“The greatest trick the devil ever pulled was convincing the world that he didn’t exist.” –Charles Baudelaire
It is something peculiar that I had noticed decades ago from the first time I screened one of my own short films and began writing film criticism: many of us as Black people spew our most harsh and bitter criticism towards Black Independent films and yet rush to see White studio films without so much as raising a question concerning the plausibility of the content (or lack thereof) nor an objection to the lack of diversity in casting and/or the continuation of stigmatizing racial tropes and stereotypes. As long as there is action, explosions and state-of-the-art CGI any negative criticism of White studio films is suspended. And if by chance such negative criticism is raised against a White studio film it is summarily disbelieved in the face of astronomical weekend unadjusted box office grosses. I mean I have witnessed some very intelligent Black people rip a Black independent film to shreds as if they were the sole surviving authenticators of Shakespeare’s lost plays, but then turn around and pay extra money to see Michael Bay’s TRANSFORMERS (1, 2, 3 and 4) without ever saying anything negative about a White studio film that would approach the severity and bitterness of the negative criticism they would level at a Black independent film.
It reminds me of that punch line to the comedian’s old joke about what the Black servant says to the coughing White man: “What’s the matter boss, WE sick?”
What used to cause me a mild form of bemusement, I am now beginning to understand as a peculiar form of creative jealousy expressed towards Black independent film and/or filmmakers by others of their own race that can ultimately have devastating consequences for the development of all up and coming Black filmmakers and for the preservation and continuation of Black film in general.
In this article I would like to examine in detail this peculiar phenomenon of critical hypocrisy that I will define here as The Devil’s Eye Syndrome. The Devil’s Eye Syndrome is the deliberate critical rejection of Black independent film by Black spectators which manifests itself as a severe and bitter criticism of a Black independent film to the degree that no other commercial White studio film would be able to withstand nor would these Black spectators dare apply such “high standards” to a White film. I would like to explore how this critical hypocrisy is expressed and maintained often by those closest to us as filmmakers: family, friends and loved ones. Most importantly I would like to offer suggestions concerning how developing Black filmmakers can protect themselves from this vicious form of self-hatred and creative jealousy disguised as criticism.
What differentiates the Devil’s Eye Syndrome from legitimate film criticism or even constructive criticism is that both the former and the latter forms of criticism are posited from a set of clearly defined principles and standards that can be traced back to their aesthetic or philosophical foundations. These principals and standards should be applied consistently across various films and film genres regardless of the color of the skin of the filmmakers. At least that’s what passes for the ideal towards which every critic should strive. For example, the American critic Andrew Sarris (1928-2012) who is largely credited with importing the French critical notion of the auteur theory to the United States in his book, American Cinema: Directors and Directions 1929-1968, detailed extensively his critical assessments of a vast majority of American and European filmmakers (mostly all White) up until the time of the book’s first edition released in 1968. Although I don’t always agree with Sarris’ assessments of the films and the careers of many filmmakers, his critical ideas have a foundation and apply a standard which can be traced back to the French critics and filmmakers (Godard, Truffaut, Rohmer, et al) and perhaps can be traced back further to 19th century French romanticism.
In any case, Sarris worked from an established set of principles and attempted to apply his standards consistently, even if the results were not always shared by others.
By contrast, the Devil’s Eye Syndrome is merely a negative attitude that pretends to be legitimate or constructive criticism that either has no set of principles and standards that can be traced back to their foundations or it’s a negative attitude held against a specific kind of film (Black independent film) and the specific race of the filmmaker (Black) expressed as standards and principles that are ultimately arbitrary and inconsistent. My concern here is that we as Black people are unconsciously predisposed to practice this form of critical hypocrisy towards our own up and coming Black filmmakers and we are unwittingly adding to the existing difficulties many Black independent filmmakers are facing in this White controlled industry. This article is an attempt to answer the questions of ‘Whom, How &Why?’
Specifically those who look at a Black film through a Devil’s Eye seek out what makes the Black artist’s work unique, different, or challenging and negatively criticizes these aspects to make the artist conform to false conventions, accepted stereotypes, and unrealistic standards.
In short, these “critics” tell you your work isn’t good enough because it is different and/or challenges their expectations- then they turn around and watch the absolute worst that Hollywood has to offer without questioning or challenging anything the White controlled American Entertainment Complex presents as realistic.
