Printer Friendly

Look forward in anger: young, black males and the new cinema.

So let's make our own movies like Spike Lee

`Cause the roles being offered don't strike me

There's nothing that the black man could use to earn

Bum, Hollywood, burn!

Public Enemy with Big Daddy Kane

Perhaps I like Louis Armstrong because he's made music

out of being invisible.

Ralph Ellison (1947)

This essay grows out of my existential relationship with young black males and a concomitant theoretical interest in the importance of popular culture. I am especially interested in how images contribute to the black, male adolescent's developing selfhood. My initial assumption is that the violence black youth exhibit reflects their exclusion from a respected place in the dominant culture. The more the media represents black males as dangerous, the more dangerous they will become, and consequently, the greater the need for society to silence them. In an important essay Haki Madhubuti (1990) describes the culture of riot (i.e., instant gratification): "the culture of accommodation submission and riot is encouraged and glorified in the United States. The culture of material acquisition is normal and those that reject such obvious nonsense are regarded as abnormal" (p. 11). This radical essay stresses the enslavement of the black male to the media. Madhubuti also notes the positive power of images to turn a culture of riot into a culture of affirmation. The following essay explores the interrogation and transformation of images pertaining to young black males as undertaken by three young, black film makers: Matty Rich, Ernest Dickerson, and John Singleton.


When Mark David Chapman talks about his murder of John Lennon, he remarks that he "killed an image." In an age where visual learning dominates how we apprehend the world (Baudrillard, 1988), the power of images cannot be underestimated. I begin this discussion with two very powerful images that impact on the relationship of black identity to its social context. Spike Lee's Malcolm X (Worth & Lee, 1992) begins with the image of the American flag burning into a charred X. This incendiary image could be read as anti-American or perhaps, more appropriately, the reality that underpins and questions American patriotism. Does the American flag represent black Americans? Is the black American free? Does he achieve freedom only through violence? The burning recalls, among other images, the KKK burning crosses. And what about the X? This letter usually stands for the unknown, a memorial to the African American's destroyed ancestry. Yet the very meaning of this X is contested in court regarding commercial rights to the invisible signature (New York Times, 11/8/93). The battle for identity is very often the battle for an image.

My second image comes from the beginning of Haile Gerima's (1976) independent film Bush Mama. This film starts with the film's camera crew being accosted by the L.A.P.D. This encounter in filming becomes the film itself. Why are black men with cameras questioned by the police? As with the burning flag, numerous answers can be suggested, but none can be definite. What does seem apparent, however, is that black men with cameras are threatening to the white police forces (Taylor, 1983). The camera becomes a weapon more powerful than the gun, and the film re-enacts a struggle for control of the image of black identity. To think about images is to think about society and the fashioning of identities.

The British sociologist Stuart Hall (Hall & Jefferson, 1975) has written extensively on how the mass media constructs images that social groups, including youth, use to define their identity. In a fragmented society divided by class, gender, race, ethnicity, sexual orientation, special interests, etc., the image becomes a unifying principle for both groups and individuals. Hall further argues that the media will necessarily support the dominant culture and class structure. Dick Hebdige (1979), in developing Hall's work, finds the image to be a site of resistance, rebellion, and refusal. In Hebdige's view, youth subcultures form their meaning through cultivating a specific image or style. Given Erickson's (1968) conceptualization of adolescence as a moratorium, the contemporary adolescent can articulate his/her self in the developmental space between childhood and adulthood. This self is defined through the images of youth subculture in opposition to the world of adults and their culture; that is, the subcultural member lives the world of the street and its values against the world of home, school, and workplace. Although the official culture labels such rebellious youth delinquent, Hebdige believes they signify a positive set of alternative values that critique and delimit the problems that the dominant culture prefers to censor.

Where does the black adolescent fit in the above schemes? He/she also fashions a social identity in relationship to images, but for the black youth these images are almost always produced by a white media that reinforce the youth's inferior social status. Hebdige provides a clue to the above question in his valorization of the British punk movement. The punks are, for Hebdige, the great subcultural rebels of the contemporary period. He compares their image to that of black musician and culture. Norman Mailer (1959) makes a similar point in his classic essay, "The White Negro," and this essay bears some consideration here.

Mailer writes his essay on the threshold of civil unrest and rebellion. He attempts to define a new personality type and lifestyle; the hipster. Mailer traces the genealogy of hip back to jazz, the bohemian artists (i.e., white avant garde) and the juvenile delinquent. He sees the hipster as a positive force of social change, which Mailer links to the character's sexual energy, experimental language, and embrace of the present. The prophetic aspect of the essay concerns Mailer's depiction of the hipster's violent impulses. He remarks that the hipster expresses the tremendous hatred buried beneath the surface of white America (p. 330). This violence erupted in the urban riots of the mid-1960s and would be repeated in the late 1980s and early 1990s. Although the "white Negro" is a metaphor of the outsider in general, the violence he exhibits tends now to be cast in racial terms, a point I will return to shortly. First, I want to outline some problems with the image of the hipster.

The emergence of rap music in the `80s re-appropriates the hipster to his black heritage and its linkage with blues and jazz (Jones, 1963). Yet, the power of white culture to take over black styles indicates the strength of the dominant culture to co-opt subversive gestures and alter oppositional perspectives. This dilemma reappears in relationship to new black artists and the image they project to the young audience. The popular success of rap music, for instance, relies on the purchasing power of white youth. Thus an image that attacks white culture is marketed to the audience it seems to undermine. The black artist constructing his/her image in opposition to the dominant culture must reconcile his/her economic success with subversive images. This dilemma of images is something contemporary black film makers are struggling with.

Erickson (1968) has written about this war of images in relationship to youth. He talks about the relationship between positive images and their converse. The black artist needs to construct a positive image for his group, but this image, usually one of separatism, necessarily produces a negative image in the eyes of the dominant culture. In respect to black Muslims, Erickson speaks of this image manufacturing a "negative conversion, by which erstwhile negative identity elements become totally dominant, while erstwhile positive elements come to be excluded totally" (p. 313). The black artist produces "disintegrating images." What does this production of black images mean to the young black consumer? Ultimately, he must include his racial identity in the wider identity of being American. Gerald Early (1992) has talked about Malcolm X in this respect. In Amiri Baraka's (1991) 1965 sonnet, "A Poem for Black Hearts," for instance, Malcolm X is a symbol of strength for the black male, but as Early questions, what happens when this identification excludes the larger identity? Where does this identification leave the young black male? Will he, as Erickson suggests, be sacrificial and "designated as delinquent and criminal" (p. 318)? How the black male consumes images in shaping his identity becomes a central focus of the black artist and, as the above discussion indicates, this identity often appears antisocial to the larger society.

This discussion of racial identity brings us to a criticism about Mailer's essay. He associates the black male with the juvenile delinquent, especially in relationship to manhood and violent behavior. If the delinquent hipster is understood as a generational reality, then, presumably, he will mature into a member of the official culture. The black delinquent will, however, relate to the official culture differently than the white delinquent. The difference is frequently economic. When adolescents perceive that they have no place in an increasingly technologized world, then the choice of criminal activity becomes attractive. These young people gain access to the market place through the underground drug economy. The difference between how a black delinquent and a white delinquent perceives the future and how society defines his/her delinquent status is crucial to the adolescent's identity formation.

Differences between black and white delinquents are also partly a result of the disproportionate use of the juvenile detention center to process black youths. This early institutional experience prepares the black youth for future criminal activity. The detention center not only takes the black male out of society, but it contributes to society's firmly entrenched stereotype of the black male as significantly more dangerous than the white male (Gibbs, 1988). The perception of the black male as dangerous is precisely what mars Mailer's essay. His valorization of the black male only reinforces the black male's status as antisocial and violent. Thus the young black male is caught in the representative web of white society. The images produced by the mass media dictate the black male's dangerous persona; but what happens when the power of the visual apparatus, especially film, is taken over by the black male? This is the question I will address in the remainder of the essay.


