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The Hollywood Stylings of Harriet Tubman

3 Nov

This Friday, a couple friends and I went to see the opening night of Harriet, the new movie about one of the most iconic and celebrated abolitionists, Harriet Tubman. It has received many positive reviews, including the New Yorker and Vanity Fair, many of which point out that it’s not just a film about slavery but a film that also reflects on Tubman’s inner life, her romantic self-hood, her powerful relationship to her family, and gender roles. Indeed, signalling the centrality of such themes, the movie opens with Tubman having one of her sleeping spells that give her powerful visions, after which her family comes to get her so that they can present a legal petition for their freedom to their owner, which is of course rejected.  This scene is followed by a tender scene with her husband, as they think together about how to achieve freedom. Most of the movie then proceeds to tell the story of Tubman’s rise to heroic status, where her famously peculiar “spells” are not a disability for her adventures but give her something of a “super-ability” to predict the future and evade the dogs of slave catchers in action-packed chase sequences where she narrowly escapes or bravely confronts her pursuers. As we exited the theater, I  exclaimed to my friends that Tubman is a Jedi master, and awesomely so, but, as I discovered later on the internet, my humorous analogy is not actually that far off from the intention of the writers, directors, and actors who, in interviews, have compared her to super-heroes like Spider-Man and her “spells” to a “Spidey-sense.”

Although all of the usual media outlets are busy celebrating this movie as the first movie about Harriet Tubman, prefacing their praise with wonder why there hasn’t been any other movies made about her before now, it might be worthwhile to keep in mind that when magazine, newspaper, and TV reviewers (mostly white people) say, “oh, this is the first time there’s been a film about X or Y black subject,” what they often really mean is that it’s the first time for them. We can recall when reviewers were so excited about 12 Years a Slave being THE first movie to represent the horror of slavery, not noticing that exactly the same story (adapting the 1854 book by Solomon Northup) had been made before for PBS by the famous African-American director Gordan Parks in 1984 — all of which I wrote about back then on this blog [here]. It’s a bit like the statement that Columbus discovered America without noticing that there were people already there. So, the afternoon before we went to see the movie, I took a trip to the Lincoln Center branch of the New York Public Library and watched “Harriet Tubman and the Underground Railroad” directed by Paul Stanley, starring the sensational Ruby Dee as Tubman alongside Ossie Davies and Brock Peters, broadcast on CBS in 1965. Remarkably like the new feature-length movie, the old 1965 dramatization for television also focuses on Tubman’s inner life and family — precisely the things the new 2019 version is being praised for — this older 1965 version perhaps drawing inspiration from the Y.A. biography of her published in 1955 by the famous writer Ann Petry (thanks and shout outs to my friend Miles for teaching me about that work.) Conveniently for you, you don’t also have to go to the special research branch of the New York library, but can watch it here on YouTube.

My point in bringing up this previous version is not to say that there’s nothing new about the new one. Because there is a lot new about the new one, and the acting, cinematography, and story-telling in the new one are all quite excellent, the way that Hollywood movies are so often technically excellent with their large budgets and resources. And the new one even offers us something very exciting, as I hope you will see in my concluding paragraph to my blog post. Rather, my point is to suggest that we can read Harriet in the context of all of the other movies about slavery that your average critic for whatever magazine, newspaper, or TV show will not bring up, because they probably haven’t seen them. For instance, another recent example of Tubman on the screen (that I haven’t seen mentioned in reviews of Harriet, surprisingly) would include episode six, season two of the show Underground, which aired in April 2017 and which was a truly remarkable piece of television since the entire episode was a single monologue by Tubman that inventively wove the issues of 1850s with the issue of the Trump-era today. Whatever it is you think you’ve seen on TV before, trust me, you’ve never seen anything like this — a 45 minute monologue ripping white America apart and declaring war by any means necessary on the institution of slavery by an iconic Tubman, all in a single camera take. But in addition to all of the innovative new television and film about slavery coming out in recent years (e.g., the movie Belle that I wrote about for this blog in 2013), there is also a long history of efforts by black and white writers and directors to dramatize for the screen the horrors of slavery and the awesome resilience of enslaved peoples, that I have been researching and first published an account of in my chapter on “Cinematic Slavery” in the book The Cinematic Eighteenth Century, published in 2017.

What struck me about Harriet was not its uniqueness, but precisely how it did exactly what one would expect it to do (if you had read my chapter on cinematic slavery, wink wink), considering Hollywood conventions about dramatizing slavery and how the genre of cinematic slavery has evolved over time in dialogue with the Marxism, Civil Rights Movement, and Pan-Africanism that blossomed in the 1960s as well as the Black Lives Matter and MeToo movements more recently.

So, I want to compare Harriet to some of these other films just to indicate what a story could be, in contrast to the way that Hollywood does it.

First, what do I mean by the Hollywood style. Put simply, the Hollywood style requires a rearrangement of history to maximize the individual heroism of the subject. As a summary by Slate and another summary by the Smithsonian of all the historical inaccuracies in the film suggests, the movie focuses on her exceptional super-abilities and unique heroism. For example, in the movie version, even the Fugitive Slave Act seems to have been passed because the South was frightened of Tubman’s ability to free slaves, when in fact, the passage of this law happened before she had freed more than a few. In Hollywood, all history is rearranged around the exceptional heroism of the main character in order to magnify their uniqueness and historical significance, making heroism the causal factor in the unfolding of history. In the movie, Tubman is able to accomplish all that she accomplishes because God speaks to her and because of her strength of will. Ironically, in a film presumably about the Underground Railroad, the role of the Underground Railroad is sometimes minimized — the vast network pops up here and there as a resource for Tubman, but for the most part the movie characterizes Tubman as someone who defies the Underground organization and instead accomplishes everything by herself — alone — rather than as part of a political network.

