This article puts forward a consideration of Black womanhood by looking at the softcore films starring African American trans model and actress, Ajita Wilson. Wilson starred in many European softcore and hardcore films from the 1970s until her death in 1987. The author is particularly interested in Wilson's 1976 film The Nude Princess and the 1977 film Black Afrodite (Mavri Afroditi) for their use of soul aesthetics. Conceptualized in dialogue with Tanisha Ford's discussion of “soul style,” soul aesthetics are a combination of gestures as well as visual and auditory references in dress, music, literature, and language that were generated by Black people during a period of African and Caribbean anticolonialism and liberatory Black civil rights movements. Because they were born from radical movement politics, these references have transnationally come to symbolize the possibility for Black collective and self-transformation. The author offers an analysis of these films as an example of softcore pornography affirming Black womanhood and focuses on what this process of self-making has to offer Black trans and queer feminist thought.
I first learned of Ajita Wilson in Monica Roberts's (2012) blogpost in TransGriot. Little is known about Wilson aside from the information presented on Roberts's blog, as well as what is available on the website Cult Sirens (2019) and Wilson's IMDB page. Wilson was a Black trans woman who began her career as a performer in New York's red light district in the early 1970s. She had gender-affirming surgery in the mid-seventies and was subsequently recruited into the pornography industry, starring in European hardcore and softcore films and working as a model. She gathered a loyal following of fans before dying of a brain hemorrhage in 1987, the result of a car accident. I have not been able to locate any interviews or writing by her about her life or career. Her film performances make up the only accessible archive of Wilson's life.
Wilson was not an activist in the ways that we have seen from Black trans women in the past decade. She did not publicly disclose that she was trans before she died, and Roberts (2012) laments, “It sure would have been nice to know that Ajita Wilson was also a girl like us, too.” Roberts's lament is reminiscent of scholar Jennifer Nash's (2016) search for trailblazing 1970s Black porn star Desiree West. In her essay, Nash interviews West but ultimately finds more insight in analyzing the film archive of West's work. Wilson's film archive may similarly help us think about Black womanhood as her work challenges us to think about how one “becomes” a Black woman. I do not mean to suggest that the gendered act of becoming is reserved for trans women, but that Black womanhood generally does not come from being Black and assigned female at birth. Rather, it is forged through a variety of experiences, histories, and circumstances. As a trans person who is perceived to have a stable gender, I find it important to interrogate how Black gender is constructed and claimed.
In her 1987 book Reconstructing Womanhood, Hazel V. Carby deconstructs the ways that Black women of the nineteenth century confronted dominant ideologies of womanhood. She “traces these ideologies of womanhood as they were adopted, adapted and transformed . . . to produce an alternative discourse of Black womanhood” (6). Similarly, Black trans women have long had to confront and transform the “biological” definition of “woman.” They have worked against the dominant social understanding that womanhood is a series of experiences leading from girlhood to adulthood based on physical maturation (e.g., getting one's period, the growth of breasts, etc.) and have shown that the path to self-defined girlhood and womanhood is creative and has as many variations as there are people.1 While notable Black trans women, such as Janet Mock and Laverne Cox, have made space for themselves as activists and professionals in the entertainment industry, other paths to self-affirmed womanhood have included participation in the entertainment industry in ways that are less respectable and more “illicit” (see Miller-Young 2014).
The burgeoning field of Black transgender studies underscores the importance of looking at Black trans women's lives and representations as a heretofore missing cornerstone of Black feminisms. As CeCe McDonald (2017: 254) states in an appeal to the sisters of the “transnation”: “I use the term woman broadly to express all women and not having to put ‘trans’ in front of the term. We are all WOMEN, be it that that's what you identify as.” McDonald's Black trans feminist writing emphasizes a collectivity among women according to identity while insisting on the salience of Black experience for all women. As noted in the introduction to the special issue of TSQ titled “The Issue of Blackness,” “Black is a modifier that changes everything” (Ellison et al. 2017: 166).
