Mickalene Thomas’s ‘Happy Birthday to a Beautiful Woman’ Premieres on HBO

Mickalene Thomas, “Happy Birthday to a Beautiful Woman.” 2012. 23 min. Film still courtesy of the artist.

Those who made it to Mickalene ThomasBrooklyn Museum exhibit last year will recognize Happy Birthday to a Beautiful Woman, a striking portrait of the late Sandra Bush, Thomas’ mother and longtime muse. On February 24th, the film will make its television debut on HBO.

Through questions asked by Thomas, who remains off screen for the duration of the film, Bush narrates her own life story – from innocent high school days under the thumb of conservative parents, to almost making it as the first mainstream African-American model (only to be beat out by Iman), to drug addiction and an abusive relationship with her first husband. “I wanted to recreate some of the moments and conversations I’ve had with her in my studio…but because we knew she was dying, there was a certain urgency there that had not been present [before],” Thomas said.

While this is Thomas’ first foray into film, she approaches the medium as she does her paintings. Instead of using physical materials like rhinestones and enamel, she has collaged together images, songs, and stories to create a portrait of a person and a life. “I think it’s fitting that my first film would be a portrait, because that’s just how I work and it was an easy way for me to enter an unfamiliar process,” she said, also noting that she would like to continue filmmaking, perhaps in the form of a feature-length project.

Mickalene Thomas, “Happy Birthday to a Beautiful Woman.” 2012. 23 min. Film still courtesy of the artist.

Mickalene Thomas, Happy Birthday to a Beautiful Woman. (2012). 23 min.
Photo: Film still courtesy of the artist.

The discussion of the concept of beauty, which Thomas has grappled with before, helps to situate the film within her larger body of work. Her art is typically beautiful on the surface, while acknowledging the darker nature of what that means. She explains, “I am drawn to objects and people that have undergone some kind of a hardship. They are beautiful and there is an artifice to them, but if you dig deeper, there’s another layer.” A portrait of a former model rendered almost unrecognizable due to illness feels like an especially fitting place to deconstruct societal notions of beauty. As Thomas says, “It’s not about how someone looks…it’s their perception of the world and how they live their life.”

It is outside HBO’s wheelhouse to air an “art film”, and it will gain exposure with a wider audience than ever before. When asked what she hoped viewers will come away with, Thomas replied, “When you make art, you put it out there for a dialogue, and I hope that it will inspire people to create dialogues around these issues of addiction and perseverance and failure and success, particularly between children and parents. [My mother] is her own person, and I can finally look at her outside of being her daughter.”

Happy Birthday to a Beautiful Woman (2012, 23 minutes) will make its HBO debut on Monday, February 24 at 9PM.

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