Gladstone Yearwood’s article, ‘Theorizing Black Film’, is a thorough examination of what he believes, reviewing a wide cross section of ideologies, constitutes black filmmaking. Yearwood works his way through European aesthetics and a variety of critical analyses to arrive at a theory that could possibly satisfy the need for an overall criterion that defines successful black filmmaking. According to Yearwood’s own definition: ‘…a progressive black cinema undertakes a critique of social values and social relations because they establish power and powerlessness within society. Filmmaking that seeks to empower the black community questions the way the Hollywood cinema functions to support the reproduction of traditional social positions in which black continues to be objectified and defined by the status quo in terms of status quo and powerlessness. The challenge to the black film movement in its mission of reformulating traditional social understandings is to proceed behind the façade of the realism of popular images to expose the way reality is structured and packaged for us through representation and forms of entertainment.’ Further in this paragraph he goes on to specifically mention Sweet Sweetback and Daughters of the Dust, two well-established films within the canon of the black cinema aesthetic but also, two of the most esoteric. This is where the need for an expansion of the black cinematic ideology may most pointedly lie, in the dichotomy between artistic expression and in engaging a wide audience with your work.
In the essay on ‘Black American Cinema: The New Realism’, Diawara posits: ‘…. there are no simple stories about black people loving each other, hating each other, or enjoying their private possessions …because the spaces [within] those stories are occupied by newer forms of race relation stories which have been over determined by Griffith’s master text [Birth of A Nation]…It is possible to argue that Black independent cinema has remained marginal until now because its filmic language, not unlike the language of most independent films is meta-filmic, often nationalistic and not “pleasurable” to consumers accustomed to mainstream Hollywood products.’ This depiction examines the nexus of the limits the black film and its audience reach which could in turn reduce to a large degree its level of quantification. Sort of like the old analogy that if a tree falls in the forest when no one is around does it make a sound?
In order to answer this question let’s go back and take a look at what Yearwood says about the European aesthetic, because after all, as black filmmakers, this is what we are trying to confront and engage with in a very incestuous, Oedipal interaction. Yearwood looks to ideas based in theories of Metz to define, ‘cinema as an area of cultural production; black film theory is premised on the notion of culture as the socially and historically saturated process that involves social signification and the concomitant production of meanings.’ According to Yearwood and his interpretation of Metz, ‘black film aesthetics has focused on a few fundamental problems: first, there is an emphasis on reformulating the nature of film images, second, a preoccupation with the way filmic signification helps to challenge or establish social meanings and third, focus on the relationship between the cinema as a social institution and the dominant system of power.’ Yearwood understandably debunks European aesthetic ideologies pointing out that it believes itself superior to other forms of aesthetic consciousness and that it is ‘…deficient in its failure to acknowledge that different cultures respond differently to the question of value in artistic expression and what is good art. The fact that individual cultures use culture-specific modes of aesthetic expression provides theoretical ammunition for the development of a black film aesthetic.’
Still, if this black film aesthetic is defined by the reformulation of images and towards a forward progression of black identity and self perception why does Yearwood completely ignore the works of black auteur Sidney Poitier for example? Is Poitier’s body of work not a textbook rendering of Yearwood’s black cinema definition? Is it because it Poitier does not fit into the realm of black independent cinema? And if black independent cinema is to be defined by being ‘meta-nationalistic’, overly cryptic and singularly bent on airing black issues in a dominant black voice then how would one define the classic film ‘Nothing But a Man’ within this context? This film, a classic example of a sophisticated black film text, was written, directed and produced by a team of Caucasian men. Is the reformulation of a black voice and a firm black nationalistic identity any less potent because they emanate from the mind of a white man who may have his own concerns about not only the state of blacks within pre Civil-Rights America but as a story as experienced and undertaken first and foremost by human beings. Almost four decades old, is this film not the blueprint then for racial integration within modes of production, sophisticated technical realization and integrity within the relation of the story? Does it according to Yearwood’s own criteria 1) reformulate film images 2) challenge or establish social means 3) focus on cinema as a social institution and its relation to the dominant system of power?
Yearwood agrees and it is commendable that he possessed the foresight to apply this concept to a lasting definition of black cinematic expression. He uses this film to define black film as follows – 1) ‘the viewer sees and recognizes black faces. Thus, the identity and meaning of the film image are readily asserted. 2) The indexical meaning relies on the socio-cultural background of the filmmaker and functions as an index for identifying a film. But Yearwood uses ‘Nothing But A Man’ to counter his own questions and to debunk the indexical theory. He notes, ‘The invalidity of the indexical paradigm is most evident when dealing when dealing with a film by a white director such as Michael Roemer…In my view what is most important about the film is the film itself…Although we should not undervalue the significance of having black writers, producers and directors plays an important role in black film production, the presence of black filmmakers themselves are not sufficient to guarantee the production of a black film.’
