The HBO Documentary Film Happy Birthday to a Beautiful Woman is the directorial debut of New Jersey-born visual artist Mickalene Thomas. The original program paints an intimate portrait of Thomas’ late mother and creative muse, Sandra Bush, who passed away in 2012.
Throughout Happy Birthday to a Beautiful Woman, Thomas, known for using rhinestones, acrylic, enamel, glitter and silkscreen in her vibrant creations, chronicles and unravels Mama Bush’s obscure past. The multi-talented artist learns her mother, scouted at one point to become a trailblazing runway model, was both physically and sexually abused at gunpoint. Thomas also delved into her mother’s drug abuse and history of dealing drugs.
Not startled by the film’s revelations by any means, an upbeat and good spirited Thomas explains why she chose her tall yet debilitating mother as the main subject in Happy Birthday to a Beautiful Woman. “When I consider beautiful, someone else may not agree. The definition of beautiful is from within. It’s not what you necessarily see in a magazine. I’m interested in beauty that is unconventional. It’s the everyday woman and how she carries herself in the world,” says Thomas.
Happy Birthday to a Beautiful Woman’s opening sequence slowly tiles together Thomas’ artwork with vintage photographs of Mama Bush and close ups of Mama Bush’s brittle posture. It was extremely important for the former art history major to combine her elaborate use of mixed media with montages of her muse.
Thomas’ paintings typically feature Blaxploitation-era styled characters: tall, brown-skinned (sometimes full-figured) women with Afros that are seductively postured. “I’ve always been interested in experimentation: this mesh between high art and low art. Rhinestones represent accoutrements or dressing up. They exude a particular beauty or flamboyance and sort of a way of masking ourselves,” says Thomas.
Thomas adds, “My mother portrayed herself in a situation that’s very emotional. Her power and inner beauty comes forward in the film. That’s when a woman is most powerful because she has confidence, independence and awareness of who she is,” she says.
Bush, who suffered from sickle cell anemia, was filmed in several sequences on dialysis. She also had one of her kidneys removed, a failed liver and was diagnosed with severe arthritis. One day in particular, Mama Bush cried as she was applying makeup. She was under the impression that Thomas no longer wanted to use her as the inspiration for her artwork. Constantly referencing her mother’s raw beauty, Thomas was being sensitive to her mother’s failing health.
Bush’s strength, Thomas believes, encouraged her to evolve as a creator. “My mother fulfilled her dreams through me as an artist. I was able to come back in her life and help her fulfill something I didn’t know. We all have challenges in our life. She made sure she never gave up on herself. You never know how your life may unfold,” says Thomas.
That tear jerking moment for Thomas was also the catalyst for Happy Birthday to a Beautiful Woman to go into production. “As an artist, it’s very important to have your creativity express a little of who you are. When I put my work out, I hope someone relates to it and is inspired enough to make change. It sparks something in themselves to make them want to do something,” says Thomas prior to screening the film at #aTVfest in Atlanta.
Tanya Selvaratnam, Happy Birthday to a Beautiful Woman’s producer, once produced a short film on Thomas’ art. She identified with the film’s subject matter so much, she reconnected with her own family in her homeland of Sri Lanka. She concurs with Thomas that viewers should come away with a deep love and respect for both family and art.
“The best art, to me, is art I don’t understand. The story of mother/daughter reconciliation is a universal story. You don’t want to wait until a person is almost dead to have that. Art obviously takes many forms and evokes reactions that are individual,” says Selvaratnam.
Making Happy Birthday to a Beautiful Woman helped Thomas to learn to create art as a team effort. She admits her creative process is often done in solitude. For the purpose of the film, Thomas sacrificed some of the control. She still finds common ground with creating visual art and making documentaries.
“Creativity is an extension of yourself. The challenge as an artist is to relinquish some of the things that you think you know to allow other people and their expertise to come into your vision to get to the goal that you want. They believed in my vision and creativity so much that they allowed me to make an art film. I allowed them to give me the tools to bring these two worlds together. It’s still a painting through film that uses film as my brush,” says Thomas.
Selvaratnam, also present at the Atlanta screening, concurs once again. “Put yourself boldly in the future that you envision for yourself. Think now about what you need to do to get there. I hope it inspires people to make changes in their own lives and how they view art. They should appreciate the quality of filmmaking. It’s a story well told, well shot and hopefully well produced,” she says chased by laughter.
‘Happy Birthday to a Beautiful Woman’ premieres on HBO on Feb. 24 at 9 p.m. EST.
This post was written by Christopher A. Daniel, pop cultural critic and music editor for The Burton Wire. He is also a contributing writer for Urban Lux Magazine and Blues & Soul Magazine. Follow Christopher @Journalistorian on Twitter.