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

by Andre Seewood
January 20, 2014 11:50 AM
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Michael Fassbender, Lupita Nyong'o and Chiwetel Ejiofor in '12 Years a Slave'
Michael Fassbender, Lupita Nyong'o and Chiwetel Ejiofor in '12 Years a Slave'

Read Part One here.

Before moving on to the second part of this article I’d like to address some observations concerning the analysis of the film SPRINGBREAKERS from part one.  It has been brought to my attention that the actress Vanessa Hudgens who played the role of Candy and was one of the two White female killers at the end of film is bi-racial in real life.  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 the actress and her masked character are "passing" for White by dint of the fact that she continues to participate in the extermination of Black males that ends the film.   Yet, this real life racial fact opens up yet another story gap concerning the ending of the film.  We must consider that after the 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 and 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 incited by the power struggle between Alien and Big Arch (Gucci Mane) and it is in this way that actress Vanessa Hudgens bi-raciality could be considered a moot point.

In part one, we discussed that the story in every narrative film has a gap in its logic because fictional time and narrative time do not always have to match.  The gap or series of gaps must be filled in by the assumptions of the spectator for the continuation of pleasure and the comprehension of the tale being told.  Building on the work of film scholar David Bordwell and his explanation of Cognitive Theory and cinematic narration we learned that these assumptions by the spectator are a process of elaboration and hypothesizing about what will likely happen next that we summarized as: story cognition.  We noted that the best filmmakers use these gaps to elicit the intelligence of the spectator and others use these gaps to conceal prejudices and racial stereotypes while eliciting the ignorance and presumptions of the spectator.

We identified two general types of story cognition while acknowledging that there could be others:

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.

Concomitantly, we put forth the hypothesis of the master assumption: that behind each type of story cognition there is a master assumption that guides all 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, which I asserted often supports the illusion of White supremacy in cinematic narration.  We briefly examined a particular story gap within three films, SKYFALL, SPRINGBREAKERS, and WORLD WAR Z that qualify as White films under our narrow and concise definition.


Now we shall examine a particular story gap in three Black films through the master assumption of Black story cognition which can be summarized as: We shall overcome- someday.   The three films to be discussed are, 12 YEARS A SLAVE (Steve McQueen- 2013), THE BUTLER (Lee Daniels -2013), and MANDELA: A LONG WALK TO FREEDOM (Justin Chadwick -2013).  I would also like to reiterate here that the examination of the three Black films that follows will not be based solely on how specific characters are represented (e.g. Whether or not the depiction of Cecil Gaines in THE BUTLER represents an Uncle Tom character archetype) but instead we will be examining how the formal construction of the film (i.e. story gaps) impact the assumptions many Black spectators are obliged to make regarding the overall presentation of the circumstances within the film.    

The master assumption “We shall overcome-someday,” of Black story cognition is much more complex and problematic than the straightforward,” We shall always prevail” master assumption of White story cognition.

For starters,” We shall overcome-someday,” is at once an acknowledgment of oppression and a quasi-religious expression of the faith that one day these oppressive circumstances will be overcome.  Drawn from the deep Christian roots of the Civil Rights Movement, the phrase itself condenses a metaphor of the waters of change eroding the rock of injustice, prejudice and inequity over time.  The master assumption of Black story cognition defers the dream of a self-determined revolutionary and violent act of total liberation in exchange for the small gains towards liberation that come intermittently while holding in abeyance the promise of total liberation until someday in the future.

If the master assumption of White story cognition is a foregone conclusion no matter what the circumstances, then the master assumption of Black story cognition is a promise in the future whose faith is a belief in things unseen in the present circumstances.  Another more revealing contrast is that if the master assumption of White story cognition conceals the prejudices, injustices, stereotypes and fixed racial hierarchies implied by certain story gaps, then the master assumption of Black story cognition often leaves unresolved and/or diminishes the urgency for reparation concerning the injustices, prejudices, stereotypes and fixed racial hierarchies of the past in exchange for the liberation of one “exceptional” Black character or an elite group of Black characters in the future.  

To make it plain, I intend to demonstrate that Black story cognition is a process of pacification that implicitly supports the illusion of White supremacy in cinematic narration.

No Black film better demonstrates the non-resolution of injustice in Black story cognition in exchange for the liberation of one “exceptional” character than Steve McQueen’s 12 YEARS A SLAVE.            

