Noir by noirs: towards a new realism in Black cinema.
Looking eastward from the towers of Riverside Church perched among the university buildings on the high banks of the Hudson River, in a valley far below, waves of gray rooftops distort the perspective like the surface of a sea. Below the surface, in the murky waters of fetid tenements, a city of black people who are convulsed in desperate living, like the voracious churning of millions of hungry cannibal fish Blind mouths eating their own guts. Stick in a hand and draw back a nub.
That is Harlem. (Himes 93)
There are two sides to film noir criticism: One formalist, and the other content-based. Feminist criticism, for example, often emphasizes the formal elements of film noir--the stylized lighting the eroticization of violence, the typecasting of detectives, the bad guys and femmes fatales--in order to show the devices by which the genre stabilizes patriarchy, and the ways in which the genre maintains itself by preventing the emergence of other types of women. Formalist criticism links the epithet noir to the grotesque, the sinister, and the image of women as monstrous in Western culture. Women, bad guys, and detectives in film noir are "Black" by virtue of occupying indeterminate and monstrous spaces that Whiteness traditionally reserves for Blackness in our culture. In film noir there is clearly an oppositional discourse between dark and light, underworld and above ground, good and evil and it is through the blurring of these boundaries that characters partake of the attributes of Blackness. From a formalist perspective, a film is noir if it puts into play light and dark in order to exhibit a people who become "Black" because of their low moral behavior. As a formalist device, Feminist criticism exposes film noir's attempt to paint White women as "Black" in order to control their agency and self-fashioning.(1)
Marxist criticism, too, equates the noirification of film style and characters in the genre with pessimism and the decay of the capitalist system. It is in this sense that, commenting on the noir writers of the '30s and '40s, Mike Davis states that "noir was like a transformational grammar turning each charming ingredient of the boosters' arcadia into a sinister equivalent. Thus, in Horace McCoy's They Shoot Horses Don't They? (1935) the marathon dance hall on Ocean Pier became virtually a death camp for the depression's lost souls" (38). The attempt to look to the noirification of characters and subject matter as a Marxism manque by the creators of the noir style is also echoed by Carl Richardson, in an excellent study of the subject entitled Autopsy: An Element of Realism in Film Noir. For Richardson, film noir derives its realism from a sense of pessimism, a light cast on the dark background created by the Depression: "It is traumatic for an individual to lose a set of beliefs. For a world-wide coterie of intellectuals and artists, it is a dark, frustrating process. It is a film noir on a large scale" (183).
Another side to film noir criticism, one that is complicated through ethnicity and the present crisis in American cities, involves the description of such films about Black people, or directed by Black filmmakers. I want to make the argument here that the new Black directors appropriate film noir styles, among others, to create the possibility for the emergence of new and urbanized Black images on the screen. Whereas the first epigraph taken from the book by Borde and Chaumeton describes film noir as purely a style which uses the tropes of Blackness as metaphors of White characters' moral transgressions, and falls from grace, the second epigraph from Chester Himes's A Rage in Harlem focuses the noir style on Black people themselves. For Borde and Chaumeton, film noir is Black because the characters have lost the privilege of Whiteness by pursuing life styles that are misogynistic, cowardly, duplicitous, and an eroticization of violence. Himes, on the other hand, opposes that which is above--Riverside Church and buildings of Columbia University--and that which is below--Harlem--to highlight less an aesthetic state of affairs than a way of life that has been imposed on Black people through social injustice, and that needs to be exposed to the light.
Himes's text is a protest novel which deploys the noir style to shed light on the desperate condition of people who are forced to live below. The grotesque imagery in Himes's text--"a city of black people who are convulsed in desperate living like the voracious churning of millions of hungry cannibal fish. Blind mouths eating their own guts" --may be as conventional as any description of violence and pessimism in the noir genre, but what is unusual in A Rage in Harlem is the author's use of the genre to subvert its main tenets--i.e., Blackness as a fall from Whiteness. For Himes, Black people are living in hell and White people in heaven not because the one color is morally inferior to the other, but because Black people are held as captives in the valley below the towers of Riverside Church. The noirs in Himes's text are Black people trapped in the darkness of White captivity, and the light shed on them is meant to render them visible, not White.
