“As a product of the New World, violence lives in my DNA. I carry an ancient pain that I struggle to understand,” director Rebeca Huntt utters at the start of Beba, her lyrical and gritty debut film. In her autobiographical documentary, a visceral 80-minute gem, the born and bred New Yorker is searching to emotionally heal on screen. Eight years in the making and now playing in select theaters, Beba, both written and directed by Huntt, depicts a rarely seen interiority of a self-assured millennial Black Latina, who wants to creatively survive in New York and break the cycle of generational trauma. Shot on 16mm and made with a mostly all-women crew, Huntt lays bare all that she must contend with—her Dominican and Venezuelan roots, her Afro-Latinidad, Black womanhood, sex, heartbreak, and death. Beba weaves together Huntt’s multifaceted world into four chapters, layering each one with childhood photographs, vulnerable voiceovers and interviews from family members, and historical and contemporary video footage. And while the film paints a vivid portrait of her life, she didn’t just make it for herself.
“The goal was to be able to connect with people on a deeper level and to sort of make something that contributed to a more liberating existence,” Huntt confidently shares with ELLE.com. “And the only way to do that, I think, was to be authentic about what I was presenting.”
During a Zoom chat on a sunny morning in June, Huntt, 32, is fresh faced in a lime green crop top and her “Beba” gold nameplate necklace, she politely asks if she can eat her breakfast. Huntt currently resides in a mountain pueblo in Mexico but is spending time in New York for the film’s press run. Beba, derived from Huntt’s childhood nickname coined by her mother, peels off all of her layers—the sublime, the messy, the in-between—and showcases a multi-dimensionality for Black Latinas hardly represented in film.
We see that in the scenes she shares with her parents. On a bench in Central Park, Huntt interviews her dad, a charming Afro-Dominican man named Juan who was born on a sugar plantation outside San Pedro de Macoris. Juan recalls the fear and trauma he experienced during the bloody Dominican Civil War in 1965, and escaping to Bed-Stuy during the late sixties. He remembers a friend in DR asking him, “You think they want Black people in the United States?” There’s a joyful camaraderie between Huntt and Juan, who admits to her, “Literally, you’re my favorite person to be around.” Huntt’s mother, Veronica, is a Venezuelan woman from Caracas who deserted a privileged life of seaside family trips and custom-made dresses to enroll at Pace University. Using old family home movies, Huntt presents Veronica’s origin story: the daughter of an elegant woman who ran a garment business and battled schizophrenia. Huntt unflinchingly narrates about her maternal grandmother spending six months in a psychiatric hospital, and how Veronica watched her own mother get hosed down. Her parents’ vast differences as Latinxs of different races, ethnicities, and classes, excels in showing how rich and non-monolithic the Latinx community truly is.
The moments between Huntt and Veronica are tense and at times combative. Both women lay on a blanket, with Huntt bluntly asking, “What’s it like being a mom to Black children?” Veronica, clearly bothered, replies she “raised her kids as a Latin person.” It’s an understandable answer from a non-Black Latina from an older generation, but it disregards Blackness and the racial nuances of raising phenotypically Black children. Huntt presses Veronica to share why, during trips to Venezuela, she’d ask their non-Black family members not to comment on her Black children’s hair texture or skin tone. Veronica breaks into tears and asks Huntt to not be so “aggressive”, as they clash to finish the interview. These are painful yet necessary scenes that drive straight to the heart of Beba and, on a larger scale, show the (unintentional) harm non-Black Latinxs can sometimes perpetuate to their Black family members. Colorism, texturism, and featurism are unfortunately embedded within Latinx families, especially for Afro-Latines who bear the brunt of these cruel ‘isms.’ Huntt feels those scenes are “real,” not just in Latinx culture, “but any sort of multi-cultural family or biracial family.” She hoped to start the conversation without judgment, “showing what I felt was both of us at our worst,” and to ask, “How can we have more compassion within our own interpersonal relationships?”
Huntt paints a brutally honest portrait of her upbringing, a family of five living in a crowded, rent-controlled, one-bedroom apartment on Central Park West. Huntt shared the bedroom with her two older siblings—artsy, first-gen, millennial Afro-Latine kids – but at times it became contentious. Huntt is handed her first joint at age ten, a peace offering from her sister Raquel, who choked her. Raquel is described as “a free spirited and rebellious human being,” who suffers from agoraphobia and collects disability checks. But there’s a fierce and beautiful bond between the two sisters. As they walk past a community garden in their neighborhood, Raquel wistfully mentions, “This probably would’ve saved my life when I was younger.” She recalls white neighbors who opened the garden but didn’t let Black kids and kids of color in, and how she used crack vials left by addicts in the garden for a school project. Huntt and her brother Juan Carlos would sit in the dark to analyze Jay-Z lyrics because he loves metaphors and wordplay. He’s the only family member who doesn’t appear in Beba, and any hurt and resentment between them is alluded to ambiguously. On sentiments towards her brother, Huntt passionately explains in our interview, “Every single person in this world has complexities in the relationships with the people that they love. And if we look around, we shouldn’t be ashamed of that.”
When she leaves for her liberal college upstate, Huntt’s lens turns dreamy and carefree—gradient Hudson Valley sunsets, and Huntt playing a harmonica around a bonfire. Black Latinas navigating elite predominantly white institutions are rarely represented in film, so it feels affirming when you see parts of yourself on screen, even though racism is still at play. At Bard, Huntt “lives with artistic Black kids,” but hangs out with her white friends separately. Older Black women warn her that her white social circles will “never see you as a human being.” Annie Seaton, a biracial Humanities professor, keenly observes Huntt’s core friend group, affluent white kids from well-connected families, and the white male classmates who were smitten with her. Huntt speaks Spanish to her white friends and “it makes them feel safe,” which is a lot to unpack. Post-Bard and in the midst of BLM protests, Huntt has a heated discussion with her white friends about structural racism, who very typically gaslight and diminish Black voices in the conversation. Huntt angrily points out it’s not her job as a Black woman to dismantle white supremacy, then dramatically exits. It’s not a shocker when you learn in the end credits that that moment was recreated with actors, who displayed a predictable liberal white ally response.
Though Huntt’s journey takes her out of the city, in many ways New York itself is the sixth family member that makes Beba electric. Visuals of sunlight shining down on cityscapes and elevated subway cars, vibrant and busy street corners in Harlem and the Bronx, Nolita’s iconic Cafe Habana where Huntt serves tables, and a voiceover intro of Video Music Box’s host Ralph McDaniels over the Williamsburg Bridge. “I love New York more than anything in the world. It’s the greatest city of all time. And I attribute a lot of my artistry, creative context, and references to being a New Yorker,” Huntt muses in our interview. But New York has also brought love and loss. Her ex-boyfriend Michael, who she wanted to “have babies and build an urban farm uptown” with, was bipolar. And three months after their break-up, he jumped from the George Washington Bridge. Mental illness has touched so many loved ones in Huntt’s life; her immeasurable compassion and grace towards them is a major touchstone in Beba.
Throughout her cinematic memoir, Huntt offers up her tumultuous twenties and the spiritual wounds she’s suffered from the emotional chaos engulfing her. She’s bravely suturing up her soul from ancestral curses, family dysfunction, mental illness amongst her kin, deaths that are way too close to bear, and the first-generation struggle. Even though Huntt’s mom chastises her for airing out all their dirty laundry—“Get over it, life is not easy, coño”—Huntt’s personal histories in Beba are healing tools not just for herself, but for all of us.
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