In 1960s and 1970s Blaxploitation soul cinema, cisgender Black women had to negotiate the organizing principle of Black insatiable sexuality and compulsory heterosexuality. At the same time, these representations transformed how we understand the possibilities for Black womanhood. More than just exploited and oversexualized, Blaxploitation's best-known woman characters—Foxy Brown, Cleopatra Jones, and Sheba, for example—are also kick-ass icons of Black womanhood. In the same time period, Wilson also found womanly affirmation through the illicit personae of the (softcore) porn star, utilizing the momentum of Blaxploitation as a way to mobilize her career in Europe.
The Black language through which Wilson explored “gender's power to mean” (Higginbotham 1992: 257) was the Black Atlantic aesthetic vocabulary of soul. The convergence of intellectuals, activists, and artists in the 1960s and 1970s gave rise to a cultural movement that referenced a distinctive set of gestures, music, hairstyles, clothing, language, and resistant politics attributed to Black people, vernacularly known at the time as “soul style,” according to Tanisha C. Ford (2017: 1). This confluence of practices is often most popularly remembered through the film movement known as Blaxploitation that arose from these broader circumstances. Although most closely associated with African American life, soul, both in its aesthetics and politics, had (and still has) a global reach. As noted by Cynthia A. Young (2006: 3), the “innovative stylistics” of the soul era was inspired by and in dialogue with cultural and political movements across Africa and Asia.
An acknowledgment of soul's influence puts the work of someone like Ajita Wilson into context and opens the door for considering the relationship between Blaxploitation and European cinema. Even though Blaxploitation has its own history, soul was a broader movement that I call soul cinema, which includes Blaxploitation and also identifies these aesthetics in films made outside the United States. As an African American actress in European film, Wilson triggers a transatlantic conversation concerning Black representation, commanding the screen with strength and grace like any Blaxploitation heroine of the time. Her characters have some control over their circumstances as they initiate action or refuse and withhold on their own terms. The soul aesthetics of her films become a practice of self-creation.
Is it possible to further open up the definition of Black womanhood to one that is more “broadly defined” by trans experience? What does it mean for a Black trans woman to use the aesthetics of soul cinema to reconstruct womanhood on her own terms despite exploitation? I argue that European softcore allowed Wilson to enter the representational field in ways that were not open to her in the US context, thereby situating the process of redefining Black womanhood as a transnational project. It is a process that also required her to carve out some dignity, given the racism and misogyny of the genre. In what follows I explore the films Black Afrodite (Filippou 1977) and The Nude Princess (Canevari 1976) for their potential to redefine Black womanhood through moments of discomfort and refusal.
Set in North American metropolises, Blaxploitation films offered gritty representations of African American political contexts and fantasies of renegotiated urban dynamics of power. Made with predominantly Black casts for Black audiences, they featured Black protagonists in action-packed fights against corrupt antagonistic forces such as the police and drug runners or other criminals. Beginning with such iconic films as Cotton Comes to Harlem (dir. Ossie Davis, 1970), Sweet Sweetback's Baadassss Song (dir. Melvin Van Peebles, 1971), Shaft (dir. Gordon Parks, 1971), and Superfly (Gordon Parks Jr., 1972), Blaxploitation-era films were known for the soul aesthetics of the time, featuring Black women in roles that were often centered on men's lives and their sexual prowess. For Black women, to be seen is to be always wanting and always available for heterosexual contact and male violence.
As laden with homophobic and misogynist elements as Blaxploitation is, the genre has also been used to imagine Black womanhood in other terms. Nicole Fleetwood's landmark study of Black women's representations interrogates the dominant ideology of Black women, as well as what Black women create, given the constraints of a context of domination. She argues that Black female artists enact a “technique and a discursive intervention” to resist dominant ideologies of Black femaleness as “excess.” As a vehicle for such discursive intervention, soul has been at the core of Black women's self-imagining and representation since it emerged as a cultural phenomenon in the 1960s and 1970s. Soul cinema—in this case, Blaxploitation—offered the opportunity to be part of a sisterhood of performers who carved a place for themselves in an overwhelmingly male field of representation. Wearing bell-bottoms and accompanied by funk scores, Black women became materially connected in a transnational constellation of Black women through markers of Blackness such as hair, food, clothing, and music (Ford 2017: 5).