The horrific odyssey of Solomon Northup (Chiwetel Ejiofor) a talented violinist, carpenter, and Free Black man who is married with two children and living in Saratoga Springs New York, begins when he is drugged, kidnapped in Washington D.C. and then sold into slavery in the south by two cunning White con men.  Although Northup suffers a wide variety of punishments and indignities his exceptional qualities as a carpenter, engineer and a violinist are always recognized by his White captors and owners.  He is a cut above the average nigger and thus his extra value is seen through the lens of White privilege via the White controlled arts and abilities he was allowed to acquire as a free Negro.  

Even though Northup suffers he retains his faith that one day he will gain his liberation and have his legal satisfaction against those Whites who have taken his Freedom and wronged him.

As an African-American spectator and critic it is often difficult for me to see the story gaps in Black films because the seductive power of Black story cognition as a non-conscious activity makes filling in story gaps an almost automatic function.  But with the aid of another Shadow & Act contributor we find that the story gaps in 12 YEARS A SLAVE center almost exclusively upon the Black female characters and their often horrific and tragic circumstances.  In the article, Patsey’s Plea: Black Women’s Survival in 12 Years a Slave, which you can access here, author Nijla Mumin comments upon the story gaps that concern the character of Patsey (Lupita Nyong’o) when she writes,” Patsey and other Black female characters in 12 Years a Slave become human because they cannot be saved...  There is a tendency in cinema to frame historical events from a patriarchal lens, connecting them with a man’s journey to fight or survive injustice.” (1)  

Indeed the story gaps in 12 YEARS A SLAVE concern nearly every Black female character beginning with Solomon’s wife, Anne Northup (Kelsey Scott) whose life without Solomon is left a mystery; the kidnapped Black female, Eliza (Adepero Oduye) who loses her children and is carried off the plantation shouting Solomon’s name; Patsey, whose powerful story of abject degradation is left unresolved as she stands on the road watching as Solomon is liberated from slavery through the benevolence of a White carpenter named, Samuel Bass (Brad Pitt); a White savior.

Although it could be argued that 12 YEARS A SLAVE is based upon the actual autobiographical book by the real Solomon Northup and thus the story gaps in the film concerning the destiny of several minor characters was beyond the scope and theme of the film.  In our inquiry, the story gaps seem to reveal how Black story cognition pacifies the collective outrage at the suffering, punishment and injustice of a variety of Black characters in exchange for the liberation of one “exceptional” Black character who is the hero of the tale.  To continue the pleasure and comprehension of the story in some Black films, Black story cognition diminishes the need for the reparation/liberation or ascension of others for the small gains of one character and the promise of overcoming these circumstances someday in the future.             

Moreover, I speculate that the real life Solomon Northup’s liberation was short lived and misconstrued.  Given the fact that no one knows the date, location and cause of Northup’s death coupled with the fact that his legal actions against his kidnappers and his Masters ended in failure because a Black man could not testify against a White man- one can surmise outside of Black story cognition and the narrative frame of the film that Northup might have been murdered by the very same people who kidnapped and enslaved him.  It would appear that no one, Anne, Eliza, Patsey nor Solomon overcame the circumstances of their oppression.  

All this is not to say that the film 12 YEARS A SLAVE is flawed.  It could also be argued that McQueen constructed the film in such a way that he intended to draw our attention to both the castrated plight of Solomon Northup as a Free Black man in a country divided by the institution of slavery, as well as, underscore how White male privilege and White power abused the labor, body and vagina of the Black female during slavery.  Yet the seductive power of Black story cognition enables many of us ignore the unresolved suffering of a group of Black female characters in exchange for the liberation of one Free Black male character and the closure of the story.

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  • RGordon | February 7, 2014 3:21 PMReply

    I can understand the calls for "action" in this thread. Of course, movies need to be made and scripts need to be written. But, to undermine the overwhelming influence of White Supremacy in the entertainment industry, we must also analyze and and publish works like this article. Smart people need to write sh*t down so that people in the future will know what the struggle is about.

    This research, thinking, writing is DOING SOMETHING. This is one piece of the necessary ACTION, and all the pieces matter. Imagine if MLK had only held marches, and sit-ins and protests. What if he never wrote a speech? What if he never wrote a letter or referred to his studies of Ghandi and Jesus? His legacy would be even more diluted than it is now.

    Scholarship sets precedents. A quick way to win any argument is to ask your opponent to give you an "example" of what their beef is. By the time you get to the in-your-face stage of the fight, most people have forgotten the specifics of the issue. Writing things down in this way gives us something concrete to attach to when someone says "So what about White Supremacy in film, who cares?" You don't have to be caught flatfooted because all you wanted was ACTION. You can't answer that question with "But I made a movie, I wrote a script." We have to produce ideas in addition to producing art.

