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

Shadow and Act By Andre Seewood | Shadow and Act January 6, 2014 at 10:25AM

Black Film Theory: Fighting the Illusions of White Supremacy in Cinematic Narration - Part One
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'Spring Breakers"
'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)

This article is related to: Things That Make You Go Hmm...


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