Click to Skip Ad
Closing in...

Black Film Theory: Fighting the Illusions of White Supremacy in Cinematic Narration - Part One

Features
by Andre Seewood
January 6, 2014 10:25 AM
39 Comments
  • |
'Spring Breakers"

Unfortunately because of the marginalized status of Black filmmakers within the American Entertainment Complex -due to smaller budgets, fewer releases, segregation from international markets, and severely constricted short term box office expectations- film theory is often considered a pretentious and unnecessary endeavor for Black filmmakers to engage in since it is commonly accepted that profit margins exclusively determine the significance of a Black filmmaker’s career (See: Tyler Perry).   By contrast, it is prestige in the form of recognized stylistic innovations, noble cause stories, and the accumulation of domestic and international awards which often supports and extends the careers of White filmmakers regardless of their individual film’s box office performance (See: Wes Anderson, Darren Aronofsky, Terence Malick, The Coen Brothers, et al. ).

The purpose of what I hope will be a continuing series of articles by others and myself is to re-invigorate the need for Black film theory as a catalyst for discussion and debate among all filmmakers about how race impacts the creation and reception of cinema.  The ultimate goal of Black film theory is to contaminate the “Whiteness” of the dominate cinema, destroy its foundations and build a new racially inclusive cinema that contests and/or exposes all inequities (race, class, gender etc) at every opportunity in the pleasurable context of filmed entertainment.

UNDERSTANDING (His) STORY  

Taking as true Alfred Hitchcock’s remark that,” Drama is life with the dull bits cut out,” our endeavor here in this inaugural article is to scrutinize why these “dull bits” have been cut out and to suggest that the absence of these so-called “dull bits” often supports the illusion of White supremacy in cinematic storytelling.  Our point of departure begins by building upon the work of film scholar David Bordwell and the intriguing chapter of his book POETICS OF CINEMA, called “Cognition and Comprehension.”   Bordwell begins where another well known film theorist, Christian Metz, began decades earlier with the question,” What enables films- particularly narrative films to be understood?”(1)  It is surely one of the least discussed aspects of cinematic narration that is the peculiar socio-psychological component we will call story cognition (or how we understand and gain pleasure from the telling of a tale).  Although Bordwell  does not extend his work into the subject of race and the cinema, we shall attempt to apply many of his observations in such a context for the light that can be shed on this thorny issue.  

But before going any further we should discuss in greater detail this particular aspect of cinematic storytelling.  

The story in every narrative film, no matter how greatly acclaimed or how little known, has a gap in its contiguity (its logic) because fictional time and narrative time do not always have to match.  Everything that happens in a story does not have to be seen on the screen.  This gap or series of gaps must be filled in by the spectator for the continuation of pleasure and the comprehension of the tale being told.  These gaps are filled in by the assumptions of the spectator as the filmmaker uses the grammar of cinema (shots, editing and sound) to encourage the spectator to make certain assumptions to fill these gaps.  Bordwell calls these assumptions, cognizing or,” going beyond the information given [and] hypothesizing what is likely to happen next.” (2)

In short, when we watch a film we are engaged in a,” process of elaboration,” that can be called story cognition where we non-consciously fill in the gaps of a film’s story based on,” informal reasoning procedures.”(3)  One infamous example of story cognition to fill in a gap in a story is found during the first act of M. Night Shyamalan’s THE SIXTH SENSE (1999).  Once Dr. Malcolm Crowe (Bruce Willis) is shot by a former patient at night in his home the scene fades out and the following scene begins with Dr. Malcolm Crowe reading a patient’s dossier in daylight outside of a home.  Seeing this character no longer in distress and doing work in daylight caused many of us to assume that the doctor had survived the shooting and thus led to the “surprise” ending of the film.

The best filmmakers use these story gaps to elicit the intelligence of the audience to make certain assumptions whether or not these assumptions turn out to be erroneous or true to the themes of the story.  Still, other filmmakers use these gaps to elicit the ignorance and presumptions of a spectator to fill in these gaps and conceal the prejudices and racial stereotypes upon which such particular gaps are based.

For our purposes, we are interested in this latter group of films and filmmakers that use the ignorance and presumptions of the spectator to conceal the prejudices and racial stereotypes upon which their story gaps are based.  Here we are concerned with defining two types of story cognition attributable to the informal reasoning processes of two distinct racial groups:

1) White Story Cognition- which is particular to White films and the audiences to which such films appeal.

2) Black Story Cognition- which is particular to Black films and the audiences to which such films appeal.