  • Kijuan Ward | January 29, 2014 2:32 AMReply

    Great insights! Eye-opening for ANY writer/thinker of cinema!

  • Xavi' | January 25, 2014 10:09 AMReply

    What is a racially inclusive film? This is an honest question. Is it a film where all the Black characters live and the White characters die? According your standard if a Black character dies in the beginning, middle or ending of a film it is White Supremacy.

    So therefore there are only two options. For film directors. One, never allow Black characters to die on screen again, which is inconceivable, because writers create their characters around distinct personalities, backgrounds, upbringings . That is what good writers do, they craft a back-story for a character even if its never written or filmed. The second option for White film makers is to never include different ethnic casts, and return to the 1940s. That however cannot be done because then screams from the radical left, the hand wringing will be the lack "representation", "diversity" and "exclusion".

    So literally White film makers are in a double bind. There is no right choice to make, either action is racist. I suppose there is a third option, use the Government, i.e the State an immoral unethical, engine of concentrated violence, to break White mandate and force every script, any current or future director on the verge of graduation to design scripts with an all Black cast, disregarding their autonomy and freedom to create material unhindered.

  • Andre Seewood | January 25, 2014 12:52 PM

    While your honesty is appreciated, might I suggest that perhaps you are thinking too dogmatically with regards to the," only two options," you described as a way out of the double bind for White filmmakers. You're third option is just as equally dogmatic, if not tyrannical, in the government would use "concentrated violence" to," force every script, and current director on the verge of graduation to design scripts with an all Black cast, disregarding their autonomy and freedom to create material unhindered." There is an alternate option for both Black and White filmmakers and it is has to do with actually increasing their autonomy and freedom via their creativity that would allow them to subvert both the master assumption of White story cognition and Black story cognition. The tactics and strategies of subverting White and Black story cognition is what will discussed in the third section of this article. Perhaps the only real art is the art of subversion...

  • Anonymous | January 25, 2014 12:25 AMReply

    Mr. Seewood, this is an excellent, well-written, well-thought piece, and I thank you for it. However, I'm also left wondering what I am supposed to do with this knowledge and how to apply to my future moviegoing experience as it relates to heavily-themed, historic black films. I feel depressed after having read this....Although, I would posit that I, and others, did wonder about Solomon's wife and family, following his capture, and about what happened to Patsey and Eliza, and all of the other enslaved people who were left behind. I did think about that for days, after I left the theater. And I suppose a television mini-series, which of course, could never do this masterful narrative justice, might have been the only way to further explore what women endured during slavery.

    But, again, you present a powerful, important piece. It gives us all a lot to think about with regard to the framing of our images in cinema.

  • Daryl | January 23, 2014 11:25 AMReply

    Jmac and other I fully understand what Andre Seawood is saying. I didn't say he didn't have any points, actually I agree with most of what he says. I'm saying we need action, that's black filmmakers telling their own stories freely and not being conditioned to tell their stories through white supremacy lenses. If enough black filmmakers do this and are not discouraged eventually this market will build itself because black people will have a chance then to see themselves in different images and stories. Example look at the Nigerian film industry, they made films on what they had, shooting on low budget camcorders, because they wanted to tell their stories themselves, now that they built a market to support their films, the films are getting better and you are going to see great films coming from them. Black filmmakers here should adopt that model, the more films the better. I would rather see a 1000 black filmmakers telling their own stories freely generating revenues of 30 million dollar in vod and limited release at the theaters instead of one sterotypical wide theatrical release hollywood black film fed to us generating 30 million keeping the good ole boy network going. That's why I say instead of these articles we should concentrate on making our own films and doing articles on our films being made. A critical article on black filmmakers believing in sterotypes and doing the same films white hollywood doing would be more helpful than analyzing white hollywood on how they feel about black people, they have shown time and time they don't respect and like us, how much more proof do we need to realize this. Making films with what you got and telling your own story is what's going to create a real black film market with films that we control our own images.

  • MK | January 23, 2014 12:26 PM

    Daryl, I'm going to eat my words.
    I responded too quickly. I should not have said that 'people like you' are the cause of the Black film slum. That was a very non-constructive, crabs-in-a-barrel remark. I apologize.
    I do stand by the rest of my comment.