Some of the historical inaccuracies are telling about how Hollywood carefully aims to avoid offending white audiences, so, for example, her white former master (a character invented for the screen and not based in history) is given perhaps more screen time than almost any other character (more screen time than Janelle Monae’s character, whom I think we’d all much rather see, and more screen time than the iconic Frederick Douglass, who had scarcely a line); repeatedly, the audience is subject to this white man’s tortured feelings for her because of their childhood relationship, tortured feelings that for no apparent reason are made to seem… um… relevant?…Blah. We saw this before in the movie Belle about a biracial heroine whose black mother was taken out of the original script to be replaced by the producers with a incredibly sensitive white father… Gah. Also historically impossible would be the presence in the movie of gun-toting black men working as slave catchers below the Mason Dixon line; but in fact, the law prohibiting black people from owning guns was one of the very first laws passed in the British colonies of North America. Another curious detail is how a black church in Maryland occupies a special place on the Underground Railroad, a historical improbability since black ministers were not allowed to have their own churches at this time. All of these details serve to appeal to a white, middle-class viewing audience who want to see that there was some black-on-black violence, not just white-on-black violence, and that although the church may have been a bit imperfect at times, it was mostly for the good of us all, and that white people could be very conflicted emotionally about slavery, boohoo. Sorry, not sorry, for my sarcasm.

But most importantly for me is the issue of whether Harriet is some kind of exceptional super-hero accomplishing incredible feats on her own or part of a larger political movement and complex social network. This is a more complicated question that, I think, requires us to situate the new movie in cinema history. Certainly the real Tubman was exceptional and incredible, I don’t mean to express doubt about that, but also just as certainly, she was part of a broad social movement and sophisticated political organization.

So, how might a Pan-African filmmaker tell the story of Tubman? Pan-African films such as Sankofa by Haile Gerima, Ceddo by Ousmane Sembene, and Black Goddess by Ola Balugun (which I’ve written about [here] in another blog) tend to focus on the support systems and deep cultural resources of the black community. One of the key differences between a Hollywood film and a Pan-African film would be the characterization of religion. So, while in the Hollywood Harriet, the Christian church is an ally for her escape, in the Pan-African Sankofa it is African spirituality and culture that is the ally, while the church is what betrays the rebellion. Likewise, Marxist cinema such as the classics Burn! by Pontecorvo and Last Supper by Alea paint the church as a hypocritical institution. It is probably worth mentioning that Harriet Tubman’s fellow abolitionists in the 1850s, Fredrick Douglass and Martin Delany, were closer to the Marxist viewpoint in their own direct analysis of the problematic double-role of the church as on the one hand serving the interest of the power structure while on the other hand preaching salvation to the slave. It is to the credit of the movie Harriet that it subtly indicates the complicated position of the church in relation to slavery. Historically, both scenarios were possible — sometimes the church was a resource for slaves, but other times it was the church that served as a source of intelligence for the white master in order to maintain control of his slaves through soft, indirect ways that supplemented the raw brutality of domination. Hollywood movies, including Harriet, tend to lean far in one direction in its representation, while Pan-Africanist and Marxist cinema tend to lean far in the other direction. Moreover, what Marxist and Pan-African cinema will emphasize instead of the heroic individual is the heroic community struggling to maintain solidarity and a unified voice. One might guess why Hollywood would shy away from the kinds of stories preferred by Pan-Africanists and Marxists, since the story of an empowered community of black people in mass revolt is a whole lot more scary to the white establishment than the story of an exceptional individual with superpowers constantly in a state of anxious flight.

I mention these other films not to say that Harriet is bad, because I do really think it’s good, but just to remind viewers that other stories are possible. Speaking for myself, I rather enjoyed watching a superhero Tubman, constantly in motion, as if running to the theme song from Chariots of Fire. But my point is that you wouldn’t know that other stories are possible if you only watch Hollywood stuff and read the reviews in American media. You also won’t really appreciate what is unique and interesting about Harriet.

What I think is actually great about Harriet is precisely the scenes with the other members of the Underground Railroad — how the many men and women work together. Although the central story of the film is Harriet the superhero, at the same time, here and there, are scenes of solidarity, cooperation, and intelligence. And this is what I think Hollywood has actually been learning from the Marxist and Pan-Africanist cinema of the past, now that more men and women of color are gaining positions as writers, directors, and producers in the film industry and can build upon the work of past black artists and activists to come up with a better, more innovative, and more multi-voiced vision of their art. I say this because there is no doubt that Harriet is a much better film than Stephen Spielberg’s Amistad and Michael Apted’s Amazing Grace, both of which focus on the exceptional heroism of white men on behalf of enslaved people rather than on the political solidarity and cultural resources within the black community. In addition, in many ways Harriet is a much better movie than Ruby Dee and Ossie Davis’s 1965 production, not just because it has a bigger budget and fancier cinematography, but also precisely because now black writers and directors can imagine (and not be prohibited from imagining by the production companies) such complicated political networks and cultural forms of solidarity, while the 1965 film was limited to dramatizing Tubman’s relationship to her family. I think we can appreciate Harriet in the context of cinema history as so many young and amazing artists, writers, and directors, now more of them women of color than ever, are able to lend their artistic vision to how the past informs our movement into the future.

Go see it for yourself, and then please comment on my blog if you think I’m wrong or have missed something important. Moreover, now that the American media industry is congratulating itself on finally making a movie about Harriet Tubman to prepare the way for her face on the 20-dollar bill, can they get to work on making movies about Frederick Douglass, W.E.B. Du Bois, Sojourner Truth, Ida B. Wells…?

 

Alternative Black Superhero Movies for 2019: Supa Modo and Fast Color

4 Jun

One of the things I love about living in New York is its annual African Film Festival, hosted by the Brooklyn Academy of Music, Lincoln Center, and Maysles Cinema every year in May. One of the many movies that I enjoyed this year was a new Kenyan film directed by Likarian Wainaina: Supa Modo, a heartwarming story about a young girl named Jo with an incurable disease and only a month to live who loves superhero comics and movies. After Jo’s sister and mother argue with each other about whether to indulge her fantasy about having super powers during the final weeks of her life, the town ultimately comes together to make their own superhero movie with Jo in the starring role. It is a film not just about the importance of fantasy and story-telling in our lives, but also about how communities come together around stories. In a sense, the real superhero for the town ends up being the town itself.

