The City in Fiction and Film, week 23: Zadie Smith’s NW (2011), part two (pp. 173–333)

13537891 week 22

Last week, we used the first half of the novel to explore the ways in which Smith constructs London as a matter-of-fact multicultural city. Deep in the fabric of the place – and of the novel – is difference, constantly shifting and reorganising, but never monadic or monolithic. This week we focused on the ways in which class is just as deeply embedded.

The first part of the novel is told in third-person from the viewpoint of second-generation Irish immigrant, Leah. The opening scene of the novel establishes that, living in a basement flat four doors down from the council estate where she was raised, she has not quite escaped her working class roots, despite the middle class accoutrements of her daily life. She was the first of her family to go to university – and she chose to study philosophy among the privileged children of the wealthy bourgeoisie at Edinburgh University. She recalls the mortification of being a working class autodidact who spoke in class about ‘a two-syllable packing company Socrates, a three-syllable cleaning fluid Antigone’ (33); later, her friend Keisha (who will change her name to Natalie), recalls she and her boyfriend similarly ‘sound[ing] the T and the S’ in Albert Camus (193). I suspect if you’ve not gone through this you don’t get how agonising and confidence-destroying it can be – as a working class kid you often feel you do not really belong at university, and moments like this reinforce that anxiety. It is a measure of how material wealth is connected to cultural capital, and of what it is like to grow up in a culturally impoverished environment (and it is why the current government’s war on libraries and on state education is so iniquitous – and with so many politicians coming from money, they just fundamentally do not get it).

The different treatment different classes receive is also flagged up when, in part two (which is told from the viewpoint of Felix, who will become the victim of knife crime), when Felix’s dad’s neighbour Phil notes:

‘They always say “youth” don’t they? …Never the boys from the posh bit up by the park, they’re just boys, but our lot are “youths”, our working class lads are youths, bloody terrible isn’t it?’ (112).

This is reiterated in the first chapter of the novel’s third part, told from the viewpoint of Natalie (formerly known as Keisha). Remembering how she and Leah met thanks to a near-drowning in the outdoor pool in the park:

‘They had a guard up on the hill, in Hampstead, for them. Nothing for us.’ (173)

And again, when Nat reflects on the different educational experience of wealthy fellow student and later husband Francesco De Angelis, who looks ‘like he was born on a yacht somewhere in the Caribbean and raised by Ralph Lauren’ (204):

Some schools you ‘attended’. Brayton [Leah and Nat’s school] you ‘went’ to. (206)

When Leah and Nat were growing up, neither of their mothers (Pauline and Marcia, respectively)

was in any sense a member of the bourgeoise but neither did they consider themselves solidly of the working class either. (177)

This sense of not quite belonging, of being trapped between identities, marks the lives of both women and their daughters in multiple ways (Smith explores this in terms of being between classes rather than between races/ethnicities/cultures – which is is common in British Asian cinema). While Leah and Michel do reach the middle class, there is an element of precarity to their lives; in contrast, Nat and Frank are comfortably well off, thanks to his family’s wealth and her career as a barrister, even more so after she moves from legal aid work defending working class people to practicing corporate law. Leah is acutely aware of the growing class gulf between them, which is highlighted every time she and Michel are invited to a dinner party, ‘where she and Michel … provide something like local colour’ (85). And Natalie and Frank often take over telling Leah and Michel’s stories:

Natalie’s version of Leah and Michel’s anecdote is over. The conversational baton passes to others, who tell their anecdotes with more panache, linking them to matters of wider culture, debates in the newspapers. (86)

At one point, Frank jokingly asks Leah, ‘Why is it that everyone from your school is a criminal crackhead?’, to which she replies, ‘Why’s everyone from yours a Tory minister?’ (61).

Another comparison:

Leah passes the old estate every day on the walk to the corner shop. She can see it from her backyard. Nat lives just far enough away to avoid it. (63)

Or take this scene, which captures so many of the insecurities and anxieties of not having come from money and now having a little:

On the way back from the chain supermarket where they shop, though it closed down the local grocer and pays slave wages, with new bags though they should take old bags, leaving with broccoli from Kenya and tomatoes from Chile and unfair coffee and sugary crap and the wrong newspaper.
They are not good people. They do not even have the integrity to be the sort of people who don’t worry about being good people. They worry all the time. They are stuck in the middle again. They buy always Pinot Grigio or Chardonnay because these are the only words they know that relate to wine. They are attending a dinner party and for this you need to bring a bottle of wine. This much they have learnt. They do not purchase ethical things because they can’t afford them, Michel claims, and Leah says, no, it’s because you can’t be bothered. Privately she thinks: you want to be rich like them but you can’t be bother with their morals, whereas I am more interested in their morals than their money, and this thought, this opposition, makes her feel good. Marriage as the art of invidious comparison. (80)

Here, as elsewhere in the novel, an extra layer is added by the narrator’s voice (which is of course not to be confused with Smith herself), which implies an omniscient perspective but which also sounds like someone from a different class background – the final sentence does not sound a lot like Leah. The narrative voice, sometimes right up close to the character, sometimes quite distant, here is rather slippery: is Leah ironically observing her own foibles, or is the narrator passing judgment on her?

Michel starts trading penny shares online,

dreaming of a windfall that will transport them to another urban suburb more to his taste, which means no more African, less Caribbean. (90)

This is part of the much larger logic of class mobility and of house prices in the city. When Nat and Rodney, her boyfriend from church whose mum was a dinner lady and dad a bus driver, are studying for their A-levels, the narrator tells us of their ambitions:

They were going to be lawyers, the first people in either of their families to become professionals. They thought life was a problem that could be solved by means of professionalization. (202)

Around about that time, Nat recalls Leah’s mum’s enthusiasm about moving house:

‘It’s practically Maida Vale’ (197).

And when it comes to house prices:

The mistake was to think that the money precisely signified – or was equivalent to – a particular arrangement of bricks and mortar. The money was not for those pokey terraced houses with their short back gardens. The money was for the distance the house put between you and Caldwell [the estate they came from]. (252)

Leah’s moment of crisis is finally brought about after she and Michel allow Nat and Frank to persuade them not to attend the Notting Hill carnival, but to instead go to a party in a flat overlooking the carnival. They watch rather than participate; the mass of people to which they used to belong are reduced to a spectacle for the wealthy, to their entertainment value, and are kept as far away as possible.

In a similar vein, Nat is agonisingly aware of how she is changing into someone else. When Frank blames Nat’s mum, brother and sister for their own poverty – Jayden could get a job, Cheryl could stop having children by various fathers – she stands up for them:

‘They don’t refuse to help me, Frank – they can’t!’ cried Natalie Blake, and launched into a passionate defence of her family, despite the fact she was not speaking to any of them. (228)

She realises, too, that she has turned Rodney, ‘in many ways himself a miracle of self-invention’ like her, ‘into a comic anecdote to be told at dinner parties’ (194).

Later, in a supermarket queue behind a working class mother trying desperately to find the money she needs to pay for her groceries, and having to ask the cashier to take back this and that item, Nat realises that she

had completely forgotten what it was like to be poor. It was a language she’d stopped being able to speak, or even to understand. (276)

To wrap up our discussion of class in the novel we took a look at a passage from part two of the novel, chapters 125–8 (pp.242–5), in which Nat joins her first law firm and runs into her cousin Tonya, to think about class signification, difference and experience.

A key part of the novel’s consideration of multiculturalism and of class is its emphasis on the flux and constant becoming of urban identity – that it is not monolithic and fixed, but like the city itself fluid and always in transformation, constantly emerging as something new. Keisha – who in her teens has not yet changed her name to Natalie – first realises how unfixed identity is, how prone to change, when Leah starts hanging out in Camden and developing a taste for

Baudelaire or Bukowksi or Nick Drake or Sonic Youth or Joy Division or boys who looked like girls or vice versa or Anne Rice or William Burroughs or Kafka’s Metamorphosis or CND or Glastonbury or the Situationists or Breathless or Samuel Beckett or Andy Warhol or a million other Camden things, and when Keisha brought a wondrous Monie Love 7-inch to play on Leah’s hi-fi there was something awful in the way Leah blushed and conceded it was probably OK to dance to. They had only Prince left, and he was wearing thin. (185)

This sudden change, and the accompanying dislocation of their friendship, leaves Keisha

wondering whether she herself had any personality at all or was in truth only the accumulation and reflection of all the things she had read in books and seen on television. (185)

 Similarly, while transcribing a song she and her friend Layla are writing for their church group, Keisha looks in the mirror across the room:

Two admirable young sisters, their hair still plaited by their mothers, sat on the edge of a makeshift stage, one singing and the other transforming music into its shadow, musical notation. That’s you. That’s her. She is real. You are a forgery. Look closer. Look away. She is consistent. You are making it up as you go along. She must never know. (188–9)

As she and Leah drift further apart – as she loses the condition at school of ‘being Leah Hanwell’s friend’ and is ‘now relegated to the conceptual realm of “those church kids”’ (191) – Keisha plumbs the depths of adolescent angst:

She considered herself peculiarly afflicted, and it is not an exaggeration to say that she struggled to think of anyone besides perhaps James Baldwin and Jesus who had experienced the profound isolation and loneliness she now knew to be the one and only true reality of this world. (192)

At the end of a trip down from Edinburgh to visit Keisha – now called Nat – at Bristol university, Leah tells Nat ‘You’re the only person I can be all of myself with’, which makes her cry:

not really at the sentiment but rather out of a fearful knowledge that if reversed the statement would be rendered practically meaningless, Ms Blake having no self to be, not with Leah, or anyone. (208)

Soon, Nat breaks up with Rodney and becomes ‘crazy busy with self-invention’ (209). By the time she graduates and begins training to become a barrister, she has chased after experience, fashioned a self. But she never seems to realise that Leah – and everyone else – is caught up in self-creation, bound in various ways to their roots but also always headed into becoming. This is suggested when Frank, with whom Nat did not become involved at university, suddenly turns up, also training to be a barrister:

And there was indeed something intimate about the way they spoke to each other, heads close, looking out across the room. Natalie fell so easily into the role, she had to remind herself that this intimacy had not existed before tonight. It was being manufactured at this present moment, along with its history. (216)

Some years later, Nat is still not sure she is, and in rapid succession completely fails to recognise herself in three descriptions of her given by her brother Jayden (264), Leah (268) and Layla (277–8). This leads her to muse, in the single paragraph chapter 170 called In drag:

Daughter drag. Sister drag. Mother drag. Wife drag. Court drag. Rich drag. Poor drag. British drag. Jamaican drag. Each required a different wardrobe. But when considering these various attitudes she struggled to think what would be the most authentic, or perhaps the least inauthentic. (278)

Identity, it seems, is a collection of roles she plays, all partly pre-scripted by the expectations of others (or her anticipation of others’ expectations) and the signifiers of costume, demeanour, language and so on deemed appropriate. Perhaps she has being reading Judith Butler. She certainly has a well-developed sense of the quotidian performativity required by the complex urban environments she inhabits and through which she moves. Maybe that early intuition about being an accumulation and reflection of the socio-cultural realm is not so far wrong; maybe all subjectivity is is the chaotic non-linear determinism of constant becoming.