  • MK | January 23, 2014 11:59 AM

    The fact that you and several others don't get the intention of this article probably indicates why Black film and literature is still stuck in a rut. How many Black films and/or fiction books can you name that do not mimic the stereotypical lenses described in this article? Very few. So, perhaps we must acknowledge that most of our productions are as little facilitative to Black agency as Hollywood blockbusters are. Perhaps we must rethink our storytelling strategy.

  • MK | January 22, 2014 6:49 PMReply

    Thanks, Andre, this was extremely helpful.
    When I started reading the first installment, I initially thought your words would amount to a 'we need Hollywood to understand this'-type of lament. Hence, I actually hesitated reading on, because I'm tired of such prose. The comment section of part 1 convinced me to give it a try anyhow. And I am so glad I did.
    Your text is not a lament at all. It provides a lens through which we can improve OUR OWN creations, regardless of the type of audience we are writing/producing for.
    As a novelist working on a story featuring a slave revolt in the Caribbean, I feel strengthened and encouraged by your analysis. I had already subconsciously applied your 'key elements' for the subversion of White and Black story cognition, and felt my story was different because of it (that is: different from the dominant Hollywood perception of African peoples), but never understood why I felt so. You've lifted the veil. Thank you.
    I'm actually going back to my manuscript right now, to correct the storylines for a few minor characters whom I, contrary to the major characters, still subjected to the White and/or Black story cognition. Interestingly, the resolutions for these characters never sat well with me in the first place. Their fates seemed cliche and unfair. Now I know why.
    Keep it coming, Andre.
    Looking forward to part 3!

  • Melissa | January 20, 2014 1:57 PMReply

    The only thing I have to say is the White Savior from 12 years is almost word for word from Solomon's memoir.

  • JMac | January 22, 2014 11:08 PM

    And?... Please read the article in full before commenting.

  • JBB | January 20, 2014 1:56 PMReply

    Interesting read but I have to say Joseph Campbell is about as deep as these industry cats get.

  • Filmmakertobe | January 20, 2014 1:48 PMReply

    Considering the fact that EVERYONE is affected by white supremacy, including black filmmakers, I absolutely appreciate articles like these. We need more of them. Analyze the dominant culture that we are force-fed, so that we can write more liberatory works. I like that.

  • Katie | January 20, 2014 1:45 PMReply

    "[I]n the third part of this article we can suggest ways to fulfill the mandate of Black Film Theory which 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."

    Like Daryl said, you can analyze all all day long, but unless we're creating content all is lost. Like seriously, how many times do people on this site have to tell you theorists, whites don't want to sit with us and you're wasting (yes wasting) your time trying to change their minds. And don't say whites don't matter because they do. If they didn't you would be trying to appeal to their concious right? I laugh and weep for you theorists that insist on encouraching a system that has consistantly shown you they don't care. Ya'll can sit here an wait all day/year/decade if y'all want too, but I'm tired authors like you that feel the need to reform/revolutionize systems instead of creating our own. What is it? Lack of self-esteem or something? Don't you think we can do it? Like, I really don't see the obsession some of these authors have with working with a hateful ass group of people hell bent of dehumanizing blacks because they themselves are dehumanized. I don't subscribe to the ideology that the oppressed must help the oppressor see the errors of their ways. Let them figure out by themselves how they oppress blacks. We need to be building. We need to be organizing. We need to create.

    I look forward to the next installment on your revolution. Not because I agree with you (clearly I don't) but because I look forward to the good laugh that you will provide because I doubt you have ANY PROOF that your suggestions will actually work. Or how long they will take. Meanwhile, the belief that we should stop asking for permission has been proving effective (look at all the filmes, webseries, and documentaries that are being produced and distributed thanks to the internet). LOL If we listen to theorists like yourself that say we should reform/revolutionize these biased systems we wouldn't have shit. Shoot, I know I ain't waiting on some mythical revolution to create my two webseries. All that damn energy anaylzing and creating a reformation/revolution when we could be getting our own. Sir, with all due respect, you seem to be the definition of "hustling backwards." And it's sad.

  • Katie | January 25, 2014 6:37 PM

    *He's actually one of few I've seen that state that they want a REVOLUTION.

    Sorry, big typo.

  • Katie | January 25, 2014 6:35 PM

    @MK "Katie, where did you read anything about changing a system?"

    He not trying to change the system. He wants some sort of revolution. Go read his first installment. He states he is for Black film theory and it's purpose 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." HIS OWN WORDS. He's not trying to reform anything. He's actually one of few I've seen that state that they want a reformation. I created a survey once and most content creators want a reformation. So it's not like I'm pulling this outta my ass. That's way I say "reformation/revolution."