At a moment in time when the Marvel and DC comic book universes are churning out productions each costing more than $300 million apiece, such as the never-ending Avengers series, what is also remarkable about Supa Modo is its showing us the joy of low-budget film-making. And it reminded me of another low-budget black superhero movie I saw a month earlier, Fast Color, directed by Julia Hart, about a young woman with a troubled past who can’t control her super powers in a post-apocalyptic, rural American landscape suffering from drought, where water has become the most precious commodity. It alludes to the deep inter-generational knowledge passed from mother to daughter as the family tries to evade those who want to appropriate and weaponize her super powers. It dramatizes the ways in which a “super ability” can also be experienced by the individual who has it as a “disability.” What both of these films offer is an alternative kind of black superhero, not one in which high-tech special effects unleash seemingly unlimited destruction, but one in which both fantasy and human community can play a hopeful and creative role in positively transforming the mundane realities of ordinary suffering and a character’s inner psychology.

And so I wanted to write about these two movies (and encourage everyone to see them) in the context of the most well-known black superhero movie. You know what I’m talking about. Unless you live under a rock, you remember how in February last year (2018), you and probably everyone you knew was going to see the Black Panther movie, not just once, but twice, or maybe even three times. It broke box office records worldwide. And if you happen to live in a culturally diverse city such as New York (like I do), it was also a cultural event, where people dressed up to go see it, and I don’t just mean “dressed up” like they put on a nice shirt and slacks or a pretty dress. I mean they dressed up to represent — perhaps representing their heritage or perhaps styling themselves towards a futuristic aspiration, blending a little sci-fi with that heritage. My wife proudly donned the traditional clothes of the Wollega region of her own Oromo people in Ethiopia when we went to go see it. And you may also remember how, in March of that year, complete strangers on the street or colleagues at work gave you the Wakanda Forever salute, crossed arms across their chest. It was a moment of black pride, the first blockbuster movie with an African superhero presenting a positive image of Africa — a futuristic image of an alternative African history, imagining perhaps what Africa might have been all along on the silver screen had it not been colonized and had not the racist stereotypes of that continent so thoroughly saturated global popular culture. Meanwhile, across Africa, moviegoers from Accra and Lagos to Nairobi and Addis Ababa debated how the movie had appropriated or represented aspects of their ethnic groups or cultural histories.

What I remember thinking back then, however, is that this Hollywood movie about Africa might once again so overwhelm the market that, ironically, it would make it even harder for the local film industries in African countries to compete with Hollywood’s hegemony. If you think back to ten or twenty years ago, local industries across the continent from Nigeria and Cote I’voire to Kenya and Ethiopia had finally started to emerge and develop a solid audience base. The movie industry that I participate in, and have written about, is Ethiopia’s, which produced only a handful of movies back in 2005 but was producing roughly 100 movies per year by the time Black Panther hit the scene. The movie theaters in Addis Ababa that two decades ago showed mostly Hollywood and Bollywood movies were now showing almost exclusively locally produced movies when I lived there and taught in the new masters program in film at Addis Ababa University in 2016. One of the big selling points of local black cinema is that it actually features characters and tells stories that resemble their audiences. It expresses not only their culture, but often, as in the case of Supa Modo — which is a movie about our relationship to movies — also expresses the positionality of their local culture (i.e., Kenyan or Ethiopian movies) in relation to the hegemony of the more dominant global culture (Hollywood movies). All the hype about Black Panther being this amazing representation of Africa would, I feared, not encourage people to take real African cinema seriously but might even distract African viewing publics from watching their own cinema.

After all, we can think of other African superhero movies or what is sometimes referred to as “Afrofuturism.” Afofuturism has a long history. For example, Yeelen, directed by Souleyman Cisse from Mali in 1987, ranks highly as a classic of world cinema. It was, in my view, unfortunate that all the mainstream American media hype about the achievement of Black Panther didn’t recommend Americans to also go watch Yeelen. Based on a Bambara epic about a conflict between father and son over the future of their people, its “universal” mythological structure in some ways resembles Star Wars, as this video mash-up of scenes from Yeelen overlaid with the music from Star Wars suggests.

 

As much as I enjoyed Black Panther (and clearly, I did, since I saw it twice in the movie theater when it came out and will definitely see it again), Supa Modo and Fast Color were emotionally more satisfying. After all, there were many aspects of Black Panther that frustrated critics. For example, many wondered, as this Boston Review article did, why the ultimate “bad guy” in a film about black solidarity was the African-American male (and not a white colonizer). The movie’s representation of the Black Panther political party and the history of black liberation struggle of the 1960s and 70s was superficial at best. At worst, it sometimes seemed that the history of Pan-African solidarity was intentionally replaced in the movie by a benevolent king whose wealth is extracted from a unique natural resource. This is a problematic notion to be sure considering the current political conflicts across Africa as factions fight for control of exactly such mineral wealth in the service of European and American multinational corporations whose industries depend on them. Considering historically the role of the American C.I.A. in overthrowing democratically elected African leaders and propping up warlords in the service of such neo-colonial corporations, it is problematic, to say the least, that in the Black Panther movie the hapless C.I.A. agent in the film (Everett Ross) is the ally of Wakanda while the orphaned descendant of the Black Panther Party (Killmonger) is its enemy. The fantasy of the movie reverses the polarities of history.

Moreover, as Gregory Pierrot has shown, in many ways the movie taps into an earlier 500-year history of European fantasy about African royalty and heroism that has always had a curiously fraught and problematic relationship to the discourse of slavery. The concept of the Black Panther was, after all, originally invented by a white guy in the context of white superheros and popular Hollywood stereotypes about Africa in the 1960s. The new comic books by Ta-Nehisi Coates — more clearly and directly than the movie — confront the inherent contradiction at the heart of the Black Panther story between cultural stereotypes of African royalty and the desire for more democratic forms of representation.

