Part Six: Late 20th Century African American Cinema
I’d like to state that Spike Lee is not saying that African American culture is just for black people alone to enjoy and cherish. Culture is for everybody.-Spike Lee
As a counter point to the placement of African Americans in comedic roles, an adapted resurgence of the realism films of the LA school came into production. These films, in the same manner as those of the LA school, represented the lives of African Americans in the inner city neighbourhoods, and one of the main auteur of this genre is Spike Lee. Lee’s seminal film, Do The Right Thing , was one of the progenitors of this new wave of African American realism. Lee stars as Mookie, a resident of a small inner city area in which the film is set. The majority of the residents of this area are African American, although Italian Americans, Asian Americans and white Americans are also in residence. Essentially, Lee has created this area as a representation of the whole of inner cities in North America, and the residents are the representatives of their races.
Mookie and his African American co-stars are mostly portrayed as unemployed. In the film, only two African Americans are seen working, Mookie and Mister Senor Love Daddy, the DJ who often provides a social commentary upon the proceedings. Now this is not necessarily a negative representation of the individuals. A number of the African Americans are of retirement age and thus would not work. However, those around Mookie’s age do not work. Whether this is through choice or not is unclear, but it does represent the social situations of inner-city life in much the same way as Killer Of Sheep. Essentially, African Americans in inner cities find it hard to gain employment, essentially due to the lack of care from the American government with regards to education and racial equality. So it is not necessarily the fault of the citizens that they are unemployed, but rather the cause is that of the social clime.
The main theme running through this film is that of racism. Throughout the narrative, there are several occasions in which people of all races racially abuse members of a different race. One important scene is that in which a variety of race representatives face the camera and spout a variety of racial terms that are associated with the representative who appears next in the sequence. As the characters are talking to the camera, they are breaking the fourth wall and thus speaking directly to the audience, essentially it is Spike Lee himself who is saying this to the audience. This scene shows that all races are inherently racist. The knowledge of such racist terminology shows this. African Americans are shown as no less or more racist than any of the other races in the film, except perhaps the non-Italian white American.
One scene highlights this racist attitude with a role reversal that was now becoming common. As a lone white cyclist passes a group of African American youths he accidentally knocks one and runs his bike over the youths shoes. The youth turns on the cyclist, stating that he should not be in this neighbourhood, which is deemed by the youth to be a ‘black neighbourhood’. The youth is represented as an aggressive individual, yet his reasons for this aggression are much deeper than because of a simple knock. He sees the neighbourhood as a bastion of African American life and culture and the white man as invading this culture. The shoes are representative of the American dream; a motif of capitalism, and the white American is diminishing this attainment of the dream by the youth. Essentially, this scene represents that African Americans, whether they attain the ubiquitous goal of the American dream, will always have it demeaned and crushed by the actions of the white American. Indeed, this shows that equality had not yet been achieved.
This film does show African Americans in a negative way, but as it also shows other races in the same light, the representation can be seen as equal. Rather than portraying these races negatively out of bigotry on behalf of the filmmakers, the reason for this depiction is actually a criticism of bigotry itself. It shows that bigotry breeds violence, which in turn begets more violence. Indeed, much like Sweetback, this film is very much based upon the Civil Rights era, and the new ideologies of Black liberalism that sprung from this, as Martin Luther King Jr. said
…through violence you may murder a murderer but you can’t murder murder. Through violence you may murder a liar but you can’t establish truth. Through violence you may murder a hater, but you can’t murder hate. Darkness cannot put out darkness. Only light can do that.
Of course, unlike the LA school films, Spike Lee’s form of realism became quite popular, so much so that the a new version of the genre was formed. If you take Killer Of Sheep as the primitive stage, then Spike Lees films and the ones that followed were part of the more classic stage of the cycle.
The new development of this realism led to the growth of films such as Boyz N The Hood . Much like Do The Right Thing, Boyz explores the lives of several African Americans within their neighbourhood. However, unlike the criticism of violence in Do The Right Thing, the characters in Boyz almost seem to celebrate their violent nature. The character Doughboy (played by Ice Cube) lives a life full of crime involving the glamorisation of guns.
However, rather than a negative representation, Doughboy is shown as taking this route of life through necessity rather than through choice. It is this lack of choice that his surroundings bring. As a social commentary upon the situation, with regards to the lack of interest about the inner city slums, there is a scene in which the characters refer to the drug epidemic in the media. One characters states that the epidemic wasn’t a problem as long as it was in the ghetto. It was when the epidemic hit white Americans that it became a problem. Thus the African Americans in this film can be seen to be socially aware and yet powerless to prevent it.
The main theme in this film is that of class conflict. The main character Tre is moved from a middle-class environment and back into the working class ghetto environment. The conflicts that arise from the ideological differences of these classes, instead of criticising the state of ghetto life, instead draw attention to the problems faced by African Americans in this situation.
The residents of the ghetto are beset by problems, whether it is those of drugs or violence, or just not seeming to be able to escape to a better place. The characters strive towards leaving the ghetto in a bid to improve their lives. This represents the American dream, a bid on behalf of African Americans in that situation to live in a better manner, the same manner as a majority of white Americans. In this sense, African Americans are represented as desiring to become white themselves. This is a very negative representation of African Americans; essentially they wish to reject their culture in favour of that of the white American, one of capitalism.
