Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Costume & Identity: AFRICAN AMERICAN by Jovana Popovic

“Black Dreams: The Fantasy and Ritual of Black Films” by Brandon Wander, 1975

Writing in 1975, just a couple of years after the first black movie saw the light of the day, Wander tries to give an objective overview of the Black cinema’s history, touching on many aspects of both white and Black society as well as their confrontations.

Starting off with a description of the cinema/warehouse where Black movies are shown, the writer sets the mood for what is to come. The Black people are looking for an escape, and according to the writer ‘’black films offer escape from gloom, depression and social confusion of center-city colonies’’. Furthermore, he claims that the media has for a long time shaped collective white perceptions. On the other hand, now the film is influencing the Black’s community perception of itself. However, most of the movies made for, and having the Black society as their topic, are controlled by the whites. Therefore, it should be very carefully examined which movie carries the real myth of the Black society, and which is a simple mirror of the White individualism. Whereas the White society is based on the myth and cult of individualism, where all the individuals are in constant competition in terms of wealth and power, the Black society is very much based on the myth of collective. Wander tries to analyze five different movies, and determine which one is a real representation of the Black society.

He starts discussing the movie Superfly, which came out in 1972. The story is created around the character of Superfly, a drug dealer played by Ron O’Neal. His character is very individualistic and does not determine a communal identity. Wander is not satisfied with a movie that is very much alike white ones, where everything is based on one single character.

He continues further by introducing the Hit Man, a Blaxploitation made by a white director and screenwriter, George Armitage. Wander has really no mercy when talking how pointless the whole movie is, without any contribution to raising the Black society consciousness. The main character, Tyrone Tacker, is a real representation of individualism trying to revenge his killed brother throughout the movie. Similarly, Black Caesar being a white man’s project, is very unlikely to reference any important value in the Black society. The main character is a drug dealer, whose empire of prostitutes is a witness to his own exploit of Blacks. Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasss Song involves no White people at all, but has still failed to be an example of Black self-realization. The writer states that it is not playing with the right type of myths, but choses to portray a Black guy surrounded by drugs and prostitutes. Although the art, language, dress is very much representational, social relationships are lacking. Finally, Sonny Carson succeeds to achieve what the writer considers appropriate and different. The movie traces a growth of a ghetto child through adolescence to adulthood. During that period of time he faces many difficult situations, and is eventually imprisoned with other Black people, and guarded by whites. Wander considers this moment very crucial, due to the clear representation of the society as it is. The negative aspects of the society are felt, and that is according to Wander the most important thing in this movie as well as in the history of the Black movies.

“Black American Cinema: The New Realism” by Manthia Diawara, 1993

In his essay, Manthia Diawara strongly criticizes Hollywood cinema and its tendency to ignore the existence of Black society as equal to the white, always placing their characters within certain spaces and supporting roles, which most of the times have bad connotations. The lack of movies showing simple stories about blacks, with no intervening of whites has resulted in the creation of Black independent cinema. In the independent movies, the stories are found to be realistic, mostly directed by the Black directors, and do not involve the stereotypes Hollywood nurtures. However, the lack of financial means is prohibiting those movies to become widely popular, as some Hollywood blockbusters, and therefore is hard to change audience’s taste, which has already been shaped by the mainstream cinema.

The writer goes back to explaining the roots of the independent cinema, and focuses on French New Wave, whose members were the first ones to start experimenting with different ways of telling a story and filming it- hence ‘jump-cut’. The reason for coming to the vocation of independent filmmaker is either political or artistic.

Furthermore, by introducing short movie study cases he discusses different aesthetics and stories in Black movies. Whereas he refers to 1970s Sweet Sweetback as Blaxploitation, he highly appreciates Micheaux’s movies and considers them realistic portrayals of Black society and experience. He notices that different movies use different narrative tracks with regards to time and space: the cyclical (Ganja and Hess), goes back and forth in time, and linear (Sweet Sweetback), progresses from one point in time to another. The topics of the movies usually involve Black folklore, religion, and numerous oral traditions.

