Martha Southgate’s Third Girl from the Left is something of a rarity – a novel by and about people who love movies. Actually, the women in Southgate’s books don’t just love movies – they live for them. Third Girl focuses on three generations of women in the same family: Mildred, a wife and mother in Tulsa, Oklahoma; her daughter Angela, who flees home and becomes a bit player in the blaxploitation movies of the 1970s; and Angela’s daughter, Tamara, who dreams of becoming a filmmaker.
Southgate breaks the novel into three parts, each telling the story of each woman, starting with Angela. Mildred’s youngest, Angela flees her life in Tulsa, looking for fame in the movies.
Instead, she learns how to grant “favors” to certain producers in exchange for bit parts in the movies. Her proudest moment in the business occurs when she plays the third girl on the left in a fight scene in the Pam Grier vehicle “Coffy.” Fans of that movie (and I am one) will no doubt enjoy the way Southgate implants her characters into that and other classics of the blaxploitation genre. This all causes great pain to Angela’s mother, a woman Angela has never understood. To her, Mildred is refined and distant, someone the passionate, impulsive Angela can’t relate to. But Mildred has her own secrets, which I won’t reveal here, except to say that her life, too, was deeply affected by her love of movies.
In some way, movies change all of the women’s lives, and Southgate beautifully captures how intoxicating movies can be. That adoration of the cinema is best captured in the character of Tamara, a girl who saw “Raging Bull” at age five and was horrified and captivated at the same time.
Third Girl is compelling, entertaining and moving. It’s a valentine to all who love movies, and, have felt transformed by them, for better or for worse.