In the closing pages of the novel, as Nat roams north-west London in the company of Nathan Bogle – he was at school with her and Leah, he had an actual try-out for professional football team, but has long since drifted into a life of petty crime – it eventually dawns on her that he was involved in the fatal stabbing of Felix (with which the first and second sections of the novel ended). Twice Nathan comments on some of the bad things he does to get by, adding ‘you know that ain’t the real me. You know me from back in the day’ (305) and ‘You remember me. You know who I am’ (316). He clings to the image of a whole self, a true self, that once existed and somewhere beneath the mess of his life still exists. He is stuck in that combination of false memory and denial.

Frustratingly, this encounter leads her to tell the depressed Leah, who is wondering why she has the life she has, why she was one of the ones who succeeded in getting away from her working class roots, that

we worked harder. … We were smarter and we knew we didn’t want to end up begging on other people’s doorsteps. We wanted to get out. People like Bogle – they didn’t want it enough. I’m sorry if you find that answer ugly, Lee, but it’s the truth. This is one of the things that you learn in the courtroom: people generally get what they deserve. (332)

It is a horrible, arrogant and self-deceiving speech, and it is hard to tell how much Nat believes it. It is certainly a change of tune. And by the novel’s own logic, this hardening of attitude (which echoes the opinions of some of the more privileged characters, with whom she has hitherto disagreed) is a deadly mistake. Just as Nathan was stuck in the past, so this speech’s performance of certainty seeks to draw a line under her past, to deny it, and thus to fix a monolithic identity in place.

Moments later Nat phones the police to inform on Nathan.

The final sentence of the novel – which might be addressed to the police, or to Leah about something else entirely – fortunately returns some uncertainty and ambiguity to her:

‘I got something to tell you,’ said Keisha Blake, disguising her voice with her voice. (333)

 

This was the final week of the module in terms of teaching – week 24, which I will not blog about, is devoted to final assignment preparation. All being well, I will next year blog about my new second-year module, Genre and the Fantastic, which I am starting to plan in the gaps between wrapping up this year’s teaching and marking.

Recommended critical reading
Banting, Keith, Will Kymlicka, Richard Johnston and Stuart Soroka ‘Do Multiculturalism Policies Erode the Welfare State: An Empirical Analysis’. Multiculturalism and the Welfare State. Ed. Banting and Kymlicka. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2006. 49–91.
Duff, Kim. Contemporary British Literature and Urban Space: After Thatcher. Basingstoke: 2014. 87-122.
Groes, Sebastian. The Making of London: London in Contemporary Literature. Basingstoke: Palgrave, 2011. 191–251.
James, David. “Wounded Realism.” Contemporary Literature 54.1 (2013): 204–14.
Knepper, Wendy. “Revisionary Modernism and Postmillenial Experimentation in Zadie Smith’s NW.” Reading Zadie Smith: The First Decade and Beyond. Ed. Philip Tew. London: Bloomsbury, 2013. 111–126.
Malik, Sarita. “The Dark Side of Hybridity: Contemporary Black and Asian British Cinema.” in Daniela Berghahn and Claudia Sternberg, eds, European Cinema in Motion: Migrant Diasporic Film in Contemporaary Europe. Basingstoke: Palgrave, 2010. 132–151.
Pope, Ged. Reading London’s Suburbs: From Charles Dickens to Zadie Smith. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2015. Especially 161–202.
Tew, Philip. The Contemporary British Novel. 2nd ed. London: Continuum, 2007.
–. Zadie Smith. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2010.
Wells, Lynn. “The Right to a Secret: Zadie Smith’s NW.” Reading Zadie Smith: The First Decade and Beyond. Ed. Philip Tew. London: Bloomsbury, 2013. 97–110.

Recommended reading
For other contemporary British Afrodiasporic fiction, try Two Fingers and James T. Kirk’s Junglist (1995), Andrea Levy’s Never Far from Nowhere (1996), Courttia Newland’s The Scholar: A West-Side Story (1997), Alex Wheatle’s Brixton Rock (1999), Courttia Newland and Kedija Sesay’s IC3: The Penguin Book of New Black Writing in Britain (2000), Zadie Smith’s White Teeth (2000), Leila Aboulela’s Minaret (2005), Brian Chikwava’s Harare North (2010) or Tendai Huchu’s The Maestro, The Magistrate and the Mathematician (2014).

Recommended viewing
Afrodiasporic British cinema includes Pressure (Ové 1976), Black Joy (Simmons 1977), Dread Beat an’ Blood (Rosso 1979), Babylon (Rosso 1981), Burning An Illusion (Shabazz 1981), The Passion of Remembrance (Blackwood and Julien 1986), Playing Away (Ové 1987), Welcome II the Terrordome (Onwwurah 1995), Dog Eat Dog (Shoaibi 2001), A Way of Life (Asante 2004), Bullet Boy (Dibb 2004), Kidulthood (Huda 2006), Life & Lyrics (Laxton 2006), Rollin’ with the Nines (Gilbey 2006), Adulthood (Clarke 2008), Shame (McQueen 2011) and My Brother the Devil (El Hosaini 2012).

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The City in Fiction and Film, week 22: Zadie Smith’s NW, part one (pp. 1–169)

week 21

Over the last few weeks, we’ve been bandying about the word ‘multiculturalism’ in a pretty loose sense, as if everyone knows and agrees on its meaning. The HarperCollins Dictionary of Sociology (1991) seems pretty clear in its definition:

the acknowledgment and promotion of cultural pluralism … multiculturalism celebrates and seeks to promote cultural variety, for example minority languages. At the same time it focuses on the unequal relationship of minority to mainstream cultures.

But like all dictionary definitions, it obscures the extent to which such terms are politically alive, wrestled over in and by our culture, meaning different things depending on who is saying them, where, when and for what purpose. It is a contested term, with multiple competing meanings, and is often used without any attempt at precision – especially in popular political discourse.

The term dates back to 1960s and 1970s, when – as part of the complex politics of white settler nations within the British Commonwealth – Australia changed its immigration laws to allow entry to previously excluded Asian migrants, and when Canada was not only changing its immigration laws but also wrestling with the relationship between an Anglophone majority and a Francophone minority, primarily Québécois, and with growing First Nations activism. Generally speaking, new migrants were encouraged not to assimilate (as in America’s melting pot, in which everyone is equal so long as they adopt white middle class values) but to integrate (as in Canada’s alternative metaphor of a mosaic of peoples); that is, they were enabled to retain their ‘home’ or ‘natal’ culture, and the development of ethnic community infrastructures was encouraged as a mechanism to foster integration.

In the UK, the then Home Secretary Roy Jenkins, pursuing a similar policy, said in 1966:

Integration is perhaps a rather loose word. I do not regard it as meaning the loss, by immigrants, of their own national characteristics and culture. I do not think we need in this country a ‘melting pot’, which will turn everyone out into a common mould, as one of a series of carbon copies of someone’s misplaced vision of the stereotyped Englishman … I define integration, therefore, not as a flattening process of uniformity, but cultural diversity, coupled with equality of opportunity in an atmosphere of mutual tolerance … If we are to maintain any sort of world reputation for civilised living and social cohesion, we must get far nearer to its achievement than is the case today.

Of course, while this massive conceptual, political and cultural shift was occurring, already discredited ideas of race as a meaningful biological concept still circulated, so it was often still the case that migrant populations were regarded as racially different. For all that ‘multiculturalism’ emphasises culture, this deep-rooted shadow meaning persists (when we hear politicians and others attacking multiculturalism, they are as often as not talking about race).

While there are all kinds of brilliant positive things about integration in contrast to assimilation, it has also been the subject of political manipulation. An approach that encouraged cultural diversity has been blamed for ‘failures of assimilation’ (which were of course never the goal, so they cannot honestly be regarded as failures). Furthermore, it is often retconned into a racist narrative that says multiculturalism was introduced because it is somehow impossible for different races to assimilate. Hostility around perceived racial difference has thus been blamed on the racially other for their failure to be assimilated rather than on the host nation’s inability and frequent unwillingness to integrate properly – which would include the education of the host population around such issues. And while there are often instances of migrant communities being unwilling to relinquish their cultural distinctiveness, that is exactly the point of multiculturalism – it is not a glitch, it’s a feature.

It is also important to remember that multiculturalism is not just about immigrant populations. Yes, it is about immigrant minorities, such as South Asians and Afro-Caribbeans in the UK. But it is also about substate national minorities, such as the Québécois in Canada, and about similar populations more geographically dispersed within a nation, such as African American population. And it is also about indigenous peoples: First Nations in Canada, Native American Indians in the US, Aboriginals in Australia, Maori in New Zealand, and so on. Each of these groups, and each of these kinds of groups, have their own distinctive histories and their own particular needs to be met within a multicultural state.

Keith Banting, Will Kymlicka, Richard Johnston and Stuart Soroka, in a piece of research examining whether multicultural policies have a negative effect on the welfare state across a number of European and other nations, identify eight key kinds of policy that multiculturalism implies:

  • constitutional, legislative or parliamentary affirmation of multiculturalism at the central and/or regional and municipal levels
  • adoption of multiculturalism in the school curriculum
  • inclusion of ethnic minority representation and sensitivity in the mandate of public media or media licensing
  • exemptions from dress codes (e.g., Sikhs wearing turbans rather than crash helmets or school caps), from laws banning Sunday trading, etc.
  • allowing dual citizenship
  • funding ethnic group organisations to support cultural activities
  • funding bilingual education and mother-tongue instruction
  • affirmative action for disadvantaged groups

They then examined their sample nations in terms of their commitment to such policies:

  • Strong adopters (6-8 policies): Australia, Canada
  • Modest adopters (3-5.5 policies): Belgium, Netherlands, Sweden, UK, USA
  • Weak adopters (under 3 policies): Austria, Denmark, Finland, France, Germany, Greece, Ireland, Italy, Norway, Portugal, Spain, Switzerland

So next time you hear a British politician banging on about ‘the failure of the multicultural experiment’, remember the UK falls into the ‘didn’t actually try all that hard’ group.

NW (2012) is Zadie Smith’s fourth novel, following White Teeth (2000), The Autograph Man (2002) and On Beauty (2005). She was born in Brent in London in 1975, to a Jamaican mother and Anglo father; and she wrote much of her first novel in the final year of her English Literature degree at King’s College, Cambridge (at Cambridge, she failed an audition to be in the Footlights, rejected it is said by Mitchell and Webb). Her novels are, among other things, concerned with the matter-of-fact, normalising representation of the multicultural city, especially London. Her work is also defined by a kind of stylistic restlessness, as if each novel is as concerned with finding the voice in which to write as it is with the characters or narrative. This is emphasised in NW by the variety of approaches she brings to third-person narration in each of the novel’s sections – and even sentence-by-sentence as she manipulates the proximity of the narrator’s voice to the viewpoint character’s perspective.

