Arts & Entertainment
4 min

Talking about kyisha williams’ red lips

Toronto filmmaker's short film premieres in Ottawa

Credit: Promotional photo

There is nothing like red lipstick: it can be bold, strong, fun, sexy and lively.

But, as many femmes have experienced, it can also be read completely wrong. Especially so when it comes to criminalized or stereotyped identities, including sex workers and people of colour.
Red lips are sometimes taken to mean “I want you.” This misreading of identity and intent is one of the many reasons Toronto and community organizer kyisha williams made her 16-minute short, Red Lips.
The film was created as part of Inside Out’s Legacy Video Project for its 20th anniversary edition.
Xtra’s Luna Allison chatted with williams ahead of the Ottawa debut of Red Lips on Nov 19, which is part of a weekend-long gathering called Neo-Negritude Expressions: Reclaiming Black Sexualities.
Luna Allison: In a post about the Neo-Negritudes weekend, a blogger named Billie_Blue, of the InSol Collective, speaking about black women’s sexualities, said, “We are rarely the architects of our own sexual stories and experts in our experiences.” Has that been true in your experience? Is that one of the themes that made you want to make Red Lips?
kyisha williams: Yeah, for sure. I think that people make a lot of assumptions about the things that I’m doing and what they mean. In the film, I talk a little bit about how I came to start wearing red lipstick. It was a really hard thing for me. I had made this decision when I was a really young girl that, well, my lips are too big and I can’t call more attention to them . . . Later on, when I was an adult, I thought, ‘Hey, why don’t I do this?’ and I remembered. It just popped up as a memory, the reason why I wasn’t doing that. I thought to myself, ‘That’s totally racist! I should totally do this if that’s something I want to do. My lips are beautiful, and they can be accentuated!’ and all of this stuff. Obviously, I had that knowledge [only] later on in life. When I did start wearing red lipstick, people reacted really weirdly to it. Men on the street would catcall and be really forceful. I would reject them, and they didn’t understand. They would get upset. It was like, ‘I’m wearing red lipstick, but it doesn’t mean that I’m available to you. It doesn’t mean all of these things that you think it means.’ For me, wearing red lipstick is an anti-racist statement.
As in, I claim this body as mine?
. . . and I’m sexy, and I get to do what I want with my body. It’s not necessarily for you. It’s for me, or for the people that I find sexually attractive.
I haven’t had a chance to see your film, but in reading about it, it made me think about how misunderstood the combination of femininity and power can be. That it can be about selfhood rather than the other. I was wondering if you could talk about how the other themes of your film, like criminalization, violence and the justice system, come into that.
Some of the ways that women, and women sex workers in particular, take power is seen as very threatening and is just stigmatized. The person who the film was going to be based on, she was fleeing violence in her home. She left home and was homeless, and sex work was one of the only things she had available to her. To her, sex working was extremely powerful. It meant that she was able to live on her own and claim her body as her own and fight back against the abuse that she was facing at home. It’s very linked to power and agency — being able to do work to sustain yourself. Specifically, stripping — she was a stripper. I hear people say, ‘They don’t have self-esteem.’ They don’t think they’re powerful. It’s like, are you serious? Do you know how much gall and power it takes to get up onstage and dance naked in front of people?
In another interview about Red Lips, you mentioned the New Jersey Four as an example of just how threatened the justice system is by black women living an unapologetic sexuality — were they one of the inspirations for the film?
I would say it was one of the inspirations for the film. It was originally supposed to be about one woman. I was just going to tell one woman’s story, but she had to pull out. So [instead] I wanted to grab a few different examples of similar things that [had] happened to her . . . so I pulled together a bunch of different stories. The New Jersey Four was one of those stories. It was definitely part of the inspiration.
Just one example amongst many that you had witnessed or heard about or experienced?
Yeah. Another one, which is related to the New Jersey Four, and I found this out later, after making the film. I don’t know if you’ve heard of Sakia Gunn? She was, I believe, 15 years old. A few years before all the shit went down with the New Jersey Four, she was murdered in a similar circumstance. She was walking down the street, some guy hit on her, she said that she was queer and he actually killed her. A really, really intense story, and [the New Jersey Four] were friends with her. That kind of just heightened everything that happened later when some guy was being homophobic with them . . .The tension was just so high from the other incident. It adds another layer to the story.
What kind of feedback have you received about the film so far?
Pretty positive feedback so far. I think that I did deal with a lot in 16 minutes, but that’s because there’s a lot that goes on. There’s a lot of really complicated intersections that I wanted to talk about, so I had to introduce a few different ideas — like the prison industrial complex and femme identity and femme as power and anti-black racism and transphobia and (trans)misogyny. I had to bridge all of these things and weave them together. For us, it’s daily, and we understand that all of these things are connected because we experience them as connected every single day. But I needed to flesh everything out for some people who don’t experience the same things that we do.
The Deets:

Ottawa premiere of Red Lips 
kyisha williams
Sat, Nov 19, 7pm
Venus Envy
320 Lisgar St