A brief history of racism and filmmaking…

NB: This talk was originally given on 5/12/2016 at the EYE Film Museum as an introduction to the film “She’s Gotta Have It” (1986) by Spike Lee, as part of the Looking for America: Black Lives on Screen series. You can watch a segment of this talk via this clip.
Note that you may find some of the images used below distressing. 

It is difficult to pinpoint the very first moment that blackface was used in the depiction of people of African descent on stage. There is evidence to suggest that the ancient Greeks were using face paint to depict theatrical characters of different backgrounds and it is well known that blackface has been used up until quite recently in productions of Verdi’s Othello.

Furthermore, in the UK Morris (or Moorish) dancing continues to be popular in certain rural locations. This tradition, which is said to date back to the Medieval era, arguably depicted the Moor, through the blacking up of the face and so-called “exotic” dancing and costumes. In the image below, you can see former UK Prime Minister David Cameron posing happily with a group of Morris dancers in 2014.

David Cameron with Morris dancers at Banbury Folk Festival, 2014.
David Cameron with Morris dancers at Banbury Folk Festival, 2014.

 

Quite often, when we think about the history of blackface, we immediately think of the American blackface minstrel of the 19th century, which depicted Africans and African Americans on stage accompanied by music. Below you can see TD Rice’s interpretation of a black man for his stage show.

Sketching of Thomas D Rice in blackface performing “Jump Jim Crow” (ca. 1830)
Sketching of Thomas D Rice in blackface performing “Jump Jim Crow” (ca. 1830)

Minstrelsy was like television back then. This is how the average person got to know about enslaved people’s everyday lives. However, these shows made a mockery of the very humanity of people of African descent. Black people were being portrayed as lazy, stupid, filthy, violent, over-sexed, happy to serve, etc. Therefore there was no reason for them to be granted their freedom or equal rights – so the argument went.

It’s no surprise at all that when minstrelsy groups toured Europe, their shows were very popular. And it’s within the context of US minstrel shows and Dutch slavery, that Zwarte Piet was reintroduced into the Sinterklaas festival.

Sinterklaas and Zwarte Piet postcard (ca. 1860)
Sinterklaas and Zwarte Piet postcard (ca. 1860)

 

Above, in an illustration printed onto a postcard but originally from the book ‘Sint Nikolaas en zijn knecht’ by Jan Schenkman, Piet’s image is consistent with portrayals of black servitude in the mid-19th century.

Illustration from Florence Upton’s Two Dutch Dolls and a Golliwog (1895)
Illustration from Florence Upton’s Two Dutch Dolls and a Golliwog (1895)

 

By the end of the 19th century, the popular story book Two Dutch Dolls and a Golliwog had been released in the UK. The illustrator of the book, Florence Upton, was said to have been heavily influenced by the blackface minstrel shows she had seen as a child.

Postcard promoting Banania hot chocolate, printed in 2007.
Postcard promoting Banania hot chocolate, printed in 2007.
Poster for Golden Shred marmalade by Robertson's Jam.
Poster for Golden Shred marmalade by Robertson’s Jam featuring the Golliwog.

 

Minstrelsy complemented the misinformation inherent in European infotainment and advertising. Golden Shred is a type of jam in the UK and the Golliwog was their icon from 1910 to the early 2000s. Banania is a hot chocolate brand and has used a caricature of a Senegalese man as its mascot since the 1920s. This image is still in use today.

Book cover of The Proud Golliwog by Enid Blyton (1946)
Book cover of The Proud Golliwog by Enid Blyton (1946)
Zwarte Piet postcard (ca. 1950)
Zwarte Piet postcard (ca. 1950)

And by the mid 20th century, not only was the Golly increasingly prominent in British arts and entertainments – as we can see by his inclusion in various Enid Byton books, Zwarte Piet was being portrayed also in a more minstrelesque way.

However in the early 20th century, it was not only in books and food packaging that these images of black people could be observed.

D W Griffith’s The Birth of a Nation was released in 1915. This film is some serious wish fulfilment but it had dire consequences for black Americans. In the film, black characters are seen preventing whites from voting and also exhibiting anti-social behaviour in public. When one of the characters (a white actor in blackface) attempts to rape a white female character, he is hunted down by the KKK and lynched.

This film basically promoted the idea that black people cannot have equal rights because we’ll take over society and begin brutalising white folks. As a consequence, the release of Birth of a Nation actually led to an increase in lynching for the most trivial of actions. It was basically a way for whites to keep blacks in their place after slavery.

