Back to IndieWire

Black Film Theory: Fighting the Illusions of White Supremacy in Cinematic Narration – Part One

Black Film Theory: Fighting the Illusions of White Supremacy in Cinematic Narration - Part One

Unfortunately because of the marginalized status of Black filmmakers within the American Entertainment Complex -due to smaller budgets, fewer releases, segregation from international markets, and severely constricted short term box office expectations- film theory is often considered a pretentious and unnecessary endeavor for Black filmmakers to engage in since it is commonly accepted that profit margins exclusively determine the significance of a Black filmmaker’s career (See: Tyler Perry).   By contrast, it is prestige in the form of recognized stylistic innovations, noble cause stories, and the accumulation of domestic and international awards which often supports and extends the careers of White filmmakers regardless of their individual film’s box office performance (See: Wes Anderson, Darren Aronofsky, Terence Malick, The Coen Brothers, et al. ).

The purpose of what I hope will be a continuing series of articles by others and myself is to re-invigorate the need for Black film theory as a catalyst for discussion and debate among all filmmakers about how race impacts the creation and reception of cinema.  The ultimate goal of Black film theory is to contaminate the “Whiteness” of the dominate cinema, destroy its foundations and build a new racially inclusive cinema that contests and/or exposes all inequities (race, class, gender etc) at every opportunity in the pleasurable context of filmed entertainment.

UNDERSTANDING (His) STORY  

Taking as true Alfred Hitchcock’s remark that,” Drama is life with the dull bits cut out,” our endeavor here in this inaugural article is to scrutinize why these “dull bits” have been cut out and to suggest that the absence of these so-called “dull bits” often supports the illusion of White supremacy in cinematic storytelling.  Our point of departure begins by building upon the work of film scholar David Bordwell and the intriguing chapter of his book POETICS OF CINEMA, called “Cognition and Comprehension.”   Bordwell begins where another well known film theorist, Christian Metz, began decades earlier with the question,” What enables films- particularly narrative films to be understood?”(1)  It is surely one of the least discussed aspects of cinematic narration that is the peculiar socio-psychological component we will call story cognition (or how we understand and gain pleasure from the telling of a tale).  Although Bordwell  does not extend his work into the subject of race and the cinema, we shall attempt to apply many of his observations in such a context for the light that can be shed on this thorny issue.  

But before going any further we should discuss in greater detail this particular aspect of cinematic storytelling.  

The story in every narrative film, no matter how greatly acclaimed or how little known, has a gap in its contiguity (its logic) because fictional time and narrative time do not always have to match.  Everything that happens in a story does not have to be seen on the screen.  This gap or series of gaps must be filled in by the spectator for the continuation of pleasure and the comprehension of the tale being told.  These gaps are filled in by the assumptions of the spectator as the filmmaker uses the grammar of cinema (shots, editing and sound) to encourage the spectator to make certain assumptions to fill these gaps.  Bordwell calls these assumptions, cognizing or,” going beyond the information given [and] hypothesizing what is likely to happen next.” (2)

In short, when we watch a film we are engaged in a,” process of elaboration,” that can be called story cognition where we non-consciously fill in the gaps of a film’s story based on,” informal reasoning procedures.”(3)  One infamous example of story cognition to fill in a gap in a story is found during the first act of M. Night Shyamalan’s THE SIXTH SENSE (1999).  Once Dr. Malcolm Crowe (Bruce Willis) is shot by a former patient at night in his home the scene fades out and the following scene begins with Dr. Malcolm Crowe reading a patient’s dossier in daylight outside of a home.  Seeing this character no longer in distress and doing work in daylight caused many of us to assume that the doctor had survived the shooting and thus led to the “surprise” ending of the film.

The best filmmakers use these story gaps to elicit the intelligence of the audience to make certain assumptions whether or not these assumptions turn out to be erroneous or true to the themes of the story.  Still, other filmmakers use these gaps to elicit the ignorance and presumptions of a spectator to fill in these gaps and conceal the prejudices and racial stereotypes upon which such particular gaps are based.

For our purposes, we are interested in this latter group of films and filmmakers that use the ignorance and presumptions of the spectator to conceal the prejudices and racial stereotypes upon which their story gaps are based.  Here we are concerned with defining two types of story cognition attributable to the informal reasoning processes of two distinct racial groups:

1) White Story Cognition- which is particular to White films and the audiences to which such films appeal.

2) Black Story Cognition- which is particular to Black films and the audiences to which such films appeal.

