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Black Film Theory Part 3: Subversion & Liberation From The Illusions Of White Supremacy In Cinematic Narration

Black Film Theory Part 3: Subversion & Liberation From The Illusions Of White Supremacy In Cinematic Narration

Read Part One here. 

Read Part Two here.

Let us return to the well from whence we first attempted to quench our thirst: Alfred Hitchcock gave us one of the most famous story gaps in cinematic history during the opening sequence of his film, VERTIGO (1958).   Here detective John “Scotty” Ferguson (Jimmy Stewart) and a police officer are chasing a fleeing criminal across the rooftops of San Francisco at night.  As the criminal leaps onto a slanted roof the officer and Scotty attempt to follow suit, but Scotty loses his footing and finds himself hanging by both hands from a gutter high above an alley below.  When the police officer attempts to reach down to him, the officer slips and plummets to his death.  The sequence fades out on a medium close-up of Scotty still hanging from the gutter.  The next scene fades in, apparently months after the ordeal, with Scotty discussing his psychological condition of vertigo with his former college sweetheart, Margery “Midge” Wood (Barbara Bel Geddes) in the confines of her cozy art studio apartment.  

Hitchcock never explains how Scotty was rescued from that precarious position between life and death.  This story gap in VERTIGO, far from being a simplistic demonstration of the master assumption of White story cognition (“We shall always prevail”), instead demonstrates how a story gap can be used for poetic and/or thematic effect- as the shot of Scotty hanging from the gutter between life and death acts as a striking visual metaphor of his existential condition that permeates the entire film and its latticed plot of murder, deception, suicide, guilt and obsession.

The story gap in VERTIGO is also illustrative of the fact that well thought out and well placed story gaps can be used to subvert spectator’s expectations and has the potential of liberating spectators from their dependence upon the master assumptions of Black and White story cognition.  That is to say that a story gap can be used to elicit alternative methods of story cognition liberated from the master assumptions that we have previously discussed in parts one and two of this series.  

What we will be exploring in this installment of Black Film Theory are cinematic strategies of subversion and liberation against the master assumptions of both Black and White story cognition.  The objects of this exploration will be considered from the oeuvres of Stanley Kubrick and Jim Jarmusch, two of the most iconoclastic cinematic auteurs whose works individually or taken together are the epitome of subversion of the master assumptions of White and Black story cognition.

But before we begin we have a wide “intellectual” river that we must decide if we want to cross to get anything from the other side of this article.  You are asked to contemplate and agree with the assertion that the purpose and the aim of all art is subversion; that is to challenge and contest against orthodoxy, dogmatism, and/or the normal, the commonplace, and the ordinary which is taken for granted in our lives.  All art from the music note to the image, from the gesture to the brushstroke has this purpose of subversion as its goal; subversion to expose the spectator to the possibility of something more than what is generally known, understood and habitually repeated.  If there is any point of contention it is found in the degree of subversion and choice of the object of attack.

Even the story found in BAMBI is a form of subversion, both the 1942 Disney film and the 1979 song by Prince. (1)

As Fernando Solanas and Octavio Getino remind us in their groundbreaking essay, Towards a Third Cinema,” Truth, then amounts to subversion,” in the sense that,” the possibility of discovering and inventing film forms and structures that serve a more profound vision of our reality resides in the ability to place oneself on the outside limits of the familiar, to make one’s way amid constant dangers.” (2)

If you have contemplated and can agree with this assertion then you should read on, if not, then stop here- nothing that will be discussed later will convince you otherwise.

If we want a new more racially inclusive cinema we have to recognize (and not patronize) the existence of a racially diverse spectator and since all filmmakers are spectators, but not all spectators are filmmakers, our first task must begin within ourselves.

The process involved in subverting the master assumption of White story cognition from “we shall always prevail,” to “sometimes we fail,” as well as subverting the master assumption of Black story cognition from “we shall overcome someday” to “we have overcome” is a process that must begin inside the mind of the film artist, whether White or Black.  The artist must rid him or herself of the limitations, prejudices, stereotypes and outright lies that inform conventional day-to-day reality.  It is a conventional reality fed by constantly streaming corporate controlled media and its various information delivery systems and the often repeated “truths” by respected religious, moral and political agents and representatives that are only substantiated by selecting facts that confirm rather than contradict what is being asserted.

The artist must develop a skepticism that asks of the dominant reality,” is this really true?” and set him or herself on a path of inquiry to seek evidence to the contrary.  