Of course one could easily extend such story cognition categories to include Gay & Lesbian cognition, male or female cognition and the like, but this is beyond the scope of this article.  It would be prudent at this point to put forth a concise definition of a White film and a Black film:

 A) The White film is narrowly defined here as a film with at least one White in the lead role or co-lead role and Blacks or other ethnicities in supporting or non-influential roles where the narrative resolves itself by giving more dramatic attention to the emotions and circumstances of the White character(s).

B) The Black film is a film with a majority Black cast that situates Whites, if any, in peripheral or non-influential roles where the narrative resolves itself by giving more dramatic attention to the emotions and circumstances of the Black character(s).  

Make no mistake what will be asserted here is that due to various race specific and culturally embedded stereotypes, prejudices and power relations the informal reasoning processes of Whites and Blacks are different; the two groups might watch the same film and yet make entirely different assumptions with regards to how they fill in the gaps of a particular film’s story.

We are guided here in this assertion by an observation by film scholar Nicole Rafter who states that,” "For example, if there are no African-American characters at all in a movie, people of color may be more aware than Whites of watching what critic Anna Everett calls a "segregated" film- one from which people like themselves are excluded; even if Whites recognize the exclusion, it will have different meanings for them. Moreover, watching "integrated" films- movies with some African American actors and characters- people of color may be more conscious than Whites of the racial hierarchy in which members of their group seldom qualify as the hero."(4)

This separation of White cognition and Black cognition is not arbitrary; it mirrors a larger systemic separation within the media industry between White and Black films.  That is to say, since the American Entertainment Complex has repeatedly segregated Black films from the international market, allotted smaller budgets and lower box office expectations for these films vis-à-vis White films we can surmise that there are assumptions being made in the offices of this industry that rest upon racially motivated inferences and hypotheses with regard to what is a Black film and what is a White (i.e. mainstream) Film.  These assumptions are what fill in the gap between what the White executives know about the Black audience which usually leads to the “surprise” endings when a Black film outperforms its box office expectations or audience demographics. (See: Think Like a Man –or- Best Man Holiday)

Of course a major objection that would make all of these assertions unsupportable is: How can we presume to know what others are assuming, particularly an entire group of spectators characterized solely by their race?  I believe these assertions can be supported not by reading the people, but instead by reading the films that have been separated for us by the industry into White films and Black films.  The films themselves are the traces of White and Black story cognition because as Bordwell has noted,” Not all spectators are filmmakers, but all filmmakers are spectators… [Therefore] a film displays systematic patterns of narrative, themes, style, and the like.(5)  Bordwell calls these narratives with systematic patterns “norms” that supply “cues” to a spectator which,” initiate the process of elaboration, resulting eventually in inferences and hypotheses.(6)            

We can re-read these cues to comprehend how they are eliciting a distinct set of assumptions that characterize White story cognition vis-à-vis Black story cognition.

To better grasp the notion of these two types of story cognition we have to understand that each type has a master assumption that exists beyond the narrative itself which guides all of our subsequent assumptions, inferences and hypotheses when we as spectators fill in the gaps of a White film or a Black film.  

The master assumption of White story cognition can be summarized as: We shall always prevail.

The master assumption of Black story cognition can be summarized as: We shall overcome- someday.

These two assumptions would appear to be very similar but in fact the two are qualitatively different. The master assumptions are also historically determined and adhere to racial hierarchies that have been consistent since the discovery of the New World.  Another source for the master assumptions has to do with story archetypes and who controls the American Entertainment Industry where there is a preponderance of White (male) heroes who survive the trials and tribulations of the stories in a large percentage of White films.  But by contrast, there is a greater propensity for Black co-leads and/or supporting characters to be killed or rendered ineffectual during the course of the stories of a large percentage of White films.

Most importantly, what distinguishes these two types of story cognition is that you do not have to actually be White to comprehend a White film through White story cognition; other races are willing to adopt the mask of White story cognition to follow the cues and accept the concealment of prejudices and racial stereotypes in exchange for the narrative and visual pleasure of a White film.  By contrast, to fully comprehend a Black film through Black story cognition one has to be empathic and willing to accept the revelation of prejudices, racial stereotypes and the history and continuation of systemic racial inequities and injustices to follow the cues within the film in exchange for the narrative and visual pleasure of a Black film.

If we have to ask ourselves the question why the two types of story cognition are different the simple answer is because most White films often reflect the dominant cultural illusions to which we are all obliged to aspire.  On the other hand, many Black films often reflect the awful truths concealed behind those dominant illusions to which we would rather ignore.

Man prefers illusion over the truth, one could say.

