Cinemas of racial theory, theories of racial cinema

At the end of this semester, I was given the assignment to read a recent book of film scholarship and write about its applicability in a course called “Foundations of Film and Media.” Some background information is warranted: I was “suggested” to take these class by the instructor, with whom I had met when visiting Yale, and with whom I had hoped to work on Francophone African cinema. The course read to me as the title suggested: the “foundations” of studying film as an object of study. Yet, I did not know that I was signing up for a class which would be so profoundly focused on theories of cinema, a theoretical canon I would learn to somewhat despise before the semester’s end. This is not at all to the discredit of Professor Andrew, who taught the class, or film theorists in general, so much as it was me becoming aware of what it is that film scholars do and what  it was that I believed that they did. My work with film is markedly literary and thematic. I am more concerned with the content of film than I am with its shape and texture; I want to know what film says and how we make sense of what it says within larger epistemologies of meaning-making, society and stigma. As I discovered that the class was, in fact, not on these ideas, I became somewhat disenchanted. This “review” responds to the given assignment, focusing on Jared Sexton’s latest book, Black Masculinity and the Cinema of Policing. Part of the prompt was the question whether the chosen book would figure appropriately on the syllabus for that class. I am sharing this review primarily because of the questions it poses not only about Sexton’s text, but also because of broader conceptual issues in film theory as an academic discipline at times ambivalent or perhaps even hostile to questions of race and representation. Yet, Sexton’s book, as I argue, is unaware of how to integrate film theory into a broader reading of cultural and social ideas in films, for form, it seems, does little to isolate these ideas for the cultural studies scholar. This only outlines the opposite of this fact, that social criticism and exegesis remain domains outside of the purview of the film theorist who deals with film as an allegedly “universal” language which, weirdly enough, contains no social significance.

Jared Sexton, Black Masculinity and the Cinema of Policing, Palgrave Macmillan, 2017

From the start, Jared Sexton’s book Black Masculinity and the Cinema of Policing presents itself as a testament to the cultural studies frameworks through which the literary/art historical traditions of film studies are adjoined to  the sociological and theoretical field of Black masculinity studies. The book’s preface lays a rich foundation through which the film’s central questions on the continued unfreedom of Black men as represented in American Hollywood cinema can be adequately examined. Sexton is not coy about his interrogation of the “historical periodization” of the Civil Rights era as a combined effort by neoliberal and neoconservative wings of the All-American institution of whiteness, outlining that the very notion of the Civil Rights Movement as a singular event in American history as opposed to an ongoing battle for a total and unquestionable emancipation is not only ahistorical, but also antiblack (Sexton viii). The inauguration of Barack Obama as the forty-fourth President of the United States, Sexton writes, intimates to the ideological state apparatus that is whiteness that racism has finally ended, the legacies of slavery finally having come to a close through the ascendancy of a Black man to the highest office in the United States. This seminal moment in American history is nevertheless one blip in a history of racist reorientations of American social, economic and legal politics, the effects of which are mineralized in the cinema of the 2000s. Black Masculinity is, from the jump, trenchant, unyielding, and comprehensive in its desire to situate film in larger discussions which film criticism alone is not wont to accomplish from a purely formal perspective. In so doing, Black Masculinity does not read as film theory, primarily because the composition, philosophy and general theorizations of film as material texts are vastly absent from Sexton’s work. The reason for this is likely due to the fact that such a formal or material analysis of films is not exceptionally fit for understanding film’s relationship to representation, and through that, the film industry’s architecture of racial and racist images. In that regard, Black Masculinity is a marked departure from more formal approaches to film as media, although it is not at all a text which is undeserving of attention from film scholars. On the contrary, I believe the questions Sexton raises as a cultural theorist are exceptionally important to film scholars more interested in form, for what is missing (and importantly so) from Sexton’s work can perhaps be better addressed by such a scholar in the same ways that Sexton’s work lends itself well to more formal critiques of the study of representation.

