Chapter 1: The Guiding Principles of #BlackLivesMatter in Three Historical Films
- Black Cinematic Representation and the Concepts of Double-Consciousness and Postmemory
- The Visualization of Double-Consciousness in Footage of Police Brutality
- Old Wine in New Skins: Constructing Black Masculinity in the Three Films
- Gender as Power
- The Hero as an Embodiment of Societal Values
- The Transformation into a Hero: An Investigation in Three Scenes
- A New Representation of Black Manhood Paves the Way
Chapter 2: The Guiding Principles of #BlackLivesMatter in its Unofficial Anthem “Alright”
- Masculinity and Agency: Encoded Hip Hop Elements in “Alright” and To Pimp a Butterfly
- The Street Code of Nihilism: Lamar's Tragic Narrative and “Second Sight”
- A New Representation of Black Agency: “Alright” as a Leading Narrative
The Black Lives Matter movement started with a hashtag: in 2012 Alicia Garza, Patrisse Cullors, and Opal Tometi created the slogan “Black Lives Matter” after a case of police brutality that led to the death of seventeen-year old Trayvon Martin (BLM website). After 2012 eight more cases of fatal police brutality became public. Seven of the victims were people of color, mostly African Americans (Akkoc, World Heritage Encyclopedia), and all of them were male.
From the guiding principles of BLM it becomes obvious, however, that the original idea behind the movement mainly focused on the inclusion of minority groups within Black communities, rather than only on racialized police violence. BLM states that it is about “celebrating difference(s)” in general, that it “goes beyond extrajudicial killings of Black people by police and vigilantes” and that it “affirms the lives of Black queer and trans folks, disabled folks, Black- undocumented folks, folks with records, women and all Black lives along the gender spectrum” and “centers those that have been marginalized within Black liberation movements” (BLM website): every black person is supposed to be “part of the global Black family.” The three founders also attach importance to the correct use of the hashtag, and in the case of the usage of variations of the original hashtag insist on explicit acknowledgment of the original movement, calling unacknowledged borrowing explicitly a “theft of Black queer women's work.” The founders emphasize that in gender questions BLM is committed to “building a Black women affirming space free from sexism, misogyny, and malecenteredness” (BLM website).
The movement gained great popularity not only with hashtag-users and participants in protests, but it was also immediately picked up by the media and in public debates, while numerous variations of the slogan emerged to either mock or hijack the movement. The media attention can be divided into three different kinds: reports about the movement in connection to the police shootings, reports about protests and current incidents, and a wider field in which BLM was connected to the cultural scene in the US from 2012 to the present, which I will refer to as the cultural discourse.
Part of this cultural discourse are Steve McQueen's movie 12 Years A Slave (2013), Ava DuVernay's movie Selma (2014) and Nate Parker's movie The Birth of a Nation (2016), all three historical dramas, as well as Kendrick Lamar's album To Pimp A Butterfly (2015). All four cultural productions were directly connected to BLM by the media. They were brought up in discussions about and within the movement, and, even though BLM was initially created in response to racially motivated police brutality, the three movies also triggered debates about other cultural and societal issues, such as the acknowledgment and representation of Black directors and actors in US cinema. Although Lamar's album provided the anthem of the movement, “Alright”, and addresses police brutality in the other songs as well, it also uses a number of common rap themes, treating women, for instance, from a male-centered and at first glance misogynist perspective. Especially when we look at other Hip Hop artists connected to BLM as well, it becomes clear that the pop-cultural narrative that is associated with BLM is actually about black heterosexual men. Considering that the three founders of BLM are, in their own words, “queer Black women,” this contextualization of the movement is surprising. I am interested in the incongruity between the original principles of BLM and its public appearance in (pop)cultural contexts that put a black male heterosexual narrative in the foreground.