Although not explicitly part of the American Blaxploitation film movement, Wilson is part of this legacy of Black-specific, sexually explicit print culture, and her films are in conversation with Blaxploitation film and what Mireille Miller-Young (2014: 84) has termed “soul porn.” Wilson was named “Beauty of the Week” in a 1981 issue of Jet magazine, featured as a cover pinup girl in the 1983 Players magazine calendar, and, that same year, graced the cover of Players magazine.2 As L. H. Stallings (2015: 67) discusses in Funk the Erotic, Players was a pivotal magazine in its focus on “Black bodies, Black men's and women's sexual desires [and] Black cultural representations of sex.” Not only did Wilson appear in these Black venues at the height of the feminist backlash against pornography, but she also did her part to upend what kinds of Black womanhood were considered beautiful, sexy, and part of the multiplicity of Black embodiment. Although Wilson was not in control of the physical apparatus of the films in which she performed, she used the technology of visual representation to reveal the gaps in dominant understandings of Black womanhood as excess. I do not mean to imply here that Wilson's performance in softcore films is unproblematically resistant. Rather, I am interested in how Wilson's position as a 1970s and 1980s softcore porn icon puts her in the throes of controversy regarding Black women's hypersexuality and hypervisibility, as evident in Blaxploitation-era cinematic representations. Wilson's performances, I argue, challenge Black feminism to acknowledge the realm of the (hyper)sexual as a place of self-making for Black women, trans or not (Miller-Young 2014: 204). By self-making, I mean that the work allowed Wilson to be empowered as well as exploited and degraded. Finding dignity and pleasure in difficult or painful situations is part of the self-making process. Wilson made refusal of other people's definitions a part of her art, giving erotic and engaging performances in often racist and misogynist scripts and transphobic working environments.
Wilson constructs herself as a Black woman in European cinema at a pivotal point in its history. In the wake of World War II, the 1960s ushered in a tide of full-blown, sexually explicit low-budget films that explored unconventional sexualities and sexual arrangements and were dubbed sexploitation, a subgenre of the exploitation era of the 1970s. Made independent of the Hollywood system, sexploitation films were, as film scholar Eric Schaefer (1999: 8) explains, “salacious and suggestive but not overtly pornographic,” meaning they contained simulated sex scenes. In general, exploitation films are known for shocking content, low production values, and cut-rate dialogue. Sexploitation encompasses all of these elements along with gratuitous nudity and sex, often mixed with violence. While the genre's treatment of women remains controversial, filmmaker and artist Anna Biller sees sexploitation as focused exclusively on women's pleasure and, to this end, invested in completely sexualizing protagonists of both genders (Gorfinkel 2011: 137).
Wilson's career was part of the then-growing French, Spanish, Greek, and Italian participation in European sexploitation film. It was also part of the arrival of Blaxploitation cinema in Europe. For example, Rosetta Giuliani Caponetto (2012: 191) states that Blaxploitation came to Italy in the 1970s with the arrival of Eritrean model and actress Zeudi Araya “as an erotic icon in Italian culture.” Caponetto suggests that the Italian fascination with Araya reflected an older colonial desire for Black women. Araya starred in a number of exotic softcore films (known as “filme erotico esotico” ), mostly as a sophisticated femme fatale. Her roles were a departure from the majority of Italian filmic representations of Black women, whom Caponetto sees only as victims of the camera. According to the 2016 documentary Blaxploitalian by Afro-Italian Filmmaker Fred “Kudja” Kuwornu, people of African descent have been part of Italian cinema as far back as 1915. Usually cast in roles consistent with those of other Western film industries, Black actors primarily played background characters such as domestic servants, street criminals, and hustlers. One interviewee states that Blacks were presented as always “unfortunate and destitute, illiterate or ignorant” (Kuwornu 2016).
Wilson joins Araya as being representative of Black women's sexuality and femininity in Italian cinema in the 1970s. Unlike the majority of Black actors in European film, neither Wilson nor Araya suffered the fate of desexualized background characters. Their position as erotic artists meant that films were often built around their performance of sensuality. Even Caponetto (2012: 194) admits that other female critics conceded “that women were the true protagonists of [sexploitation] films released” in the 1970s.