Himes's text and the recent Black films that participate in the discourse of film noir (Joe's Bed-Stuy Barbershop: We Cut Heads, Deep Cover, One False Move, Juice, Illusion, Chameleon Street, etc.) force the audience to reexamine the genre and its uses by Black filmmakers. They orient the noir style toward a description of a Black public sphere and a Black way of life. It is clear therefore that formalist criticism of the noir genre risks the danger of reducing noir by noirs to a critique of patriarchy or of capitalism-minimizing on the one hand, the deconstruction of racism in the renewed genre and, on the other hand, a delineation of a Black way of life in America. I submit that a thematic or content criticism of noir by noirs is more appropriate to analyze Black rage, class conflict among Black people, and the specificity of Black culture in the texts. It is misleading for example, to see Black femmes fatales, neurotic detectives, and grotesque bad guys as poor imitations of their White counterparts; these characters may be redeployed in the genre by Black filmmakers in order to represent such themes as Black rage at White America. In a paradoxical sense, the redeployment of noir style by Black filmmakers redeems Blackness from the genre by recasting the relation between light and dark on the screen as a metaphor for making Black people and their cultures visible. In a broader sense, Black film noir shines light (as in daylight) on Black people.
Black Rage as Film Noir
Set in Harlem, A Rage in Harlem tells the story of the entanglement of Jackson, an honest and "very religious young man," with underworld characters who stabilize their environment through moral inversions. Jackson's brother Goldy is a stool pigeon who dresses as a "Sister of Mercy," speaks in Biblical riddles, and sells tickets for heaven to Christians "full of lacerny who fall for that" in front of a department store. Goldy lives with two other men, and "all three impersonated females and lived by their wits. All three were fat and black, which made it easy" (34). It is a world which is policed by detectives such as Coffin Ed Johnson and Grave Digger Jones, whom people in Harlem believe "would shoot a man stone dead for not standing straight in a line" (44). Grave Digger and Coffin Ed, Himes's two famous detectives, control Black people in Harlem by unleashing their rage on them--a rage that seems to consume the detectives themselves, and spills out grotesquely and in a misogynistic manner onto intruders and those Harlemites who step out of line: "They took their tribute, like all red cops, from the established underworld catering to the essential needs of the people--gamekeepers, madams, street walkers, numbers writers, numbers bankers. But they were rough on purse snatchers, muggers, burglars, con men, and all strangers making any racket" (49).
The bad guys in the text are typical noir characters. Slim, Hank, and Jodie are outsiders in Harlem, small-town thugs from the South; they come north to join their former partner, Imabelle, and decide to set up an investment "racket" as a way of gaining a share in the informal underground market. Hank throws acid in people's eyes, and Slim is described as "wearing over his suit a long khaki duster like those worn by mad scientists in low-budget horror motion pictures. The legend U.S. Assayer was embroidered on the chest" (68). Jodie is on "a kill-crazy edge with that knife" which he never parts with, not even in moments of sexual intimacy: "Jodie was staring over her bead, lost in his music. He ran his left hand slowly back and forth over her crisp brown curls as though he liked the sensation. His right arm rested on his thigh and in his right hand he held the bone-handled switch-blade knife, snapping it open and shut" (145).
