The opening line of Ja’Tovia Gary’s film Quiet As It’s Kept — “The girls that get it, get it — and the girls that don’t, don’t” — is spoken through KhaeNotBae, a Black TikTok creator who originated the sound bite that has been remixed and reposted across social media for years but has rarely received credit for starting the trend. “In some ways, she’s the voice of a generation,” Gary tells me, the day before premiering the film at the 12th annual BlackStar Film Festival in Philadelphia. “She encapsulates this practice that we see often on the internet, of people lifting without citing who they’re lifting from.” But Gary is quick to cite her references, especially in this film.
Clocking in at just over 26 minutes, Quiet As It’s Kept is Gary’s response to The Bluest Eye, Toni Morrison’s debut novel about Black American girlhood. The filmmaker splices together viral video clips from TikTok, classic Hollywood images of Shirley Temple, footage of Lil’ Kim, Instagram Stories from Azealia Banks, interview footage of Morrison, filmed conversations with Dr. Kokahvah Zauditu-Selassie, who has interpreted Morrison’s work on both academic and spiritual levels, direct animation (an old-school technique that involves scratching and etching onto the film stock itself), and some original footage of Gary herself. Gary is often labeled as an “experimental” filmmaker, a category she seems ambivalent about, but Quiet As It’s Kept is avant-garde in the way it sutures traditional documentary conventions to visionary techniques and textures. A friend recently told her the film is like a “magic-carpet ride.”
For me, watching it felt similar to the experience of scrolling and tapping through various apps on my phone, and at times I felt as if Gary had taken a walk inside my own brain, recorded some fragments, and spit them back out into her film. It makes sense, then, when Gary tells me she wants to engage with the multiple levels of understanding one may have with the film depending on one’s position in society, but the work is primarily concerned with what Gary calls “the Black interior,” or what’s going on not only within the Black community or the Black family but within the mind of the Black individual as well. It’s a bit of philosophy that could be applied to a lot of Gary’s art, which is often abstracted pieces.
Under the purview of chief executive and artistic officer Maori Karmael Holmes, BlackStar has become the premiere destination for experimental artistic endeavors, community, and conversation for Black and brown creators in Philadelphia, attracting filmmakers and attendees from all over the world. Gary flew in for the festival from Dallas, Texas, where she grew up and returned to just before the start of the pandemic. “It is actually really mind-blowing to see the vision that this Black woman has created and see that it is a worldwide thing; people come here from all over the globe,” Gary told me. “I’m obsessed with the Black woman visionary. That’s why Octavia Butler reigned supreme, why Toni Morrison is at the top of the list. A Black woman who can think through an idea, see it, and make it happen? That’s power.”
Gary says she had been in conversation with Morrison for a lot of her life and in her own work, too (see, for example, her 2021 sculpture Citational Ethics (Toni Morrison, 1987)), but not until Hilton Als told Gary to start thinking about how she might want to “approach Morrison cinematically” did she take on the daunting task of making this film. To be clear, Quiet As It’s Kept, which takes its name from The Bluest Eye, is not an adaptation. “This is me wrestling with the ideas that are presented in the book, ideas around colorism and the gaze and desirability and madness and beauty and double consciousness,” Gary says. “I was really grateful for the prompt because I feel a deep ancestral connection with her.”
You mentioned that Hilton Als suggested you make something in conversation with Morrison’s work. Is there a particular person or place you get your culture recommendations from? For either your personal consumption or inspiration for your work?
A variety of places. I’m chronically on the internet. I’m an elder millennial, so I remember before the shift and then the progress of the digital space and the digital reach. I’m on Instagram. I’ve taken an extended break from Twitter because it was doing something negative to my disposition and how I responded to people. I have friends who forced me onto TikTok. I am not on there a lot, but when I do get on there, I see that they’ve sent me, like, a trillion videos. But above everything, I’m constantly reading books.
What are you reading right now?
I’m working my way through Gloria Naylor’s entire body of work. I started in the middle with Mama Day, then Bailey’s Cafe, and now I’m reading The Women of Brewster Place. It takes a minute for people to remember the huge legacy of Black women’s literary contributions outside of the main folks like Morrison or Octavia Butler. You could commit to reading only Black women for the rest of your life and not touch the surface of our contributions. Not all of the books I read are intense Black feminist theory. Sometimes it’s romance, smut. People say filmmakers should watch widely — and we should — but I read way more books than I watch movies.
What do you listen to when you’re alone?
I’m listening to a six-hour gospel-music playlist I compiled. I grew up on gospel, and I’ve returned to it. It’s kind of a depression hack.
You said you read more books than you watch films, but do you have a comfort rewatch? Something that always makes you feel good when you put it on?
Boomerang. It’s fun. I’m giving you the ’90s movies I grew up on. I love romance, romantic comedies, romantic dramas. Love Jones, Mo’ Better Blues. They’re moody, sexy, funny. You see Black people in expansive presentations: You see them playing music, as ad executives, as photographers, as poets, in love, falling out of love, evolving, and having rich emotional lives. We can levy a critique on those films, of course, but we’re talking comfort. There are beautiful, innocent moods, moments of rain. Everybody has extraordinary chemistry, not just the two romantic leads but their friends, too.
If you could invite five celebrities, dead or alive, to a dinner party, whom would you choose?