In his essay on ‘Rethinking the Base and Superstructure Metaphor’, Stuart Hall speaks to the expanding nature of the African Diaspora. Hall challenges notions of fascist generalizations of blacks as a unit, allowing for varying layers of interpretation of the black experience. He also posits the idea of a double removal from Africa to the Caribbean and from the Caribbean to the Americas. This search for identity and validation within the African American community can be represented within the traditional symbolic paradigm of the triangle with the Base feeding into the ideology of the Superstructure, which in turn infuses the Base with its overarching concepts. This sequence is psychologically reminiscent of the transcendent pathway of the African Middle Passage. Fanon indicated that cultural identity is not fixed and it is much of this upon which Hall’s statements are predicated.
British filmmaker John Okomfrah approaches these notions in his most recent film, Nine Muses where he examines the idea of the removal of the African spirit from its original home and its reinsertion into the larger metro poles and the effect on this movement on the fragile and displaced African psyche. The film’s non-linear, abstract narrative seems to honor the overarching tradition of what Yearwood considers to be black film: abstraction and insertion of multiple narrative devices (visual art, poetry, non-linear storytelling, historical references and the use of the camera as a narrative device). While films such as Nine Muses are highly technically realized and creative works of cinema it seems, however, that the way in which they choose to express their story is esoteric in a way that may alienate broader audiences, thereby negating the full reach of the cinematic story as a device towards a deeper understanding of a black experience. With regards to the audience Metz notes, ‘…it is I who I am perceiving in all this, that this perceived-imaginary material is deposited in me as if on a second screen, that it is me, that it forms into an organized sequence, that therefore I am myself the place where this really perceived imaginary accedes to the symbolic by its inauguration as the signifier of a certain type of institutionalized social activity called the ‘cinema’. So we see the importance of the audience in completing and perpetuation this circle of image and reception.
Within this context though, there seems to be very little middle ground. Audiences are either bludgeoned with the cooning shenanigans of Tyler Perry and crew or the intellectualized musings of Dash, Okomfrah and Gerima, to name a few. While the sharing of these stories enriches the black artistic canon as a whole, it is the audience, (the base) who needs to come into contact with this material and affect a change at the superstructural level. The key then, must be finding a link between films that are technically realized, which seek to empower the black community in a manner that reaches a wide audience. Is this possible? In his seminal text on Scriptwriting ‘Story’, Robert Mckee notes that there is always room for a good story, i.e., well written, and this ‘good’ story, once delicately handled through each stage of the cinematic process will always find its way to success with critics and audiences. This dilemma of story and representation is where the plight of the black filmmaker is most acute. Yearwood notes, ‘…focus on formal structures shifts attention away from concerns of iconicity and empiricism in black art, the view that somehow there is a direct relationship of the black image in art with social reality. A definition of black film that foregrounds secondary criteria pushes the actual work into the background and necessarily devalues the film.’
Filmmakers ultimately want their films to be seen. Even Spike Lee is quoted as saying: ‘When I went to film school, I knew I did not want to have my films shown only during Black History Month in February or at libraries.’ Yearwood turns to an interpretation of Mark Reid to surmise the duality between black commercial and black independent films. ‘Reid finds it useful to distinguish between black commercial and black independent films: The black commercial film is limited…to any feature length fiction film whose central focus is the Afro-American community. This film is written, directed or produced by at least one black person in collaboration with non-black people. Films included in this category are distributed by major American film companies. The black film company is defined as any feature-length fiction film whose central focus is the Afro-American community. Such films are written, directed and produced by Afro-Americans and people of African ancestry who reside in the United States. These films are not distributed by major American film companies.’ Born and bred in Barbados, Yearwood’s validation of this concept seems not only to buy into hegemonical concepts of American cultural dominance but is noted in excluding a wealth of contributions to this argument film and filmmakers from Britain, the Caribbean and South America.
Over the past decade or so, Eve’s Bayou, Love Jones, and the recently released Restless City, could be seen as films which successfully bridge the gap between financial success and an apt communication of a three-dimensional, complex, multi-faceted black reality that is technically and artistically realized. We could even go back to Spike Lee’s Crooklyn as another example. According to Yearwood’s criteria however films such as Lee’s Summer of Sam could not be considered a black film because of its deviation away from the necessity to concentrate on the empowerment of the black community, challenging Hollywood representations and support traditional constructions of black power and powerlessness. So here we have arguably the most successful black filmmaker ever creating films that may not be considered as black films. At least according to Yearwood.
Contemporary films like Precious, Red Tails, and Night Catches Us however can be seen to fit quite easily within his definition. Still, Precious, a critical darling in 2010, simply furthers stereotypes of black subjugation and societal ineptitude as first typified in Birth of a Nation and regurgitated to varying degrees of potency (Monsters Ball, Last King of Scotland) throughout film history. Red Tails and Night Catches Us were squandered opportunities in that they were simply not compelling enough. Audiences yawned, moved on and awaited the release of Think Like a Man.
