Wednesday, 28 November 2012

Black Sexuality Controlled By American Lawmen

Found this essay from my university days and thought it might be of interest to anyone studying racial representation in film:

The 1980s were a conservative time in both America and Britain.  Reagan and Thatcher were the leaders of countries that had begun a harsh backlash on the relatively free and progressive 60s and 70s.  Guerrero (1993) argues that films of this period were dominated by an ideologically conservative cycle of production.  The many interracial buddy pictures of the 80s and many of those of far more recent years are a part of this conservative cycle.  Many critics argue that black sexuality is being controlled in these films, in some cases subtly and in others such as 48 Hours (Walter Hill, 1983), literally and overtly.  As Bogle (2001) argues, interracial partners can only be ‘buddies’ when the white one is in charge.  White fear of black sexuality has been clear from the moment the two cultures collided; after all, sexuality was what one expected of savages and they were described as beastly, a term that had strong sexual connotations, in those days (Jordan, 2000).  This essay will attempt to show how black sexuality is controlled in American films, how it is not controlled by some filmmakers, and also if it can be argued that more than just black sexuality is being controlled in dominant cinema.

After the fall of blaxploitation films, Hollywood began containing the black presence on the screen in the 80s.  Black sexuality is very often controlled in the interracial buddy pictures of the decade.  The Black lead, for example Eddie Murphy in 48 Hours, is put ‘in the protective custody… of a white lead… and therefore in conformity with dominant, white sensibilities and expectations of what blacks should be like’ (Guerrero, 1993).  This is shown very clearly in 48 Hours with the first of image of Eddie Murphy singing happily to soul music as he sits in a prison cell, oblivious to his surroundings.  Eddie Murphy’s character, Reggie, is literally controlled throughout the film by the white cop played by Nick Nolte.  He constantly puts down the black character and treats him like scum that cannot be trusted for the majority of the film. 

Jacquie Jones (1993) argues ‘the black male character in mainstream film… is always the oversexed caddish character of Eddie Murphy in 48 Hours… his sexual behaviour functions as an indictment of his feral nature’.  In 48 Hours we see Reggie chatting up prostitutes in the police station before being lead away by and clearly dominated and controlled by the American lawman played by Nolte.  This portrayal of black sexuality as being insatiable and therefore needing to be controlled is present in many other films of the period such as ‘The Colour Purple’ (Steven Spielberg, 1985) and ‘Mona Lisa’ (Neil Jordan, 1986) and has been present in dominant cinema since ‘The Birth of a Nation’(D.W. Griffiths, 1915).  Guerrero (1993) argues ‘black sexuality in the 1980s was either constructed as something entirely perverse or… absent in mainstream cinema’.  Hence Murphy has no love interest in 48 Hours, Trading Places (John Landis, 1983) or the Beverly Hills Cop films.  In Trading Places, as with 48 Hours ‘the white hero… is granted a leading lady… while the film has no intention of setting up a relationship for Murphy’ (Bogle, 2001).

Another method that American lawmen, this time real lawmen, use to control black sexuality on the screen is through censorship.  It has been argued that ‘(Spike) Lee, like other African Americans who have tried to humanise the representation of black sexuality, had problems getting his film past dominant cinema’s censorship apparatus’ (Guerrero, 1993). 

Black sexuality is also controlled by far more than just American lawmen though.  It is controlled by the scriptwriters and white Hollywood’s fear of black sexuality.  Guerrero (1993) argues that there is a ‘consistent reluctance to deal honestly with Black romance or sexuality, especially when it is interracial’.  The bar scene in 48 Hours demonstrates perfectly the way in which Black men are positioned in Hollywood film.  As well as suggesting a strong fear of blacks having power (‘I’m your worst nightmare… a nigger with a badge’), the scene shifts the object of the gaze from a half naked dancing white woman to Eddie Murphy making a spectacle of himself.  At no point is Murphy considered as a partner for a white woman, instead they are both positioned for the gaze of the white male spectator.

Also Bogle argues that Whoopi Goldberg is never allowed sexuality in her films and in particular in ‘Jumpin’ Jack Flash’ (Penny Marshall, 1986), there is no romance between Whoopi and the white man she saves, ‘in such films… so unattractively and absurdly dressed was she in oversized clothes or sneakers that she seemed defeminised’ (Bogle, 2001).  However this is Bogle’s opinion of what is unattractive and unfeminine and there is a counter-argument that would emphasise how progressive it is that women do not have to appear sexy in films to take the lead roles.

