The blaxploitation era of the early '70s was a mixed blessing for black actresses, who found more work in movies than ever before, but often in roles that required them to take off their clothes and slap each other around. In Martha Southgate's novel Third Girl From The Left, aspiring actress Angela arrives in Los Angeles from Tulsa during the brief, beautiful reign of Pam Grier and Fred Williamson. She gets a lucrative Playboy club-bunny gig, which she parlays into movie roles like the one in the book's title. But that's not all that "Third Girl From The Left" means. Southgate also has three women in her story, all of whom have arguably been "left." Angela's mother Mildred lives through the 1921 Tulsa race riots, only to have her spirit drained away by life as a small-town housewife, and Angela's daughter Tamara slugs her way through New York University film school, only to wind up as an assistant camera operator on Law & Order. And when the heyday of Coffy and Shaft ends, Angela settles into a more conventional existence as a receptionist and single mother (with a live-in lesbian lover).
Southgate gives each woman her own section of the book, and brings them all together in a pat ending. A lot of Third Girl From The Left is pat, including a plot that contrives to keep the three generations separated by imagined slights and exaggerated pride. But Southgate excels in the particulars, like her rhythmic, poetic evocations of hot Tulsa summers, and her half-comic, half-mystic description of Angela changing her hairstyle from processed to natural. She plays the three women's stories against each other—smartly starting in the middle with Angela's sexy '70s odyssey—and lines up their parallels, from the way each heroine is torn between two loves to the way they all have their artistic dreams deferred.
The novel's most haunting aspect is Southgate's depiction of how rage can become a novelty, and novelty can fade to nostalgia. The disgust each woman feels—with one another, with white people, with show business—thrills them when they're young, but doesn't sustain them as adults. But whatever disgust Southgate has felt in the past, she channels into the recreation of idylls, and the fantasy that they might withstand the practical challenges of simple need. The result is a moving, yearning book. It would make a great movie.