It’s difficult to know whether or not we are in the midst of the birth of a trend but two recent Black films, Dope (2015- Rick Famuyiwa) and Creed (2015- Ryan Coogler), would appear to exemplify an extraordinary new thematic shift in commercial (and commercially approved independent) Black films by the American Entertainment Industry, otherwise known as Hollywood. What I will be discussing at length here is a peculiar type of narrative in Black film that I shall call, The Racial Uplift Narrative.(1) In short, the racial uplift narrative is a film with a Black lead character or characters attempting to achieve a socially acceptable goal or dramatic outcome, even if said outcome or goal is achieved by questionable means. The central and most important feature of the racial uplift narrative is that it must end with the Black character’s attainment of a respectable goal.
Because the goal must be of a respectable kind (i.e., higher education, corporate advancement, professional prestige, etc.) it is in this way that the racial uplift narrative is really a precise and calculated representation of Black middle class respectability politics disguised in the euphemism of “positive” entertainment. Respectability politics being that short list of behaviors, actions, dress codes and social customs that falls along the class divisions within the Black communities which separates the good, educated and upwardly mobile Negroes from the bad, ignorant, jail or coffin bound niggahs. It is writ-large in the difference between a doo-rag or a permanent; sagging or wearing your pants properly at your waist; a college educated Black man or a shade tree mechanic. It is an ideology learned from the oppressor and instilled in the oppressed as a centuries old stop-gap measure that in itself thwarts a full scale multi-tiered violent racial insurrection because it allows those of the same race but of a higher class to blame the innocent victims of White supremacy by cataloging the behaviors, dress codes and social customs that lower class victims may have violated to deserve their unjust murder or incarceration.
Black middle class respectability politics is White supremacy internalized and supported by the very victims who are oppressed by the systems created to sustain White supremacy.
Another attendant aspect of the racial uplift narrative in film is that the presentation of the events and circumstances and/or the characterization of its central characters must avoid or dramatically alter the clichés and stereotypes of Blackness as it has been previously represented on screen during the golden era of Black cinema in the late 80’s and early 90’s. That is to say that the racial uplift narrative with its respectable goal, avoidance or alteration of dramatic clichés and Black stereotypes stands in direct opposition to the death narratives, nihilism, unrepentant criminals, misogyny and unattainable goals of 90’s Black films, that are sometimes pejoratively referred to as “Hood” films.
The tragic death of Caine (Tyrin Turner) during a drive-by shooting before he could escape to Atlanta in The Hughes Brothers’ Menace II Society (1993) has been replaced with Malcolm’s (Shameik Moore) acceptance into the venerable Ivy League institution of Harvard in Rick Famuyiwa’s Dope. Just as Radio Raheem’s death and Mookie’s inability to get paid from Sal’s Pizzeria after the riot he helped to incite in Spike Lee’s Do The Right Thing (1989) has been replaced with Adonis Creed’s emphatic ability to prove himself as a competent pugilist and not just the ambitious son of a legend in Ryan Coogler’s Creed.
Yet the racial uplift narrative for all of its intrinsic moral righteousness and respectability attempts to uplift the morals and the morale of the Black spectator by instilling within those who view these films a sense of hope –triumph even- over seemingly insurmountable odds; but both films, Dope and Creed, do so at the expense of their own dramatic integrity. These two films in attempting to avoid the clichés associated with 90’s Black cinema shortchange their dramatic conflicts to the degree that each film intentionally underplays, and in some cases totally avoids the legitimate obstacles that would impede the attainment of the goal in the effort to highlight the achievability of the goal and produce a sacrifice-free and ultimately superficial happy ending.
If the Hood films like, Colors (1988), Do The Right Thing (1989), Boyz N The Hood (1991), South Central (1992) and Menace II Society (1993) exaggerated both the conflicts and the obstacles within their narratives in an effort to highlight the unattainability of a respectable goal then by the same token, these two particular racial uplift films, Dope and Creed exaggerate the absence of obstacles and conflicts to highlight the attainability of a respectable goal.(2) I’m going to look at how both films exaggerate the absence of obstacles and conflict through their decidedly attentive avoidance of dramatic clichés.