We began by reading the opening chapter together, seeing how Smith establishes setting, mood, atmosphere, character and theme. It begins with a too-hot spring day, the sun altering how the periphery of a Willesden council estate looks from just a few doors down, where Leah, born on the estate, reclines in a hammock in the shared garden behind her basement flat. Significantly, she has moved on in to private accommodation, just not very far. A caricatured sunburned and overweight-in-a-crop-top working class girl smokes a fag on a balcony in the nearby block of flats, talking too loud on her mobile phone. Leah is a second generation Irish immigrant, pale-skinned and red-headed. The gap between her and her loud neighbour troubles her: physical proximity to her past assuages some of the guilt she feels about her class mobility, even though has not ascended the hierarchy that far. She has also just found out she is pregnant by her Nigerian-French husband Michel; he wants kids, she does not.

We also read chapters 9 and 10 of the first section together. The former is a googlemaps-style set of directions to walk from an address in NW8 to another in NW6; the latter is a dérive, a trek along the same route described as a succession of sense impressions – smells, glimpsed commodities, adverts, leaflets, music from passing cars – which capture the experience of moving from bustling, working class streets to the wealthier and more barricaded areas around Regent’s Park and St John’s Wood:

The Arabs, the Israelis, the Russian, the Americans: here united by the furnished penthouse, the private clinic. If we pay enough, if we squint, Kilburn need not exist. (40)

This pair of chapters captures something essential to the novel’s project – the filling in and fleshing out of the city not as an abstract space but as a place (or a nested and interlocking array of places), rich in history and memory, both public and private. The city no more precedes these places than a map precedes the territory.

Branching out from these chapters, we were able to discuss the ways in which Smith captures the ethnic diversity of London, from ‘a life-size porcelain tiger’ to the many various ways in which muslim women observe (or not) strictures about headdress, which bear ‘no relation to the debates in the papers, in Parliament’ (39). It is there in the built environment, too, with ‘the Islamic Centre of England opposite the Queen’s Arms’ (40).

We will return to the novel next week, to consider the ways in which it talks about social and economic class, and suggests that urban identity is not a fixed thing but something that, for all its roots, nonetheless constantly emerges in the moment.

Attack_The_Block_2We also took a look at Attack the Block (Cornish 2011), a British banlieue movie that probably owes more to District 13 (Morel 2004) than La Haine (Kassovitz 1995), and a lot to US hip-hop/ghetto cinema, but which nonetheless has something of Passport to Pimlico (Cornelius 1949) about it. It recalls our work on Boyz N the Hood (Singleton 1991) in its focus on how the protagonists are trapped within their South London estate (filmed on the Heygate estate before it was demolished, complete with multiple scandals) but its greater significance in relation to NW is the way in which it fills in and fleshes out. It starts with a young white woman, Sam (Jodie Whitaker), walking home at night, and being mugged at knifepoint by a gang of youths in hoodies. The gang is multiethnic – and the film never highlights nor makes an issue of this – though no doubt David Starkey would say something racist about them all being ‘culturally black’. At the same time as it invests in a romantic narrative of gang loyalty and redemptive male violence, the film does also work to undermine these ideas. Perhaps the key moment comes at the end, when the Jodie stands by her erstwhile mugger, Moses (John Boyega), when the police arrest him – he is, after all they have gone though, her neighbour. Part of her community. It is all a little too glib and easy, but it hits an affective chord.

We also could not quite figure out what it means that this multicultural gang – a stand-in for a multicultural community – defend the block against violent, featureless black male monsters from outer space. A little too much like Zulu (Endfield 1964) or Black Hawk Down (Scott 2001) in its use of this fundamentally racist colonial adventure narrative set-up.

week 23

Recommended critical reading
Banting, Keith, Will Kymlicka, Richard Johnston and Stuart Soroka ‘Do Multiculturalism Policies Erode the Welfare State: An Empirical Analysis’. Multiculturalism and the Welfare State. Ed. Banting and Kymlicka. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2006. 49–91.
Duff, Kim. Contemporary British Literature and Urban Space: After Thatcher. Basingstoke: 2014. 87-122.
Groes, Sebastian. The Making of London: London in Contemporary Literature. Basingstoke: Palgrave, 2011. 191–251
James, David. “Wounded Realism.” Contemporary Literature 54.1 (2013): 204–14.
Knepper, Wendy. “Revisionary Modernism and Postmillenial Experimentation in Zadie Smith’s NW.” Reading Zadie Smith: The First Decade and Beyond. Ed. Philip Tew. London: Bloomsbury, 2013. 111–126.
Malik, Sarita. “The Dark Side of Hybridity: Contemporary Black and Asian British Cinema.” in Daniela Berghahn and Claudia Sternberg, eds, European Cinema in Motion: Migrant Diasporic Film in Contemporaary Europe. Basingstoke: Palgrave, 2010. 132–151.
Pope, Ged. Reading London’s Suburbs: From Charles Dickens to Zadie Smith. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2015. Especially 161–202.
Tew, Philip. The Contemporary British Novel. 2nd ed. London: Continuum, 2007.
–. Zadie Smith. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2010.
Wells, Lynn. “The Right to a Secret: Zadie Smith’s NW.” Reading Zadie Smith: The First Decade and Beyond. Ed. Philip Tew. London: Bloomsbury, 2013. 97–110.

Recommended reading
For other contemporary British Afrodiasporic fiction, try Two Fingers and James T. Kirk’s Junglist (1995), Andrea Levy’s Never Far from Nowhere (1996), Courttia Newland’s The Scholar: A West-Side Story (1997), Alex Wheatle’s Brixton Rock (1999), Courttia Newland and Kedija Sesay’s IC3: The Penguin Book of New Black Writing in Britain (2000), Zadie Smith’s White Teeth (2000), Leila Aboulela’s Minaret (2005), Brian Chikwava’s Harare North (2010) or Tendai Huchu’s The Maestro, The Magistrate and the Mathematician (2014).

Recommended viewing
Afrodiasporic British cinema includes Pressure (Ové 1976), Black Joy (Simmons 1977), Dread Beat an’ Blood (Rosso 1979), Babylon (Rosso 1981), Burning An Illusion (Shabazz 1981), The Passion of Remembrance (Blackwood and Julien 1986), Playing Away (Ové 1987), Welcome II the Terrordome (Onwwurah 1995), Dog Eat Dog (Shoaibi 2001), A Way of Life (Asante 2004), Bullet Boy (Dibb 2004), Kidulthood (Huda 2006), Life & Lyrics (Laxton 2006), Rollin’ with the Nines (Gilbey 2006), Adulthood (Clarke 2008), Shame (McQueen 2011) and My Brother the Devil (El Hosaini 2012).

The City in Fiction and Film, week 21: My Beautiful Laundrette (Frears 1985)

767_BD_box_348x490_originalweek 20

This week we took a step back to think about Black British cinema, but not before picking up on the questions of diaspora discussed last week.

William Safran argues that they are six key characteristics of diaspora:

  • Diaspora refers to people who have ‘been dispersed from a specific original “center” to two or more “peripheral,” or foreign, regions’
  • Diaspora refers to these dispersed communities when they ‘retain a collective memory, vision, or myth about their original homeland – its physical location, history, and achievements’
  • Diasporic communities believe that ‘they are not – and perhaps cannot be – fully accepted by their host society and therefore feel partly alienated and insulated from it’
  • Diasporas overwhelmingly ‘regard their ancestral homeland as their true, ideal home and as the place to which they or their descendants would (or should) eventually return – when conditions are appropriate’
  • Diasporic communities ‘believe that they should, collectively, be committed to the maintenance or restoration or their original homeland and to its safety and prosperity’
  • Diasporic communities often ‘relate, personally or vicariously, to that homeland in one way or another, and their ethnocommunal consciousness and solidarity are importantly defined by the existence of such a relationship’

 

Robin Cohen can provide four further tweaks to our understanding of the concept:

  • Diasporas may include ‘groups that scatter for aggressive or voluntaristic purposes’, including revolutionary minorities struggling for a homeland and those travelling for trade reasons
  • Diasporic consciousness depends upon a ‘strong tie to the past or a block to assimilation in the present and future’
  • Diasporas are also defined positively – diasporic consciousness recognises ‘the positive virtues of retaining a diasporic identity’, as well as a ‘tension between an ethnic, a national and a transnational identity’ that is ‘often creative [and] enriching’
  • Members of a diaspora share ‘a collective identity in a place of settlement, putative or real homeland … and with co-ethnic members in other countries’

 

And finally, Jana Evans Braziel and Anita Mannur argue that diaspora can be understood as a critique of nation and globalization:

  • Diasporas transmit information, finance, remitted capital and desire across the international borders of nation-states, connecting to those left behind
  • Diasporas are also global capitalist economic formations created by push/pull factors of national economies, regional trading blocs, and other global forces (outmigration and remittance, outsourcing of labour, importation of multinational corporations)
  • Ultimately, diasporas may be produced by power, but it is not always able to control what it produces

As these authors show, diaspora is a complex, contested and sometimes fuzzy concept – and although this can be frustrating when you want to use the idea/term with precision, it is ultimately a good thing since it invites you into a conversation about its meaning, it gives a much bigger picture of human movement around the globe, both historically and in the present moment, and it keeps you from slipping into the kind of simple-minded ‘thinking’ about migration that mainstream media typically evokes in contexts of crisis and panic.

In the 1960s-80s, ‘Black British’ was adopted as an identity by many Britons from the Asian, African and Caribbean diasporas. It was an umbrella term devised and used

not only to trample on a history of negation, but also to find a cohesive voice in order to fight collectively for greater political rights and better representation. It was the shared experience of both colonialism and British racism which united Black British citizens and allowed them to construct an identity for themselves. (Malik 204)

In the 1960s, occasional isolated examples of Black British cinema appeared, typically narrative shorts – such as Lionel Ngakane’s 29-minute Jemima and Johnny (1963) and Lloyd Reckord’s 12-minute Ten Bob in Winter (1963) – or short documentaries – such as Horace Ové’s 46-minute Baldwin’s Nigger (1969), featuring James Baldwin and Dick Gregory, and his 60-minute concert movie Reggae (1970), featuring the Pyramids, Pioneers, Black Faith, Millie, Maytals and Desmond Dekker.

The gradually emerging Black British cinema has been described as ‘the cinema of duty’ – as Cameron Bailey (qtd in Malik 203–4) explains:

Social issue in content, documentary-realist in style, firmly responsible in intention – [the cinema of duty] positions its subjects in direct relation to social crisis, and attempts to articulate “problems” and “solutions to problems” within a framework of centre and margin, white and non-white communities. The goal is often to tell buried or forgotten stories, to write unwritten histories, to “correct” the misrepresentations of the mainstream.