It is this evidence to the contrary that forms the guiding thematic perspective of the artist’s subsequent works of art.

For example, when we consider the works of Stanley Kubrick, we have been told over and over again that he was an idiosyncratic artist who reached for perfection in hundreds of takes and repetitions of a scene or shot- and that reputation as a maniacal perfectionist often obscures the fact that nearly all of Kubrick’s films have the failure to achieve perfection as their central theme.  From the failure of the perfectly synchronized crime in THE KILLING (1956), to the inability of Colonel Dax (Kirk Douglas) to stop the unjust executions of three French soldiers in PATHS OF GLORY (1957)- and even the multiple failures of Dr. Bill Hartford (Tom Cruise) in Kubrick’s final film, EYES WIDE SHUT (1999); the failure of the best laid plans of White men is the master theme that Kubrick pursued by various and diverse means throughout his career.  

How did Kubrick come to this terse skeptical perspective?

Author Michael Herr who co-wrote the screenplay for the final film in Kubrick’s failure-of-war trilogy, FULL METAL JACKET (1987) tells us that Kubrick,”…had a taste and a gift for the creative-subversive,” and that one of the books Kubrick often sent to many of his confidants was The Destruction of the European Jews by historian Raul Hilberg. (3)  He would call often to inquire if the receiver had read it yet.  Herr goes on to tell us that he,”…could see why Stanley was so absorbed by it.  It was a forbidding volume densely laid out in a two-column format, nearly eight hundred pages long, small print, heavily footnoted, so minutely detailed that…  it read like a complete log of the Final Solution.” (4)

It would appear that Kubrick, a Jew himself, had developed his powerful skepticism about the master assumption of White story cognition from the revelations of the Jewish Holocaust and the genocide against European Jews by the Nazi regime.

Now, of course, critical race theory has in its toolbox the sacred concepts of structured absence and token presence, which we will simplify here as the absence of any Black characters from what has previously been defined as a White film and the token presence of a single Black character as a symbolic representation of all Black people in a White film.  

Author Adilifu Nama in his book, Imagining Race in Science Fiction Film, presents a racially coded reading of Kubrick’s famous science fiction film, 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), that many have understood as axiomatic: “In the futuristic world of 2001: A Space Odyssey humankind is technologically advanced, civilized, socially composed, and exclusively white.  The film’s white world of the future, however, stands in sharp contrast to the colored primates of the past.  In this case, the dark brown progenitors of humankind are primitive, violent, and wild apelike creatures.” (5)

But I would counter this reading of the structured absence of Black characters from many of Kubrick’s films, including 2001: A Space Odyssey- not as a means of obeying a White supremacist racial hierarchy where Blacks have no place in the future; but instead I would argue that Kubrick is using structured absence as a means of sharpening the blade of his skepticism in his critique against White supremacy and its master assumption of prevailing against all odds.  That is to say, that for Kubrick, the removal of Blacks from many of his films of White failure was a means of securing the financing, distribution and star actors for his films from the White controlled American Entertainment Complex and its allies, while he subsequently subverted White supremacist ideals of moral, intellectual and political superiority via the stories of White failure he chose to film.

The return of the Star-child at the end of 2001: A Space Odyssey carries with his existence a warning that the White man is not the most intelligent being in the universe.

Thus using Kubrick as an example, one of the means through which one can subvert the master assumption of White story cognition is via the selection of stories based on true historical events or fictional creations that exemplify White failure.  (See: Kubrick’s PATHS OF GLORY which was based on a true incident in WWI).  The examples of White failure have often been obscured or buried beneath the illusions of White supremacy but they can be uncovered synchronically (whether through the selection of one spectacular or dramatically powerful event) or diachronically over time as in the fall of an empire or the setbacks of ignorance in the face of alleged superiority as in the myth of Eldorado.  (See: Herzog’s AGUIRRE: THE WRATH OF GOD – 1972).

The process to subvert Black story cognition is much more complex than that of White story cognition in that the film artist must first contemplate what Frank B. Wilderson in his book Red, White & Black: Cinema and the Structure of U.S. Antagonisms soberly describes as the fact that,”… slavery is and connotes an ontological status for Blackness,” which is to say that,”… Blackness cannot disentangle itself from slaveness.” (6)   But although we must contemplate this fact, we ultimately must transcend it if we are to arrive at a place where we can subvert the master assumption of Black story cognition and move from “we shall overcome someday,” to “we have overcome.”  