Photographs of real lynchings of black people, would have been printed on postcards and in local newspapers following the murder of a black individual, or as in this case, groups of blacks. This circulation of imagery of dead bodies, essentially informed the American public that the lynching they had seen in The Birth of a Nation could happen in real life, and was perfectly justifiable. It acted as encouragement for whites and a warning for blacks.

The very first Hollywood film to feature sound was The Jazz Singer (1927) starring Al Jonson, who sang jazz songs in blackface. Indeed, in the 1920s black actors such as Josephine Baker would themselves also wear blackface. Eventually, blackface in film and on stage in the US became less and less tasteful due to the work of groups such as the NAACP. However, the same stereotypes of black people – as witnessed throughout the minstrelsy period – were omnipresent within cinema.

Hattie McDaniel winning the award for Best Supporting Actress, at the Academy Awards (1940)
Hattie McDaniel winning the award for Best Supporting Actress, at the Academy Awards (1940)

Popular characters between the 1930s and 1940s included Stepin Fetchit, Bill “Bojangles” Robinson and of course, Hattie McDaniel’s Mammy in Gone with the Wind. McDaniel won an Academy award for her role. While this was an incredible moment for McDaniel, as she was the first black American to win an academy award, she won it for her convincing portrayal of the happy servant.

Scene from Disney’s Fantasia (1940)
Scene from Disney’s Fantasia (1940)

 

This stereotype in particular was pervasive during the period. In cartoons, the behaviour of a character was completed with exaggerated facial features reminiscent of the blackface era. The above character from Disney’s Fantasia, was removed when the film was reissued in 2000.

Scene from Disney’s Fantasia (2000)
Scene from Disney’s Fantasia (2000)

 

Having said this, the above characters were kept in the film.

This version of black womanhood – the hypersexualised, exotic, plaything – continues to be common in various forms of media to this day (such as music videos, reality TV, soap operas). In the Netherlands, the film Alleen Maar Nette Mensen (2012) became infamous for its derogatory portrayals of black women, black female sexuality and black motherhood. Instead of offering actors of colour an opportunity to appear in a mainstream film, it contributed to existing negative and harmful ideas about life in Amsterdam Zuid Oost.

Immanuelle Grives as Rowanda in “Alleen Maar Nette Mensen” (2012) by Lodewijk Crijns
Immanuelle Grives as Rowanda in “Alleen Maar Nette Mensen” (2012) by Lodewijk Crijns

The black maid or the irresponsible and abusive black mother is also still a commonly rewarded role for black actresses according to Hollywood standards, which is clear when examining all of the actresses of African descent who have won an Academy Award so far (see below).

academyawards
Top Row L-R: Hattie McDaniel wins best supporting actress for Mammy in Gone With the Wind; Whoopi Goldberg wins best supporting actress for Oda Mae in Ghost; Halle Berry wins best actress for Leticia in Monster’s Ball. Middle Row L-R: Jennifer Hudson wins best supporting actress for Effie in Dreamgirls; Mo’Nique wins best supporting actress for Mary Lee in Precious; Octavia Spencer wins best supporting actress for Minny in The Help. Bottom Row L-R: Lupita Nyong’o wins best supporting actress for Patsey in 12 Years a Slave.

Furthermore, the troubling depictions of Zwarte Piet are still shown on television in the Netherlands. As for the UK, blackface should have stopped with the cancellation of the Black and White Minstrel Show in the late 1970s. But it reappeared as recently as 2006 in Little Britain. And all over the world, so-called slapstick comedy sketches in film and on TV portray people of colour as good for nothing morons. All in the name of fun, right?

trump-black-facegolly

US, Dutch and British blackface traditions are being used, even in 2016 to establish socio-political barriers that threaten the rights of non-white citizens and promote white supremacy. When Trump won the US election with his discourse of hate and racism, people celebrated with blackface. Dutch police brutalise protestors for their attempts to remove a blackface character – which explicitly mocks the victims of the Dutch slave-trade and their descendents. After voting to leave the EU, certain UK citizens believed Britain would become a white country again, using the “wog” character to illustrate this desire.

Gugu Mbatha-Raw in “Belle” (2013) by Amma Asante
Gugu Mbatha-Raw in “Belle” (2013) by Amma Asante

 

This obsession with white dominance can be directly linked to images and narratives we’re exposed to from a young age – be that in history books or in films. Mainstream film critics praised 12 Years a Slave, and overlooked Amma Asante’s Belle (based on the life of the very real Dido Elizabeth Belle) because they’re more comfortable with the notion that a black women’s place in history is firmly routed in slavery, not Georgian aristocracy.

