Editor’s Note: Over the next week, I’ll be republishing the year’s (2014’s) most popular post, as I’ve done almost every year since this site was launched. Some of you would have already read each item, but I’m also certain that others have not, given that the site’s reach continues to grow regularly, attracting new readers daily – readers who likely haven’t read much of what was published on this site before they discovered it. But it’s also a way to look back on the year, as it comes to an end, as we remind ourselves of what caught and held our attention over the past 12 months, based on what we wrote about, and what you all reacted to. How did I determine the most popular posts? In short, we use Google’s robust traffic analytics application, which tells me which posts received the most activity. I also combined that info with social media (Facebook and Twitter specifically) activity on each post shared to narrow my choices down. I’ll be publishing the posts that made the final list, from the least, to the most popular of the most popular posts published on S&A in 2014. Here’s the 5th of more to come:
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.
Part two follows on the next page.
Before moving on to the second part of this article I’d like to address some observations concerning the analysis of the film SPRINGBREAKERS from part one. It has been brought to my attention that the actress Vanessa Hudgens who played the role of Candy and was one of the two White female killers at the end of film is bi-racial in real life. Knowing that the actress Vanessa Hudgens is of mixed-race heritage, does not detract from the fact that her character is acting as an agent of White power in the revenge/racial extermination/fantasy sequence that ends the film. Her bi-raciality makes her character even more dangerous in that she willingly aids and abets the extermination of Black males at the end of the film for the continuation of the illusion of White power that drives the story.
I may have been too presumptuous in calling her character “White” but under the circumstances one could say that the actress and her masked character are “passing” for White by dint of the fact that she continues to participate in the extermination of Black males that ends the film. Yet, this real life racial fact opens up yet another story gap concerning the ending of the film. We must consider that after the killing of the character of Alien (James Francos) and his assailant- the girls only motivation to continue to carry out the Black male exterminations was as a naked act of White power. They could have easily turned back and taken everything that the character of Alien owned if it was money, guns and vehicles that they really wanted. Instead they chose to carry out the mission of Black male extermination incited by the power struggle between Alien and Big Arch (Gucci Mane) and it is in this way that actress Vanessa Hudgens bi-raciality could be considered a moot point.
In part one, we discussed that the story in every narrative film has a gap in its logic because fictional time and narrative time do not always have to match. The gap or series of gaps must be filled in by the assumptions of the spectator for the continuation of pleasure and the comprehension of the tale being told. Building on the work of film scholar David Bordwell and his explanation of Cognitive Theory and cinematic narration we learned that these assumptions by the spectator are a process of elaboration and hypothesizing about what will likely happen next that we summarized as: story cognition. We noted that the best filmmakers use these gaps to elicit the intelligence of the spectator and others use these gaps to conceal prejudices and racial stereotypes while eliciting the ignorance and presumptions of the spectator.
We identified two general types of story cognition while acknowledging that there could be others:
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.
Concomitantly, we put forth the hypothesis of the master assumption: that behind each type of story cognition there is a master assumption that guides all 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, which I asserted often supports the illusion of White supremacy in cinematic narration. We briefly examined a particular story gap within three films, SKYFALL, SPRINGBREAKERS, and WORLD WAR Z that qualify as White films under our narrow and concise definition.
BLACK STORY COGNITION
Now we shall examine a particular story gap in three Black films through the master assumption of Black story cognition which can be summarized as: We shall overcome- someday. The three films to be discussed are, 12 YEARS A SLAVE (Steve McQueen- 2013), THE BUTLER (Lee Daniels -2013), and MANDELA: A LONG WALK TO FREEDOM (Justin Chadwick -2013). I would also like to reiterate here that the examination of the three Black films that follows will not be based solely on how specific characters are represented (e.g. Whether or not the depiction of Cecil Gaines in THE BUTLER represents an Uncle Tom character archetype) but instead we will be examining how the formal construction of the film (i.e. story gaps) impact the assumptions many Black spectators are obliged to make regarding the overall presentation of the circumstances within the film.
The master assumption “We shall overcome-someday,” of Black story cognition is much more complex and problematic than the straightforward,” We shall always prevail” master assumption of White story cognition.