Of course one could easily extend such story cognition categories to include Gay & Lesbian cognition, male or female cognition and the like, but this is beyond the scope of this article.  It would be prudent at this point to put forth a concise definition of a White film and a Black film:

 A) The White film is narrowly defined here as a film with at least one White in the lead role or co-lead role and Blacks or other ethnicities in supporting or non-influential roles where the narrative resolves itself by giving more dramatic attention to the emotions and circumstances of the White character(s).

B) The Black film is a film with a majority Black cast that situates Whites, if any, in peripheral or non-influential roles where the narrative resolves itself by giving more dramatic attention to the emotions and circumstances of the Black character(s).  

Make no mistake what will be asserted here is that due to various race specific and culturally embedded stereotypes, prejudices and power relations the informal reasoning processes of Whites and Blacks are different; the two groups might watch the same film and yet make entirely different assumptions with regards to how they fill in the gaps of a particular film’s story.

We are guided here in this assertion by an observation by film scholar Nicole Rafter who states that,” “For example, if there are no African-American characters at all in a movie, people of color may be more aware than Whites of watching what critic Anna Everett calls a “segregated” film- one from which people like themselves are excluded; even if Whites recognize the exclusion, it will have different meanings for them. Moreover, watching “integrated” films- movies with some African American actors and characters- people of color may be more conscious than Whites of the racial hierarchy in which members of their group seldom qualify as the hero.”(4)

This separation of White cognition and Black cognition is not arbitrary; it mirrors a larger systemic separation within the media industry between White and Black films.  That is to say, since the American Entertainment Complex has repeatedly segregated Black films from the international market, allotted smaller budgets and lower box office expectations for these films vis-à-vis White films we can surmise that there are assumptions being made in the offices of this industry that rest upon racially motivated inferences and hypotheses with regard to what is a Black film and what is a White (i.e. mainstream) Film.  These assumptions are what fill in the gap between what the White executives know about the Black audience which usually leads to the “surprise” endings when a Black film outperforms its box office expectations or audience demographics. (See: Think Like a Man –or- Best Man Holiday)

Of course a major objection that would make all of these assertions unsupportable is: How can we presume to know what others are assuming, particularly an entire group of spectators characterized solely by their race?  I believe these assertions can be supported not by reading the people, but instead by reading the films that have been separated for us by the industry into White films and Black films.  The films themselves are the traces of White and Black story cognition because as Bordwell has noted,” Not all spectators are filmmakers, but all filmmakers are spectators… [Therefore] a film displays systematic patterns of narrative, themes, style, and the like.(5)  Bordwell calls these narratives with systematic patterns “norms” that supply “cues” to a spectator which,” initiate the process of elaboration, resulting eventually in inferences and hypotheses.(6)            

We can re-read these cues to comprehend how they are eliciting a distinct set of assumptions that characterize White story cognition vis-à-vis Black story cognition.

To better grasp the notion of these two types of story cognition we have to understand that each type has a master assumption that exists beyond the narrative itself which guides all of our subsequent assumptions, inferences and hypotheses when we as spectators fill in the gaps of a White film or a Black film.  

The master assumption of White story cognition can be summarized as: We shall always prevail.

The master assumption of Black story cognition can be summarized as: We shall overcome- someday.

These two assumptions would appear to be very similar but in fact the two are qualitatively different. The master assumptions are also historically determined and adhere to racial hierarchies that have been consistent since the discovery of the New World.  Another source for the master assumptions has to do with story archetypes and who controls the American Entertainment Industry where there is a preponderance of White (male) heroes who survive the trials and tribulations of the stories in a large percentage of White films.  But by contrast, there is a greater propensity for Black co-leads and/or supporting characters to be killed or rendered ineffectual during the course of the stories of a large percentage of White films.

Most importantly, what distinguishes these two types of story cognition is that you do not have to actually be White to comprehend a White film through White story cognition; other races are willing to adopt the mask of White story cognition to follow the cues and accept the concealment of prejudices and racial stereotypes in exchange for the narrative and visual pleasure of a White film.  By contrast, to fully comprehend a Black film through Black story cognition one has to be empathic and willing to accept the revelation of prejudices, racial stereotypes and the history and continuation of systemic racial inequities and injustices to follow the cues within the film in exchange for the narrative and visual pleasure of a Black film.

If we have to ask ourselves the question why the two types of story cognition are different the simple answer is because most White films often reflect the dominant cultural illusions to which we are all obliged to aspire.  On the other hand, many Black films often reflect the awful truths concealed behind those dominant illusions to which we would rather ignore.