We have a small sampling of films to support these assertions, but hopefully not all films can be so easily separated within the two categories because there are always exceptions whose significance we shall address later.  In regards to White story cognition we will briefly examine particular gaps in the films: SKYFALL (Sam Mendes- 2012), SPRINGBREAKERS (Harmony Korine- 2013), and WORLD WAR Z (Mark Forster- 2013).  In regards to Black story cognition in the second part of this article we will briefly examine particular gaps in THE BUTLER (Lee Daniels-2013), 12 YEARS A SLAVE (Steve McQueen-2013), MANDELA: A LONG WALK TO FREEDOM (Justin Chadwick – 2013)

Features
  • |

More: Things That Make You Go Hmm...

Free Indie Movies and Documentaries    

39 Comments

  • Josh Buechler | January 21, 2014 10:59 PMReply

    Fantastic article. I am looking forward to more from this project.

    Your analysis of Skyfall as a prime example of "The White Man Will Prevail" is interesting, as I think it is extremely on point and really gets to the source of the James Bond character in general. At the same time I know quite a few people who really dislike Skyfall because oddly enough James Bond more or less fails in his aims throughout the whole movie. (Fails at every turn to save anyone that he sets out to save)
    Yet your point still stands in that the film outright has several scenes verbally describing the institutions that Bond represents and by the end of the film, that is what is upheld. Even with Bond pretty much completely failing in his objectives, the film still kind of ends on a triumphant note, returning to the status quo of the first Sean Connery film with a big "Bond has arrived" moment.

    I also really appreciate your thoughts on World War Z (and the thoughts you cited). It really pointed out yet another way that the film completely ignored the source material, which detailed a fully global effort with no quick fixes and massive shifts in global power relations.

    Can't wait to see more.

  • Tiffany | January 20, 2014 4:09 PMReply

    Great article! I can't wait to read part 2.

  • Demetrius Bagley | January 18, 2014 3:32 PMReply

    BBC's Sherlock is even more fascinating having read this article. THANK YOU :)

  • Daryl | January 8, 2014 2:11 PMReply

    Andre Seawood you are misinterpretating my comments saying I'm a black elities because I say it's going to go over most black people head,I'm not saying black folks are dumb I'm saying we are in a sytem that has created this plight of black folks, of course it's going to be some black folks that understand what you are saying, what I'm saying it's not going to enough to make change because of the system we are in and the mental assault on black people's mind.This is not saying black people are dumb, but it's pointing the reality of the after effects of slavery and jim crows laws on black people that continues today in a different form. Also who said I didn't have a stratergy, that's your assumption, my stratergy is words with action because I know black people need to see it to start making these changes because of white supremacy ment assault on them through images. Once you know see e it and know it's possible and it's just not talk anymore that's when the real change comes. If you was right on your opinion of articles like these not going over black people head, we wouldn't be having these conversations year after year because we would have the education and the understanding thta we need to build and create our own systems to make real change instead of trying to change it within a racists system design to keep us down. You think it's an accident that most of the black money doesn't stay in our own community, this is my point again on stuff going over most black people head because if most of us had the education we needed for change we would understand that most of our money needs to stay within our own community and we would care enough to make these changes to start keeping our money in our community. This is not black elitism this, is the reality of black men and women being a target in america to be a permenant underclass. You dealing in theory, I'm dealing in facts, show me the numbers that back up your statements of me being a black elitists because I recognize this assault on black people. Show me the numbers of black people getting the same economic and education opportunites as white folks, show me the numbers of black people being harrassed and illegal searched by the poilce the same as other races, show me the numbers of black people in hollywood getting rich and not putting out the same sterotypes as white hollywood has been putting out about black people. Show me one 20 million dollar a film black actor or rich black producer that has produced a non traditonal hollywood black film, example sci fi or fantasy film, so how can you say this not going to affect a mass of people mental state when they have to deal with these realities and article like yours cannot go over most people's head that has to deal with these issues on a daily basis, this is not saying they are dumb but talking about the system they are in that created this. Andre Seawood I respect your opinion, I think this debate is good because it's no one way to solve things, but I had to correct you on the black elitists part because I'm far from that, I believe in black people no matter what class they are in.