The following films are two examples of Wilson's talents as an actress. Although she had a relatively short career, she was a prolific actress with at least forty-eight non-hardcore films to her credit, starting with The Nude Princess in 1976 and finishing with La bottega del placere, which was released in 1988, one year after her death. Wilson's career took off in 1977 with the release of Black Afrodite along with five other films. The low production values and often crude storylines made for a fast production pace, allowing Wilson to gain a great deal of film experience in a short period of time. While these films were released in general theaters in Europe and the United States, exploitation films had their own specialty venues in urban areas, called “grind house” theaters (Church 2011: 1). Even though grind houses did swift business by selling cheap tickets and having long hours, they were disparaged by critics. As David Church (2011: 18) describes, “Film critics typically understood the films playing in grind houses as culturally low.” By the late 1980s, these independently owned theaters had all but disappeared, and sexploitation films gained a new life through the home-video market.
Today, Black Afrodite remains one of the most widely distributed Greek DVDs of all time (Papadimitriou and Tzioumakis 2012: 211–12). The success of the film is indicative of Wilson's gifted performance range. In roles ranging from sadistic prison warden to crime boss to African diplomat, Wilson was able to approach her characters with an authority that came from her talent as an artist. In addition, thanks to Black liberation movements around the diaspora and the soul aesthetics that came from them, the “black body, especially for African Americans, now represented a new image of self-determined and dynamic erotic force” (Miller-Young 2014: 67).
Black Afrodite opens with an uncut shot of a New York City street reminiscent of the opening scenes of Blaxploitation classics Shaft and Superfly. The camera's downward gaze on the city, followed rapidly by a shot of Wilson's character, Tamara, ostensibly in one of the buildings shown, indicates the film's vision of Tamara as a figure who represents Black mobility and cosmopolitanism (a position that Wilson's character shares in The Nude Princess). As the camera looks down on a nude Wilson, she is both completely vulnerable to the camera's gaze and positioned as the main female character of the film. She is immediately presented as an exciting figure not only because of her nudity but also because her phone conversation reveals that she is a high-ranking member of an international crime syndicate. Other Blaxploitation films with female protagonists such as Foxy Brown, Coffy, and Cleopatra Jones figure the US state, either in the form of the police or a secret spy organization, as having some redeeming qualities in local communities and/or globally. Black Afrodite, however, works in the world of established crime networks without the pretense of state sponsorship or cooperation. Tamara has no loyalties to state agencies such as the police and works in an extralegal entity that positions her as the focus of female empowerment and transnational agency. Unencumbered by a traditional allegiance to the United States, or any other heteropatriarchal nation-state, Tamara is comfortable in the nude. While it is unclear until the end of the film whether she is in collaboration with the people killing members of her organization, like any good soul heroine, she remains unfazed by the increasing action around her.
In Black Afrodite, white male power is simultaneously a force of violence and of pleasure for Tamara. Most of the film is set far from the predominantly Black American Blaxploitation landscapes of Los Angeles and New York, in the rich villas, small towns, and ancient ruins of Greece. There, Tamara encounters white male domination as a source of limitation, regulation, and dismissal as well as desire, pleasure, and affirmation. As Caponetto (2012: 194–95) points out, when Black women appear in European cinema of the time, “the camera lens is consumed by and consumes the black female body, cutting it into pieces and transforming it into the bait that attracted the . . . [white] male audience to the theater.” Although other women appear in the film, Wilson is constantly marked as the most beautiful and sexually active female character—the Black Afrodite.
Black Afrodite enters the genre through the image of the Black woman action hero and stages sex centered on Tamara's pleasures and whims. In Black Afrodite, Wilson reworks the Black heroine into an elegant crime boss who has control over the men through her relationship with the second in command of a powerful syndicate. She does not kick butt or pull out a gun from her Afro, but she does assert her authority and sexual autonomy. Queer feminist critique, such as Nash's Black Body in Ecstasy (2014), has argued that porn can represent a Black womanhood in ways not always dependent on manhood, demonstrating strength and erotic power in its own right. Nash (2014: loc. 1619) discusses these elements, as well as the troubled dynamics between Black men and women, in the soul porn film Lialeh, where the “collision of the Blaxploitation and the pornographic” can provide a setting for the failure of “hyper-phallic aesthetics” and the “myth of black phallic power.” Nash focuses on moments of failure of Black “phallic triumph,” which open up a space to “capture [Black] female pleasures” (2014: loc. 1608).
