The Realist Tendency in African-American Film Aesthetics: Part two (CLICK HERE for Part one)
The near exclusive concentration on film content (story, characters, stereotypes, structured absence, music soundtrack) in African-American film aesthetics as opposed to film form (narrative style/dynamism, film language, mise-en-scene, editing, shot selection, sound, film score) has two powerful originating factors:
1) The African-American critical reaction against D. W. Griffith’s BIRTH OF A NATION in 1915.
2) Network television shows from the 1950’s (The Jack Benny Show, Beulah), 60’s (I Spy, Julia), 70’s (Alex Haley’s Roots Mini-series, The Jeffersons, Good Times), 80’s (The Cosby Show), and 90’s (Fresh Prince, Living Single, etc).
In one of the earliest African-American critiques of the film BIRTH OF A NATION Lawrence Reddick describes the film’s dissonant duality; ”From a strictly artistic and technical point of view,” he writes, ” it was a masterpiece of conception and structure. Even today, it is important from this angle.”
Nevertheless, Reddick points out, ”Birth of a Nation has remained, without question, the most vicious anti-negro film that has ever appeared on the American screen.”(1)
In our abhorrence of the content of BIRTH OF A NATION and its political utility (increasing both KKK membership and lynchings of blacks during and after its initial release), African-American critics and filmmakers were reluctant to appreciate the form of the film as they attacked how the film represented African-Americans.
Admittedly, it would have been extremely difficult to appreciate the form of this film since the content attacks us as a people with its blackface caricatures and its racially derogatory themes presented via a sophisticated narrative structure and formal technique.
To this effect, when Russian film theorists and filmmakers studied the film, they were not affected by its racist content and thus the formal structure and narrative style of the film was not obstructed and contributed to their aesthetic theories on film and the development of Sergei Eisenstein’s theories on montage.
Rather than discuss Billy Bitzer’s mobile camera, panoramic long shots, night cinematography, panning shots, soft focus and diffuse lighting techniques, or Griffith’s parallel editing, layered mise-en-scene, the use of the fade out to end a scene, iris shots and close ups in BIRTH OF A NATION, African-American critics aimed their outrage at the content of the film because of the urgency of the political situation that the film was abetting: anti-Negro sentiment in the form of lynchings and as a KKK recruitment tool.
In my opinion it was this important and necessary outrage at the content of BIRTH OF A NATION that led many contemporary and later African-American critics to conflate classical Hollywood film form with racist film content. As Vincent F. Rocchio asserts in his book, ’Reel Racism,’ concerning his critique of the film, ”By subordinating the aesthetics of the film to its rhetoric,” he will, ”demonstrate that the film’s participation in racism as a signifying process cannot be made distinct from the film, and that indeed, without its racism, the film would not have the status it has today.”(2)
Thus by conflating form with content, African-American critics equated the formal techniques and narrative structure of the conventional Hollywood cinema’s use of the cinematic language with the racist rhetoric of the dominate culture.
In short: How the story is told is as racist as What the story has told; the classical narrative structure is as racist as the story; the cinematic form is as racist as the anti-negro content. The question I am begging here is: Is an art-form racist or is a person racist who uses an art-form to communicate a racist idea?
It is imperative, if we as African-American filmmakers and critics want to challenge the realist tendency in African-American film, that we appreciate the difference between the narrative and the story. The narrative is the way that the story has been told. The story is what has been told or simply the content of the narrative. A story in the art form of film can be told in many different ways. It is my contention that African-American film critics, scholars and filmmakers give primacy to the content of the film art and not the formal techniques and narrative structure of the film art and that this critical error began with the important and necessary outrage against D.W. Griffith’s BIRTH OF A NATION in 1915.
The other contributing factor to the near exclusive concern with film content by African-Americans was described in the third chapter of my book, SLAVE CINEMA: The Crisis of the African-American in Film, as The Five Errors that Constrict African-American Cinematic Style:
“By far the most important contributing factor, if not the sole factor, is television- particularly network television which we might consider ‘the poor man’s cinema’. Because network television is freely broadcast and readily available to nearly all classes and castes of people, the rudimentary use of cinematic technique in television studio shows, sit-coms, soap operas and weekly dramatic series is generally understood as a standardized technique of cinematic expression. Network television is the baseline through which all other cinematic techniques are measured, by default. “(pgs. 91-92)
Some of the most culturally specific and racially galvanizing content that has garnered the greatest numbers of African-American audiences has appeared on network television. In the early days of the medium there were servant roles like that of Rochester (Eddie Anderson) on The Jack Benny Show and the multiple black actresses (Ethel Waters, Hattie McDaniel, Louise Beavers) that tackled the show Beulah about a maid who was “Queen of the Kitchen”.