Last but not least, Diawara focuses on two different constructions in the movies: construction of space and construction of time. He argues that in Hollywood cinema everything is done so that the White actors are the primary focus on the screen – they take up most of the space and are always in front. Similarly, everything evolves around the ‘White times’. He uses two movies to illustrate each point – Daugthers of the Dust for space and Boyz N the Hood for time argument. In the first movie the focus is on Black people and the place they are living in, Ibo Landing. Each scene involves different characters, who take up the whole screen and are treated equally as Whites in the mainstream movies. Diawara also uses different examples (characters, their stories, history, objects and rituals) to explain in detail the Black society and how it functions. The second movie is dealing with Black society as well, and follows the main character from his childhood into his manhood. The writer stresses the point that, unfortunately, many of the Black people die when reaching that stage in life, in the movie as in the reality.

“The Screen’s Fashioning of Blackness: Shaft, New Jack City, Boyz N the Hood, Waiting to Exhale” by Stella Bruzzi , 1997

In her essay on Black movies, Stella Bruzzi analyzes and explains the usage of clothes and the effect it achieves along with the character. In order to introduce the main topic better, she starts off by discussing history of the Black movie, naming major factors that lead to its emergence in the first place. Stressing the point that the appearance of the black characters in the movies before was minimal, she goes on to explaining the Blaxploitation movies, using the examples of Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song, Shaft and Superfly. Using the same movies, Bruzzi starts talking about clothes and moods they create. She explains that most of the movies mentioned before are subject to what she calls ‘fetishism of clothes’. It means that every character is distinguished among the mass by his/her appearance. She uses the example of Shaft to point out the simultaneous development of clothes and character – where the character is distinguished by brown tweed suits, beige polo necks and two long leather coats at the very beginning, and is dressed all in black by the end of the movie. This particular character is said to be a real representation from the Black society. Furthermore she takes a closer look on the movie Supefly, whose main character is closely defined by his clothes, the wide brimmed hat, flared coat and stacked heels, along with his long relaxed hair. Bruzzi also suggest that the big number of different costumes in this movie is also part of the image of the main character, who is a successful cocaine dealer, therefore wealthy. Bruzzi suggests that the costumes used in Blaxpoitation movies are ‘’exaggerated and parodic’’ , and she sees them as different political statements expressed through visibility of a narcissistic look.

Moving away from the 1970s and Blaxploitation movies, she then goes to 1980s trends in the black movie industry. Bruzzi’s opinion is that these films were more realistic and analytical, with less celebrations of the Black machismo. Her case study for this period is New Jack City, and the character of Nino Brown. She takes a very close look at how he is portrayed and concludes he is a stereotypical drug dealer, obsessed with sex and violence, wearing chain and his hair elaborately coiffured,. However, what is interesting is her observation that Coco Chanel influenced the looks of Nino, with her clear silhouette designs and single bold colours. In many ways, Chanel has shaped the street style, especially her accessories for which she used fake gold and gems as well as chunky gold chains. What Bruzzi also notices is the appropriation of different fashions and designs that come together in the costumes for the character of Nino.

Furthermore, she also talks about the movie Boyz N the Hood, discussing different characters and different outfits that distinguish them. She, therefore, takes a closer look at Tre, who is the main character. He is characterized as the home boy, and is dressed in such a way, which makes him stand out visually from the rest of the people he is friends with, and who are all wearing clothes that symbolize their gang identity. She also looks at the father, Furious. His clothes are moderate and work-related, as he is a real estate agent, and the only one who has a steady job in the movie. Thus, he is presented as a role model.

Finally, she takes a look at a movie where four main characters are women – Waiting to Exhale, and uses it to explain not only the usage of the female clothes in the movie, but also the hairstyle and the overall looks.

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