Imabelle, as the femme fatale in A Rage in Harlem, is described as "a cushioned-upped, hot-bodied, banana-skin chick with the speckled-brown eyes of a teaser and the high-arched, ball-bearing hips of a natural-born amante" (6). Imabelle operates by sending conflicting messages to different characters. A trusted lover in need of Jackson's protection, she is a wife and an accomplice to Slim. Jackson never suspects her, even when he finds her with the gang that robbed him. She is able to comfort him with her body language: She was looking steadily into Jackson's eyes. Her lips formed the words,' Come on in and kill him, Daddy. I'm all yours. "Then she stepped back, making space for him to enter" (68). Yet, to Grave Digger, Imabelle is a very dangerous woman who "saddled Jackson and Goldy with the body [Slim's] and planned to lam on the first train leaving town. She didn't give a damn what happened to any of them" (156). When Imabelle cuts a man in the face with a knife and tells the police that she has never seen that man before, a bystander quotes: "|Black gal make a freight train jump de track. / But a yaller gal make a preacher Ball de Jack" (117).
The relations between the characters I have just described in A Rage in Harlem echo The Maltese Falcon and many noir texts in which bad guys come to town in search of a lost object which, while being trivial with regard to its authenticity, drives the intrigue and leads the characters to pursue vicious and violent crimes that disturb the harmony of the underworld. Similarly, the dreamlike manner in which Himes's characters slip in and out of rationality reminds us of Pop. 1080 by Jim Thompson, in which the town sheriff is also a serial killer. Furthermore, Himes's text embodies the key elements of the noir genre according to Borde and Chaumeton: "Unstable rapport among the members in a criminal gang ... dreamlike and erotic relations ... and manhunts that take place in the most unusual settings' (46). It is even possible to argue that A Rage in Harlem is an exotic book by virtue of the manner in which it describes Black ways of life in Harlem. The text positions the reader as a voyeur in descriptions like that of Billie:
a brown-skinned woman in her middle
forties, with a compact husky body
filling a red gabardine dress. With a
man's haircut and a smooth, thick,
silky mustache, her face resembled
that of a handsome man. But her body
was a cross. The top two buttons of
the dress were open, and between her
two immense uplifted breasts was a
thick growth of satiny black hair. When
she talked a diamond flashed between
her two front teeth (142) Hime's Black men masquerade as women, and his women look like men; two men, Jodie and Goldy, bear female names. The narrative is rhythmic and marked with a Black Soul style achieved through repetition and the use of compound words.
But more than a replay of a noir style, A Rage in Harlem reflects a Black way of life in Harlem. As I will show later, Jackson's journey through the underworld is also a journey through class conflicts in Harlem, an odyssey through the clash between the so-called respectable Blacks and the low-life Blacks, the Christians and those who spend their time in bars. Himes explores the noir style as a way of describing Black rage at being trapped in these conditions.
By Black rage, I refer to a set of violent and uncontrollable relations in Black communities induced by a sense of frustration, confinement, and White racism. Rage often takes the form of eroticized violence by men against women and homosexuals, a savage explosion on the part of some characters against others whom they seek to control and a perverse mimicry of the status quo through recourse to disfigurement, mutilation, and a grotesque positioning of weaker characters by stronger ones. Black rage, directed mostly toward the Black communities, is the subject of such classical novels as Native Son (Richard Wright), If he Hollers, Let Him Go (Himes), and A Rage in Harlem; Bill Duke's film adaptation of A Rage in Harlem; and films like Straight Out of Brooklyn (Matty Rich), Chameleon Street (Wendell Harris), Deep Cover (Bill Duke), and Boyz N the Hood (John Singleton).
Himes's characters are consumed with rage, which the author variously describes as "a rage-thickened voice," "a voice of rage," "a blind rag", and "a red raving passion of rage and lust." But since the characters cannot contain or control this rage, women, especially "high yellow girls," become regular targets of violence in A Rage in Harlem. For example, Grave Digger unleashes his rage onto Imabelle with violent slaps in her face and threats of mutilation: "|I'll pistol-whip your face until no man looks at you again'" (131). Similarly, Coffin Ed reveals his angry disposition toward Goldy, who masquerades as a woman, in a misogynistic manner: "|...I hate a Goddam female impersonator worse than God hates sin'" (52). Later in the text, a "middle-aged church-going man, good husband and father of three school-aged daughters" also enters into a "red raving passion of rage and lust" when he faces resistance from Imabelle:". . . when he thought about a whore hitting a church man like himself, he became enraged. He closed in and clutched her" (114). In fact, the text blames Imabelle for Jackson's mix-up with underworld characters. For Imabelle's love, Jackson is ready, "solid ready to cut throats, crack skulls, dodge police, steal hearses, drink muddy water, live in a hollow log, and take any rapefiend chance to be once more in the arms of his high-yellow heart" (96). Toward the end of the book, Imabelle is blamed again for inciting young Black men to crime: "The Lieutenant looked her over carefully. |Strictly penitentiary bait,' he muttered angrily, thinking. It's these high-yellow bitches like her that cause these black boys to commit so many crimes" (130).