Although this does again appear to be a dissemination of a pro-white ideology to the masses, rather it represents the necessity African Americans feel due to inequality within the system. If they were free to practice their own culture without feeling oppressed and segregated into ghettos then they would not have to embrace a white American value system.
Of course, this genre could only have led so far without entering the parody stage, as it did with Don’t Be A Menace To South Central While Drinking Your Juice In The Hood . As it did so, the genre soon died off, yet African Americans were still appearing in films as a leading star.
One of the more recent film genres that do this is the action genre, most notable in contemporary Hollywood cinema with the film The Matrix . This film, one of the more contemporary of the action genre, is set in a post apocalyptic future in which the majority of the human race are hooked up to a massive virtual world whilst their bio-energy feeds their robot masters. A number of humans have escaped this virtual world and are looking for the prophesied One (Keanu Reeves) to aid in their war against the robots. An African American called Morpheus, played by Laurence Fishburne, leads these resistance fighters. Here, we have a positive representation of an African American in a position of power, in fact, the highest position of power available in that situation.
However, this representation is soon turned on its head when it appears that Morpheus’ quest is actually to find the One, a messiah figure for this diegetic culture. The fact that an African American in a supreme position of power is shown as having to rely on a white American to do what he cannot, represents that African American as being ultimately powerless and inferior when compared to the white American. Indeed, this is reflected in a scene in which the generically white American ‘Agents’ capture Morpheus in the virtual world. Neo and a white American female then have to rescue him before he submits to torture and gives out confidential information.
This represents the African American as basically inferior to even a white American woman, whereas this representation should be equal. Essentially, Morpheus, even though he is in a position of power, is relying upon white Americans to rescue him. Essentially, a reworking of the representations put across by Intruder In The Dust. If it weren’t for white Americans, then Morpheus would die, due to his lack of ability when compared to his white counterparts.
Morpheus is also the bearer of a major racial stereotype. The reason for Morpheus role of power is due to the prophecy he received about the discovery of the Chosen One. He has preached this coming of the ‘Messiah’ and gained a fervent following that has excelled him into his current role. Essentially, Morpheus is a preacher, much along the lines of the Gospel preachers seen in countless Hollywood films. This representation that African Americans are fervently religious is, while a neutral representation is a fallacy. Not all African Americans are religious, and to state so in a film, leads to a confused representation that leads to the audience becoming misinformed and thus feeding racial bigotry.
Indeed one stereotype that has emerged in contemporary Hollywood in regard to African Americans is that of the ‘Black Angel’. An episode of the Simpsons broadcast in 2002 knowingly confirms this when Homer and family have nothing to do when their television breaks down, except of course get arrested for breaching the peace. Soon a social worker is provided, voiced by Delroy Lindo, whose soothing voice and white suit instantly project a spiritual presence. This is further strengthened with the celestial music that accompanies his entrance. The social worker however turns off this music which is revealed to simply be his pagers ring tone. Homer however is still convinced that the social worker is in fact an angel. Marge apologises to the social worker explaining that Homer may have seen too many movies.
Of course the Simpsons is known for its irony and post-modern wit. This program is merely highlighting a typical contemporary African American stereotype that perhaps many of us simply take for granted. It we examine closer we may hold the same conviction as Homer, that African American men hold some kind of mystical wise power and religious knowledge, and walk the earth as guardian angels. What strikes prominently however is that these heavenly gifted black characters use their powers chiefly to aid attractive white people. In doing so the African American is in a position of power and respect yes, but he is very much subordinate to the white person or people he is aiding. The black angel therefore is considered powerful and avuncular, possessing special powers but powers that only exist for the betterment of the white race.
If we look at three films that were released in 2000 it is clear that the black angel phenomenon is a powerful ideological tool. In The Legend of Bagger Vance Will Smiths character rescues Mat Damon from a life of despair and lays open the mystical truths of life and golf. In the film bedazzled Brendan Frazer receives wisdom from a mystical black man; and in the Family Man, Don Cheadle appears as a somewhat streetwise guardian angel, resembling a patchy remake of Frank Capra’s It’s a Wonderful Life (1946).
In all these films the white protagonist remains the central figure, whilst the black angel literally moves heaven and earth in order to keep the status quo. When the African American is placed within this framework, Black and white reconciliation is more unproblematic. Scenes of multi racial partnership become unquestioned as the audience is provided with emotional moments provided by each race. The black character isn’t necessarily placed below the hierarchy of the white, but outside that hierarchy dominated by the white. The result therefore is that the audience is far less likely to notice the old stereotypes and power structures still present, albeit in at least a less bigoted form than before. What are we to conclude from this? On one level it simply voices the opinion that blacks and whites can and do live productively together in racial harmony. On another level however it displays a serious crisis in American society that racial issues must be hid in the realm of fantasy. It could be said that these films are merely reinforcing the same age old racial ideologies that have always been present since the dawn of Hollywood, and the very ideologies that cement the white demographics prominent position whilst keeping the blacks at bay.