Film, and now music television, are the dominant discourses of youth. Cinema is an important force in either confirming or destroying the values of adolescents in relationship to the structure of authority with which they interact. Lewis (1992) describes the teen film as "work that provides youth with a wealth of substantive images and re-presentation(s) of their lives that to a large extent originate from outside the teen experience" (p. 3). The teen film is, in Lewis's view, necessarily paradoxical. It creates the world of youth, a mirror image of its audience, but from an adult perspective. The young consumers identify with images about their life mediated through the adult director's lens. A second paradox concerns the nature of the film industry itself, especially Hollywood. Lewis describes the teen film as articulating five primary options that the developing adolescent utilizes in response to the breakdown of traditional forms of authority (i.e., family, church, school). These five options include: anomie, deviance, sexual experimentation, conspicuous consumption, and rebellion (p. 2). Yet, the films that represent these options are also a form of authority (i.e., the media) that frequently reinforces established authority. The Hollywood film is a conservative ideology and incorporates youth into its system of values.

The problem with Lewis's argument is that he totally neglects black film. This omission serves to reconfirm the black's status as an invisible reality in American society. Yet films directed by black artists are now emerging as a primary cinematic force, especially in relationship to youth, culture, and identity. This paper will focus entirely on the films of black directors and examine the images these films produce and how a young black man might consume these images in forming his identity.

I will focus on three films directed by young black males, namely, Straight Out of Brooklyn (Rich, 1991), Boyz N the Hood (Singleton, 1991), and Juice (Heyman, Mortitz, Frankfurt, & Dickerson, 1992). All of the above films struggle with the images and identities of young black males. The three directors are part of a new wave of young film makers working outside the Hollywood mainstream. Although this new wave of directors also includes many white and female artists (Maslin, 1992), the black directors are marginalized even further than the avant garde white directors.

The black director, in attempting to develop counter images to those of the established cinema, must operate not only outside the Hollywood paradigm, but against an entire social perception that filters images through a racial lens. This social perception of the black youth is what W.E.B. DuBois (1903/1989) calls the black individual's

double conscience, this sense of always looking at one self

through the eyes of others, of measuring one's soul by the

tape of a world that look on in amused contempt and pity.

One even feels his twoness--an American, a Negro; two

souls, two thoughts, two unreconciled strivings; two warring

ideals in one dark body, whose dogged strength alone

keeps it from being torn asunder. (p. 3)


Matty Rich's film Straight Out of Brooklyn is a raw version of cinema verite. The camera eye moves like a Zolaesque narrator across the urban landscape, detailing the deterioration of a family from the forces of the environment, racism, and alcoholism. Yet the director's objectivity is undercut by his appearance in the film as the character Larry Love. Rich, the actor, gives the impression that this story is, in part, his story. The director, therefore, splits himself into the protagonist Dennis Brown and his peer Larry, who witnesses and quietly participates in the tragic choices Dennis makes. The film is thus strongly autobiographical even in its naturalistic techniques. Also, Rich, the director, is only nineteen years old and very close to the story he tells. He is inside the discourse of youth, and not, as Lewis argues above, talking about adolescence from the adult's retrospective perspective.

The film opens with shots of the Red Hook housing projects in Brooklyn. The ghetto environment is, here, not a specific city space, but the apartment buildings themselves. The deterioration of housing projects from their original design to their current status is a legacy of America's segregationist history (Billingsley, 1968). The projects are now cities within a city. In fact, each individual building has been seen as a "vertical ghetto" (Moore, 1969). Perhaps the best commentary on the reality of the Red Hook projects are the daily papers. The world Rich's film captures is a slice of life from the streets of Brooklyn.

Dennis, Kevin, and Larry spend most of the day just hanging out. They do not attend school and don't work. The alienated black youth share little of the alienated white youth's rebellious image. They do not leisurely float in a swimming pool like Benjamin in The Graduate (Turman & Nichols, 1967), run private radio programs like Christian Slater's Harry in Pump Up the Volume (Harve, Stern, & Moyle, 1990), or take to the open road like the rebels of Easy Rider (Fonda & Hopper, 1969). Indeed, these youth have no open road, just, as Dennis remarks, "the streets." Drugs, in the black subculture, do not signify the possibilities of expanded consciousness or individual liberation. They may provide some medication for the pain of daily living, but more often drugs become the vehicle for economic prosperity. In fact, Dennis's goal is to achieve financial success through the robbery of a local drug lord. In Red Hook, drugs are the avenue both to success and failure. For Dennis, the idea of becoming a Patrick Daly remains remote. This brings me to the question of masculinity. How does the black adolescent form his identity, and in relationship to what models?

First, women, though positive figures, have little impact on the male characters. Dennis's sister and his girl friend both encourage him to attend college and work toward a career. They do not support any criminal activity; more than less, Dennis ignores their advice. Unlike white films, such as The Graduate, where the romantic subplot becomes a catalyst for change, in the black film male adolescents appear to push the women aside. Romance, for the young black male, appears to be only a temporary diversion from the world of the streets.

What about the world of men? At home, the key figure in Dennis's life is his father. Mr. Brown is a hard-working, devoted father. He is, however, unskilled and poor. Upward mobility for the Brown family will depend on the children. Mr. Brown is also an alcoholic. He drinks heavily on the weekends, and when he drinks, Mr. Brown beats his wife. In the movie's most powerful scene, Dennis and his sister lay on their beds listening to their father's verbal abuse, and violent behavior. Dennis remarks to his sister: "That's the reason we don't have anything, he breaks it. I sit in my room all night, sometimes I lay awake and I just want to go out there and kill him." After Dennis confronts his father, Mr. Brown asks his son, "Do you know anything about being black?" The father slams the door. The family cleans up the debris left by Mr. Brown's rampage.

Mr. Brown's rage has passed on to his son. Dennis wants a change and to be out of Brooklyn, not ultimately because he hates his father, but rather since he knows the father cannot provide a better life for the family. The father knows how Dennis feels. When his son does not return home for dinner he, again in anger, acknowledges why "I'm a failure." Yet when Dennis presents the family with a way out, the father cannot accept any criminal plan. The males' interlocking hate then evolves out of different realities. The son has no patience. He wants money fast. Indeed, when talking in bed with his girl friend, Dennis fantasizes about spending a million dollars. He wants a condominium, nice cars, the upper-middle-class life he imagines people on Wall Street (i.e., out of Brooklyn) have. The father, on the other hand, hates the white American dream. He has too much time and carries the memory of black history with him every day. I will speak about the father-son clash momentarily, but now want to describe the mother's role.

The mother always cleans up the father's mess. She also works, when possible, as a domestic cleaning up other people's houses. Her job is, however, noble. It is the legacy of slavery. Mrs. Brown does what is necessary to survive. She is fired because of the bruises on her body, but this woman will not leave the marriage. To speak of her marital relationship as co-dependent or even masochistic would reduce its historical reality. The faith she shows her husband reflects a deep understanding of his reality. Following her being fired, Mr. and Mrs. Brown engage in ballroom dancing. They suffer together and they love together. As she explains to the children, "he's been beaten down only because of the color of his skin; we've got to stand by him." The domestic violence reflects the violence outside the house. It is a mirror of black manhood under siege.

