by Mark A. Reid
Cut, no. 36, May 1991, pp. 43-46
Film production in Africa and the African Diaspora is slowly gaining recognition within film studies programs. Like the film industry, film studies has its own form of determinism which shapes how scholars, students and the publishing industry discuss African and African Diasporic film and video works. Initially, any film or video containing a visible group of black performers was errantly deemed a black film. I will not list examples but one needs only to refer to recent articles on "black film" and ask two questions: Who is behind the camera and who wrote the script?[open notes in new window]
On the one hand, I concur with Henry Louis Gates who writes of
Nevertheless, I ask two questions: When and where do black film technicians enter to gain some discernible control over their filmic image? And when and where are the thoughts of black critics and scholars written into the interpretation of such images that heretofore have remained exclusively the domain of non-black merchants of culture? Must the response remain in the segregated space of the black press as it has been since the 1900s? U.S. cultural institutions in general and film studies in particular must reject this not so subtle, apartheid system of cultural production. And the Afrocentric discourse on and interpretation of black film must avoid the pitfalls of racial essentialism, homophobia and sexism. When we resist the overdetermined will of Anglo-American cultural imperialism — we face an equally tautological circle of subtle and sublime racial secrets.
This special section, "Africa/Black Diaspora," dispels the illusion of monolithic forms of blackness and links African film with its black diasporic equivalent in the United States and England. As some of the articles included in this section suggest, blacks must control a few means of production in order to create an ideology that is neither determined by the hegemonic visions of white filmmakers, white feminists and critics, nor limited by the hegemony of black masculinist and heterosexist value systems. Recall how certain types of U.S. history have framed and narrated the lives of visible people of color and women. What changes occur when the Other produces films to interpret his/her communal stories? Such production permits difference. I admit it is not so much a question of the author's racial and/or gender difference. But media production in the hands of the Other raises the question of how monolithic allegiance to one's race or gender permits hegemony over the social and filmic construction of the many racial and gendered Others.
BLUES FILMS FOR BLUES PEOPLE
Film scholars cannot merely discuss abstract theoretical notions about black film and the progressive aspects of black filmmakers and video artists like Charles Burnett, Michelle Parkerson and Marlon Riggs. The critic must also scrutinize the observations of those who feel racially and/or politically compelled to celebrate black filmmakers' success when their films contain homophobic and or sexist elements used to entertain our baser desires. Permitting homophobia and misogyny in black film impedes the development of a progressive black film practice, and therein, it allows a double standard of film criticism.
Black cinema is a blues cinema. Blues songs have traditionally spoke for psychological and social liberation, and black film should do no less. The blues, according to Larry Neal,
This special section on black film covers francophone and anglophone African cinemas. It gives equal coverage to African American involvement in Hollywood and those blacks who avoided Hollywood so as to maintain an independent distance from major studios. Most important, this section discusses the work of two black gay filmmakers and their filmic commitment to the black community and their gay brothers. Each article here employs different strategies to discuss and analyze the various ideologies that construct and control black-oriented film production, distribution and exhibition. Hopefully, the articles inform film scholars, students and the publishing industry about the polyphonic nature of contemporary black cinema which might be described as the Blackness of Blackness(es).
Four essays discuss different facets of the African film experience in Africa and in the West. I tackle the problems involved in cross-cultural film editing and French governmental sponsorship of francophone African film in “Producing African Cinema in Paris," a 1986 interview with Andrée Daventure, a white French woman. I recorded this interview in late 1985 and early 1986 when French rightwing politician Jean-Marie LePen, a French equivalent of David Duke, gained popularity among the working class French electorate. During this period, the French economy faced a recession and the Socialist government could not inhibit increases in anti-Semitism (against French-born Arabs and Jews) and racism. Interestingly, in this political period France reduced its commitment to francophone African cinema as well as other state sponsorship of the arts.
Concurrent with the upsurge in French fascism, Harlem Dsir, a Paris-born West Indian, created the political organization "S.O.S. Racisme," which uses art, music and grassroots politics to combat anti-Semitism and racism. The Daventure interview and the political situation which surrounds my meeting with Andrée Daventure are relevant to the political and cultural situation in the United States today. Our nation needs to renew its economic commitment to regional multicultural arts programs like San Francisco's Cine Accíon and San Antonio's Guadalupe Cultural Arts Center.
Additionally, activists in the United States have yet to create a interracial, multi-ethnic group that equals the importance of S.O.S. Racisme. The United States often seems to create movements whose longevity can be measured by the political aspirations of one individual, and whose breadth of interests is no more varied than the trajectory of one who gazes at his mirror image. This is why U.S. cultural institutions, unlike those in France, Belgium, Germany and Great Britain, are late to recognize the importance of promoting the development of film production and scholarship by visible people of color who reside in the United States.
In "Women in Sembene's Film,” Gorham H. Kindem and Martha Steele analyze various aspects of female characterization in the films of Senegalese filmmaker Ousmane Sembene. Their analysis includes a description of the socio-historical context of Senegalese women from which, they argue, Sembene borrows to create his female roles. Their essay also discusses why African cinema is dependent on western markets as opposed to the indigenous national film markets, distributors and exhibitors in Subsaharan Africa. The Kindem-Steele article expresses the centrality of African women in history and notes how Sembene's marxist realist vision has not been quieted by his economic dependence on the West.
Ntongela Masilela's “COME BACK AFRICA and South African Film History" continues the focus on African film and provides a brief overview of white South African film history. Masilela closes his essay by reflecting on the inability of black South Africans to develop a black South African film tradition. Masilela notes that Lionel Ngakane, the first black South African filmmaker now exiled in London, “has been unable in exile to establish the guideposts of the South African cinema." Nevertheless, Lionel Ngakane, as an ANC film representative, is instrumental in maintaining ties with other African and non-African filmmakers. Ngakane has successfully enlisted filmmakers to use their cameras to combat South Africa's system of racial apartheid.