The reason for this intertextual/popcultural (mis-)representation can be found in the intergenerational composition and decentralized structure in BLM. The youngest generation of black participants of BLM was not only the one to pick up the hashtag #BlackLivesMatter and thus spread awareness of the movement, initially predominantly in social media (BLM website, Jackson), but also the generation that identifies most with recent pop-cultural releases in the music and film industry. However, it is also a generation that grew up with the consciousness of a lack of equality and social injustice in US society and the awareness of a different perception of black identity by white people, partly because the history of the experience of social injustice and racial prejudice was passed on to them by older generations. The duality of self-perception was already addressed in the early twentieth century by W.E.B. Du Bois, who named the concept “double consciousness,” that is, the notion that blacks cannot avoid seeing themselves through the eyes of the white majority, leading to a double vision and split identity. New generations are raised with stories from older generations about times in which the societal conditions and circumstances for black people were even worse than nowadays. This narrated memory evokes what Marianne Hirsch has called postmemory in the generation of millennials that is now growing up supporting BLM. Defining postmemory as the relationship that the “'generation after' bears to the personal, collective, and cultural trauma of those who came before,” Hirsch argues that this relationship “seems to constitute memories in [their] own right.” The “connection to the past is thus actually mediated not by recall but by imaginative investment, projection, and creation,” an investment that Hirsch describes as “very powerful” (5).
The youngest generation's own experience of and their growing up with the awareness of the history of unequal treatment of African Americans, and with the “imaginative investment, projection, and creation” that postmemory triggers, created a need for representation and self- representation. This need can be most easily served by the identification with (especially pop-) cultural productions. Since double-consciousness and postmemory are both very much founded on the experiences of former generations, the narrative that is privileged isn't essentially the peaceful, gender-equal, contemporary narrative of BLM, even though BLM provides the larger framework for the contextualization of pop-cultural productions, but a more old-fashioned narrative that privileges male heterosexuality, especially the figure of a male heterosexual hero. Moreover BLM's decentralized structure, which allowed the movement to grow more as protests under a hashtag and a slogan than as a structured organization (Eisler, Jackson), provoked the need for a leadership figure with whose values the participants had to be able to identify themselves. However, in the background of black heterosexual males being a threatened minority themselves with a changing and insecure sexual self-image (Hunter 467), the cultural discourse also requires a consistent definition of a positive black manhood. Additionally, since African American heterosexual men have been continuously represented as criminals and rapists in American political discourse and public debates from Emancipation on, as Ava DuVernay's documentary The 13 th (2016) recently has reminded us, there is understandably a need for a counter-image in public and media representation.
As I shall demonstrate, black heterosexual men in the movies and lyrics I will discuss function as tragic heroes who are representing the (cultural) values of black communities. In my analysis of the films, I will focus especially on gender as a “primary way of signifying relationships of power” (Scott 1067) and as legitimation (1069) of certain actions. I will try to find an explanation for the dominant male narrative by using Du Bois' notion of double-consciousness and Hirsch's concept of postmemory, with a special focus on visual postmemory. In my discussion of Kendrick Lamar's lyrics I will make use of the conception of hip hop lyrics as a tragic narrative that builds on a critical double-consciousness in the tradition of Du Bois. I will try to show why an altered violent, misogynist and nihilist narrative facilitates the creation of a guiding figure for black communities.
I will argue that the narratives in the three movies and in the lyrics make use of existent plot structures and modes of narration in order to overcome the prejudiced misrepresentation of African Americans in white mainstream culture. Traditional narratives of gender relationships and images of manhood are modified in order to create a new representation. This new representation serves as a counter-image, not by creating a specific and openly revolutionary role model, but by embodying values of morality and agency in adjusted power relationships in gender relationships and gender representations.
Chapter 1: The Guiding Principles of #BlackLivesMatter in Three Historical Movies
When BLM emerged and public awareness of the movement increased, many cultural productions by or about black people and about black history were quickly linked with the movement. Films played an important role in the integration of BLM into the cultural landscape. Films are entertaining and accessible to the vast majority of Americans, and even films that are about BLM don't owe their popularity with viewers solely to factors that are related to BLM. Popular actors, directors, or the timing of release can raise public interest in a film without the audience necessarily being interested in the topic. Nevertheless three movies stood out in connection to BLM, and in this chapter I shall investigate what made them representative for the movement and why and how they lined up with its founding principles.