The father's rage explodes in one powerful, dramatic monologue. He has been asked, earlier in the day, to provide an extra service to a white man, and Mr. Brown responds "get it yourself!" This customer is the only white man, aside from the garage owner, in the film. He complains about Mr. Brown's refusal to help, and the manager responds by saying that "his wife probably caught him in bed with some one." Mr. Brown has not only been denigrated by the white man; he has recalled, through this incident, the history of enslavement. Later that night, while Dennis listens silently in the next room, Mr. Brown delivers his powerful monologue of hate, beginning, "Hey white man, remember me? I'm the black man you destroyed." The speech vilified the white man not only for slavery, but also its legacy of broken dreams. Mr. Brown has accepted the fate of poverty, but his rage is real and the fear he invokes to a white audience is also real.

The father's speech, delivered in a 1992 film, appears like a perfect illustration of the black rage Grier and Cobbs (1968) describe in their classic study of the black personality structure. Mr. Brown exhibits accommodation to his reality, but the inner storm is always ready to explode. Red Hook is like, the film suggests, a contemporary plantation. Mr. Brown's manhood has been relentlessly crushed, but the film suggests, at what cost?

The father's rage expresses what Grier and Cobbs calls the bad nigger or inner blackness:

Because of his experience in this country, every black man

harbors a potential bad nigger inside him. He must ignore

this innerman. The bad nigger is bad because he has been

required to renounce his manhood to save his life. The

more he approaches the American ideal of respectability,

the more this hostility must be repressed. The bad nigger is

a defiant nigger, a reminder of what manhood could be.

(pp. 66-67)

The father's rage is always close to the surface, but deflected onto his wife. He also sees his son's desire for the middle-class life he can never achieve, and this realization appears to fuel the father's inner rage and suffering. The father will pass this rage onto the son.

If Mr. Brown cannot achieve success in Red Hook, where are the ghetto's images of manhood? Two men, Soladine and Luther, represent black male strength; in contradistinction to Mr. Brown's apparent impotence. Soladine is a drug runner and distributor, a Jamaican immigrant who drives a $50,000 Jaguar. The car represents the status and money Dennis wants. He will, therefore, rob the drug dealer with little thought of the consequences. Dennis thinks this (money) is what his family truly wants (i.e., straight out of Brooklyn). The other significant male is Luther. He is the drug lord. Luther has the money, power, and sexy women admirers young black men dream about. He achieves the masculine status Mr. Brown is denied. Luther needs to be seen as a community leader, for his power rivals, if not exceeds, that of ministers and school administrators. Rich's film does not exclude someone like Patrick Daly (junior high school principal) as a positive male image, but it does suggest that such an image does not enter the consciousness of most young black males as a realistic life option. Luther, on the other hand, is not really perceived as "bad." He is the underside of the top, Wall Street executive. Dennis aspires to success and comfort regardless of how he achieves the goal. Thus his "bad" side is close to the surface and his defiance builds to a crescendo. When Dennis commits his crime, though, the defiance strikes at the law of the streets, and the consequences are tragic.

The film ends with the simultaneous death of Dennis's parents. The mother, a figure of quiet dignity, dies of a heart attack; broken by the suffering of daily life. Mr. Brown is murdered in cold blood, a surrogate for his son, but he too, has borne a life of struggle, pain, and racism. Dennis's life, on the contrary, has been one of increasing desperation. He has no sense of the past and little tolerance for his parent's adaptation to the ghetto. When Dennis attempts to change his life, his crime is directed against another black male. Yet the adolescent's defiance also acts against the largely invisible white presence that produces a drug lord like Luther. Although Luther is a criminal, he is also a businessman and commands respect from the young black males living in Red Hook. Unlike the athlete or movie star who rarely returns to the ghetto, the drug king is a daily presence. Dennis does not want, ironically, to be like Luther; he simply wants a comfortable life that his Brooklyn neighborhood cannot provide. The film ends, then, in an explosion of grief. It is a painful lamentation about the lives of struggling black families and their invisible pain.

Grier and Cobbs end their book with a prediction about black rage. They talk about the transformation of grief into anger: "blacks bent double by oppression have stored energy which will be released in the form of rage--black rage, apocalyptic and final" (p. 210). This rage is produced when: "the hatred he [the sufferer] turned on himself is redirected toward his tormentors, and the fury of his attack on the one who caused him pain is in direct proportion to the depth of his grief" (p. 209). Mr. Brown has turned hatred inward against his wife, but Dennis will turn this rage outward. The grief Dennis feels at the film's conclusion will, the director implies, be a measure of the rage this desperate, hurt young man will express. It is not rage against Luther, but rather against the invisible wall that separates the races, the view from the promenade and the anger against a society that allows Red Hook to be the place of such grief.


Ernest Dickerson's (Heyman et al., 1992) film Juice strikes me as a hybrid western/gangster picture trying to be a musical. The movie represents a group of young black and Hispanic male peers roving the streets like urban cowboys staking out a cosmopolitan frontier. Harlem is like the wild west. Everyone seems either to own a gun or have access to a gun. Hispanic gangs battle black youth for territory. Masculinity is defined in terms of physical strength and violence. Women are simply incidental diversions in the quest for power and secondary to male friendship. The world of domesticity is alien to these young men who forge their identity on the street. The gangster motif is partly the film's urban context and partly the fact that young black men are often viewed by society as "outlaws" or delinquents. The western/gangster here is finally merged with a musical plot, developed alongside contemporary rap lyrics and beats that attempt unsuccessfully to achieve a harmonious conclusion.

The film begins by juxtaposing each member of the black youth crew in their bedroom preparing for school. Each youth belongs to a different family constellation; Q has a mother, Steele a mother and father, Raheem a mother, and Bishop a father and grandmother. The families all appear genuinely concerned with their children's welfare, but they all have little influence on the kids' life choices. Aside from this opening sequence and a funeral, the families do not appear again in the movie. Likewise, school is not relevant to these adolescents. When Steele, for example, leaves his apartment, he replaces his books with a large boom box. If the youth attends school, he does so in order to make after-school plans. The action takes place on the streets, the basketball court, video arcade, and night club; these are the sites of adolescent identity.

The meaning of masculinity is established in three early street scenes. Bishop attempts to establish his self through "fronting"; that is, creating an image of the self. This is symbolized, in part, by his always wearing a hooded sweatshirt and talking tough. Bishop's image is tested early on when he is confronted by a Hispanic gang leader. This leader challenges Bishop by asking, "You got that much juice?" Bishop in turn will devote himself to proving he has juice. His manhood, therefore, will be achieved in a territorial battle on the streets.

The film provides, however, an alternative to drugs as a way to manhood. When Q sees a street poster for a Saturday night "Ruff House Mixx Master Massacre," he spends much of his time in his room, mixing records. His decision to enter the contest indicates his sincere desire to achieve success through music. The contest emcee is played by rap star Queen Latifah and thus shows the possibility of real success through artistic accomplishment. Q, then, has a positive goal to strive for. Yet the film's message here is double edged. When Q attends the audition he discovers an endless line of young black men and women wanting to become musical stars, and this same line, the movie implies, will be unemployed and ultimately candidates for life on the street.

The film's narrative develops from the interlocking and contrary roads to manhood taken by Bishop and Q. "Juice" is the street lingo for power and respect. Its possession is equivalent to manhood. If you have juice you have balls (the word is even suggestive of the man's seminal fluid). Bishop will demonstrate juice through violent control of the streets, and Q through artistic mastery of mixing. The two stories eventually collide, resulting in a tragic Saturday night juxtaposition of the two men's realities. If Bishop's gang combat is played off against Q's deejay combat, what happens, the film asks, when the violent and artistic realities clash?