On the other hand there are films that have explored and shown black sexuality, mostly made by black independent filmmakers such as Spike Lee and Charles Burnett.  In She’s Gotta Have It (Spike Lee, 1986), the main character of the film is a black woman and the narrative is all about her relationships with men.  The film however touches on the idea of insatiability of black sexuality as the woman has three male lovers.  Nevertheless films like Killer of Sheep (Charles Burnett, 1977) ‘allow for the normalisation of the black character by valuing sexuality’ (Jones, 1993).  Similarly Guerrero (1993) argues that such a film ‘reconstructs the world on screen from black points of view cast in liberating images’.

An example of how black sexuality may not be controlled in Hollywood cinema would seem to be Lethal Weapon (Richard Donner, 1987).  Guerrero (1993) argues the film ‘contrasts the wise restraint of an older black cop… with the risk-taking, violent actions of his younger white partner’.  In this case the black character is the family man, the ‘buddy’ that is allowed a life and sexuality of his own that is even explored in the narrative.  Lethal Weapon also touches on the idea of black sexual insatiability again, with the black cop’s daughter developing a crush on the white ‘buddy’ played by Mel Gibson.  However Bogle sees something far more sinister happening in the film, arguing it ‘makes the black family acceptable for the mass white audience by carefully scrubbing it “clean” of too strong an ethnic identity’ (Bogle, 2001).  He then calls the 80s the ‘era of tan’, a time when Hollywood wanted people to forget the blackness of black stars.  Hence the family in Lethal Weapon is described as ‘a dab of black here, a dab of white there… a perfect composite tan’ (Bogle, 2001).  

This draws attention to the most common and worrying argument hinted at by many black critics.  It is in fact not black sexuality that is being policed in dominant cinema, but the black image and black culture that is restricted and controlled.  The conservative times that were the 80s lead to blacks being marginalised in all areas of the film industry, as Guerrero (1993) states, blacks ‘found themselves confronted with the “recuperation” of many of the subordinations and inequalities they had struggled so hard to eradicate’.  Bogle argues the backlash against counterculture and blaxploitation meant the subconscious goal of 80s films was to make ‘audiences believe such (rebellious) figures no longer existed or… they could really be tamed, disposed of, or absorbed into the system’.  This is clearly illustrated in 48 Hours when Murphy’s character Reggie chooses to go back into prison. 

It also seems there is a major contradiction in what some critics have written about the ‘buddy’ comedies.  Guerrero (1993) states that ‘Hollywood has deployed a variety of narrative and visual “strategies of containment” that subordinate the black image and subtly reaffirm dominant society’s traditional racial order’.  His first example of this is when a black star is given top billing in a film but is then isolated from any reference to the black world, as in numerous buddy films.  However he also states that ‘the buddy formula is able to attract the demographically broadest possible audience’.  Therefore the fact that black culture and sexuality is suppressed in these films is due to more than just the underlying racism in much of dominant cinema.  Hollywood’s sole goal is money, therefore having a black star and a white star sharing screen time is the most obvious way to pull in white and black audiences, and therefore maximise potential profits. 

The interracial buddy films can be seen as a fusion of blaxploitation action adventure films such as Shaft (Gordon Parks, 1971) and the all white male buddy pictures such as Midnight Cowboy (John Schlesinger, 1969) except with the black leads being relegated to sidekick or comic relief status.  Black sexuality is controlled in these films, but this is part of a much bigger effort to control and suppress black culture in Hollywood films.  This is proven by the 90s ‘hood movies which mainly represent African American culture as revolving around guns and drugs, bitches and hoes.  This also emphasises the point that black culture must be ‘sellable’ to white audiences and hence the packaging of black culture in many films with a singular black star.

Guerrero, E. (1993) Framing Blackness: The African American Image in Film, USA: Temple University Press
Guerrero, E. (1993) The Black Image in Protective Custody: Hollywood’s Biracial Buddy Films of the Eighties In: Diawara, M. (ed.) Black American Cinema. London. Routledge
Jones, J. (1993) The Construction of Black Sexuality In: Diawara, M. (ed.) Black American Cinema. London. Routledge
Bogle, D. (2001) Toms, Coons, Mullatoes, Mammies and Bucks: An Interpretive History of Blacks in American Films. USA: Continuum
Jordan, W. (2000) First Impressions In: Back, L. and Solomos, J. (eds.) Theories of Race and Racism. London: Routledge
Yearwood, G. (2000) Black Film as a Signifying Practice: USA, AWP
Miller, C. (1996) The Representation of the Black Male in Film [online] Available from: [Accessed 4th March 2004]