From this introduction, my paper seems quite laudatory of Sexton’s work. While the book is quite good, offering a lot of interesting takes of popular films typically understood as containing, perhaps, embedded racialized ideologies the likes of which can be detected but, perhaps, never adequately broached from the perspective of the spectator, the project is nevertheless far too ambitious and overarching in its scope. The best chapter is the preface, in which Sexton (rather glibly) refers to Barack Obama as the perfect slave. The chapter is not meant to be inflammatory, although its casual dismissal of Obama’s pointed-albeit-flawed policies responding to antiblack state violence warrants the immediate reprobation one is likely to feel. The chapter outlines many of the problematiques that Black Masculinities attempts to address by arguing that the “cinema of policing” is a concept beyond the scope of juridical and legal proceedings which continually and unfailingly forsake Black people in general and Black men in particular, but that the very idea of “policing” is a notion which fundamentally escapes the domain of the juridical insofar that the viewer is inculcated into the spectacles by which Black masculinity is reined in and mediated through “the culture industry.” The society of spectacular images which is Hollywood cinema serves as a site for social discourse on the Black subject in the same way that Capitol Hill and the White House do, ideas Sexton aptly borrows from Louis Althusser. This much Black Masculinity accomplishes: the texts selected offer ways of understanding the Black masculine condition as the product of inherent social, economic and political scrutiny, the likes of which is materialized, rather confusingly, in the word “policing.” This is perhaps the most propitious term, given the slurry of cases of police brutality and antiblack violence surfacing every other week in mainstream media, although this reliance on kairos misleads the reader, who, upon reading the subtitle and the opening preface, is likely to believe the book will deal almost entirely with representations of police violence and/or police engagement with Black men. The book does not do this at all, to Sexton’s fault. Chapter One deals with the history of the buddy cop genre of Hollywood films and the means by which the racial pairings of Black and white male cops as an attempt at racial reconciliation and fraternity often fall flat due to the very issues of institutionalized and embodied racism these films as neoliberal constructs could never address. The question of policing in this chapter only figures vaguely in the allusion to cop films; how the Black masculine subject is policed, or what policing means within the specific valence of its repeated use, is never revealed. The next three chapters deal with the question of Black men’s role in sports, and the cinematic representation of feel-good sports films which treat the troubled history of segregation and sports through the light of Black masculinity. Blackness’s nonbelonging is underwritten by the necessity to detect and root it out, particular in arenas of sport where the expectation and the result is always that the innate Black body always triumphs over the meek albeit trained White body, that the fear of Black masculinity in sports is really the acknowledgement of an unspeakable White physical inferiority, the likes of which Eldridge Cleaver mythologizes in Soul on Ice. The “policing” in question here is the necessity to circumvent what is understood to be a biological problem in a racist political economy. Chapter Five is not even on film, but on television shows which deal with representations of Black adoption by white families, and continues the questions of the savior complex intimated, but only vaguely addressed, in Chapter Four on The Blind Side. Chapter Seven, ending the book focuses on two films broaching Black queer masculinities, and is the only chapter to focus on the means by which non-men figure within a Black masculine epistemology.

Sexton’s reading of Training Day is perhaps the text’s richest intervention. All else pales in comparison to this chapter.

Policing for Sexton is a concept which escapes clear definition, for the general connotation of that word, I would argue, is fundamentally related to the actual presence of policing bodies of law enforcement, and the interpellated subject-citizens which act on their behalf. Policing requires surveillance, for cinema’s primary means of representation is visual, and thus the question of race in cinema is nearly always bound to the semiotics and hermeneutical systems which encode racial information. These ideas, through this understanding of policing, is mostly absent. To Sexton’s credit, the project’s purpose is to establish a means of decoding Black images in the American eye, primarily films produced by major production companies or directed by prominent directors. These films likely play some role in the pedagogical and social understanding of race insofar that these films offer perhaps the only representations of Black people to a vastly segregated American public. Unpacking these films through an analysis of their racial discourses is, of course, useful to anyone who studies cultural studies and the histories/theories of race, but the text does not necessarily lend itself to an incredibly rich film criticism (for Sexton refuses a formal approach to the films, giving more or less a study of their plots and the politics therein) nor does the text offer any overarching ideas with which the reader can extend the project in their own work. As mentioned before, the absence of an introduction really undermines the work, for it forces the reader to adapt to Sexton’s ideas as they change and mutate throughout the book.

Yet, four or five chapters in, it becomes apparent that there isn’t much of an overarching idea in the book, other than, perhaps, the figure of the Black man as an object of an ill-defined polity of policing. And perhaps this is all the book really needs. Despite having existed since, at least the 1940s, Black Studies as a discipline has had a difficult time dealing with the intersection between cinema studies, a field whose seeming preoccupation with form has in ways scared away African-Americanists concerned with representation (cultural studies), and gender studies, a discipline which often functions to critique masculinity as the archetypical gender role for which the feminine, the genderfluid and the ungendered/genderless serve as the former’s negative. Sexton’s book is one of several interventions into this lacuna of scholarship, up there with Keith M. Harris’s Boys, boyz, bois: an ethics of Black masculinity in film and popular media (2006) and Daniel O’Brien’s Black Masculinity on Film (2017). This may be due to the troubled position which any text on masculinity has within the greater body of gender critique, the likes of which is at times rather hostile to a masculinity which Sexton does not openly critique. The question of masculinity’s entire shortcomings is never broached, despite many of the films depicted, especially the sports films, engaging a gendered politic of masculine self-sufficiency which is only compounded by the racial otherness of the characters discussed. Black Masculinity does not offer any specific critique or outline of masculinity at all, other than simply attaching the masculine – somewhat erroneously – to the Black male subject as his inherent condition.