The buildup to the culminating confrontation between Bishop and Q begins when Q accidentally runs into an old friend at a local bar. The friend, called Blizzard, informs Q that he is going to rob the bar and asks Q if he wants some of the action. Q refuses to participate. When hearing of Q's decision, Bishop reacts with anger. What to Q is a positive choice is to Bishop an act of cowardice. The ground is now prepared for a confrontation between the two characters and their respective definitions of masculinity.

The verbal combat between Q and Bishop takes place later that afternoon in Steele's apartment. The crew is feasting on Steele's parents' food and watching the movie White Heat (Edelman & Walsh, 1949). The film is followed by the news. Pablo Guzman reports the death of a twenty-year-old black male in a shoot-out at a Harlem bar. Bishop reacts to Blizzard's death with rage. He talks about the crew as a bunch of wimps always on the run. Bishop's comparison of his peers to his view of Blizzard as a hero leads to the film's central exchange:

Q: If you want respect you got to earn it.

B: You damn right. You got to be ready to go down, stand

up and die for that shit like Blizzard did if you want

some juice.

Q: Blizzard ain't stickin up to nothin now.

B: That's because we weren't there, if we were there ...

Q: If we were there, there would be five dead niggers

instead of one. You ain't saying nothin now right big


B: Never thought I'd see the day when you .... You talk

like a punk Q.

Q: Fuck you, man.

B: You got to take them out any time you feel like it. You

got to go out in a blaze if you got to.

The exchange is followed by a brief fight that prefigures their Saturday night combat.

The scene mingles complex levels of representation. A fictive shoot-out is reported by a historic reporter to a fictive audience. The entire sequence is, more importantly, mediated by the film White Heat. Bishop assimilates Blizzard's act to James Cagney's portrayal of the gangster Cody. His remark "go out in a blaze" refers most immediately to Cody's death in a massive fireball: "If you've got to go out that's the way to go out. The mother fucker took his destiny in his own hands." Bishop interprets Blizzard's act as a repetition of Cody's glorious end, and he too now will, if necessary, "go out in a blaze."

White Heat is the inter-text for Juice. Bishop will model his choices after the character Cody. The gangster is a cold-blooded killer. When the informer pleads to Cody, "You wouldn't kill me in cold blood, would you?" Cody answers, "I'd let you warm up a little first." The gangster is always in control. He appears to have endless juice. No job is too big for Cody. He has the total respect of his gang and, apparently, the authorities as well. Cody has a sexy blonde lover but treats her like "a good girl." She is simply part of his rough invincible image or front.

Yet, Cody's character has two sides. Beneath the gangster's public image is a weak, dependent little man with a mother fixation. Cody never does anything without Ma Cody. His migraine headaches, which render him helpless, are caused by worrying about her. Cody's double nature is dramatized in one famous scene where he retires to the bedroom with his mother. Outside the room the gang perceives him as a tough guy in total control of the situation (they are being tracked down by authorities following a train robbery and murder), but in the room his mother massages her son as if Cody is five years old. The fearless gangster is also, in private, a helpless child. The incestuous relationship is also supported by the mother. She risks exposing the gang's hideout just to buy "her boy" some strawberries. The film's famous Irish greeting "Top O' The World" consequently has a double edge. It signifies at once the powerful love between mother and son (i.e., everything is okay, Cody, since I love you) and the ruthless drive for power irrespective of the law or ethics. Thus when Cody blows himself up in the film's Top Of The World climax he asserts eternal love for his mother and the fact he will not let anyone take control of his life.

In Juice, the character Bishop decides to take control of his destiny following the news report about Blizzard. Q refers to Blizzard as a "crazy mother fucker," and Bishop too becomes quickly unhinged by the course of events. Like Cody, he is, in part, psychopathic and will kill without remorse. Bishop does not, however, appear to have any clear psychodynamic motivation. The audience knows nothing of his mother and, although his father appears disabled and mute, the film provides no account of the family situation. Bishop's weak side is acknowledged when he states, "I ain't shit, never goin' be shit." This deep inner void seems to propel Bishop's desperate search for acceptance. The pursuit of juice will be equivalent to Cody's being "Top Of The World," and, like Cody, he will need to use violence to achieve such respect. In fact, Bishop's behavior appears motivated by the fictional character.

The narrative turns up this crucial scene, mediated by the TV in Steele's apartment. Bishop plots a robbery of the local Hispanic bodega, and Q continues to participate in the deejay competition. Q, however, does not know of Bishop's plan. In effect, Bishop decides to take leadership in the group. The introduction of a gun into the plan signals his determination to transform the crew into a gang. Q reluctantly goes along with the plan. The film counterpoints the armed robbery with the finals of the music competition. The narrative also implies a parallel with the train robbery in White Heat. Bishop seems to have Cody's murder of a conductor imprinted on his mind when he shoots the grocer, Quides, in the head. The murder unleashes Bishop's rage, leading to murders of the Hispanic gang leader, his friend Raheem, and a wounded Steele. Q's victory at the Ruff House is an ironic triumph. The Saturday night massacre has become a genuine bloodletting. The true meaning of juice will be found only on the street in the final confrontation between Bishop and Q.

The two central characters replay their conflict in two scenes. At Raheem's wake, Bishop, his murderer, consoles Raheem's mother in a particularly cruel image. He pulls the mother to his shoulder and says, "Raheem was like a brother, more than a brother." Bishop meets the icy stare of Q. They meet again at Q's school locker where Q warms Bishop never again to pull a gun on him. The gauntlet has been thrown, and the ultimate contest for juice articulated by Bishop's response:

Look at this, the brother finally decides to stand up like a

man and throw down, too bad Raheem had to die first,

huh? It's over. Everything starts from now, we all go down

unless we stay together. Ain't no one man above the crew.

The speech is ironic since Bishop knows Q will not inform on him and the Hispanic gang leader has been already wasted. Bishop is challenging Q to a duel for respect. He acknowledges Q's masculine assertion and now expects that masculinity to be proven.

The film maintains, even here, some resemblance to White Heat. The battle between Bishop and Q repeats the struggle between Big Ed and Cody for power. Yet, the narrative's denouement also merges here with the western. The gun fight or showdown becomes the ultimate test of manhood. I am especially reminded of Fred Zimmermann's classic High Noon (Kramer & Zimmermann, 1952). In this film, a retired marshal played by Gary Cooper returns to duty in order to save a town. He is a man of action and the only individual willing to stand ground against trouble. In a world of cowards, the marshal is the only true man left. Manhood is proven through physical strength, courage, and violence. The film's final shot shows the lone figure in the street underneath the blazing noonday sun. The hero is assimilated into solar mythology and has become like a king.

Dickerson inverts Zimmermann's heroic paean to the individual at the height of McCarthyism. In Juice, Q asks the Jamaican merchant to request that Bishop meet him alone at midnight at 125th Street and the Henry Hudson. Thus the solar mythology of High Noon is turned upside down and displaced by Juice's tragic vision. Even the earlier film's lovely white heroine played by Grace Kelly has been displaced by Q's older girl friend, Yolanda, suggesting a link with the Latin woman, Katy Jurando, that the western's marshal rejects on his heroic quest. Dickerson critiques Hollywood's racism, as well as its cryptic fascist valorization of the strong man (see, Mellen, 1977, pp. 228-231). The commonality between the films is violence. Bishop greets Q with an ironic western intonation, "What's up par-t-net?" The two commence their duel under the dim moonlight. Q is wounded and the two pursue each other from the desolate areas of the Hudson River up through an apartment complex, a party, and onto the roof top. Q knocks Bishop over the edge, and although he attempts to pull Bishop back up, he fails. Bishop falls to his death. The film ends not in the blazing sun, but total darkness. The camera moves from a wide angle shot of the audience to a close up of Q's face. The final words are: "Yo, you got the juice now man."