Beginning with Dope, the film contains a powerfully intriguing coming-of-age tale centered upon 90’s urban culture loving high school senior, Malcolm and his two classmates, Jib (Tony Revolori) a Latino who claims 14% African heritage and Diggy (Kiersey Clemons) a Black Lesbian who often dresses outside of her gender. Together they form a crew of so-called “geeks” trapped in the heart of gang and drug infested L.A. The presentation of three Black “geek” characters that represent a fringe, but no less valid, group of outsiders within a Black community is a definitive alteration of Black character stereotypes directly associated with 90’s era ‘Hood cinema.
Moreover, writer/director Rick Famuyiwa, as if taking a stylistic cue from Brazilian director Fernando Meirelles’ City of God (2003), interrupts the linear narrative with reversals, repetitions, jump cuts, fast/slow motion, and dream sequences to present a post-modern version of the ‘Hood film that is as artfully cinematic as it is different in its characterizations of today’s urban youth. It is a film whose characters look back at the past to 90’s music and fashion as they look forward to a respectable future at Ivy League institutions while mired in a violent and desultory present.
But what really sets Dope apart as a Black film is that it is a clear example of a film that has a narrative structure that I have elsewhere defined as a Discovery Narrative. “A discovery narrative is a narrative of deception that presents a series of mysterious events, actions or circumstances that are inevitably revealed to be a plot against a naïve, innocent or trusting character.” (110, Screenwriting Into Film)
Although Dope avoids clichés associated with the presentation of Black youth by centering its story on three outsider minority characters, the deception within the film is rooted in the drug and gang culture that poisons the environment the characters inhabit. Yet the film ruins a crucial conflict between Dom (Rakim Meyers), the intelligent drug dealer character who initially deceived Malcolm into becoming an unwitting drug mule and the various forces conspiring independently to get the drugs from Malcolm before he can complete the delivery.
Left to languish in the County jail for most of the film’s narrative, Dom’s life would have surely been in danger, if not by the same “snitches” in the red El Camino who chased Malcolm and his crew and were eventually arrested and –no doubt- placed in the same County jail, then at least by the people who never received payment for the drugs that were taken during the shoot out at the nightclub. Although the film highlights the Harvard graduate and check cashing CEO Austin Jacoby (Roger Guenveur Smith) as a larger and more sinister player in the deception being played against Malcolm, the film attempts to avoid certain clichés of violence by downplaying the conflict between Dom and his rivals as well as not explicitly demonstrating a plausible resolution between Dom and Malcolm or Dom and his adversaries.
The film plays fast and loose with the real and deadly extended consequences of its drug and gang subplot in that not only would Malcolm’s actions have put his mother’s life in danger, but all of the families and siblings of this unlikely trio would have been the targets of an ever-expanding web of violence and retribution. Much like the early negative criticism of the trailers for Spike Lee’s Chi-raq (2015) that accused him of being dramatically frivolous with his representation of Chicago’s violence and gangs, Famuyiwa does essentially the same thing in Dope that is set in L.A. and got praised for daring to be different.(3)
This attempt to avoid a clichéd presentation of lethal violence and its expanding consequences among the main characters and an important supporting character ultimately weakens the dramatic integrity of the film allowing it to be nearly unanimously praised as a “good” racial uplift film because the lead character gets accepted into Harvard, but failing to rise up to a standard of being a classic film that reveals certain truths and lies about the Black outsider world that would hold up and become an enriching experience upon repeated viewings. For a classic of that status we are still left with Barry Jenkin’s Medicine For Melancholy (2008) with its alternative music loving Black couple alienated in a one day romance in White –gentrified and hipster- San Francisco.
On the other side of the same respectability politics coin, Creed, which tells the story of Apollo Creed’s son attempting to become a professional boxer like his father, is a film built on masculine pride and the professional ethics of perseverance, skill, and courage. Here the film decidedly avoids a clichéd presentation of a Black male by downplaying 90’s machismo, posturing, gun-toting histrionics and virulent misogyny in exchange for an emphasis on ambition, hetero-sexual intimacy, physical drive and mental focus.
