Third Girl from the Left

Third Girl from the Left

by Martha Southgate

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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780618773381
Publisher: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
Publication date: 09/05/2006
Edition description: REPRINT
Pages: 286
Sales rank: 357,738
Product dimensions: 5.25(w) x 8.00(h) x 0.64(d)

About the Author


MARTHA SOUTHGATE was born and raised in Cleveland. She received her B.A. from Smith College and an M.F.A. from Goddard College. She has been an editor at Essence, a reporter for Premiere and the New York Daily News, and a contributor to the New York Times. She is the author of the critically acclaimed novel The Fall of Rome. Southgate lives in Brooklyn, New York.

Read an Excerpt

Third Girl from the Left


By Martha Southgate

Houghton Mifflin

Copyright © 2015 Martha Southgate
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-544-40989-7


My mother was an actress. In some ways , she doesn’t look very different from the way she did back then. She still has honey-colored skin and eyelashes that make you think of fur or feathers. Her movies were all made in the early 1970s, before I was born. You know the titles of some of the big ones: Shaft and Super Fly and Blacula.
She wasn’t in those. Then there were the little ones that blew in and out of the dollar theaters in Cleveland and Detroit and Gary inside of a week, until the last brother who was willing to part with $1 had done so: TNT Jackson and Abby and Savage Sisters. She’s in some of those. You wouldn’t know her, though. She was no Pam Grier. These are her credits: Girl in Diner, Murder Victim #1, Screaming Girl, Junkie in Park. She was the third girl from the left in the fight scene in Coffy. When I was little, sometimes she woke me late at night and we sat down in front of the television to watch a bleached-out print of a movie with a lot of guys with big guns and bigger Afros. They ran and jumped and shot. They all wore leather and bright-colored, wide-legged pants made of unnatural fibers. They said, "That’s baaaad” as percussive, synthesized music perked behind them. The movies made their nonsensical way along, and then suddenly my mother said, "See, see, there I am, behind that guy, laying on the ground. That’s me.” Or she said, "That’s me in that booth.” Then Richard Roundtree or Gloria Hendry or Fred Williamson sprayed the room with gunfire, and my mother slumped over the table, her mouth open, her eyes closed. Blood seeped slowly out from under her enormous Afro.
I looked away from the television at the mother I knew. She smiled watching the gory death of her younger self. Her pleasure in her work was so pure, even though all she was doing was holding still as dyed Karo syrup drained from a Baggie under her wig onto a cheap Formica table.
My mother never said, but I knew, that I ended her acting career. I liked to think that my father was somebody like John Shaft, striding through the streets of Manhattan, a complicated man, a black private dick who was a sex machine to all the chicks. But I suspected that my father was a bit player like her. Thug #1. Or Man in Restaurant. Once I learned how dull a movie set is when you’re not running the show, I imagined the two of them, in those endless, drifting hours, slowly beginning to talk to each other, my mother looking up shyly but oddly direct, the low bass rumble of my father’s voice as he asked her name, then asked her out. They didn’t have folding canvas chairs, their names written on them, the way the director or the stars did. They would have started talking as they stood around in extras holding, a few words at a time. I imagine my mother looked at my father’s face and saw in it someone who would make everything perfect.
My mother believed in the power of movies and the people in them to change a life, change her life. I can count on my two hands the number of stories she’s told me about my father.
And then only when I’ve asked. She didn’t even tell me his name until I was grown. But exactly what she wore in the fight scene in Coffy? And what Pam Grier said to her before they started shooting? I’ve heard that story a thousand times. In that scene, Pam Grier rips my mother’s dress nearly off her body. It hangs, ragged, over her shoulders in two scarlet shards. She wears a fierce, sexy smile and a crooked, reddish wig. Her breasts are very beautiful. Here is what Pam Grier said to my mother right before filming began: "That dress looks good on you, girl. Too bad I gotta tear it.” My mother held these words as a talisman against whatever else life might bring her. Pam Grier thought she looked good.
When I told my mother I wanted to go to film school, she was silent for a long minute. Then she said, "Not too many women direct movies, do they?” "Not too many. But remember that movie The Piano? You never saw it, but that was a woman. And there’ve been others.” "Any of them black?
I hesitated. "A few. Julie Dash. Euzhan Palcy. Kasi Lemmons. You know how it is, Ma. Maybe I can help change that. Even if I can’t . . . it’s what I need to do.” "How you gonna pay for it?” "I’ll get a scholarship. I’ll borrow money. I’ll figure it out, Ma.” Ma looked at me. "Yeah, you probably will. I remember when I came out here. I was broke as hell. But it wasn’t much that could have stopped me. Guess that’s how I know you’re my girl. Hardheaded. Just like me.” So I applied to a lot of film schools.
I got into NYU.. I remember holding the admissions letter, staring at it, thinking, Spike Lee and Martin Scorsese, Spike Lee and Martin Scorsese.
Stupid, huh? But that’s all I could think. I’d lived in Los Angeles my whole life. I knew New York from only a thouuuuusand noir pictures and Mean Streets and Sweet Smell of Success. (Here’s my favorite, favorite scene: when Burt Lancaster gazes over the lights of the city, hot jazz blasting behind him, and he says, "I love this dirty town.” My second favorite scene: when Burt, a key light under his chin to give him a menacing glow, says to Tony Curtis, "I’d hate to take a bite out of you. You’re a cookie full of arsenic.”) I went to grad school in 1999. It took me three years after college, working like a dog, to get up the nerve and to earn the money to pay for it. I knew it wouldn’t be like a black-and-white movie. More like Do the Right Thing. But New York was still . . . so not LA. I thought it would be the home I never had, the place I should have been born.
I got in with a short I made about my mother. I did it in our kitchen. A couple of lights, my old video camera. I’d kept it working, even though I’d had it since I was twelve.
Her girlfriend, Sheila, was there, like always, but I framed the shots so that only her arm and hand were in the frame. The main thing you saw was my mother’s face. She was still so beautiful, her hair slicked back into a ponytail, her clothes just so, even on a Saturday afternoon. Maybe she had more lines around her eyes than she used to. I didn’t notice them until I looked through my viewfinder. "So, Ma,” I asked as the film rolled, "how’d you end up in Los Angeles?” "Couldn’t stand the country town I was from another minute.” She laughed. It was like the camera was her home.
"What country town was that?” "Tulsa, Oklahoma. You don’t get no more country than that, sweetheart. That is the countriest I ever hope to be.” "Did you always live there?” "’Til I was twenty.” A drag on the cigarette, a look out the window.
"Why’d you leave?” She looked back at the camera. Her eyes glowed in the late afternoon sunlight. "I was gonna be a movie star.” She smiled a little. "The biggest there ever was.” A slow lowering of the eyelids, another drag on the cigarette. "Didn’t work out that way, though. It hardly ever does.” "What do you think it would have been like if it had?” She smiled. "Good Lord, Tam, I don’t know.” She looked airily around our small apartment, then briefly at Sheila. "We’d have a house, that’s for sure. Not this ratty little apartment.
Maybe a pool. You’d have liked that when you were little, huh, Tam? I never really have been much of a swimmer. But that would have been nice. A house in the hills. Maybe a garden. And a big-ass car!” She yelled this last, then gave Sheila a high-five.
"We’d be rollin’. No more piece-of-crap used cars. That’s for damn sure.” She paused, picked up her cigarette again. Took a drag. As the smoke entered her lungs, she seemed to return to where she really was, who she was now. A forty-eight-year-old who was a receptionist for a plastic surgeon and rented DVDs and videos and looked for herself in the backgrounds of old movies. Her eyes narrowed. "But that’s not happening, is it?” Then she fell silent.
Later, when I looked at the footage, I was amazed. I’d never seen my mother look like this, so serious and direct. Always, whenever she was talking to me, her attention was elsewhere. But now, as I held the camera, she was there, fully present, every inch of her focused. Her eyes were shiny and hard. You couldn’t look away. I couldn’t figure out why her directors had never noticed that quality. You couldn’t see it when she wasn’t being filmed. But when she was? Good God. I couldn’t look away. I must have run the tape for an hour, over and over, looking for the words that would explain my mother’s life. House. Car. Damn.
Rollin’. A star. Gonna be a star.