Between 2012 and 2016 several award-winning motion pictures by mainly black directors, starring black actors and dealing with topics concerning black communities were released internationally. For those films, the “central question” of “who should tell the black story,” which was identified and posed by many scholars, became irrelevant, because black stories were entirely given into black hands (Coetzee 62). In 2013, the year after BLM was founded, four historical movies with black male protagonists became popular: Lee Daniels' The Butler (box office $ 176.6 million), Steve McQueen's 12 Years A Slave (box office $187.7 million), Justin Chadwick's Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom (box office $27.3 million), and one year later, in 2014, Ava DuVernay's Selma (box office $66.8 million). Other entertaining movies or movies concerned with contemporary or even directly BLM-related topics that were released in 2013 but became less popular and/or received fewer awards were: Malcolm D. Lee's comedy-drama The Best Man Holiday (box office $71.625.195), Alexandre Moors' Blue Caprice (box office $93,995), and Ryan Coogler's Fruitvale Station (box office $17.4 million). Especially 12 Years a Slave and Selma were publicly noted for multiple award nominations and awards. Their connection to BLM was predominantly established in the media. With Nate Parker's The Birth of a Nation another historical drama in connection to BLM premiered in 2016. It resembles the other two films in choice of genre, protagonists and the use of gender relations.
The reviews that can be found online about the three movies are predominantly positive to enthusiastic, and offer different interpretations and perspectives. They often link the films with each other. In the Huffington Post the films are seen as a chance for people “creating, critiquing and viewing” them “to remember that black lives don’t just matter after they are gone” (Hazel). This evaluation pictures them as a memorial for lost lives and at the same time implies that they show the still potent influence of victims on the course of history. Other reviewers see the movies as a call for action and revolt. However, while 12 Years a Slave is described as a “humanist drama and struggle for survival,” Selma is compared to “stoic strength in the face of ignorance and anger,” and only The Birth of a Nation received harsh criticism, being for example called a “garbage can flying through a pizzeria window” (Arceneaux). In some reviews, the films are also seen as capitalizing on the popularity of slavery as a topic in literature, film, and other cultural productions. About The Birth of a Nation, for example, it is said that “if you consider [...] the popularity of Black Lives Matter, a film studio would be silly not to invest in such a project” (Wilson). In general, reviews of The Birth of a Nation are more critical than those of Selma and 12 Years a Slave. For instance, The Birth of a Nation is said to have the “contemporary superhero flick” as a “secondary influence” (Cunningham). This negative assessment might be justified considering the repetitive reinforcement of mostly brutal images of violence and punishment and the overly emotive depiction of Nat Turner's slave rebellion in 1831, justifying the “super” in “superhero”, but I disagree that it differs from the other historical dramas with this heroic framework. In my opinion a heroic narrative and theme featuring or, better, made possible by a male protagonist can be found in all three movies. Especially in Selma the heroic framing of the male protagonist seems surprising. Since its director, Ava DuVernay, is one of the most popular supporters of BLM (O'Connell 2016), observations such as that Selma “[r]eflects the #BlackLivesMatter [m]oment of [t]oday” (Mays) are easily understandable, but DuVernay's choice to make a film about a male hero1 and the film's contextualization with BLM are even more surprising.
These various reviews of the three movies provoke the question if Ava DuVernay's involvement with BLM, Steve McQueen's invocation of the injustice and cruelty of slavery and Nate Parker's call to action are the only reasons why they became popular in times of BLM and were connected to it, besides the theme of African-American history they have in common,. They show survival in the face of threat, but the stories they tell were told before2 ; moreover the similarities they share seem to oppose BLM's founding principles. The protagonists are male, heterosexual, and black, and even if the directors focus on survival and change, a movie based on a nineteenth-century autobiographical slave narrative like 12 Years a Slave seems unlikely to address the questions that were posed in the BLM movement in the same way as does a contemporary movie about police brutality such as Fruitvale Station. Is it true that “the only way a film about the Black experience is rewarded is if it’s about the good-ole' days of slavery,” as an article in Colorlines claims (Wilson), or in the case of Selma about another instance of historical injustice? Considering that “historical entertainment unfolds in two time periods: the time in which the story takes place, and the time in which it’s produced” (Vognar), and “can potentially tell us more about the time of its making and consumption than of the time it portrays on on screen” (Coetzee 67), what exactly makes the three historical dramas relevant for BLM's time?
In the attempt to answer those questions I won't be able to focus on all possible influences. However, it has to be taken into account that there was and is “an explosion of popular interest” in slavery that is “related to the recognition of the sheer weight of slavery's importance”; as Ira Berlin points out, “American history cannot be understood without slavery” (Berlin 1257). This places the movies within a larger context of movies concerned with racism and slavery. Additionally it is necessary to be aware of that the economics and politics of sales figures influence the movies' popularity and the public discourse.3 Particularly with regard to black heroes it is important to keep in mind that, as Adilifu Nama points out, “audience reception is a more complex phenomenon than is suggested by a strict stimulus-response model of media-consumption” (11).