Movies such as Supa Modo and Fast Color are self-conscious of their position in relation to the Marvel Cinematic Universe, but not in a simple way. In Supa Modo, for the main character Jo, the Hollywood superheroes are not white or black. In other words, Superman does not represent the “American way” for Jo. Rather, they are what the scholarly field of semiotics calls “floating signifiers” evoking for varying contexts the fantasy of empowerment and the aspirations of our shared humanity. It is not that Jo as an individual overcomes her biological limitations by appropriating American culture. It is the African community who reflects on its values and reconsiders how it organizes itself as they come together to make their own superhero movie.  Moreover, the movie wisely evades the cheap sentimentalism of a stereotypical disabled character when Jo reveals her awareness of her sister’s attempt to indulge her fantasy life.

 

Supa Modo

Likewise, in Fast Color, the main character Ruth has spent a good part of her adult life trying to suppress and deny her super-ability through drug abuse. Her mother had also  hidden her abilities from the world for fear of how the public would treat her and the risk it would pose to her family. Here, the movie hints at the history of discrimination and oppression of black women. Meanwhile, the world around them seems to be caught in a terminal spiral of environmental decline, and this is not because of any singularly evil character. The movie is not a simplistic and shallow fight between good and evil where the complicated troubles of humanity are displaced onto a monstrous individual. The real “enemy” in the background of this film is climate change. And the solution, it seems, is the hidden wisdom possessed by black women.

fast color image

And this hidden wisdom neither is a fantasy nor is it hidden. We should recall the very real philosophy and environmental feminist activism of Wangari Mathai in Kenya, the leader of the Greenbelt Movement and winner of the Nobel Peace prize. And considering the Greenbelt Movement’s practice of planting trees and using traditional cultural forms of maintaining nature in response to the social problems caused by deforestation, we might enjoy another “Afrofuturist” short film that I first experienced at the New York African Film Festival several years ago, “Pumzi” (directed by Wanuri Kahiu) about the role of imagination to confront deforestation and climate change.

Reflections on Genre and the Cinematic Eighteenth Century

22 Dec

In this blog post I’m going to try something a bit unusual and think critically about my own work. A few months ago, my colleague Srividhya Swaminathan and I published a collection of essays that we co-edited together entitled The Cinematic Eighteenth Century: History, Culture, and Adaptation for Routledge. The book includes eleven essays on various topics including one by my co-editor and one by me. Some of the ideas for my essay, “Cinematic Slavery and the Romance of Belle” were actually first expressed in this blog — in the three reviews I did of the movies Lincoln, 12 Years a Slave. and Belle. After writing those reviews and after receiving some positive feedback from colleagues, I was inspired to go do more thorough research on the topic, audit a class on African Cinema at NYU, and teach an undergraduate class on it… and voilà.

Here’s what I think our book does that’s groundbreaking. We put together some terrific essays by brilliant scholars, and one could read each one individually, but I think reading them all together is the real pay-off, because then you get a sense of the rich diversity of the eighteenth century and how different issues connect. As the chapter by Jodi L Wyett aptly demonstrates, adaptations of Jane Austen novels such as Sense and Sensibility are remarkably varied in how they represent gender relations. But I think we might also think about gender and feminist ideas in terms of other issues such as piracy or slavery or the Declaration of Independence. Of course, Jane Austen would have been aware of all those other issues also, so our hope is that after reading our book one will take away richer sense of the interconnections among these different subjects and a fuller appreciation for real potential of the eighteenth century for film and for popular culture today. An essay by Ula Lukszo Klein tackle subjects such as homosexuality in movies such as The Duchess; essays by Dorothée Polanz and Elizabeth Kraft give a historical view of the centuries of commodification of the celebrity figures Marie Antoinette and Charles II; and Jennifer Preston Wilson analyzes how the camera techniques depict the mental illness and treatment of King George III. My own essay looks at the movie Belle, which is a film that takes the plot structure and setting of a Jane Austen novel, inserts a bi-racial heroine, and brilliantly uses that form to narrate complicated debates about the insurance industry’s relationship to slavery.

Other essays in the book do interesting things with genre. In a lot of scholarship, adaptations of novels to the screen are analyzed in one place while historical period dramas are analyzed in another place. But although scholars may categorize movies this way, I don’t think people who go to theaters always think like that. My colleague Srividhya Swaminathan’s essay on pirates theorizes the concept of the “transcoded mosaic” to show how the new TV shows Crossbones and Black Sails actually mix and mash together a little adaptation here, a little historical fiction there, with a lot of inventive storytelling to add more diversity to the characters. The chapter by Kyle Pivetti looks at how a sci-fi movie The Martian adapts Robinson Crusoe to twenty-first century economic ideologies; the chapter by Courtney Hoffman analyzes how the TV show Outlander uses time travel to prompt critical reflection on women’s history. Likewise, National Treasure uses the detective thriller form to portray the history of the Declaration of Independence (in highly inaccurate and politically misguided ways, of course, as the essay by Colin Ramsey in our collection explains.) And of course, lest we only think of the eighteenth century as something a bit stodgy or serious, another essay by Sarah Stein and Robert Vork shows how the TV satire Blackadder mocks the whole enterprise of making films about the eighteenth century. Point being, the different essays in our book speak to each other.

Nevertheless, since our book has been published, I’ve been thinking more about some of the issues we raise, including what the eighteenth century signifies globally in world cinema and what sorts of genres of film encode the different time periods. For example, the “pirate movie” is usually about the time period roughly 1680 to 1730 (the so-called “golden age of piracy”) while the “western” is usually about the 1860s to 1890s, and kung-fu movies are seen as having a different geography and temporality altogether. But let’s take the movie Sense and Sensibility directed by Ang Lee in 1995. This movie is usually talked about in relation to other Jane Austen adaptations. But Ang Lee’s other most famous film is a kung-fu movie (a.k.a., the Wuxia genre), Couching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (produced in 2000) one of the most successful kung-fu movies of the twenty-first century and famous for encouraging more international collaborations in an increasingly global movie industry. We might note that the setting for Sense and Sensibility is England in the 1790s, and the setting for Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon is China in 1778 — remarkably the historical moments are just a few years apart from each other, but in terms of geography and genre, they seem worlds apart. And yet, Ang Lee’s two films are not so different from each other. Both movies foreground friendship and equality against cultural expectations of marriage and class distinction.

