caged rage: a conversation with kyisha williams – Zaheen K.

kyisha williams

kyisha williams

kyisha williams

kyisha williams is a vibrant, radical, black, queer, high femme, sex positive, activist, survivor, fighter and writer. She is a community organizer and support worker within black/queer/trans/racialized/criminalized/HIV+/HCV+ communities. She is also the director of red lips [cages for black girls], her debut short film that explores black/racialized/criminalized/queer/trans identity and its relationship with the prison-industrial complex. It attempts to articulate links between interpersonal and systemic violence, while celebrating the ways in which we survive and celebrate ourselves. I recently caught up with kyisha to find out more.

Zaheen K.: Can you tell me a little bit about the process of making this film? Have you been able to have any screenings?

kyisha williams: The process was almost all about letting go for me (the woman who’s story was supposed to be highlighted couldn’t take part. – time constraints, etc.). I learned that the film has a life/journey of its own, and I needed to respect that while still maintaining the integrity of the project, and I think I managed to do so. I worked with some really amazing folks like Gina Nam (cinematographer), Monica Forester, Dainty Smith and Chiedza (my beautiful and talented cast).

There were some big and little hiccups along the way in terms of group process (I was part of the legacy video project by the Inside Out Film Festival), as well as dealing with racism, classism and ageism within the group. Though, I think we all came out in one piece and the Inside Out staff were attentive to what was happening.

The film has screened a bunch of times, and I feel really blessed and happy about that. It seems people really want to explore and talk about the issues. It has screened at the Inside Out Film Festival, The Trigger Arts Festival, Fruit Loopz PRIDE Stage, Queer West Film Festival, and as part of a ‘Prison Justice’ themed Trans Film night at the Centre for Women and Trans people at the University of Toronto.

ZK: What motivated you to make this film? What/who are your influences?

kw: My experience in this world (that I wasn’t meant to survive in) motivated me to make this film. I have a complicated existence in which I experience various advantages and disadvantages. I wanted to talk about my (and other working class Black Queer and Trans people’s) complicated experiences of the world and how things like interpersonal and systemic violence feed into each other and oppress us.

ZK: So would you say that this film came from a pretty personal place?

kw: I would say so, yes. Personal and from my communities.

ZK: Is this your first time working in film?

kw: Yes! So I think I really wanted to talk about and do EVERYTHING. I had to scale down a bit. Editing is not my forte (lots of minute technical details), directing is. Editing was really hard in terms of tech but also in terms of content. Its also really complicated stuff to talk about and explore.

ZK: There are many themes in your film, i.e. racism, sexism, trans/homophobia, sex work, prison justice, etc. How does it all come together for you?

kw: Put most simply, prisons are filled with our people (racialized, colonized, sexualized, trans, queer bodies). We are disproportionately represented in the “criminal justice” system.

This film is about criminalized identity – meaning that some people experience a much higher level of policing and incarceration based on who they are and how they live. Certain behaviours are heavily criminalized and some are not, for example, illicit drugs like crack cocaine versus prescription medication. Based on systems of power, a disproportionate number of certain people, i.e. Indigenous, Black, People of Colour, Trans, Queer, disAbled, people who use illicit drugs, folks with low income, etc. end up in prison. They are used as free labour instead of building resources in our communities such as housing, [anti-oppressive] education, and employment that would actually allow for success. Also, unapologetic sexuality/identity (like sex work or the case of New Jersey 4) is often criminalized.

ZK: I agree completely. Especially with the recent G20-related arrests, I think that people forget that many communities are already experiencing this level of police presence and targeting.

kw: Yes, totally. I think the G20 stuff really woke people up and people were saying “we now live in a police state”, and we really had to remind people that this is so not new. It’s just happening to upper/middle-class/white/straight people and therefore being “noticed” more.

ZK: You stay true to the film title red lips with the abundance of red and lipstick-related imagery and metaphor. Why did you choose that title?

kw: I choose the title red lips for several reasons relating to femme identity, stereotypical (and reclaimed) images of sex work and sluttiness. Also, as imagery regarding violence (blood).

I notice when I wear red lipstick I get more attention from men who think I’m working or available/slutty (and straight). They get upset when I don’t respond to them in the way that they want (because its not for them, like I mention in my film).

ZK: It’s that weird dichotomy of women having to be stereotypically sexy-looking for society, but when we are, we’re demonized for it.

kw: Yeah, totally.

ZK: I liked the part of the film where you and one of the more butch-appearing women were getting dressed together to go out. And the track playing over the scene was perfect. Can you tell me more about that?

kw: The song is called “Red Lipstick (JBemix)”, it’s about two queer/lesbian women who love each other, go out to dance with their communities and get queer bashed by cops on the way home. It’s performed by Deep Dickollective (lyrics by Marcus Rene’ Van/music by Jeree Brown and Benjamin Frost). It’s super powerful and beautiful and raw.