The juice Q earns, however, is not the juice he wants. Q is an aesthetic young man forced to prove himself through violence. Early on, I talked about the movie as part musical. As the credits roll the audience hears deejay Gee-Q spinning records for KISS FM. Q achieves real success in working for New York City's most popular radio station. His victory, however, is hollow. In this black film, the musical is not the movie. It is framed by the tragic story of survival. Q lives to spin records, but he has lost his friends. The music of this film is bitter. Q is on Top Of The World but he has no one to celebrate with.


John Singleton's film is a powerful exploration of black manhood. It is a cinematic bildungsroman tracing Tre's, the central character, coming of age. Singleton, himself barely out of adolescence, represents Tre's struggle for manhood against the nets of family, friends, community, and society.

The film begins in an elementary social studies class. The child Tre usurps the class and turns it into an African history lesson. This defiant image is memorable. It displaces the Anglo-European curriculum and inverts authority. The child instructs the teacher. What is relevant to these bored youngsters is intolerable to the institution. Tre's enthusiasm for Afrocentric learning is labeled as disrespectful. His school "troubles" in turn frustrate his mother. She decides to allow Tre to stay with his father through the duration of the academic year. This opening sequence of events sets the stage for the film's alternate vision of education.

Singleton's highlighting elementary education is not accidental. Jawanza Kunjufu (1985) has talked, in detail, about the "fourth grade failure syndrome" and how it determines the future path of black students. He talks about the transition between primary grades and intermediate grades as the school's abandonment of black children. This change in learning ability is related, Kunjufu asserts, to the transformation of teaching methods from a socially interactive style to a competitive, individualistic style (p. 7). The emphasis on individualistic learning attenuates an almost invisible institutional racism that Kunjufu calls "the conspiracy to destroy black boys." A disproportionate number of black boys are placed in special education, which, in many cases, predicts later dropouts and delinquency. As Kunjufu notes, the increase in age is highly correlated to the increase in street time. The less conducive the school environment to black learning patterns, the more conducive the streets become as the real classroom of youth. This entire scenario is related, Kunjufu believes, to the educational institution's insensitivity to and neglect of social, historical, and psychological factors important to black learning. The school, therefore, reinforces white values. This "fact" perpetuates white control of the professions and white social dominance.

Thus, the opening of Singleton's film both illustrates the education abandonment of the black boy and displaces it. The moment Tre is handed over to his father, Furious Styles, the film enacts an alternative vision of black education. This early scene condenses, therefore, much of the film's meaning. Although the mother's decision to leave Tre with the father appears as an admission of inadequacy, I don't feel Singleton is criticizing black mothers. Reva is a strong, caring, and successful woman, but she does not have the time nor the authority to discipline young Tre. The director acknowledges the fact that fathers are crucial to the development of black children, and beyond that fact reverses the social myths about black men. Singleton attacks the idea of black matriarchy.

The construction of black matriarchy as a social belief reached the status of "fact" through Daniel Patrick Moynihan's (1965) report on The Negro Family. The report situates itself in the civil unrest of the mid-'60s. The author identifies the unequal status of blacks as a consequence of deteriorating family life, which in turn is a result of the poverty racism supports. The image of the broken family, a young unemployed mother and her children, is represented in the film by the father's neighbors. Singleton does not, however, condemn mothers like Brenda, he simply presents their harsh reality as the product of an invisible class system. Similarly, Moynihan's report has been mistakenly criticized by black writers and others (see, for example, Gans, 1991, pp. 285-298) as advocating welfare programs. Moynihan argues, on the contrary, for the necessity of employment programs for black men and the opportunity to achieve manhood through equal opportunity in the market place. Black families are not "broken." The father's disappearance is, both Moynihan and Singleton suggest, the residue of slavery. American society takes black men from their families and then blames them for abandoning the children. The film raises the question underlying single black motherhood, that is, why has society abandoned black men?

The film juxtaposes the reality of a crack-addicted mother with a strong, hard-working father and the contrasting effects these respective parental figures have on their children. The father's invisibility, paradoxically, leads to the adolescent's increased visibility on the streets. The search for the black father society has erased, the film implies in the character Doughboy, manifests itself through the anger of delinquency and crime (or on a large scale riots). Doughboy's "black rage" is the expression of a deep internal unrest. If Tre feels less rage, that may be because of his father's re-direction of Tre's life. For Tre's dad, as his first name (i.e., Furious) states, also exhibits rage, but his rage has the benefit of style (his last name) and a concrete goal to work toward (i.e., rebuilding the black neighborhood).

The entire complex of social ideas is present in those early sequences of images. When Tre leaves his mother's car, his dad immediately puts him to work raking leaves. Mr. Styles will provide discipline, and he will be tough. Tre's childhood buddies, the brothers Doughboy and Ricky, decide not to help work. They just want to stand around, but as Furious remarks to his son, "I'm going to teach you to be responsible, you're going to see how they end up."

In an excellent essay on the film, Michael Eric Dyson (1992) argues that Furious "embodies the promise of a different conception of black manhood" (p. 127). He is a figure of redemption, the visible black male. Singleton inscribes the male image on the screen and by privileging the marginal figure he radically challenges social, critical, and artistic stereotypes. Singleton presents Furious as what Kunjufu calls a counter-conspiracy image (pp. 2% 33), and the film enacts, as a central theme, Tre's rites of passage into this counter-image of black manhood.

Tre's developing manhood is measured against the development of his friends, Ricky and Doughboy. The use of brothers borrows from the long literary tradition of doubles, but Singleton explores some innovation regarding the cinematic adaptation of the themes. In Francis Ford Coppola's excellent film on white adolescent gangs, Rumble Fish (Roos, Claybourne, & Coppola, 1983), for instance, the brothers, Rusty James and the Motorcycle Boy, are used as contrasting examples of masculinity. This apocalyptic film, interestingly, shows the teen's gang life as a consequence of a weak, alcoholic father. Likewise, the classic Rebel Without A Cause (Weisbart & Ray, 1955) also points to the failure of fathers. Thus Singleton shares a belief with some white directors about the value of a strong father figure for the male adolescent. He differs from the other directors by having the brothers' complementarity represent two aspects of the central character.

Both Ricky and Doughboy are possible life choices for Tre. Singleton compares the relationship between a strong visible father in Tre's case with the brothers' absent father. He further contrasts each brother's relationship to their mother, and finally Tre's relationship to his dad is played off against the two brothers as a peer group. Singleton's presentation of interlocking characters represents "a vision of black life that transcends insular preoccupations with `positive' or `negative' images and instead presents at once the limitations and virtues of black culture" (Dyson, 1992, pp. 126-127).

Ricky is the more "positive" of the brothers, perhaps because his absent father contributed less than Doughboy's dad to the boy's identity confusion. Brenda's hatred toward Doughboy's father is strong, "You ain't shit," she says. "You just like yo' Daddy. You don't do shit, and you never gonna amount to shit." She transfers her rage against Doughboy's father to his son and this condemns the son to life on the streets. He goes from delinquent to criminal, becoming exactly what his mother ordained. Ricky, on the other hand, has athletic talent, and Brenda praises and encourages his ability. She sees this son as a possible way out of the ghetto. In this regard Brenda cannot be blamed. She simply reinforces the value society, here white society, holds up as positive. The black athlete is sought after by colleges. He is an entertainer and consequently a valuable "product" for the sports industry. Doughboy, lacking Ricky's athletic talent, is a danger to white society, which is why most of his time is spent locked up. Ironically, Ricky is already a father, and by the film's end he too will be invisible. The cycle of fatherless children continues.