In "Anglophone African Media,” Frank Ukadike, a Nigerian film scholar teaching in the U.S., describes how Nigerian audiences have identified with the heroes they've viewed in foreign films. Ukadike argues that "mobile cinemas" exhibited foreign films and promoted non-African cultural values in the most remote rural areas of Nigeria. He adds that the absence of rural state-sponsored broadcast media (radio and television) increases the detrimental socioeconomic effects of these foreign films. His essay also discusses the difference between the anglophone and francophone film industries, describes the roots of this difference as reflecting the policies of the British and French colonial administrators, and gives insightful commentaries on the postcolonial film and television industries in Ghana, Kenya and Nigeria.
Four essays look at the African-American experience in Hollywood and in the independent artistic liberated zones. Nicholas Wellington's essay "Hollywood's Apartheid" scrutinizes the conventions of recent Hollywood film dramatizations of racial apartheid in South Africa. Wellington correctly states, “At the heart of apartheid is the classification (and oppression of/preference for) of people on the basis of their color, race, ethnicity, gender, class, language, history." He finds that film's conflation of various differences to one of race permits media to work within a framework of black/ white, good/ bad, tyrants/ victim-heroes dualisms, which generate simplistic dramas. His essay then analyzes how these dualisms structure the film narratives of the action film LETHAL WEAPON 2 and the family melodramas CRY FREEDOM and A DRY WHITE SEASON.
Similarly, my essay, "The U.S. Black Family Film,” describes the bi-cultural tensions which determine how two African American integrationist dramas were produced and marketed during the dawning of the United States' own anti-apartheid movement for African American civil rights. Continuing the focus on African American involvement in the film industry, Elizabeth Jackson presents interviews with Dr. Roland Jefferson, independent producer, and Barbara McCullough, independent filmmaker. Jefferson criticizes black middle-class reluctance to finance black films, and McCullough discusses the problems that beset a black independent filmmaker, warning against placing too much authority in the hands of an untested crew.
With José Arroyo's “The Films of Isaac Julien" and Chuck Kleinhans' two pieces on Marlon Riggs, the Special Section on “Africa/Black Diaspora" takes up a formerly closeted subject which had dared not speak its name — the creative and political vision of black gay filmmakers. Unlike Shirley Clarke's PORTRAIT OF JASON, the works of Isaac Julien and Marlon Riggs are generated by a black gay consciousness which prevails in both the technical and performance arenas. In "The Films of Isaac Julien," José Arroyo gives a close reading of three works by Julien. Arroyo argues that the works deconstruct the already-existing colonial discourse and simultaneously permit a polyphony of black realities in terms of issues of sexual orientation, race, gender and class. In citing filmmaker-theorist Trinh T. Minh-ha, "There is a Third World in Every First World,” Arroyo discusses how Julien's films critique blacks who adopt already-existing colonial discourses to demean impoverished blacks, women and homosexuals. Arroyo again borrows from Trinh to describe how Julien's works articulate a "looking back” and "talking back” form of visual and auditory resistance. Chuck Kleinhans and Julia Lesage's “Interview with Marion Riggs" provides an intimate look at one of African America's most gifted video artists. Riggs informs us about his pre-production decisions and how and why he made TONGUES UNTIED. The interview is not merely a statement about video production or about a black video artist. Riggs also reveals important facts about the artistic movements and folk culture of black urban gay America.
In Kleinhans's assay "Mainstreains and Margins," Riggs' two videos, ETHNIC NOTIONS and TONGUES UNTIED are contrasted and analyzed with respect to each video's educational value and each video's socio-political importance. The article scrutinizes the textual and extra-textual elements which interact to create our understanding of each video and its place in U.S. popular culture. Kleinhans weighs the limitations of Riggs's use of a conventional expository format for ETHNIC NOTIONS. The format is best suited for classroom situations because college students are familiar with and can easily draw information from a linear narrative that treats racism as a past social inequity. In contrast, TONGUES UNTIED has a complex narrative structure and treats a more controversial issue — black gay political activism. Undoubtedly, TONGUES UNITIED's unconventional and discontinuous narrative style as well as its black gay affirmation resist "mainstream" support, financial and otherwise. Unlike ETHNIC NOTIONS which was produced for broadcast on PBS stations, TONGUES UNTIED is distributed by Frameline, which exclusively markets gay films and videos. Equally marginal is TONGUES UNTIED's audience, which is composed of a mix of radical feminists, progressives and gays (women and men). It is the sort of audience who resist different forms of already existing colonial discourses regardless of their sources.
1. For an understanding of the African American mythological figure "Shine," see Larry Neal, Visions Of A Liberated Future, ed. Michael Schwartz (New York: Thunder's Mouth Press, 1990), pp. 7-23.
2. Henry Louis Gates, Jr., Figures in Black: Words, Signs, and the “Racial" Self (New York: Oxford Univ. Press, 1987), p. 45.
3. Neal, p. l08.
4. To my knowledge and acknowledging its limitations, no U.S. film journal or book on film, with the exception of Black Film Review 3.3 (1987) and 5.3 (1989) and this issue of JUMP CUT, has devoted an issue or chapter on the work of gay black filmmakers or the visual representation of black homosexuality. It is surprising that gay film scholars, feminists and blacks have yet to direct their critical energies toward the poetry and vivid images in the films of Isaac Julien, Marlon Riggs, Michelle Parkerson, and other black gay artists. Probably the nexus of racism and homophobia permit this silence of the lambs when it comes to these pioneering black artists.