‘Beba’ Review: A Raw Self-Portrait of a NYC-Born Afro-Latina Staring Down Generational Trauma

First-time filmmaker Rebeca “Beba” Huntt opens her eponymous debut “Beba” — a complicated and bold self-portrait, exploring identity, internalized anti-Blackness, and generational trauma — with a declarative statement: “You are now entering my universe.” Her world, initially, is visually translated via a shaky cam walking through a twisty, moss-smeared forest. A woozy horn hypnotizes over a collage of images: Huntt swaying to the sea, people at the beach, her hand in the sand — all shot on a gorgeous 16mm. Her spoken-word poetry, wherein she says “violence lives in my DNA,” lays the groundwork for the next 79 unflinching minutes.

Huntt was born in 1990; she is the product of generational soul-searching. Filmed over the course of eight years, “Beba” exists as a similar exploration. Huntt interviews her family, recalls her nascent college years, praises her friend group, and later shows the inequities of surrounding herself with college white (presumably) liberals. Without hesitation, she talks about her own shortcomings too. She does so with an assured hand, an open heart, and a heady way of seeing the world. But other parts of her are obscured, and those questions might leave one wanting.

Huntt splits her story into four parts: the first concerns her parents’ origins. They met in New York City, worked their entire lives to live by Central Park, eventually obtaining a rent-controlled one-room apartment for their three children. An undercurrent of voices disconnected from the images: vintage footage of 1970s NYC and pictures of her parents in their youth — are musically arranged in the verve of “Field Niggas” filmmaker Khalik Allah.

She interviews her gregarious father in Central Park. You can feel the easy rapport between them, which feels less father-daughter and more like best friends. Her father describes how his family emigrated to America to escape the rule of Rafael Trujillo in the Dominican Republic. Huntt knows the testier subjects in her family, what buttons to push: She asks her father why he kept their family in that one-room apartment, only for him to nearly break down as he explains why that place was the best he could afford. She holds the lens on him to catch the heartfelt moment, an acknowledgment of his role in shaping her difficult childhood.

Huntt carries the same tactic with her stern Venezuelan mother, a woman she has deeper issues with. In their confrontational interactions, you can see the total divide between generations. Huntt accuses her of using microaggressions, while in the past her mother blames her for snitching on her estranged brother Juancarlos following a terrible trip to Disney World. Huntt’s older sister has agoraphobia, hinting at a history of mental illness in her dysfunctional family who are more like a cadre of wounds unhealed, but appearing on top of newer wounds.

Huntt’s narrative words are always direct, while her DP Sophia Stieglitz’s eye captures the ways food is lovingly made by Huntt’s parents. The camera pans just over a bowl of creamy, egg yolks. It locks in on the gooey batter that spreads on the stone top. They reflect the traditions Huntt cherishes as an Afro-Latina. But her comfort with her identity is as fluid as the luscious batter. Huntt recalls her classmates calling her Frederick Douglass and how she got into an altercation after another classmate called her Black. Likewise, her mother told others not to talk about Huntt’s hair, as a method for protecting her, but also an acknowledgment of how colorism, itself a product of generational prejudice, can lead to discrimination by light-skinned Latinx folks toward Afro-Latinx people.

The filmmaker’s most complicated years as seen in the film’s third section occurred while attending Bard College during the aughts. The private institution boasts an esteemed array of alumni: Chevy Chase, Todd Haynes, Gia Copolla, to name a few. Watching Huntt’s footage from college, you’re struck by how many of her friends were white. Though she praises her friend group, any person of color who’s moved through white spaces, wonders when the other shoe will drop. There is a jaw-dropping scene wherein three college white kids argue for respectability politics to Huntt: how structural racism doesn’t exist anymore or how Black people shouldn’t violently protest. With each reaction shot, the camera captures Huntt’s quickly rising anger. And the parallels to the arguments that would surround the Black Lives Matter protests of 2020 are evident.

For Huntt, “Beba” is a time capsule. The film tracks where she started, along with how far she still needs to go when thinking about her identity. She talks of reading lists, of learning how different rules exist for Black people in white spaces than for anyone else, and the biting loneliness that comes from being the only one. An emotionally raw scene sees Huntt singing a fearful, sloppy karaoke following the suicide of her ex-boyfriend.

Huntt doesn’t have all the answers: She’s clearly working through portions of herself. While some space in the brief runtime remains for her to carve out how she thinks of herself in these non-Black spaces, it’s the painstaking self-exploration she takes, to this point, that really makes this film worthwhile. “Beba” is a fascinating self-journal, a work about family, isolation, existing within America, and existing as who you are, that takes no prisoners and leaves plenty of casualties.

Grade: B+

“Beba” world-premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival. It is currently seeking U.S. distribution.

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