Yet, despite Brenda's unequal treatment of her two sons, they are fiercely loyal to each other. Early in the film Doughboy comes to Ricky's assistance when some older boys steal his football. Doughboy is badly beaten up, but his defense of Ricky is what counts. Toward the film's conclusion Doughboy will defend his brother's honor by avenging his murder. The power of the peer group is solidified when Tre remarks to Doughboy, "You got one more brother left." This gesture signifies the loyalty of "the hood" and represents a true family relationship.

The loyalty of peers as the primary adolescent value has always been a part of teen films. In Rebel Without A Cause, Jim Stark must risk his life in a drag race to assert his manhood before his peers. The loyalty code usually surfaces in the confrontation of rivals: Marlon Brando's Johnny must combat Lee Marvin's Chino, Dean's Stark battles Corey's Buzz, and rival gangs clash in Boyz N the Hood. For Tre, however, the code of peers is a direct, keenly felt conflict with his father's honor. When Tre leaves the house to join Doughboy he momentarily rejects Furious's masculinity, symbolized by the father's clasping ben-wa balls. Ultimately, Tre hears the father's voice echo, and he leaves Doughboy's car in a scene that recalls Jim's jumping out of the car during the chicken race. Tre's act allows him to discover a manhood that transcends the street's raw, violent masculinity, and he earns the respect of both his father and peers. The film ends, initially, with the coming together of Tre and Doughboy. Tre has, in a sense, reconciled the super ego (Furious) and id (Doughboy) to achieve a sense of self.

Singleton, however, ends the film twice. The second ending or epilogue projects the film into the future. Doughboy is murdered two years later. Tre, on the contrary, attends Morehouse College, and his girl friend, Brandi, attends nearby Spellman College. The director posits an ideal ending on the harsh reality of south central Los Angeles. Like Brecht and Shaw, Singleton creates art with a definite, didactic message. The emphasis is on education as the only way out of the inner city. What strikes me as curious is the almost superfluous role of Brandi. Unlike Judy, in Rebel Without A Cause, Brandi exerts no real influence on Tre's decision making. He is torn between the world of his father and that of his peers. Romance, in Singleton's film, belongs only to Hollywood. Tre's education at Morehouse College then is the product both of Furious and Doughboy. He becomes, in effect, the reincarnation of Ricky, and when Doughboy dies his spirit too will be part of Tre.


Boyz N the Hood's final frames show Doughboy turn from Tre, his newly discovered brother, and gradually dissolve from the screen. Later, the film comments that Doughboy has been murdered, but this statement seems superfluous. Doughboy has become invisible well before his death. In a real sense, Doughboy has been invisible his entire life; neglected by his mother, later placed in juvenile detention centers and, finally, jail. He is, perhaps, the figure most representative of young black males living among the inner cities of America. When Doughboy dissolves before the movie audience, I am reminded of Ralph Ellison's (1947) "invisible man," and how true this characterization of the black male appears to be. Let me quote the narrator's depiction of himself:

I am invisible, understand, simply because people refuse to

see me. Like the bodiless heads you see sometimes in circus

sideshows, it is as though I have been surrounded by mirrors

of hard, distorting glass. When they approach me they see

only my surroundings, themselves, or figments of their imagination--indeed

everything and anything except me. (p. 3)

Extraordinarily, Ellison's novel published in 1947 predates even Brown v. Board of Education (1954), and yet, its metaphor of black masculinity remains operative nearly fifty years later. In these concluding remarks, I will focus on invisibility as it pertains to the black American's social world, manhood, and, finally, how invisibility impacts on the cinema.

One of the most powerful images of Boyz N the Hood is the police helicopter that is always part of the action, but always out of frame. The helicopters provide constant surveillance over south central Los Angeles. Since this police machine hovers overhead it implies some transcendent power. The helicopters have the effect of a social, panoptican mobile enough to transform an entire metropolitan region into an "invisible prison." For Foucault (1977) the panoptican symbolizes the power of the state. Everything is rendered visible to those subject to the dominant class. Thus, the helicopters serve to organize and enclose space. The inhabitants can then be disciplined, acted upon, and contained. Although the black man may appear invisible, he is also, paradoxically, always visible to the powerful gaze of the white power structure.

The space surveyed by the police helicopters in Boyz N the Hood is traditionally defined as a ghetto. All three films discussed here represent this topography: Red Hook, Harlem, and south central Los Angeles. Historically, the ghetto refers to an urban section where Jews would be confined. During the Nazi occupation of Eastern Europe, walls were constructed around the Jewish quarters of a city. The relationship between us and them had physical demarcation (something similar can be seen in Derry, Northern Ireland). The American ghetto also refers to a physical space, but rare are the inhabitants confined because of religion. Typically, the modern ghetto is populated by minorities, that is, people of color. The walls of these urban regions are invisible. The legal walls of segregation have been demolished, but the harsh reality of places like Red Hook remain.

Kenneth Clark's (1965) early work on "the invisible wall" is telling even today. Clark writes:

The objective dimensions of the American urban ghettos are

over crowded and deteriorated housing, high infant mortality,

crime and disease. The subjective dimensions are resentment,

hostility, despair, apathy, self-depreciation, and its

ironic companion, compensatory grandiose behavior. (p. 11)

The self-depreciation and grandiosity is evident in Bishop; the hostility in Doughboy, the resentment in Dennis, and the feeling of apathy seems almost contagious in the three films. Although the word ghetto is not an adequate word to describe the diversity of these inner-city spaces, they are nonetheless separate realities. Individuals move into the areas because that is where they can afford to live. The pattern of residential segregation has carried into the 1990s. This defacto segregation has even been supported by the courts in Freeman v. Pitts, 1992 (cf. Hentoff, 1992). Invisibility, then, is a spatial metaphor. The black community, in all three films, is invisible and enclosed by the white power structure that surrounds it.

What about the teen film then? How does it reflect images of youth and relate to larger cinematic visions of American manhood? In an important book, Thomas Doherty (1988) develops a thesis about the juvenilization of American movies in the 1950s. He attributes the transformation of film to the simultaneous advent of television and an affluent group of young Americans with their own identity. In battle with television, the film industry develops a more specialized market (p. 3). Teenage consumption emerges in the mid-1950s as the movie industry's primary target audience (pp. 42-70). Films are developed to exploit the new audience. What is most relevant about the new teenpic is the industry's featuring delinquent movies in combination with the rise of rock music.

The film Blackboard Jungle (Berman & Brooks, 1955) ushered in images of teenage rebellion in the classroom to the sound of Bill Haley and the Comets. The film's key song "Rock Around the Clock" led to Sam Katzman's production of a movie with that title and an entire cycle of both delinquent and rock films (pp. 71-104). The view of masculinity presented by the teenpic is described by Doherty as "the rebellious teenager ruled the teenpic screens, bequeathing an enduring image of the era's youth as semi-articulate, switchblade-toting poseurs in nascent revolt against an oppressive parent culture" (p. 139). I want to connect this representation of the tough, rebellious young male with the larger view of masculinity produced by Hollywood.

The frontier image of masculinity produced by westerns and gangster films depicts men as physically strong, quiet, independent, violent--loners rarely connected to women or family. Joan Mellen's (1977) excellent book on masculinity and the movies summarizes the male image and its paradoxical representation of manhood.

American films have not only sought to render men powerless

by projecting male images of fearsome strength and

competence. They have also proposed consistently over the

years that the real man is not a rebel but a conformist who

supports God and country, right or wrong. The heroes who

exhibit the most power stand for the status quo, even as

they suggest that physical action unencumbered by effeminate

introspection is what characterizes the real man; thus,

in the most profound sense, the bold exterior of these men

on screen conceals the fact that the films actually foster a

sense of passivity by suggesting that such men are never

rebels but can always be trusted to acquiesce in the established

order. (p. 5)

The rebellious teen certainly exhibits physical strength and action consistent with Hollywood's definition of "real masculinity," but what about Mellen's statement that such men serve the "status quo"?

