The Realist Tendency in African-American Film Aesthetics (Part one)

All too often we as African-Americans use the art form of cinema as a signifying practice; that is to say we are caught in the attempt to try to replicate certain aspects of African-American life that we all can identify with and therefore signify as true. These certain aspects of African-American life that we all can identify with in our filmic representation of ourselves can be described as a realist tendency, not so much politically proscribed as Soviet Realism during the Communist era, but instead determined and maintained by strongly held belief systems within and outside of our race.(1)

If there is a realist tendency in African-American film, it manifests itself as an artistically limited need to show how African-American life really is (in the Ghetto, on the dense urban streets, la vie qoutidienne) and let the audience signify the validity or ‘truthfulness’ of a particular film via the box office gross and DVD sales.

The problem with this realist tendency in African-American film is that it secures and legitimates a belief system which is then tied to our racial identity and poisons our perception of our social realities. No matter how much evidence there is to contradict what we believe to be true about ourselves, we always find aspects of our lives that fit our preconceived beliefs and signify it to be true.

Thus, for example, if it is generally believed that a majority of Black men don’t take care of their children, then any evidence to the contrary is usually discredited, dismissed, or simply ignored. This goes a long way in explaining why the box-office gross of Tyler Perry’s film, DADDY’S LITTLE GIRLS (2007), was his lowest grossing film to date. It also explains the release of films like, JUMPING THE BROOM (2011), LOTTERY TICKET(2010), WHO’S YOUR CADDY? (2007), ATL (2006), ROLL BOUNCE (2005), SOUL PLANE (2004) etc, because these films don’t challenge what we believe we know about ourselves but instead these films and others like them reiterate this signifying practice of the realist tendency in African-American film. We are limited by our own limited perspective of ourselves; we are bound by the chains that we have ourselves fashioned.

In an appendix in my book, SLAVE CINEMA: The Crisis of the African-American in Film 2nd Edition (2011), I commented on this realist tendency in my critical analysis of the fourth season of the HBO cable network show THE WIRE.

“THE WIRE is successful only in that it recapitulates a pessimistic and grim perspective of urban ghetto life that most of its viewers need to believe in as a way of measuring the advantages or disadvantages of their own real life circumstances. Those who don’t live in such a ghetto can say to themselves,” Boy, I’m glad I don’t have to deal with those problems,” and those that do can say to themselves,” This is the way it really is here in the ghetto.” But it is really a matter of perception exemplified by sociologist Elijah Anderson’s dichotomy of decent and street in his book, CODE OF THE STREET. Those who are glad they don’t have to deal with those problems as dramatized in the show are holding on to decent middle class values in their real lives and those that see those problems as a realistic portrayal of their day to day experiences are adhering to a street orientation which is opposed to those middle class values. These beliefs can be maintained by either kind of viewer even if such a view of urban ghetto life as presented in THE WIRE is not entirely true or realistic.” (pg. 260)

In short, what we signify as ‘black’ is really a matter of perspective and perception that when it is transposed into the medium of film, many black and white filmmakers adhere to these perceptions for the sake of making the material appear ‘realistic’ or authentic, when in actuality this perception is a simplification of the most complex aspects of our racial identity. To give a more explicit rendering of my point it has been reported that during a 24 hour period on a weekend in August of 2011, 17 people were shot and 6 people were killed in my city of Detroit.(2) This news sent shockwaves throughout the city and around the country. These news reports give the impression of lawlessness and a grim day-to-day reality in the urban ghetto. But during this same 24 hour period the majority of the citizens in Detroit lived their lives within the boundaries of the law and without incident. That is to say, that the violent impression of the urban ghetto is constructed and maintained both by how the media sensationalizes and concentrates its crime reporting and how these news reports feed into a preconceived pessimistic and grim perspective of the urban ghetto held by whites and blacks alike. Thus, the actuality of urban ghetto life that can be perceived through the day-to-day interactions of people who do not commit violent crimes is swept away by the need to believe in a lawless and grim day-to-day perspective of the urban ghetto that is fed by media reports and preconceived ideas.

