Thinking about Black Women in Fim ….”Think Like A Man” and Others

Think Like a Man made $33M in revenue this weekend.

Friday I saw Think Like a Man (blog post forthcoming). On Saturday I had a realllllllly long conversation with @starfishandcoffee on Twitter about the narrow representation of Black women in films, about the pervasiveness of patriarchal narratives featuring Black women in mainstream media (Think Like a Man, Woman Thou Art Loosed, Good Hair etc…) and about the need for more nuance in the representations of Black women.

@Starfishandcoffee was upset, and rightfully so about both the pervasiveness and the ubiquity of Think Like a Man. However, from my perspective these images are not only powerful because they represent Black women in mainstream media, but they are also powerful because I believe that being able to dominate someone culturally through representations of themselves, is connected to being able to dominate them both economically and spiritually.

There is something bigger here than just going to the movies.

A few years ago I wrote “culture is hegemony’s goon” when talking about the pervasiveness of patriarchal messages in a collection of  Beyonce’s songs.

This doesn’t mean that I don’t think that the audience has agency, that Black audiences can reclaim a text and see it in ways that helps them to see their own humanity. But I will tell you this, in a cultural context where George Lucas has to pony up his own money in order to produce and distribute a film about African American fighter pilot heroes because the films were not perceived as having in financial viability, globally, then we are dealing with a very particular economic context in which Black films are being made.

Filmmaking is capital intensive, meaning that it involves tons up up front money, and people with capital tend to be incredibly risk averse. So, if “the Black mammy”, or the maid “The Black lady” and “The Hoochie mama” entail a guaranteed return on investments, why would an investor support a story containing more nuanced images?

When I asked @starfishandcoffee why she appeared to be so invested in in mainstream films offering nuanced versions visions of Black women she responded saying that if we want to reach the masses of people, then engaging with pop culture will bring them in. She also stated that it is important to engage with pop culture because teaching visual literacy and criticism to young people is important. Lastly she stated that she doesn’t expect Hollywood to do the right thing (no pun inteneded) but that folks who want more nuanced images, need to push back against what is being served.

All of which I agree with.

But would be lying if I didn’t leave our conversation thinking about Ed Guerrero’s statements in the book The African American Image in Film about the economics of film, and the intersection of race and filmmaking. He writes,

Whatever its orientation, black cinematic expression, as much of black culture has nearly always been proscribed, marginalized, exploited, and often ignored. Thus black filmmakers of both persuasions are constatnly called on to create out of an uncomprimised, forthright perspective that recovers the long-suppressed sensibilities, apsirations, and narratives of the Black world and struggles to bring them to the cinema screen. At the same time, because movie making is such a captial intensive business and is so largely depended on mass markets, consumer trends and fiasions, these same filmmakers must appeal to a broad enough  commercial audience to earn sufficient revenues at the box office to ensure their candid atvisions of the black world to be successful. And what is equally important, that there work will be sustained in a  succession of feature films. In order words, the black filmmaker must struggle to depict the truth about black life in America while being inextricabily tied to the commercial sensibilities of a mass audience that is for the most part struggling to deny or avoid the full meaning of that truth.

The last bolded section helps to explain is why I believe that there is something bigger here than simply going to the movies. When people go to the movies they are learning how to relate and how to be. I think it also speaks to the constraints that filmmakers,who want to depict Black woman outside of the controlling images, the very restrictive constraints that they must face.


Moving beyond The Mammie and The Hoochie Mama in mainstream film before 2020?

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?