Melvin van Peeples, who directed Watermelon Man (1970) – the film in the intro clip that employed whiteface – also wrote and narrated the documentary “Classified X” (1998). This is what he has to say in the documentary, about black characters in US cinema:

“The coloured folks in the movies were always quaking and “Yassir” bossing and shuffling. They didn’t bear any resemblance to the majestic, hard-working black folks, strutting around the South Side of Chicago where I was from.”

He goes on to say that:

“Black movies, made by African American filmmakers, were extremely popular with black audiences, tired of seeing themselves portrayed as slaves, servants, mammies and dumb bucks.”

For a more detailed history of racism in US cinema, you can see the full documentary here:

 

My favourite filmmaker right now is Ava DuVernay. Her work consistently puts black resistance to racial inequality at the centre of the narrative, striving to depict human experiences that are relatable to black audiences. DuVernay’s characters do laugh, dance and sing but they also fight, argue eloquently, teach and learn.

To conclude, I’d like to come back to Spike Lee. The first film I saw by Lee was Malcolm X. This film really changed me. Everything I’d been taught about the various black nationalist movements that took shape in the US throughout the 20th century was challenged. The film educates its audiences about the life and work of Malcolm X by humanising him and his experiences. He is neither glorified nor vilified, and the importance of his legacy is at the centre of the narrative.

malcolm-x
Denzel Washington as Malcolm X in “Malcolm X” (1992) by Spike Lee

When we think of the rest of his filmography, part of Lee’s genius is the nuance in his satire. I’ll let you all decide for yourselves what Lee is trying to say with She’s Gotta Have It, which was his first feature length film. But it is clear, from films such as Jungle Fever and Bamboozled – while his humour might seem like a form of crass self-deprecation, the simple fact is this: you need to understand the very real history of the stereotypes on the screen, to understand the criticism inherent in Lee’s storytelling.

Lee has no time to break it down for those who don’t know better; his unapologetic concern is to speak to the folks already living what he is showing.

“Black lives on screen” is more than mere entertainment. It’s a reflection of reality. And who’s reality we’re talking about is a very important matter indeed.

 

Amsterdam EYE Film Museum Black Lives on Screen Series

I had the pleasure of joining the EYE Film Museum’s Black Lives on Screen series this week but giving an introduction talk for their screening of Spike Lee’s She’s Gotta Have It (1986). The Black Lives on Screen initiative is part of a broader three month festival at the museum, honouring US cinema with Looking for America.

I had been invited their to discuss blackface and racialised imagery in US cinema, as an alternative to the Sinterklaas festivities taking place on the same evening. You can read the full talk here and/or watch a segment via this clip.

The talk and the screening were well attended by folks of various backgrounds and by linking Zwarte Piet to a more global network of anti-black imagery, it was clear that I got the audience thinking!

There will be more interesting introductions to a wide range of independent films up until the 21st December, when the series ends, so check it all out via the EYE’s website while you still have the chance!

 

Deconstructing the Media: Body Image & Systems of Oppression

Hello out there! I know it’s been a while, but life has been all kinds of crazy/busy lately. To get you up to speed on what I’ve been up to, this past weekend, the ladies over at Radio Redmond Amsterdam hosted an event to promote “radical body love” and invited me along to host a workshop on the media. This is what I had to say:

Chimamanda Ngozi Adiche half of yellow sun

The character of Olanna, played by Thandie Newton in the film Half of a Yellow Sun arguably fulfills a neo-colonial fantasy of a heroine. In the book upon which the film is based (by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie) the character is described as being physically the colour of “rain-drenched earth” and “fleshy” in build. Newton by contrast is light-skinned and slender. The reaction to this from the Igbo community in Nigeria was not positive as many felt the only way to portray their history would be to use actors with Igbo roots. Especially, the character of Olanna should at least look West African. The argument for casting Newton rather than someone who better fit the description laid out by Adichie, could have been her star-power or talent. However, we can’t ignore the presence of Western beauty standards when another major aspect of Olanna’s physical characterisation is her attractiveness. Additionally, we should consider the European / North American fixation with the tragic mulatto character in films as discussed in the documentary: Hula Girl, as well as by cultural critic Donald Bogle. Olanna after all is the book’s tragic character and she is brought to life in a so-called “relatable” manner through a light-skinned actress.