This form of critical hypocrisy is at its most powerful when it is practiced against Black filmmakers by family, friends and loved ones; that is to say, this negativity is manifested often times at the most personal level against the Black artist when the artist is at his or her most vulnerable and trust seeking condition. This is not to say that the casual observer cannot look at the Black independent filmmaker’s work through a Devil’s Eye. But the casual observer’s negativity can often easily be dismissed as “Hating” whereas the intimate observer is someone who says they love you- but still rejects your work for reasons they cannot consistently uphold or trace back to foundations and standards to which they consistently adhere. It’s not the criticism that destroys, so much as it is the destructive hypocrisy that such so-called “honest” criticism disguises.
So now that we know who is practicing this negativity towards Black independent filmmakers and their films let’s look at how it is practiced against the Black filmmaker through the derogatory assessments of their work.
The negativity within the critical hypocrisy of the Devil’s Eye Syndrome as practiced by the intimate or the casual observer of a Black independent filmmaker’s work is usually centered within three specific parameters:
1) Narrative Structure
3) Production Values/Budget
Beginning with Narrative Structure, we know that in the filmic art all of the events within a story do not have to seen on screen for the story to be understood. The various omissions of explanatory scenes, exposition in dialogue, and other scenes of transportation or transition contribute directly to the specific narrative dynamism of the cinematic language which differentiates cinema as an art form from literature and theatre. But most importantly certain omissions of events, actions and causal circumstances encourages the viewing audience to make assumptions that fill in the story gaps and are directly correlated to the stylistic voice of the filmmaker: the visual and editorial signature of the auteur that can be discerned within a single film and/or over the course of several films.
Recall, for example, the omission of the jewelry store robbery scene in Tarantino’s RESEVOIR DOGS (1992) which gave dramatic urgency to the events that were shown after the omission. Already, here in this first film, Tarantino was establishing a distinct authorial voice in the cinema by challenging the conventional telling of a tale in deliberately choosing to omit a scene that usually defines the genre of a heist film which is the heist itself.
Yet when a Black independent filmmaker attempts to “tamper” with narrative structure in the attempt to establish an artistic voice and a distinctive cinematic style all too often the casual or the intimate spectator will point out the gaps in the story as flaws; that is to say, they look at the independent film through the Devil’s Eye which gives them license to deny making the assumptions they would normally make to fill in the gaps while watching a White studio film and accuse the Black independent filmmaker of shoddy or poor storytelling abilities.
To use a personal example, I recall an incident concerning a short film I had made several years ago titled, WASTELAND, which will be available to stream on-line shortly. I was confronted by an acquaintance who claimed to have had viewed the film and complained about what they saw as a structural flaw in the telling of the story. In this film, which was my first attempt at creating what I would eventually identify as a Seduction Narrative in my book Screenwriting Into Film (See: pgs. 94-97 or the films: Psycho, Spider, The Sixth Sense), a young man quits high school and literally walks into a hellish nightmare of murder and mayhem after he witnesses a brutal crime by another man that very same day. Yet one of the main points of criticism of the film by my acquaintance was centered on the fact that when the young man leaves on foot from his high school located in Mid-town Detroit I used a slow dissolve to another scene of the young man walking in Downtown Detroit. The alleged flaw, as it was explained to me, was that no one could walk from Mid-town Detroit to Downtown Detroit in such a short time frame.
Needless to say, I was taken aback.
The slow dissolve between two shots of a young man walking was apparently not enough to imply the passage of time nor was it enough to signify that time had been cut out to render these transitional scenes cinematically dynamic. The fact that the two shots mirrored each other graphically with one shot having the young man walking away from the camera on the right side of the screen and the next shot which slowly dissolved over it was of the young man walking towards the camera on the left side of the screen was apparently also not held in any esteem by my critic.
I quickly realized that the acquaintance was deliberately attempting to deny me the artistic license to use a very basic formal device of cinematic narration (the dissolve) to structure my film according to my own stylistic predilections. The hypocrisy here is that this very same acquaintance would unquestioningly accept such basic and well understood formal devices of time compression from a White studio film produced in any city with whose geography they would not be so familiar.
What is being revealed is that when the Devil’s Eye is applied to Black independent film as it concerns narrative structure one is often challenged with absurd and arbitrary criticism of basic formal and narrative paradigms that every film artist no matter what their skin color is free to change or adhere to according to the themes they are pursuing in their specific work.
While it is certainly true that the omission of scenes for the effect of style must follow through in some form of emotional, circumstantial or thematic logic that informs the entire film so that such omissions are not truly the result of flawed storytelling, careful omissions of scenes or actions are fundamental to the dynamism of cinematic narration.
Often when intimate and/or casual observers view the work of Black independent filmmakers they see the necessary story gaps and omissions of filmic narration as flaws in storytelling rather than the conventions of filmic narration deliberately applied by the Black independent filmmaker as a matter of style.