  • Daryl | January 7, 2014 6:15 PMReply

    This article and the comments highlights the problem with black cinema, too many of us are trying to fit in with mainstream white society because we feel like we made it if they accept us, that gives us validation, instead of using the tools we have and telling our own stories. The black man and woman has alway being a target and subject to stereotypes, because the fake powers that be know images can be used to control people giving them low self esteem, making them believe those stereotypes, and making them think they are hopeless, that's why you continue to get tons of articles like this about what hollywood is not doing, last time I checked it's no black people greenlighting movies but it's rich black people in hollywood keeping their mouth shut and going with the program so they can get their holywood walk of fame and riches and keep their jobs in the so called liberal hollywood who suppose to welcome change. You think rich white people in hollywood are going to share their power with black folks because you writing articles like this, no they just laugh at this because in the end they know this is just all talk until the next new article comes out talking about the same thing.Black producers, directors, writers, actors and actresses have to come together on a real level to get it done and stop being manipulated by the hollywood dream, if you notice it's always one or two black box office stars at a time and it's no black woman box office stars, this is for a reason, to keep you in your place. Andre Seawood I remember reading an economic piece you wrote about how we can build a strong black cinema, it was a good article, that's where most of our focus should be. You cannot negotiate with white supremacy or make them see the light by thought provoking articles they only understand action. These is what white supremacy has bamboozled black people into believing that this way of just talk is going to get the job done.

  • Andre Seewood | January 8, 2014 7:50 AM

    @Daryl, harbored within your commentaries is the repugnant notion of Black Elitism: the idea that most Blacks won't understand something," because its going to go over most blacks heads because of the way we have been conditioned to see ourselves in films and society as a whole..." I reject this notion wholeheartedly as merely the flip side of White prejudice which uses Black exceptionalism as a strategy to, as you say,"keep us in a box." Moreover, you state that," the only way this changes is action through showing different images and making good films and not just films for the profit..." I believe articles like these and others on this site are necessary because the thought they provoke can lead many filmmakers (Black and White alike) to make those different images and those good films and not just films for profit. One of the many problems I have with Black Elitism is that those who subscribe to it, mistakenly believe that 1) only a few exceptional people can understand what they already know and 2) those people of any importance with whom they associate already know everything that they know as a closed group. Black Elitists have wisdom and expertise that they do not share with other up and coming filmmakers and talented people because they have been embittered and divide Black people into two categories: the enlightened and the ignorant. Because of your statement that these articles make good points but," it's going to go over most black folks head," you express in my opinion an form of Black Elitism- and here it might be better that we agree to disagree because I could just as easily state that: action without a strategy," is going to end in an empty progression to change."

  • Daryl | January 8, 2014 3:17 AM

    Andre Seawood I do care about the films we make, the point I'm making is as long as we just talk about that system and not do something about about it we are going to be in a position to make bs films by hollywood that reinforce sterotypes because that's how they want to keep it. I said you make good points in your article and it's on point, but I'm saying your articles does nothing in the long run not because it's not in depth with good points but because it's going to go over most black folks head because of the way we have been conditioned to see ourselves in films and society as a whole, the only way this changes is action through showing different images and making good films and not just films for the profit, I have been saying this also what you stated that too many of us filmmakers and actors just see film as a hustle instead of an art form and as long as the film made money it's a good film. When I say tell our stories I mean tell the stories you want to tell, this will lead to diverse and good films and different images of black people because all black people don't think or see things alike, the hollywood model is designed to keep us in a box. We will never get our due in that system because it's designed to keep us in our place. Also I didn't say these articles shouldn't be written the point I'm making that's too much of our focus instead of getting things done, words with no action is going to end in empty progression to change.

  • Andre Seewood | January 7, 2014 10:46 PM

    @Daryl, I appreciate this commentary as well as your earlier commentary but I must state that you are misinterpreting both my article and my overall aim with writing about Black Cinema and White supremacy. What I'm trying to get us to focus on in this article is the FORM of Black cinema and White cinema. I do not subscribe to the notion that just making more Black films will allow us to build a strong Black cinema- but we must be concerned with the quality of those Black films. And by quality, I mean the formal style and the dramatic approach that allows a film and a filmmaker to distinguish themselves and the innovation of their work. As a way of understanding my position: I would rather have one great Black film a year than ten medicore Black films a year. I am not interested in negotiating with White supremacy as you put it. If we examine the form of White films and most importantly of Black films I believe several new strategies can be developed to make more interesting films, more challenging films, more innovative films. Because if you think I give a damn about "rich white people in Hollywood" laughing at what I write because they think that it is just talk, then you are blinding yourself. As I stated at the beginning of the article many of us think that film theory is not important because a Black filmmaker's reputation rests solely on the profit margins of his or her films and that is unfair, wrong and puts us at a disadvantage in making different kinds of films in different genres. Discussion, debate, and articles like this one and others are needed because 1) not everyone has been privy to these discussions, debates and articles and 2) we challenge ourselves to make better films by examining the "mainstream" (i.e. white) films and our own previous films. Black cinema is a dialogue and I'm not going to stop writing "articles like this one" just because you don't want to engage in this art-form, dialogue with others or discuss the ever-changing issues that are relevant to Black cinema.

