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  • Writer's pictureJoshua Thomas

CineQ: Tiny and Ruby: Hell Divin’ Women (Dir. Greta Schiller, Andrea Weiss, 1988)

Bearing in mind that this doc was made over thirty years ago from this date, this is something that I believe has relevance in viewing in today's world.

Directed by Greta Schiller and Andrea Weiss, it follows the story of a female couple named Tiny Davis and Ruby Lucas, who were once jazz musicians in their prime. Ruby having played on bass, piano and drums as well as vocals, and Tiny who was in an all-black female group called the Harlem Play Girls and notoriously was famed for playing the trumpet. The documentary follows two ways; firstly, by speaking with the two women individually, and then it speaks to them as a pair.

When one of the directors speaks with them individually, they each discuss their lives before they had met each other. From Tiny, we understand that she is one of many children that all resided with her mother. And that it was her mother that had bought her the trumpet, after seeing the male high school students playing one and piquing her interest. Tiny, I would say is a more humorous character. She likes to laugh, whether it is with the directors or with Ruby, she definitely enjoys seeing the lighter side of things when it comes to recounting her story.

Tiny also discusses that she found music when she arrived in Kansas with the Harlem Play Girls. They were an all-black female group who performed in front an all-white audience. She also discusses that she was the biggest in the group when it came down to size and that she almost never fit on the screen. Her daughter, Dorothy, also joined the group as a bassist and shortly after meeting her, we see a performance she does in the living room. Tiny also has a great-grandson named Stevie, who also plays the trumpet and at the end of the doc, we see them play together. When it comes to Ruby, Tiny says that she had saved her life when she had arrived in Kansas. Stating that "she's alright."

Ruby was a bassist, drummer and piano player, living in Kansas City and she started playing from the age of 16. She was very much into sport during her time at high school; baseball and basketball to name a few. Ruby has more direct approach which I think is great because whilst she is talking about the clubbing and the "after hour spots" they would go to, and also how she met Tiny, the latter makes a comment offscreen to which she responds with, "Tiny!", in an almost outrage yet comical response. This gives a sense as though she is the one who is in charge of the relationship.

When it comes to the filmmaking and the storytelling, this I think is one of the things that stands out the most. The doc is shot in a letterbox screen ratio format, in a standard definition tone with visible scratches and burns that flash throughout. What this does is it gives an old style feel to it. It gives a sense that we are watching a history documentary that was recorded some time ago, which it was, but id being told by someone who was there at the time. And this is also emphasized by the way in which the transitions worked. To note, there are many screenwipes and fades of newspaper clippings about the group of the players, and also footage of the clubs which featured couples dancing, as well as the after hours spots and photos of the groups back then performing.

The camerawork and location is also something to be praised. Other than the archive footage, everything is all shot at Ruby and Tiny's home, with the directors occasionally speaking to them, as previously mentioned, on their own and as a pair. There is a narrative poet who voices Tiny's statement of what it was like to be in the band. They use wide shots, seeing each of them in their environment. Whether it is sitting in an armchair with a glass in one hand. We see Tiny's picture of when she was in the Harlem Play Girls as a grand portrait above her on a wall, and close-ups have been used also to orchestrate the intimate feel to the audience. But the intimate feel also exists when the two are together, sat on the sofa and with a photo album Infront of them. I feel from this as if I am at my own grandparents’ house and seeing them relive their youthful days.

This documentary is something that I am glad is being shown at the CineQ/Shout Festival. It isn't another modern documentary that discusses how LGBTQ+ is now, but instead it talks to an older female couple where the subject of LGBTQ+ communities are not the forefront or the narrative. Instead the director wants to go down memory lane with both Tiny and Ruby and also the audience and recall what they previously done and to some extent are still doing now. I think that this is a doc that people would definitely recommend to others and should be seen to a wider audience as in these times you need something to keep you happy and positive, and I, myself, am positive that you would absolutely fall in love with these pair.

You can watch the trailer and rent Tiny and Ruby: Hell Divin’ Women on Vimeo here

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