Black rage is also released through songs, dance, prayer, and especially Mg about in the dark. When Hank throws acid into Coffin Ed's face, Himes reports that the detective "closed his eyes against the burning pain, but he was so consumed with rage that he began clubbing right and left in the dark with the butt of his pistol"(70). The efforts to escape from the police and the frustration of being confined to darkness lead Jackson, too, to flail about. "He thrashed and wriggled in a blind panic, like a black Don Quixote fighting two big warehouses singlehandedly, he got himself turned sideways, and ran crablike toward the street" (74-75). Every time Jackson runs away from the police he remembers lines from spirituals, blues, and folk songs such as: "Dis nigger run, he run his best, / Stuck his head in a Hornet's nest" (74).
People in A Rage in Harlem often drive fast, as if they could outrun the situation that oppresses them. During a police chase sequence, Himes poetically describes Jackson's driving: "He was just running. He clung to the wheel with both hands. His bulging eyes were set in a fixed stare on the narrow strip of wet brick pavement as it curled over the hood like an apple-peeling from a knife blade, as though he were driving underneath it" (134-35). Jackson's black Cadillac, at eighty-five miles an hour through a red light on 116th Street, looks to one cab driver like an "automobile ghost" (134). This passage echoes Richard Wright's short story "Eight Men," in which he compares Black boys running from the firing range of a White man to Black lightning. Speed is an important theme in Black rage texts from Invisible Man and Native Son, to Boyz N the Hood and Straight Out of Brooklyn. Like flying in Song of Solomon, running in these texts is a desperate attempt to leave this world behind, and find peace in another. Jackson wants to drive "that hearse off the edge of the world" (136). Earlier in the text, Himes describes one Black man's relation to speed as follows: "Speed gave him power and made him feel as mighty as Joe Louis. He had his long arms wrapped about the steering wheel and his big foot jammed on the gas, thinking of how he could drive that goddam DeSoto taxicab straight off the mother-raping earth" (15).
Himes's narrative coincides with the best tradition of the noir style whenever he focuses on scenes of Black dehumanization, and the depiction of the grotesque:
Goldy's scream mingled with the
scream of the locomotive as the train
thundered past overhead, shaking the
entire tenement of the city. Shaking
the sleeping black people in their lice-ridden
beds. Shaking the ancient bones
and the acting muscles and the t.b.
lungs and the uneasy foetuses of
unwed girls. Shaking plaster from the
ceilings, mortar from between the
bricks of the building walls. Shaking
the rats between the walls, the cockroaches
crawling over kitchen sinks
and leftover food; shaking the sleeping
flies hibernating in lumps like bees
behind the casings of the windows.
Shaking the fat, blood-filled bedbugs
crawling over black skin. Shaking the
fleas, making them hop. Shaking the
sleeping dogs in their filthy pallets,
the sleeping cats, the clogged toilets,
loosening the filth.(105) People in Himes's Harlem are choked by powerlessness, economic deprivation, and captivity. Violence in the text becomes a communicative act which is deployed by frustrated characters, and aimed at people who are perceived as obstacles to freedom, and economic empowerment. In the scene in which Jodie cuts Goldy's throat, the dehumanization of Black people through captivity in Harlem is paralleled to the naturalization of the sound of the train on 125th Street, and an eroticization of the blood which runs out of Goldy's wound "turned back like bleeding lips": "The sweet sickish perfume of fresh blood came up from the crap-smelling street, mingled with the foul tenement smell of Harlem" (106).
