One of the most sorrowful truths of the post-Civil Rights era is that we as African-Americans treat ourselves worse than many racists of another color would do. From our children to the elderly, from our brightest to our downtrodden, the crime statistics bear witness to the fact that we find it incredibly easy to be our own worst enemies than our best protectors and friends.
By the same token, in this post-Civil Rights era, we as African-Americans have fulfilled and are continuing to fulfill many astounding achievements in every facet of American society that could only be quietly hoped for by the generation that preceded the Civil Rights era.
From millionaire film producers and billionaire television moguls to visionary scientists to a Black president and countless scholars, business women and men, artists, writers and thinkers- and yet for all of these achievements there still persists a recalcitrant pessimism and blinding cynicism that breaks our spirit when we think of ourselves as African-Americans and our collective potential to change unfair or negative circumstances that predominately affect us but are dominated and controlled by whites and their non-white sympathizers.
Perhaps, we are all of us, spooks in a mirror, too scared to look at ourselves as a whole so we look away towards a narrow image of ourselves made by others to keep us from knowing who we really are and all that we can truly be. I said, perhaps.
Since I have had the opportunity to write for S&A concerning the ability of and the necessity for African-Americans to create a viable alternate film industry free from the power and control of the American Entertainment Complex I have noticed three consistent strands of negative commentary with regards to my perspective which I would like summarize below (Unfortunately, the first one I’m going to have to give to you raw):
1) Most Black people are stupid and they like stupid shit (referring directly to Tyler Perry works).
2) The reason why there aren’t that many great Black films being made today is not because of any conspiracy or deception within Hollywood, but instead because most Black filmmakers aren’t trying hard enough to make a great, commercially successful, film.
3) More importantly, if Black films are not successful in the USA, why would anyone believe these films would find success in overseas markets where there may be less Black faces?
Rather than examine each one of these commentaries, I would rather group them all together as an enlightening example of a deep seated psychological mechanism that has been passed down from generation to generation since slavery and can be found in many African-Americans born and/or raised in the United States today. For want of a better name we might call it: Spookhosis.(1)
Spookhosis is the inability to reconcile the external (heterogeneous) images of African-Americans with the internal (homogeneous) negative images of African-Americans that were first implanted by Whites during slavery and subsequently internalized and passed down to generations and generations by African-Americans themselves. Concomitant with this inability to see ourselves as we really are, is a dependency on the notion of Black inferiority as a means to resist change, protect faulty belief systems and shepherd a “herd mentality” among African-Americans by cutting us off intellectually, economically and politically from the global African Diaspora. In many ways, this term is simply being used as a means of revealing the “blind spots” of prejudice many African-Americans hold against others of their race which aids in keeping us dis-unified, pessimistic and cynical about our collective potential and power.
In a previous article I wrote about,” One of the great paradoxes of the African-American racial imaginary that affects our representation on film is that individually we think of ourselves as intelligent, strong, creative and dynamic, but when we think of ourselves collectively as a race we harbor an image of an ignorant, uneducated, misled and aimless step-child who must be appeased if we are attempting to make a profit in any representational art form that features African-Americans. It is really this internal image that must be overcome if we are to make any progress in the cinematic art and the film industry, for even the dumbest among us believes that they are intelligent and that its those other N**gas who are stupid.”(2)
This paradox of intra-racial discrimination is a key observation of this deep seated psychological mechanism that I am calling Spookhosis. As authors Tavris and Aronson explain,” Often it is discrimination that evokes the self-justifying stereotype… We have human qualities of intelligence and deep emotions, but they are dumb…”(3)
It is Spookhosis that keeps us so easily convinced that African-Americans won’t support an African-American science-fiction film, even as many African-Americans went to see Ridley Scott’s PROMETHEUS in the theatres and on bootlegs last weekend only to bitch about the fact that the African-American character (Idris Elba as the ship’s captain) was killed off as he sacrificed himself for humanity. It is Spookhosis that makes so many of us think that,” there may be less black faces,” overseas to watch African-American films and thus support the segregation of African-American films from foreign markets and the discrimination against African-American filmmakers by Hollywood while simultaneously hoping that “Nollywood” Nigeria’s budding film industry finds success.
