Representing Blackness in American Cinema

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“Racism is racial prejudice plus power,” said Dr. Kristin Matthews of the Department of English. Matthews gave a lecture before a screening of Toni Morrison: The Pieces I Am (2019) and touched on two other films in our Representing Race series: Green Book (2018) and If Beale Street Could Talk (2018).

She began with a short overview of some of the ways people of color have been represented and marginalized in American film history. Early American cinema showed blackness in a very limited way, usually through caricatures. Classic films like Birth of a Nation (1915) showed people of color as being criminalistic, savage, and violent. They were presented as threats to society, the nation, and white women specifically. A typical stereotype was the “bumbling, ignorant negro” who is used as comic relief in movies such as Sullivan’s Travels (1941) and Judge Priest (1934) or for black women, characters like Mammy (Hattie McDaniel) in Gone With the Wind (1939), a house slave to a wealthy white family to whom she shows great affection. “The Wise Negro” is yet another stereotype of black people in American film in which an older, black person gives sage advice to the struggling white protagonist without any desires for themselves. Films like Driving Miss Daisy (1989) and The Legend of Bagger Vance (2000) employ this trope to paint black people as a tool or mechanism rather than as fully realized human characters. These and other stock characters were continually used to subjugate people of color and to reinforce race relations in terms of white supremacy: an instance of racial prejudice being elevated with power.

Another common and persistent representation of blackness in film was through blackface. Blackface is when a non-black person paints their skin to mimic a grotesque caricature of a person of color. We see this in such famous films as Othello (1965) and The Jazz Singer (1927). Blackface is used as a sort of power fantasy by non-blacks to reinforce harmful stereotypes. 

People of color have also been mistreated by the American film industry through the “White Saviour” narrative. This is when a white character saves the black characters or helps them to understand what it is to be black, thus giving power again to white people and subjugating black individualism and power. Some examples of “White Saviour” films include The Help (2011) and Green Book (2018). Contrary to reality, racism in these films is presented as a personal problem. A few bad apples of extreme racism in these films make white viewers (who may not understand how their privilege has benefitted them) feel safe, secure, and certainly not racist themselves. These stereotypes also double down on white supremacist notions of power consolidation under whiteness as ultimately beneficial for people of color. 

The author Toni Morrison wrote in this world of stereotypes which were—and are—prevalent in both film and literature. She challenged these notions of blackness as lesser-than in her own writing and in her work as an editor. “She published books that were deliberately black,” according to Matthews, and her work “corrects false stories and offers a range of black individuals” as opposed to the white imagination of blackness and black people as monolithic. 

Matthews left the audience with a number of questions to ask oneself when watching a film that may help to recognize the degree to which blackness is being fairly represented. Who benefits from the film? Who makes money off of this production? Does it maintain the status quo or challenge systemic institutional oppression? Who is empowered? Are the people of color characters or caricatures? And, does the film work to make white audiences comfortable?

A Kurosawa Film was Never Made Alone

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“How many of you have seen a Kurosawa before?” asked Brandon Arnold who teaches in the Department of Theater and Media Arts. About half of the students raised their hands. “Seven Samurai (1954)? Rashomon (1950)?” Akira Kurosawa is one of the auteur directors whose last name is so significant in the world of film, you can drop the world “films” after his name. “What about High and Low (1963)?” Only about three students raised their hands. 

“Kurosawa is a lot like The Beatles to me,” said Arnold. Many people like The Beatles but relatively few have listened through their entire discography. Kurosawa directed thirty feature length films in his life so while many are fans of his work, most have not seen each and every film. Arnold then compared different Beatles albums to Kurosawa films. Sanjuro Sugata (1943) and Please, Please Me because both are fairly formulaic but showed great promise. Stray Dog (1949) and With the Beatles as great follow ups. Rashomon and A Hard Day’s Night garnered huge international recognition. Seven Samurai and Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band for being the greatest of all time and the one you’ve most likely encountered. Ikiru (1952) and “Hey Jude” for being optimistic works during an extremely pessimistic time. Dodes’ka-den (1970) and The White Album because they’re weird but kind of have something for everyone. Yojimbo (1961) and Let it Be for the return to basics. Ran (1985) and Abbey Road as they are both extremely ambitious. Throne of Blood (1957) and Revolver for their supernatural elements. Finally, High and Low and Rubber Soul in regards to how they are not usually the most well known works but once you find them you are surprised by the depth and breadth of these creators’ talents. 

Arnold also warned about talking about these films as if created by Kurosawa alone; all films, even these, are created with a massive amount of teamwork. Kurosawa actually worked with the same people over and over until they were named “kurosawa-gumi” or “Team Kurosawa.” These artists included actors (Toshirô Mifune, Takashi Shimura, etc.), writers (Hideo Ogumi, Ryûzô Kikushima, etc.), sound engineers (Ichirō Minawa, Fumio Yanoguchi, etc.), cinematographers (Asakazu Nakai, Takao Saitō, etc.), and his longtime assistant (Teruyo Nogami). These are just a few of the people who helped launch Kurosawa’s name and films into the upper echelons of cinema. Team Kurosawa focused on creating relatable characters in each of these films. Their soundwork, dialogue, photography, set designs, and acting all helped to realize this goal.

