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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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Forest Whitaker as Cecil Gaines in Lee Daniels’ THE BUTLER
Forest Whitaker as Cecil Gaines in Lee Daniels’ THE BUTLER

Moving on to Lee Daniels’ THE BUTLER, Daniels presents us with the trans-historical character of Cecil Gaines (Forest Whitaker) as a common man rhetorical figure in the cinematic tradition of Woody Allen’s ZELIG (1983) and Robert Zemeckis’ FORREST GUMP (1994).  These trans-historic characters have a tangential connection to important people and/or events throughout history and act as an “impartial” lens through which these events and people can be interpreted.  

THE BUTLER centers on the interactions between Cecil Gaines and the presidents he served for 34 years at the White House.  These interactions reflect upon the larger social events that took place and shaped both the Civil Rights Movement and the trials and tribulations of African-Americans in American society.  As Cecil rises to bourgeois prominence as a White House servant many of the presidents he serves are confronted by violent racial changes and social upheavals.  Each president finds an informal moment to confer with Cecil –as a common Black man- before they engage in controversial decisions that shape history: from Eisenhower and school desegregation, John F. Kennedy and the Freedom Riders, to Lyndon Johnson and the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965.

These interactions between Cecil and the various presidents are juxtaposed with the advances in the Civil Rights Movement and serve the film well from a structural and dramatic standpoint, but there is a troubling gap in the story that obliges the spectator to use Black story cognition to fill in the gap and continue to enjoy the rest of the film.  Of the 30 plus years and multiple administrations covered there are two presidents that are not characterized and have no interaction with Cecil: President Ford (1974-1977) and President Carter (1977-1981) and these omissions form a serious story gap.

While Daniels is especially adroit at intercutting the growing significance of The Black Panther Party and Nixon’s paranoid plans to twist the notion of Black Power into his own agenda for Black “business” Power- the omission of the administrations of Ford and Carter does not allow him to intercut the dismantling of The Black Panther Party and the ravages of poverty that were carried forward against the Black community during these administrations.  Daniels omits images and dramatizations of the concerted backlash against the advances of the Civil Rights Movement.  As Michelle Alexander documents in her book, THE NEW JIM CROW: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness, “ And while it is generally believed that the backlash against the Civil Rights Movement is defined primarily by the rollback of affirmative action and the undermining of federal civil rights legislation by a hostile judiciary, the seeds of the new system of control –mass incarceration- were planted during the Civil Rights Movement itself, when it became clear that the old caste system was crumbling and a new one would have to take its place.”(2)           

In short, by omitting the interaction between Cecil and these two presidents (Ford and Carter) THE BUTLER exchanges the horrifying details of the government’s assault on the Black Panther Party and other Black Power factions (i.e. SLA and Patty Hearst) for the bourgeois ascension of Cecil’s son, Louis Gaines (David Oyelowo) as he leaves the Black Panther Party, earns a Master’s Degree and runs for Congress.  By focusing on the ascension (liberation) of one Black character, the assaults, injustice and inequities that plague the group are diminished as that single character ascends and becomes a symbol of Black Story cognition: We shall overcome- someday.

Now it could be argued that these Presidents and their administrations were omitted because of time constraints, but such omissions create the story gaps that oblige us as spectators to shift our attention from the larger portrait of social injustice to the smaller picture of “small gains” made by a single individual as representative of larger socio-political gains that were in fact not occurring on a mass scale.  The story gaps within THE BUTLER, eclipses the resentments and retrenchments against the Civil Rights Movement in exchange for the ascension of one Black character beyond those circumstances.  It is Black story cognition that fills in the gap between the reconciliation between Cecil Gaines and his son Louis Gaines during the American protests for the freedom of Nelson Mandela in the 1980’s to the election of Barack Obama.  We are encouraged to witness the overcoming of our people without experiencing the full weight of the struggle because Black story cognition conceals the struggle of the group for the acceptance of the exceptional Black individual as a symbol of progress.

It is under these contingent and pragmatic circumstances that the real life unjust murders of Blacks like George Stiney Jr. in South Carolina,  Oscar Grant III in California, Trayvon Martin in Florida, Renisha McBride in Michigan and Jonathan Ferrell in North Carolina and many, many others constantly remind us that that ‘someday’ has not come soon enough for all of us.