Man prefers illusion over the truth, one could say.

We have a small sampling of films to support these assertions, but hopefully not all films can be so easily separated within the two categories because there are always exceptions whose significance we shall address later.  In regards to White story cognition we will briefly examine particular gaps in the films: SKYFALL (Sam Mendes- 2012), SPRINGBREAKERS (Harmony Korine- 2013), and WORLD WAR Z (Mark Forster- 2013).  In regards to Black story cognition in the second part of this article we will briefly examine particular gaps in THE BUTLER (Lee Daniels-2013), 12 YEARS A SLAVE (Steve McQueen-2013), MANDELA: A LONG WALK TO FREEDOM (Justin Chadwick – 2013)

WHITE STORY COGNITION: SKYFALL, SPRINGBREAKERS, WORLD WAR Z

The master assumption behind White story cognition is the supremacist ideal of “we shall always prevail”.   Even though a character or set of characters might die, or a way of life might be ‘gone with the wind’, Whites and the systems they control, shall prevail.  This master assumption which is implicitly a notion of racial, moral, intellectual and political superiority is what allows spectators, White, Black or otherwise, to fill in the gaps of story logic with regard to the White characters in a White film.  For example, in Sam Mendes’ James Bond film SKYFALL there is a confounding story gap in the beginning of the film that must be filled in with the guidance of the master assumption of White story cognition to continue to enjoy the remaining 2 hours of the film. 

When James Bond (Daniel Craig) is accidently shot while fighting atop a moving train that is crossing over a high bridge, he falls multiple stories down into the river below.  His unconscious body is jostled through the river’s rapids and rocks, then over and down a steep waterfall, before falling even deeper into the plunge basin beneath the falls.  The next time we see Bond he is conscious and making love to a beautiful woman at a beach house in some unknown coastal town.  The story never explains nor convincingly implies how Bond could have survived such a lethal chain of circumstances.  The gap between the death of Bond and his subsequent survival must be filled in by the spectator.

The “dull bits” of Bond’s extraction from the water, his resuscitation, the tending to his serious bullet wounds, as well as change of clothing and ability to pay for services rendered have been cut out.

By force of the continued progression of the story with Bond alive and only slightly physically scarred, we are obliged to assume and accept the fact that Bond’s super human physical superiority is what rendered him capable of surviving such an ordeal that would’ve ended with lesser individuals dead in their watery graves.  The superiority of the character of James Bond rests on his institutional role as an agent of the British Empire and its monarchy which stretches back several centuries and prevails even to this day.  This story gap at the beginning of SKYFALL must be filled in with the master assumption of White story cognition that is the supremacist ideal of “We shall always prevail” to continue to comprehend the rest of the story and gain pleasure from its telling.

Our next film, Harmony Korine’s SPRINGBREAKERS is a full exercise in the excesses of White privilege and illusions of White power from its beginning to its end, but it is the very ending of the film, with its two bikini clad and masked White girls walking through an open air shoot out and killing every armed Black male in their sight that compels us to consider the story gaps within the scene as a visceral cue that elicits White story cognition.  The candy-colored fluorescence of this ultra-violent finale of the film ends with the two girls murdering the rival Black male “gangster” character, Big Arch (Gucci Mane) by shooting him in the head as he sits unarmed and unalarmed in his Jacuzzi.  

The story gaps in this particular scene of SPRINGBREAKERS are very subtle, but nevertheless encourage the spectator to make crucial assumptions that support a violent illusion of White supremacy.  In this shoot out, we never see the two bikini clad White girls reload their weapons.  By cutting out these necessary actions (as well as leaving out any visual evidence of additional magazines of ammunition) the spectator is forced to accept the illusion of White supremacy concealed within the assumption that the shooters are far superior than their Black male opponents (armed with various types of automatic and semi-automatic weapons) by their mysterious ability to not have to reload their weapons.  Moreover the two women are not so much as hit or grazed by those who are returning fire from various directions, suggesting that the purity of the White females is invulnerable to Black male penetration.          

Another gap that is contingent upon the previous gap is the uncanny ability of the killers to find their final victim in a particular room within a large mansion without the victim having been forewarned by the gunfire outside or the killers having any foreknowledge of the layout of the premises.  This gap, the cutting out of the “dull bits” of the killers searching the entire mansion or the sound of gunfire, also encourages the spectator to assume that the knowledge and skill of the White killers is far superior to that of their Black prey.

