Betye Saar on Film: Life, Art, and Lasting Creativity

The Black Harvest Film Festival runs through November 16th at the Gene Siskel Film Center in Chicago. While there, I viewed Betye Saar: Ready to Be a Warrior. Angela Robinson Witherspoon’s candid documentary peels back many layers of the iconic artist, activist, and teacher, Betye Saar. Betye has been in the art industry for over six decades. She’s still creating art at 97. The film took seven years to make, beginning production in 2014 and ending in 2021.

I was hooked from the beginning.

I was hooked from the beginning, because of the montage of photos, drone cinematography, and the soothing upbeat instrumental jazz music. The film is very transparent. It shares numerous interviews with family, friends, curators, and gallerists including John Legend and Tina Knowles-Lawson. What kept me engaged the most was the footage of her creations and the many things she talked about.

Betye is a multifaceted person who has many roles. She is not only an artist, activist, and teacher, but also a mother, a grandmother, and a Black woman living in America. Betye was born in Los Angeles in the mid-1920s. She married a ceramic artist named Richard Saar while in graduate school. They were married for almost 20 years and had three daughters together.

Her work is called ‘Assemblage’ art. The medium consists of putting objects together and making three-dimensional pieces. Betye puts it more concisely: “I’m a visual person. And from those visuals, I take them and mix them up in my head, find materials that’ll express the way I feel about them, and create an object. And that object is called art.” The art is very radical, revolutionary, and powerful. 

One of her notable works is called Liberation of Aunt Jemima, 1972. The artwork has a smiling “mammy” doll with a red and white scarf tied in a knot on her head. The doll is wearing a red dress with a blue floral print. There is also a yellow scarf, with red polka dots, tied around her neck. She has a broom in her right hand and a rifle in her left. “Not that I’m a violent person. But if you see a gun, you’re going to pay attention.”

“Not that I’m a violent person. But if you see a gun, you’re going to pay attention.”

On the front of the doll is a two-dimensional painting on a notebook holder of a black woman who stands in front if a yellow picket fence. She is holding a white baby in her left hand. Her right hand on her hip. But rather than wearing an apron in front of her, there’s a painting of a Black fist instead, to symbolize Black power. The background of the sculpture repeatedly shows the smiling Aunt Jemima logo in squares. 

Although Betye is described as a rebel and legend, she comes across as vulnerable. She shared that her father died in the 1930s when she was five. Her great-aunt died decades later in the 1970s. These two deaths deeply affected her. This is immensely appreciated because the director makes the artist more relatable.

Angela shows childhood photos of Betye, and pictures of her and her family throughout the years. As a child, she collected ephemera. “I work with dead objects. I like working with things that are discarded because I like feeling like a magician.” Betye has a keen interest in the occult, astrology, and magic.

“Death is rebirth.”

While these losses are significant, Betye says, “Death is rebirth.” She shares that she’s made art out of her late great-aunt’s possessions. She’s also done an art piece called Black Girl’s Window, 1969. The art is a used wooden window frame with vignettes on the top half and her silhouette on the bottom. The vignettes include her father’s death, her parents dancing, stars, the sky, and the moon. 

Although there are some poignant moments in Angela’s film, there are also some fun ones. Examples include Angela’s film crew traveling with Betye as she collects awards, and goes to art exhibit openings for her work (traveling to Mexico and Italy, as well as USA events in California, New Hampshire and New York). 

Angela also shows scenes of Betye making one of her most recent works – I Woke Up This Morning, the Blues was in my Bed, 2021 – made of blue glass bottles, neon, coal, and a metal cot.

© Stephanie A. Taylor (11/15/23) — Special for FF2 Media ®


Visit Betye Saar’s Wikipedia page.

Visit Angela Robinson Witherspoon’s IMDb page.

Read my post on Opening Night at the 2023 Black Harvest Film Festival = number 29!

Learn more about Chicago’s Gene Siskel Film Center.

Check out the Betye Saar: Ready to Be a Warrior website.

Click here to order Legacy: The Art of Betye, Lezley, and Alison Saar (a 2024 Wall Calendar from Pomegranate).


Featured photo: Betye Saar is the subject of Betye Saar: Ready to Be a Warrior a new documentary by Angela Robinson Witherspoon which screened at Chicago’s Gene Siskel Film Center on Friday 11/10/23 as part of GSFC’s 2023 Black Harvest Film Festival. Photo Credit: Abdul Malik Abbott. Used with permission. All Rights Reserved.

Bottom Photo: Chicago’s Gene Siskel Film Center is located at the corner of State and Randolph (directly across the street from the famous Chicago Theatre). Photo Credit: Stephanie A. Taylor (11/10/23). Authorized for responsible use as long as a link to this post is included in the credit line.

Tags: African-American Women, Alison Saar, Angela Robinson Witherspoon, Betye Saar, Black Harvest Film Festival, Black Women Artists, Black Women Filmmakers, chicago, documentary, documentary review, Gene Siskel Film Center, Jessica Bond, Lezley Saar, PomCom, Pomegranate, Stephanie A. Taylor, Tina Knowles-Lawson

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Stephanie A. Taylor is a multi-award-winning journalist whose accolades span three publications including FF2. Some of her favorite articles she's written are Emma Cooper’s ‘The Mystery of Marilyn Monroe: The Lost Tapes, FACETS Honors Chaz Ebert F2F at Screen Gems 2022 Benefit, and Dorothy Arzner’s ‘Merrily We Go to Hell’ Discusses Modern Day Problems. She currently lives in Chicago. Reading, writing, and watching old films are some of her many passions.
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