Even though different economic, social, and demographic influences can't be completely separated from the public response to the movies, my analyses are solely based on observations on a filmic level and won't take contemporary trends and economic factors into account. Before the actual analysis of the films, I will look into the common cinematic representation of black men and the notion of double-consciousness that stands behind it. I will also discuss the evocation of strong emotions through visual postmemory in footage of police brutality and in the three movies. As I will argue, the films use this emotional appeal to change the stereotypical representation of black men by turning their stories into narratives of heroism. The depicted gender relations are the basis for the plot's turn into a tragic narrative.
Black Cinematic Representation and the Concepts of Double-Consciousness and Postmemory
In the mainstream white view in politics and media as well as on a narrative level in film and literature, African Americans are traditionally represented in stereotypical roles. I will focus on the representation of black men in connection to the concepts of double-consciousness and postmemory.
For more than a century African American men were often portrayed as criminals and rapists. This stereotypical representation puts police brutality in the context of a political and medial discourse about the responsibilities of the police. On the one hand, law enforcement is expected to maintain and defend the public order; on the other hand, in its actions it has to consider previous prejudiced and racist treatment of African Americans (Taylor 200-201, The 13 th 04:00). Since the abolition of slavery, lynchings and mass incarceration have been justified through the political staging of black men as criminals who had to be punished (Hunter 466, O'Connell 716, Williams 3- 4). This public stylization intensified in the “War on Drugs” in the 1970s that portrayed black men as drug dealers and consumers (Taylor 200), and that staged drastic measures in the behaviour of the police towards African Americans as justifiable.
In cinematic representations the roles of black men were equally prejudiced. Black men were portrayed as side kicks, bad cops, clowns, or villains. Black actors underwent “professional rite[s] of passage” as “detective, sergeant, lieutenant, or chief” (Sexton 42), while nevertheless being “unarmed [and] useless” (Sexton 43), or played “theatricalized burlesques, stereotyped grotesques, criminalized types, anthropological specimens, and bodies of evidence” (Bernier 521). “Black characters have historically played the man standing next to the man,” argues Adilifu Nama; even when “playing ultracool sidemen or wise-cracking partners” their roles were always defined in relation “to various white protagonists” (67). In general the representation of African Americans in movies shows that “the moral arc of the universe is short and it bends towards whiteness” (Sexton 49). I will argue that gender relations in the three historical movies are constructed in the formation of quadrangular relations between four protagonists, in which the “moral arc” bends towards the black protagonist, making him a hero and thus redefining the representation of black men. Before 2013, black idols in mainstream cinema were rare. As discussed, political history and white mainstream society shaped the roles of black characters according to a historical pattern of racism, prejudice or political exploitation. However, at the same time it also influenced a conceptualization of black representation, self-representation, and self-perception that Du Bois defined as “double-consciousness”. On the one hand, black people in the US are growing up without a guiding concept of self-definition in public representation4 and with the experience in daily life that they are perceived by the white majority in certain, prejudiced ways. On the other hand, black communities and a shared heritage provide an environment of a more holistic self- definition. “Practical racism,” exclusion, and the “real power of white stereotypes in black life” cause what Du Bois' double-consciousness, “an internal conflict in the African American individual between what was 'African' and what was 'American'” (Bruce 301). Du Bois hoped for a reconciliation of the two perceptions of self without the loss of one of them (Bruce 307). The awareness of a split personality - one side restricted, influenced, or imposed by perceptions and discrimination by white mainstream Americans, one formed by growing up in an environment of inclusion and affirmation that was often provided in black communities - is reinforced by stories that are told about this split self-perception, passed on from generation to generation and perhaps dating back to slavery (Sale 42-43). Passed on stories include the personal experiences with racism and police brutality of parents and siblings as much as stories about the ancestors' experiences in slavery (Kubrin 362). South African scholar and activist Kopano Ratele describes a personal experience similar to double-consciousness: “[W]hatever you say or do as a black person, you feel it here, at the back, just below the shoulder blade, the white vice, always judging,” asking for an “answer that will always either put their judgment of you on hold, or destroy you in their eyes” (Coetzee 66). “Memory speaks,“ suggests Ira Berlin, “not to a desire to understand the whole and to include all in the story, but to personal, individual understandings,” being “immediate, intense, and emotive,“ and thus appealing to individual experience as much as to a community spirit, being refreshed within each story even if it is perceived only subconsciously (1264-65).
