Exploring the Black spectator’s relationship to film
In my estimation, to be Black and find any adoration for film is to be the most expressive case study of double consciousness.
by Donnie Moreland
Most folk respond to the words, “I have a Master’s degree in film studies” with either, “What can you do with that?” or the more biting, “What’s the point of that?” Funny thing is that for much of my program, I asked the same questions. It’s when films such as Queen and Slim (2019) and Harriet (2019) are released to such colorful reactions from Black film goers, as they have been, that I’m reminded of the point of taking on such an arduously odd academic task.
I do adore cinema. But more than my appreciation, I recognize the essentiality of knowing what cinema is and what it means/meant to Black folk as spectators. Throughout my program I struggled to find a place for the Black spectatorial experience in considering what should be observed in asking what’s important in the memory of a film.
How can we study Forbidden Planet (1956), as genre cinema, and be asked only about the innovations of sound design when the film asserts that in future tense the Earth’s brightest minds belong to white men? How can we not be asked to observe the legacy of these presumptuously racist illusions, within the contemporary construction of science fiction cinema? These were the types of questions I proposed and I was met, on more than one occasion, with opposition from instructors—professionals in the field of film criticism—who recommended I speak more to editing and color as narrative mechanisms.
Of course, identifying the mise en scène techniques utilized to produce cinema is critical to dissecting any film—especially film which demands to be read with academic intent—but to ignore how film has shaped the body I’m in suggests that Black folk have not molded the medium for which, as Baldwin proclaimed, the Devil uses to find work.
It’s pertinent, as I found then and as I write now, that we consider what Black spectatorship means and how we’ve come to our relationship to the silver screen. Because we have stake in what happens behind the lens and how we desire to be seen, and what we see is non negotiable in how we consider film as the most expansively futurist medium of human archive.
In my estimation, to be Black and find any adoration for film is to be the most expressive case study of double consciousness. As stated before, I love film. I’ve found the medium to be therapeutic in my obsessions with its oddities of narrative presentation. There is something about discovering an emotional response to an image never before seen by your eye or wrestling to find greater details about your own human condition through the vision of someone you’ll more than likely never meet that speaks so much to the idea of possibility.
The possibility of storytelling. The possibility of relationship between art and the soul. The possibility of the frame. And yet still, I reckon with the burden of knowledge that, as American Sociologist Dr.Tufuku Zuberi, proclaims, “most film is racist and needs improvement.” I cannot escape that The Birth of A Nation resuscitated a weakened Ku Klux Klan to its most ruinous, and genocidal, propensity in 1915 or the modernity of the minstrel performance as cinema moved from silent pictures to talkies, with 1927’s The Jazz Singer.
I cannot escape Mantan Moreland, Stepin Fetchit or 1946’s Song of the South. Nor can I escape Sidney Poiter’s sacrifice in 1958’s Defiant Ones, James Edwards insulting turn to forgiveness in 1955’s Phenix City Story or Paul Robeson’s torturous end in 1933’s Emperor Jones. These truths of cinemas then, and now, run parallel to the equal, and in some manner, greater revelations of work contributed by auteurs such as Marlon Riggs, Kathleen Collins, Bill Gunn and Steve McQueen.
These rivaling details make the act of spectatorship—no matter one’s relationship to cinema—for Black audiences, a combat sport by which we gamble, with each ticket, our visibility, agency and body for the duration of the picture. I say body because to be Black and a spectator of cinema means we are not only susceptible to however the filmmaker wishes to manipulate our base sensory experience via sight and sound, but the existence of even the unseen bigoted projections of a picture can reveal a physiological response, as a symptom of cultural trauma, to which there is no available restitution if injured by the contents of a film.
Thus, when Black film goers demand that films not center historical Black violence as predominant narrative devices —as 2019’s Harriet and Queen and Slim do—I do sympathize. When I authored the essay, “‘Slave films’ are how some of us defend our dead, whether you’re tired of them or not,” I noted the point that visceral and almost perennial images of violence against Black bodies, as witnessed by a Black audience, can be incessantly traumatic.
So, the question becomes, why would one choose to be a voyeur to a type of tragedy all too familiar for us to ever be able to suspend our disbelief enough to find most cinema satisfying? I understand this question well, as I’ve asked the same regarding the films of Tyler Perry. I’m not the first to argue the historically derogatory characterizations of Black folk in this filmmakers portfolio, but I, in reconciling my discomfort, understand the value of Perry’s aesthetic philosophy including traditionally intra-communal cultural references in drawing characters that feel oddly familiar in their presentation. As though there is a kind of returning home, so to speak, that can only be achieved through an ethnically oriented, albeit unspoken argument for what constitutes collective Black familial memory which no other group could achieve, cinematically.
I may not watch Perry’s films, but I acknowledge the intellectual mechanism by which he, and the Black audiences who support his brand of storytelling, utilize to partake in the dialogue pertaining to properness, race and cinema. In this act, the spectators of Perry’s films become active participants, more so active witnesses in their engagement with the cinematic arts as a pivotal part of our social world.
And it is this that I have come to understand as the role of the Black spectator. It is that of the active witness, more so than the active participant as the witness’ duty is to remember. Memory is critical to disrupting the status quo, because those who remember are evidential agents of change. I think to a degree, audiences of Tyler Perry remember, as part of their collective cultural memory, the dimensions of bigoted illustrations employed by films such as 1957’s Band of Angels, with Tommie Moore’s Dollie. So that they can successfully argue Perry’s ethnic illustrations as culturally opposed and altogether safer.
And though I understand the multi-pronged barrier of entry to cinema, global cinema and more specially cinema of the Diaspora, Afro-oriented streaming services and Black film restoration studios, such as Kweli TV and ReelBlack TV, are doing their part to endorse global Black access to, at least, a wide breadth of African and African Diasporic film history. Because as they know, much as I’ve learned, it is by mastering the truths of what exists between us and cinema, of both our present and past, that we will begin to discern the possibilities of proper restitution in the movie theater.
Donnie Denkins Moreland Jr is a Minnesota based youth violence prevention educator and writer. Donnie holds a Master’s Degree, in Film Studies, from National University and a Bachelor’s Degree, in Sociology, from Prairie View A&M University. Donnie has contributed to Black Youth Project, A Gathering of the Tribes and Sage Group Publishing.