The master assumption of White story cognition conceals the degrading caricature of the Black opponents while it simultaneously upholds the supremacy of Whites in the life or death battle that closes the film.  Harmony Korine has stated on the director’s commentary of the DVD that he wanted this sequence of the film to have the ambience of a fantasy, but the question is a fantasy for whom?  It is certainly not a Black man’s fantasy, but rather a violent nightmare of racial extermination.

Finally, in director Mark Forster’s world pandemic zombie film, WORLD WAR Z, we have a story that centers on the quest of former UN employee Gerry Lane (Brad Pitt) to find a defensive weapon against the wildly contagious affliction that changes normal people into vicious bite crazy zombies within 12 seconds of being wounded.  As film scholar Chera Kee has asserted regarding the post-apocalyptic zombie film,” Death is the great racial equalizer… Living versus the dead is the new binary.” (7)  In WORLD WAR Z the exceptional White individual and the White bourgeois family would appear to be under assault by the racially diverse zombie masses.  

A significant gap in this film that supports a White supremacist illusion is found near the end of the film when Gerry Lane injects himself with an unknown deadly virus to camouflage himself from the racially diverse and violent zombie mass.  The gap itself is both temporal and performative in the sense that there is an omission of time for the devastating effects of the lethal virus to take hold upon the body.  Concomitantly, the White actor does not “perform” his illness; that is to say, there is not so much as a cough, bead of sweat from a fever, or any visible decline in physical ability that is performed so that one could be convinced of the vulnerability of the character.   The “dull bits” of physical suffering have been cut out.

All the lethal injection really accomplishes in WORLD WAR Z is to make the Whiteness of Brad Pitt’s character invisible to the racially diverse zombie mass.  Yet the counter effect of the story gap is that the miraculous and messiah-like affect of White privilege is rendered visible to the spectator as a necessary aspect of comprehending and enjoying the story.  The spectator is forced to assume that this particular White male body is invulnerable to the devastating effects of a lethal disease in exchange for the ability to bring the film to a satisfying conclusion via White intellect and bravery that makes literal the master assumption of White story cognition: We shall always prevail.

What these three examples of story gaps and White story cognition also reveal is that there is a necessary correlation between the degree of uncontested acceptance of the assumptions the films are encouraging the spectator to make and the degree of pleasure derived from the story within the film.  The question is does the spectator who accepts White story cognition as the “default” assumption to fill in the gaps of a story also accept in that transaction to agree with the concealment of racial prejudices, inequities, stereotypes and fixed racial hierarchies that are often concomitant with certain story gaps in White films?  

The moment one questions the validity of using White story cognition to fill in story gaps, the less likely one is to be entertained by a White film and/or accept the concealment of racial prejudices, inequities, stereotypes and fixed racial hierarchies.

Of course, it can be said that I have deliberately selected the most obvious examples of story gaps that would support the theory of White story cognition as an illusion of White supremacy.  But unfortunately, there are as many examples of White story cognition in story gaps as there are White films.  Super Hero movies from MAN OF STEEL to IRONMAN have main characters that are the very epitome of White supremacist illusions and they have a greater quantity and quality of story gaps that must be filled in with the master assumption to insure the maximization of their narrative pleasure and comprehension.

For those of us who continually ask for the Black Super Hero film, that Black characters survive in a science fiction or horror film, the Black fantasy film, the Black spy film or any other genre that seems to be lacking in Black filmmaking, I believe we must turn our attention to how filmmakers use the gaps in their stories to encourage the spectator to fill in these gaps with the master assumption of White story cognition. We must study the cues to determine if they can be adapted for Black story cognition or subverted to create a different and more racially inclusive cinema all together.

In the next part of this article we will scrutinize Black story cognition to determine if the procedure of subverting White story cognition can be or has already been accomplished by other filmmakers, White or Black.            

We are in pursuit of the truths that support the illusion, but conceal the lies.

NOTES

1) Pg. 136, POETICS OF CINEMA by David Bordwell, Routledge: New York, 2008.

2) Pg. 137, Ibid.

3) Pgs. 136-137, Bordwell uses the word “non-conscious” because you aren’t aware of doing it, but it is not an unconscious activity.

4) Pg.122 Shots in the Mirror: Crime Films and Society 2nd Ed. by Nicole Rafter, Oxford University Press: New York, 2006.      

5) Pg. 137, POETICS OF CINEMA.

6) Ibid.

7) Cited from, Racialized and Raceless: Visions of Race After Death in Post-Apocalyptic Zombie Films, by Chera Kee at the Wayne State University Humanities Center Brown Bag Colloquium Series, October 12th 2012.


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.

This Article is related to: Features and tagged