For starters,” We shall overcome-someday,” is at once an acknowledgment of oppression and a quasi-religious expression of the faith that one day these oppressive circumstances will be overcome. Drawn from the deep Christian roots of the Civil Rights Movement, the phrase itself condenses a metaphor of the waters of change eroding the rock of injustice, prejudice and inequity over time. The master assumption of Black story cognition defers the dream of a self-determined revolutionary and violent act of total liberation in exchange for the small gains towards liberation that come intermittently while holding in abeyance the promise of total liberation until someday in the future.
If the master assumption of White story cognition is a foregone conclusion no matter what the circumstances, then the master assumption of Black story cognition is a promise in the future whose faith is a belief in things unseen in the present circumstances. Another more revealing contrast is that if the master assumption of White story cognition conceals the prejudices, injustices, stereotypes and fixed racial hierarchies implied by certain story gaps, then the master assumption of Black story cognition often leaves unresolved and/or diminishes the urgency for reparation concerning the injustices, prejudices, stereotypes and fixed racial hierarchies of the past in exchange for the liberation of one “exceptional” Black character or an elite group of Black characters in the future.
To make it plain, I intend to demonstrate that Black story cognition is a process of pacification that implicitly supports the illusion of White supremacy in cinematic narration.
No Black film better demonstrates the non-resolution of injustice in Black story cognition in exchange for the liberation of one “exceptional” character than Steve McQueen’s 12 YEARS A SLAVE.
The horrific odyssey of Solomon Northup (Chiwetel Ejiofor) a talented violinist, carpenter, and Free Black man who is married with two children and living in Saratoga Springs New York, begins when he is drugged, kidnapped in Washington D.C. and then sold into slavery in the south by two cunning White con men. Although Northup suffers a wide variety of punishments and indignities his exceptional qualities as a carpenter, engineer and a violinist are always recognized by his White captors and owners. He is a cut above the average nigger and thus his extra value is seen through the lens of White privilege via the White controlled arts and abilities he was allowed to acquire as a free Negro.
Even though Northup suffers he retains his faith that one day he will gain his liberation and have his legal satisfaction against those Whites who have taken his Freedom and wronged him.
As an African-American spectator and critic it is often difficult for me to see the story gaps in Black films because the seductive power of Black story cognition as a non-conscious activity makes filling in story gaps an almost automatic function. But with the aid of another Shadow & Act contributor we find that the story gaps in 12 YEARS A SLAVE center almost exclusively upon the Black female characters and their often horrific and tragic circumstances. In the article, Patsey’s Plea: Black Women’s Survival in 12 Years a Slave, which you can access here, author Nijla Mumin comments upon the story gaps that concern the character of Patsey (Lupita Nyong’o) when she writes,” Patsey and other Black female characters in 12 Years a Slave become human because they cannot be saved… There is a tendency in cinema to frame historical events from a patriarchal lens, connecting them with a man’s journey to fight or survive injustice.” (1)
Indeed the story gaps in 12 YEARS A SLAVE concern nearly every Black female character beginning with Solomon’s wife, Anne Northup (Kelsey Scott) whose life without Solomon is left a mystery; the kidnapped Black female, Eliza (Adepero Oduye) who loses her children and is carried off the plantation shouting Solomon’s name; Patsey, whose powerful story of abject degradation is left unresolved as she stands on the road watching as Solomon is liberated from slavery through the benevolence of a White carpenter named, Samuel Bass (Brad Pitt); a White savior.
Although it could be argued that 12 YEARS A SLAVE is based upon the actual autobiographical book by the real Solomon Northup and thus the story gaps in the film concerning the destiny of several minor characters was beyond the scope and theme of the film. In our inquiry, the story gaps seem to reveal how Black story cognition pacifies the collective outrage at the suffering, punishment and injustice of a variety of Black characters in exchange for the liberation of one “exceptional” Black character who is the hero of the tale. To continue the pleasure and comprehension of the story in some Black films, Black story cognition diminishes the need for the reparation/liberation or ascension of others for the small gains of one character and the promise of overcoming these circumstances someday in the future.
Moreover, I speculate that the real life Solomon Northup’s liberation was short lived and misconstrued. Given the fact that no one knows the date, location and cause of Northup’s death coupled with the fact that his legal actions against his kidnappers and his Masters ended in failure because a Black man could not testify against a White man- one can surmise outside of Black story cognition and the narrative frame of the film that Northup might have been murdered by the very same people who kidnapped and enslaved him. It would appear that no one, Anne, Eliza, Patsey nor Solomon overcame the circumstances of their oppression.