That James Baldwin should then appear in one of the first Black British films is not insignificant, given his own struggle as a writer with the burden of representation, and against being positioned as a spokesperson for African Americans; also, that as a gay author writing about gay and bisexual men (e.g., Giovanni’s Room (1956)), he opens up the importance of intersectionality even when it is strategically important to draw on a larger political identity, such as Black British.

Although it is often easy in retrospect to bemoan texts that are burdened with dutifulness, Jim Pines (again qtd in Malik 204) reminds us that

Such films are important for the way in which they “answered back” to … the “official race relations narrative” … by offering an alternative view of diasporic experience.

In 1975, Horace Ové made the first feature film by a Black British director, Pressure, co-written by Sam Selvon. Broadly neo-realist in style, it follows Tony (Herbert Norville), a second generation Black Briton, whose parents migrated from Trinidad, and captures the day-to-day experience, the lived texture, of blackness in a white racist country. We watched the agonising scene in which Tony goes for a job interview at the county council for a junior accountancy post, and no one was expecting a black teenager to apply. Similar films soon followed, such as Black Joy (Simmons 1977) and Babylon (Rosso 1981); and the first British Asian film, A Private Enterprise (Peter Smith 1975).

Such films tended to fall back into depicting characters as ‘trapped between cultures’, with assimilation into Britishness as the best outcome, and into thinking in overly simplistic terms of positive and negative images (as if there were some kind of single objective position from which such judgments could be made). Also, by adopting social realist visual and narrative style, which tend to be invisible to viewers, the films tended to have the effect of reinforcing the notion that ‘this is the way it is’.

In the 1980s, Black British Cinema can be understood in terms of the development of two production sectors: commercial independent production companies, such as Kuumba Productions, Anancy Films, Penumbra Productions, and Social Film and Video, which were commissioned by mainstream television to produce programming; and grant-aided or subsidised workshops, such as Sankofa, Ceddo, Black Audio Film Collective, Retake, Star, Birmingham Film and Video Workshop, which were – among other things – committed to training people to make films. The workshop sector tended to produce more experimental films (including documentary) rather than narrative features, although this was partly a consequence of what funding bodies were interested in; and as John Akomfrah and others have noted, the sector’s freedom from commercial imperatives gave filmmakers time and space to think, be critical, develop new modes of representing Black people.

And in the 1980s and 1990s, Black British cinema began to emerge as a significant – and commercial – phenomenon, with such films as Burning An Illusion (Shabazz 1981), My Beautiful Laundrette (Frears 1985), The Passion of Remembrance (Blackwood and Julien 1986), Playing Away (Ové 1987), Sammy and Rosie Get Laid (Frears 1987), Young Soul Rebels (Julien 1991), Wild West (Attwood 1992), Bhaji on the Beach (Chadha 1993) and Welcome II the Terrordome (Onwwurah 1995). Still struggling with the burden of representation, and with the need to be financially successful, they nonetheless tried to address identity in often complex terms. As Sarita Malik writes,

They refuse a simple focus on racial politics and acknowledge other facets of identity. They are multilayered and complex films, not only in terms of narrative, but also in terms of genre, style and film form. As such, they render redundant those critical discourses which depend on the rigid dichotomies of Black versus White, negative versus positive, representative versus unrepresentative, realism versus fantasy, and so on. (210–11)

In the 1990s and 2000s, Black British cinema effectively split in two – partly as a consequence of a broader cultural shift from collective to identity politics. Currently, we have in effect black British cinema and British Asian cinema. The former tends to be comprised of films about inner city deprivation and criminality. Drawing on social problem and gangster traditions/genres, and influenced by hip-hop and US ghetto movies (plus La Haine), it is now sometimes called ‘urban’ film. Examples include Dog Eat Dog (Shoaibi 2001), A Way of Life (Asante 2004), Bullet Boy (Dibb 2004), Kidulthood (Huda 2006), Life & Lyrics (Laxton 2006), Rollin’ with the Nines (Gilbey 2006), Adulthood (Clarke 2008), Shank (Ali 2010), Come Down (Huda 2010) and My Brother the Devil (El Haisani 2012). British Asian cinema instead tends to deal with cultural/religious traditionalism vs. secular liberalism, and take the form of social comedies, interethnic romances and Bollywood-style melodrama. In part this is a consequence of a tradition of families attending cinemas together, of British Asians buying and running cinemas that show imported Indian films, and of the role British Indian cinema plays in what has been called pan-Indian cinema – that is Bollywood and other Indian cinemas as well as films produced within the Indian diaspora, such as the films of Indian-Canadian Deepa Mehta. Examples include Bhaji on the Beach (Chadha 1993), My Son the Fanatic (Prasad 1997), Sixth Happiness (Hussein 1997), East is East (O’Donnell 1999), Anita and Me (Hüseyin 2002), Bend it Like Beckham (Chadha 2002), Love + Hate (Savage 2006), Brick Lane (Gavron 2007), Four Lions (Morris 2010), It’s a Wonderful Afterlife (Chadha 2010) and West is West (DeEmmony 2010).

In this context of diaspora, Black British Cinema and the emergence of identity politics and intersectionality, we took a look at Stephen Frears My Beautiful Laundrette (1985), written by Hanif Kureishi. Like Frears’s Dirty Pretty Things, it is a film uninterested in touristic views of London. Set primarily in a South London working class neighbourhood, it focuses on the complex relationship between a British Asian middle class and a white working class, and in intergenerational tensions between first- and second-generation British Asians, and in the breakdown of Black British identity, during the period of Thatcher and yuppies. Oh, and it is also about a queer interracial romance.

This mixture – and the history of white racist violence it outlines – combines to offer a vision of London, and of Britain and Britishness, that is both familiar and unfamiliar. It is right next door to – and a million miles from – Passport to Pimlico. Most importantly, it argues that identities, whether of individuals or groups, of neighbourhoods, cities or countries, are always already diverse, hybrid and in transition.

In the final two weeks of the module, we will read Zadie Smith’s NW (2012).

week 22

Core critical reading: Malik, Sarita. “Beyond ‘The Cinema of Duty’? The Pleasure of Hybridity: Black British Cinema in the 1980s and 1990s.” Dissolving Views: Key Writings on British Cinema. Ed. Andrew Higson. London: Cassell, 1996. 202–15.

Recommended critical reading
Alexander, Karen. “Black British Cinema in the 1990s: Going, Going, Gone.” British Cinema of the 90s. Ed. Robert Murphy. London: BFI, 2002. 109–14.
Braziel, Jana Evans and Anita Mannur, eds, Theorizing Diaspora: A Reader. Oxford: Blackwell, 2002.
Cohen, Robin. Global Diasporas: An Introduction. Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1997.
Givani, June. “A Curator’s Conundrum: Programming ‘Black Film’ in 1980s–1990s Britain.” The Moving Image 4.1 (2004): 60–75.
Parekh, Bhikhu. Rethinking Multiculturalism. 2nd ed. Basingstoke: Palgrave, 2006.
Pines, Jim. “The Cultural Context of Black British Cinema.” Black British Cultural Studies: A Reader. Ed. Houston A. Baker, Jr, Manthia Diawara and Ruth H. Lindeborg. Chicago: Chicago University Press, 1996. 183–93.
Rattansi, Ali. Multiculturalism: A Very Short Introduction. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000.
Safran, William. ‘Diasporas in Modern Societies: Myths of Homeland and Return’, Diaspora 1.1 (1991): 83-89
Sawhney, Cary Rajinder. “‘Another Kind of British’: An Exploration of British Asian Films.” Cineaste 26.4 (2001): 58–61.
Tarr, Carrie. Reframing Difference: Beur and Banlieue Filmmaking in France. Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2012.

Recommended reading
For contemporary British Asian fiction, try Hanif Kureishi’s The Buddha of Suburbia (1990), Aamer Hussein’s Turquoise 
(2002), Monica Ali’s Brick Lane (2003), Zahid Hussain’s The Curry Mile (2006), Gautam Malkani’s Londonstani (2006), Robin Yassin-Kassab’s The Road from Damascus (2009), Sathnam Sanghera’s Marriage Material (2013) and Khavita Bhanot’s Too Asian, Not Asian Enough: An Anthology of New British Asian Fiction (2011).
Memoirs such as Zaiba Malik’s We Are a Muslim, Please (2010) are also of interest.

Recommended viewing
British Asian cinema includes Sammy and Rosie Get Laid (Frears 1987), Bhaji on the Beach (Chadha 1993), My Son the Fanatic (Prasad 1997), Sixth Happiness (Hussein 1997), East is East (O’Donnell 1999), Anita and Me (Hüseyin 2002), Bend it Like Beckham (2002), Love + Hate (Savage 2006), Brick Lane (Gavron 2007), Four Lions (Morris 2010), It’s a Wonderful Afterlife (Chadha 2010) and West is West (DeEmmony 2010).
Multicultural Britain is also on display in films such as A Room for Romeo Brass (Meadows 1999), South West 9 (Parry 2001) and Ae Fond Kiss (Loach 2004).

The City in Fiction and Film, week 18

Boyz_n_the_hood_poster.jpgWeek 17

This week we turned to African-American cinematic representations of the city, from blaxploitation and the LA Rebellion group up to the New Jack Cinema and Boyz N the Hood (Singleton 1991). We were guided by Paula J Massood’s argument in Black City Cinema: African American Urban Experiences in Film that:

In the 1960s and 1970s, the American terrifying other was a generalized inner-city ghetto; in the 1990s, it became the young black man. (166)

Last week, we ended with Taxi Driver’s vision of an infernal Manhattan populated by a profoundly fallen humanity (Scorsese is nothing if not a Catholic director). It is an overtly stylised world, often seen through the windscreen of the vehicle which lends Travis mobility while separating him from the world outside. Typically, blaxploitation has a rather different sense of the city and explores it through different aesthetic choices. These points came up in our discussion of the opening sequence of Shaft (Parks 1971):

  • daylight shooting
  • long shots (and some long takes) using zoom lenses on frequently uncontrolled locations
  • concealed – or apparently concealed – cameras so as to not draw the attention of passersby unaware that they are being filmed
  • the city is shabby, run-down, collapsing, but also lively – and there is an everyday rather than demonic quality to the hustling
  • Shaft (Richard Roundtree) moves through the crowded streets with a confidence that Travis Bickle lacked, untraumatised it seems by his experience of being in the world, mixing freely with others both black and white as if by his sheer presence he can command a world without racism
  • different kind of soundtrack, and different relationship between soundtrack and image

Manthia Diawara argues that

space is related to power and powerlessness … those who occupy the center of the screen are usually more powerful than those situated in the background or completely absent from the screen. (qtd in Massood 173)

The opening of Shaft also points to this key factor in blaxploitation – for the first time since the threadbare and now mostly lost race movies of the 1920s and 1930s, large numbers of African-Americans (not just Sidney Poitier or Harry Belafonte, etc) got to occupy centre (and sometimes pretty much the entire) screen of a significant number of movies, as well as working in numbers behind the scenes. Richard Roundtree strutting easily through Manhattan to the sound of Isaac Hayes was and remains so utterly cool that we can perhaps still get some sense, 45 years later and an ocean away, of how important that moment must have been (even if we might be even more inclined now to question the gender politics and Shaft’s tendency to extract himself from the African-American community).

