: her side-swept pixie, teamed with her sailor shirt. In a time in which women’s stories have been fairly retold, Jean’s is yet to get a proper approach. Photo: Reproduction

Speaking of women’s legacy, the film doesn’t do quite justice to Dorothy Jamal either. She’s only known for her role as a wife and it’s been really difficult to find traces of how she contributed as a community leader back then. In the movie, besides playing Hakim’s wife, she acts as Jean’s rival, reinforcing the ‘angry black woman stereotype’ which undermines the ‘Black women’s sisterhood is powerful’ mantra from the second wave of feminism. Another worthy remark is: wouldn’t it have been better if the sex and boob scenes were replaced by scenes showing the development of her humanitarian epiphany? There’s nothing wrong with Jean’s sexuality, it’s just that it seemed that there were more scenes of her walking around in lingerie than ones that could provide insights of her activism. She never wanted to be a bombshell starlet.

I hope that many of the viewers got inspired to inform themselves better on Jean’s life and to spread the word, thus perpetuating her legacy that undoubtedly was sparked by this flawed, yet necessary biopic. Let’s take the best out of it and not let Jean’s legacy to be cheapened and written out of history. We still need to hear about women like Jean Seberg so we remain vigilant of our own rights.

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