Black Man’s Burden

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In their January 16th New York Times article, “How the Movies Made a President“, Manohla Dargis and A.O. Scott provide an interesting analysis of the development of the archetypes of black manhood in film, using this as a frame through which to position Barack Obama’s historic ascendency to the Presidency and the enormously high expectations he faces as he assumes the position.

The authors begin by arguing that the existence of black presidents in television and film, such as Dennis Haysbert on “24”  and  Morgan Freeman in “Deep Impact”, has “helped us imagine” the very possibility of a black commander in chief. From there, they build into a broad discussion of  the progression of black men in the movies over the past several decades “from the ghetto to the boardroom, from supporting roles in kitchens, liveries, and social-problem movies to the rarefied summit of the Hollywood A-list.” One thing that struck me while reading the article were the similarities between the ways black men have been stereotyped and relegated to particular types of characters and the way women have faced a similarly reductionist treatment in movies. Of course, the stereotypes faced by these groups take different forms, but in some ways at least they both amount to the same thing–devices through which to reify and clarify white malehood through contrast with otherness. Too often women and black characters are portrayed as agency-less, figures to be acted upon, or are placed on pedestals, representing particular monolithic, unrealistic virtues.

One line struck me as particularly resonant in exploring the parallels between constructions of black malehood and the black male body and constructions of women and their bodies in film: “Movie history is littered with the mangled (Joe Morton in ‘Terminator 2’), flayed ([Morgan] Freeman in ‘Unforgiven’) and even mauled (Harold Perrineau in ‘The Edge’) bodies of supporting black characters, some sacrificed on an altar of their relationships with the white headliners, others rendered into first prey for horror-movie monsters.” This immediately  summoned to my mind the posts I’ve written about the eroticization of violence to women(“Ad Nauseum“, “Dead Sexy“) in movies, print ads, and other visual media (here’s a new example I recently came across) , as well as other things I’ve read and written about the objectification of women as a tool of oppression, objectification, and delegitimization, like Laura Mulvey’s discussion of the concept of “castration anxiety” in her article “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema”, a phenomenon she argues is enacted in film through the constant controlling and often punishing “male gaze” which is employed to keep women in a safe, controllable space (as I discussed in my post “Nattering Nabobs of Negativism“).

Many of the arguments and ideas suggested by this article also call to mind bell hooks’ article, “Eating the Other: Desire and Resistance”. In this piece, hooks writes that “the commodification of differences promotes paradigms of consumption wherein whatever difference the Other inhabits is eradicated, via exchange, by a consumer cannibalism that not only displaces the Other but denies the significance of that Other’s history through the process of decontextualization.” As I wrote in a paper last semester,

“hooks argues that normative, mainstream white culture is fascinated by and drawn to the archetypal Other only in so far as the Otherness is useful to it–useful in exciting desires, useful in allowing access to a perceived world of idealized ‘primitivism,’ and sensual naturalism, useful in adding exotic ‘flavor’ to daily life, useful in assuaging the guilt of a legacy of white supremacy and black subjugation, above all useful in providing a canvas, a backdrop against which whiteness may define itself all the more clearly, centrally, and powerfully.”

When hooks refers to the “commodification of differences,” she is referring to the reforming of the Other into recognizable forms, forms which reflect nostalgia for an idealized vision of a “glorious past”. hooks looks at examples like the black nationalism movement and rap music in exploring the cannibalization of otherness and displacement and denial of significance, the decontextualization and dehistoricization of the black Otherness. She writes that dominant understandings, imagery, and stereotypes of Otherness render what might otherwise be subversive or self-assertive a “spectacle” of sorts, read within dominant discourses rather than opening the public up to new or expanded discourses.

Later on in my paper on hooks, I examined the campaign and election of Barack Obama as a lens through which to explore ideas about Otherness and the commodification thereof, writing:

“It is interesting to examine hooks’ arguments about Otherness and white supremacy and privilege in the aftermath to the historic 2008 election, an election which saw a black man beat a white man (and a white woman) to be decisively elected President of the United States. Yet, though his very victory would seem to suggest that hooks’ arguments are outdated and no longer relevant, much about the way Barack Obama was perceived by the American public and much about how he carefully shaped and marketed his persona, his “brand”, throughout the campaign holds echoes of hooks’ ideas. Obama represents an interesting figure culturally, racially, and his story, of being born to a white American mother and a black African father was of seemingly infinite fascination to the American public, something Obama exploited skillfully. Obama proved a master at constructing a narrative, building a brand around himself and his story. During the campaign, he was frequently chastised by some, particularly those in the African American community for “white washing” himself, often avoiding discussions or narratives of race that were overly controversial.

Instead, he built his image as a cultural hybrid, making sure not to come across as too racially radical, too Other, but at the same time, using his black heritage as a representation of his slogan of unity and change. In fact, some have suggested that it was at least in part Obama’s mixed race and his light skin, that allowed him to have the success he had, just as in fashion and other sectors of mainstream, white-controlled media where the black faces represented are predominantly light skinned blacks. Obama represented for the “white supremacist capitalist patriarchy” just enough of the intrigue of Otherness, but not so much that he presented a real danger or threat to the status quo, at least for most people. Obama as a public figure is a fascinating embodiment of the commodification of Otherness. His blackness was marketed as part of his narrative of diversity and change, yet his light skin and non-confrontational, easily digestible public image and stances on race issues (when, in fact, he even voiced such stances, which was fairly rare) allowed him to be easily consumable by a broad audience.

It is important to note, though, that a main strategy of those who opposed Obama was to try to play up his Otherness, suggesting that he wasn’t like “us”, that he was “too” Other and therefore subversive and not to be trusted. These opponents focused on things like Obama’s black Islamic father, and on his former “radical” black preacher, Jeremiah Wright. Ultimately, however, Obama’s successful commodification and marketing of himself which both exploited and downplayed his status as the Other was successful in helping him to create an appealing personal narrative and working the “white supremacist, capitalist patriarch[al]” status quo to his advantage. He turned the very tools usually directed at blacks by whites as means of control on himself, and was thus able to dictate the terms of the discourse. This is in no way meant to downplay President-elect Obama’s accomplishments or all of the issues of the campaign cycle that had nothing to do with race, but hooks’ arguments about commodification and the decontextualization and cannibalistic consumption of Otherness certainly provide an interesting lens through which to examine Obama’s campaign and election, events that at first glance would seem to completely disprove hooks’ statements.

 

Dargis and Scott, too, take their broader arguments full circle, finishing by looking at the feat Obama faces of living up to the expectations created by his almost messianic persona as he begins his presidency. As they write “Saviour, counselor, patriarch, oracle, avenger, role model–compared with all this, being president looks like a pretty straightforward job.” They voice concern that the constructions and stereotypes long put forward by movies and other cultural narratives of monolithic black manhood, particularly “fantasies of black heroism,” of the “black messiah” figure (as represented by many of Will Smith’s recent roles, such as those in “The Pursuit of Happyness,” “I Am Legend,” “Seven Pounds,” and even “Hancock”) have informed the construction of Obama’s public persona and will create a uniquely challenging burden for President Obama (how good it feels to write that) going forward.

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About Katie Heimer

I'm a graduate student of media studies at the New School. My main academic interests in the field center around issues of women in the media (both in terms of representations of and access to) and the overlapping issues of media reform and education. This website will serve as a chronicle of my progress and growth, both intellectually and personally, as I navigate my master's of media studies.
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