Marianne Hirsch's concept of postmemory is a conception of memory that deals with told and retold stories. Originally drafted for the second generation of Holocaust survivors, it can also be applied to generations born after other historical traumas. According to Hirsch, “descendants of victim survivors as well as of perpetrators and of bystanders who witnessed massive traumatic events connect so deeply to the previous generation's remembrances of the past” that they start to identify this individually created bond “as a form of memory.” Moreover, “in certain extreme circumstances, memory can be transferred to those who were not actually there to live an event”
(3). The generations after, then, are “shaped, however indirectly, by traumatic fragments of events that still defy narrative reconstruction and exceed comprehension” (5), just as if they would have experienced the trauma themselves.
Hirsch focuses especially on visual memory. About photographs of previous generations, who had actually suffered from the experienced trauma, she says: “[They] thus become screens - spaces of projection and approximation, and of protection” (38). Quoting Barbie Zelizer, she also argues that “the photographs have become no more than decontextualized memory cues, energized by already coded remembrances, no longer the vehicles that can themselves provoke memory” (106). Postmemory relates to generations that have not actually experienced the traumatic events they are told about, other than the millennial generation of African Americans who experiences injustice in their own lifetime. However, the combination of the experience of social injustice and missing appropriate representation in public discourse in the media that are condensed in doubleconsciousness and the stories about injustice, suffered by earlier generations, also causes later generations of African Americans to respond strongly to the visualization of injustice, for example images of police brutality, in a way that can be fit into the concept of postmemory.
The Visualization of Double-Consciousness in Footage of Police Brutality
Police brutality hasn't increased in the last few years, but, because of the advance in cellphone technology, the public availability of footage of the incidents has (McLaughlin). The public awareness of the unjustified police killings increased and led to the founding and the great impact of BLM. The role the young men in the footage “played” was the role of the perpetrator. I am speculating that what can be seen in the footage are both sides of Du Bois' double- consciousness: black people who are apparently doing nothing especially wrong, but are minding their business are at the same time aware of how they are perceived by the approaching white police officers or watchmen. They, then, react accordingly, either defensively, or with fear or anger, in turn triggering the police's cautious or prejudiced response to them. In Trayvon Martin's case (a case in which the actual shooting isn't on record, but surveillance footage of him shortly before being shot exists) the media agree that a community crime-watch volunteer shot him mainly because he was wearing a hoodie (Minchillo). The viewer of the footage can't determine why Martin was wearing a hoodie: was he a criminal who wanted to disguise himself, or did he want to hide from judgmental views? Did he expect negative reactions in a predominantly white neighborhood? Was it a fashion sign of bonding with other young people? Did he simply like to wear a hoodie, or was he cold? It's impossible to find out in retrospect why he wore the hoodie, but the image of a young black man wearing a certain item of clothing symbolizes the double-consciousness that can become apparent in the visualization of the incidents and is realized in the non-participant viewer's consciousness of the way Martin might be perceived and his possible awareness of how he is seen. Following the notion of postmemory this footage doesn't stand by itself; it aligns not only with other cases of police brutality but also with the experiences and the stories of experiences of older generations that young black people grew up with. It is “energized by an already coded remembrance” (Hirsch 106) of a black individuality that has to view itself from two sides, despite the “desire to possess a single individual self” (Bruce 306).
Following Hirsch, one could argue that historical movies would also appeal to the “already coded remembrance” (106) and evoke experiences and stories of generations before. Moreover, they would not only appeal to postmemory, but would also allow people to project contemporary police brutality into a larger context of racial injustice that historically confirms the feeling of injustice these days. In my opinion, postmemory strengthens the field of projection those movies provide by establishing a causal connection to several generations who suffered from injustice and therefore also contextualizing police brutality and modern racism historically. Strong, already encoded emotions evoked by postmemory, then, can open a gateway to the acceptance of a new cinematic representation of black men, and, even more importantly, black cultural values that aren't portrayed and perceived through the lens of double-consciousness. Historical movies therefore create a secure frame for a trial run of a new representation of black identity, being a “mixture of the familiar and making strange” (Coetzee 68). In the case of 12 Years a Slave, Selma and The Birth of a Nation, this new representation of black identity is the first in line of a few representations according to BLM's principles that follow.