It isn’t enough however to discuss the casting of Newton as Olanna through a purely aesthetic paradigm by focusing on what it tells us about beauty standards; we should also seek to utilise a geographical and decolonial perspective in order to understand how her casting impacts upon body image(s). Half of a Yellow Sun itself is a dramatisation of the national tensions suffered throughout Nigeria, which lead to a civil war and the declaration of a separate Biafran state in the late 1960s. Arguably, this conflict was at least in part caused in the aftermath of imperialism and continued political interference by the British. They also further encouraged General Gowon’s violent campaign to re-unify the country (which had been created by the British in the first place to suit their own interests); the campaign left over a million civilians dead or displaced.

biafran war

The legacy of the civil war can be felt in the socio-political tensions present across Nigeria today, which is why we cannot ignore the historical role of colonialism. This has an impact upon who can be the hero or victim of the fictional or fact-based stories within society as well as how we see ourselves as stakeholders.

bellhooks beyonce-time-cover

bell hooks recently implied when discussing Beyonce’s TIME magazine cover that to willingly promote white supremacy ideals through imagery / rhetoric is to be a slave to Western society. hooks even went as far as to say that Beyonce is in part “a terrorist” for the way she presents herself visually. While hooks’ comments may seem harsh and extreme, her perspective should also be seen within the deconstructionist perspective that she herself advocates. While Beyonce may epitomise the “body loving woman of colour” in songs such as Bootylicious and Flawless, she (alongside Nicki Minaj and Jennifer Lopez) also fulfils a rather paradoxical role.

jlobooty beyonceleopardprint  nickianaconda

On one hand these ladies can be seen promoting exoticised, animalistic and hypersexual characteristics reserved for non-white individuals and long been used by white societies to demonise and abuse men and women of colour respectively. # On the other, throughout Beyonce’s career – in addition to her use of the hypersexual black female trope – we have witnessed her adherence to Eurocentric beauty standards, most notably the use of long, flowing, straight, blonde weaves and wigs as seen on the cover of TIME. Let’s also not set aside her endorsement of the white capitalist social structures that oppress so many around the world, through her personal lifestyle, music, videos and image-based self-promotion. Her continued popularity while caught between these two paradigms reveals the tantalising and yet racist allurement of an individual caught between two racialised worlds.

This allurement and fascination with blackness (at the same time as dehumanising black people) has for a long time lead to various modes of imitation throughout the 19th, 20th and early 21st centuries. Take for example Miley Cyrus and Lily Allen (currently touring together) who both courted controversy recently with their interpretations of so-called “ratchet” culture and “twerk” dance performances. There seemed to be an almost undeniable appeal for the two pop stars to dress up in “ghetto” garb and dance like “black chicks” while surrounded by black women, in order to re-launch their slouching careers. They have tried to argue their performances are feminist and represent their true selves. This may be true. Regardless, it’s beyond tasteless to use other human beings as props for one’s own financial gain, especially when said props become over-simplified and dehumamised in the process, and thus prone to mistreatment. # Highlighting this argument, is the Australian rapper Iggy Azalea, who has – due to her chart success – been accepted as the poster-girl for HipHop music, thus overshadowing her exploitation of a culture in order to become a bonafide star.

lilyallencyrustwerkiggy

In short, pseudo-blackness reveals white privilege, which brings us back to Thandie Newton and Beyonce.

The casting of Newton as Olanna and Beyonce’s overall conflicting image, could both be deemed harmless were it not for the endless skin whitening campaigns, often by North American and European companies and aimed to West African and South East Asian markets, which advertise themselves as “corrective”.  Kola Boof described the phenomena in her novel The Sexy Part of the Bible by having a mob of skin whitening pill addicts hack a dark-skinned black activist to death. Toni Morrison – whom Boof is greatly inspired by – would simply say that this mob and other self-loathing individuals who help to sustain white supremacist ideals, are “reproducing the enemy who has humiliated them over and over.”

Dencia-6 Loreal

These examples illustrate that when we choose images which support or promote oppressive narratives, we re-enslave ourselves as well as others because the images are little more than the legacy of a certain history, carrying with them power to do harm. If blackness is undervalued, undesirable and de-humanised, why would anyone want to be associated with it? Thus, what we view in the media can have an impact on our body image and influence how we want to look, what we want to look at, what we should find desirable, what bodies we should love, etc.. When we begin to put this kind of value on certain bodies, rather than others, we go far beyond mere self-esteem. We begin a conversation about survival.

What is Media Literacy?

