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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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"World War Z"
"World War Z"

WHITE STORY COGNITION: SKYFALL, SPRINGBREAKERS, WORLD WAR Z

The master assumption behind White story cognition is the supremacist ideal of “we shall always prevail”.   Even though a character or set of characters might die, or a way of life might be ‘gone with the wind’, Whites and the systems they control, shall prevail.  This master assumption which is implicitly a notion of racial, moral, intellectual and political superiority is what allows spectators, White, Black or otherwise, to fill in the gaps of story logic with regard to the White characters in a White film.  For example, in Sam Mendes’ James Bond film SKYFALL there is a confounding story gap in the beginning of the film that must be filled in with the guidance of the master assumption of White story cognition to continue to enjoy the remaining 2 hours of the film. 

When James Bond (Daniel Craig) is accidently shot while fighting atop a moving train that is crossing over a high bridge, he falls multiple stories down into the river below.  His unconscious body is jostled through the river’s rapids and rocks, then over and down a steep waterfall, before falling even deeper into the plunge basin beneath the falls.  The next time we see Bond he is conscious and making love to a beautiful woman at a beach house in some unknown coastal town.  The story never explains nor convincingly implies how Bond could have survived such a lethal chain of circumstances.  The gap between the death of Bond and his subsequent survival must be filled in by the spectator.

The “dull bits” of Bond’s extraction from the water, his resuscitation, the tending to his serious bullet wounds, as well as change of clothing and ability to pay for services rendered have been cut out.

By force of the continued progression of the story with Bond alive and only slightly physically scarred, we are obliged to assume and accept the fact that Bond’s super human physical superiority is what rendered him capable of surviving such an ordeal that would’ve ended with lesser individuals dead in their watery graves.  The superiority of the character of James Bond rests on his institutional role as an agent of the British Empire and its monarchy which stretches back several centuries and prevails even to this day.  This story gap at the beginning of SKYFALL must be filled in with the master assumption of White story cognition that is the supremacist ideal of “We shall always prevail” to continue to comprehend the rest of the story and gain pleasure from its telling.

Our next film, Harmony Korine’s SPRINGBREAKERS is a full exercise in the excesses of White privilege and illusions of White power from its beginning to its end, but it is the very ending of the film, with its two bikini clad and masked White girls walking through an open air shoot out and killing every armed Black male in their sight that compels us to consider the story gaps within the scene as a visceral cue that elicits White story cognition.  The candy-colored fluorescence of this ultra-violent finale of the film ends with the two girls murdering the rival Black male “gangster” character, Big Arch (Gucci Mane) by shooting him in the head as he sits unarmed and unalarmed in his Jacuzzi.  

The story gaps in this particular scene of SPRINGBREAKERS are very subtle, but nevertheless encourage the spectator to make crucial assumptions that support a violent illusion of White supremacy.  In this shoot out, we never see the two bikini clad White girls reload their weapons.  By cutting out these necessary actions (as well as leaving out any visual evidence of additional magazines of ammunition) the spectator is forced to accept the illusion of White supremacy concealed within the assumption that the shooters are far superior than their Black male opponents (armed with various types of automatic and semi-automatic weapons) by their mysterious ability to not have to reload their weapons.  Moreover the two women are not so much as hit or grazed by those who are returning fire from various directions, suggesting that the purity of the White females is invulnerable to Black male penetration.          

Another gap that is contingent upon the previous gap is the uncanny ability of the killers to find their final victim in a particular room within a large mansion without the victim having been forewarned by the gunfire outside or the killers having any foreknowledge of the layout of the premises.  This gap, the cutting out of the “dull bits” of the killers searching the entire mansion or the sound of gunfire, also encourages the spectator to assume that the knowledge and skill of the White killers is far superior to that of their Black prey.

The master assumption of White story cognition conceals the degrading caricature of the Black opponents while it simultaneously upholds the supremacy of Whites in the life or death battle that closes the film.  Harmony Korine has stated on the director’s commentary of the DVD that he wanted this sequence of the film to have the ambience of a fantasy, but the question is a fantasy for whom?  It is certainly not a Black man’s fantasy, but rather a violent nightmare of racial extermination.