Adonis Creed (Michael B. Jordan) is not doing drive-bys or being a drug mule to attain his respectable goal becoming a professional boxer, but instead he is determined to get trained by his father’s old boxing rival, the legendary Rocky Balboa (Sylvester Stallone). But here in this film in the attempt to avoid a clichéd presentation of Blackness and racial prejudice the film ruins not one but two significant conflicts among its characters that weakens the overall dramatic integrity of the film. The first conflict that is ruined is between Balboa and his old friend and fellow trainer Pete Sporino (Ritchie Coster) who had been asking Balboa to help train his son, Leo “The Lion” Sporino (Gabriel Rosado) for years, but instead Balboa shows up at his training facility with a young untrained Black boxer.
The cinematic representation of social competition and anti-Black sentiment among Italian-Americans against Black people is long, rich and varied. Starting with Sonny Corleone’s (James Caan) mocking observation about “niggers in cadillacs” who run the number’s rackets in Harlem and the unidentified Mafia Don who declares that heroin should be kept in the “Darkie’s neighborhood” because “they’re animals anyway so let them lose their souls” in Coppola’s The Godfather (1972); to Black mobster Tommy (Fred Williamson) cutting off of a Italian mobster’s ear and dropping it into a plate of spaghetti in Larry Cohen’s Black Caesar (1973); to the brutal open murder of a Black man and the violent jealous ramblings of a White male passenger whose wife is having an illicit affair with “a nigger” in Scorsese’s Taxi Driver (1976); to the racially derogatory direct address by various characters in a stunning sequence of Spike Lee’s Do The Right Thing; to the brutal and sudden murder of Samuel L. Jackson’s character Stacks in Scorsese’s Goodfellas (1990)- these are just a few powerful and painfully honest examples of Italian-American anti-Black sentiments and two examples of Black retribution for that sentiment in narrative cinema.
A disturbing real life example of Italian-American anti-Blackness would be the tragic and controversial 1989 murder of 16 year old Yusef Hawkins by a mob of angry Italian-Americans in the predominately Italian-American neighborhood of Bensonhurst, New York.(4)
Therefore it is with these cinematic representations and a real life example of Italian-American anti-Black sentiment in mind that it stands to reason that a deep-seated anti-Black sentiment would have erupted within gym owner Pete Sporino and become a major conflict between this character and Balboa who is training a Black boxer, over and above Pete Sporino’s already proven Italian-American son. Yet the film suppresses this conflict between the adults with a boxing match between the sons in an attempt to avoid the cliché of racial prejudice and anti-Black sentiment that exists among some Italian-Americans (certainly not all) and in so doing weakens the dramatic integrity of the characters and the circumstances within which they are immersed.(5)
A second conflict ruined within Creed comes later in the film when Adonis, angry at being called “baby Creed” in the hallway of a nightclub by a musical artist named Tone Trump (Tony Brice), punches the man and knocks him down in front of all of his friends and Bianca (Tessa Thompson), the woman and singer to whom they are both mutually acquainted. Adonis is later seen in a jail cell and is bailed out by Balboa, but nothing is ever mentioned about this circumstance again in the film. Here it is stretching the limits of credulity to believe that the conflict between Adonis and Tone Trump would not linger and fester into a threat of lethal violence against Adonis unless there was some plausible on-screen resolution, which the film does not provide. In the attempt to avoid the cliché of “Black on Black” violence (itself a misnomer but applicable here in the context of this discussion), the film ruins the conflict by not plausibly resolving it.
There are very few men who would take a punch thrown in anger, much less an ass-whipping, in front of his friends and a female acquaintance at a nightclub and not follow through later with the proverbial “consequences and repercussions” to restore his honor. And if such a man does exist, then the filmmaker is obliged by his rarity to allow his audience to appraise such a man and his character in scenes that would hint at why this type of man does exist in this context.