  • JEFTCG | January 6, 2014 5:39 PMReply

    Excellent observations, Mr. Seewood. Much more thoughtful (and thought-provoking) than most of the postings on this site. With no judgement toward S&A, may I respectfully suggest your own site to start, where you are the moderator/curator?

  • Joe | January 7, 2014 9:59 AM

    Appreciate the post Andre. I implore you(and all S & A readers) to peep Frank Wilderson's "Red, White & Black: Cinema and the Structure of U.S. Antagonisms". It is his meditation on film theory, political philosophy and radical political theory that is much deeper than white supremacy. It is a difficult but brilliant text.

  • Andre Seewood | January 6, 2014 6:29 PM

    Thank you for the suggestion, but I find the different perspectives, debates and observations of the other writers here at S&A incredibly stimulating...

  • Katie | January 6, 2014 3:53 PMReply

    Wow, I actually thought this was going to be a garbage post, but I really enjoyed Seewood's points. Glad I read Seewood's piece all the way through. Having said that...What are the plan for this revolution you advocate for Hollywood? I'm personally a seperatist and believe that black should create their own instead of trying to infiltrate/contaminate white cinema and destroy it.

    There will be outlined plan at the end of all this, right? Or is this another one of those talk and reflect posts? I really hope not because I actually think you are on a roll.

  • No | January 6, 2014 12:19 PMReply

    Part of the Skyfall analysis would be more "honest" -- if Seewood would also recognize that one of the other "dull bits" that is shown is that Bond is getting older and doesn't make the grade. He doesn't pass the psychological test, I think he's shooting is off, and there ares some physical he flunks. M passes him any way.

    Now, you could make an argument that this underscores the "We Shall Prevail," but fact that Seewood doesn't even mention these parts of the story--that James Bond is getting older, cause me question Seewood's agenda in trying to craft a theory. You just can't leave out elements that don't conform to the theory.

    This fails the first smell test.

  • Andre Seewood | January 6, 2014 1:26 PM

    Believe me, I appreciate your skepticism. Yes, I could have easily given a wider variety of examples of the "dull" bits being cut out of the three films I chose to examine- but there were certain restrictions in the length of the article to which I wanted to conform. Although I would like to point out that your observation," that James Bond is getting older," actually strengthens my argument about questioning his ability to actually survive the chain of lethal circumstances that begin the film. I am not deliberately leaving out elements that don't conform to the theory, but I am (hopefully) raising the questions that will allow others such as yourself to inquire further. Perhaps I err on the notion that it is not just the quantity of examples, but rather the quality of the examples that supports an argument- but I'll be the first to conceed that I'm not perfect, nor am I always right...

  • CraigT | January 4, 2014 9:54 PMReply

    Having just seen Spring Breakers, I loved EVERYTHING about this article. Thank you for your keen observations.

  • CareyCarey | January 4, 2014 9:21 PMReply

    FINE WORK! ~ J. Bassett.

    I'd like to champion that sentiment by saying Andre Seewood is Da Freakin' Man! Listen, I've been called a bootlicker and other unpleasant names for championing the efforts/work of Sergio and Tambay. Well, if recognizing (and not being ashamed, nor afraid to say) when black men are providing us with superior information and entertainment, qualifies one as a brown-noser, sign me up and supersize me to the status of S&A's champion brown nose black buck because Andre gets my shining star award.

    I've read all of Andre's articles. Although I may not agree with all of his assertions, in the arena/field of "Black Film Theory" and the struggles of Black cinema, nobody does it better than Mr. Seewood... and let me list the ways.

    His command of the English language, vocabulary and concise writing style is to die for. Granted, I have to admit that because of his intellectual style of writing and his vocabulary that's well above mine, I have to read his work/paragraphs/sentences over and over again (while referencing a dictionary) before I feel I truly understand what he's saying. But hey, when I do reach that place of understanding, I can't help but say this guy is Da Man who knows what he's talking about. And, it's always good (imo) to be pushed outside one's comfort zone.

    He's also a great debater who, unlike many writers at S&A, welcomes and requests all challengers.

    In short, I am still reading this article (for the 3rd time) and all the comments. But I had to stop to say job well done.

    Btw, aside from the quality of work Andre brings to the table, I am also impressed by the readers his articles attract to the discussion.

  • Andre Seewood | January 5, 2014 5:51 AM

    Thanks a lot man... Discussions and debates; everything helps.

