Chatting with Martha Southgate
Martha Southgate never got to see Foxy Brown at the Scrumpy Dump. In the early 1970s, the small Cleveland movie theater played Brown, Coffy, and other popular blaxploitation flicks that Southgate’s social-worker mom kept her very far away from. ”I wasn’t permitted to see them when I was a kid,” she says, seemingly without an ounce of regret in her voice. ”There was so much sex, and Pam Grier’s shirt never stayed on. They were crazy.” Southgate was 33 when she saw her first one — Superfly — and she fell asleep in the middle. ”Let’s just say. . .I wasn’t gripped,” she laughs.
Yet, here’s Southgate with her new novel, Third Girl From the Left, which centers on Angela, a blaxploitation actress who never makes it big; her mother, Mildred, who lived through the 1921 Tulsa riots; and her daughter, Tamara, a modern-day NYU film grad and budding documentarian. Southgate doesn’t glorify the blaxploitation era — she goes to great lengths to skewer ’70s L.A. excess. But the authordoes have a soft spot for that moment in time when African Americans believed they were about to snag their own little piece of Hollywood, when powerful black men and women stood tall on screen and kicked ass. ”I’m not Quentin Tarantino about this,” she says. ”I’m not obsessed with these movies. . .but they’re really interesting, especially Pam Grier movies. She’s really powerful and in charge.”
Born to a middle-class family in Cleveland, Southgate, 44, started writing fiction fairly late, after, much like Angela and Tamara, she first tried to break into film. While attending Smith College, she aspired to become a cinematographer, but got to the industry both too late and too early. ”There was this lull between 1975 and [Spike Lee’s] She’s Gotta Have It in 1986 when things totally dropped off,” says Southgate, curled into a ball on a sofa in her apartment overlooking Brooklyn’s Prospect Park. ”This was right about when E.T. came out and the business was lily-white. . . .There wasn’t any sense of African Americans working in the biz or being on the screen.”
A stint in journalism followed, with jobs at Essence, Premiere, and the New York Daily News. While working at the News, Southgate applied to grad school for creative writing and jotted down a short piece about a minor blaxploitation actress playing dead on camera. Eight years later, after writing a young-adult book and before publishing 2002’s The Fall of Rome (a well-received novel about a black teacher in a mostly white prep school), the character from that short piece became Angela, the heroine of Third Girl. Despite her opinions of the films themselves, Southgate couldn’t stay away from the scene. ”Blaxploitation offered this way to talk about power, about black people in film, about this moment where it did seem like we might do something,” she says. ”There was a lot of freedom in these new images.” Friend and fellow author ZZ Packer praises Third Girl‘s handling of the period: ”I love how Martha confounds readers who expect a singular, monolithic ‘black experience.”’