The love of movies links three generations of African-American women in former Essence editor Martha Southgate's latest novel, Third Girl from the Left. The title refers to Angela, daughter of Mildred and mother of Tamara, who had a brief and somewhat shabby career as an extra in '70s blaxploitation films she always seemed to be the third girl from the left in this or that scene. Angie's love of film was first nurtured by Mildred, who as a child witnessed the murder of her own mother during the 1921 Tulsa race riots. Mildred's frequent trips to the local cinema help her escape the dullness of her middle-class life and the pressure of childhood memories. Once Angie escapes stultifying Tulsa for Hollywood, she becomes estranged from her family, who are shocked by the films she makes. Her relationship with her daughter Tamara, conceived during an affair with a fellow actor, can also be fractious. Tamara makes movies herself; she's a second camera assistant on Law and Order until a sense of duty and curiosity takes her to Oklahoma to record Mildred's last illness. Thus, movies for these women are a form not only of escape but empowerment and, finally, healing.
Southgate's writing is lean, matter-of-fact and brightened with tart humor, though she doesn't shy from raunchiness where it's necessary the world through which Angie moves is a rough one. The interweaving of personal and cultural history is subtle and unexpectedly satisfying. We are taken from Mildred's lush '50s and '60s films to Angie's big scene in Coffy to Tamara and the progress that allows her to at least attend film school and be an assistant on a hit show, even though white male directors still get the plum jobs. Third Girl from the Left is a wise and compassionate book. Arlene McKanic writes from Jamaica, New York.