In A Rage in Harlem, Himes delineates Black rage, ignited and directed toward self-destruction, and fueling homophobia and misogyny. The train's power, which is conveyed through the loud sound that shakes the tenements, coincides with a devaluation of Black life. The train is also powerful because of its mobility, nothing hinders its traversing of Harlem, and its movements into the White world which connotes power, economic prosperity, and freedom. Mobility empowers the train that shakes those "small objects" that are trapped between the walls, and the lack of mobility constitutes a check on the freedom of Black people in Harlem. Compared to the train, which occupies the center of life at 125th Street, Black people look like insects that are unheard and unseen. The author of A Rage in Harlem implies, therefore, that Black lives in Harlem are always absorbed and rendered insignificant by distractionary forces deleterious to the community.
The flailing of frustrated characters, the dances in the barrooms, and the rage unleashed onto weaker characters in A Rage in Harlem constitute, for Himes, performative acts which mimic the freedom, the speed, and the power of the train. Clearly, Himes's celebration of violence and his association of the affectations of the lawbreakers with a cool style in Black culture are common in film noir, too, where the primary identification lies with neurotic detectives and bad guys. But there is something else at play in the identification with lawbreakers in A Rage in Harlem (see Austin). The rage that Jodie deploys toward Goldy--"|I bled that mother-raper like a boar hog" (106)--forms a communicative act that valorizes him in the eyes of the narrator, Hank, and himself. Jodie has gotten Juice, to put it in the lingo of a recent Black film of the same title; he is proud of himself because he feels free. For a moment, he has removed an obstacle from his way.
The use of mobility as a trope of freedom in A Rage in Harlem announces race as a modality through which the noir element is read in Himes's text. Himes shows that the real power is with the towers of Riverside Church and the university buildings on the high banks of the Hudson River, and the train which shakes everything beneath its path. Black
people in their subaltern positions are likened to the "sleeping dogs," the "sleeping cats," "the rats between the walls," and the "cockroaches crawling over kitchen sinks and leftover food." It is in this sense that every act of rage in tidbit is far more than just violence unleashed against one's own community; it also becomes, on the one band, an expressive act against incarceration in the valley, far below the university buildings and, on the other hand, a representation of class conflict within the Black public sphere.
Race and Class in A Rage in Harlem
To turn now to class conflict in A it is important to clarify some of Himes's depictions of the public spheres--the bars, the churches, the police stations, the train stations, the barbershops, the bookie joints, and the streets--that interpellate Black people, and often colonize the Black world.(2) As indicated above, the train is associated with escape and freedom for Black people in Harlem. The train station is the scene of contestation and legitimation of identity among Blacks of different class origins. Imabelle tries to pass for a lady and to catch the train out to Chicago. But she is identified as a "whore" by a respectable-looking Black man who accuses her of cutting him, and she is taken to the police station. Jackson, too, has his identity compromised at the train station. He is stopped by a "big fat black man doing the locomotive shuffle diagonally across the street." The man, called Big Fats, is characterized in the text as a drunk who strolls past the police car, but "none of them said anything to Big Fats. No need to borrow trouble with an able-bodied colored drunk the size of Big Fats. Especially if his eyes were red. That's the way race riots were started."(3) When Big Fats reaches out to Jackson and states," |Shortblack-and-fat like me. You tell 'em, short and fatty. Can't trust no fat man, can they?'" Jackson throws the arm off angrily and replies, "|Why don't you behave yourself. You're a disgrace to the race'" (121). Jackson, by rejecting Big Fats, locates his Blackness in an ethics of respectability that is class-derived. But a little later, at the station, a porter challenges Jackson's right to belong to a different class of Black people by refusing to check his luggage until he displays a ticket. In fact, this scene ends with Jackson lowered from the status of self-proclaimed respectable Black man to that of an outlaw, like Big Fats.