I recently moved to the Hague with my boyfriend after spending a year in Amsterdam. We’d been in a long distance relationship and I decided to take the big leap last year and move over from the UK, to see how things would go. One year on and we’re still going strong, so we decided to get a slightly bigger place in a new city and really make a home together.

It’s been fun re-decorating and negotiating what looks nice where, however we’ve also spent a lot of time going back and forth to various department and hardware stores over the past month, for lamps, shelves, paint, cleaning products… While out shopping in the Dutch department store HEMA one day last week (I believe on this occasion it was a new dustbin we needed..) the song “Man Down” by Rihanna came on. My boyfriend commented that the song was ridiculous. Immediately, I fired back “This is a song about a woman being assaulted and how she takes revenge. And you find it ridiculous?” Silence. Then: “But you don’t mind admitting that you like the song “Brown Sugar” which glorifies slave rape?” He makes a face.

This isn’t exactly a new discussion between us. He has been a life-long fan of the Rolling Stones and when I first suggested that their music was a rip off and potentially destructive, he became defensive. Later on, at PLUG (a media literacy reading group that I co-ordinate with Dutch cultural critic Egbert Martina), we analysed the RS song “Brown Sugar” as a case-study, in a session that focused on Interracial Relationships. In case you were wondering, we quickly established that we were not prepared to take seriously any notions that the song was written about heroin, given the explicit lyrics.

We discussed white artists – such as the Rolling Stones – and their usage of Black bodies for flare or eroticism in their work. One white male group member asked us if the song could be considered to have been written with any irony? The response was more or less, even if Richards and Jagger were trying to be ironic about the nature of white male and black female interactions during the slave era in the USA, it is not necessarily their place, nor their right to use black bodies in this manner, where they create an image of the black body that could be (and has been) considered cool and sexy by their fans. In short, why should I (as a woman of colour) be here to inspire anyone artistically? And why should my heritage be sung about so casually by someone who, quite frankly, has already benefited enough from my ancestors’ suffering? Am I to stand back uncritically when I see this happen? Of course not!

While one group member commented that she felt squeamish about the exploitation of black bodies and black suffering in music and art work by white individuals, my boyfriend admitted than he had always realised that the song was about sexing up a black female, rather than shooting up, and could also hear the implications of slave rape in the lyrics, but nonetheless was a big fan of the group and had in the past enjoyed listening song. He said this, in a room full of people, just moments after he had introduced himself as being in a mixed race relationship with me, a woman of African America descent…

I couldn’t help rolling my eyes in dismay and when we got home I asked him: “Doesn’t it ever occur to you that maybe the reason you’re attracted to me, is because of the messages you’ve internalised by listening to songs like Brown Sugar?” He disagreed profusely. Of course he wasn’t attracted to me because Mick Jagger sings about sexy slaves! The reality is, I believe him when he tells me that his love for me doesn’t come from perverse, neo-colonial imagery. I also believe him when he tells me that since becoming even slightly more media literate, he has begun to re-evaluate some of the artistic creations he previously indulged in. When we are out and about, watching a movie or telly and even having a simple conversation with his folks, he increasingly picks up on the racial slurs that I have had to deal with all my life. It can be lonely in an interracial relationship to have to keep the things that upset you to yourself and therefore it’s a relief that he understand what I go through when I see certain ad campaigns (for instance Calve’s Indian Princess), even if his comprehension is limited.

This new found understanding, due to an increased interest in media literacy doesn’t mean that he should just stop listening to the Rolling Stones. That’s not the point. Rather, the point is to acknowledge where the image comes from (who made it, for who, under what circumstances, etc) and also acknowledge your own positionality and privilege when consuming certain forms of media. This means, understanding that as a white male, when you approve music made by other white males, within this imagined Western space, you not only create a platform for patriarchal voices, you expand the existing ones. When, as a white male, you criticise and/or limit the voice of a woman or women of colour, you increase her existing socio-political marginalisation. It’s not enough to claim that you were just listening to the melody or the beat and not paying much attention to the lyrics, in either case. As a media literacist, one needs to pay attention to detail to understanding insightfully the message being sent out into the world. The same can be said for those making the music. You can’t sing about slave rape from a neutral position and therefore cannot claim that you are being ironic or cynical.

The conversation my boyfriend and I had in the HEMA that day, following his off the cuff remark about the Rihanna song gave us both a much clearer understanding of what it means to be media literate: to understand one’s privilege and one’s positionality, and how this becomes part of media making. I am hoping that this discovery will help us both to guide and respect each other as partners, but also as members of a wider community of people, who like us, know that every song has an important message.