In the 1960’s after almost 5 years of bit parts in Westerns and failed variety shows like The Sammy Davis Jr. Show, the latter half of that decade saw the casting of Bill Cosby in the espionage series, I Spy and the success of Julia and Room 222.
Later in the 1970’s there were the Norman Lear/Bud Yorkin sit-coms, The Jeffersons and Good Times coupled with other shows like, Sanford & Son, ”that, by and large, operat[ed] under the creative control and direction of white studio and network executives.”(3)
The 70’s culminated with the production and broadcast of Alex Haley’s Roots mini-series which, ”brought to millions of Americans, for the first time, the story of the horrors of slavery and the noble struggles of black Americans.” (4)
Yet as Herman Gray deftly points out:
”This powerful television epic effectively constructed the story of American slavery from the stage of emotional identifications and attachments to individual characters, family struggles, and the realization of the American dream. Consequently, the social organization of racial subordination, the cultural reliance on human degradation, and the economic exploitation of black labor receded almost completely from the story. And, of course, this quality is precisely what made the television series such a huge success.” (5)
If we continue in succession, the 1980’s gave us among other hit black sit-coms like The Cosby Show and in the 1990’s we had shows like The Fresh Prince of Bel Air, Living Single, Moesha and others that represented the, ”interiority of black life on American Network Television.”(6)
Thus when I say that African-American critics and filmmakers are fixated on film content, I am really pointing out that they are fixated on black representation on screen; the positive and ideal representations of our race and culture that if not truly authentic in its depth and complexity, then at least these representations conform to what we need to believe is true about our race and our social realities.
If BIRTH OF A NATION implanted a derogatory representation of African-Americans in the cinema at the beginning of cinema history, then network television concerned itself solely with modulating representations of blackness as blacks moved from second class citizenship to equal citizenship through the decades. We can trace these modulating representations of blackness from the servant roles of the 1950’s, to the ‘race neutral’ professionals of the 60’s, to Roots and the bourgeois family ideals of the 70’s to the affluence and ideals of bourgeois self-sufficiency of the 1980’s and 1990’s. Yet, all this is to say that the African-American fixation of racial representation, or filmic content, has obscured the fact that all representation is constructed and that to expose, question, or challenge the ideological, sociological and political forces that affect us- one must deploy alternative formal strategies and non-classical narrative techniques in specific films or television series that encourage the spectators to become critical observers rather than “signifying monkeys” attempting to deceive the lion of the white controlled entertainment industry, but ultimately falling victim to its persuasive power.
The fixation on content or racial representation has standardized African-American film aesthetics in such a way that form is made ‘invisible’ as a means to 1) reach the broadest African-American audience possible (as determined by network television standards), and 2) the representation of race is constructed to optimize maximum audience emotional identification (as determined by both network television and classical Hollywood narration). The overall effect of these means is that through the emotional attachment with individual characters and/or family struggles cinematic form is not used to question, challenge or expose the “American dream” or the ideological, political or social forces that shape these representations and make them palatable to a broad audience.
Thus, one cannot question the circumstances as to why ’ The Fresh Prince’ had to move to luxurious and wealthy ‘Bel Air,’ from the violent gang and drug infested streets of West Philadelphia, for to do so would ruin the comedy of the situation. Make no mistake, I believe that to broaden the boundaries of ‘blackness’ one has to question the authenticity of the very representations to which we so strongly identify. And the most effective way to question racial representations is through the formal and narrative organization of the film.
I will give a list of these standardized narrative and formal structures and techniques below:
1) The Linear Narrative: In general, a story proceeds from beginning to end in a forward chronological progression. Rarely are alternative narrative strategies deployed in African-American film such as those I detail in my book, Screenwriting Into Film: Forgotten Methods & New Possibilities (2008). The non-linear narrative (moving forwards and backwards in time), Discovery narrative (a ruse played on a character), Seduction narrative (a ruse played on the audience) or Conceptual narrative (a metaphor or allegory that critiques contemporary ruling social, political, racial or ideological positions).(7)
2) Acting is determined by standards of African-American duality (decent/street; hood/bourgeois, etc) and emotional identification is achieved through idealized therapeutic dialogue where characters reveal their emotions or thoughts verbally for the benefit of the expectant audience. The popularity of Tyler Perry’s films is based in no small part on this African-American duality, emotional identification and idealized therapeutic dialogue. The rest of these standardizations in the use of film form by many African-American filmmakers are listed directly from the third chapter of my book, SLAVE CINEMA: The Crisis of the African-American (pgs. 91-142):
3) The camera must stay on the person who is talking, resulting in an overdependence upon the medium shot for dialogue involving two or more persons and the “dragnet” editorial technique. The medium shot is used to keep all of the dialogue and the performances of the actors intact, like a stage play, and provides an economical way to shoot by reducing the amount of editing needed to put the film together. The downside is that a majority of African-American filmmakers lack a distinctive style when they follow this model. The “dragnet” editorial technique is a technique where the editing is controlled by who is talking and the camera must stay on the face of the talker and not the listener. This editorial technique was described and named by famed editor, Walter Murch in his book, In The Blink of an Eye 2nd edition.
