Malia Dawkins is known for her acting work on shows like Jonas and Wizards of Waverly Place, but now she’s adding the titles of screenwriter and producer to her list of talents.
Dawkins’ first film, Rapunzel Jackson, created through her production company East to West Productions, is set to show at Los Angeles’ Pan African Film Festival, and I was excited to speak with Dawkins about the film, which focuses on a girl who gets her first perm. We also discussed black women’s complicated relationship with hair, the self-placed boundaries between natural and permed hair, and where the conversations about both hair types can meet in the middle.
Rapunzel Jackson is directed by Dabling Harward (who, as Dawkins said, was a “dream director,”) and stars Morgan Ashley in the title role. The rest of the cast includes Dawkins, Juanita Jennings, Haley Powell, Coley Speaks, Bruce Lemon, Demitris Dajoun and Marissa Herrera. Rapunzel Jackson will screen at the Pan African Film Festival this Sunday, Feb. 8 at 2:10pm and Tuesday, Feb. 10 at 1:40pm. You can learn more at the festival’s site.
COLOR: How did Rapunzel Jackson come to be?
Malia Dawkins: I was in the process of getting my Masters in Creative Writing at Mount St. Mary’s College, and within the program, I decided to take a “writing children’s literature” course. When [it] came time for me create my own children’s story, I immediately called on my emotional memory at that time to recall my most favorite moments. I immediately went back to Sunday afternoons with my mother braiding my hair.
I just recall that being such a joyous moment. Painful at times when she braided my hair too tight [laughs] but it was also just a great moment of bonding that guaranteed that once a week, I was locked between my mother’s knees for about four hours at a time (because I have a lot of hair), and we’d talk about our days, our weeks, our future plans. My mom talked about her past, her intentions for her future. It’s where we had the sex talk, the boy talk, the college talk, and it was symbolic of a rebirth every Sunday because you’re literally locked between your mother’s knees and you’re at her womb.
The feeling and emotions that I had from those moments were so strong that I had to write about it. But because I was in a children’s literature writing course, I had to make it a fairy tale. The character that came to me was Rapunzel, so I thought I’d merge my story with Rapunzel’s story and make this 2015 version of this fairy tale.
Since Rapunzel Jackson is about hair, it seems to touch on the complicated relationship black girls have with their hair as they grow up into womanhood. How exactly is this explored in Rapunzel Jackson?
The way it’s explored is that Rapuznel’s about the turn 10. The movie takes place before her 10th birthday. The number 10 is a double digit number and so numerically, it’s a symbol [of growth], and she’s trying to visualize this moment of her being defined as a lady. She’s been locked between her mother’s knees every weekend as she braids her hair. She’s watching her mother, who has a perm, and for her—as African American girls, we don’t have Quinceañeras or bat mitzvahs—for her, [getting a perm] is a defining moment, this is going to make her a lady.
But not only is there a beauty ideal she’s trying to achieve, because of looking at her mother, because of the beauty magazines with Beyonce or Gabrielle Union with perms or really long extensions that she’s now equated to beauty…because her hair isn’t as long. She has a line in the movie in which she says, “I can’t wait until my hair is long and beautiful like Rapunzel.” So she’s also being guided in her judgement of beauty by these fairytale books.
Her struggle with her hair is that when it’s her birthday, she gets this perm, but it changes the routine of her Sunday afternoons with her mother and it changes the relationships with her friends. Now that she’s gotten her perm, Sunday afternoons are no longer about being locked between her mother’s knees. Since she has a perm, all she has to do now is take the rollers or wrap down, and she can truly be a lady. She can help Mother with chores, she can run errands around the house; she is a lady now. She no longer has to be managed. Her mother is challenging her to take on and manage tasks of her own.
…[S]he has a best friend who’s a frog—who goes through his own journey of growth into manhood—but she can’t just go around and jump in the creek with him. When you have a perm, water is your biggest enemy. She can’t play with her friend like she used to. She and another best friend, a caterpillar, used to run around and roll around in the mud and dirt, but she can’t do that anymore either. It’s so small, just a change of a hairstyle from her natural form to straightened, but in that one perm, she loses this guaranteed time of bonding with her mom…and she also loses this bond with her friends as well. So that’s her struggle throughout her quest of womanhood in the film.