Our final Black film for examination is Justin Chadwick’s MANDELA: Long Walk To Freedom that was based upon the 1994 autobiography of Nelson Mandela a leader of the anti-apartheid movement in South Africa, President of the African National Congress, Political prisoner, and South Africa’s first Black president.  Nelson Mandela’s real life story as detailed in his autobiography and filmed is a complete exercise in Black story cognition in that many of the story gaps encourage the spectator to make assumptions that assess the “small gains” of one exceptional character’s ascension from the victim of racial oppression to the democratically elected leader of a racially polarized country.

In the film, once Mandela (Idris Elba) and other ANC members are imprisoned on Robben Island, they are all issued short pants as a racially motivated insult to their manhood.  As Mandela states in his autobiography,” From the first day, I had protested about being forced to wear short trousers.  I demanded to see the head of the prison and made a list of complaints.”(3)   In the film, Mandela protests to the warden, who in turn, assures Mandela of how little he cares about such a protest by his prisoners because he is well off financially, owns several properties and has a life outside of the prison walls.  

Later, when the warden announces to Mandela that he is retiring, he is shocked that Mandela remembered all of the details of his wealth and properties he owns beyond the prison walls.  In the following scene, all of the ANC prisoners receive long trousers.  This story gap obliges the spectator to use the master assumption of Black story cognition to accept an exceptional individual Black character winning small gains for an elite group.  It must be assumed that the Warden was so touched by Mandela’s exceptional humility and memory in the face of daunting oppression and indignity that as a last official act before retiring he granted the long trousers.

Also like 12 YEARS A SLAVE, the most noticeable story gaps in MANDELA, center upon the unresolved circumstances facing the female character of Winnie Mandela (Naomi Harris) and how the White South African government’s unmitigated atrocities committed against its Black South African citizenry must be “looked over” as Mandela attempts to unify the country via a democratic election that would have him elected as the country’s first Black president.

There are many other omissions including,” The Secret History of How Cuba Helped End Apartheid In South African,” as detailed by Historian, Piero Gleijeses and others. (4)  That is to say, in the effort to underscore the exceptional qualities of Nelson Mandela, as an individual Black leader, the gaps within the film’s story obliges the spectator to gloss over larger group details and focus on the accumulation of small gains by the exceptional Black hero of the tale.  The short trousers incident is one example of how Mandela’s narrative accommodates the master assumption of Black story cognition: We Shall Overcome- someday.

Such story gaps can and indeed must be looked over so that the events on screen can be blended into the smaller portrait of the rise of an exceptional individual (and/or elite group) in exchange for the diminished dramatic attention upon the suffering and the struggles of the racial group as a whole.

All of this is not to say that 12 YEARS A SLAVE, THE BUTLER, or MANDELA: Long Walk to Freedom are not great films; they are powerful works but we have looked at these Black films to reveal how Black story cognition operates in the context of Black cinema.  Yet Black story cognition is much more complex and malleable than White story cognition in part because the American Entertainment Complex sustains an artificial segregation between White films and Black films which often obliges Black spectators to accept the master assumption of White story cognition to continue to comprehend and gain pleasure from White films.  

For example, Black spectators are often obliged to shift from Black story cognition and accept White story cognition when one or more Black co-lead and/or supporting characters are killed off or rendered ineffectual in White films.  Such unceremonious killings or dramatic neutering of Black characters usually take place in the middle of film or just before the final act so that Black spectators are often confronted with the choice of having to shift from Black story cognition and accept White story cognition to continue to comprehend and enjoy the telling of the tale.  In a film like Coppola’s APOCALYSPE NOW (1979) once the last remaining Black character, Chief (Albert Hall) is killed, Black spectators are obliged to choose to shift and accept White story cognition if any more pleasure is to be gained from the film’s narrative.  