And finally it is Spookhosis that allows us to buy bootlegs of African-American films and thus lower the theatrical box office gross of these films while uncritically accepting the notion that African-American filmmakers aren’t trying hard enough to make commercially successful films. We are many of us, spooks in a mirror, unable to reconcile our own superior self image with the inferior image we hold of all other African-Americans that are not in our present company.
Make no mistake, Spookhosis is a dangerous mental disposition that even the most enlightened of us must fight against every day. It is a conscious form of dissimulation that makes us cheer publically for an African-American’s success and wish privately for their downfall. What used to simply be described as,” crabs in a barrel,” or is currently called,” Hating,” are only labels of the consequences of what I am defining as a deep seated psychological disposition peculiar to African-Americans because we suffered under the circumstances of America’s most peculiar institution: slavery. In my book, Slave Cinema, I called this phenomenon, The Internal Overseer and I used Leon Festinger’s sociological concept of Cognitive Dissonance to better reveal how many intelligent African-Americans, hold two contradictory positions with regard to themselves as “exceptions that prove the rule,” rather than seeing themselves as “exceptions that prove the (negative) rule untrue.”(4)
But I feel that the term, Spookhosis for all of its awkwardness as a neologism better describes the White supremacist sources of this psychological disposition because it is a form of dissimulation that is inextricably tied to our racial identity, class aspirations and status within America and its racist past, present and future. It is important that we look at how Spookhosis affects potential and working African-American filmmakers.
This inability to reconcile one’s superior individual self image with the negative and inferior image of African-Americans collectively has a deleterious effect upon potential African-American screenwriters and filmmakers, investors and producers because it breaks the optimism and weakens the passion of all those it poisons causing those afflicted to disrespect the African-American audience. Specifically, in writing a screenplay or making a film one has to have an imaginary ideal audience in one’s mind; an audience that one believes will “get” or understand what they will be seeing and hearing. As the late great Russian filmmaker, Andrei Tarkovsky said,” Respect for an audience can only be based on the conviction that they are no stupider than you.”(5)
Yet all too often, when writing an ambitious –high concept- screenplay or searching for financing for an original, challenging or high concept African-American film a suspicion is circulated either within one’s self or by others that the African-American audience won’t understand or support the final product. The conviction that the African-American audience, in general, is stupider than you is a form of pure Spookhosis that causes one to either “dumb down” a high concept or stop working on a screenplay or film altogether. The inability to reconcile one’s superior self image with the collective negative image of African-Americans often leads directly to a profound disrespect for the “heterogeneity” of the entire African-American audience in African-American filmmaking.
As African-American filmmakers and writers we all too often forced by the profit driven ethos of the American Entertainment Complex to pander and solicit to the most demeaning and negative stereotypes of our people in film because we are convinced by Spookhosis that “most Black people aren’t going to understand something if we don’t dumb it down.” The fear of not returning a profit for our investors or the distributer “spooks” many African-American filmmakers from the conviction that their ideal audience is no stupider than themselves.
We dismiss the fact that all of us harbor a superior self image-no matter how intellectually engaged or challenged- and that in the cinema it is the hero who overcomes and/or outsmarts his or her circumstances to whom we most often identify no matter how high the concept might be. The danger of Spookhosis in African-American film is that it “spooks” us and makes it easier for us to disrespect ourselves and the African-American audience as a whole because we not only think of that audience as a monolithic homogenous group, but we also make ourselves exceptions to a negative and derogatory stereotype that we have internalized about our race as a whole.
The commentary that,” Most Black people are stupid and they like stupid shit (referring directly to Tyler Perry works),” is a consequence of the effect of Spookhosis on an otherwise intelligent African-American who reads and responds often to the posts here at Shadow & Act. Blinded by an unwillingness to question the basic business practices of the Hollywood industry that controls and discriminates against African-American filmmakers, the carefully managed success of Tyler Perry in film and the deliberate curtailment of the production and theatrical distribution of African-American films is squarely blamed on the stupidity of African-Americans (the internalization of Black inferiority) who have been steered to see Tyler Perry’s films rather than on the manipulations and unfair business practices of the American Entertainment Complex.