It would be all Black women. Like an Oprah’s Legends Ball for the dead, like a séance. Octavia Butler, Claudia Jones, Nina Simone, my grandmother Sarah Lee Dunn — she died when my mother was 12, so I never knew her, but she’s one of those ancestors who’s always there, making sure everybody behaves right. I would invite Alice Coltrane. Maybe the musicians would give us a little something. Can I throw one more in there? Lorraine Hansberry. I think it would be a rousing political discussion. We would probably talk about hair, love, and heartbreak, the creative process, spirituality. A well-rounded dinner party.
Okay, so we’re at the Legends Ball Séance. What’s on the menu?
We’d have black-eyed peas, cornbread, and greens. It would be some down-home cooking but a little hifalutin shit, too, like maybe a whole branzino. There would definitely be Champagne. Some amazing type of cake, like a pound cake with icing. I would ask them to bring what they want, but we would also need a little bit of rum and cigars.
What’s the last thing you cooked for yourself?
I’ve been really trying to perfect a shrimp-creole recipe I saw on Instagram. Some deveined clean shrimp, crushed tomatoes, a bunch of seasonings, Old Bay, some Cajun crawfish, celery. I put additional vegetables in it; sometimes I’ll throw in zucchini. Shallots, garlic, bay leaves, hot sauce, over a bed of brown rice, stewed down. Almost like a gumbo.
Is there anything you would never watch?
I’m actually quite sensitive, and I know that’s crazy as somebody who makes these relentless kinds of psychologically challenging works. But I don’t like to watch horror or any kind of sexual assault. There’s a French film called Irréversible, and apparently it’s great but there’s a long sexual assault and a brutal beating in it. I started it, but I was like, Nope. I’m okay with missing out on certain Zeitgeist moments in order to preserve my sanity because I’m actually getting quite sensitive. I’ll have nightmares. I’ll kind of spiral a little bit if I watch something that is not edifying or that might be in any way disturbing or damaging. And that doesn’t mean I’m avoiding everything.
I don’t want to see a lot of gore, a lot of violence, a lot of death. I don’t want to re-traumatize anyone with my work, but there will be moments of discomfort, curiosity, confusion, and questioning as well as moments where you feel like you’ll be completely rocked at the bosom of the universe. You might hear things, we might discuss things, but we’re not going to engage with certain visuals. You can’t completely undo trauma, but there are ways to create new neural pathways in the mind to help you move beyond traumatic experiences you’ve lived through. Often, that is through a healing visual. If there’s a healing visual, it begs to reason that there is a damaging visual, so what happens when we see murder over and over?
Is there a piece of art you’ve recently acquired that feels healing or restorative or is just a favorite?
It’s not a piece of art, but I’m hoping to maybe turn it into a piece of art. Even if I don’t, it can rock how it is. It is an old church pew. It’s not very long; it’s shorter and old-school handmade. I saw it on Craigslist in Dallas and drove maybe 25 miles outside the city and strapped it to my Jeep Cherokee. I paid $200 for it, and it’s very stately. It’s in great condition. It reminds me of my childhood, of, like, a certain type of old Black woman. There are vibes coming off it. It’s inspiring. I look at it and see things. Like, I look at it and see, Oh, it could be this. I could do this to her.
There’s a metaphysical, spiritual component to your film, too. You include some interviews with Dr. Kokahvah Zauditu-Selassie, Mama Koko, talking about the seen and unseen worlds and explaining that duality or doppelgängers have been a positive part of African ideologies for centuries, rather than just being a defining characteristic of the modern Black person who has to sometimes exist in two worlds in a detrimental kind of way.
It’s like we’re existing not simply in the material world, but there’s also this other thing we can’t see, right? And that has been a part of African philosophy and spiritual cosmology for thousands of years. We spoke about ancestors. I’m here right now. When I pass away or if my ancestors have passed away, they are not gone, they still exist in a different place, and we have access to them. We make a space for them in our lives, and they show up in our lives and they guide us.
There is this connection to this idea of the hereafter; there’s this connection to a space even beyond Christianity. I was raised Christian, but Mama Koko and I are actually part of the same religious tradition and community — a West African–based, Yoruba-derived African traditional practice. Some people call it Lucumi or Santeria or candomblé. It is all about ancestral veneration. We come from a long line of people who have traditions and practices that extend back thousands of years, and we are connected to them; death does not separate us. There’s free will, of course, but they’re here to look after us. Mama Koko says you have to consider yourself on an errand for your ancestors. This life is not simply yours. You’re on assignment for those who came before you. That has been a guiding principle of my life. It was important for me to include and be in conversation with that for my film.
Do you have a favorite game you like to play?
“I don’t play games, I quit school because of recess” — my mama used to say that to me growing up. I’m a Southerner, there was always a saying being levied at you. I used to kill Tetris. I edit my own films, so this idea of fitting things together and creating this seamless path is so satisfying.
Now that we know you can cook, what would your last meal be?
I don’t want to make it seem like I’m out here really burning! I’m a southern woman, so it’s like saying, “Do you sing?” Well, yeah, I can hold a note, but I’m not Fantasia! I have a few dishes in my repertoire.
Okay, but even if you’re not cooking this one! It can be anything made by anyone.
I used to wait tables for several years. This is what I miss about New York, the food culture. I don’t remember the name of this place, but it’s French and there was a beautiful soup with various types of seafood, mussels, shrimp, you know, it had like a white-wine sauce. A bit of crostini sticking out of it. Really delicious, decadent. It was bourgeois, but it’s a soup, a stew. It felt kind of down-home. And a Kir Royale!
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.