Blackboard Jungle ends with the reassertion of adult authority, and Rebel Without A Cause concludes with the father's assumption of a strong role. In general, the teenpic frames and contains the rebellious energy of youth within the supervision of adult power. The parent society is changed to accommodate the young, but not transformed. The teenpic is essentially conservative.

Appearances to the contrary, there can be few illusions

about who controls the means of filmic production and for

those whose ends those means are ultimately marshalled.

Certainly any reading of the narratives of rock `n' roll teenpics

reveals that although they may traffic in generational

conflict, they deliver generational reconciliations, the cultural

challenge introduced in the opening happily defused

by the finale (Doherty, 1988, pp. 92-93).

The figure of mediation is usually an adult sympathetic to the teen world (like Alan Freed, rock entrepreneur).

Two recent changes in the conservative representation of masculinity are important to note. The strong man of classic western and gangster films has been replaced by the policeman/detective. As Mellan notes, "Today the hero takes the law into his own hands because the community is too civilized, the law too compassionate and understanding of the criminal. The hero can protect not just individuals but Western civilization itself only by vigilante violence" (p. 12). The ruthless gangster, like Tom Powers of Public Enemy (Zanuck & Wellman, 1931) has now simply changed sides and become a ruthless cop like Harry Callahan of Dirty Harry (Siegal, 1977). The second social change in the teen hero concerns his response to authority. The 1980s-teen has no authority to revolt from. "One of the most fascinating undertones of teenpics since the 1960s is their palpable desire for parental control and authority, not adolescent independence and authority" (Doherty, 1988, p. 237). The new teen hero, then, is often comic. The rebellious hipster becomes either the adult, renegade cop ala Clint Eastwood, Mel Gibson, Bruce Willis and company, or if a teen, the rebellious character is a maniacal antihero of horror films (Michael in Halloween, [Hill & Carpenter, 1978]; Jason of Friday the 13th, [Cunningham, 1980]) or black. It is this last observation with which I want to end.

The three films under discussion all depict young black males who would be considered "delinquents." Characters like Doughboy and Bishop are similar to Brando's hard-edged teen in The Wild One (Kramer & Benedek, 1953). Yet the rebellious young black teen appears precisely when his white male counterpart becomes part of the establishment. In Kuffs (Gideon & Evans, 1992), for example, the drifting young white male party animal, played by teen idol Christian Slater, is a renegade cop. Like a young Harry Callahan, George Kuffs is protector of a lawless city (San Francisco). He is hired to protect a neighborhood the city police are no longer able to patrol. The character is essentially comic, but the social message is powerful. Mr. Kuffs, the fun-loving young white male, is on the side of law and order. Young black males, on the other hand, are at no point represented on the side of the law.

The implications of this last point bear consideration. Black film makers have returned the teenager to his '50s roots. His rebellion is clearly pitched against authority, but now the authority is represented in racial terms repressed by earlier white film makers. Black adolescents Dennis, Bishop, Doughboy and others are modeled after the '30s gangster. Unlike the gangster, however, their death does not serve the same moral interest. Tom Powers must be punished because he is an enemy of society. The tragedies of the young black males appear to serve no larger moral vision. They suffer, the directors suggest, because society has no place for them. The films' irony directs itself at the law. If Dirty Harry emerges to save our lawless society, he is fighting against the "delinquents" represented by Rich, Dickerson, and Singleton. The black directors raise the question: who will fight for the black community?

Before addressing that question I want to point out another major revision of the white teenpic. Black directors replace the rock sound track with rap music. Each of the three films utilizes rap lyrics, beats, and even figures (e.g., Ice Cube and Queen Latifah) as an integral part of the narrative. They give back to the teenpic its rebellious voice. Now, rap speaks the language of black America and, like the black film, makes visible what the larger culture wants to silence. I am reminded again of Ellison's (1947) narrator and how he expresses invisibility through the music of the blues. "Perhaps I like Louis Armstrong because he's made poetry out of being invisible. I think it must be because he's unaware that he is invisible" (p. 6). The narrator continues to describe the different sense of time and consequently reality:

Invisibility, let me explain, gives one a slightly different

sense of time, you're never quite on the beat. Sometimes

you're ahead and sometimes behind. Instead of the swift

and imperceptible flow of time, you are aware of its modes,

those points where time stands still or from which it leaps

ahead. And you slip into the breaks and look around.

That's what you hear vaguely in Louis' music. (Ellison,

1947, p. 7)

Rap music, like the blues, brings back the voice of the people:

Public Enemy's Chuck D is devoted to rap because he

understands it as "black America's CNN," because it is the

one medium that can be counted on to get the news out to

kids all over the country about how other kids in other

communities are living, because, in short, it makes Ralph

Ellison's Invisible Man visible [and audible] again for the

first time in a generation. (Adler, 1991, p. xviii)

The sound track gives the black community a voice, but what about the man's invisibility within the black community?

The three central characters, Dennis, Q, and Tre, ultimately act alone and they all lose; Dennis loses his family, Q and Tre lose their friends. Of the three figures, Q and Tre appear the most positive characters. They strive for concrete goals and resist, to the extent possible, violence and street life. Q is short for Quincey, but the tag also signifies his image: G.Q. He is a smooth character. Tre, in Boyz N the Hood, is also referred to as "G.Q. smooth." The two heroes represent a "cool aesthetic." They are in control of the self and appear able to sublimate and transform violent impulses into a balanced view of the world. The difficulty with presenting Q and Tre as admirable embodiments of the cool aesthetic is, ironically, their individuality.

Dyson's (1992) criticism of Boyz N the Hood, for instance, focuses on Furious's individual heroism. "In Singleton's film vision, it is not institutions like the church that save Tre, but the heroic individual--his father Furious. But this leaves out far too much of the picture" (p. 133). The comment is half accurate. Furious, in fact, is represented as a community builder. He is an educator and financier whose lecture on gentrification expresses Furious's desire to rebuild his neighborhood from the inside. Tre's commitment to the community is more ambiguous. He goes to Morehouse College, but the film gives no indication of whether Tre will return to south central L.A. Q may achieve success as a New York City deejay, but where does this leave him in relationship to the black community? The problem with black subjectivity is precisely its relationship to the dominant culture. American society values individualism. It is part of the frontier ethic and landmark of the capitalist economy. The success of the individual black, then, violates, at some level, his social and racial identity. In fact, the ideology of individualism allows the government to resist group initiative and praise individual gain, that is, the growth of the black middle class.

The dilemma faced by the new black directors concerns this value of the self versus the value of the community. Is Tre a positive image? Should black directors be concerned with producing positive images? Is the positive image in the black community necessarily a negative image in the white community? The hegemonic power of the dominant culture, here Hollywood, makes success on other grounds difficult. The successful black is pictured as representative of American individualism. Eddie Murphy's success in Beverly Hills is one example. He has long passed his roots in Roosevelt, Long Island. Ice Cube, as indicated earlier, sells malt liquor, and Michael Jordan promotes extremely expensive sneakers. The benefits of capitalism, however, do not have to compromise the artist's integrity, and these three films are sincere and powerful representations of the young black male's coming of age in contemporary America. Rich, Dickerson, and Singleton all destroy the Hollywood myths and expose some of the racist ideology inherent in a dominant cultural form. They show the difficult struggle of young black males to mature in a world that prefers to lock them out. In this sense, the new directors exhibit the aesthetic of cool. As Thompson (1973) discusses, "Coolness imparts order not through ascetic subtraction of body from mind, or brightness of cloth from seriousness of endeavor, but, quite the contrary, by means of ecstatic unions of sensuous pleasure and moral responsibility" (p. 92). The three directors all entertain, but with a serious message. They are part of an ancestral heritage, the contemporary mythographers of black America. The director is like a West African chieftain or perhaps diviner and his film a rite of the cool. In the end, Thompson too returns to Ellison:

In conclusion, the data, as a whole, communicate their own

insight, a notion of black cool as antiquity, for as Ralph

Ellison has put it, "we were older than they, in the sense of

what it took to live in the world with others." (p. 67)

The new wave directors, Matty Rich, Ernest Dickerson, and John Singleton, are also "older than they," and give both voice and shape to the invisibility of black manhood.