  • blackbrady | January 4, 2014 7:04 PMReply

    Not gonna lie, i stopped reading towards the end. i have this conversation with myself daily, nice to see someone expound...spanks...

  • J. Bassett | January 4, 2014 3:32 PMReply

    Really dig your project here and would humbly recommend the following works to strengthen your analysis:
    1. Gladstone Yearwood's, "Black Film as a Signifying Practice," is arguably the most advanced work of its kind in the field of cinematic studies of race and narrative theory and his early work in the 1980s at OSU lays the groundwork for efforts to understand the "nature" of of black film itself as a language. Yearwood's work should be paired with Gates's seminal studies of black literary criticism, which also locates signifyin(g) (sic) practices as fundamental to the operations of what can be difficultly called "authentic" black expression.
    2. Robert Stam's and Ellas Shohat's work is also critical in this area, especially Stam's analysis of Spike Lee's films and Shoat's work on how film enunciates meaning through non-visual registers (e.g., sound, music, off-screen modalities, etc.).
    3. Bordwell's work on "poetics," it can be argued, is actually inhospitable to the kind of analysis you outline here, however in the intro/first chapter of his book that you cite, he does vaguely reference where race might be conceived as a structure of poetics, but this distinction must be made in detail for an effectively rigorous conception of black film poetics to develop. IMHO.

    FINE WORK.

    J. Bassett

  • Andre Seewood | January 4, 2014 9:08 PM

    Thank you so much for your kind words and encouragement. I would like to say that I am very familiar with Yearwood's work, as well as, Robert Stam's work. I know that it could be argued that Bordwell's work might seem inhospitable to my project but I beg to differ on that point. It just so happened that I ran across his work by chance and found his discussion of cognitive theory to be concise and nuanced enough so that it could be used to help us see how form impacts and shapes content and representation in ways that have been not typically discussed as it relates to race and film. We often approach film solely from the point of representation, but our struggles go deeper to the level of film form and it is my conviction that form (including style, non-visual registers, and performance) can aid in creating films that challenge the dominant ideology and lay the groundwork for an effective counter-cinema, if you will.
    Merci bien.

  • Nasty Nagger | January 4, 2014 11:09 AMReply

    I think Django Unchained supports your theory better than Skyfall. The film was sold as a dlave uprising but wasn't at all. Django wasn't even the lead character and Tarantino managed to insert extremely racist ideas like phrenology into the movie. Django Unchained in my opinion is the epitome of white supremacy fantasy

  • Andre Seewood | January 4, 2014 9:17 PM

    I would totally disagree with you in regards to Tarantino's DJANGO UNCHAINED and state that you either have not read completely or not comprehended this article. If anything, the inclusion of Candy's Phrenology diatribe in DJANGO UNCHAINED was the most historically acurate and critical scene in the entire film. It emphatically demonstrated both the hypocrisy and the zeal of the 19th century plantation owners who espoused and believed in such pseudo-science as a means to justify their peculiar institution. In short, I don't think Tarantino was inserting a racist idea into the movie but merely bringing it to the attention of modern day audiences who have adopted a kind of selective amnesia when it comes to the horrific evil upon which this great nation was built. SKYFALL and the James Bond franchise is a much more significant pillar of the illusions of White supremacy at the level of its formal construction rather than simply its representation and content.

  • Deborah | January 3, 2014 8:59 PMReply

    "due to various race specific and culturally embedded stereotypes, prejudices and power relations the informal reasoning processes of Whites and Blacks are different; the two groups might watch the same film and yet make entirely different assumptions with regards to how they fill in the gaps of a particular film’s story."

    This makes me think of Robert Stepto's identification of "distrust of the reader" as a trope in African-American literature - the idea that writers are aware of what you here term a racially-contingent "story cognition" and in response 1) structure their texts to militate against misreadings; 2) embed in their texts a critique of the "unreliable reader"; and 3) thematize what Stepto calls a "discourse of distrust."

    I wonder if you find a similar dynamic at play in the work of particular filmmakers.

  • Andre Seewood | January 3, 2014 9:30 PM

    Stepto's three pronged identification is a fascinating observation, but I don't know how well it would translate from literature into cinema because part of the pleasure of cinematic narration -more so than literary narration- is found in the dynamic alternation between how the filmmaker inspires the curiosity of the spectator via the norms and cues he or she gives throughout the film and later how the story either confirms or disproves the spectators hypotheses and inferences. An essential difference between literature and cinema (and there are many differences as well as many similarities) is that in the cinema the characters are, as Bordwell states," embodied," and thus there are other physical, institutional and social factors that facilitate misreadings. I'm reminded here of Denzil Washington's performance of officer Alonzo Harris in TRAINING DAY and how when we first see him he is wearing a "kufi" which misidentifies him as a muslim and then later changes the style of his clothing throughout the film which reflects how the filmmaker was playing with the misreadings rather than militating against them as part of the film's discovery narrative. But Stepto's work does shed some interesting light on these issues. Thanks for adding to this discussion!

