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In Defining 'Quality Black Cinema,' Whose Lens Are You Looking Through?

Shadow and Act By Malcolm Woodard | Shadow and Act August 17, 2012 at 5:25PM

First let me thank Tambay for giving me this platform to share my views, even if they may not be popular.
Inferiority complex

First let me thank Tambay for giving me this platform to share my views, even if they may not be popular.

In thinking about how we judge black cinema today, I recall a quote by Frantz Fanon, the preeminent black psychoanalyst, activist, thinker and philosopher, who wrote Black Skin, White Masks and The Wretched of the Earth. In Black Skin, White Masks, Fanon states:

"There is a fact: White men consider themselves superior to black men. There is another fact: Black men want to prove to white men, at all costs, the richness of their thought, the equal value of their intellect… For the black man there is only one destiny... And it is white... The analysis I am undertaking is psychological… It is apparent to me that the effect disalienation of the black man entails an immediate recognition of social and economic realities. If there is an inferiority complex it is the outcome of a double process: Primarily, economic; subsequently, the internalization of this inferiority."

So, essentially, he’s attempting to deconstruct what appear to be innate feelings of dependency and inadequacy by Blacks in a world dominated by whites, and how black people have effectively lost their native cultural originalities and are essentially forced to embrace an Eurocentric culture that’s being imposed on them; and as a result, this inferiority complex, whether consciously or unconsciously, manifests itself in many ways, throughout our lives.

Thus, there’s a much larger issue at work here - one that maybe isn’t being directly dealt with. And that issue is multi-leveled – first, it’s whether we as black people are judging each other, or in this specific case, for the sake of this blog, whether we are judging our artistic expressions, specifically film, based on some Eurocentric model, as opposed to an Afrocentric model. And secondly, I'm led to wonder where European influence ends and blackness begins… or, are we forced to reconsider that age-old question, what is blackness? How can one define blackness? Can it be defined, or has black culture (or maybe more specifically African culture) been completely co-opted and essentially absorbed so much that it doesn’t even exist anymore, and that black culture is in essence American culture? How does one really begin to answer those questions? I don’t know.

We can spend hours wondering what Africa could have been like today if the Portuguese never landed on Africa’s western shores in the 15th century, beginning the exporting of slaves to Europe and America, through the 19th century. What would Africa be today? Where would black people be today? Our culture(s), arts, music, language, philosophies, attire, cuisine, and of course, in this specific case, cinema? Impossible to say I think, but certainly something to always keep in mind, especially as we consume cinema bred from a system that's been operated exclusively by white men and women who have no genuine interest in our evolution.

But maybe all of that is irrelevant, and we should simply accept the cards that we’ve been dealt in life, and try to make the most of what we do have… whatever those things are. But, yes, I wonder whether those of us who are dismissing films like those by Tyler Perry for example, should be doing so with a little more awareness of the various hierarchical currents prevalent in our societies; essentially, those of us who have been exposed to films made by the majority… those with the real power in this world… and those, as Frantz Fanon said, whom we are consciously or unconsciously trying to emulate. Here we are dismissing Tyler Perry’s films, for example, essentially comparing them to these white “masters,” or some specific Eurocentric style, or formula that we’ve been conditioned to accept, and not realizing the potential danger in doing that. Who’s to say that this model - this Eurocentric standard that we all seem to have anointed as THE model to emulate, is indeed THE preeminent standard that ALL films (all art) should be judged by.

Then again, what is this Eurocentric model? How does it differ from an Afrocentric standard? Are they the same thing, or are their individual elements interchangeable?

Again, I don’t know… I don’t have all the answers.

But the point of all this I suppose, is that this rabbit hole (this notion of black cinema in crisis today) goes a lot deeper than we may realize, and it’s a much more complex issue; not one that can be resolved with a singular statement, or act. There are several factors to consider here, some that I didn’t even get into; but there’s much more to this than we might be able to actually do anything about.

One thing I do know, is that we simply just can’t sit back on our hands and wait for the others to identify our problems, and resolve them… we have to be much more aggressive, assertive and proactive, as I’ve said many times before.

It is worth noting that, I learned that the word "Afrocentric" wasn't listed in some dictionaries until very recently, but "Eurocentric" always is. In my Oxford Dictionary, copyrighted 2006, Afrocentric isn't listed, but Eurocentric is. That actually says something, don't you think?

I know... Quality is quality and "Afrocentric" shouldn't equal average or sub-par. Of course not! What I question is who defines "quality?" Is it subjective? Is it something that we've been taught, whether directly or through years of socialization under the rule of “Eurocentricism” ("This" is quality and "That" is not).

In English classrooms, from junior high through college, I was taught the so-called "masters" of literature - Shakespeare, Dickens, Hemingway, and others like them - none that looked like me. Are these people "masters" because someone told us they are? I say yes. It's like seeing the black kid down the street with his pants down to his knees and passing judgment on him because he doesn't conform to some "standard" we expect him to - a standard that I believe wasn't set by people who look like us.

If we hadn't been taught what someone else considers "quality," what would be "quality" to *us*?

It's like when the Europeans invaded African countries in an effort to "tame those black savages" and show them how to live like "civilized" people... who was to say that Africans weren't already civilized? Who's definition of “civilized” are we to adhere to? Who's definition of "quality" are we currently holding as the standard?

Ok, I know I'm skipping about a bit and digging a little deeper than maybe is necessary, but it's connected. And I guess my point in all this is that maybe we shouldn't be so quick to dismiss or judge not only people like Tyler Perry, but also the people who love his work and others like him regardless of the medium in which they work. And when we are being critical (which is fine with me by the way), we should consider what exactly it is we're criticizing and why, and maybe that will help shape our various critiques.

I wasn't trying to turn this into a Tyler Perry defense (honestly, I'm not even a fan). But he's just the most prominent and easiest example for me to use. It could be any other film, or filmmaker.

The Frantz Fanon quote is really what inspired this.

More later.

Thank you for reading my small contribution to the ongoing conversation, and I look forward to your comments.

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