To be sure, Tyler Perry has cultivated a large and motivated fan base from his chitlin’ circuit plays, bootlegs of his stage plays to his films, but those African-Americans who love his films are not the sum total of all the African-American movie going audience. Spookhosis allows his success to blind us from the fact that many other African-Americans are receptive to (and indeed are longing for) films that are different from Perry’s work.
One of the most shameful consequences of Spookhosis is that it undermines and effectively destroys an individual’s optimism and passion and replaces it with a pessimism and cynicism that disengages that individual from the higher ideals of his or her art or culture. Spookhosis debilitates otherwise strong willed, intelligent and creative African-Americans and makes them literally beg or “perform Blackness” to receive financing, publicity or distribution from the white controlled Hollywood studios that segregate, constrict and ultimately receive the lion’s share of all profits made by those African-Americans who are allowed to express themselves on the screens controlled by the American Entertainment Complex. As Tom Burrell asserts in his book, Brainwashed: Challenging the Myth of Black Inferiority,” Double-helixed into our cultural DNA, it seems, is this paradoxical habit of depending on outsiders to save our race… We still look to the “master “ for approval, guidance, and support.”(6)
Are we not still slaves, economically chained, to our masters?
In a recent S&A post, “They Shoot Black Movies… Don’t They”, filmmaker Barry Michael Cooper after describing the “pre-Raphaelite brotherhood” of successful African-American male filmmakers in the 1990’s lamented the fact that,” Twenty years [later] many black filmmakers, myself included, haven’t had a movie financed by a major studio in over twenty years.”(7)
And these African-American filmmakers from the 1990’s haven’t they been hoodwinked and bamboozled out of foreign licensing rights? Haven’t their domestic box office grosses deliberately been reduced by external bootlegging of African-American films, as they languish under the tight-fisted control of their Hollywood masters who tell them that,”… the era of the ‘hood movie is pretty much over.
The executives at the studios won’t even take a meeting on that genre any more. Black films are having a hard time finding a home at the studios.”(8)
Cooper points to Spike Lee and his recent self-financing of his latest film, RED HOOK SUMMER, as a means to rebuke the power and control that Hollywood studios currently exercise over African-American filmmakers. But as I have tried to say, making the film independently is only a third of the battle. (Recall that no “major” Hollywood distributor acquired Lee’s Red Hood Summer, so he went with an alternate distributor). We have to take control of the means of distribution, the means of exhibition and –most importantly- we have to take control of the second tier (television, satellite, cable) and any other platform through which our films can be shown commercially.
We cannot let our own Spookhosis shortchange us on the ideal, the prize, the goal.
I repeat, “Black films are having a hard time finding a home at the studios.” We have to respect ourselves before we can respect our audiences. For the only way to defeat Spookhosis is to follow through on your highest ideals even in the face of your greatest fears, by any means necessary.
1) The term Spookhosis is a combination of the racial epithet, Spook, and the psychological term, Psychosis.
2) The Shopkeeper’s Till and The Devil’s Pie: Notes for a Revolution in African-American Filmmaking (part 3)
3) Pg. 59, Mistakes Were Made (but not by me): Why We Justify Foolish Beliefs, Bad Decisions, and Hurtful Acts by Carol Tavris and Elliot Aronson, New York: Harcourt, 2007.
4) Pgs. 25-30, Slave Cinema: The Crisis of the African-American in Film by Andre Seewood, 2008.
5) Pg. 173, Sculpting In Time by Andrei Tarkovsky, Austin: University of Texas, 1987.
6) Pg. 198, Brainwashed: Challenging the Myth of Black Inferiority by Tom Burrell, New York: SmileyBooks, 2010
7) They Shoot Black Movies… Don’t They (The Realization of a Hustlerz Ambition) Barry Michael Cooper, Shadow & Act, June 1st, 2012
Postscript for the commentators who indulge in nursery rhymes:
“Mirror mirror on the wall,
Who’s the biggest spook of all?
Well it ain’t the Man who’s standing tall,
But the little boy saying,” You’re gonna fall.”
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.