  • If Not Now, When? | January 3, 2014 7:36 PMReply

    I'm looking for part two, is it not up yet? If I just can't find it, that's my fault, but if not... Why wait? Why not lead with that? Why do you have to lean on David Bordwell when "his" question has been asked as long as cinema has existed? Why do we keep letting the same people go first? Isn't that the most fundamental problem here?

  • Andre Seewood | January 3, 2014 8:50 PM

    In answer to your first question part two will be up in a couple of weeks, maybe less time than that. In answer to your other questions, in actuality Bordwell was simply repeating a question that was asked earlier by Christian Metz. I found Bordwell's work to be quite enlightening because he made many of the tenets of cognitive theory accessible to the general film enthusiast while giving a concise overview of the major arguments in film theory for the past few decades. The issues addressed in this article are not part of some kind of a "race" to be the first to say anything, but instead part of a continuing quest- part of a multi-faceted approach towards understanding how film form interacts with how we understand and how we make films. The fundamental problem as I see it is that we as Black people have been too absorbed in arguments about representation (positive or negative) to really give a thorough consideration of form. Even though arguments about representation are important, don't misunderstand me, arguments about form are crucial to being able to make quality -powerful/diverse/and multi-genre Black cinema. As filmmakers we may not actually be able to say anything new, but we can look for new ways to say things that puts it all in a whole different perspective.

  • Big Shane | January 3, 2014 2:26 PMReply

    What was also very telling about "Spring Breakers" is what was the message conveyed through Selena Gomez's character -A mousy, bible thumping teen who was pressured by her friends into going to "spring break".... Once she is there, the endless parade of caucasian debauchery (nakedness, public sex, rampant drug use and vandalism) doesn't seem to phase her one iota. Only to become hysterically paranoid, suspicious, homesick and concerned that things are "going off the rails" the very moment her and her friends wind up around some black men in a bar playing pool.

  • Laya | January 3, 2014 12:12 AMReply

    Re: Skyfall. You've got me thinking, and I'm going to have to watch the film again. I've seen it twice - in the theater and on Netflix - and loved it both times. Bond's miraculous survival n the opening scene bugged me, but I never saw it as happening because he's a white man, but rather because he's James Bond. His ability to survive the most impossible situations is as much a part of the character as "shaken, not stirred". Reading it in a racial context also makes me want to re-examine Moneypenny's role, seeing as how she is the person who shot him. I enjoyed a lot about Moneypenny's characterization overall - she's strong and intelligent and she doesn't die - but in this instance she's an instrument of the tension between M and Bond - little more than a pawn in the overall plot. So yes - I'm going to have to watch it again.

  • Andre Seewood | January 6, 2014 9:10 PM

    @Donella, you're absolutely right- I forgot that no woman can resist Mr. Bond's charms- such is the power and the privilege...

  • Donella | January 6, 2014 8:30 PM

    Actually, there is a sex scene between Moneypenny and Bond. I believe it takes place right after the casino scene. She gives him a shave and then... That is what struck me as different about Skyfall. Moneypenny gets the man. THE Man.

  • Andre Seewood | January 3, 2014 8:39 AM

    James Bond and the Bond films are one of the sacred cows of the White supremacist illusion- but these films are also the most powerful and the most seductive. The films have a global appeal and the franchise has lasted several decades. Any criticism of the Bond films puts the critic in a tough position because so many of us (White and Black alike) have our favorite Bond actors (mine of course is Sean Connery) and our favorite collection of Bond films- but the fact remains we are being seduced into supporting the master assumptions of the illusions of White supremacy by both the formal structure of the Bond films, as well as, the privileged and hyperbolized presentation of the Bond character. I think you are right in re-examining the Moneypenny character in SKYFALL and consider that there is no sex scene between the Bond and Moneypenny (as recompense for shooting him?) although the chemistry is certainly there.