All this is not to say that the film 12 YEARS A SLAVE is flawed. It could also be argued that McQueen constructed the film in such a way that he intended to draw our attention to both the castrated plight of Solomon Northup as a Free Black man in a country divided by the institution of slavery, as well as, underscore how White male privilege and White power abused the labor, body and vagina of the Black female during slavery. Yet the seductive power of Black story cognition enables many of us ignore the unresolved suffering of a group of Black female characters in exchange for the liberation of one Free Black male character and the closure of the story.
Moving on to Lee Daniels’ THE BUTLER, Daniels presents us with the trans-historical character of Cecil Gaines (Forest Whitaker) as a common man rhetorical figure in the cinematic tradition of Woody Allen’s ZELIG (1983) and Robert Zemeckis’ FORREST GUMP (1994). These trans-historic characters have a tangential connection to important people and/or events throughout history and act as an “impartial” lens through which these events and people can be interpreted.
THE BUTLER centers on the interactions between Cecil Gaines and the presidents he served for 34 years at the White House. These interactions reflect upon the larger social events that took place and shaped both the Civil Rights Movement and the trials and tribulations of African-Americans in American society. As Cecil rises to bourgeois prominence as a White House servant many of the presidents he serves are confronted by violent racial changes and social upheavals. Each president finds an informal moment to confer with Cecil –as a common Black man- before they engage in controversial decisions that shape history: from Eisenhower and school desegregation, John F. Kennedy and the Freedom Riders, to Lyndon Johnson and the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965.
These interactions between Cecil and the various presidents are juxtaposed with the advances in the Civil Rights Movement and serve the film well from a structural and dramatic standpoint, but there is a troubling gap in the story that obliges the spectator to use Black story cognition to fill in the gap and continue to enjoy the rest of the film. Of the 30 plus years and multiple administrations covered there are two presidents that are not characterized and have no interaction with Cecil: President Ford (1974-1977) and President Carter (1977-1981) and these omissions form a serious story gap.
While Daniels is especially adroit at intercutting the growing significance of The Black Panther Party and Nixon’s paranoid plans to twist the notion of Black Power into his own agenda for Black “business” Power- the omission of the administrations of Ford and Carter does not allow him to intercut the dismantling of The Black Panther Party and the ravages of poverty that were carried forward against the Black community during these administrations. Daniels omits images and dramatizations of the concerted backlash against the advances of the Civil Rights Movement. As Michelle Alexander documents in her book, THE NEW JIM CROW: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness, “ And while it is generally believed that the backlash against the Civil Rights Movement is defined primarily by the rollback of affirmative action and the undermining of federal civil rights legislation by a hostile judiciary, the seeds of the new system of control –mass incarceration- were planted during the Civil Rights Movement itself, when it became clear that the old caste system was crumbling and a new one would have to take its place.”(2)
In short, by omitting the interaction between Cecil and these two presidents (Ford and Carter) THE BUTLER exchanges the horrifying details of the government’s assault on the Black Panther Party and other Black Power factions (i.e. SLA and Patty Hearst) for the bourgeois ascension of Cecil’s son, Louis Gaines (David Oyelowo) as he leaves the Black Panther Party, earns a Master’s Degree and runs for Congress. By focusing on the ascension (liberation) of one Black character, the assaults, injustice and inequities that plague the group are diminished as that single character ascends and becomes a symbol of Black Story cognition: We shall overcome- someday.
Now it could be argued that these Presidents and their administrations were omitted because of time constraints, but such omissions create the story gaps that oblige us as spectators to shift our attention from the larger portrait of social injustice to the smaller picture of “small gains” made by a single individual as representative of larger socio-political gains that were in fact not occurring on a mass scale. The story gaps within THE BUTLER, eclipses the resentments and retrenchments against the Civil Rights Movement in exchange for the ascension of one Black character beyond those circumstances. It is Black story cognition that fills in the gap between the reconciliation between Cecil Gaines and his son Louis Gaines during the American protests for the freedom of Nelson Mandela in the 1980’s to the election of Barack Obama. We are encouraged to witness the overcoming of our people without experiencing the full weight of the struggle because Black story cognition conceals the struggle of the group for the acceptance of the exceptional Black individual as a symbol of progress.
