By Muhammad Rahman
Published: February 28th, 2018
Dr. Alexandra Juhasz is a full-time film professor and the current chairperson of the Brooklyn College film department. Dr. Juhasz was a professor of Media Studies at Pitzer College from 1995 to 2016 and the director of the Munroe Center for Social Inquiry from 2014 to 2016. She also led the Mellon-funded Digital Humanities Grant at the Claremont Colleges. While at Pitzer and at the Claremont Graduate University, Dr. Juhasz taught courses on media production, history, and theory, and has worked on several documentaries pertaining to topics on feminism, AIDS, and sexuality. She is currently working on fake news, online feminist pedagogy, and exploring the new opportunities digital media has to offer.
Q: When were you first seriously interested in film?
A: When I was in college as an undergraduate, I was getting a B.A. in English and American Studies, so I actually had a dual major. I was really interested in studying or thinking about ideas that were very central to our culture. It was particularly at that time gender and sexism became entrenched and I thought that I needed to study film particularly to study gender. So I ended up with my English and American studies degree, studying film and literature, and at the same time I learned to make film, so wrote an undergraduate thesis on “Little Women,” the novel by Louisa May Alcott, and the film version of it, and thought about its depiction of sort of gender and ideas of family and nation.
Q: How did your family react to your interest in film?
A: They were both supportive. My parents were both professors, and many members of my family are, so I was entirely encouraged to pursue the life of the mind and an artistic path. When I studied film as an undergraduate I didn’t know that I would go on to do it, but I was pretty excited so I continued to study film in graduate school.
Q: Just for a general idea, this is taking place around the 1980s?
A: That is correct. Lots of changes in technology were occurring at that time, so that was when camcorders were invented like yours.
Q: What do you make of the progress society has made in terms of the topics you’re concerned about, such as feminism, sex education, and sexuality?
A: I think that society has made huge strides and it’s one of the interesting things about being a feminist—as someone who has devoted a huge amount of my life to improving the experience of not just women, but of all people in relationship to gender oppression, I also have a large body of work that thinks about gender and sexuality. So when I started studying, I was studying women’s studies but I was part of a group of students who does what’s called “queer studies” or gay and lesbian studies, AIDS, etc. It very different back then. During the AIDS crisis, there were people suffering, there were no cures or medicine available, and there was a lot of death and suffering, so in relation to women, in relation to gay and lesbians, and in relation to people with AIDS, I have seen huge changes in my lifetime. My best friend when I was in college was a gay man, no one else was out of the closet in my school literally.
Q: In 1997 you made a film that actually depicts a black lesbian female protagonist. What was the general reaction to the film at that time?
A: The film is called “The Watermelon Woman,” and it was made 20 years ago. I produced the 20-year re-release of that film. It is an extremely important film in the history of filmmaking. This month is Black History Month, and there was this article that came out of the New York Times that listed 28 films that are significant to the 28 days of Black History Month, and “The Watermelon Woman” was one of those films listed. So it’s considered one of the most important African American films ever made in part because it was the first African American lesbian feature film produced. So that tells you a lot about the world.
Q: It didn’t have that big of a budget, did it?
A: It did not. It had a very small budget that came from the National Endowment for the Arts.
Q: In films today, do you feel not enough attention is given towards a favorable depiction of gay persons?
A: No, I think it’s mixed. I think that’s partly what has changed. When I started to think about this I think about many underrepresented minorities in our culture. What you yourself might care about might not be what I care about, but have had much more access to self-representation than what was true when I was studying. There’s many more films made by people of color or films made by women. It’s one of those things that makes me feel good about things like mainstream television and the Academy Awards. Now things like “Oscar So White”, that campaign reflects that there’s still a long way to go, there are very few people that direct films, and there are few people that are above the line.
Q: You’re not interested in meeting a certain quota?
A: No of course not, I don’t think you want a mandate or a count. What I think you want is a cultural environment, a rich environment that reflects the complexity of people who live here in the United States; even those who are Trump supporters and conservatives. What mainstream media has shown is a very small slice of what it means to be an American and I have always been open to expanding that in any way.
Q: Now some might say that in today’s day and age, many of the issues you have championed, such as sex awareness and feminism, are no longer much of an issue. What do you say to a person that holds that opinion?
A: You know the shorthand vocabulary for that is “post-feminism” or “post-black.”I have never heard anyone say “post-queer,” but that’s what people will call it. I think that, first of all, its because of Trump and his x percentage of supporters—20 percent, 30 percent, whatever. We know it’s not over. A year ago it started with our President; I mean if anyone outside openly expressed racist, homophobic, transphobic, or xenophobic views, it doesn’t stop.
Q: Does it feel like everything is coming back?
A: Well they were always there, but it’s not quite so visible. If you came to me 5 years I would say it’s there; if you came to me 10 years ago I’d say it’s there. Now we’ve made gains and society has changed, but you know understanding differences—being empathetic and open to the fact that people are different—is hard.