  • Daryl | January 2, 2014 7:38 PMReply

    Andre Seawood make some poignant obeservations in this article, I agree with a lot of it but It's like I've been saying on this site for ahwile these discussion are tired because we got the tools and ability to distribute our own films so why do we keep concerning ourselves with what white folks think about us, they are not going to change until they have no choice too. We will never get to where we want to be as long as we keep programing ourselves to be in a needy position. Do for self and build our own networks is the answer, it's simple as that, so if you want to sit around and have these same conversation for the next 100 years go ahead or you can be about action to change. One more thing I keep hearing about film budgets black filmmakers don't have. This is a trap to keep you in a mental prison because most big budgets films suck and it's lot of small budgets films that are great that put them to shame, money does not make you tell a good story. It's your imagination and we are all on the same playing field when it comes to that, so stop letting people put the budget hurdle in your mind, this is a tactic to make you give up before you even start or have excuses on why you can't do it. We should just tell our stories and do our best.

  • artbizzy | January 4, 2014 2:40 AM

    @Jack Yes, cue you weary cultural imperialists and those who watch Lord Jamar's You Tube videos where he states that "white rappers are guests in the house of rap". Did you appropriate this sentiment? It's hardly an original one. (If you haven't seen Lord Jamar's You Tube videos or don't know who Lord Jamar is, Google is your friend) You both are right. However, the house of film is a Manor house. A plantation estate. A country club. A knuckledragging Neanderthal of an art form, unfortunately. It's development retarded by numbers crunchers, trustafarians and pissy little man-babies who can't bear to see past their own vapid images or reflect accurately on history. When cinema came along what was going on among whites and African Americans? What is still going on? Your vision of Cinema is not a house. It's a crib. It's vanilla. And it's wack. And you, Mr. Proud, Myopic White Supremacist are the reason that essays like this one exist. Thank you, Andre.

  • Jack | January 3, 2014 11:43 PM

    Daryl
    The art of cinema is not a black artform. I can list on one two hands the number of great black filmmakers. All you're doing is appropriating a white artform. You're a guest in the house of film.

  • Toussaint | January 3, 2014 6:50 PM

    This is not an "either or" debate. Progress comes through various means. So Mr. Seewood can criticize the white film establishment, while Mr. Daryl works toward creating a burgeoning black film establishment. Both are necessary, not one or the other.

  • Tom Haverford | January 2, 2014 11:16 AMReply

    Re: Spring Breakers, Vanessa Hudgens isn't white, she's mixed-race WOC.

    Good column, though. I look forward to part two.

  • anon | January 4, 2014 6:54 PM

    shes half phillipino and half white she aint nowhere near black! also you could mention selena gomez who is half mexican is she also "mixed" and a woc too? lol!

  • IntrospectiveMan | January 2, 2014 5:28 PM

    What is also troubling about "Springbreakers" is the master assumption of White Story Cognition that has spilled off of the screen. That is to say, many (White) spectators are lauding James Franco's performance as Alien as Oscar-worthy. [the subtext being, because he's a White Guy who is "acting Black"]. Before you can even talk about the performance, you must deal with all the problems in the presumption on the part of some spectators to pronounce the performance as "acting Black".

  • Andre Seewood | January 2, 2014 12:15 PM

    Your comment adds yet another welcolmed layer of complexity to the discussion. Knowing that the actress Vanessa Hudgens is of mixed-race heritage, does not detract from the fact that her character is acting as an agent of White power in the revenge/racial extermination/fantasy sequence that ends the film. Her bi-raciality makes her character even more dangerous in that she willingly aids and abets the extermination of Black males at the end of the film for the continuation of the illusion of White power that drives the story. I may have been too presumptuous in calling her character "White" but under the circumstances one could say that she is "passing" for White by continuing to participate in the extermination of Black males that ends the film. We must consider that after the rather abrupt killing of the character of Alien (James Francos) and his assailant- the girls only motivation to continue to carry out the Black male exterminations was as a naked act of White power. They could have easily turned back at taken everything that the character of Alien owned if it was money, guns and vehicles that they really wanted. Instead they chose to carry out the mission of Black male extermination and it is way that actress Vanessa Hudgens bi-raciality could be considered a moot point.

Follow Shadow and Act

Email Updates

Most "Liked"

  • Now Taking Your Questions for S&A Column ...
  • "Many Documentary Films Have Been Shot ...
  • 2014 IFP Project Forum Slate Includes ...
  • Ahead of 'Finding Fela's' Release, Watch ...
  • Tessa ThompsonInterview: Tessa Thompson Talks Emotionally ...
  • TV One Gets Into Original Movies. Will ...
  • Shemar Moore is Returning to 'The Young ...
  • A Trip Down Memory Lane w/ 1970s Actress ...
  • Regina King Joins 'American Crime' Cast, ...
  • Watch Craig Robinson in First Trailer ...