It is this need to believe in a lawless and grim urban ghetto that so many black filmmakers refuse to challenge because they only consider the content of their films (positive images/negative images) and not the formal organization of their films (editing, mise-en-scene, acting styles, music, shot selection and narrative organization) as a means to challenge the perspective that so many of us need to believe is true despite all the evidence to the contrary. Therefore, many black filmmakers don’t realize that it is the conventional formal organization of their films that supports the realist tendency in African-American cinema and not solely the content. Simply making sure that all the black characters have jobs and adhere to “decent” middle class values does not capture the complexity of our racial identity nor our social realities. There are several questions begged here in my description: Whether or not just because we as blacks identify with a certain aspect of African-American life represented on screen can the formal organization of the film allow us to question that representation? Does an alternative formal organization of the film expose certain social processes and ideological mechanisms that are hidden from us by a conventional representation of the same events or circumstances? Can a film actually challenge what we need to believe is real with an approach to the complexity of how things actually are? Are we African-Americans capable of tolerating a film that questions our often limited perspectives on ourselves as a race?

This last question is actually the most important: Are we African-Americans capable of tolerating a film that questions our often limited perspectives on ourselves as a race? Can the black scholar carry a gun? Can the black gang banger comprehend Charles W. Mill’s The Racial Contract? What we also learn from Elijah Anderson’s CODE OF THE STREET is that most African-Americans engage in a form of, ”Code switching,” where individuals switch to the codes and informal rules of the street in social settings that require a readiness for violence and a jockeying for status and respect and then switching back to the codes and rules of decent “bourgeois” mentality when in those social settings that require adherence to middle-class moral values and a display of intelligence and cultural wit. (98-106, Anderson)

Thus, an African-American realist tendency in film has filmmakers representing only one aspect of our dual nature (or code) so that an audience can readily identify these selected aspects and signify what they see as true. This exploitation/representation of one selected aspect over another suppressed aspect is what generated the “In the ‘Hood,” genre of films versus the “Family/Love” genre of African-American films in the Nineties. Today, in a film like, JUMPING THE BROOM, we see the two aspects combined as a comical conflict of class expectations between an upper middle class family and an urban working class family. The individuality of a character is suppressed to represent a certain type or class of individuals who adhere to decent or street codes of behaviors and expectations.

Some of the aspects of what I call a realist tendency in African-American film can be described as dramatic and performance paradigms that are repeated in films that feature a majority African-American cast and/or themes and circumstances that are used to represent the urban ghetto:

1) Dialogue that uses curse words spoken in an urban (read: black) dialect. For example the word “motherfucker” is pronounced,” mutherfucka,” to signify urban authenticity or African-American realism. Often when a black actor is cast in a film, lines of dialogue are either changed or improvised by the actor to adhere to this African-American realist tendency. For example, singer/actress Kelly Rowland’s angry cursing in 2003’s FREDDY v. JASON and of course the incomparable Samuel L. Jackson in Quentin Tarantino’s PULP FICTION (1994).

2) A male dominated world of drug dealing and gun violence that follows a theme of revenge (for perceived insults, slights and dishonor) and retaliation (against the members of an opposing gang, or persons perceived to have ordered violence). The ‘In the ‘hood,’ films of the nineties and beyond exemplify this aspect. Most importantly street level drug dealing is almost always associated with Black males as can be seen in Steven Soderbergh’s film, TRAFFIC (2000) where a black male drug dealer sexually exploits a white Ohio Judge’s drug addicted daughter.

3) The mistreatment, torture or death of an innocent character as an ironic counterpoint to those guilty individuals engaging in street violence, drug dealing or other lawless behavior. Perhaps starting with the death of Ricky (Morris Chestnut) in John Singleton’s, BOYZ IN THE HOOD (1991) and continuing well through such films as JASON’S LYRIC and FRESH, the killing of an innocent is an aspect of African-American social reality that is often used to support a realist tendency in films that represent African-Americans. (3)

4) The use of Rap/R&B music as a soundtrack throughout scenes to reinforce the urban dialect of the dialogue, the male dominated world of drug dealing and gun violence, and the threat of violence within the content of the story; in short to reinforce the ‘blackness’ of the story or character who is black within the story. An interesting representation of this paradigm can be seen in John Carpenter’s masterpiece remake of Howard Hawks/Christian Nyby film THE THING (1982) where Stevie Wonder’s song, “Superstition” is associated with the black character, Nauls (T.C. Carter).