Adler, B. (1991). Rap: Portraits and lyrics of a generation of black rockers. New York: St. Martin's Press.

Baraka, A. (1991). A poem for black hearts. In W. J. Harris (Ed.), The LeRoi Jones/Amiri Baraka reader (p. 218). New York: Thunder Mouth Press.

Baudrillard, J. (1988). The ecstasy of communication. New York: Semiotext.

Berman, P. (Producer), & Brooks, R. (Director). (1955). Blackboard jungle. [Film]. U.S.: MGM.

Billingsley, A. (1968). Black families in white America. Englewood Cliffs: Prentice-Hall.

Clark, K. (1965). Dark ghetto: Dilemmas of social power. New York: Harper & Row publishers.

Cunningham, S. (Producer/Director). (1980). Friday the 13th. [Film]. U.S.: Georgetown.

Doherty, T. (1988). Teenagers and teenpics: The juvenilization of American movies in the 1950s. Boston: Unwin Hyman.

DuBois, W. E. B. (1989). The souls of black folk. New York: Bantam Classic. (Original work published 1903)

Dyson, M. E. (1992). Between apocalypse and redemption: John Singleton's Boyz N the Hood. Cultural Critique, I, 121-142.

Early, G. (1992, December). Their Malcolm, my problem: On the abuses of Afrocentrism and black anger. Harper's, 62-74.

Edelman, L. (Producer), & Walsh, R. (Director). (1949). White heat. [Film]. U.S.: Warner Brothers.

Ellison, R. (1947). The invisible man. New York: Random House.

Erickson, E. (1968). Youth: Identity and crisis. New York: W. W. Norton.

Fonda, P. (Producer), & Hopper, D. (Director). (1969). Easy rider. [Film]. U.S.: Pando/Raybert.

Foucault, M. (1977). Discipline and punish: The birth of the prison (A. Sheridan, Trans.). New York: Pantheon Books.

Gans, H. (1991). People, plans, and policies: Essays on poverty, racism, and other national urban problems. New York: Columbia University press.

Gerima, H. (Director/Producer). (1974). Bush mama. [Film]. U.S.: Mypheduh Films.

Gibbs, J. T. (Ed.). (1988). Young, black, and male in America: An endangered species. Dover: Auburn House.

Gideon, R. (Producer), & Evans, B. (Director). (1992). Kuffs. [Film]. U.S.: Universal Pictures.

Grier, W. H., & Cobbs, P.M. (1968). Black rage. New York: Basic Books.

Hall, S., & Jefferson, T. (Eds.). (1975). Resistance through rituals: Youth subcultures in post-war Britain. London: Hutchinson & Co.

Harve, R., Stern, S. (Producers), & Moyle, A. (Director). (1990). Pump up the volume. [Film]. U.S.: New Line/SC Entertainment.

Hebdige, D. (1979). Subculture: The meaning of style. London: Methuen.

Hentoff, N. (1992). Free Speech for me but not for thee--How the American left and right relentlessly censor each other. New York: Harper Perennial.

Heyman, D., Mortitz, N., Frankfurt, P. (Producers), & Dickerson, E. (Director). 1992. Juice. [Film]. U.S.: Imipix Inc./Islandworld/Moritz/Heyman Productions.

Hill, D. (Producer), & Carpenter, J. (Director). (1978). Halloween. [Film]. U.S.: Falcon International.

Jones, L. (1963). Blue people: Black music in white America. New York: William Morrow.

Kramer, S. (Producer), & Benedek, L. (Director). (1953). The wild one. [Film]. U.S.: Columbia Pictures.

Kramer, S. (Producer), & Zimmermann, F. (Director). (1952). High noon. [Film]. U.S.: United Artists.

Kunjufu, J. (1985). Countering the conspiracy to destroy black boys. Chicago: African-American Images.

Lewis, J. (1992). The road to romance and ruin: Teen films and youth culture. New York: Routledge.

Madhubuti, H. R. (1990). Black men: Obsolete, single, dangerous? Chicago: Third World Press.

Mailer, N. (1959). Advertisements for myself. New York: Berkeley Publishing.

Maslin, J. (1992, December 13). Is a cinematic new wave cresting? New York Times, pp. 25-26.

Mellen, J. (1977). Big bad wolves: Masculinity in the American film. New York: Basic Books.

Moore, W. (1969). The vertical ghetto: Everyday life in an urban project. New York: Random House.

Moynihan, D. P. (1965). The Negro family: The case for national action. Cambridge: MIT Press.

Rich, M. (Producer/Director). (1991). Straight out of Brooklyn. [Film]. U.S.: Artificial Eye/Blacks `n' progress/American playhouse.

Roos, F., Claybourne, D. (Producers), & Coppola, F. (Director). (1983). Rumble fish. [Film]. U.S.: Zoetrope.

Siegal, D. (Producer/Director). (1971). Dirty Harry. [Film]. U.S.: Malpaso/Warner Brothers.

Singleton, J. (Producer/Director). (1991). Boyz n the hood. [Film]. U.S.: Both Inc./Columbia Pictures.

Taylor, C. (1983). The new U.S. black cinema. Jump Cut, 28, 46-48.

Thompson, R. F. (1973). An aesthetic of the cool. African Arts, VII., 41-43, 64-67.

Turman, L. (Producer), & Nichols, M. (Director). The graduate. [Film]. U.S.: Lawrence Turman.

Weisbart, D. (Producer), & Ray, N. (Director). (1965). Rebel without a cause. [Film]. U.S.: Warner Brothers.

Worth, M., Lee, S. (Producers), & Lee, S. (Director). (1992). Malcolm X. [Film]. U.S.: 40 acres and a mule filmworks/Marvin Worth productions.

Zanuck, D. (Producer), & Wellman, W. (Director). (1931). Public enemy. [Film]. U.S.: Warner Brothers.

An earlier version of this paper was presented on the men's studies panel of the International Association of Philosophy and Literature Conference, Duquesne University, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, May 1993. Address correspondence to the author at Department of Comparative Humanities, SUNY College at Old Westbury, Old Westbury, NY 11568-0210.

David Seelow is an Assistant Professor in the Comparative Humanities Program at State University of New York College at Old Westbury where he teaches course in literature, theory, and culture. For six years, he has worked at Berkshire Farm Center and Services for Youth providing family counseling and community support to adolescent males referred through the family court system. Seelow's work in analyzing various representations of masculinity in American culture has produced two other projects, "Loud Men: The Cultural Poetics of Robert Bly, Etheridge Knight, and Ice Cube" and "Radical Modernism and Sexuality: Freud/Reich/D.H. Lawrence."
COPYRIGHT 1996 Men's Studies Press
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 1996 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

Article Details
Printer friendly Cite/link Email Feedback
Author:Seelow, David
Publication:The Journal of Men's Studies
Date:Nov 1, 1996
Previous Article:The construction of masculinity among male collegiate volleyball players.
Next Article:A tribute to Clyde W. Franklin, II (1940-1995).

Terms of use | Privacy policy | Copyright © 2018 Farlex, Inc. | Feedback | For webmasters