Phyllis B. Dooney and Jardine Libaire’s story, GRAVITY IS STRONGER HERE, is about desire. Desire to be seen, heard, and loved. In 2011, Dooney visited Greenville, Mississippi, looking for America in America. The resulting project features Halea Brown (who is openly gay) and her dynamic Southern American family. The Browns dream out loud while fighting the silent undertow of poverty and recurrent domestic narratives. In the photographs and in the poems, the participants are candid about addiction, love, the military, domestic abuse, money, gay life, religion, loyalty, conspiracies, and freedom.
Greenville is a key tile in our national mosaic as it represents the American boom town left in the wake of a changing global economy. Intoxicated by the Delta air, a Greenville local once said that “gravity is stronger here”, a reference to the complex city and to the concept of “home” in general. The bottom line is that desire does not follow rules, that its pull operates for us all with the power of gravity.
The project presents us with a place/space where love for a gay daughter and an Evangelical love of God can exist in one mother, violence and tenderness in the same relationship, and hope and hopelessness in the same daily life. These multiple truths are often lost in stories that collapse American families into constituencies. GRAVITY upholds this constellation of truths by creating a prismatic portrait of the Browns.
Dooney and Libaire also consider the limitations of an ethnographic approach by exploring transparency and collaboration particularly in Libaire’s poem “Outsiders” and in Dooney’s music video (co-conceived with Halea Brown). The experimental short films feature the Browns, whose roles vary; sometimes they’re collaborators, and at other times they’re documentary participants sharing a love story or impromptu daily life.
GRAVITY provides less an imposed narrative than a consciousness; the subjects are within reach — you can smell the musk, cigarette smoke, meat cooking in the backyard, a magnolia blooming by the door. The experience inside the pages is a nearness, a grazing of shoulders with another’s humanity. Gravity is Stronger Here was awarded Honorable Mention by The Center for Documentary Studies’ Dorothea Lange-Paul Taylor Prize.
Grandma Explains the Family By Jardine Libaire
And I remember at one of his football games, Lexy knew something was wrong between us, and I
remember him looking up from the football field, staring at me, and I couldn’t figure out what it was, but
he thought we’d been fighting. ’Cause the light from the football field was shining, and he said it looked
like my eye was black, and he almost couldn’t play the ball game.
Tenderness. They’ll cry at the drop of a hat if it has anything to do with each other—but you never know
that because they tough as nails.
When we got home from church, we climbed a tree and we smoked that whole pack of cigarettes. Momma
thought we were out playing ’cause I think we were twelve, and I remember when I got down out of that
tree, Daddy said: I guess y’all didn’t know I could see that smoke coming out, look like a train going up
that tree. He told Momma, and Momma jumped on the bed about that. That was a real big disappointment
Halea always had those tendencies we thought was kind of different. But I always blamed them on her
daddy because I thought he made her that way. I didn’t know enough to know better. Because they let her
be tomboy-ish. Lexy let her play rough, and Damian let her run around in her panties. I know that’s not
true—it was nobody’s fault. It’s just there.