If we look at Pariah as it relates to Yearwood’s definitions – which comes first the notion of blackness or of displaced sexuality? Which is the more apt and urgent definition of the protagonist? It seems like films such as Pariah are most indicative of this post modernist sensibility which black filmmakers must move towards, where the audience will recognize representations of themselves as individuals within the work as opposed to the adherence to a strictly Afro-centric ideology. This post- modernist sensibility, expressed largely in the fine artistic works of Kehinde Wiley, within which new expressions of the black male image are craftily expressed or in the works of upcoming filmmaker, Terence Nance, seeks to define itself through individual expression i.e. subjectivity, relativity, personal opinion and hybridity, the lynch pins of post modernist thought. These artists represent those who would rather not be labeled with the ‘burden of representation’ but rather, are more concerned with the presentation of characters that are true to their own experience and isolationist ideology, removed from a cultural context where the work is left to speak for itself. In the heyday of his athletic career, Charles Barkley is quoted as saying, ‘I’m not your role model, I’m an athlete. Be your own role model.’ It’s kind of the same thing. He played basketball very well, and left people to draw their own conclusions about his game.
Touré’s text ‘Who’s Afraid of Post Blackness’ seems to pivot on the point that race does not exist but functions merely as a socio-political construct. It looks beyond definitions of Black, seeking to expose and nullify the banality of this argument of relying solely on race as a construct of individuality. He recalls a moment when as a student, he was ‘called out’ by a big, aggressive linebacker at a party for not being Black because he had been previously known for hanging with white kids. ‘The moment was far too painful to contemplate so I put it in a box,’ he notes. ‘But it wouldn’t leave me alone…[in] my mind it replayed like an endless loop…why was I working to define the definition of the white gaze but not working to define the definition of the Black gaze. Was I gonna define I be defined by me or not – was I gonna reject all external definitions that truly control my self image or not?’ He defines ‘Post Blackness’ as ‘…rooted in but not constrained by Blackness… We are liberated from this authenticity or some dogmatic, normative box of what it means to be Black…Part of what is called Post Blackness is locating sixties’ definitions of the word and seeking to move beyond that. I mean it really pisses people off when you remind them that Charlize Theron is African American…but when she goes to Africa she goes home…we think about Africa and its sort of a romanticized vision.’
Yearwood’s dismissal of Menace II Society as a ‘graphic depiction of the internecine nihilism that pervades a conspicuous section of black urban existence [amounting] to a deep political statement.’ This is true but not in the romanticized way Yearwood is intending. The statement is a powerful and positive one, surmised via the father figure character Mr. Butler played by Charles S. Dutton who says to the protagonist, Caine: ‘So what you going do son, you gonna fuck around out there in the streets? What are you gonna do if you stay? …Whatever changes you have to make, well just do it. Being a black man in America isn’t easy. The hunt is on and you’re the prey’ This film works within the Hollywood syntax and successfully negotiates areas of identity, manhood, sexuality, gender, economics and environment which plague not only black communities but black psyches across the Diaspora. It seems more representative of film that Diawara writes ‘…misreads and improves upon Hollywood logic, is a powerful metaphor for the way in which African Americans survived and continue to within a hostile economic and racist environment.’
Yearwood says, ‘Films that empower the black community refuse to reproduce the Hollywood’s cinematic grammar and syntax. They use the camera not as a simple servant of the film’s narrative development, but to reformulate the question of cinema as a mode of writing’. This seems highly contradictory to the crux of Yearwood’s definition of black cinema and keeps a myopic focus on the black filmmaker working within a specialized realm that speaks to specialized audiences. To expect black filmmakers to work within a specific set of criteria is to support and perpetuate fascist notions that bore ideas of racial division in the first place. It is also, disadvantageous to the audience, black or otherwise, who search for meaning in their own lives through the valid and sincere communication of story, which leaves them informed, engaged and entertained.
Yearwood, Gladstone, Chapter 3. Theorising Black Film. Black Film as a Signifying Practice (Africa World Press: Miami 1999)
Stam, Robert. Part XIII. Introduction: The Politics of Post-Modernism. Film Theory and Criticism (Wiley-Blackwell: London 2000)
Metz, Christian, The Imaginary Signifier. Film Theory and Criticism (Wiley-Blackwell: London 2000)
Toure, Who’s Afraid of Post-Blackness. (Free Press: New York 2011)
Diawara, Manthia, Black American Cinema: The New Realism. . Film Theory and Criticism (Wiley-Blackwell: London 2000)
Hall, Stuart, ‘Re-thinking the Base and Superstructure’ Metaphor. Cultural, Media, Language, Working Papers in Cultural Studies. (Routledge: London April 1991)