Copyright © 2005 by Martha Southgate.
Reprinted by permission of Houghton Mifflin Company.

(Continues...)

Excerpted from Third Girl from the Left by Martha Southgate. Copyright © 2015 Martha Southgate. Excerpted by permission of Houghton Mifflin.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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Third Girl from the Left 4.5 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 6 reviews.
vfbynoe on LibraryThing 3 months ago
This novel is about three generations of women. All three of these African American women love films. Angela grows up in Tulsa Oklahoma with a very private mother. She eventually moves to California to pursue acting but gets caught up in the "black exploitation" films of the 1970s. Angela ends up having a daughter who marvels at the passion her mother had for becoming a famous actor but never accomplished. This story is not only about black films, but it about the relationships between mothers and daughters. Highly recommended.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Ladebugg More than 1 year ago
I could not stop reading this book. Words can not express how good this book is. It seemed to tell a story that I could relate to very well. Family is so important to me and the characters in this book seemed so real. I found myself in tears while reading certain parts in the book. Very well written.. I am looking forward to reading other books written by Martha Southgate!!!
Guest More than 1 year ago
I must say that her first novel 'Fall of Rome' is a hard act to follow however, Martha Southgate's sophomore effort 'Third Girl from the Left' supports my first impression of her as a writer: Southgate is a gifted creator and teller of stories. I not only enjoyed this mother/daughter tale, but also the talent she displayed manipulating language and weaving in the historical social climate of each of her characters (from the tragic destruction of Greenwood, OK to the era of Blaxploitation films) Each woman's narrative was a journey to becoming her own self. How awesome that each daughter--Mildred, Angela and Tamara--had to learn about her mother's past to accept her own present. Best of all was the way Southgate brought the daughter Angela back to her mother Mildred using the granddaughter-Tamara's need to make her mark as a film director. I think 'Third Girl on the Left' is one heck of a story!
Guest More than 1 year ago
This well-crafted novel brought me women to love through generations of my own American lifetime. Southgate builds her story with assurance and engages sympathy for her characters, each one distinctive.
Guest More than 1 year ago
I really loved the three main characters-- daughter, mother & grandmother-- and how Southgate gave each one her own secrets, desires, and space within the narrative to bloom, with some delicious surprises. It's a real talent to be able to take the reader into these unique private worlds of three different characters with each one feeling fully formed and alive. I'm also a sucker for those kinds of intergenerational stories. In this case we were treated to an intimate view of the experience of being an African-American woman within three specific and very different time periods. And, hey, it's sexy too! I hope this will find the wide and enthusiastic audience it deserves...