    @JMac I don't understand why you need to defend Seewood to everyone instead of letting Seewood defend himself, but I digress. And it's funny how you say I missed the mark when you've missed the mark on everything I've said. I didn't take issue with anything in his series except the belief that he can destroy a racist system. That's it.

    "I also don't understand why you think this article has anything to do with sitting down with whites and trying to get them to change their mind."

    How could you not? You think whites are just going to randomly destroy their system on their own? A system that benefits them in every way? The Civil Right Movement (CRM) couldn't even do that. Harry Belafonte once said the CRM wan an appeal to the whites conscious (who are the ruling class). They couldn't change a nation without whites' okay. You're going to have to sit down with whites and get them to destroy their system because they wield the power. Unless you honestly think you can destroy an entire institution which at this point I say, why even bother? Let's just build our own.

    "When your web series is complete, contact S&A and have them do a post on it. Hopefully, it won't be as poorly written, fundamentally flawed, stereotypical, and full of white or black "film story cognition" as the overwhelming majority of black web content out there. Hopefully it won't be .... odds are it probably will."

    I will contact S&A and I doubt it would be poorly written. I've always been told I am a very good writer (though I'll be working getting better with workshops and such for a number of years perfecting it because I'm a perfectionist). I also doubt mine will be stereotypical. One webseries is contemporary drama (inspired by Breaking Bad) and one is fantasy drama country musical (inspired by O' Brother Where Art Thou). I've never been one for stereotypical stories with black protagonists and I avoid them like the plague be it in books or film. I did so even as a child.

  • JMac | January 22, 2014 11:31 PM

    I'm not sure why certain people don't fully understand what Seewood is discussing but you've completely missed the mark.

    "Like Daryl said, you can analyze all all day long, but unless we're creating content all is lost."
    And if blacks produce content without realizing the subtle brainwashing that is inherent in modern American filmmaking what value will that content have? Absolutely none. You can create content until you are blue in the face but many indie black films suffer from the same defects as mainstream black films. Everyone thinks they know the deal but most of us only pay attention to the surface without going deeper. Black filmmakers need to see the why and esp. the how before creating content otherwise it'll be the same old crap - just with a black face stamped on it.

    I also don't understand why you think this article has anything to do with sitting down with whites and trying to get them to change their mind. This series is about as pro-black as you can get. He's telling you about an aspect/tool of white supremacy film creation and how to break out of that subconscious culture to create authentic black content that doesn't unintentionally support that theory. Too many black filmmakers (and wannabe filmmakers) missed that boat and are still missing it because they think they know everything without studying anything.

    When your web series is complete, contact S&A and have them do a post on it. Hopefully, it won't be as poorly written, fundamentally flawed, stereotypical, and full of white or black "film story cognition" as the overwhelming majority of black web content out there. Hopefully it won't be .... odds are it probably will.

  • MK | January 22, 2014 10:38 PM

    "If we listen to theorists like yourself that say we should reform/revolutionize these biased systems we wouldn't have shit. "
    Katie, where did you read anything about changing a system?
    He's not saying any such thing.
    In fact, he's actually in your boat: he's showing you a paradigm to improve your own storytelling. Now, you may not need any suggestions regarding your storytelling. But there are plenty of others who do appreciate the intellectual input.

  • Daryl | January 20, 2014 12:21 PMReply

    The only way to solve these problems you are deomonstrating in these articles is to make our own films and tell our own stories based on how we feel meaning the filmmaker taste and not by believing in sterotypes to just get paid. It's that simple. It's about having diversity of the black experience in america and having a variety of stories about black people. No matter how much you analyze white sumpremacy in articles like this, it's not going to change because the white people that greenlight films don't give a damn about it. You may say so what if they don't give a damn, you are not writing it for them but I say if they are the ones you are trying to call out to start greenlighting black films it does matter if they don't give a damn. The black people that you are trying to reach to make a difference need to see action and images of them in a different light or them getting things done not articles, that's what MLK undertood with the civil rights movement. It was the images and the actions that created change not just words. You called me a black elitists because I said these articles were going to go over most black people head on why they should care, I'm dealing with reality not theory, white supremacy only works if you enslave enough black people mentally and physically to control them, if this wasn't true we wouldn't be having this same conversation year after year. example slavery worked by keeping the masses of black people uneducated and physcially abused.This concepts gooes on today but just in a different way by education, economics, and images. It's time for words with actions getting things done.

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