Finally, in director Mark Forster’s world pandemic zombie film, WORLD WAR Z, we have a story that centers on the quest of former UN employee Gerry Lane (Brad Pitt) to find a defensive weapon against the wildly contagious affliction that changes normal people into vicious bite crazy zombies within 12 seconds of being wounded.  As film scholar Chera Kee has asserted regarding the post-apocalyptic zombie film,” Death is the great racial equalizer… Living versus the dead is the new binary.” (7)  In WORLD WAR Z the exceptional White individual and the White bourgeois family would appear to be under assault by the racially diverse zombie masses.  

A significant gap in this film that supports a White supremacist illusion is found near the end of the film when Gerry Lane injects himself with an unknown deadly virus to camouflage himself from the racially diverse and violent zombie mass.  The gap itself is both temporal and performative in the sense that there is an omission of time for the devastating effects of the lethal virus to take hold upon the body.  Concomitantly, the White actor does not “perform” his illness; that is to say, there is not so much as a cough, bead of sweat from a fever, or any visible decline in physical ability that is performed so that one could be convinced of the vulnerability of the character.   The “dull bits” of physical suffering have been cut out.

All the lethal injection really accomplishes in WORLD WAR Z is to make the Whiteness of Brad Pitt’s character invisible to the racially diverse zombie mass.  Yet the counter effect of the story gap is that the miraculous and messiah-like affect of White privilege is rendered visible to the spectator as a necessary aspect of comprehending and enjoying the story.  The spectator is forced to assume that this particular White male body is invulnerable to the devastating effects of a lethal disease in exchange for the ability to bring the film to a satisfying conclusion via White intellect and bravery that makes literal the master assumption of White story cognition: We shall always prevail.

What these three examples of story gaps and White story cognition also reveal is that there is a necessary correlation between the degree of uncontested acceptance of the assumptions the films are encouraging the spectator to make and the degree of pleasure derived from the story within the film.  The question is does the spectator who accepts White story cognition as the “default” assumption to fill in the gaps of a story also accept in that transaction to agree with the concealment of racial prejudices, inequities, stereotypes and fixed racial hierarchies that are often concomitant with certain story gaps in White films?  

The moment one questions the validity of using White story cognition to fill in story gaps, the less likely one is to be entertained by a White film and/or accept the concealment of racial prejudices, inequities, stereotypes and fixed racial hierarchies.

Of course, it can be said that I have deliberately selected the most obvious examples of story gaps that would support the theory of White story cognition as an illusion of White supremacy.  But unfortunately, there are as many examples of White story cognition in story gaps as there are White films.  Super Hero movies from MAN OF STEEL to IRONMAN have main characters that are the very epitome of White supremacist illusions and they have a greater quantity and quality of story gaps that must be filled in with the master assumption to insure the maximization of their narrative pleasure and comprehension.

For those of us who continually ask for the Black Super Hero film, that Black characters survive in a science fiction or horror film, the Black fantasy film, the Black spy film or any other genre that seems to be lacking in Black filmmaking, I believe we must turn our attention to how filmmakers use the gaps in their stories to encourage the spectator to fill in these gaps with the master assumption of White story cognition. We must study the cues to determine if they can be adapted for Black story cognition or subverted to create a different and more racially inclusive cinema all together.

In the next part of this article we will scrutinize Black story cognition to determine if the procedure of subverting White story cognition can be or has already been accomplished by other filmmakers, White or Black.            

We are in pursuit of the truths that support the illusion, but conceal the lies.

NOTES

1) Pg. 136, POETICS OF CINEMA by David Bordwell, Routledge: New York, 2008.

2) Pg. 137, Ibid.

3) Pgs. 136-137, Bordwell uses the word “non-conscious” because you aren’t aware of doing it, but it is not an unconscious activity.

4) Pg.122 Shots in the Mirror: Crime Films and Society 2nd Ed. by Nicole Rafter, Oxford University Press: New York, 2006.      

5) Pg. 137, POETICS OF CINEMA.

6) Ibid.

7) Cited from, Racialized and Raceless: Visions of Race After Death in Post-Apocalyptic Zombie Films, by Chera Kee at the Wayne State University Humanities Center Brown Bag Colloquium Series, October 12th 2012.


Andre Seewood is the author of SLAVE CINEMA: The Crisis of the African-American in Film. Pick up a copy of the book via Amazon.com HERE.

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


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