4) Professional lighting is lighting that is evenly spread out over an entire set or location. A professional technique ‘borrowed’ from studio television where lighting has to kept at a certain ‘broadcast standard’ instead of an artistic standard. When lighting is approached as a means to allow the audience to see every object or person clearly in a scene (pending the story and theme of course) we have effectively rendered lighting mute as a means of cinematic expression.
5) An overdependence on the music soundtrack or music score which ruins pacing and disguises plot holes or story incongruities. Since music is considered African-American’s first art we often expend more time and effort on the selection and production of the soundtrack than we do the story, narrative structure and formal methods of the film. The film art is held in a subordinate position relative to the art of music. The very notion of making a film without music (say as Alfred Hitchcock did with his film THE BIRDS- 1963) would be unthinkable to many African-American filmmakers, if simply because we often use film as a means to hear music as opposed to using music as a means to see what’s not in the film. An example would be Bernard Herrmann’s use of shrieking violins in Alfred Hitchcock’s PSYCHO (1960) shower murder scene in which we actually never see a knife penetrate the flesh of the victim, but the music makes us see what is not in the film.
6) A lack of the use of montage [as described and deployed by Russian film theorist and filmmaker Sergei Eisenstein and many other American and foreign filmmakers after him] as an editorial strategy to demonstrate a theme or expand the boundaries of a story. Associational montage where different scenes are intercut together to make a larger commentary within a story is rarely utilized in African-American film aesthetics. In my book I used the example from Francis Coppola’s THE GODFATHER (1972) where the baptism of Michael Corleone’s nephew was intercut with the killing of all of the heads of the five mafia families. It is a sequence that expands the boundaries of the crime story to comment on the fact that mob violence is ritualized violence that must occur,” every five or six years,” to change or consolidate power.
7) An afro-centric refusal to either watch or incorporate the narrative advances and/or cinematic techniques of international film artists past or present. Since film is and has always been an international art form we cannot afford to keep thinking of ‘black film’ as in a vacuum. Our films are watched overseas just as we watch foreign films; ideas are and must be shared. The notion of ‘black elitism’ where the other African-Americans who are not in your present company are somehow stupider than you, is one of the means through which we self-censor our ideas. By believing that ‘other blacks’ won’t get it and since black film only appeals to ‘other blacks’ it’s better to keep ideas, stories, characters, and plots as simple and identifiable as possible to gain the most box office success at the expense of artistic style and integrity.
Yet the question still remains: How do we encourage spectators to become critical observers? By what alternative formal strategies can we encourage spectators to become critical observers instead of becoming emotionally identified with characters and circumstances to the point that they are only signifying that a specific representation appears authentic instead of questioning the social, political or ideological forces that are creating those circumstances?
One method through which the encouragement of critical observation can be done is through alienation, distanciation and defamiliarizing techniques and strategies first advocated by German playwright and theater director Bertold Brecht (1898-1956) and later transposed and deployed by a variety of different filmmakers like German filmmaker Rainer Werner Fassbinder (1945-1982), French filmmaker Jean-Luc Godard, American filmmakers Charles Burnett (THE KILLER OF SHEEP- 1977) and Lance Hammer (BALLAST – 2008).
In the following section rather than discuss all of these different techniques and strategies I would like to concentrate on their overall effect which is to ‘defamiliarize’ that which we have come to take for granted in how the world, and by extension our race, is represented on screen.
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.
(1) Pg. 286, Returning the Gaze: A Genealogy of Black Film Criticism 1909-1949 by Anna Everett, Durham: Duke University Press, 2001.
(2) Pg. 30, Reel Racism: Confronting Hollywood’s Construction of Afro-American Culture
by Vincent F. Rocchio, Boulder: Westview Press, 2000.
(3) pg. 71, Watching Race: Television and the Struggle for Blackness by Herman Gray, Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.
(4) Ibid, pg. 78
(5) Ibid, pg. 78
(6) Ibid, pg. xxi
(7) Here are some of the films that illustrate these types of narrative structures: Linear: DO THE RIGHT THING (1989-Spike Lee), Non-linear : THE LAST EMPEROR (1987 theatrical release- Bernardo Bertolucci), AMORES PERROS(2000- Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu), Discovery Narrative: TRAINING DAY (2001- Antoine Fuqua), ROSEMARY’S BABY (1968- Roman Polanski), Seduction Narrative: THE SIXTH SENSE (1999- M. Night Shyamalan), PSYCHO (1960- Alfred Hitchcock), Conceptual Narrative: ENTER THE VOID (2009- Gaspar Noe), TEOREMA (1968- Pier Paolo Pasolini)