According to Thomas Doherty’s Teenagers and Teenpics: The Juvenilization of American Cinema in the 1950s, the ‘exploitation’ in ‘exploitation films’ refers to
1) the way in which a film was advertised and marketed to entice an audience into the theatre
2) the way in which the film endeared itself to its audience – content
3) and finally as a particular kind of film

This kind of “exploitation” became a cohesive production strategy with three elements:
1) controversial/bizarre/timely subject matter amenable to promotion
2) a substandard budget
3) a teenage audience
i.e., triply exploitative – exploiting sensational events for story value, their public notoriety for publicity value, and a teenage audience for box office value

This is also pretty much the sense in which the ‘xploitation’ in ‘blaxploitation’ is intended.

In the early 1970s, African Americans constitute 25-40% of Hollywood’s US audience. Following the success of Cotton Comes to Harlem (Davis 1970), Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song (Van Peebles 1971) and Shaft (Parks 1971), a low- and medium-budget production cycle helped to restore Hollywood profitability, but was then abandoned with the emergence of blockbuster cinema – Jaws (Spielberg 1975), Star Wars (Lucas 1977), etc – and of different modes of distribution and exhibition, a process aided by the closure and/or grindhousing and/or pornification of downtown cinemas and an increase in suburban cinemas.

Ed Guerrero argues in Framing Blackness: The African American Image in Film that blaxploitation was part of a larger ‘black film boom’ that saw ‘ninety-one productions’ in 1971-73, ‘of which forty-seven can be considered models of the Blaxploitation formula’ (95) – a fomula that .

usually consisted of a pimp, gangster, or their baleful female counterparts, violently acting out a revenge or retribution motif against corrupt whites in the romanticized confines of the ghetto or inner city. These elements were fortified with liberal doses of gratuitous sex and drugs and the representation of whites as the very inscription of evil. And all this was rendered in the alluring visuals and aggrandized sartorial fashions of the black underworld and to the accompaniment of black musical scores that were usually of better quality than the films they energized. (94)

Blaxploitation had African American critics of this sort from the outset. The term was coined by Junius Griffin, the head of the NAACP’s Beverley Hills-Hollywood branch, when he was quoted in The Hollywood Reporter decrying such ‘black exploitation films’ as Super Fly (Parks Jr 1972). Within days, he resigned from his post and co-founded the Coalition against Blaxploitation (CAB), with the support of various of the more conservative civil rights organisations (e.g., CORE, SCLC). In ‘Black movie boom – good or bad?’ (The New York Times 17 December 1972), he argued that

If black movies do not contribute to building constructive, healthy images of black people and to fairly recording the black experience, we shall have lost our money and our souls [and] have contributed to our own cultural genocide by only offering our children the models of degradation, destruction and dope’ (D19)

Griffin was by no means representative of all African Americans. In the same The New York Times piece, Gordon Parks describes the audience’s response to a crowded 4am screening of his Shaft:

Everything was ‘right on!’ A new hero, black as coal, deadlier than Bogart and handsome as Gable, was doing the thing that everyone in that audience wanted to see done for so long. A black man was winning. (D3)

Parks says of the ‘so-called black intellectuals’ demanding an end to blaxploitation that:

it is curious that some black people, egged on by some whites, will use such destructive measures against black endeavors. … The most important thing to me is that young blacks can now … enter an industry that has been closed to them for so long. (D3).

In Isaac Julien’s documentary Baadasssss Cinema (2002), blaxploitation star and occasional director Fred Williamson criticises NAACP and CORE for coining the implicitly derogatory term, asking

Who was being exploited? All the black actors were getting paid. They had a job. They were going to work. The audience wasn’t being exploited. They were getting to see things on their screens they had longed for.

Blaxploitation star Gloria Hendry adds,

the organizations failed to understand that the community was really in need of their own heroes and black movies.

And The Black Panther newspaper devoted the entire 19 June 1971 issue to Huey P. Newton’s review of Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song, which concludes ‘We need to see it often and learn from it’ (in To Die for the People (San Francisco: City Lights,
2009) 148).

Many blaxploitation films have an original music soundtrack, including Earth, Wind & Fire on Sweetback Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song, Millie Jackson on Cleopatra Jones (Starrett 1973), James Brown on Black Caesar (Cohen 1973) and Edwin Starr on Hell up in Harlem (Cohen 1973). Sound itself is also often used in interesting ways – partly post-classical stylistic innovation, partly symptomatic of the films’ extremely low budgets which relied on shooting without sound and dubbing later. For example, the opening ten minutes of Super Fly (Parks Jr 1972) contains extended sequences of a couple of would-be muggers walking through New York streets, Super Fly driving through the streets, and then chasing one of the muggers through the streets, much of it to Curtis Mayfield’s soundtrack; there are several similar sequences later in the film, including on using split screen arrangements of still images. On one level, an economy-driven necessity, it becomes an aesthetics concerned with occupying the screen (and soundtrack) space, and key to an actualité-ish depiction of black urban life.

Blaxploitation was often immensely profitable across the budgetary scale, especially in terms of box-office to outlay ratios. MGM budgeted $1.2 million each for Cotton Comes to Harlem and Shaft; the former grossed over $8 million domestically, the latter over $10.8 million in its first year of distribution. Low-budget Cinerama Releasing Corporation spent $200,000 on The Mack (Campus 1973), which grossed over $3 million, and AIP spent $500,000 on Coffy (Hill 1973), which grossed $6 million. The independent Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song cost an estimated $500,000 and took $4.1 million on its initial domestic release, dislodging Love Story (Hiller 1971) from number one at the US box office, and eventually grossed $10-15 million.

The soundtracks were also often successful. The soundtrack albums for Shaft and Cleopatra Jones (Starrett 1973) sold hundreds of thousands of copies. Super Fly, the first entirely black-financed film to be released by a Hollywood Studio, and the first to employ an almost entirely Black and Puerto Rican crew (mostly drawn from Third World Cinema Corporation, a Harlem-based collective co-founded by Ossie Davis in 1971), had an estimated budget of $100,000 but took $6.4 million during its initial run, eventually grossing over $12 million. Controlled and released by his own publishing company and independent record label, Curtis Mayfield’s singles ‘Super Fly’ and ‘Freddie’s Dead’ sold over 1 million copies each; the soundtrack album sold 12 million copies, earning him over $5 million. (See Eithne Quinn, ‘“Tryin’ to get over”: Super Fly, black politics, and post-civil rights film enterprise’. Cinema Journal 49.2 (2010): 86-105.)

Next, we moved from East Coast to West, to take a look at the sequence in Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song after Sweetback beats the cops to death and goes on the run. Van Peebles’s stylisations are even more overt than those of Scorsese, layering images, saturating them in psychedlic hues, and cutting with the rhythm of the music, which itself often seems to be improvised in conjunction with the images. Los Angeles is a disjointed, ruptured wasteland, more or less devoid of humanity. It is low and close the ground in contrast to New York, and seems to stretch on forever. Others might escape by plane, but all Sweetback can do is run and run and run.

And then we moved from blaxploitation – a category in which Sweetback does not always seems to fit easily, despite its massive importance to the cycle – to the LA Rebellion group. This network of African-American filmmakers, who studied at UCLA from the late-1960s onwards, made films that set out to resist Hollywood – and blaxploitation – norms, embracing the influence of Italian neo-realism and other European art cinema, and of politicised and postcolonial Latin American and African filmmaking. They made experimental and documentary shorts, documentary features and, later, videos, but the easiest of their work to access is their fiction features, including: Charles Burnett’s Killer of Sheep (1978); Larry Clark’s Passing Through (1977); Julie Dash’s Daughters of the Dust (1991); Jamaa Fanaka’s Penitentiary (1979); Haile Gerima’s Bush Mama (1976) and Sankofa (1993); and Billy Woodberry’s Bless Their Little Hearts (1983).

We took a look at an early sequence from Killer of Sheep, in which African-American kids throw stones at each other and play in the wasteland between railroad tracks. While the landscape itself seems familiar from Sweetback, the grainy – but often beautiful – black-and-white photography (another intersection of budget and aesthetics) contrasts with Van Peebles’s restless (and desperate) innovations. It recalls, in different ways, a number of films we have already watched on the module (Bicycle Thieves, The Third Man, Passport to Pimlico, Cléo from 5 to 7, Ratcatcher).

The soundtrack is likewise naturalistic, just voices and sounds of the city, creating a rather different effect than blaxploitation’s commitment to cutting edge soul and funk (and to Bush Mama’s more experimental layering of fragmentary voices on its soundtrack).

The New Jack Cinema ran from roughly 1989-95. Its key filmmakers and films were
Spike Lee: She’s Gotta Have It (1986), School Daze (1988), Do the Right Thing (1989), Mo’ Better Blues (1990), Jungle Fever (1991), Malcolm X (1992), Crooklyn (1994), Clockers (1995), Girl 6 (1996), Get on the Bus (1996), He Got Game (1998), Bamboozled (2000)
Bill Duke: A Rage in Harlem (1991)
Matty Rich: Straight Out of Brooklyn (1991)
John Singleton: Boyz N the Hood (1991), Poetic Justice (1993), Higher Learning (1995), Rosewood (1997)
Mario Van Peebles: New Jack City (1991), Posse (1993), Panther (1995)
Leslie Harris: Just Another Girl on the IRT (1992)
Allen and Albert Hughes: Menace II Society (1993), Dead Presidents (1995), American Pimp (1999)
Ernest Dickerson: Juice (1992), Blind Faith (1998)

As with the more or less simultaneous New Queer Cinema, it had a strong focus on male experience, and made efforts to diversify representation without reiterating stereotypes or insisting on ‘positive’ images. Its primary focus on African American urban experience was influenced by blaxplotiation’s and the LA Rebellion’s use of actual locations, but was also intertwined with the emergence of hip-hop culture over the preceding decade and more. The New Jack Cinema often depicted gang life, violence, misogyny and drug use in negative terms, but frequently also succumbed to the spectacle such things offered. There were also strong elements of melodrama and liberal handwringing, and a championing of education and middle class lifestyle choices. Unlike Beverly Hills Cop (Brest 1984), New Jack movies tend not to take a single black protagonist out of his own community and relocate him in a white community – a strategy also deployed by many post-New Jack movies, such as Training Day (Fuqua 2001) – but instead builds a picture of an ethnically, culturally, linguistically and generationally diverse neighbourhood, with a history

It is important to bear in mind bell hooks’s comments on the historical, political, economic, cultural and social context of gangsta rap:

The sexist, misogynist, patriarchal ways of thinking and behaving that are glorified in gangsta rap are a reflection of the prevailing values in our society, values created and sustained by white supremacist capitalist patriarchy. (Outlaw Culture (London: Routledge, 1994): 116)

Like blaxploitation, the New Jack Cinema was often extremely profitable. She’s Gotta Have It was shot in 12 days for $175,000 and took over $7 million in the US alone. (It is relatively unusual in being woman-centred, but is problematically centred on a woman whose choice to have multiple sexual partners is repeatedly eroticised and spectacularised.) Do the Right Thing cost $6 million, and took $60 million in the US, with two Oscar nominations (best screenplay, supporting actor). Newspapers worried its ambivalent conclusion would lead to riots. Just Another Girl on the IRT was shot in 17 days for $100,000, took $500,000 at US box office (again relatively unusual, not only in that it focuses on female experience, but on teen female experience and was made by a woman). Like Boyz N the Hood, it ends in blood, but not a drive-by or gang-killing. Instead, it culminates in a long scene of protagonist Chantel’s (Ariyan A Johnson) agonising premature childbirth – she is in denial about and has concealed her unwanted pregnancy, and thus is completely unprepared. Boyz N the Hood cost $6 million, and took $60 million in the US alone; 23-year-old John Singleton was nominated for best director and best original screenplay Oscars.

