By 2011, most of the world had at least heard of Joyce Carol Vincent. The story of her body decomposing in her apartment for almost three years shook the world at its core–even for the brief moment that her name remained on people’s conscience. What most found alarming was the fact that this beautiful, relatively young, woman could die alone and remain neglected almost three years after passing away. When I was made aware of Vincent’s death I immediately wanted to know her story, not so much how she “ended up” like that, but who was Joyce Carol Vincent beyond the BBC article? I thought Dreams of a Life would be where I could get at least some sense of Vincent, but after almost two-hours of footage I ended the documentary with the same amount of knowledge I began it with. The biggest issue I had with the piece is the question it, inadvertently, raises about the lack of agency black women hold over their own stories even posthumously. The overall tragedy in this attempt to retell the life and final days of Vincent is that it’s perverse with over-sexualization and victimization all done through the gaze Carol Morley, a white woman.
Carol claims an affinity with Joyce:
“we were exactly the same age, we shared a name – Carol, her middle name – and at one point we even lived on the same street. Joyce lost her mother when she was 11 and I was 11 when my father died, so I felt I understood something of the loss she had suffered,”
and so she decided to “dream up Joyce’s life and ambitions through the information I gathered and the people who knew her.” The problem is, no one interviewed in the film seemed to truly know Joyce. Carol gathers up a group of individuals: two boyfriends, a landlord, co-workers, and a series of acquaintances—although you wouldn’t know that at first as you’ll spend more than half the film trying to figure out who is who in relation to Joyce, sometimes never getting any real clarity. For the most part these people appear as talking heads spewing their own speculation of who Joyce was and how it was that she “ended up” the way she did. It isn’t clear whether or not most of the interviewees spent more than five minutes with Joyce as Carol provides no clear or structured time-line.
From the very beginning of this “dream” a fixation on Joyce’s sexuality is established. A series of men rattle off how they were sexually attracted to her; we hear stories about how Vincent wore skin-tight dresses, as well as a story about how Vincent had a wardrobe malfunction resulting in her breast flying out of her dress and Vincent simply laughing. The men harbor on their desire to sleep with her and the women profess their desire to be her. There is a hint of sexual promiscuity that lingers with each interviewer as they all constantly state that when she wasn’t with her white boyfriend, Martin, there was no telling who she was with. No one delivering interviews can offer intimate details about who Joyce was; all they remember is their own imaginations of her. Insinuations of molestation—none of which are supported or confirmed—are offered by several interviewees and Carol uses flashbacks of Vincent’s father, played by (actor’s name), as a way to suggest that he was the culprit. This obsession with Joyce’s sexuality and speculated sexual abuse gets at no real heart of who Joyce was. Instead the same focus and obsession with black female sexuality is projected onto Joyce through the white gaze of Carol and her interviewees. The lack of structure, detail, or ethos in these interviews is quite disturbing and possibly done deliberately so that Carol could come in with her own plot-line and re-create a story, a life, that did not belong to her.
Nikki Giovanni, in her poem, Nikki Rosa, said that she hoped no white biographer would want to tell her story because, “they never understand Black love is Black wealth and they’ll probably talk about my hard childhood and never understand that all the while I was quite happy.”
One of Vincent’s “friends” emphatically states that Vincent was not into the “race thing,” as if race is some sort of fashion or genre of music not an institutionalized system that oppresses individuals based on phonemes resulting in psychological, emotional, and physical trauma not to mention the pre-determining factor on the quality of life one has immediate access to. But how could one understand race as more than a “thing,” when one has never lived under its microscope? While race is not a subject Carol provides any depth to, she does make a deliberate segregation of the space her interviewees occupy in her documentary. Any mentions of race outside of a “thing” one can or cannot be “into,” are reduced to one liners and jokes (Joyce’s black landowner and neighbor joked about Vincent’s attraction to white men and how a cure for her flightiness would be a black man). Why hadn’t Carol probed more into the dynamics of being black, being caribbean, being woman, and being British? These multilayered experiences and identities unquestionably affected Vincent’s life whether she was into the “race thing” or not. And if Carol’s desire was to victimize her why not look at the contributing factors of racism, fetishizing, and sexism? There is one mention of a male co-worker sexually harassing Vincent and her never returning to that job afterwards, but as quickly as it is mentioned it is dropped never to be revisited. It is obvious Vincent had troublesome experiences, there is a point in the film where Martin’s, Vincent’s long-time boyfriend, reason for not marrying Vincent is revealed to be because he did not want “tinted children,” but the poignant and telling revelation is not explored further. It is this neglect of subtle but revealing insights into the complexities of Vincent’s identities and, instead, focus on a supposed tumultuous childhood that makes Carol the exact white biographer Nikki Giovanni feared.
Like Vincent, black women have died in obscurity. Nella Larsen, a once prolific writer of the Harlem Renaissance, was found dead in her apartment. Zora Neale Hurston, an equally prolific writer during the Harlem Renaissance, was found dead in her south Florida welfare home. Dorothy Dandridge, a formidable beauty, talent, and force in Hollywood, was found dead in her home. Marie Vieux-Chavuet is a brilliant black woman author many still know nothing of. The question of how Vincent, a beautiful woman who seemed to have it all, could end up dying alone is not a question, but often a reality played out for many black women. This year we’ve lost Karyn Washington (founder, creator of “For Brown Girls” ) and Titi Branch (co-founder of Miss Jessie hair products) due to suicide. Black Women’s Lives Matter and Say Her Name became almost a sub-branch of Black Live’s Matters out of a paucity of support and visibility for black women suffering, and dying, at the hands of police brutality. There is an obscurity that surround black women as they are forced to navigate a system that renders them valueless and voiceless. It is a troubling fact to experience and even more so to watch on film, especially when not handled correctly. We’ve watched the mishandling of our narratives in films like Girlhood, Suffrage (where, in the director’s world, we don’t even exist), and countless other media when we are not given agency over our lives and our stories. Filmmaker, Nikyatu Jusu, said it best in her caption of a Girlhood movie poster:
“I promise not to be bitter that it’s easier for her to make films featuring my people than it is for me.”
For all the reasons Carol stated she felt a connection to Joyce; the trajectory of her documentary illustrates that she couldn’t be any more further from Joyce than a stranger passing her on the street.
There is an obsession of pain Carol has when it comes to examining the life of Vincent, but it is grossly misdirected. I don’t doubt that Vincent went through her share of pain, the depths and the circumstances we may never accurately know, but despite that fact it should not be the definition of her life. Carol ignores the fact that Vincent voluntarily moved into her one-bedroom flat, described as “a refuge for victims of domestic violence.” Carol does not include the fact that Vincent’s family hired a private investigator to find her and that they wrote her letters. This same family also showed up at her inquest after Vincent was confirmed to be the deceased woman in the apartment. Carol has frozen Joyce somewhere between a lonely abused child and a young sexually charged woman completely stifling Joyce as a victim whose one too many losses culminated in a tragic death. I find trouble with this dramatization of Vincent’s life because Carol allows for speculation to exist as fact. She has completely silenced the true Vincent–stolen her life and created a nightmare. At the end of Dreams of a Life I couldn’t help but feel a great disservice had been done toward Joyce Carol Vincent. I felt that her story and her body had become a vessel through which someone else appropriated for their own artistic, and even emotional, catharsis. Art is supposed to imitate life, but is an artist supposed to appropriate someone else’s life completely? A woman’s “dream” came at the expense of silencing another woman’s life, Dreams of a Life is but another footnote to that tradition.