There is a particular violence in Frantz Fanon’s polemic on race and decolonisation.
Both ‘Black Skin, White Masks’ (1952) and ‘The Wretched Earth’ (1961) controversially deliberated the inferiority complex of blackness in a white world, examining the psyche of colonisation and pugnaciously advocating a cleansing violence. The thoughts in this post were largely inspired by this paradox of black skins and white masks that marks how race is perceived by both the self and the other. Although, I feel the age of political correctness is perhaps behind us (As made evident by virtually any episode of 30 Rock)- are we so optimistic that race in cinema is immaterial, or is it still insidiously informing orientalist stereotypes of otherness?
Race and violence in cinema have been as multifaceted and complex as the colonial experience, where differences of race, ethnicity and nationality – with a healthy dose of villainised Eastern Bloc rasps in the cold war decades and breathy Middle-Eastern whispers in the post 9-11 years – have been conflated with cinematic identities of wickedness. Save for the psychokiller genre that focuses most exclusively on deranged white men or Charlize Theron, baddies come with accents, bred from the irrational evils that oppose wholesome Western do-gooding (Or do I mean American hegemony?) and maniacally seek world domination. Of course the dashing American hero (unless of course it’s Bond, James Bond with his wicked smooth British vowels) will save the world, a stunning empowered heroine and perhaps even a bright-eyed, quippy child from unspeakable evils or a nuclear holocaust. Blue sky and sunshine unless there’s a sequel involved.
Have colonial race politics set the precedent for how race is represented along caricatured stereotypes in cinema?
D.W Griffiths’ epic Birth of a Nation (1915) (although extremely cinematically significant, it is the vilest piece of racist fecal matter in existence aside from being painfully long) that details the heroism of the Ku Klux Klan. If you haven’t seen it, yes, you did read right- the heroism of the KKK in the pro-confederacy American South during the civil war against aggressive African-American men (played by white actors in blackface).
So does evil come with an ethnic/racial identity? Often I believe it isn’t a stretch to admit that it does.
Perhaps one of the most intriguing and interrogating portrayals of race in cinema, which plays with the construction and deconstruction of African-American identities like a clever kitty (or a cool cat) with a ball of rainbow yarn, is found in Spike Lee’s Bamboozled (2000). A biting satire centered on a modern-day minstrel show featuring black actors in blackface, and the violence that ensues is a truly marvelous and intelligent piece of cinema. Blackface forms a common thread in both Birth of a Nation and Bamboozled, despite the many decades and racial and political ideologies that separate the films. Bamboozled deals with the offensiveness and Fanonesque racial inferiority complex of the makeup phenomenon that originated a caricature of blackness as a racial identity in minstrel shows and Vaudeville.
I watched The Devil’s Double (2011) last week, featuring Dominic Cooper in an exceptional double role as the tortured political decoy Latif Yahia and the sadistic playboy Uday Hussein, the son of America’s ex-Public Enemy Number One, Saddam Hussein. I’m not going to deliberate the successes and fails of the film- it was quite excellent as far as Dominic Cooper’s performance goes and worth watching.
However, what I would like to draw attention to the less than Iraqi (Or well a broad umbrella of middle-eastern or a narrower Arab?) cast that won critical acclaim for playing an entirely Iraqi cast (Ok so the female protagonist Sarrab was Lebanese, played unconvincingly by French actress Ludivine Sagnier). Don’t get me wrong here, Dominic Cooper deserved every bit of the praise. His performance as the swarthy Uday Hussein was particularly arresting. However, what exactly does this fluidity of race, ethnicity and nationality mean? Particularly when the gradients of colours and inflections only believably turn darker?
Ultimately, this post isn’t an argument on cinema and race politics, but rather a query.
We have the great insult of blackface in cinema stirred by historical productions such as Birth of a Nation or satirical critiques such as Bamboozled. We have seen further fluidity of race on cinema as seen in Lawrence of Arabia (1962) (and so on) with Peter O’ Toole and Alec Guiness flouncing about the desert in yet another epic bit of film. Today, we have an English actor convincingly playing the psychopathic son of an Iraqi dictator.
I suppose the question is, are we post-race where the best man does the job? Or are we harking back to an insulting precedent when racial politics permeated the cinema screen? After all, the reverse wouldn’t be entirely convincing- for then we would have White Chicks (2004), The Sequel.
Does villainy still have a colour and an accent?