Because of the historically deeply rooted prejudices that are experienced in double- consciousness and can be seen in the traditional portrayal of black characters in films, the new representation has to be a counter-image to the traditional images and roles imposed by whites, while staying within a familiar, emotive narrative that appeals to postmemory. To fight unjust representations of black identity, their former narrative frame has to be maintained, and the alterations in representation therefore have to make use of structures exceeding questions of race. In 12 Years a Slave, Selma and The Birth of a Nation, a new black superiority is conveyed on a visualized and thus subtly established level of morality and societal values rather than in an open discussion of race and racism. In order to create a figure that embodies these values, the narrative frame of a historical drama is adapted to this purpose and gender is subliminally used as a category of power. At first, the movies define a positive representation of black manhood that opposes its former stereotypes. Then, building from this definition, gender, in Joan Scott's description as “a constitutive element of social relationships based on perceived differences between the sexes” and “a primary way of signifying relationships of power” (1067), can be seen as an instrument of creating heroes in the movies. I am going to focus on the second part of Scott's intertwined definition, which also contains the notion that gender “legitimizes and constructs social relationships” (1070), and that ”critiques of particular regimes or social organizations” can be uttered “in terms of transformations of gender identities” (Scott 1072). While Scott uses gender as a category of historical analysis, I will use it for a cinematic analysis of historical narratives. The way gender is used in the movies shows a way of not rewriting, but reconsidering history and its narrative perspectives, making it a historical category nevertheless by re-positioning the historical location of black people from a white vantage point in order to “provide new perspectives on old questions” (Scott 1075).
The historical narratives establish a frame in which a hero can be created. As a result, the new representation of black male identity exceeds the borders of double-consciousness and serves as a counter-narrative to common representations of black men, while at the same time compromising BLM's inclusive founding principles based on multiplicity. A hero is preferably male, in the case of black heroes especially defined in competition with white heroes (Roberts 2-3); he is “a man whose deeds epitomize the masculine attributes most highly valued within a society” (Abrahams, qtd. in Roberts 2). A hero's additional, and most important function to defend or represent societal values in general (Roberts 2-3) is established in gender relations in the movies.
The black male protagonists are represented as powerful by being superior to the white male protagonists in questions of morality that are established in gender relations: they represent an image of ideal masculinity and treat women, and human beings in general, better than their white adversaries do. This representation not only justifies and evokes black agency, but also criticizes a part of white society that isn't actively disrespected by the protagonists but that is automatically devalued in contrast to the black heroes' values. The protagonists' lives depend on the “distinction between good Whites and bad Whites” (Wilderson 140), making them on the one hand perforce observers of their environment and on the other hand judges and morally distinct from the “bad Whites.” The black protagonists don't condemn generally, but make distinctions in order to survive.
Consequently the popularity of the three movies and their connection to BLM can partly be explained because they represent blacks as morally superior to whites. Instead of opposing BLM's principles by providing a stereotypical male image, the depiction of the hero as morally superior is laying a headstone to the movement's conceptualization. Values are established, and actions are justified in the person of a hero, who is visualized in gender relations that set the inclusion of not only African Americans, but of human beings in general as a moral guide line for a mainly leaderless movement.
Old Wine in New Skins: Constructing Black Masculinity in the Three Films Before the protagonists can act out their superiority as heroes by means of gender relations, they have to be recognized as masculine leading figures in the first place, and their actions have to be made morally applicable in defined norms of male-female relationships. I will look into the construction, and conceptions of black manhood in the films' narratives and analyze their appearance and function.