What might it do for us to reconsider a Jane Austen adaptation in relation to other film genres and other contexts? Pride and Prejudice and Zombies was a popular hit, but we might think more globally, as one of the contributors to our collection Dorothée Polanz remarked during an eighteenth-century studies conference in Toronto this past October that a lot of Japanese manga appropriate literary and historical figures from eighteenth-century Europe for their stories.

I think there’s a lot more to say about genre in a global context than we did in our book, so I’m hoping some new scholars will come along and pick up where we left off. The thing about genre is that it always must fulfill the audience’s expectations in some way, but the formula is not actually so rigid as one might think. Truly, the delight for the audience is in the innovation — how a movie, TV show, comic book, video game, or YouTube sketch might play with those expectations and perhaps uses the conventions of one genre to shed light upon another.

I’m curious what other examples people might know of such genre-mixing that pertains to an international eighteenth century. Please feel free to comment on this blog post to share some examples and your thoughts about them.

 

The New Negress Film Society

26 Nov

Last Friday, my wife and a couple of my students went to a New Negress Film Society event at the Made-In-New-York Media Center in Brooklyn, where we saw five short films and then participated in a conversation between the directors and artists and the audience about their work. The name “New Negress” alludes to Alain Locke’s seminal book The New Negro, published in 1925, that perhaps more than any other single book defined the Harlem Renaissance as it was happening. Locke’s purpose was to overturn the prejudicial paradigm assumed by politicians, social scientists, poets, and artists who understood the “negro” as an uneducated former slave or as a “social problem.” Against this assumption, Locke’s book instead reveals the rich culture of intellectual and artistic achievement. His dialectical argument draws attention to the historical forces that transform society, most especially the migration of black people from the rural south and Caribbean to cities where they could develop a community identity and support each other’s art. No longer was art and literature created with a white audience in mind, as if the purpose of art was merely to justify black’s humanity to the white hegemony. In the 1920s, in New York, Washington D.C., Chicago, and other cities, they were creating for each other, forging a dynamic artistic culture in order to engender a new, vibrant, community whose understanding of its blackness was diverse and innovative.

New Negress Film SocietyThe New Negress Film Society creates a space where black women filmmakers can make movies for each other, rather than submit their artistic vision to the demands of a film industry dominated by the white, male gaze. As Nsenga Burton wrote in an article for TheRoot.com, and as Spike Lee suggests in his satirical movie Bamboozled, the Hollywood industry limits the potential of black actors and artists in the film industry either to absurd caricatures of black identity such as Tyler Perry’s Medea or to historical dramatizations of “social problems” usually set in the past (because the past is not so threatening to our present), such as Ava DuVernay’s recent movie Selma. Although Jacqueline Bobo has chronicled the long history of achievement in her book Black Women Film and Video Artists, I think what the New Negress Film Society does that is new is create a space where such artists can form a community that nurtures an aesthetic that truly speaks to the diversity of black women and is liberated from the burden of having to explain the black experience — as if there were only one — to the white men who dominate the industry. You can read an interview with two of the members of the New Negress Film Society and watch some of their movies [here].

One of the films that we saw, “savage” by Kumi James, is about a white teacher trying to make a difference in an urban, mostly black high school. I think everyone in America is familiar with the way that Hollywood has told this story over and over again, in which the troubled teenagers are rescued by the inspiring teacher, such as Michelle Pfiefer’s role in Dangerous Minds. Such movies pretend to be about black communities, but in actuality they repeat stereotypes of urban life as a background for affirming the heroic role of the white protagonist. The formula for such movies almost always includes a pivotal scene where the teacher shows up at the student’s house and has a transformative heart-to-heart conversation with the family. Of course, whenever I discuss such films with my students, the ridiculousness of such cinematic fantasy is quickly and easily revealed whenever I ask my students, “how would you feel if your teacher suddenly showed up at your doorstep?” The students always respond  to my question along the lines of, “ew, gross, weird, creepy.” What is brilliant about James’s movie is how it flips the script, by exposing the somewhat creepy desire behind that Hollywood fantasy. In an important scene, James reverses the standard movie plot line and has the student show up at the teacher’s house, which of course unsettles the teacher. You can watch the entire movie [on Vimeo], and below is a “teaser”:

But in addition to reversing the Hollywood gaze, films by black women filmmakers also focus inward on the complexities of daily life. The Haitian-American filmmaker and educator Stefani Saintonge focuses on the experience of teenage girls in her film “Seventh Grade,” which won an award from Essence magazine. As she remarked during the Q&A, her movie is intentionally wishful thinking — imagining how she wished she had responded to questions about sexuality and social stigma experienced she experienced as a teenager. In a way, it seems to me that the film first holds up a mirror to that experience, and then imagines a realistic response to that experience in order to provide an empowering paradigm for audiences. You can watch the whole film below:

The Ghanaian filmmaker Frances Bodomo showed her cinematically luscious film “Boneshaker” about an African family searching for a faith-healer in the wilderness of Louisiana in order to release their daughter from spiritual possession. When they get lost in the wilderness and encounter a group of white men wearing camouflage and carrying guns, one expects a moment of racist conflict, but there is none, and instead the men just give the family directions. After the family finds the church in the middle of the wilderness, the daughter stubbornly resists the faith-healer, and they leave. What the family ultimately finds instead is unexpectedly beautiful. Here is a trailer:

I’d seen Bodomo’s work before at New York’s African Film Festival in 2014 when she showed her short film “Afronauts,” which she is currently developing into a feature-length drama. Here is the trailer for “Afronauts”:

Other filmmakers created experimental films that worked through the symbolism of black identity. Ja’Tovia Gary pursued her interest in what she calls “Afrosurrealism” to explore the complexities of human psychology and black female subjectivity in her poetic film “The Ecstatic Experience.” I wasn’t able to find a clip of that film on the internet, but below I’ve included a documentary film that she did on “Cakes Da Killa” — this film a straightforward documentary, quite different than the more surrealist work she showed us at the event:

Likewise, making full use of her talents as a sound-artist, Dyani Douze collaborated with Zimbabwean graphic designer Nontsikelelo Mutiti to render a poetic sound-image “Pain Revisited” that layers recorded speech and music over a collage of artistic and journalistic imagery to meditate on black identity.

