Betty Davis: Different Strokes

Kevin Le Gendre talks to Phil Cox, director of Betty Davis: They Say I’m Different.

1] When did you discover the music of Betty Davis?

“In 2012 as a director I was looking for new project to embark on, something lyrical and with music. It was then that I was introduced to Betty’s music and the fact that she had ‘disappeared’. I had not known of her music beforehand and it was a revelation – not for the beauty of her voice but for the sheer raw authenticity of her delivery in a time today when everything is so homogenised and mass produced.
“Also learning of the mixed and even hostile reception she received in the ‘70s – when everyone was polarising behind group identities, the entrenched establishment and opposing revolutionary and civil rights causes, Betty was out there alone, a tee-total, extreme, maverick black artist, producing, writing, performing and keeping it personal – mixing with some of the greatest musical artists of the time – from one-time husband Miles to Sly and Hendrix.”

2] Why make a film about her?

“As a filmmaker I was intrigued by the fact that for 35+ years this pioneering, clearly bold and fearless woman had for some reason ’stepped out’. To find her was not easy – our team at the small indie-based London production company Native Voice Films set about introducing themselves to some of the gatekeepers who have protected Betty over the last decades. Betty lives on the outskirts of Pittsburgh in a very simple manner, with no mobile phone or internet. After some months we managed to make phone contact with her – but it was a further two years before she agreed to meet us!”

3] Sum up her character in a few lines?

“Singular, uncompromising, sense of humour, attachment to solitude, loves cake, attention to detail, spiritual and gentle.”

4] The film has an unusual structure: we don’t see her as she is today, bar a few glimpses. How was that for you as a filmmaker?

“Really hard – I didn’t know how to make the film for some years as, being from a different background completely, it was about waiting for Betty to show me the way to tell it. So the biggest challenge in making the film was finding my way as a director to visually convey the narrative and personal journey of this extraordinarily private subject. There was no archive, no film footage, no interviews, only a few photos, and then Betty today, who refused to let us film her directly. Eventually I realised that through the years of our collected phone recordings, her song lyrics and interviews we had done, there were recurring motifs and poetic paths that could be written out from her own words and visualised cinematically.
“My starting point was Betty telling me of the little bird that used to sit outside her window and sing when she was a girl, the orange/ red Cardinal bird, and how this bird grew into Crow – black crow – which is a metaphor for her inner lyrical spirit and the central recurring motif in the film. Betty is an incredibly spiritual person – Crow is her spiritual animal and she is proud of her part Cherokee heritage – and this influence, along with major events that took place on Mount Fuji in Japan, were the visual building blocks for putting her personal narrative together cinematically.
“The story of her music, of Jimi and Miles, and the influences from her father and grandmother to the great Blues women such as Ma Rainey to Bessie Smith, are interwoven through the testimony of musicians and family members alongside Betty herself. It’s a more impressionistic structure – but I think that better reflects our inner selves and memory. This is not a film about ‘facts’ and ‘information’ but one about feeling and memory.”

5] She was a trailblazer, musically. Do you see her as a black feminist icon?

“Betty is many things to many people and it was not for me to redefine that – but essentially to let Betty’s personality and story come through as she would reveal it. Music in the early ‘70s was such a political statement, just as fashion and clothes were; it was about breaking free of the establishment, conformist thinking, stereotypes, gender prejudice and expectation – Sly and The Family Stone, Hendrix and Betty all led in this. I think one of the most interesting things about Betty, and something that transcends color and gender, is that she was such a pure and authentic artist. The fact that she was breaking new boundaries, challenging entrenched stereotypes, male patriarchies and has become an inspiration for so many is not really that important [to her]. For her it was – and still is – just about the music and the essential freedom to release one’s inner voice and spirit out into the world.
“Betty has a strong cult following, as well as new young audiences discovering her for the first time as a cultural and female pioneer – whose music is still challenging core social issues and prejudices today. I knew I had to make the film for people who also knew nothing about her, not just music fans. I personally find fan-centric music docs incredibly boring and they are everywhere! This film… I tried to make on a very human level – whether you like Betty’s music or not, you cannot help but empathise with the obstacles she faced and connect with the bold journey she took, both inner and outer.”

Betty – They Say I’m Different is currently viewable for free on the UK streaming site LUSH and also in Picturehouse Cinemas on August 6th. A DVD with additional extras will be available from September 2018. More info