Since the film does deal with the pros and cons and differences and similarities of what natural and straightened hair represents, it seems like it plays into a larger narrative about where black people, women especially, are when it comes to how they define themselves by their hair. How do you think this film plays into this huge discussion about hair?
I think it definitely stimulates that conversation and points out the divide. We’re fresh off the release of Bill Dukes’ Light Girls, and at the end…they did cover on social media how theres…#DarkSkinGirls and #TeamLightSkin. There’s a divide between our community on skin color and then you take it to another level [where] there’s another divide on hair. So this film does definitely speak to that conversation and another inspiration for writing it was to open a forum for black women to speak on that literal kitchen at the backs of our necks and what’s going on.
When the perm was first released, it was, in part initially, to be this mimicry of European beauty ideals. Some people find it ironic that I’m this filmmaker promoting natural hair, but I do, in fact, have a perm. Why I have my perm is more about because it’s easy…It’s more just because I’m lazy [laughs] and I don’t have the patience to go through the…care that natural hair mandates. But what I ultimately wanted to say, and what actress Juanita Jennings, who plays my mother, brought to the table was…that it should ultimately be the child or individual’s choice [to get a perm].
I have girlfriends who had perms so young in life that they didn’t even know what their hair texture was…My parents were more traditional, so I didn’t get my perm until I was 12, and that was the same case with getting my ears pierced…The film isn’t anti-perm or anti-natural. It should be a choice and a choice that’s later in life. It’s not only for the child to decide what hair texture they’re going to have, but it’s also so you don’t lose those moments. I truly feel like I would be a different person if I didn’t have my mom locking her legs around me every Sunday and passing on lessons, values, and experiences.
I wrote a dissertation in my Master’s program called My Kitchen: The Back of My Head and Inside My Oven, and it’s the story of four generations of black women told through their recipes. Whether it’s hair braiding on Sundays or in the kitchen cooking Sunday dinner, what seem like menial tasks lend themselves to a forced bonding between women. What I’m trying to say in the film is don’t lose that.
That resonates with me a lot, because I’ve had to grow up with people defining me by my hair just because it’s long and is thought of as being in the realm of “good hair.” I’ve had people ask me if I was Filipino or Native American, and I’m like, I don’t have to be any of that to have the hair I have. Some people might take that as a compliment, but it makes me mad. I don’t like being exoticized by others just because of my hair or what I look like.
It’s so interesting how so many people will read into your hair and think they know your character…That’s what the objective of the project. I want to have community outreach with the project. I want to have hair braiding workshops where mothers and daughters and even sons—because Rapunzel also has a brother who has his own journey to manhood—can talk these things out.
…Women who tend to have perms have parents who have perms. It’s this generational styling. Women who are more apt to have natural hair had parents with natural hair or are being revolutionaries in their own time. It’s so interesting-I reside in Los Angeles, and…you can see groups of black women defined by their hair texture. If I see a girl with natural hair, she’s more than likely going to have a friend with natural hair with her.
We all need to group together and have a conversation [about] it and recognize it as just a choice; neither one is good or bad. I’ve had people, like how you were saying, who say, “Oh, you’re from the islands” and I’ve people to come up to me and touch my hair and say, “Ooh, you’re so lucky, you have this good hair,” as if the other type of hair is bad. I think we just have to recognize and define our own beauty terms as a people and say both are beautiful.
The film is playing at the Pan African Film Festival. How does it feel to have Rapunzel Jackson for the world to see?
I’m too thrilled. It’s my first film that I’ve written and produced, and this was the first film festival we’ve been accepted into. It’s just laying on the foundation of so many firsts for my team and I. What better platform than the largest African American-geared film festival on the west coast? I can’t wait for the world to see it. I think it’s such a dynamic piece, and it brings up content and conversation not many other people are doing right now. I’m thrilled and I just hope everyone in the Los Angeles area comes out to support us.
What do you hope the audience takes away from Rapunzel Jackson?
Don’t take for granted how household chores or cultural rituals can be a…way to embed ideals that you want laid down for their adulthood…With my mom, I had hair braiding. With my father, it was…washing the car. As technology advances, you can throw a meal in the microwave. You can throw a wig on my head and send me out the door. You can go to the car wash at the gas station. It’s taking away all of these moments and opportunities for parents and children to bond…It’s important to have a bond with your children and hold them close and let kids be kids. We have to hold each other close, just as tightly as we braid our hair.