These aspects, taken together, constrict the variation in narrative style and severely limit the content of many African-American filmmaker’s works by coercing African-American audiences to expect these particular aspects in films so that they might identify with the characters and the circumstances and thus signify the film as a true representation. Moreover, African-American filmmakers, either out of fear of not attaining financing for their work or being simply oblivious to these restrictions because they themselves see the limitations as true, don’t utilize alternative formal strategies to challenge these representations. One of the ways in which we know that this realist tendency constricts African-American filmmakers in both the form and content of their work is the fact that we have yet to successfully produce a feature length African-American science fiction film. It is a genre that is antithetical to the various aspects of the realist tendency that I have just described. How can we ever know what freedom is if we don’t believe it to be true or an actual aspect of our racial identity and social realities?

Having described what I assert are some of the major aspects of a realist tendency in African-American film aesthetics, the second part of this essay will endeavor to suggest various formal strategies African-American filmmakers who want make challenging films with unique and distinctive narrative and cinematic styles might utilize to go beyond these restrictions in the representation of race in the cinema. Yet, to make these suggestions I will have to do what is thought of as untenable in most discussions of African-American film aesthetics. I will have to draw on the work of white American, European and foreign filmmakers and/or theorists. Such suggestions that draw on the work of whites are often perceived by many black film scholars, critics and theorists as an attempt to,” use the Hollywood tradition and its system of ideological supports as the basis for evaluating black filmmaking.” (4)

That is to say, that previous black scholarship and criticism’s conceptualization of what constitutes ‘white cinema’ does not distinctly differentiate among Hollywood, European, and foreign filmmakers, but instead groups all non-black filmmakers as part of the conspiracy of global white supremacy in the cinema. But as I tried to reveal in a new chapter called, ”Race Traitors: White Filmmakers Who Make Black Films,” in the second edition of my book, SLAVE CINEMA, there were and still are many white American and European filmmakers who challenge conventional racial representations via the formal organization of their films which include African-American actors and/or themes.

A major mistake in my opinion in African-American film criticism and scholarship is the presumption that film form is as racially coded as film content. That, for example, the incendiary racism that constitutes D.W. Griffith’s BIRTH OF A NATION (1915) extends beyond the racist content and taints the formal cinematic language and editorial structure of the film. Yet, the fact that Russian film theorists and filmmakers studied the form and structure of BIRTH OF A NATION and other white capitalist American filmmaker’s work in their apprehension of film form provides some evidence to disprove that the cinema’s formal language is inherently racist. In short, the point-of-view shot sequence is not racist and is an integral aspect of filmic narration, but rather the point of view of the filmmaker and the content he creates can be explicitly racist.

This is why the second part of this essay will concentrate on the formal strategies many white American, European and foreign filmmakers have used to either challenge racial representation or go against the status quo and the general line of the political or ideological restrictions of their respective cultures. It is not just content that African-American filmmakers must manipulate to challenge racial, ideological and political regimes, but also the formal organization of their films must be aggressively manipulated to challenge their audiences.

Andre Seewood is the author of SLAVE CINEMA: The Crisis of the African-American in Film. Pick up a copy of the book via HERE.

(1)Soviet Realism was a government sanctioned form of artistic censorship beginning in 1929,” which idealized the Soviet experience in order to inspire the masses with the glories of life under Lenin and Stalin,” under this limited ideological perspective,” the genius of the Soviet cinema was devastated, since anything unique, personal, or formally experimental was explicitly forbidden to appear upon the screen.” (194, A History of Narrative Film, David A. Cook, 1981, Norton & Company; New York.)
(2)–including-6-dead–in-Detroit-in-24-hours Detroit download date August 16th, 2011
(3) To be more accurate, we should perhaps start with the killing of the “Cochise” (Lawrence Hilton-Jacobs) character in Michael Schultz’s COOLEY HIGH (1975).
(4) pg. 113, Black Film as a Signifying Practice: Cinema, Narration and the African-American Aesthetic Tradition by Gladstone L. Yearwood, African World Press, 2000; Trenton, New Jersey.