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

Shadow and Act By Andre Seewood | Shadow and Act January 20, 2014 at 11:50AM

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

BLACK STORY COGNITION

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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