It is under these contingent and pragmatic circumstances that the real life unjust murders of Blacks like George Stiney Jr. in South Carolina, Oscar Grant III in California, Trayvon Martin in Florida, Renisha McBride in Michigan and Jonathan Ferrell in North Carolina and many, many others constantly remind us that that ‘someday’ has not come soon enough for all of us.
Our final Black film for examination is Justin Chadwick’s MANDELA: Long Walk To Freedom that was based upon the 1994 autobiography of Nelson Mandela a leader of the anti-apartheid movement in South Africa, President of the African National Congress, Political prisoner, and South Africa’s first Black president. Nelson Mandela’s real life story as detailed in his autobiography and filmed is a complete exercise in Black story cognition in that many of the story gaps encourage the spectator to make assumptions that assess the “small gains” of one exceptional character’s ascension from the victim of racial oppression to the democratically elected leader of a racially polarized country.
In the film, once Mandela (Idris Elba) and other ANC members are imprisoned on Robben Island, they are all issued short pants as a racially motivated insult to their manhood. As Mandela states in his autobiography,” From the first day, I had protested about being forced to wear short trousers. I demanded to see the head of the prison and made a list of complaints.”(3) In the film, Mandela protests to the warden, who in turn, assures Mandela of how little he cares about such a protest by his prisoners because he is well off financially, owns several properties and has a life outside of the prison walls.
Later, when the warden announces to Mandela that he is retiring, he is shocked that Mandela remembered all of the details of his wealth and properties he owns beyond the prison walls. In the following scene, all of the ANC prisoners receive long trousers. This story gap obliges the spectator to use the master assumption of Black story cognition to accept an exceptional individual Black character winning small gains for an elite group. It must be assumed that the Warden was so touched by Mandela’s exceptional humility and memory in the face of daunting oppression and indignity that as a last official act before retiring he granted the long trousers.
Also like 12 YEARS A SLAVE, the most noticeable story gaps in MANDELA, center upon the unresolved circumstances facing the female character of Winnie Mandela (Naomi Harris) and how the White South African government’s unmitigated atrocities committed against its Black South African citizenry must be “looked over” as Mandela attempts to unify the country via a democratic election that would have him elected as the country’s first Black president.
There are many other omissions including,” The Secret History of How Cuba Helped End Apartheid In South African,” as detailed by Historian, Piero Gleijeses and others. (4) That is to say, in the effort to underscore the exceptional qualities of Nelson Mandela, as an individual Black leader, the gaps within the film’s story obliges the spectator to gloss over larger group details and focus on the accumulation of small gains by the exceptional Black hero of the tale. The short trousers incident is one example of how Mandela’s narrative accommodates the master assumption of Black story cognition: We Shall Overcome- someday.
Such story gaps can and indeed must be looked over so that the events on screen can be blended into the smaller portrait of the rise of an exceptional individual (and/or elite group) in exchange for the diminished dramatic attention upon the suffering and the struggles of the racial group as a whole.
All of this is not to say that 12 YEARS A SLAVE, THE BUTLER, or MANDELA: Long Walk to Freedom are not great films; they are powerful works but we have looked at these Black films to reveal how Black story cognition operates in the context of Black cinema. Yet Black story cognition is much more complex and malleable than White story cognition in part because the American Entertainment Complex sustains an artificial segregation between White films and Black films which often obliges Black spectators to accept the master assumption of White story cognition to continue to comprehend and gain pleasure from White films.
For example, Black spectators are often obliged to shift from Black story cognition and accept White story cognition when one or more Black co-lead and/or supporting characters are killed off or rendered ineffectual in White films. Such unceremonious killings or dramatic neutering of Black characters usually take place in the middle of film or just before the final act so that Black spectators are often confronted with the choice of having to shift from Black story cognition and accept White story cognition to continue to comprehend and enjoy the telling of the tale. In a film like Coppola’s APOCALYSPE NOW (1979) once the last remaining Black character, Chief (Albert Hall) is killed, Black spectators are obliged to choose to shift and accept White story cognition if any more pleasure is to be gained from the film’s narrative.