One thing I appreciated is the formal diversity in terms of their style, aesthetics, and vision as well as the diversity of what identities and backgrounds they bring: California, Texas, Louisiana, Ghana, Zimbabwe, New Jersey, and of course, my new home borough of Brooklyn. It reminded me of what I love about Brooklyn as a space where artists and writers from such different cultural locations come together to share the love and inspire each other. I look forward to future exhibitions of their work.

The Whence and Whither of Film Studies… or, is the cinema really dead?

19 Oct

Earlier this spring of 2013, the University of Pennsylvania’s Cinema Studies department hosted a conference on the supposed “death of cinema” (speculated by prominent New Yorker critics) and the “future of cinema studies.” The conference reflects a now common observation that companies specializing in the traditional medium of “film” (or the technology of the now defunct “celluloid“) have either gone out of business or shifted to digital forms — new forms that facilitate hybrid multi-media production.  In addition to changing modes of production, there are also changing modes of distribution (notably the internet) that have led to new formats, styles, viewing habits, etc. This worry about a crisis in the field due to a rapidly changing world is nothing new. In a 2004 issue of the Cinema Journal, E. Ann Kaplan noted how this crisis is not just due to changes in technology but also due to changes in the cultural framework of analysis — notably, a shift from “national cinema cultures” in which we analyze French film, German film, Italian film, etc., to global and transnational cultures in which we analyze cultural mixtures, communities marginalized from national cultures, multinational corporations, and transnational partnerships. Even more significantly, her discussion of the field and how it has been debated at venues such as the Modern Language Association convention reminds us of an earlier “crisis” in the field when the hegemony of television spurred the Society of Cinema Studies to change its name in 2002 to the Society of Cinema and Media Studies.

Since I don’t think the cinema “is really dead” (alluding to the sardonic Simon and Garfunkel lyric about the theater), I have summarized this recent speculation about its fast-approaching demise to raise a simple question about its future: whither film studies? And since I am a literary historian and theorist by training, naturally I begin by considering its past: whence film studies? Although Simon and Garfunkel’s song suggests that to speculate on the death of the theater is a pretentious question asked by two lovers struggling to have a real conversation, the death of the theater became a reality last month when the New York City Opera announced that it was closing. In the case of the academic field of film studies, one might question its relevance given the emergence of new technologies and forms of distribution that threaten to displace its centrality in the study of modern media and culture. Or, more sensibly, one might more simply admit that all things change and begin to work through the challenges that we face as scholars, teachers, and practitioners as we imagine its future.

Obviously the origins of film studies is complicated, and, likewise, obviously its institutionalization at various colleges and universities is varied and diverse. However, because any academic field always has to justify its existence as such, standard histories and anthologies of the field inevitably refer to two individuals writing in the 1930s. The first is revolutionary Russian film-maker Sergei Eisenstein, who observed in his books Film Form and Film Sense that film was not like other artistic mediums because it is essentially little bits of plastic, spliced together. The true artistry of film happened in the editing room when images were juxtaposed to create meaning — something he called montage. The second is the German philosopher Walter Benjamin, whose foundational essay “Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction” argues that new technologies transform our understanding of authorship and authenticity. Benjamin and his Frankfurt School colleague  Theodore Adorno debated whether the new technologies empowered the working classes to make art or, alternatively, increasingly subjected them to the brainwashing effects of mass media. Hence,  film as an object of academic inquiry began with the observation that its technological difference from other forms of art give it unique and socially meaningful qualities. (Eisenstein and Benjamin were of course drawing on even earlier criticism and philosophy, e.g., [here] but it is generally accepted that their essays are the seminal starting points for giving the field its self-definition.) Hence, starting in the 1950s, universities began to create programs in film studies. Such programs emerged primarily out of the departments of English, modern languages, and comparative literature who grappled with the question of film’s essential difference from theater, poetry, and the novel. At smaller schools, such programs remained part of the English department or interdisciplinary programs, but at larger schools they eventually acquired a life of their own and became independent departments of film and media studies, communications, or cultural studies.

A further aspect of film studies is its interdisciplinarity. This is indicated by the term “studies” in its name. We can compare it to other sorts of studies: ethnic studies, gender studies, environmental studies, peace studies, food studies, postcolonial studies, etc., a long list of secondary programs that clearly differ from the primary disciplines of biology, psychology, literature, history, etc., none of which are “studies.” What does the “studies” part of the nomenclature of “film studies” mean? One of the earliest theorizations of the “interdisciplinary” is Roland Barthes 1971 essay “From Work to Text” which argues that interdisciplinary study does not just bring together two disciplines but rather produces an entirely new object of study. Hence, “studies.” One feature of interdisciplinary “studies” is that they tend to raise questions about the traditional disciplines whose methodologies are being hybridized and adapted to these new object of inquiry. For example, for my own discipline of literature, such “studies” as gender studies, ethnic studies, race studies, and postcolonial studies all throw into question the basic assumptions about literary value and the culture that was dominated by the elite, white men of imperialistic nations. Similarly, for the field of anthropology (originally a discipline in which European men studied the culture of non-European peoples), the emergence of postcolonial perspectives and deconstructive strategies of reading led to a critique of itself as a politically motivated discipline. Thus, in a strange way, such studies might not only be “interdisciplinary” for they also present a critical perspective on the integrity and coherence of the disciplines. In one of the foundational books on the new field of Cultural Studies, editors Lawrence Grossberg, Cary Nelson, and Paula Treicher suggest that cultural studies is not just interdisciplinary but “anti-disciplinary.” Paradoxically, the rigor of “studies” derives not from a consistent methodology but from interdisciplinary borrowing and innovation. To put it simply, the point is to think outside the box.