It’s not that Dope or Creed are bad films. In fact, Dope is a very funny and playfully cinematic film, just as Creed looks to a higher dramatic standard by concentrating on the personal ethics of an individual- but the films are, in the opinion of this writer, merely adequate dramas held up by White controlled Hollywood as examples of good and positive Black entertainment all because the main characters within them achieve a respectable goal with as little profound personal, emotional or spiritual sacrifice as possible. The superficial happy endings of both films will certainly leave middle class and middle class aspiring Black spectators with a warm and fuzzy feeling of optimism. Although optimism in and of itself is not inherently bad- false optimism is the mental opioid that kills ambitions by not preparing the dreamer for the deeply profound and personal sacrifices he or she must truly make to achieve any goal.
That is to say that by not adequately or creatively resolving or in some cases even exploring particular conflicts within the narrative, both Dope and Creed weaken the force of their stories- and like sandcastles the stories fall apart upon repeated viewings rather than becoming more profound and crystalline. In short, the films fall apart upon the slightest scrutiny. By contrast, one could still watch Meirelles’ City of God and find something interesting that may have escaped you upon first or third viewing.
But I have explored the racial uplift narrative for a reason and that is to declare that it is not our purpose as Black filmmakers/writers to avoid clichés and ruin potentially powerful and insightful dramatic conflicts within our films, to make people feel warm and fuzzy with a false optimism. Instead, the wiser route to go is to not avoid clichés at all, but to twist them, alter them in such a way that they reveal those different and/or here-to-fore unexamined aspects of Black life and culture. Dope was a valiant effort with its collective of outsider Black “geek” characters and intelligent drug dealers, just as Creed presented an alternative view of hetero-sexual intimacy and masculinity. But just think of how far one could go if one twisted every cliché and stereotype of Black life and culture? If we presented our spectators with alternate representations of how conflicts begin and could be resolved beyond violence, hate and abuse? Perhaps only then would we be able to see ourselves as we truly are: infinite.
Andre Seewood is author of “(Dismantling) The Greatest Lie Ever Told To The Black Filmmaker.” Pick up a copy here.
- For an historical overview of Racial Uplift Ideology please see Kevin K. Gaines’ essay, Racial Uplift Ideology in the Era of “the Negro Problem.”
- I am well aware of the feathers I might be ruffling by calling Spike Lee’s masterpiece, Do The Right Thing, a ‘Hood movie- but for all intents and purposes it is a film set in a distinct neighborhood, populated by Blacks, that concerns the everyday lives of those who dwell there. Although the film does not center on gangs, drug dealing and criminality, what separates a ‘Hood from a neighborhood should not solely be defined by these three negative aspects, but instead by the events systemic or otherwise that hold that community together or tear it apart from the inside out.
- Please see: http://www.cnn.com/2015/11/04/entertainment/chi-raq-film-chicago-shootings-spike-lee-feat/
- Please see: http://www.nydailynews.com/new-york/nyc-crime/ringleader-haunted-1989-shooting-death-brooklyn-teen-article-1.1906249#
- Perhaps I should explain what I mean by Dramatic Integrity. Dramatic Integrity is relative to a film’s ability to withstand repeated viewings that allows a spectator to discover, layer upon layer, the valid and interrelated reasons behind a character’s actions, behaviors, and reactions. Dramatic Integrity is a matrix through which all characters in a specific film can be appreciated in both main and supporting roles wherein which the logic of the character can be understood to extend beyond what we are allowed to see on screen. An excellent example would be small role of Carlo Rizzi (Gianni Russo) in Coppola’s The Godfather, that after repeated viewings reveals an ambitious and conceited man who desperately wanted power so much so that he chose (or was picked) to marry into it by marrying Connie Corleone. When he didn’t get it, he took the offer of a rival gangster that led to the death of Sonny Corleone and his own demise at the behest of Michael Corleone in revenge. The dramatic integrity of The Godfather allows us to understand this character, his reasoning, even his soul in spite of the brief moments he is on screen. Dramatic integrity is what makes a good film a great film and a great film a classic film over time.