The Cognition Switch Point
Shrewd, savvy and calculating White filmmakers and producers know that the Black characters within a White film are dramatically expendable and that the ratio of Black audience ticket sales is directly correlated to whether or not the Black character(s) who are performed by recognizable Black stars stay alive until the middle of the film or until just before the final act. I would suggest that there is a discernible narrative point in any White film that has Black co-lead or supporting characters where these characters can be killed off or rendered ineffectual and the audience (Blacks or other minorities) will continue to gain pleasure from the telling of the tale by switching to White story cognition. We will call this point where a Black character can be killed or rendered ineffectual within a story and the Black audience is obliged to switch to White story cognition to continue to enjoy the film: The Cognition Switch Point.
Many Black spectators willingly switch from the master assumption of “We Shall Overcome- Someday” to “They [Whites] shall always prevail” if both the remaining hero of the film is White and there is less than one third of the film left to watch before the ending.
We can apprehend these cognition switch points in films as varied as, OBLIVION (2013) where Morgan Freeman shared top billing with Tom Cruise but his character doesn’t appear until near the middle of the film and is killed before the ending of the film or the abrupt and unexplained disappearance of Laurence Fishburne’s character of Detective Sergeant Whity Powers in Clint Eastwood’s film, MYSTIC RIVER (2003). Another example of a White film that demonstrates a cognition switch point for Black spectators is Ridley Scott’s PROMETHEUS (2012) where Idris Elba’s character of the ship’s captain, Janek must sacrifice himself so that the White characters prevail and the story can continue in subsequent films.
In fact, the cognition switch point is often most noticeable in science-fiction and horror films where many Black spectators and critics have noted that Black characters rarely survive until the end. Yet the cognition switch point exists in many White films of different genres where Blacks are in co-lead or supporting roles because the definition of a White film instructs that the narrative resolves itself by giving more dramatic attention to the emotions and circumstances of the White character(s).
If the master assumption of White story cognition supports an illusion of White supremacy in cinematic narration, what illusion does the master assumption of Black story cognition support? I would suggest that the master assumption of Black story cognition implicitly supports the illusion of White supremacy in that it acknowledges the truth of racial oppression but tempers the passion of a violent overthrow with the promise of “small gains” made towards future liberation- someday. Indeed, it may well be that the pacification effect in Black story cognition is why it is so easy for many Blacks to switch to White story cognition when they are watching White films.
If Androcles Were a Rebel
The purpose of detailing White story cognition in part one and Black story cognition in part two is so that in the third part of this article we can suggest ways to fulfill the mandate of Black Film Theory which 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. For the maverick filmmaker, the independent thinker, and whosoever would be the thorn in the paw of the Lion, the first step involved to fulfill such a mandate of Black Film Theory must begin by subverting the master assumptions of White story cognition and Black story cognition.
This radical operation must be a pre-filmic activity that modifies the master assumption of White story cognition from,” We shall always prevail” to “Sometimes we fail” (please check the rhyme). It must also modify the master assumption of Black story cognition from,” We shall overcome- someday,” to “We have overcome”. Because as film scholar Gladstone Yearwood asserted,” An Afrocentric-based filmmaking practice effectively questions the cultural imperialism of Hollywood cinema and shifts concerns from minor superficial changes to the underlying structure of the narration itself.” (5) Part of this underlying structure is found in story cognition and its impact upon our perception of the circumstances represented in a film.
Luckily, there have been a few brilliant filmmakers whose work can serve as formal models for the subversion of the master assumption of White story cognition and highlight a few paths to consider for the subversion of the master assumption of Black story cognition. In part three of this series we will examine a few films from the oeuvre of Stanley Kubrick and Jim Jarmusch as peculiar models for the subversion of White and Black story cognition.
Fiction tells lies to get to the truth.
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.
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.
(2) Pg. 22, The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness by Michelle Alexander, The New Press: New York, 2012.
(3) Pg. 387, MANDELA: Long Walk To Freedom by Nelson Mandela, Back Bay Books: New York. 1994.
(5) Pg. 46, Black Film as a Signifying Practice: Cinema, Narration and the African-American Aesthetic Tradition by Gladstone L. Yearwood, African World Press, Inc: Trenton. 2000
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.