While in the soul porn that Nash describes, Black men are at the center of the screen and narrative, in Black Afrodite, the Black male character remains on the periphery and has very few lines or screen time. Instead, the film focuses exclusively on white men's and Black women's pleasures with each other. The Black male character is not a sexual being but a foil for white male dominance. As a matter of fact, Tamara is uncomfortable with the only other Black character, Frank. The film allows for little intimacy between its Black characters, and there is very limited interaction between the two beyond a single scene in the film. Not a sex scene or even a scene with sexual chemistry, this interaction is a dialogue in which both critique racism. This is also the scene that is most closely aligned with Blaxploitation's principle of racial commentary.
The scene unfolds as Tamara arrives to meet the men under her command. On the way to this meeting she finds the dead body of another member of the syndicate and, unmoved, closes the door with a coldness that signals her “toughness” in the face of danger, seemingly remaining unworried that she might be the next one killed. Towering over the meeting in her white backless silk jumper, she is taller than most of the men in the room as she boldly interrupts an in-progress gathering of the group. The other members initially reject her entry into the space and therefore into the group as she is immediately met with sexist and racist derision. One man steps forward and says, “I'm looking forward to working together. I always wondered what it would be like to get it on with a Black chick. This must be my lucky day.” His desire to “get it on” suggests that her body is available to him by virtue of her Blackness, but Tamara towers over him as she undermines his assumption and embarrasses him in front of the other men. Walking right up to his face, she puts her finger on his chin and says, “I like your sense of humor, Jack. You've got a reputation for being a real smart-ass honky.” Frank uses this opportunity to further criticize the racism and sexism of the white male group member's statement: “Poor little white boy. Nobody ever taught him any manners.” Frank's reference to the white man as “boy” goes against the belittling gesture of referring to Black men as “boys.” Despite this interchange of racial solidarity, Tamara and Frank are uncomfortable with each other. Tamara shares racial commentary with Frank by calling the white man a “honky,” but she does not look at Frank during the conflict. Their interaction may be about resistance to racism, but they are distanced by gender and sexual desire.
As this scene exemplifies, Black Afrodite has an uncomfortable relationship to Blackness. Because it is never an option for Tamara to be Frank's sexual partner, the film fails to fulfill Blaxploitation and soul porn expectations of a black sexual relationship. However, the film does fulfill the white male fantasy of displacing Black masculinity. Even before the Black male character is easily killed off, Tamara's exclusive desires are for white men. Concurrently, she is also the object of the white men's desire to “get it on with a Black chick.” Wilson's position in the film as the “Black chick” you want to “get it on with” is a point of establishing her as a Black woman inasmuch as Black womanhood is riddled with experiences and representations of racist sexism, what Moira Bailey has termed misogynoir (2016).
At the same time as Tamara is isolated from Blackness and placed as the object of white men's desires, she is the one who initiates all of her sex in this film. Both sexploitation and Blaxploitation rely on sensuous touch as part of the foundations of their aesthetics. This representation of a Black woman who is able to impact her world, be sexual, and still be the hero is part of how soul aesthetics promote Black freedom, even if on a limited basis. Tamara uses sensuous touch to establish herself as an independent, sexually free Black woman. Toward the middle of the film, Tamara initiates an encounter with a man on a train heading to some Greek ruins. She seduces him with her eyes and touch as she clings to him on the moving train. Typically, the Blaxploitation heroine is always working for someone else, her man, her sister, or the cause. Often an avenger, she is rarely the avenged. She is often associated with a committed (Black) partner, but Tamara does something that the heroines of Blaxploitation are not supposed to do, which is to have pleasure on her own terms and not for anybody else.
