In Case You Missed It: Naked Acts (1996)

Warning: Spoilers Ahead!

I can’t lie: for the first 30 minutes of this film, you will think to yourself, “Damn, the acting is bad.” But it is a feature film focusing on black women, so you endure the subpar acting. After all, the DVD cover and description caught your attention and you know this film is going to explore something you don’t get to see very often in a film.

You are right about that. How many films have you seen explore black women’s body issues as well as their representations in media? At this point, not very many. So you keep watching this film and feel a connection with the protagonist Cicely when it is revealed early on in the film that she was molested as a child by her actress mother’s boyfriend. You also see the connection Cicely has to acting and film from the beginning. Her mother Lydia Love was a star during the blaxploitation era playing roles a la Foxy Brown and Cleopatra Jones.

Years later, not only has Cicely become an actress, but she has also recently lost 60 pounds. She is excruciatingly self-conscious about her body even though she is now slim. She wears wigs that do not seem to blend into her overall look. At some point, you realize that this is probably part of the point: Cicely hides everything about herself. She has kept the secret of her abuse from everyone including her mother and her boyfriend Joel, who is the director of the new film in which she will star.

Cicely’s defense mechanism to hide her body also affects her budding film career: she does not want to do a nude scene written into the script. While part of this has to do with the issues she has with her body, she also wants to separate herself from the image associated with her mother. She never liked the sexualized image Lydia played for years. In her own way, Cicely wants to “correct” her mother’s image. This distaste is not simply because of any self-righteous indignation of images of black women: she can associate her own sexual abuse with every film her mother made.

It seems unlikely that Cicely will do the nude scene, especially since you know that she will not even allow Joel to see her naked in the light. He, however, is willing to strip for her. This is actually one of the most interesting moments in the film. How often do you get to see a man onscreen who strips on command when it’s not his job (and where can I find one of those)? Also, she convinces Joel to change the script so that her character does not have to do the nude scene. Joel actually seems okay with this, but he changes his mind without Cicely’s consent later.

Why does he do this? After a night of intimacy in which Cicely opens up to him both physically and emotionally, he decides she can handle doing the nude scene. Not only is Cicely angry, but she also feels betrayed. Even though she may have had something of a breakthrough, she is still trying to accept her body on her own terms. You see this as she interacts with an artist named Diane (and portrayed by real-life performance artist Rene Cox). However, you also know that no one should try to force her to do something she is uncomfortable with.

She walks out on the film and Joel. But she finally has the ammunition she needs to confront the one person whom she feels betrayed her most: Lydia. Cicely reminds Lydia of that boyfriend during that time of their lives and takes her through her molestation with each film her mother made. Lydia actually had no idea her daughter was being sexually abused at the time and you know her outrage is real.

There is even more payoff in the end. Cicely is still working to resolve her issues, but she comes up with her own therapy. She sets up a camera and alone in the studio takes off her clothes for the camera. Furthermore, the wigs are gone: she is simply being who she is and not hiding herself or her body. She has also decided to send the pictures to her mother. It’s a satisfying ending if not necessarily a happy one. Cicely is healing. She is healing on her own terms and in her own time.

By this time, you have gotten past the acting. You appreciate what filmmaker Bridgett M. Davis has done here: she has examined our portrayals in the media and how these images not only affect how we see ourselves but also how they feed into the abuse lashed onto those bodies. While it is not overly preachy, there does seem to be a problematic willingness to blame Lydia for her daughter’s abuse because of her film roles. The problem is much more complicated. Still, Naked Acts shows the importance of independent film and shows that we have to look beyond Hollywood in order to see ourselves in all three dimensions.