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The new Tina Turner Documentary is not as subversive as it thinks it is

When does Tina Turner get to focus on the fruits of her survival? When will we as onlookers crave that story?

By Sika Wheeler

With the recent release of HBO MAX documentary TINA , many are either seeing Tina Turner in a shining new light or discovering her for the first time. Much of the response has been positive, praising co-directors T.J. Martin and Daniel Lindsay for their determination for Turner to finally “have the last word.” At the core of the film’s appeal is its avoidance of the usual two-dimensional story of a triumphant superstar, instead opting for a more nuanced portrait of a woman and the lasting effects of trauma. Though I agree that this is a unique and compelling take on Turner’s story, I can’t say that it is doing the work Martin and Lindsay seem to think it is.

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After the recent slew of a number of new films pulling back the curtain on how unforgiving life in the music industry is, I have become wary of this particular brand of cautionary tale. On the surface, they seem to reflect a cultural desire to destabilize the pervasive culture of silence which hides, trivializes, and denies abuse. Obviously, this is a valuable step. However, this is not the same as the work of truly honoring Turner, no matter how well-rehearsed we’ve become in condemning those responsible for the worst of her scars. In seeking to “complicate” the narrative surrounding Turner, TINA only ends up re-inscribing Tina to a racialized, gendered role as dual victim and survivor, though this time of an intrusive media culture. My question is: when does Tina get to focus on the fruits of her survival? When will we as onlookers crave that story?

At one point in the film, Tina challenges the nearly universal notion that her 1985 album Private Dancer marks her “comeback.” Instead, Turner sees this as her debut. In this statement alone, we are asked to reassess the very basis of what most of us think we know about her legacy. It isn’t just that her time in the Ike & Tina Turner Review was tumultuous. Rather, her autonomy had been so thoroughly compromised that she is not able to even consider this as part of a career that truly belonged to her. So why is this perspective not enough to reshape the structure of the documentary itself? Why does this portrait of Tina Turner—the persona, the performer—have so little to say about her as an artist, her musical influences, approach to performing, or behind the scenes experiences touring and recording? 

Even if we look beyond her music career, there is plenty to explore in her spiritual practice. In the beginning of her new memoir, Happiness Becomes You, Turner states that it has been her life’s dream to share her spiritual journey with as many people as possible. In recent interviews, the one project she continuously mentions having pride in is her work in 2014 with the interfaith Beyond Music quartet, which she stated was “something greater than everything I have done.”  Of course, these angles are not as sexy or timely (read: marketable) as the one that won out, but that is exactly my point.

This dynamic is all too common in the ways we chose to honor Black women musicians in general, especially Black women who exist in the white male dominated space of rock history. In lieu of “righting the record,” we ask: Didn’t you know rock ‘n roll was invented by a fat Black bisexual woman? Didn’t you know Elvis’s first hit was written by a Black woman? Didn’t you know that it was the artistic vision of a biracial, bipolar Black woman from the UK who influenced the entire riot grrrl punk scene? Ironically, there is a similar conversation finally gaining traction regarding director T.J. Martin’s mother, Tina Bell, lead singer of early 80s proto-grunge Seattle outfit Bam Bam, who has apparently gone from being catcalled in the streets as “Tina Turner” to being named “The Uncrowned Godmother of Grunge.” 

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When it’s time for a Black woman musician to be rescued from the archive, it seems our methods comprise solely of verbally acknowledging the tragedy of her erasure and then quickly assigning some sort of magical, maternal title. The initial naming of course is crucial. The fact that even Tina Turner, queen of rock ‘n roll, has been repeatedly erased as an active participant in her own story just shows how deep these dynamics run. But what is to be done after we are through with this acknowledgment? When the only thing that we take from the stories of Tina Turner, or Poly Styrene, or Big Mama Thornton, or Billie Holiday, or Sister Rosetta, or Tina Bell, is that they were unfairly forgotten, we must remain clear that this is not yet the work of remembering.

When asked about what makes Tina stand out as a performer, T.J. Martin shared, “I think we’re all still trying to figure that out. And if we could, I would somehow bottle up that energy and use it for myself. I mean, that’s part of the magic of Tina, right?” Sure, that’s the magic of Tina. It is obvious that she has natural ability, but the ease with which this woefully unsatisfying explanation is accepted shows a stark discrepancy in how much we are willing to thoughtfully engage with her artistry. The kind of awed myth-making that has propped up male pop/rock stars (even those who are not particularly original in their contributions to the cannon) is strikingly absent when it comes to Tina Turner. 

This intellectual laziness is the same logic which undergirds our inability to imagine a different way of telling Black women artists’ stories. In our appetite for inexplicable awe at a “goddess,” we render their sacrifices as “good for the community, since the appetite satisfied was the spiritual craving for fresh vision and emotional rebirth,” to use the words of Margo Jefferson

I can’t help but feel like, yet again, Tina is doing this work of unearthing her sacrifices, but this time it’s to offer us hard truths about our deeply racist, misogynist media culture. Though the healing process is never complete, it is clear from the unapologetic embrace of her retirement that she has learned from her experiences. But have we? During her interview in the documentary, Oprah Winfrey warns: “if you never address the wounds of your past, you continue to bleed.” I truly wonder if people will ever get tired of watching Tina Turner bleed.

Sika (she/her) is a musician, newly blossoming writer, and recovering DEI professional who is passionate about film+8  and redefining the way we understand rock history. Find her music and other musings @adzo.adzo.

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Comments
  • JoJo

    Someone has a chip on their shoulder 🙄🤣🤣 The writer is big mad.

    Look , this was the story she wanted to write and what you fail to realize is that a lot of people, including myself, were unaware of most of the details in the documentary. There’s at least a whole generation of people out there that got to see raw footage and interviews of her telling HER story.

    It’s clear you didn’t like the film. Lol. Well get permission to make your own. 😂

    Apr 12, 2021
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