Spotlight: Fronza Woods
I like films about real people. I am inspired by almost everything but especially by struggle. I am interested in people who take on a challenge, no matter how great or small, and come to terms with it. What inspires me are people who don’t sit on life’s rump but have the courage, energy, and audacity not only to grab it by the horns, but to steer it as well.
You don’t have to create a lot to make an impact. A perfect piece of work, offered out like a gift, can make as substantial a contribution to cinema as a lifetime of lacklustre features. Fronza Woods gave us two perfect shorts, amounting between them to just under twenty-four minutes in duration. Except, that’s not quite it. Art can’t be measured in numbers. The story, as Fronza’s work teaches us, is always more complicated than it first appears.
Fronza’s biography is scant on details. We know that she was born in 1943, grew up in Detroit, and began her career working in advertising as a copywriter. In 1967, she relocated to New York, where at some point she moved sideways into television with a job at ABC. Curious about filmmaking, but unsure if this was the path for her – “I didn’t want to spend a lot of money and realise I had no talent”– Fronza began attending workshops at the Women’s Interart Centre, a community organisation dedicated to nurturing female artists. Here, overseen by mentors Muffie Meyer and Ellen Hovde (who worked with the Maysles on Grey Gardens, and would later partner with Meyer to form a successful production company), Woods made her two perfect films.
Killing Time (1979) is deceptively simple. Running at just under ten minutes, this one-hander centres on a young woman (Fronza herself, credited playfully as Sage Brush). When we first meet her, she is lying on her bed in just a t-shirt, sprawled as if dead, next to a telephone hanging off the hook. We soon realise that she is practicing. The woman has decided, somewhat casually, to kill herself. A black comedy unfolds, as we watch the woman consider and discard potential methods, try on different outfits and apply makeup. All the while her inner monologue meanders on, as she whistles, sings snippets of half remembered songs, repeats riddles, berates herself and prays.
The tone is whimsical in places, darkly comic in others (“who the hell wants to be found dead in a Castro convertible, it’s so tacky?”). The protagonist’s obsession with looking good even in death offers an absurdist commentary on the beauty standard, the expectation of women to keep up appearances no matter their inner crises. Ultimately though, it’s this preoccupation with looks that saves the woman’s life – an attempt to jump from the roof of her apartment block is foiled when her tight white jeans split, and she retreats back indoors to safety. It’s a wry, dry, New York kind of humour, teetering always on the brink of something bleak, but (like the protagonist herself) never quite tipping over. Like all the finest shorts, it leaves you wanting more without feeling short-changed. It is a quite perfect self-contained thing.
Fronza’s second film picks up on Killing Time’s obsession with interiors and exteriors, the contrast between outward appearances and inner selves. From the moment we saw the title card – which reads (seriously!) “Invisible Women: Part 1”– we knew we were going to love Fannie’s Film (1982). In truth, the ideas outlined across Fannie’s fifteen-minute running time are so thematically aligned with our interests that it’s almost eerie.
Fannie’s Film is a documentary portrait of Mrs Fannie Drayton, a 65-year-old African American cleaner who works at a swanky Manhattan gym. We first meet our heroine in a striking opening image captured, like Killing Time, in expressionistic black and white. Fannie faces us, cleaning-fluid in hand, spritzing slowly and elegantly into the camera, her spray bottle squeaking. We later realise she is cleaning a mirror and that what we are looking at is a reflection, but in those opening few seconds it appears almost as if she is cleaning the camera itself, breaking the fourth wall to wipe off the lens. The incongruent beauty of this artfully composed image immediately challenges our assumptions.
As the film unfolds, footage of Fannie going about her daily work are juxtaposed with elegantly shot images of the gym in the daytime, now full of elegantly exercising clientele, the unknowing beneficiaries of this invisible labour. Fronza interviews Fannie throughout in voiceover, and slowly we get to know the story of her life – the daughter of a fisherman, who grew up in dignified poverty (“we never had our foot on the ground without a shoe on”), before moving to New York, getting married and finding work. We hear about her likes and dislikes – “I don’t like to sleep on a rough dry sheet, my linen closet is out of this world!” – and her hopes, desires and dreams. We hear about her many different jobs low status work in high status American institutions like Carnegie Hall and Yankee Stadium – and we get to know her contradictions – the humble wife who fights for her financial independence, the devout woman who dreams of going to Canada to gamble. Fannie’s charm is undeniable and what emerges, is a 365-degree portrait of the kind of person that film famously cares very little about: working class, female, Black, old. Fronza has achieved her mission. The invisible woman becomes visible.
Fronza always envisaged Fannie’s Film as political. Increasingly frustrated at the racism and sexism she saw around her, Fronza saw telling this underrepresented story as an opportunity to make a statement, although she soon realised that her subject had a mind of her own:
When I made the film, [Fannie] was supposed to be my anger button, she was supposed to come out and say angry things. No matter how I approached it I could not get any anger out of her. In the end I gave up and said this is Fannie’s film… I will have to take my anger somewhere. Ultimately she taught me a lot of lessons, about just finding happiness, just finding satisfaction in what you’re doing.