The antidote to Wilderson’s provocative description of Blackness as sub-personhood can be found in John Henrik Clarke’s even greater provocation of truth:  “There existed in Africa prior to the beginning of the slave trade a cultural way of life that in many ways was equal, if not superior, to many of the cultures then existing in Europe.” (7)           

We can be sure that Clarke’s statement is just as factual as Wilderson’s assessment of the current status of Blackness.  Clarke’s statement is not in any way a form of facile Afro-centrism, for as anthropologists (like the late Claude Levi-Strauss), archeologists, and historians continue to “de-romanticize” European social, economic and moral structures that supported the notion of White supremacy, the more we can clearly conclude as French philosopher Michel de Montaigne did about the beginnings of the illusion of White supremacy during the first stages of the Atlantic slave trade: “So we may well call these people barbarians, in respect to the rules of reason, but not in respect to ourselves, who surpass them in every kind of barbarity.” (8)

In short, to subvert the master assumption of Black story cognition the film artist has to reach back spiritually and cognitively to a time before the Trans-Atlantic slave trade and the institution of slavery to grasp and restore the personhood of the Black race.  Are we forgetting or de-emphasizing the horrific genocidal actions of slavery?  No, what we are doing is transcending “slaveness” and “sub-personhood” as our defining racial characteristic.  What we must do is link the “sign” of Blackness back to its original “referent” of Black personhood and humanity and in this operation the film artist is in the best position to make this link via the images he or she constructs on the screen.

Although a superhero film project based on the mythical deities of African folklore like Oya: Rise of the Orishas proposed by British filmmaker Nosa Igbinedion is but a harbinger of things to come, we should turn our attention to a filmmaker who has already found ways to subvert Black story cognition whose work we can study as an example.

Upon first glance the work of maverick independent White filmmaker Jim Jarmusch would appear an incongruous choice to consider as someone who has subverted Black story cognition, but then from his first feature length film, STRANGER THAN PARADISE (1984) to his latest film, ONLY LOVERS LEFT ALIVE (2014) he has filmed outsiders on a journey through native and familiar cultures that feel, sound and even look foreign.  

Beginning with GHOST DOG: The Way of the Samurai (1999), starring Forest Whitaker as the title character, (a hit man who is betrayed by his employers) we find that the “slaveness” which supposedly defines “Blackness” is immediately transcended by the content of the individual’s character.  And unlike conventional representations of hit men, Ghost Dog lives and ultimately dies by the Bushido code of the Samurai as detailed in the 18th century book the Hagakure which is interspersed throughout the film by intertitles and voice-overs.  What is wondrous about GHOST DOG is how Jarmusch subverts various racial identities (Italian, Black, and Asian) and genre tropes (Mob film, Urban crime drama, Comedy) in a film that is alternately comic, meditative, poetic and brutal.

The gangsters in this film are mostly old timers nickel and diming their way through the last years of their lives while trying to dodge their own bullets.  Ghost Dog as a Black male character exists in a luminal space like Ellison’s Invisible Man; he’s able to be the perfect hit man because many Whites refuse to see him and thus he is able to slip in and out of spaces with an uncanny ease.  In fact we can say that Jarmusch is the great de-mythologist; he does not practice what historian James W. Loewen calls “heroification” that is a process by which real historical characters or events are transformed into pious, perfect creatures set within circumstances with clearly defined antagonisms. (9)  Instead, Jarmusch individualizes his fictional characters by either removing them from their conventional cultural context as with African actor Isaach de Bankolé as an assassin displaced into the landscape of Spain in the film THE LIMITS OF CONTROL (2009); or as in GHOST DOG, he gives the Black male character a foreign (Asian) ethical code to live by which separates and individuates the character giving him an agency beyond the definition of Black sub-personhood.

The sign of “Blackness” has been returned to its “human” referent by means of an ancient Asian ethical code; Ghost Dog, unlike the slave, chooses his own manner of death, even if it’s by a White ethnic hand.

Jarmusch accomplishes the individualization (and humanization) of his Black male character in GHOST DOG at the level of content by attaching an ancient, albeit foreign, ethical code to his existence which we can now do for ourselves by reaching back into our past and uncovering our own ethical code that existed before the slave trade and contact with Europe.

