Betty Davis doesn’t owe us shit. After putting out three raw, sweaty albums of highly sexual, unapologetically political funk in the 1970s, Davis had far too little to show for her contributions to black feminist art, fashion, and music. In a famous pull-quote, her ex-husband Miles Davis described her as “Madonna before Madonna, Prince before Prince” in an effort to bolster her notoriety, but it’s an empty platitude that at best reads as too little too late. Betty is often contextualized as “Miles Davis’s wife” in her press and reduced to her contributions in changing the direction of his own fashion & art. That has got to sting, considering her acknowledgements that Miles had physically abused her in the brief time they were married. Her contemporary press was also severely critical of her art & appearance – labeling her as a disgrace to her own race & gender for exploring & exhibiting her sexuality in an aggressive manor onstage. Denigrated in the press, abused by her partner, never afforded the commercial adulation she deserved, and essentially locked out of the mainstream music industry by the white men who own it, Betty Davis eventually got fed up with us and chose to disappear. For the past few decades her closest collaborators and most adoring fans have been attempting to reach her and boost her profile, to let her know that her work is valued and to help her enjoy some of that value in back-owed monetary gain. The brisk, crowdfunded documentary Betty: They Say I’m Different (named after her most iconic album) is a major part of that effort to boost her public profile and to draw her out of her shell enough to see that she is adored & idolized. The problem is that she’s not very interested in reconciling with her public, and we have no right to pressure her into it.
This documentary has taken on the unenviable task of boosting the profile of a reclusive artist who’s been actively trying to disappear for the last few decades. It’s a well-intentioned primer in sparking wider public interest in Davis’s too-long buried funk albums, but also struggles to build a story around the very few scraps of information Davis is willing to reveal about herself. That self-conflict can make the film feel a little frustratingly thin as entertainment media, but also admirable in going out of its way to respect Davis’s privacy. You can tell Davis had substantial creative input in how her story is told here, if not only because so little of it is told at all. Most of the hard facts on display are what’s already public knowledge: her move from a childhood in Pittsburgh to an artistic life in NYC, a timeline of the few albums she managed to release while she was in the public spotlight, and press clippings exploring why she was so controversial in the context of the Civil Rights Era. Besides a few surface-level interviews with family, friends, and scholars, Davis relays the rest of the story herself through several careful removes. Her narration is delivered in first-person but written in collaboration with director Phil Cox and recorded post-production by a voice actor. She appears briefly onscreen, but always out of focus in her modest Pittsburgh apartment, back turned to the camera and to the world. The explanation of her disappearance is filtered through several layers of metaphor – allowing the imagery of perched crows, wilting flowers, and trips to Japan to substitute the gaps in her narrative she’s not willing to reveal. We have no right to ask any more of Betty as a “public” figure, but that elusiveness leaves the film stuck between wanting to tell her story her way and needing to pad out its slim 54-minute runtime with something, which becomes its biggest struggle as a standalone work.
As someone who knew too little about Betty Davis before seeing this documentary, if anything at all, I found They Say I’m Different well worthwhile as an advertisement for her few commercial releases as a funk artist. The movie is incredibly useful as a fandom primer in that way – often filling out its runtime with YouTube-style lyrics videos of her most significant songs. It’s a tactic that’s led to actual, real-world good – boosting album sales of vinyl reissues of her work that are directly putting money in the pocket of an artist who deserved that payout decades ago. On the other end, I’m sure that the most dedicated of longtime Betty Davis superfans will be ecstatic for the few isolated glimpses of her current life that she reveals here, as sparse & limited as they are. The other ways the film treads water to respect her privacy are a little less satisfying – animated pop art collages, repetitive snippets of slo-mo concert footage without sync-sound, time elapse photography of wilting flowers that feels like it was borrowed from an unrelated project, etc. Hindered by the privacy of its subject, They Say I’m Different finds itself scrambling to fill in dead air with artsy-fartsy techniques on an extremely limited budget, which often leaves it feeling like an hour-long trailer for a more complete film. For it to have done any better, though, it would have had to violate the wishes of the very subject it aims to promote & support. The way it ties one arm behind its own back as an entertainment is actually an ethical victory for it as an effort of retribution to Betty as an artist and a person. We don’t deserve a better Betty Davis documentary any more than we deserve Betty Davis herself; she doesn’t owe us any more than she’s already given. The best any modern profile of her can hope to achieve is boosting her record sales and then leaving her alone, which this one does as respectably as possible.