Yet while it did not turn out to be the overt provocation Fronza had envisaged, she soon discovered that the implicit politics of the project were enough to elicit a telling reaction. Fannie’s Film had an early screening at the Black Filmmaker Foundation in New York, and Fronza was shocked by the recoil she witnessed even from this predominantly Black audience:
The audience just didn’t know what they were looking at, they didn’t want to see a Black cleaning woman, that was not what they wanted to look at. I had a horrible feeling of “err what have I done?” It just didn’t go over well. They wanted to see Hollywood, glamour… They didn’t want to see a cleaning woman who was happy with her life. Simple as that. It offends people.
Killing Time and Fannie’s Film are among the first films to attempt to offer a fully rounded portrait of Black female consciousness. Fronza’s heroines are nuanced, complicated, funny and memorable. By building films entirely around their first-person perspectives Fronza gives these women the space they need to become real in the eyes of the viewer. Yet even while apparently surrendering her film to her protagonists, Fronza still manages to subtly inject her own personality. Both films have a quirky esoteric energy that makes them stick in the mind. And while Fronza’s films appear to be monologues they are actually two-handers: the director, in all her warmth and wit, is always present.
Woods had originally intended Fannie's Film to be the first in a series, hence that optimistic "Invisible Women: Part 1" title card. Sadly for us, reality got in the way.
In the years following Fannie, Woods drifted in and out of the NYC Indie scene, finding odd work as a camera woman or filling in wherever she was needed. She worked as a sound engineer on John Sayles’ sci-fi The Brother from Another Planet (1984) and appeared as a cast member Yvonne Rainer’s The Man Who Envied Women (1985). Already though, she was beginning to rub up against the reality of working in this overwhelming white, male industry. Sayles’ film, a slavery allegory which told the story of an African American alien on the run in Manhattan, had seemed like a great opportunity, but proved instead to be a dead end. “A bunch of us Black filmmakers thought it was going to be the beginning of our entry into the industry but it simply wasn’t,” remembered Fronza, “It was just a one off experience.”
While over on the West Coast the LA Rebellion (a movement which encompassed directors such as Julie Dash, Zeinabu Irene Davis and Charles Burnett) were using a collective approach to carve a space for Black talent, the East Coast filmmakers were more splintered. Despite the efforts of organisations such as the Black Filmmaker Foundation, there was a lack of a sense of a cohesive movement. Without an organised approach, Fronza and her peers struggled to make headway, and many eventually burnt out.
Fronza kept trying. She attended NYU film school and did well in her classes, but struggled with the age gap between herself and her classmates. Like so many women and people of colour, Fronza was a late bloomer, and with no family support the struggle to pay her way became too much. She ran out of money, dropped out and became a teacher. Eventually she moved away, first to Milwaukee where she taught filmmaking at the University of Milwaukee and read scripts for HBO, before relocating to the South of France where she still lives today. She stopped making films altogether.
In 2017, BAM Cinematheque in New York included both Killing Time and Fannie’s Film in a new season. In One Way or Another: Black Women’s Cinema, 1970-1991, Fronza’s shorts screened alongside work by Kathleen Collins (read more about her here), Julie Dash, and Euzhan Palcy. Contextualised in this manner, Fronza suddenly appeared not as an isolated one off, but as an early adopter. With the distance of time, it was possible to celebrate Fronza as one of the first Black female directors to complete multiple short films. Her clean, modern aesthetic and radical choice of subject matter secured her new status. “[Killing Time] is very simply one of the best short films I’ve ever seen” declared The New Yorker, describing Fronza’s films as “forgotten treasures.” After decades of silence, the world had finally caught up.
Over the past few years, Fronza’s films have screened in festivals and retrospectives around the world. A recorded post screening Q&A from Courtisane Festival Belgium in 2019, shows a slightly baffled looking Fronza, speaking about the experience of revisiting her work after all these years.
It’s… weird. It’s lovely but it’s difficult to go back to that of your life. It’s strange because it was a time when I thought that my career was gonna go someplace, but it didn’t. I’m just delighted these are been seeing again.
Fronza wasn’t sitting around waiting for the industry to catch up with her. She tried, she felt that she’d failed, she moved on. The reward now, after a long pause, is finally the recognition that those films that she made while experimenting as a young woman, were not the by products of failure after all. It took a long, long time, but finally we are watching Fronza’s films. An invisible woman, becomes visible, once more.
Note: In June 2021 we were delighted to hear from Fronza Woods directly. Thanks to that conversation we've been able to correct a couple of dates and names that were wrong in the original version of this blog - these have now been put right.
Watch Fronza Woods' films over at Women Make Movies.
Cover Image credit: Fronza on the set of The Brother From Another Planet, via the Filmmaker.
Conversation with Fronza Woods, Diagonal Thoughts,
“Grey Area + 2 by Fronza Woods.” BAM.
“Forgotten Treasures of Black Women’s Cinema,” Richard Brody. The New Yorker.
“Fronza Woods.” Women Make Movies.