Watching “The Best Man”: Old Movie, New Feminist Lens

Last night I watched The Best Man. What is significant about it is that watching the film with an eye towards representations of Black women, I knew that there were going to be major distinctions and differences that I would see now that I didn’t see before.

The first difference is in the opening when Sanaa and Taye are in the bathtub and she confronts him on his desires to take the next step towards commitment in their relationship. She gets upset, and gets out of the tub. The camera then remains on Taye’s character. This has the impact of forcing the viewer to experience the moment from his eye’s, not hers. This is important, because the focus of the camera tells us who the director thinks is important in a scene.

The second difference is that I noticed that the Black women fell into representations of “controlling images” that honestly could have come out of a Tyler Perry movie.

There was the “good Christian woman who deserved her man”: Mia/ Monica Calhoun.

There was the attractive Black woman, who was invested in her career more so on getting married, so she was seen as someone who “didn’t need a m an” and was “damn near a lesbian”: Jordan/ Nia Long.

There was the attractive, materialistic and shallow Black woman who emasculated her man/partner: Shelby/ Melissa DeSousa.

There was the attractive Black woman, who was smart and sweet, but held in a holding pattern by her gentleman friend: Robin/ Sanaa Lathan.

Needless to say, I enjoyed the movie but it was interesting that the Black women characters were very similar to the representations of Black women in Tyler Perry movies.

In the book Beyond the Black Lady Lisa Thompson helped me to think about how women in general were presented in the film, Nia Long’s character in particular. Thompson writes,

 “The middle class black woman (or Black lady) represents a problem to be avoided; she is too indendent, too intelligent, and too self sufficient. The men declare her a threat and romantic outcast who resonates to them in the same register as “the lesbian”.

Thompson then goes on to connect the dots regarding how middle class Black women are represented in films during this era. She writes,

Popular African American romantic comedy like “The Best Man” and “Soul Food” consistently reward women who pursue tradtional female roles. They present the desperate social circumstances of professional black women as the result of misplaced priorities and aggressive personalities. In essence, these films uphold and further the cultural stereotype the black lady as cold, prim and passionless. They also, in light of bleak marriage rates for black professional women, send an alaringly conservative message and signal a backlash against the recent academic and professional successes that women have enjoyed.

So, “The Best Man”. Old movie, feminist lens.

Thoughts?

 

On the {Sexual} Politics of Viola Davis’s Natural Hair at the Oscars

It wasn’t until my homie Gisele, a Black woman and working actress pointed out to me that Viola Davis graduated from Julliard in the late 80’s, that my growing obsession with Davis began to make sense.

In Davis, I saw myself.

I saw the struggles of so many Black women who try to remain whole in the face of economic, racial, sexual and financial circumstances that threaten to undermine them, in a mainstream culture that reads them by and large as maids, hypersexual video vixens, or as invisible.

A couple of weeks before the Oscars I watched the Tavis interview with her and read two articles at Shadow and Act titled “It’s a Difficult Time to be a Black Filmmaker with an Imagination” by Tanya Steele and “A Young Viola Davis Thought Experiment” by Charles Hudson. This material helped me to flesh out my ideas around Davis.

I wanted to know, what Davis’s process for deciding whether or not to take the role?  When I learned from the Tavis interview that she thought about it for three months, that it kept her up at night, she had me.

In the bookToms, Coons, Mulattoes, Mammies and Bucks Donald Bogle studies the history of representations of African Americans in film. Bogle contends that all of these stereotypes are rooted in entertaining to stress “Negro inferiority”. Which leads me to ask, what is the political purpose of seeing “Negros” as inferior?

You see, I believe that one of the most interesting intersections to explore is the intersection between race and cultural productions because they can teach us both about the insidious and peculiar history of race and gender. This is important because I believe that understanding history can possibly lead us to a different, equitable and just future.

As many of you know I enjoy writing about films more than I writing about rap music these days, largely because the financial and racial politics of filmmaking remains highly undertheorized in pop culture blog spaces.

Which brings me to Ms. Davis and erotic capital.

Viola Davis and Erotic Capital

I take the idea of erotic capital from Siobahn Brooks. She has done some interesting work on class and race in strip clubs in New York and Oakland.

Erotic capital is made up of the things that are used to evaluate a womans sexual desirability in the public marketplace. So for Black women, I see erotic capital as hair texture, hair length, skin color, skin hue, body shape, nose and mouth size.

If we look at Ms. Davis, against mainstream standards of beauty that says that thin, white, young, curvy and blond is the norm, then I read her desire to show up to the Oscars with short chestnut afro as a rupture in popular culture representations of beauty. At least for that moment.

In a moment, when she knew that the focus would be on her, she chose to show up wearing a hairstyle that many people, some Black women included would call uncivilized.

What does it mean to  show up to the Oscars as a Julliard trained dark skinned Black woman, who is nominated for an Oscar for playing a maid in a movie that is a mainstream/hegemonic narrative about the “Good Old South”? In 2012?