ZK: I feel like as queer and trans people of colour, folks don’t know how to read us. There are so many stereotypes out there about “how we’re supposed to be”.

kw: Yeah, I think that people become threatened.

ZK: In the film you mention “femme armour”, as if it is a form of protection but also pride. Can you expand on that a bit? Do you find that black women’s sexuality, especially one that is not “as it seems”, intimidating or threatening for mainstream society?

kw: Yes, femme armour! Pride and protection – you hit it right on the head. As I said in my film, no one can fuck with me when I’m in my femme armour (dressed well, maybe make-up, maybe heels). I feel that I am untouchable because in those moments I have tuned into my power as a Black Queer Femme and I am confident and sure of my beauty, intelligence and power. I can feel harnessed power from my ancestors (those who came before me) through jewellery and clothing given to me by my grandmother and great grandmother. I think that people are threatened by this unapologetic power and intelligence.

I also do it through my (recovered) spiritual relationships with those who have survived before me, through community, through created family and supporting each other.

ZK: So your spiritual relationships help you empower yourself not just as a woman, but as a femme?

kw: For me, ‘woman’ and ‘femme’ are linked. Femme is my gender.

So in other words, my spiritual relationships empower me to be my best most comfortable and sexy self.

ZK: It was bittersweet to see that your film was dedicated to the memory of Mirlande Demers, a fierce survivor and activist. Our society definitely did fail her. It was bittersweet because since her passing, I hadn’t seen much in the mainstream press or activist circles about her memory. It was nice to see your acknowledgment of her. Did you ever meet her? Would you say that her memory inspired you while making this film?

kw: Oh Mirlande, I miss you!

ZK: Me too!

kw: Mirlande was a radical fierce black femme. We became fast friends when we met in Ottawa on a panel about intersectional oppression. She spoke about growing up in Quebec and how frustrating it was to try and talk about racism, homophobia and ableism there, because the entire discourse of oppression was around the French language. This discourse was, of course, dominated by white people.

In a prison context, those women dealing with intersecting webs of oppression experience policing and incarceration differently (read: often worse) than others. For example, Indigenous women make up 50% of maximum security prisoners. Trans people are incarcerated in facilities of their “biological sex” and thus experience more physical and sexual abuse and extreme isolation inside prison.

Mirlande talked about these things, we made links like this – when I was making the film I felt a voice was missing, and I realized it was hers. She would have been so valuable in these dialogues and she is. This was my way of including her in the project.

ZK: I remember when I heard of her death, it was an accident actually. I was sitting at my desk job at the time, and stumbled upon it on the internet. I just sat there in my cubicle and cried. It was so strange, but really sad at the same time. Is this symptomatic of everything you talk about in your film? That history is still repeating itself? Amazing, fierce women like Mirlande are still getting erased from our consciousness.

kw: Yes, we need to continue to talk about these women and tell each other these stories. She lives in our memory and in my heart (and on my altar). And she (and so many others) help to keep me (us) surviving.

ZK: What are your upcoming plans for the film? Are you thinking of any other projects?

kw: Yes! I want to work on five million projects [laughs]. But for now I’m focusing on about three, not sure in what order. One film is more fun/funny, it’s about racism and my experience as a black woman with dreds. It’s told through the eyes of the dreds. One is a playful celebratory short piece on pussies/cunts/jams/boygina’s, etc. And the other is about women’s experiences within prison (a more detailed documentary style piece).

ZK: Those all sound great, I can’t wait to see them! And for the record, this is the first time I’ve heard the term “boygina”. And I kind of love it.

kw: Yep, they are fantastic!

ZK: Thanks for taking the time to talk to me today. Best of luck with the film.

kw: You’re welcome, and thank you!

To catch a screening of red lips or to organize one in your own city, get in touch with kyisha at

Zaheen K. is currently holding it down in Ottawa, and has been a community organizer there for over 5 years. Some of the groups she organizes with are Agitate! (a collective of queer and two-spirit people of colour and Indigenous people), the Sexual Assault Support Centre of Ottawa, and Ladyfest Ottawa. When she’s not working at her student activist-y day job, she can usually be found wasting her time on the internet either checking out food porn or watching bad internet tv (her current drug is the Real L Word). The top hits on her playlist right now are Sade and Ponytail.

kyisha williams is a radical, black, queer, high femme, sex positive, activist, vibrant, survivor, fighter and writer. She is a community organizer and support worker who does work within black/queer/trans/racialized/criminalized/HIV+/HCV+ communities.