We focused primarily on the kinds of spaces the film depicted and how they were shot. There is none of the excessive stylisation of Scorsese, no attempt to depict South Central as infernal. There is no attempt to depict the area as a crumbling ruin, as in the views of Manhattan in Shaft and Super Fly, or as an urban wasteland, as in Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song and Killer of Sheep. In fact, the ‘natural’ daytime light and often pastels palette imbues the hood with the sense of a potentially idyllic suburb of evenly spaced houses in a variety of styles, each set in a neat little garden. Unlike Fahrenheit 451 and despite the ubiquity of television, people still sit on their porches, chatting and whiling away the time. This is countered, to some extent, by the high walls around the backyards and fence around some front yards; by the invisible but nonetheless affectively tangible walls around neighbourhoods and the city; by the role of mass unemployment and limited future prospects in all that porch-sitting; by the eruptions of gang violence and police violence; by the junkie mother who cannot look after her children (even if everyone else in the neighbourhood watches out for them); and by the almost constant nocturnal sound of police helicopters patrolling the skies above.

While Sweetback can at least run past LAX (and run), Boyz begins with a stop sign (while a jet climbs into the sky behind it). Such entrapment – such limited mobility in a city built for cars – is central to the film.

(As, rather more problematically, is its focus on the need for fathers to raise sons as real men so as to end ghetto immiseration and violence, since this involves constantly blaming mothers – reiterating a strong current in the period’s far from progressive political discourse. This goes so far as to undermine its own advocacy of such middle class values as education, responsibility and property ownership by finding fault with aspirational black women.)

Week 19

Core critical reading: Massood, Paula J. Black City Cinema: African American Urban Experiences in Film. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 2003. 145–74.

Recommended critical reading
AlSayyas, Nezar. Cinematic Urbanism: A History of the Modern from Reel to Real. London: Routledge, 2006. See chapter 8, ‘An Alternative Modernity: Race, Ethnicity and the Urban Experience.”
Bausch, Katharine. “Superflies into Superkillers: Black Masculinity in Film from Blaxploitation to New Black Realism.” Journal of Popular Culture 46.2 (2013): 257–76.
Dyson, Michael Eric. “Between Apocalypse and Redemption: John Singleton’s Boyz N the Hood.” Cultural Critique 21 (1991): 121–41.
Farred, Grant. “No Way Out of the Menaced Society: Loyalty within the Boundedness of Race.” Camera Obscura 12.2 (1995): 6–23.
Gormley, Paul. “The Affective City: Urban Black Bodies and Milieu in Menace II Society and Pulp Fiction.” Screening the City. Ed. Mark Shiel and Tony Fitzmaurice. London: Verso, 2003. 180–199.
Guerrero, Ed. Framing Blackness: The African American Image in Film. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1993.
Kennedy, Liam. Race and Urban Space in Contemporary American Culture. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2000. Chapter 3, “Between Pathology and Redemption.”
Massood, Paula J. “City Space and City Times: Bakhtin’s Chronotope and Recent African-American Film.” Screening the City. Ed. Mark Shiel and Tony Fitzmaurice. London: Verso, 2003. 200–215.
Mennel, Barbara. Cities and Cinema. London: Routledge, 2008. See chapter 7, “Ghettos and Barrios.”
Mukherjee, Roopali. “The Ghetto Fabulous Aesthetic in Contemporary Black Culture: Class and Consumption in the Barbershop Films.” Cultural Studies 20.6 (2006): 599–629.
Tarr, Carrie. Reframing Difference: Beur and Banlieue Filmmaking in France. Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2012.
Watkins, Craig S. Representing: Hip Hop Culture and the Production of Black Cinema. Chicago: Chicago University Press, 1999.

Recommended reading
African-American, Latino/a and Chicano/a ghetto fiction can be traced back at least as far as Paul Laurence Dunbar’s *The Sport of the Gods (1902), Rudolph Fisher’s The Walls of Jericho (1928) and The Conjure-Man Dies (1932) and Richard Wright’s Native Son (1940), and more autobiographical work, such as Claude Brown’s Manchild in the Promised Land (1965), Iceberg Slim’s Pimp: The Story of My Life (1967) and Piri Thomas’s Down These Mean Streets (1967).
It also draws on the pulp crime fiction of Chester Himes (e.g., A Rage in Harlem (1957)) and Donald Goines (e.g., Dopefiend (1971)), on blaxploitation cinema, New Jack cinema and hip-hop culture.
Contemporary examples include Omar Tyree’s Flyy Girl (1993), Sapphire’s Push (1996), Sister Souljah’s The Coldest Winter Ever (1999), Nina Revoyr’s Southland (2003) and Gary Phillips’s The Jook (2010), and such autobiographical works as Luis J Rodriguez’s Always Running: La Vida Loca, Gang Days in L.A. (1993) and Sanyika Shakur’s Monster: The Autobiography of an L.A. Gang Member (1993).

Recommended viewing
Key blaxploitation films include Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song (Van Peebles 1971), Shaft (Parks 1971) and Superfly (Parks Jr 1972).
The LA Rebellion group’s more neo-realist depiction of black urban life can be seen in Killer of Sheep (Burnett 1978) and Bush Mama (Gerima 1979).
Key New Jack cinema films include Do the Right Thing (Lee 1989), Just Another Girl on the IRT (Harris 1992) and Menace II Society (Hughes brothers 1993).
Depictions of ghetto life have become a significant part of world cinema, including such films as La Haine (Kassovitz 1995), City of God (Meirelles and Lund 2002), Jerusalema: Gangster’s Paradise (Ziman 2008) and Attack the Block (Cornish 2011).

The City in Fiction and Film, week 9: The Secret Agent, part one

41Pi137AB+L._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_week 8

We started this week with the material on the Situationists and the dérive that we did not have time to cover last week, before turning to the first half of Joseph Conrad’s The Secret Agent (1907) – which to be honest I was a little anxious about, given the events in Beirut and Paris last weekend – and a very quick discussion of The Third Man (Carol Reed UK 1949), which we watched in the morning.

The Situationist International (SI) was a group of primarily Paris-based anti-Stalinist Marxists influenced by Dada and Surrealism, which existed from 1957-1972. Their key theoretical activity was to develop Marx’s ideas on alienation and commodity fetishism, broadly arguing that capitalism had become so extensive and intensive that life was no longer experienced directly but through commodities; and that it was necessary to find ways to shatter the commodified spectacle of everyday life. They brilliantly and correctly called for automation to be developed not so as to maximise profit but so as to liberate everyone into lives of freedom and leisure and creativity. And of greater relevance here, they developed a number of theorised practices or ways of critically intervening in the city, including détournement – turning the spectacle against itself through pranks, culture jamming, reality hacks – and such psychogeographical experiments as the dérive.

Differing from the journey (which has a clear destination) and the stroll (which is typically aimless), the dérive is concerned with movement through urban space with a kind of double-consciousness. On the one hand, it is about allowing the ‘attractions of the terrain and the encounters’ found there to organise your movement and experience of the varying ambiances of the city space. On the other hand, it requires a conscious attention to the effects this drifting and these shifting environments have on you. The dérive is both planned – you know your starting point, who your companions (if any) might be, you do not have a specific destination but you do have a broad aim – and unplanned, since you cannot know in advance precisely where your feet will be drawn and who/what you might meet. It can seem random, but the structures of the city also play a determining role, deliberately and accidentally guiding you through its ‘constant currents, fixed points and vortexes’ – physical routes and barriers, but also psychological ones. (It is instructive that Abdelhafid Khattib, the Algerian Arab who was part of the SI and one of the early psychogeographical experimenters was arrested by the police for activities his white French colleagues could undertake unchallenged.)

Returning briefly to Cleo from 5 to 7, we could see ways in which Cleo – who last week we considered as a potential flâneuse – might be thought of as underaking a dérive, more obviously in the second half of the film when an overheard conversation in a café reminds her of her friend, the model Dorothée, which leads her through different aspects of and locations in Paris and various unanticipated encounters. (We will return to some of these issues in a couple of weeks when we focus on Ladri di biciclette/Bicycle Thieves (De Sica Italy 1948).)

But this was obviously the point to clumsily segue into a brief introduction to Joseph Conrad, sketching in some biography, his early association with Impressionism (see the preface to The Nigger of the Narcissus (1897)), his omnivorous  consumption and reworking of raw materials (autobiography, people he met, fiction he read – which lead to charges of plagiarism in Poland –  and real news events – including the French anarchist Martial Bourdin’s presumed attempt to blow up the Greenwich observatory on 15 February 1894, which inspired The Secret Agent).

Conrad is typically considered one of the first British modernist novelists, particularly in regard to his ironic style and the sense of scepticism, melancholy, pessimism, constraint and doom that looms over his fiction (putting him somewhere between Dostoevsky and Kafka).

To help establish this mood or tone, we took a look at this fabulous passage in a letter he wrote to Cunninghame Graham in December 1897 (if I was the kind of person who sent out a family newsletter with Xmas cards, I would be tempted to adopt this). Conrad says that the universe

evolved itself (I am severely scientific) out of a chaos of scraps of iron and behold! – it knits. I am horrified at the horrible work and stand appalled. I feel it ought to embroider – but it goes on knitting. You come and say: “this is all right; it’s only a question of the right kind of oil. Let us use this – for instance – celestial oil and the machine shall embroider a most beautiful design in purple and gold.” Will it? Alas no. You cannot by any special lubrication make embroidery with a knitting machine. And the most withering thought is that the infamous thing has made itself; made itself without thought, without conscience, without foresight, without eyes, without heart. It is a tragic accident –and it has happened. You can’t interfere with it. The last drop of bitterness is in the suspicion that you can’t even smash it. … it is what it is  – and it is indestructible!

It knits us in and it knits us out. It has knitted time space, pain, death, corruption, despair and all the illusions  – and nothing matters.