The Nude Princess
Despite Caponetto's observations about the colonial roots of Italian fascinations with Black women, Wilson did not portray a helpless victim of the camera. She occupies the frame and performs with the highest degree of dignity possible in the limited world of the film. Unlike in Black Afrodite, Wilson's character in The Nude Princess is not an action heroine. The title character, Mariam, is an introverted figure who is constantly beset with the gaze and fantasies of the white people surrounding her. In her performance, Wilson is able to refuse the torrent of white consumptive need for her body, deflecting their colonial fantasies. What may seem to be passivity is an active anticolonial strategy. As Miller-Young (2014: 28) has pointed out, Black women have always seized opportunities to “refuse” and “deflect” the techniques of power used against them for their own purposes. Deployed differently than the rugged maneuvers of the anticolonial heroes of Blaxploitation, Wilson's emotional withholding in The Nude Princess undermines the colonial project in another way.
A figure of transnational Black success, Mariam is a US-trained lawyer and diplomat for her fictional African homeland, Tasmalia. Despite her political position, she is rumored to have no sexual boundaries, and, according to the lead white male character of the film, she is the “symbol of pornography.” When we actually meet Mariam, she is a dispassionate, yet skilled political negotiator as well as emotionally (and sexually) unresponsive as a result of trauma. Mariam is at once the opposite of nude, often dressed in sexually conservative clothes, yet imagined by the characters as always potentially naked. Here, in the difference between nude and naked is the untouchable nude princess, reminiscent of the artistic nude, aloof and beautiful. This image is set alongside the insatiable Black woman, forever accessible, especially to white masculinity. In this film Wilson's character is surrounded by people who want nothing more than to have her submit to them. Her act of refusal in response to their advances is an example of soul as a vehicle for the refusal of white desire.
In the opening scene, two white Italian reporters discuss the arrival of the Nude Princess over drinks. One convinces the other that Mariam is the signifier of sex, and that he is determined to catch her in the act of debauchery. The reporter states, “In America they call her the Nude Princess, a symbol of pornography. . . . A woman like that can't say no.” From the outset, the film suggests that the Nude Princess will be uncontrollably sexual and ready for white male consumption, promising a version of Black sexuality that is easily consumable for the target Italian audience.
The film, however, generates contradictory emotions over the dynamics of Mariam's desire for white characters coupled with a disdain on her part for sex. Even as Mariam is vulnerable to violence, she is able to scorn the advances of a variety of white suitors who think of her as inherently sexual and easily available despite her position as a diplomatic liaison. This includes the white woman who is assigned to assist her in her negotiations, Mrs. Foggett. Mrs. Foggett, who at first dismisses Mariam as “some African,” later becomes obsessed with her. She admires her business and negotiation skills and even says that she is a role model for women. Eventually, Mrs. Foggett admits to desiring Mariam sexually and that she is the only one on her mind, frustrating her to a furious frenzy and leading her to bite Mariam on the neck, drawing blood. Mrs. Foggett's lapse in comportment literalizes Mariam as an object of consumption.
At another moment, there are several men representing various rival Italian business interests who gather before a meeting with her. Before she enters the room, the men discuss her body. One states, “Who are we dealing with? Just a bunch of African peasants.” Once Mariam arrives, they whisper to themselves, “What a piece of ass. . . . What I wouldn't do to a woman like that.” Each man assumes that she is available to fulfill their desires.
To the surprise of the men and woman who want to reduce her to their own desires, Mariam is not interested in any of them, and it is gratifying to see the white characters sexually frustrated by her. All they can do is look, but they do not have her attention or access to her body. She does not give the camera the satisfaction of looking back at white people with desiring eyes. Her look seems forced and her eyes tired. Mariam's refusal of white advances symbolizes her refusal to be consumed by white colonial desires.
Early scenes of The Nude Princess are set in the dangerous and morally bankrupt African country of Tasmalia, ruled by a rapacious dictator named Kaboto. The first time we see Mariam, a close-up shows the back of her neck as she stands in the dictator's presence. Black men surround Kaboto as he sits at a desk in military uniform being fanned by two white men. Three Black men stand in the background, and another man sits beside Miriam in a black-and-white striped buba. Kaboto, we learn from the dialogue between the two white men in the beginning of the film, controls Mariam sexually. It is clear from this scene that he is also insane with power.