The Cognition Switch Point

Shrewd, savvy and calculating White filmmakers and producers know that the Black characters within a White film are dramatically expendable and that the ratio of Black audience ticket sales is directly correlated to whether or not the Black character(s) who are performed by recognizable Black stars stay alive until the middle of the film or until just before the final act.  I would suggest that there is a discernible narrative point in any White film that has Black co-lead or supporting characters where these characters can be killed off or rendered ineffectual and the audience (Blacks or other minorities) will continue to gain pleasure from the telling of the tale by switching to White story cognition.  We will call this point where a Black character can be killed or rendered ineffectual within a story and the Black audience is obliged to switch to White story cognition to continue to enjoy the film: The Cognition Switch Point.

Many Black spectators willingly switch from the master assumption of “We Shall Overcome- Someday” to “They [Whites] shall always prevail” if both the remaining hero of the film is White and there is less than one third of the film left to watch before the ending.

We can apprehend these cognition switch points in films as varied as, OBLIVION (2013) where Morgan Freeman shared top billing with Tom Cruise but his character doesn’t appear until near the middle of the film and is killed before the ending of the film or the abrupt and unexplained disappearance of Laurence Fishburne’s character of Detective Sergeant Whity Powers in Clint Eastwood’s film, MYSTIC RIVER (2003).  Another example of a White film that demonstrates a cognition switch point for Black spectators is Ridley Scott’s PROMETHEUS (2012) where Idris Elba’s character of the ship’s captain, Janek must sacrifice himself so that the White characters prevail and the story can continue in subsequent films.

In fact, the cognition switch point is often most noticeable in science-fiction and horror films where many Black spectators and critics have noted that Black characters rarely survive until the end.  Yet the cognition switch point exists in many White films of different genres where Blacks are in co-lead or supporting roles because the definition of a White film instructs that the narrative resolves itself by giving more dramatic attention to the emotions and circumstances of the White character(s).      

If the master assumption of White story cognition supports an illusion of White supremacy in cinematic narration, what illusion does the master assumption of Black story cognition support?  I would suggest that the master assumption of Black story cognition implicitly supports the illusion of White supremacy in that it acknowledges the truth of racial oppression but tempers the passion of a violent overthrow with the promise of “small gains” made towards future liberation- someday.  Indeed, it may well be that the pacification effect in Black story cognition is why it is so easy for many Blacks to switch to White story cognition when they are watching White films.  

If Androcles Were a Rebel

The purpose of detailing White story cognition in part one and Black story cognition in part two is so that in 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.  For the maverick filmmaker, the independent thinker, and whosoever would be the thorn in the paw of the Lion, the first step involved to fulfill such a mandate of Black Film Theory must begin by subverting the master assumptions of White story cognition and Black story cognition.

This radical operation must be a pre-filmic activity that modifies the master assumption of White story cognition from,” We shall always prevail” to “Sometimes we fail” (please check the rhyme).  It must also modify the master assumption of Black story cognition from,” We shall overcome- someday,” to “We have overcome”.   Because as film scholar Gladstone Yearwood asserted,” An Afrocentric-based filmmaking practice effectively questions the cultural imperialism of Hollywood cinema and shifts concerns from minor superficial changes to the underlying structure of the narration itself.” (5)  Part of this underlying structure is found in story cognition and its impact upon our perception of the circumstances represented in a film.            

Luckily, there have been a few brilliant filmmakers whose work can serve as formal models for the subversion of the master assumption of White story cognition and highlight a few paths to consider for the subversion of the master assumption of Black story cognition.  In part three of this series we will examine a few films from the oeuvre of Stanley Kubrick and Jim Jarmusch as peculiar models for the subversion of White and Black story cognition.

Fiction tells lies to get to the truth.

NOTES

(1) http://blogs.indiewire.com/shadowandact/patseys-plea-black-womens-survival-in-12-years-a-slave

(2) Pg. 22, The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness by Michelle Alexander, The New Press: New York, 2012.

(3) Pg. 387, MANDELA: Long Walk To Freedom by Nelson Mandela, Back Bay Books: New York.  1994.

(4) http://www.democracynow.org/2013/12/11/the_secret_history_of_how_cuba

(5) Pg. 46, Black Film as a Signifying Practice: Cinema, Narration and the African-American Aesthetic Tradition by Gladstone L. Yearwood, African World Press, Inc: Trenton. 2000


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.



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