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.
The opening sequence of Melvin Van Peebles’ cinematic classic sets the tone for one of the rare films in American history to treat the social (non)role of Black men from so comprehensive a light. The entire film could be considered from one perspective a spectacular representation of the plight of African-American men as a perpetual object of desire and disdain. Sweetback’s very name is the product of his first encounter with non-being; rape enacted on his young body, the name Sweetback clinging to him as an ironic reminder of his objectification. That name Sweetback, is itself a codename for other ghastly icons which haunt the American imagination, such as the mandingo, and its significance as a moniker is only emboldened by the role it plays at dissembling Sweetback’s robbed identity. Later in the film, we are introduced to “Sweetback’s Mother,” and her soliloquy attaches a name to him, “Leroy,” although her memory of her children has faded due to their constant dispossession. This leads her to repeat the same phrases over and over again, “I may have had a Leroy once, but I don’t right remember.” Her testimony is similar to the testimonies of many enslaved women whose children had been sold far away; unable to really attach to their children because of their impending dispossession, the women dissociate from motherhood in general, thus continuing the mechanical and economical process of reproducing slaves. The imagery of slavery in the film in many ways circle around these very notions of dispossession and flight, both of which are fundamentally related to the notion of fugitivity.
On the inherent misogyny and racism in heterosexual internet porn consumption
One of the most interesting conversations I come across in academic circles is the thin line between the erotic and the pornographic. Whether we’re talking about Audre Lorde’s seminal essay “Uses of the Erotic” or we’re analyzing the often over-looked pear-tree/masturbation scene in Zora Neale Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God or the scandalous and somewhat explicit carriage sex scene in Flaubert’s Madame Bovary, the relationship between the explicit utilization of human sexuality for artistic expression and the commodification of the human body for sexual exploration lies on the frontier of a greater conversation of the relationship between consumers and the worlds which their texts seek to reproduce. Issues of sex, having become only in the 20th century somewhat normalized to the point of being even considered for discussion in academic circles, still remain somewhat relegated to intellectual niches because of the ways we are socialized to shrink from such conversations. We talk vividly about our sexual encounters with one another in private, but in the professionalized space of the seminar room, conversations on the implications of sexuality and sexual expression are often considered inappropriate.
Yet, there is so much to be discussed in this area, in particular in the area of media and cultural studies. Through the globalizing media of television, film and the Internet, sexuality is becoming more and more a part of our everyday lives, our happenstance conversations in passing, the ways by which we judge our character and self-worth as individuals. We are becoming increasingly cognizant of the impacts of sexual violence and harassment, are having more and more conversations on the implications of sexual advances on those who do not or cannot offer their consent, and are all around growing towards dispelling a general theme at the heart of the heterosexual experience – the male domination of women.
Digital memory, masculinity and control in Black Mirror S1E3: “The Entire History of You”
A few days I started rewatching what is, in my opinion, one of the best, most thought-provoking shows on television, Black Mirror. You can catch all seven episodes of it on Netflix, and I really do recommend it if you’re a fan of shows like the Twilight Zone or Twin Peaks. The show uses technological advances to explain the darker parts of the human condition and does a great job of asking those huge questions about selfhood, memory, love and human sympathy. Wanting to sort of create new content for this blog and speak less about the sort of heady, large, ideological topics which I find in my studies, I decided to analyze one of my favorite episodes.
What you see is not always what you get. This is news to no one, so why is still such a problem?
The past few days I’ve been watching my sister’s show The Grapevine. It’s a one-of-a-kind program, offering a round-table discussion by Black millennials on popular issues in our society today. The topics vary from episode, and the panelists are as varied in their opinions as you can get. I do recommend that people watch the show, not only as a shameless plug for my sister and her production team, but also because shows like this, produced by and directed by Black people – especially Black women (!) – are important for future generations to see. Shows like this demonstrate that Black people are capable and quite willing to comment on popular culture, that it is okay to harbor opinions on the world around you, even if these opinions are unpopular, so long as you are willing to engage in a dialogue. There is only good which can come from unlike-minded people meeting together to discuss issues, coming to the table, hopefully, with the understanding that no opinion is completely right or completely wrong.
What I am going to talk about today will likely be the first of a long string of threads, spread out over time as I get my thoughts together on the messy topic of gender expression in general and masculinity / masculine culture in particular. This thread has as its impetus an episode of the Grapevine on Caitlin Jenner and the issue of transgender dating. The cast was somewhat split on the issue of when a transwoman should “reveal” their transness. One of the cast members – a cisgender man – found the idea of someone “masquerading” as someone else to be inherently offensive, especially someone whom the man found initially attractive.