Yet at a formal level Jarmusch’s narratives are purposefully disjointed with multiple unpredictable story gaps that render conventional Black and White story cognition useless.  Recall, that the actual story gaps in GHOST DOG occur during the inter-titles and voice overs of the Bushido code.  Therefore, at the level of form Jarmusch’s tactics of disjunction (whether through inter-titles or episodic structure as in DEAD MAN (1995) or STRANGER THAN PARADISE) become a means to liberate the spectator from the dogma of White and Black story cognition.

It is not without intentional irony that this installment of Black Film Theory has selected to make a skeptical Jew (Stanley Kubrick) and a world traveling White independent filmmaker (Jim Jarmusch) as the objects of exemplary study.  The purpose was to emphasize how a filmmaker can disrupt the master assumptions of both White and Black story cognition beyond the color of their own skin.  Indeed, the race (and/or gender) of the actual filmmaker is only important in so far as it aids and abets him or her in fulfilling this most subversive and liberating act of artistic satisfaction.

But there are many here among us who feel that all Black people need to do is develop and support a separate but equal film industry with distribution channels and exhibition points domestically and globally- and all of our problems concerning stereotypical cinematic representation and the marginalized status of Black filmmakers will be solved.  

While I am all for such a counter-cinema, I do find that a counter-cinema is ultimately not enough to combat the massive and multi-faceted American Entertainment Complex and its foreign allies.  Moreover, such a counter-cinema would be an immediate target for co-option or sabotage the moment its existence would threaten the AEC’s ability to control the Black image.

We are not facing one Goliath, but many Goliaths whose interests superficially appear to be profits, but in actually those interests are power and control over the image of Blackness.  A Blackness that as Wilderson explained,” cannot disentangle itself from slaveness.”(10)

Yes we need a counter-cinema, but simultaneously we also need talented filmmakers as agents who are willing to infiltrate the existing system and subvert White and Black story cognition from within that system via the formal structure of their films.  Because at best, a counter-cinema would itself only preach to the converted, but with those talented filmmakers as agents who have infiltrated the existing system for the purpose of subverting Black and White story cognition we could actually reach those spectators whom I describe as oppressed conservatives and perhaps change their point-of-view.                 

It is the oppressed conservatives (i.e. poor Whites, minorities and other ethnicities) who bear the brunt of systemic oppression, but who are nonetheless conservative politically and morally to the extent that if allotted the opportunity (or the illusion) to move up in class status, they would subscribe hand-over-heart to the very same systemic oppression that once held them down; these people, this passive majority, are the real targets of all artistic subversion.  The great fear is that many of us who call ourselves filmmakers are but oppressed conservatives whose hearts can be purchased for the success of one viral video or web series- and then turn and support the very system that oppresses.

“It is therefore necessary to be a fox in order to recognize the traps and a lion in order to frighten the wolves.”(11)


NOTES

(1) The 1942 film BAMBI can be read as a subversion of the fantasy elements normally associated with Disney Pictures to anthropomorphize the animals of the forest and reveal the aggression of humans against the environment as was noted by critics during the film’s initial release.  Alternately, Prince’s BAMBI is a balls-to-the-wall rock song with a story of unrequited sexual advances and lesbianism that could be understood as the subversion of both the content and the musical genre normally associated with R&B artists at that time.

(2) Pgs. 49, 57: Towards a Third Cinema by Solanas and Getino in MOVIES & METHODS Vol. 1 ed. Bill Nichols, Berkeley: University of California Press, 1976.

(3) Pg. 13 of KUBRICK by Michael Herr, New York: Grove Press, 2000.

(4) Pg. 10 Ibid.

(5) Pg. 13, Imaging Race in Science Fiction Film by Adilifu Nama, Austin: University of Texas Press, 2008

(6) Pgs. 14, 52 of Red, White, & Black: Cinema and the Structure of U.S. Antagonisms by Frank B. Wilderson III, Durham: Duke University Press, 2010.

(7) Pg. 36 from “The Impact of the African on the New World- A Reappraisal by John Henrik Clarke in The Black Scholar Vol.4 No. 5 pp. 32-39  New York: Paradigm Publishers, 1973.

(8) Pg. 156, from “Of Cannibals” in The Complete Essays of Montaigne, trans. Donald Frame, Sanford; Sanford University Press, 1958.

(9) See pg. 19 in Lies My Teacher Told Me: Everything Your American History Textbook Got Wrong by James W. Loewen, New York: Touchstone, 1995.

(10) Pg. 52, Ibid.

(11) Pg. 134, Chapter XVIII, The Prince in The Portable Machiavelli, New York: Penguin Books, 1979.

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.

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