What does this teach us about where film and media studies is going?

First of all, if what makes film studies a unique field of academic field of inquiry is the nature of the technology after which it is named, then new technologies would assuredly mean new objects of study. The question that has plagued film studies programs since the emergence of television is whether these new technologies can simply be incorporated into film studies as merely a variation of the same. Or, are these different technologies different enough to require a new academic discipline. To put it another way, the entire premise behind the creation of film studies is that its mode of production, distribution, and reception is so different from other art forms that it required new interdisciplinary modes of inquiry and could not be merely incorporated into English and modern language departments.  If this is the case, we might argue that today’s digital media and multi-media productions are in fact not just an updated, more advanced variation of film, but an entirely different medium. Just as the new technology of film led to the creation of new “film studies” programs, so must the new multi-media technologies and internet lead us to the creation of new something-or-other programs. Or maybe not.

In illustration of this, earlier this year I attended a panel called “African Film Making in the Digital Era” at Columbia University as part of New York’s annual African Film Festival in which a panel of scholars, film-makers, and film distributors all observed a change in how movies were being consumed in Africa. The most common way to view movies is now on smartphones, and the effect of this shift is that young film-makers were adapting to this new technology by producing shorter, serialized films. Likewise, in the United States, the emergence of various video-streaming platforms such as Netflix and Hulu have led to the popularity of extended, complex plot structures of serialized dramas such as The Wire and Breaking Bad.

Hence, just as the word “media” was added to the name of the Society of Cinema and Media Studies a decade ago, we might now also add new subjects such as social media and digital humanities. Or, we might simply ask whether what is really being studied here is the history of technology — technology studies, whose interdisciplinary approach analyzes technology as a social and cultural phenomenon. How are these new fields of digital humanities and technology studies related to the older film and media studies? This is an important and difficult question to which I have no answer.

This new technology actually changes the field of film studies in another way. In the past, there was a clear distinction between “film studies” programs that emphasized complex theoretical analysis and “film schools” that trained individuals how to make films. Programs in film-making generally resided in large universities with the financial resources to support the necessary equipment and classroom architecture (e.g., camera equipment, lighting equipment, film processing rooms, not to mention reels and reels of celluloid.) Rarely did the theorist and the film-maker mix company. But the new digital and multi-media platforms and means of rapid distribution actually enable smaller liberal arts schools to create programs that mix small-scale multi-media production and cultural analysis. Because the new technology is itself a hybrid form, it is perhaps more open to self-theorization than the high-art aspirations of “film.”

It might be also worth taking stock of yet another ironic paradox about this technology. At precisely the moment when traditional film studies programs are raising questions about the death of film, the new, cheaper, smaller, and more adaptable technologies that are replacing film have enabled smaller colleges to imagine their own undergraduate programs in film and multi-media production.

But it’s not just technology that has changed. So too has the political and social configuration of the world. In the past, film studies programs were often linked to studies of “national” cultures, so it was once common to offer classes in French cinema or Italian neorealism. The idea is that certain nations possess unique cultures that are given shape by the idiosyncratic styles and genius of individual authors, artists, and movie directors. Certainly, it is true that different nations have different relations to movies, not only due to cultural differences, but also due to legal and governmental structures. France, for instance, is highly protective of its movie industry and its subsidized film industry allows directors to follow their artistic goals without as much concern for their marketability (in contrast to the for-profit Hollywood model.)

Three movements in the 1960s and 70s put such nationalistic curricula in question: civil rights, feminism, and anti-colonial independence. Hence, film studies programs began to foreground notions of race, gender, and ethnicity, and began to also notice the ways that the film industries of imperial nations (France, England, the United States) affect the emerging industries of their former colonies. As I mentioned in the introduction to this blog, film studies now borrows theories about globalization from economics, sociology, political science, and cultural studies to re-think the nature of film production, distribution, and consumption as a transnational phenomenon.  It’s not just that the film industry has globalized or that giant multinational corporations have taken over the world. It’s that the dissemination of digitally produced, hybrid multi-media through the internet is part of a network of transnational partnerships that transform local communities.  Some theorists identify this shift toward more “global” frames for analyzing culture as the 1960s when African and Asian colonies gained independence from Europe and the United States revised its immigration policy to be more open to people from those places, but other scholars point to the uniqueness of the 1990s after the fall of the Berlin Wall, the creation of the World Trade Organization, and the rapid expansion of non-governmental organizations. Hence, if we are to imagine the future of film studies (or whatever we want to now call it), we might want to consider its relation to other pedagogical endeavors such as global citizenship and civic engagement that involve students in programs of experiential learning that put them in close contact with diverse communities.

To conclude, maybe someone might moan that cinema has gone the way of the VHS video player, and that kids today just don’t appreciate artistic cinema (so beholden they are to the cultural wasteland of social media.) Such persons might even wish the world would return to that august moment in film studies history when pretentious Francophiles hung out in Greenwich Village cafes, reading The New Yorker, sipping absinthe, smoking Gauloises, and musing opaquely about avant-garde cinema,  but that would be silly. It was silly back when people actually did that, but it’s just as silly to muse opaquely about the death of cinema. Instead, we should take stock of our historic moment and more pragmatically imagine ways of teaching the future of film studies that recognize that film is no longer the central object of study, that a program in film studies must include cultural critiques of both technology and globalization, and that film studies might be productively linked to programs in experiential learning that foster civic engagement.