A good book to read in tandem with Black Masculinity is Nicole Fleetwood’s On Racial Icons, for Fleetwood engages the political economies of blackness and masculinity from a perspective which sufficiently grounds a critique of Black visual culture within a larger framework of American racial visibility and cultural iconography. Fleetwood is not offering a critique of film as Sexton is, but nevertheless is interested in the same overarching questions of the social hermeneutics of images of the Black body and the means by which these images are reterritorialized by a system of insurgent and resurgent gazes.

A scene from Coach Carter, one of the films that Sexton treats in his sweeping overview of the ways by which cinema creates the conditions for policing and reinscribing the Black masculine.

As it relates to our class, Black Masculinity does not immediately seem a good fit for the hardcore film theorist. The book is, for one, more interested in the political economy of race than it is with the theory of cinema images which transmit said economies, and therefore would be out of place in a course so invested in the history of film theory and scholarship. Yet, this is perhaps why a text like Black Masculinity is so important to the film theorist, primarily because the theorist is often far too invested in the objective realities of cinema consumption and watching than he (and it typically is a cisman) is with thinking about the social significance (encoding / decoding -> Stuart Hall) of these images. The question can be asked “are film studies purely formal and material in scope?” or, as Professor Dudley Andrew chided in the course for which this paper was written, must all questions of the social implications remain bound to the social scientific side of cinema, what is called today “Communications?” The field of cultural studies remains adjacent to film studies, primarily because cultural scholars are less concerned with how “films work” as much as they ask questions about “what film means?” Both questions deserve proper attention, but are perhaps incompatible with the circumscribed discipline known as film theory.

Whether Black Masculinity should figure on the syllabus for “Foundations of Film and Media,” a class, you may have guessed, is really about film theory, and not film criticism, is therefore a question which warrants a quick, hasty response: “no.” Without adequately screening these films which, with the exception of Moonlight, have not significantly shifted cinema aesthetics or politics, it is unlikely that grad students in our class will be able to make sense of the pointed critiques and readings Sexton offers. At the same time, the text does not lend itself to a larger critique of film or cinema spectatorship, for the very ideas of policing, masculinity or really even Blackness remain effuse and open to reader interpretation. Given that the writings of Stuart Hall or Manthia Diawara offer more appropriable ideas about Black/African representations, I would point you elsewhere if the lacuna in the syllabus suggests a book which deals more closely with cinema’s social dimension. This book would make more sense as a reading or central text on a course dealing precisely with the issues at hand; Black manhood(s) on screen, tracing many of the pivotal films which figure in Black Masculinity. Specific readings could be assigned alongside movies taught for various classes – the essay on Antoine Fuqua’s Training Day is quite good, and would serve well to frame that film, but lends itself rather ineffectively to any other film outside of the specific genre (the buddy cop film) being discussed. The book would also figure well on the syllabus of a course on the general issue of racial representations in American cinema. I underline American here primarily because the idea of Blackness in Black Masculinity is a markedly Americanocentric one; while the histories of the slave trade from which Blackness emerged where transnational and transcontinental, the histories of slavery, emancipation and persistent unfreedom which contextualize Blackness in the United States make it somewhat distinct from what is experience in Britain, in France, or even in Canada. Although the name African-American Masculinity is perhaps unnecessarily reductive, the book’s focus on blackness writ large as a US social formation lends it more adequately a project focusing either on African-American cinema or the general economy of race and visual culture in American media.

Section from Friday Night Lights., a text which Sexton reads for a hidden racial discourse on the Black male subject as a cinema production.

Black Masculinity and the Cinema of Policing is Sexton’s second book, and originally grew from an essay with the same name that was published in the March 2009 edition of American Quarterly. It originally evolved from Chapter One on Training Day, the only film to deal directly with the actual police for which the term “policing” holds its multiple significations. And in many ways, Chapter One, “Chaos and Opportunity,” seems to stand on its own, independent of the other, somewhat derivative chapters which follow it. The article remains, perhaps, more useful to someone interested in the specific epistemological histories of Black masculinity and the police/policing, the book seeming only to carry the fervor which that article itself induced in a reading public somewhat starved of generative research on Black masculine representations in cinema. Whether the book can bear those expectations is a question I cannot answer here, primarily because any critique I pass on Black Masculinity’s methodologies is ultimately a critique of my own scholarship. I have found this course frustrating primarily because it has made me aware of how little I think about form and materiality in approaching cinema. Considering that I am far more interested in what cinema communicates to us (and how we make sense of communicated information), I have found the relative absence of hermeneutical texts on social identity somewhat disheartening, although this was, perhaps, not the aim of the course to begin with. Black Masculinity is in many ways a book I’d like to write, although I would write it differently, as I have intimated throughout this essay. This is not to say that the book is bad and therefore unteachable; it’s to say that the book is only useful to people who study the concepts the book addresses, something, I’ve discovered, many film theorists, at least at Yale, do not.

Sexton, Jared. “Black Masculinity and the Cinema of Policing.” Springer EBooks, 2017. orbis.library.yale.edu Library Catalog, http://dx.doi.org/10.1007/978-3-319-66170-4.

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