Just like every concept of gender identity, black masculinity isn't unified and consistent (Hunter 475, Strayhorn 91, Connell 832-835). It is shaped and influenced by other cultural and historical concepts of masculinity and femininity, popular idols, and religious and political representations. Images of black masculinity often change because they stand in competition not only with hegemonic images, but also with each other (Connell 853-854, Strayhorn 88). In the following, I am going to use the terms “masculinity” and “manhood” equivalently, even though some scholars make a distinction between them (Hunter 465). “Masculinity” can be understood as not representing “a certain type of man” but a “way that men position themselves though discursive practices” that require the “policing of men as well as the exclusion or discrediting of women” to sustain hegemony (Connell 841, 844). In contrast to white hegemonic masculinity, black masculinity additionally has to be dealt with in terms of intersectionalism (Connell 845, Strayhorn 87): the category of race can intervene with categories of gender and sexuality, their representation and perception, and the social position and acceptance an individual experiences in their interdependence. Intersectionalism can “shape one's acceptance or modification of gender norms established through the hegemonic and Afrocentric models of masculinity” (Strayhorn 89), but can also have the negative effect of marginalizing racial or gender minorities even more (Strayhorn 90) or putting them into a position of opposition. In questions of representation of black male identity, “racism and economic marginality […] obscur[e] the diversity among Afro-American men” (Hunter 466). Intersectionalism either facilitates a rethinking of traditional conceptions of black male identity or gives way to a summarizing of traits that are associated with race in order to express them in a negative image of masculinity.
While African American scholars and activists see “unidimensional conceptions of manhood […] as a dysfunctional cultural adaptation to racism and economic oppression,” the multidimensional construction of manhood within black communities also serves as a “cultural mechanism for adaptation and survival” (Hunter 475). The representation and self-representation of black men differ in the numbers of available images and conceptions, but both are based on a unification of positive and negative traits in order to either create a threat or a role model within the conceptualizations of manhood in everyday life (Gray 401-402). They rarely exceed the “dualistic representation of [hegemonic and non-hegemonic] masculinities” (Connell 844), and both - representation and self-representation - locate black masculinity within the group of nonhegemonic masculinities. In white representations of black masculinity its hegemonic characteristics that nevertheless exist are often transformed into a threat or a negative trait and therefore regarded as still inferior to conceptions of white hegemony.
Hunter's and Davis' study of African American men's conceptualization of manhood (1992) identifies representations of black masculinity as “either a justification for what is denied African- American people or a symbol of what is owed” (466), with both options originating in the same idea of an absence or lack in contrast to hegemonic masculinities rather than in a socially accepted presence. White mainstream American culture's construction of black manhood is “rooted in the idea of 'Blacks as beasts'” (Hunter 466). The scientific discourse about this prejudice includes the theory that this role is actively created by white people, suggesting that “Afro-American men could adequately perform the male role but were denied manhood by racist institutions and economic deprivation” (Hunter 467). This notion reflects back on the scientific discourse itself: it is argued that since black manhood always was defined in terms of white hegemonic masculinity, it is impossible to give variation and divergence space and incorporate black masculinity as an independent category (Hunter 465). Self-representations are in the same way “historically structured by and against dominant (and dominating) discourses of masculinity and race,” specifically whiteness,embodying and deriving from the experience of double-consciousness. “[I]mages of black manhood as threat and dread […] work to disturb dominant white representations of black manhood” (Gray 401, 403): African American men increase the negative image they have in the eyes of white people in order to gain - maybe at least physical - power over them, while at the same time complicating chances for an adequate self-representation. Nevertheless concepts of masculinity in different cultural or ethnic groups can resemble each other. Concepts of black manhood generally endorse “norms or attributes typically associated with heteronormative notions of masculinity,” reinforcing white male hegemony (Strayhorn 88): “[J]ust as often [African American men] maintain[...] unequal relations of power between men and women” (Gray 402), even though, or sometimes because, they are assumed to be “less stereotyped in their conceptions about masculinity and femininity” than white men (Hunter 468). Despite the similarities in the characteristics of masculinity, “challenges to hegemonic masculinity” can arise “from the 'protest masculinities' of marginalized ethnic groups” that embody a “claim of power typical of regional hegemonic masculinities in Western countries” (Connell 847). “Protest masculinities” can be part of non-hegemonic patterns of masculinity and thus “responses to race/ethnic marginalization” (Connell 848).