Mobs, Fogs, and Panique in Post-War France

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“Atmosphere, atmosphere, atmosphere,” it’s the key to understanding the style of Julien Duvivier, the director of Panique (1946) according to Dr. Hudson of the Department of French and Italian. Duvivier was an early proponent of the poetic realism in pre-occupation French Cinema. Known for its dense, murky, fatalistic fogs that cover the lives of its characters, poetic realism oozed a sense of foreboding as it depicted an elite, bourgeois society was on the brink of collapse. Duvivier made many famous films in this style including Pépé le Moko (1937) and They Were Five (1936), both of which starred a frequent face at the IC, the unequaled Jean Gabin. 

At the outbreak of World War II, Duvivier fled France for the United States although films continued to be made in France during the occupation. The major French film studio, Continental Films, was personally overseen by Reich Propaganda Minister, Joseph Goebbels. These films were generally meant to be lighthearted affairs that were meant to do anything except criticize the ruling Nazi party. One film during the period that went against those dictates—and heavily mirrors the themes in Panique—was Le Corbeau (1943) by Henri-Georges Clouzot. In Le Corbeau, a small French town is thrown into a frenzy by a series of poison pen letters. An atmosphere of surveillance, distrust, and fear lies right beneath the surface. 

After the war, Duvivier decided to return to make films in France, but the France he returned to while radically different in some ways was still clutching to many of its past problems. Charles de Gaulle, chair of the provisional government at the time, called for épuration (a purge or purification) in France. All collaborators or those suspected of collaboration during the occupation were made to subjected to extreme cruelty including public humiliations of forced shavings or public nudity, imprisonment, and even death. One easy way to find a Nazi sympathizer they believed was to accuse anyone who were know to have held anti-semitic sentiments before the war. Unfortunately, this included almost a fifth of the population. 

The atmosphere of post-war France, the one director Duvivier returned to, was again a claustrophobic, distrusting fog. This is where Panique takes place. The film is set in Paris and the night before a carnival is to begin, a woman’s body is found. Very quickly, the veneer of neighborly friendless is questioned and the main character Monsieur Hire, played by “the man of a thousand faces,” Michel Simon, is suspected by all his neighbors. 

Dr. Hudson also suggested looking for underlying currents of retained anti-semitism in the film as well as the film’s use of tight framing, sharp angles, and low-key noir-esque lighting. Also look for how his accusers turn staples of French culture into suspicious behavior so quickly. The film ends with the lines, “Love of Mankind is the Beauty of the World,” which could be read as trite, according to Dr. Hudson, but he hoped we would see it as more of a positive wish to finish this dark film.

Re-thinking Rom-Coms?

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“Is the Rom-Com dead?” Some hands warily raised while others remained still. Dr. Marc Yamada from the Department of Comparative Arts and Letters is currently serving as one of the co-directors of the International Cinema. One of the co-directors’ main responsibilities is to choose the films shown each semester. Yamada knows that the romantic-comedy Crazy Rich Asians (2018) is not the typical fare here, so the goal of his lecture was to provide a context for why this film belongs at the International Cinema.

Romantic-comedies, while not in the mainstream film industry as strongly anymore, are very much still alive. Many minority cinemas have adopted the rom-com formula to tell new stories about their specific group dynamics. In recent years, there has been a huge influx of rom-com’s in American Black cinema, LGBTQ cinema, and—most recently—Asian cinema. What was typically the love triangle between one woman and her two male suitors has now become a framework for discussing issues of class, race, gender, and sexuality. Crazy Rich Asians, as you may suspect, is primarily about class and race, but gender finds its way in as well.

The film is concerned, Dr. Yamada argued, with the question, “What does it mean to be Chinese?” Is the answer determined by ethnography? Geography? Linguistics? Citizenship? Crazy Rich Asians invites viewers who previously thought of all Chinese people as homogenous, to see the differences in Chinese communities around the world. The film follows Rachel Chu (Constance Wu) who acts as the outsider’s insider. She’s Chinese-American and fits the stereotype, according to her, as she’s “an economics professor with lactose intolerance.” Rachel is invited to accompany her Chinese-Singaporean boyfriend to a huge wedding event between two elite families in Singapore. She naively believes that she’ll get along with everyone because “she is Chinese.” It comes as a surprise to Rachel to find that not all Chinese communities are the same.

Dr. Yamada proposed that the rom-com formula is used to explore these differing identities. Instead of the regular meet-cute we see in older rom-coms, the romantic leads have already met and are seriously dating when the film begins. Additionally, the love triangle is seemingly done away with as there are no other men pursuing Rachel, but Dr. Yamada argued that the love triangle, has not been trashed, it has been transformed. The triangle is not one of romantic love between three individuals but of maternal care and identity between Rachel, her mother, a Chinese-American, working-class immigrant and her boyfriend’s mother, the powerful, traditional, and wealthy matriarch (played by the unparalleled Michelle Yeoh). These three women’s interactions in the film directly relate to the key question Dr. Yamada asked, “What does it mean to be Chinese?”

As suggested earlier, the film does not only use the rom-com formula to explore race and class but gender as well. As opposed to the older Asian male stereotypes of “Evil Other,” “Wise Master,” and “Side-kick,” and the newer stereotype of soft masculinity (as seen heavily in the pop music from Northeastern Asia), the film is very interested in a more masculine, Asian male. The men in the film receive affection not only narratively from their female partners, but cinematically from the camera.

Dr. Yamada concluded by asking us to be wary of the stereotypes put forth in this film. Not all Asians are as wealthy and hyper-materialistic as depicted in this small slice. Rampant maid exploitation is the sweat that makes the “Crazy Rich Asians’” lifestyle possible. To combat this, the International Cinema is also showing a companion piece this week of Koreeda Hirokazu’s newest, Palme d’Or winning film Shoplifters (2018), that shows the flip side of this wealth disparity.