Viola Davis and Black Women’s Genius

I knew that Davis was a genius when I learned two things. The first, is that for her role in Doubt she created a thirty page report/dossier on her character because she knew she only had two scenes to nail the character.

Thirty pages? That means you are invested in your craft.

The second reason why I knew she was a genius is because of Toni Morrison’s Sula. In some ways when I read that she created this dossier, I was immediately reminded of Morrison’s Sula, and the idea of a woman without an artistic form becoming dangerous.

It was in this moment that I realized that Davis, needs to produce her work otherwise she wouldn’t be right.

What do I mean by being right?

How many broken spirited people do you know who ain’t right largely because they knew they were put here on this planet to do something, but rather than embrace that thing, they took the path of least resistance?

What does it mean in 2012 to not take the path of least resistance when your Julliard training implicitly tells you that you should expect to be doing Shakespeare after you graduate from your acting program?

What do you do when you learn that the rules for you and the rules for your peers are not one and the same?

What does it mean to be a Black woman, looking to be validated by an industry that has historically seen people like you only as being fit to play a maid?

The Politics of Making a “Black Film” in Obama’s America

Image of director Kasi Lemmons courtesy of Professor Sussoro’s Blog

Last fall I tweeted that a barometer of Black women’s freedom would be their ability to control, tell, and distribute their own stories.

Having seen Push, and now For Colored Girls, two movies based on texts written by Black women about Black women, but directed by Black men, I am incredibly mindful of who gets to tell which story and why. Story telling is powerful because it is through stories that we come to see who we are in the world. Our stories define us. Stories tell us what is possible.

Consequently I was really excited when I learned that Pariah, directed by Dee Rees had been acquired by Focus Features last week.

A story, by a Black woman, about a Black girl. #Awesome.

In thinking about Pariah I was reminded of a Professor Michelle Wallace’s commentary on Spike Lee nearly fifteen years ago and what it means to make “Black Films.” In the article “Doin’ the Right Thing” she writes,

” …implicit in this formulation of Blacks having their own films was the nagging question as to whether such representations would somehow make black
peoples lives better overall. Regardless whether representation weather a film has value as any value as art, it can , if it chooses closely mirror or reflect the problems
and inequities of society. People make the mistake of thinking that a film can therefor correct inequities. This because we as a culture, are still trying to figure out what representation fully means in still new and exponentially expanding forms: what such forms can and can’t do, what we should and should not ask from them.”

She also say’s something in the article that has stuck with me which speaks to the idea that,

“we can now see that the notion of blacks making their “own” films presupposed the existence of a monolithic black community, unified enough to
posses a common ideology, ethics, morality, and culture, sufficient to override such competing and divisive interests as class, gender, sexuality, age and
education.”

This morning @tkoed Sent me a link from Ta-Nehisi’s blog where Neil Drumming, a screen writer and journalist, talks about about whether he would make “Black films.”

The article talks about how films by several NYU alums made it to Sundance this year. Full disclosure, as a little bear I worked for several years at NYU’s film school as an office manager. NYU’s Black film making culture is a part of me. It is in seeing grad and undergrad student filmmakers grind to make their dreams work that, that in some ways I developed the courage to openly pursue being an artist. Filmmakers taught me the power of story and how to analyze a film.

My homie Jase has just came back from Sundance after working on a doc on Harry Belafonte, Sing Your Song, #wingsup.

My homie’s Marquette Jones and Qwesi Davis both have films in the San Diego Black Film Festival this month.

I also found this article to be interesting, in that it speaks to how hyper segregated both Hollywood AND the art world is. Furthermore, it is related to a conversation that I was having last week with a Black woman journalist friend about how segregated Washington’s journalism corps are, and what this means for the careers of Black people in general and women of color in particular. It appears that one can operate in the White circle or the Black circle, but not both. Where does this leave people who are neither White nor Black? o.O

Work mirrors life?

Was it this rigid in New York? I don’t recall.

What is material to me is that Neil never disclosed his race. I read the article again, looking then I asked @tkoed if Neil was White. @Tkoed says that this is because regular readers know who he is, and that may be true. But I am not a regular reader, so I finished the article wondering is this a White, mixed race or Black person analyzing what it means to have negro characters in their movies.

Perhaps given how marginalized Black films are, to choose to make Black movies is a choice to have your work live on the margins. This can be tough to reconcile for some.

The homie Dame also sent me a link to an article titled “Can Revolutionary Films Hinder Social Action.” Read it here. This article looks at how the top 1% can use the medium of film
to transmit messages to the masses that then absolve the masses from taking action. For example, if you know that “The Matrix” exists, are you obligated to do something about it?

Oh and Rob has a piece up at The Liberator about the Black Creative Class. He makes some interesting points about who makes up this class and although his timeline throws me a bit, I like
the idea of inter-generational Black struggle that’s not linear and impacted by art. In some ways I think our posts are in conversation with each other.

Excited about Pariah?

Why did we assume that having more Black Films would change the lives of Black people?

Can we have a conversation about the forces that create a “Black Film” genre in the first place?

Race and racism are draining.