The concepts of manhood in 12 Years a Slave, Selma and The Birth of a Nation are mainly positive representations of black manhood that oppose white hegemonic conceptions and white representations of black manhood as well as the incongruent and often immoral representation of black manhood by black men. Therefore in the case of the films, unified conceptions of black manhood are the foundation for a new representation and an abstract depiction of values. They don't “impose[...] a false unity on a fluid and contradictory reality” but purposefully “essentialize[...] male-female difference” (Connell 836) in order not to discuss but to use gender as a category of power. They could be seen as protest masculinities, but in their aversion to explicit claims to power the protagonists' incorporations of masculinity resemble more idealized and stylized concepts of a positive black masculinity (Hunter 476). Thus the films make use of the intersectionalist interactions of race and gender to establish a moral superiority within a group that is not (yet) recognized as hegemonic. Even though the female characters are depicted as dependent on men's decisions, they don't show mental compliance to the dominance of their white male oppressors, therefore denying them hegemony, too (Connell 832). Rather, they are mostly compliant to black male characters' decisions that are acted out in a “more humane, less oppressive” way, which leads.
1 Ava DuVernay mentions that the film Selma was planned many years before Black Lives Matter emerged. DuVernay, however, took over the production in 2013. She says that because of the dismantling of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 in 2013, she felt the need to retell King's story (Suskind). Additionally, it was her first chance to make a film with a Hollywood-sized budget of $20 million (Edwards). It can be seen as an attempt to pay a tribute to her support of BLM as “three queer women's work” that she decided to rewrite Coretta King's role in a more prominent way into the script (Serjeant). However, it was an active decision by DuVernay to make a movie about one of the male leading figures of the Civil Rights Movement in times of BLM.
2 In case of The Birth of a Nation the use of the title of the racist movie from 1915 is a statement in itself, albeit the stories are not connected. It suggests a retelling of America's history that acknowledges the participation of African Americans in it.
3 Movies with famous directors, many investors; and thus high budgets are better advertised, more likely to be screened internationally and mostly draw more interest (Osterweil). This economic privilege was the case in 12 Years a Slave, which for instance had the famous white actor Brad Pitt as one of the co-producers. Also, especially in fields with a manageable number of releases like black film productions, an assessment of the quality of movies has to be made. Viewing figures can be directly connected to the popularity of certain cinematic languages: the question if the audience is attracted by the choice of colors, setting, or actors, or by a director's specific style, doesn't have to be primarily connected to the film's topics or narratives themselves. From another vantage point it has to be considered that is seems unlikely that white people, who are the main audience in the US, immediately would pick up BLM's topics. For movies without the advantage of having popular producers, directors, or actors, this fact can cause lower viewing figures. Moreover, the demographics of the film industry identify its policymakers as “93 percent white, 76 percent male and 86 percent over the age of 50” (Osterweil), changing the economics of black cinema in a way that often influences the viewing figures. Additionally, in the period between 2012 and 2015 the demographics of the users of #BlackLivesMatter on Twitter show that in the age group of black people between 18 and 64 years the usage was significantly higher in the group of males (Olteanu 312-313). In combination with the fact that the victims of police brutality are mainly male (Swaine), the statistics may indicate that there is a greater chance that BLM is associated with male protagonists than with female. This immediate association could be a reason that the historical dramas become relevant to contemporary events and thus of interest to market and media, or facilitate the identification for BLM participants with the movies' male protagonists and lead to an increased popularity in affected audiences. Especially a movement that has a ”loosely termed 'organization' [that] is 'leader-full,' meaning many people play leadership roles” (Jackson) instead of having one specific leader, identification plays an important role.
4 Since Barack Obama became President of the United States in 2009, he can be seen as a major idol for African American men. However, his powerful political position and his academic family history form a background that might complicate identification with him as a specific and accessible role model. Nevertheless it is remarkable that his representation and self-representation in the media is characterized by the same masculine traits as the ones that outline the heroes' moral values in the movies. With a simple Google search, Hunter's and Davis' categories of ideal black manhood as “self-determinism and accountability” (471), “family”, “pride” (472), and “spirituality and humanism” (473) can be found in descriptions of Obama's leadership style and personality in numerous newspaper articles. Even though his function as president can also be considered as a delicately balanced role he has to play, I won't include his representational function as a contemporary politician in the discussion of the new representation of African American men in films and lyrics.
- Quote paper
- Ingeborg Morawetz (Author), 2017, The Black Lives Matter movement and representations of black male identity, Munich, GRIN Verlag, https://www.grin.com/document/371884