Muppets, Fox, Fish, and Political Propaganda

2 Feb

In December, Fox News spent seven whole minutes blasting the new Disney movie The Muppets for being dangerous socialist propaganda that brainwashes children. Although few would think of Disney as a “liberal” corporation, Fox targeted all Hollywood as promoting a liberal agenda and asked why Disney did not produce children’s movies that blamed President Obama for the financial crisis. It even suggested that movies like The Muppets are responsible for the Occupy Wall Street movement. Fox’s attack of the Muppets seemed laughable to many, and so Comedy Central’s Jon Stewart [here] immediately responded with his usual parody, and a couple of weeks later someone created a mock interview on YouTube where muppets Kermit the Frog and Miss Piggy talk about what Fox News said. The scenario, I think, illustrates several points raised by Stanley Fish about “interpretive communities” in his classic essay, “How to Recognize a Poem When You See One,” included  in his book  Is There a Text in this Class? In that essay, and in other of his essays, Fish argues that people learn very specific strategies for “reading” texts, and that they learn these strategies in different public contexts, and so, depending on where one is (e.g., in a classroom, in a bar, on Fox television, in Congress), there are different norms and expectations for the reader and for the text.

First, let’s watch the trailer for the The Muppets, and quickly review its plot.

The movie focuses on the deep friendship between a man and a muppet from a small town who go to Hollywood to tour the Muppet Show theater. Their relationship is complicated because the man has grown up and recently married, but still feels responsible for the muppet’s well-being.  After they arrive, they soon discover that the theater is falling apart and that the cast from the original movie and television show (produced in the late 1970s) has scattered across the world. A greedy oil baron Tex Richman plans to buy the theater, tear it down, and drill for oil. The muppet cast is reunited to raise money to buy back the theater by producing a telethon show. There are several themes in the movie, including friendship, working together to pursue one’s dreams, and a deep nostalgia for the old show and for our childhood innocence. The timing of the movie’s production is not surprising, since all of the people who watched the original show as children in the late 1970s now have children of their own.

Fox News focuses on the fact that the villain is a rich oil baron. Here is its interpretation of the movie:

There is no denying that Fox is correct that the evil character is both rich and an oil executive. Instead of demonizing oil companies and CEOs, the Fox News show says it wishes the movie would celebrate rich characters for achieving wealth through hard work. Ironically, Fox News fails to notice that Kermit and Miss Piggy are rich characters who achieved wealth through hard work. In contrast, the villain Tex Richman achieved wealth through intimidation and deceit. One could interpret the movie to be celebrating the honest pursuit of the American dream against the dishonest pursuit of money simply for the sake of more money, but Fox instead asserts a more paranoid interpretation.

In response, the mock interview with Kermit and Miss Piggy reject the assertion that the movie is dangerous propaganda by pointing out other plot elements in the movie and by questioning the ethos of Fox News. See here:

In particular, Miss Piggy suggests that Fox News is not even “news,” which raises a question about news that is similar to Stanley Fish’s question about poetry: how to recognize “real” news or “real” propoganda when you see it. Kermit immediately agonizes over how Miss Piggy’s comment will get “interpreted” on the internet. Although Fox may say that their program is “news,” Miss Piggy is suggesting that it isn’t — that perhaps the Fox network doesn’t follow the journalistic standards set by the Society of Professional Journalists, as the controversial documentary movie Outfoxed has claimed. Ironically, the reason why many doubt the content of Fox News is exactly the same reason that Fox News claims to doubt the content of Hollywood movies: political bias and content that is more ideological than factual. Hence, when many “read” (or watch) Fox News, they do so with an interpretive strategy that assumes Fox’s intention (the sort of “authorial intention” questioned by both New Critics and post-structuralists such as Roland Barthes) is political.

The highly politicized context in which Fox News interpreted the movie and in which Jon Stewart and Miss Piggy interpret Fox News  is something they all acknowledge themselves: the fact that recently questions have been raised about the special tax breaks the oil companies receive at the same time that the cost of gasoline goes up for consumers and the companies make record profits. It appears that the interpretive framework through which they interpret media is the zero-sum game of power politics. Fish’s point about “interpretive communities” seems a somewhat useful concept for understanding all this absurdity. Fox is not objectively wrong that the movie’s villain is an oil executive, but what others may not see in (or “read into”) the movie is how this particular villain is a “representative” of all oil executives or anyone “real” at all. Indeed, very few people think the muppets are real, and the movie self-consciously makes fun of its own unreality and ridiculousness. Why does Fox News miss that? Towards an answer to those questions, think about Stanley Fish’s anecdote with which he begins the essay “How to Recognize a Poem When You See One” about students in a classroom on seventeenth-century poetry who were able to find meaning in something that wasn’t even a poem just because they were told it was a seventeenth-century religious poem. In other words, if one assumes that a given sentence must contain metaphor and religious symbolism, then one will look for it. Likewise, if Fox assumes a zero-sum political game where all public media is either for or against its political position, then its interpretive framework will lead them to “read” something along those lines.

So, we can see how “interpretive communities” and context guides the reading of a text, but Fish goes on to explain that the relationship between text and interpretive community is even more complicated than that, because not only do readers make meaning, but also meaning makes readers. What does this mean? If we agree that reading is something we learn to do, then it’s easy to see how we become different sorts of people the more we learn to read, and the most obvious example of a community of people centered on the practice of reading and interpreting a text in a particular sort of way is the Church and its Bible. Likewise, in the case of the Muppets and Fox, we can see that communities are formed around the practice of reading and interpreting the world in particular ways. However, it is also true that different texts encourage different sorts of reading practices, and here we might turn the tables on Fox and confidently say that it is not The Muppets that is “dangerous” (a movie that wants us to laugh and cry and wonder about the world), but Fox News that is (a program that wants us to be angry and to see the world in terms of winners and losers.) Bing!

There is, however, something missing from Stanley Fish’s analysis of interpretive communities, and this is something that Michel Foucault explains in his essay “What is an Author?” and his book Discipline and Punish — and that is power. My own problem with Fish’s “interpretive communities” concept is that it assumes an equal playing field where communities just happen to form themselves. Fish’s own example of the classroom (a somewhat unconvincing anecdotal example, in my opinion) fails to acknowledge his own position of power as the professor of the class. The students have to go along with his silly exercise whether they believe it or not. Likewise, Fox and Disney are both powerful corporations who are themselves sponsored by other powerful corporate interests (i.e., the oil companies.) So, what about power? How does that work?