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 empoweredheroine 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 swarthyUday 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?


As posted on (25/11/2011) Original post can be found here.

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Comment by John McCreery on December 5, 2011 at 2:38am
What Huon said. Especially, "One aspect of this is that the process of inspection feeds the phenomenon it seems to want to erase." In today's media-saturated world, job No.1 for any creative professional is "to cut through the clutter." The easiest way to do that is to violate taboos. Thus, everything we see today. Horror becomes more horrific, violence more violent, sex more explicit and perverse. Race and religion are obvious hot-button issues. Major corporations with established brands avoid them. Artists looking for instant fame exploit them. Critics who rage and moan about how despicable it all is play a useful function by keeping the buttons hot.

Thus, to me the most effective critic among the comments I read was the one that adopted the tone, voodoo, crashing through glass ceilings, we've seen all this before, how trite and boring.
Comment by Huon Wardle on December 4, 2011 at 4:58pm

Hi Vindhya, good to see you here - thought-provoking post. I suppose the knee jerk reaction is to say that, film being as diverse and multivalent as it is, you can to an extent find whatever you are looking for in it. For instance the last time an Iraqi torturer featured in a major production it was the Asian looking Naveen Andrews  in the hit fantasy series Lost - though he is British so that fits with the 'get a British actor to be the baddy' approach. Lost was an example, though, of how fantasy and sci-fi genres have always protagonised a kind ethnic melting pot perhaps partly because strangeness, alterity and ethnic marginality go together.

Having said all that, why focus on US media and not on Indian or Chinese or even Brazilian film? Then again, look round OAC -  a lot of the loudest noise, though not all, is made by white baby boomers.

Vague musings apart, I have a couple of worries about the focus on film, visual representation etc. One aspect of this is that the process of inspection feeds the phenomenon it seems to want to erase. We end up watching a lot of artistically bad, racist, imagery to make ourselves feel happy about not being bad racist people: our urge to differentiate and classify compels us to classify ourselves against something - in this case kinds of image. Perhaps I am wrong. Either way, I doubt that most of these films are of much value to the average Tamil farm worker or indeed to anything more than the tiniest fraction of the world's population. In other words it is still important to think about who the specific audience is.

Comment by John McCreery on December 4, 2011 at 10:18am

Stream of consciousness. This video intends to be provocative on many fronts. Then blackface dancer and voodoo doll are intended to upset those concerned about racism. The cathedral setting suggests a black mass. Add the boys choir and the unholy combination of the Roman Catholic Church and pedophilia leap to mind. The lyrics describe the abusive lover as blue-eyed, and in the last cut he is clearly white. The song overall is clearly about a violent and abusive relationship in which the woman both fears her lover and is afraid of losing him, thus willing to do whatever he wants. To focus on the racial imagery is to miss this primary concern. 

Again I would urge a broader, and in this case, historical perspective. I write as someone who grew up in the 1950s in the American South, graduated from a legally segregated high school, and watched TV news reported by white and male-only teams. I have seen for myself the dramatic changes produced by the Civil Rights Movement. My high school is no longer segregated. The news on the local TV station is reported by a male and female, rainbow coalition team, white, African-American, Asian and Hispanic. Black faces on screen have, in my lifetime, evolved from Amos and Andry and Jack Benny's butler Rochester to Denzil Washington and Morgan Freeman, the latter a black man who has played on screen both American presidents and God.  

Do I think that the Movement achieved its goals in full? Of course not. It has made it possible for members of the Black, Hispanic and other minority middle-classes to pursue careers and participate in public life in a way once unthinkable. That in the USA distributions of wealth, income, and unemployment remain heavily skewed against minorities is also undeniable. 

Not saying it's a perfect world out there. In the eloquent words my daughter learned in the U.S. Navy, "Shit happens." Just looking for thicker description and deeper, more nuanced interpretation. 

Comment by Vindhya Buthpitiya on December 4, 2011 at 6:09am

Thank you for the comments. Saw this posted online yesterday- any comments? Quite superficial, but echoes a lot of the issues echoed by race in visual media.

Comment by John McCreery on December 4, 2011 at 5:53am
Speaking as an anthropologist, one thing I'd be careful about is narrowing my explanations to cinema or colonialism. After all, demonizing the other is a human universal, treating black/dark as a symbol of evil is extremely widespread, and noting that the other talks funny is at least as old as the ancient Greeks (see the eytemology of 'barbarian'). The slogan 'black is beautiful' was powerful precisely because it challenged these widespread presuppositions. The Black Panthers, but also the Beats, and Batman, and now fans of Goth fashions adopt a different tack, embracing the negatives. I do hope that Keith is right and the economic rise of Africa will dilute the prejudices that we both find degrading and immoral. I will not, however, be holding my breath.
Comment by Keith Hart on December 2, 2011 at 4:51pm

It is quite unusual here for bloggers to moderate posts. So much so, I have got in th ehabit of posting my comments and editing them afterwards. Not so this time...

Comment by Keith Hart on December 2, 2011 at 4:49pm

We most definitely do not live in a post-race world, Vindhya. As for the voice of villainy in Hollywood movies, that was traditionally an Englishman of whom George Sanders was the prototype right up to The Jungle Book. I even read not long ago that the recent casting of English actors as superheroes in three Hollywood blockbusters represented a crisis for American masculinity. It sounds as if Dominic Cooper's role as the Iraqi psychopath was something of a throwback.

If you don't distinguish between race, ethnicity, nationality, language and a host of other kinds of classes, it is hard to pose your question using skin colour as a racial identifier. I often wonder if the problem isn't just classification, taking in Linnaeus, profiling, marketing and lazy stereotyping of all kinds. So what is special about race? Ethnic and national identities are standalone or nominal categories with no logic relationship to any others built into them. Race and class are ordinal classes arranging whole populations into a set which has hierarchy built in. The thing about race is that it evolved as an account of and explanation for global empire. By some accounts the organization of the world by means of race, with whites at the top, red, brown and yellow in the middle and blacks at the bottom, is as passe as colonial empire itself. But it isn't so. Ours is still a racial world, ask any person of colour travelling through international check points. In my view, the shift in global power away from th eWest has generated a kind of cultural panic among the whites which is reassured by the enduring poverty and violence of Africa. But this too is changing with 7 of the fastest-growing economies in th eworld being now African and in 2100 Africans will more than a third of the world population. So th esituation is highly dynamic. Nationalism and ethnicity are racism without the pretension to being inclusive and universal.

Violence is a major part of your post. I would just say that Fanon is more complicated than th estereotype of his work. The Wretched of the Earth opens with a chapter whose message is basically Kill the white man. This caught public attention and had to be explained away by Sartre in his Preface. But the last chapter of seven, based on his work as a psychitrist in an Algerian hospital, is extraordinary. Here he draws the opposite conclusion that violence dehumanises not just its victims, but the victimisers also. This applies to the rebels and to the French soldiers. the conclusion is that violence is inconsistent with our basic humanity and destroys its perpetrators. Interesting enough I read a piece by a Syrian journalisttoday who argues much the same point.

For me a fundamental issue is how Western decadence manifests itself in the media, politics and elsewhere. Hollywood, which not long ago was a bastion of some would say Jewish liberalism, is now extremely rightwing,, with prominent directors issuing blasts against OWS and the militarisation of America's relations with the rest of the world reflected in the movies.

I would like to thank you for your rich post which raises more questions than anyone could answer, but that's good too.


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