(Which always makes me think of The Clangers – and of that moment of sheer existential terror when the fabric of the universe rips apart in that episode of Button Moon. (I am so street! I am so down with the kids!))

In Conrad’s own description of the origins of the novel he describes how

the vision of an enormous town presented itself, of a monstrous town more populous than some continents and in its man-made might as indifferent to heaven’s frowns and smiles; a cruel devourer of the world’s light. There was enough room there to place any story, depth enough there for any passion, variety enough there for any setting, darkness enough to bury five millions of lives.

And our treatment of the city in the novel will largely focus on this depiction of London as a monstrous, indifferent and cruel place; as a dark grave in which its inhabitants are buried; as an exemplar of modern anonymity; as claustral and carceral; as somewhere that blurs the distinction between home and work; as an amoral structure inhabited by spectral, untethered characters trapped in death-in-life existences; as a place of darkness, secrecy, mechanisation, hierarchy and control.

[Page references are to the current Penguin Classics edition.]

The first passage we looked at, though, was the one in which Mr Vladimir outlines his rationale for targeting the Greenwich Observatory in the faked anarchist bomb outrage. He begins by dismissing the assassination of a head of state, because such actions are now so commonplace that they are no longer spectacular enough. Attacking churches would just muddy the waters with claims that such attacks are religiously motivated; attacking a theatre or restaurant would be passed off as a ‘non-political passion: the exasperation of a hungry man, an act of social revenge’ (26). Of the latter two options, Vladimir notes – with a timeliness the students also noted – that ‘every newspaper has ready-made phrases to explain such manifestations away’ (26).

Instead, Vladimir favours an attack that defies such easy narrativisation – it must be something so irrational-seeming as to defy our capacity to explain it away. You could attack art – plant a bomb in the National Gallery – but the only people who would cause a fuss would be ‘artists – art critics and such like – people of no account’ (26). But if you could find a way to attack science – ‘any imbecile with an income believes in that. … They believe that in some mysterious way science is at the source of their material prosperity’ (26-7). And if you could find away to attack the purest, most abstract-seeming of science – ‘if one could throw a bomb into pure mathematics’ (27) – it would be so ‘incomprehensible, inexplicable, almost unthinkable’ as to be ‘truly terrifying’ (27).

Attacking the Greenwich Observatory is not just an attack on astronomy, the next best option after maths, but also on the global order. It is an attack on the Greenwich meridian, on the military and commercial imperial web imposed upon the world. It is an attack on the seat of power.

And it is a plan conceived from the lofty view, the god’s-eye perspective, we discussed last week in relation to the de Certeau observing New York from the top of the World Trade Centre. The remainder of Conrad’s novel is set down on street level, in the grubby poetry written by his characters transiting through, and pausing to rest in, the city.

Next we took a look at the way in which Conrad depicts the anarchists: the fat, pasty, wheezing, resigned martyr, Michaelis; the grim, giggling, toothless, balding, goateed, dry-throated, deformed-handed, malevolent-eyed Karl Yundt, whose ‘worn-out passion’ resembles ‘in its impotent fierceness the excitement of a senile sensualist’ (34); and the ethnically ambiguous Comrade Ossipon, who has a ‘flattened nose and prominent mouth cast in the rough mould of the negro type’ and ‘almond-shaped eyes’ that leer ‘languidly’ (35).

Conrad’s descriptions draw upon cultural codes, familiar from popular fiction, yellow journalism and elsewhere, to construct images of unsavouriness and thus to link physical appearance to morality. This is not restricted to the anarchists; later, he describes Sir Ethelred, the government minister, in similarly grotesque terms. Indeed, most – if not all – of the characters in the novel are grotesques. They are the undead adrift in the city, trapped and deformed (physically and morally) by it.

At the end of the section in chapter 3 when the anarchists are described, Ossipon finds the idiot-boy Stevie obsessively drawing, as is his wont, circles. Alluding to Lombroso’s pseudo-science of ‘criminal anthropology’, Ossipon describes young Stevie as a perfect example of degeneracy. Verloc seems sceptical.

It is a curious moment. Conrad seems to be declaring that it is erroneous to make categorical judgments based on appearances even as he relies on his readers doing precisely that. Characters are trapped by their appearances into playing certain roles, just as the city entraps them, constraining and channelling them, serving them up to their fates.

We will return to the novel next week.

In closing, we had a very few minutes to talk about The Third Man. It is set in post-war Vienna, a city which was divided until 1955 into four zones, each governed by a different Allied nation (UK, US, France, USSR), with the international zone in the centre governed by all four powers. As with The Secret Agent, it makes apparent the complex governance structures of a particular which, as in M, is doubled by an underground that seeks to evade those overlapping, panoptical administrative structures. These representations can also help us begin to see the structuration of all cities.

Looking backward, the famous scene on top of the Ferris wheel, in which Harry Lime (Orson Welles) tries to persuade Holly Martins (Joseph Cotten) of the statistical insignificance of individuals so as to justify his own monstrous crimes, recalls the view from atop the World Trade Centre that de Certeau talks about. Looking forward, it is a film set amid the rubble – a Trümmerfilm. It signals the ongoing presence of trauma and the urgent need for reconstruction that we will consider in relation to Bicycle Thieves and Passport to Pimlico (Henry Cornelius UK 1949) before the end of this semester, and which will inform our study of Alphaville (Jean-Luc Godard France/Italy 1965), Le couple témoin/The Model Couple (William Klein 1977) and JG Ballard’s High Rise (1975) next semester.

week 10

Recommended critical reading
Anderegg, Michael A. “Conrad and Hitchcock: The Secret Agent Inspires Sabotage.” Literature/Film Quarterly 3.3 (1975): 215–25.
Bernstein, Stephen. “Politics, Modernity and Domesticity: The Gothicism of Conrad’s The Secret Agent.” CLIO 32.3 (2003): 285–301.
Harrington, Ellen Burton. “The Anarchist’s Wife: Joseph Conrad’s Debt to Sensation Fiction in The Secret Agent.” Conradiana 36.1–2 (2004): 51–63.
Kim, Sung Ryol. “Violence, Irony and Laughter: The Narrator in The Secret Agent.” Conradiana 35.1–2 (2003): 75–97.
Leitch, Thomas. “Murderous Victims in The Secret Agent and Sabotage.” Literature/Film Quarterly 14.1 (1986): 64–8.
Mathews, Cristina. “‘The Manner of Exploding’: Joseph Conrad’s The Secret Agent and Men at Home.” Conradiana 42.3 (2010): 17–44.
Mennel, Barbara. Cities and Cinema. London: Routledge, 2008. See chapter 5, “The City in Ruins and the Divided City: Berlin, Belfast, and Beirut.”
Shaffer, Brian W. “‘The Commerce of Shady Wares’: Politics and Pornography in Conrad’s The Secret Agent.” ELH 62.2 (1995): 443–66.
Sinowitz, Michael. “Graham Greene’s and Carol Reed’s The Third Man.” Modern Fiction Studies 53.3 (2007): 405–33.
Stape, J.H., ed. The Cambridge Companion to Joseph Conrad. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004.

Recommended reading
Conrad’s Under Western Eyes (1991) is often seen as a companion novel to Secret Agent.
Novels of urban underworlds include Liam O’Flaherty’s The Informer (1925), Graham Greene’s Brighton Rock (1938) and The Third Man (1950), Gerald Kersh’s Night and the City (1938), Nelson Algren’s The Man with the Golden Arm (1949), Margery Allingham’s The Tiger in the Smoke (1952), Alain Robbe-Grillet’s The Erasers (1953) and Hubert Selby, Jr’s Last Exit to Brooklyn (1964).
The criminalisation of sexual dissidence led to an often autobiographical fiction of queer underworlds and marginal urban existence, including James Baldwin’s Giovanni’s Room (1956), John Rechy’s City of Night (1963), Andrew Holleran’s Dancer from the Dance (1978), Larry Kramer’s Faggots (1978), Alan Hollinghhurst’s The Swimming-Pool Library (1988), Leslie Feinberg’s Stone Butch Blues (1993) and Scott Heim’s Mysterious Skin (1995).

Recommended viewing
Conrad’s novel was filmed as Sabotage (Hitchcock 1936), which we will watch next week, and The Secret Agent (Hampton 1996).
Ambiguous underworlds appear in a vast array of films, including The Informer (Ford 1935), Pépé le moko (Duvivier 1937), Brighton Rock (Boulting 1947), The Blue Lamp (Dearden 1950), Night and the City (Dassin 1950), A Generation (Wajda 1955), Canal (Wajda 1957), Ashes and Diamonds (Wajda 1958), À bout de soufflé (Godard 1960), Hell is a City (Guest 1960), The Yards (Gray 2000), We Own the Night (Gray 2007) and Killing Them Softly (Dominik 2012).
Films about marginalised urban sexualities include Midnight Cowboy (Schlesinger 1969), Working Girls (Borden 1986), Paris is Burning (Livingstone 1990), Young Soul Rebels (Julien 1991), The Wedding Banquet (Lee 1993), Exotica (Egoyan 1994), Beautiful Thing (MacDonald 1996), Nowhere (Araki 1997), Fucking Åmål/Show Me Love (Moodysson 1998) and Mysterious Skin (Araki 2004).

Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song (Van Peebles 1971) and Baadasssss! aka How To Get the Man’s Foot Outta Your Ass (t’other Van Peebles 2003)

bigtmp_20824[A version of this review appeared in Film International 27 (2007), 70–3]

In the late 1960s, Melvin Van Peebles, an expatriate novelist and the director of four short films, including The Story of a Three-Day Pass (1968), which depicted the brief romance between an African-American soldier and a white French woman, was hired by Columbia Pictures to direct the comedy Watermelon Man (1970). His debut feature starred Godfrey Cambridge as Jeff Gerber, a white racist who, one morning, wakes up to find he has become black. Driven out of his community, he eventually finds pride in his new identity. In a remarkable final scene, he is shown working out in a basement somewhere with two dozen other black men, practicing martial arts with mop and broom handles. The camera zooms in over these men and into a medium close-up of Gerber as, yelling, he thrusts his mop handle toward the camera, freezeframing for a full ten seconds.[i]

This image of militant radicalism resonates with the final shot of the anti-imperialist film Yawar mallku/Blood of the Condor (1969), about the resistance triggered by the revelation that the Peace Corps were sterilising indigenous Quechua women without their consent (which in reality led to the Peace Corps’ expulsion from Bolivia). Jorge Sanjinés’ film ends with a still of raised hands, holding automatic rifles. Although there is no reason to suggest direct inspiration or imitation, the connection is not a spurious one, as Van Peebles’s subsequent film, Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song, makes clear. It defied Hollywood conventions of racial representation, narrative structure, the construction of time and space, and the relationship between soundtrack and image. And in its adaptation of nouvelle vague techniques, which it re-radicalised through merging them with Black Power politics and African-American aesthetics, it represents not only a landmark in black American cinema and American independent cinema but also a rare instance of Californian Third Cinema.