Given this warped view of Africa and its predatory masculinity, Mariam is almost entirely alone to defend herself against the onslaught of white desire throughout the film. Another Black woman in the film, Linda, is confident of Mariam's potential to experience love and encourages her to become more in touch with her feelings. While she too desires a sexual encounter with Mariam, she is also the only character in the film to encourage Mariam to have her own wants and needs. In one scene, the women are alone, and Linda tenderly strokes Mariam's thighs, but her efforts at seduction are interrupted twice: once by white people entering the room and another time by a phone call from Kaboto who reminds Mariam that he has complete control over her. Mariam and Linda are caught between white desire and Black male dominance.
To break this impasse, Linda arranges for Mariam to attend an “African” ritual intended to exorcise the bad memories that have kept her from fully enjoying a full range of emotions. They arrive at a room that is above street level and move into a circle of drummers and participants. As an integrated ritual, Black and white people sit in a circle around a fire in the middle of the room. The people in the circle participate in various forms of vaguely imagined “African” actions: one person runs around the fire in a mask while the other participants throw dolls onto the flames and dance furiously. Scantily clad and topless women writhe around on the floor and take off their clothes in a frenzy. Somehow in this chaos, Mariam has a flashback of Kaboto taking a Black lover off of her while they were having sex. He forces Mariam to castrate her lover while Kaboto watches. The memory makes her start screaming and run out of the ritual.
This elaborate scene is the instantiation of Miriam's inability to feel pleasure and results in a sweep of negative emotions. As she relives the memory, her body contorts and her face cringes in agony. This shot of a Black woman screaming on-screen, surrounded by “primitives,” reprises recognizable filmic distortions of the Black image. Mariam is positioned in misogynoir filmic conventions of Black womanhood through her representation both as a wanton sexual “savage” who juggles multiple sexual partners and as the literal castrator of Black manhood.
The Nude Princess's castration flashback recalls the 1974 Blaxploitation classic, Foxy Brown (Hill 1974), whose heroine (played by the consummate Pam Grier) commissions the castration of the white female antagonist's white boyfriend. But The Nude Princess references Foxy Brown's castration scene to create a story about Black depravity. In Foxy Brown, Grier's character orchestrates the castration of a white male in retaliation for the death of a black man. In the Nude Princess, a black woman is also responsible for castration, but the symbolism is flipped. Instead of the feeling of retribution for white racism that punctuates Foxy Brown, Miriam feels culpable for her part in destroying the life of a Black man. Mariam's literalized injury to Black phallic power, though, does not leave her sexually accessible to all white men as the journalist and other men in the film assume. Instead, she retains the power to refuse their advances, choosing for herself when and where she claims pleasure.
In the last scene, Miriam grabs the white reporter who had been interested in her since the film's opening dialogue and initiates sex with him in the airport. The reporter follows her throughout the film, begging her to fulfill his fantasy of the insatiable Black woman. He anticipates that eventually she will succumb to someone's sexual advances, and, finally, she does. Scripted as a moment of unbridled passion, Mariam's final sex scene nonetheless fails in depicting white phallic prowess and power as Wilson's close-ups lack any expression of satisfaction. In fact, her face betrays very little emotion, just as it had throughout. The film's desire to portray Mariam as totally unable to resist white manhood is undermined by Wilson's performance, which asserts a final refusal to give a presumed white male audience the gratification of her submission to white desire.
One of the hallmarks of Blaxploitation is the search for exalted African origins, which often manifests itself in the appropriation of African-themed clothing and natural hair coupled with some form of return, as in Shaft in Africa (1973). Shaft is surrounded by the aesthetics of traditional African clothing and hairstyles, which is also reflected in his medium-sized afro, all of which symbolize a strong political consciousness and anticolonial mission.
The Nude Princess similarly gestures toward anticolonialism through Mariam's beautiful wardrobe, which frames her as an anticolonial resister. In many scenes, she is covered in long, luxurious dresses and robes: a white dress and a white cape with gold embroidery, an ankle-length silk peach lounging brocade dress with a multicolored African-inspired pattern. In an early scene, two white Italian men are on the phone discussing the upcoming negotiations with Mariam. One says, “Italy must enter new markets for the health of its economic well-being.” It is Mariam's body and her emotions that the men and the white woman in the film try to colonize. But Mariam is a staid negotiator and critic of the Italian (and by extension European) colonial relationship to continental Africa. Although not the kick-butt style of most Blaxploitation heroines, Mariam has strength and ease, which squarely pits her against the colonial mapping of her body.
