Martha: A Picture Story | Review

 Somewhere in New York City during the mid-1970s, a thirty-something Martha Cooper can be found where risks are happening. Like an epic love story, but it's a woman and her camera, director Selina Miles captures the effervescent woman dedicated to human connection and the power of art. 

As alive as one of Cooper's photographs, Miles invites us into the heart of the action, where we run into subways guerilla-style watching what we know as graffiti happen in motion. Later revealed that the art is writing and the artists' writers, Miles provides a contextual backdrop to something society frequently paints as an irritant or stain. Seeing political figurehead's disdain for the writing and watching publishers turn down the fantastic opportunity to publish Martha Cooper and Henry Chalfant's work builds the world most people are familiar with; graffiti is an extension of delinquency. 

Martha: A Picture Story plays in two worlds, the exciting underbelly of a misunderstood culture that coincided with political uprising where landlords burned buildings to collect reparations and the high-art scene of Manhattan where people schmooze in galleries and are savvy in pairing art with commerce. Cooper's badass approach is out of place in a world she has to appease, working for traditional print companies such as the New York Post and National Geographic, where she felt unfulfilled in their structured ethos of "making a picture" not taking one. 

Miles makes her film accessible to audiences beyond those familiar with the world of graffiti by providing a comprehensive understanding of its cultural and personal importance. Using Martha's narrative to combine the two worlds, she provides a compassionate portrait of a woman known to be an icon in particular spaces. 

The power of the film lies in Martha's lap when she's running eagerly into the unknown with people she's just met who trust her wholeheartedly and openly welcome her into their safe spaces. Expressed in an offhand remark, Martha says she is "comfortable being alone," but it is clear she thrives among people, her deep affection and interest in understanding "corners of life that are often forgot about" (as said by a friend) is what makes the film's narrative so compelling. It invites its audience to spaces they may never occupy, extending its ethos of empathy and sincerity. 

Everyone involved in the making of Martha: A Picture Story has given every drop of passion they have into bringing it to life. For her debut feature, Selina Miles bottles Martha's infectious spirit and condenses it into a sleek 80 minutes. In the press notes, Miles says: "at the core of the human condition is a need to proclaim our existence, to say “I am here”," and this film most certainly expresses that for Martha, Selina and the world of writers.

Martha: A Picture Story is available in the US from March 16th 2021

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