In their 1969 manifesto ‘Towards a Third Cinema’, Argentinian filmmakers Fernando Solanas and Octavio Gettino identified three kinds of filmmaking: First Cinema (the commercial cinema of Hollywood and its imitators), Second Cinema (auteurist and art cinema, always limited politically by being a bourgeois cinema dependent on First Cinema distribution) and Third Cinema (neither commercial nor bourgeois, an activist cinema directly involved in political struggle). Mike Wayne’s Political Film: The Dialectics of Third Cinema argues that rather than treat these categories as pigeonholes into which we can place films, they should be understood as conceptual categories whose dialectical interaction can be observed in individual films. Regardless of its political impact – Huey Newton devoted all of the 16 June 1971 issue of The Black Panther to a laudatory review of Sweetback, declaring it ‘the first truly revolutionary black film’, and made it mandatory viewing for members of the Black Panther Party nationwide – it retains significant First Cinema elements: Van Peebles’s desire to make it as entertaining as ‘a motherfucker’, its commitment to a narrative about an individual, and its commercial distribution and exhibition (however much Van Peebles had to fight to get it screened, it made $15 million on its initial release and dislodged Love Story (Hiller 1970) from number one at the US box-office; and it has been commercially available on video and DVD for some years).

tumblr_m5vimzquPt1qf5ylso1_500Its Second Cinema elements can be articulated around the figure of Van Peebles himself, who has credits as writer, composer, producer, director and editor, as well as star, while its Third Cinema elements can be detected in the goals towards which he flexed his auteurism. Sweetback is precisely, as the opening titles claim, ‘a film of Melvin Van Peebles’. The narrative is a slender armature upon which a unique – and arguably a uniquely African-American aesthetic – is developed. Growing up in a South Central whorehouse, a ten year-old boy is introduced to sex by a prostitute, who cries out in ecstasy that he has a ‘sweet, sweet back’. Strangely passive and nearly as mute as John Sayles’s Brother from Another Planet, the adult Sweetback seems disconnected from the black community in which he makes a living performing in sex shows. Lent by his boss to some white cops who need to bring someone in for questioning to make it look like they are making progress on a case, Sweetback eventually intervenes when they brutally assault the young black radical Mu-Mu, beating them to death with his handcuffs.

‘Where we going?’, Mu-Mu asks him.
‘Where you get this “we” shit?’ he replies.

But as Sweetback goes on the run, he encounters his community for the first time, and as a result later sacrifices his own chance at escape to ensure that Mu-Mu survives because ‘He’s our future’. Fleeing the police and an army helicopter, Sweetback finally escapes the city and heads for the Mexican border. When the hunting dogs unleashed to bring him down fall silent, his pursuers are convinced they have killed him. But the next morning, the dogs are found dead, floating in a river. And out of the Californian hills flash the words:

sweetback_12

Generically, Sweetback can be understood as an example of the neo-slave narrative which, beginning with Margaret Walker’s novel Jubilee (1966), reworked the 19th century tradition of autobiographical writings by escaped slaves so as to explore the ongoing legacy of the West African genocide, the Middle Passage and slavery in the Americas.[ii] It also has (like the final minutes of Watermelon Man) strong affiliations with a group of African-American novels from the 1960s and 1970s by such authors as Chester Himes, Sam Greenlee, Blyden Jackson and John A. Williams which imagine a radical black uprising against white supremacist America.[iii]

Formally, though, it is difficult to think of an American narrative film – even in the midst of the ‘Hollywood Renaissance’ – to compare. Van Peebles shot the film, with a non-union cast and crew, in about 19 days, and then embarked on five and a half months of editing. The film is a compendium of technique: location shooting, actuality footage, handheld cameras, imbalanced framings, zooms, slow motion, expressive shifts in and out of focus, superimpositions, multiple superimpositions, colour synthesisation, split screens, mirrored split screens, multiple split screens, and so on. An uncharitable view might be that such overt stylisations were nothing more than a bravura attempt to expand the slight narrative to feature length and get around problems with shooting sufficient coverage and recording sound on location. But whatever shortcomings the footage might have had, in its editing this low-budget crime drama was transformed into one of the most important films made in America. While the radicalism of, say, The Spook Who Sat By the Door (Dixon 1973) lies almost entirely in its narrative of black revolution, Sweetback simultaneously developed an aesthetic radicalism far in excess of, say, The Battle of Algiers (Pontecorvo 1966), even of Tout va bien (Godard 1972).

According to Edouard Glissant’s Caribbean Discourse, the brutal dislocation of the slave trade was such that Afrodiasporic

historical consciousness could not be deposited gradually and continually like a sediment. (62)

Others have built on this insight to argue that this different experience of historical space-time has led to the development of a diasporic black aesthetic, manifested in contemporary music, for example, in terms of scratching, dubbing, breaking, mixing and remixing. Throughout Sweetback, Van Peebles improvises a similar aesthetic, returning materiality to the film, rendering it sensible through a complex play of prolepsis and repetition, folding and layering, which shatters the white reality constructed through Hollywood’s technical and narrative conventions. (One particularly moving instance has the camera and the soundtrack return again and again to a poor African American woman, surrounded by the children she looks after for the county, repeating with slight variations the lines ‘I might have had a Leroy once, but I don’t rightly remember’ and ‘When they get older and bad, they take them away from me.’)

But rather than an aleatory jumble of fragments, the film coheres through its soundtrack, which includes music by Earth, Wind and Fire. The blaxploitation films which flourished, briefly, in the wake of Sweetback’s success, resulted in impressive soundtracks by James Brown, Isaac Hayes, Millie Jackson, Curtis Mayfield and Edwin Starr, and footage shot on location without synchronised sound was often edited into a montage sequence to accompany a particular track, as with Mayfield’s ‘Super Fly’. Van Peebles went much further – the only comparably imaginative soundtrack of the period is that of the rather different The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (Hooper 1974) – and produced a layered, ruptured, sometimes deeply discordant blend of diegetic sounds, diegetic and extra-diegetic voices, and music. Throughout the film one can sense the dialectical tensions and unities of sound and vision.

In his 1969 manifesto ‘For an Imperfect Cinema’, Cuban filmmaker Julio García Espinosa argued that rather than aspiring to the kind of ‘perfect’ cinema exemplified by Hollywood’s hermetic Teflon spectacles, Third World countries should aim to develop an imperfect cinema, a genuinely popular art created by the masses to aid them in their daily and revolutionary struggles. Sweetback tends towards this kind of imperfection. If financial restrictions mean that Van Peebles’s techniques are raw, that rawness itself is a direct manifestation of and testimony to the marginalisation of African Americans in mainstream America and to the radicalism of the project. As, perhaps, is the extent to which the making of the film became such a one-man show – the opening titles might declare that it is a film ‘starring the black community’, but ‘and Brer Soul’ gets its own, separate title afterwards. Faced with such effective exclusion from filmmaking as a way to express African-American experience(s), and with the US state’s violent and often illegal suppression of such radical black groups as the Panthers in full swing, perhaps there simply was not available the possibility for the kind of collectivism often seen as crucial to Third Cinema. Perhaps, also, there were political and personal factors.

baadasssss-movie-poster-2003-1020233016Mario Van Peebles’s Baadasssss! – a sometimes humorous, sometimes sentimental, sometimes inspiring (in a TV movie kind of way) adaptation of his father’s book about the making of Sweetback – indicates the latter while also, incidentally, revealing something of the former. There can be no denying the sexism and homophobia evident in Sweetback (or, indeed, Baadasssss!) and these problems were not uncommon in Civil Rights and Black Power movements.[iv] Baadassssss! is sufficiently certain of the importance of Sweetback to not need to paint its creator as a saint.

In easily the best performance of his career, Mario plays Melvin as an egotist tormented by insecurity, a bully whose manipulations and threats could also inspire, a radical who might also just be a hustler talking radical, a genius who might also just be simulating genius through a deep-rooted fear of being seen to fail. But he is always meant to be admired, or at the very least excused. The Oedipal conventions of the narrative – Melvin justifies putting thirteen year-old Mario in a sex scene by telling how his father sent him out every day from the age of nine to do demeaning work which might see him beaten up and robbed – further accentuate this, even as they make the phallus as central to the making of Sweetback as Sweetback’s own phallic mastery is to the original film.up-badass2_lg

As the casting of Lawrence Cook, Pam Grier, Isaac Hayes, Robert Hooks and Melvin in Posse (1993) suggests, Mario Van Peebles has always seemed keen to place himself in a lineage of black American actors which reaches back through his father’s generation at least as far as Woody Strode, while also aligning himself with the New Jack Cinema of the 1990s (as attested by his casting of John Singleton as a DJ in Baadasssss!). In Baadasssss!, he captures very well the look of the early 1970s, but sadly very little of the politics or spirit (one is constantly reminded of how its executive producer Michael Mann stripped everything of real political significance from Ali (2001), his own biopic of Muhammad Ali). Mario Van Peebles has made a very competent film in admittedly difficult circumstances, and even made some interesting stylistic choices, but is not really any kind of meaningful successor to ‘the first truly revolutionary black film’. It is First Cinema, longing to be Second Cinema.

At the end of Isaac Julien’s Baadasssss Cinema (2002), Fred Williamson is asked about the ‘black Hollywood’ whose success is signalled in the Oscar wins of Cuba Gooding, Jr., Denzel Washington and Halle Berry. Chewing on his cigar, he laughs as he says,

Black Hollywood? Yeah, right. … it don’t exist, man, no, no.

The point of Sweetback was that it was not about integrating into the white Hollywood machine; the sadness which haunts Baadasssss! is that the trail that it blazed in the early 1970s has led many right into that trap.

Notes

[i]
Columbia supposedly had a ‘happy’ ending in mind, in which Gerber regains his whiteness, but Van Peebles reputedly shot this different ending without telling the studio.

[ii]
Other examples include Gayl Jones’s Corregidora (1975), Alex Haley’s Roots: The Saga of An American Family (1976), Ishmael Reed’s Flight to Canada (1976), Samuel Delany’s Star in My Pocket Like Grains of Sand (1984), Toni Morrison’s Beloved (1987) and arguably every novel by the late Octavia Butler.

[iii]
On this cycle of novels, see Kalil Tal’s ‘“That Just Kills Me”: Black Militant Near-Future Fiction” (Social Text 71) and my ‘Come Alive By Saying No: An Introduction to Black Power Sf’ (Science Fiction Studies 102). In 1973, Greenlee’s novel, The Spook Who Sat By The Door (1969) was adapted as an independent film of the same name. Long rumoured to have been suppressed by the FBI, it has recently become available on DVD. Lacking Sweetback’s formal experimentation, it is nonetheless still a potent Black Power document.

[iv]
See Steve Estes I Am a Man! Race, Manhood, and the Civil Rights Movement for an acute analysis of why the fight for African American equality was so often articulated around remasculinising the emasculated black man. These problems were also common in the New Left and other radical movements of the period, as well, of course, as in mainstream and conservative politics.