In both films, soul aesthetics help set the platform for representing a Black womanhood that refuses as well as initiates her own pleasure. Tamara and Mariam share a penchant for style, attitude, and actions that resist white male totalizing control. For Wilson, the collision of European sexploitation with US Blaxploitation situated her trans body at the center of both a transnational Black sexual revolution and an anticolonial resistance to oppressive forces. Wilson's work in Europe is in conversation with the politically inspired film movements in the United States that made it possible to represent Black women who were not defined in terms of white patriarchal demands. Soul aesthetics make room for someone to claim Black womanhood that is not based solely on heterosexual marriage and biological reproduction, but in terms of the ability to have control over one's body and desires.
One of the questions I began with was, what does it mean for a Black trans woman to use the aesthetics of soul cinema to reconstruct womanhood on her own terms despite exploitation? Wilson had a brief but rich film career during which she was able to represent Black womanhood on her own terms. For Wilson, that meant that her fans did not necessarily know about her trans history. On-screen, she was Ajita, a Black woman. That did not mean that her professional experience was devoid of transphobia. While I could not find any interviews with Wilson herself, I did find an interview with Spanish film director Jess Franco (aka Jesús Franco), which is included as a DVD extra for the film Sadomania (Franco 2013).
Franco was known for his large oeuvre of mainly sexploitation films, and it is clear from his recollections of her that he had some affection for Wilson. It is also clear that she had to deal with a mixture of sexism, racism, and transphobia on set. In Sadomania (Franco 1981), Wilson plays a cruel, lecherous prison matron who seduces and sadistically toys with the unsuspecting women who are captured and brought to a remote Spanish prison camp for physical and sexual labor. Franco describes Wilson as “adorable and sweet and sensitive,” which is why he thought she did not do a very good job in the role. To compensate, he “played up the tall, black and dangerous woman aspect,” relying on imagined masculinization and fear of Black women's sexuality to guide his directorial strategy. Midway through the interview, Franco slips into male pronouns for Wilson:
I had a small problem at the end of the shoot because he made the mistake of drinking alcohol once and his tits started moving around, dislodging themselves, because they were made of plastic or glycerine or something. They were moving around, and he didn't notice. But otherwise, I didn't care if he was a transsexual or not. The results are there. The only thing I care about in a film are the results on the screen, not people's personal secrets.
Franco's account raises questions about how Wilson was treated by her costars and crew. How did she feel about being exposed in such a physical way? What were the expectations placed on her as a Black trans woman to perform a certain kind of womanhood? How much of her on-screen presence was a deliberate refusal of masculinization?
I have approached Wilson's work in the way that she represented herself: as a woman who did not put “trans” out front in her public personae, as Roberts noted. Wilson did not explicitly claim to be an activist or role model for other trans women. She was someone who represented Black womanhood transnationally and affirmed herself as such unapologetically. The fact that Wilson did not announce herself as representing trans femininity in her roles goes against current assumptions about resistance. To some, laying claim to a category like womanhood capitulates to the status quo in collusion with one's own oppression. In the “Posttranssexual Manifesto,” Sandy Stone (1992: 165) writes, “To attempt to occupy a place as speaking subject within the traditional gender frame is to become complicit in the discourse which one wishes to deconstruct.” However, Black people have never been afforded the luxury of being recognized as having traditional genders. Wilson ultimately took on the long-standing tradition of Black women whom Carby describes as women who construct Black womanhood as a life-affirming category.
The emphasis here is that these are categories of self-definition and creativity and are not fixed in any one kind of body, whether or not socially recognized as “woman.”
I have mostly come to evidence of Wilson's pinup in Players from third party sellers on platforms such as Amazon (e.g., www.amazon.com/s?k=Ajita+wilson+players&ref=nb_sb_nos, accessed January 8, 2010).