Himes's point seems to be, therefore, that Black identities are unvarying in public spheres like the train station and the police headquarters in A Rage in Harlem. For Himes, when these systems enter into relation with the Black world, they reproduce colonialist and repressive structures. Through them, Black identities are always interrogated and reduced to stereotypes; they would colonize the Black world, permitting only the reproduction of such Black subjects as whores, lawbreakers, and falsifiers who have to be policed. For the Black subject, the passage through these institutions constitutes a struggle to conserve his/her identity. Class distinctions between Black people seem to make little difference in these public spheres.
Most of the scenes at the police station show Imabelle fighting for the right to define herself. But to the police, all the Black women they bring to the precinct are prostitutes: "A young white cop had arrested a middle-aged drunken colored woman for prostitution. The big rough brownskinned man dressed in overalls and a leather jacket picked up with her claimed she was his mother and he was just walking her home" (50). Clearly, for Himes, these public spheres do not constitute good-life service institutions to the Black world, they obstruct the emergence of different classes among Blacks, and the reproduction of modernized Black life styles.
For Himes, the emergence of Black cultural, class, and economic aspirations takes place in other public spheres, such as the church the barrooms, and the informal sectors. It is through his religious identity that Jackson distinguishes himself from his twin brother Goldy, his landlady, and others in the text whose behavior contradicts the Christian way: "Jackson was glad none of his acquaintances knew he had such a brother as Goldy, a dope-fiend crook impersonating a Sister of Mercy" (30).
Unlike the train station and the police precinct, which colonize Black life in A Rage in Harlem, Christiniaty constitutes its public sphere through the presentation of a way out for Black people. For Himes, it is this promise of a goodlife society to recompense the daily obstacles in Harlem that render Christianity attractive to the Black world. "The people of Harlem take their religion seriously. If Goldy had taken off in a flaming chariot and galloped straight to Heaven, they would have believed it--the godly and the sinners alike" (28). Father Divine, to whom the text makes several references, and whom people in Harlem "believed was God," capitalized on the changing nature of Christianity which can adapt to different life situations to create a Black nationalist church, "a Peace Heaven" with a Black God and a promise of a good-life society(4) for Black people. Himes uses Father Divine and the signposts of his abandoned buildings in order to allude to Black people's vulnerability to religious public spheres, and to signal the failure of these institutions to lead to the creation of better societies for Black people in Harlem. Clearly, A Rage in Harlem is a materialist text, and Himes is eager to expose the hypocrisy of the Christian public sphere which controls Black rage though luring Black people with promises of "tickets to heaven."
Material aspirations are often realized in the barrooms and the informal sectors. As public spheres, the barrooms enter into relation with the Black world to produce Black culture as a distinct American style. The dances and the songs document the way of being in Black America; the way characters dress, walk, and talk renders them powerful and "cool" in the barrooms:
A medium-sized, brown-skinned
man, dressed in a camel's hair coat,
brown beaver hat, hard-finished
brown-and-white striped coat, brown
suede shoes, brown silk tie decorated
with hand-painted yellow horses,
wearing a diamond ring on his left
ring-finger and a gold signet-ring on
his right hand, carrying gloves in his
left hand, swinging his right hand free,
pushed open the street door and came
into the bar fast. He stopped short on
seeing the ex-pug grab Jackson by the
shoulder. He heard the ex-pug say in
a threatening voice, "Leave me see
that mother-rapin' roll." He noticed
the two bartenders close in for action.
He saw the whores backing away. He
cased the situation instantly. (56) The "cool cat" described here is Gus, a lawbreaking associate of Hank's and Jodie's. To identify with this passage is, on the one hand, to reproduce the identification structure infilm noir with bad guys, femmes fatales, and neurotic detectives. On the other hand, it is a recognition of the streets and the barrooms as spheres that generate free spaces for Black people to engender themselves. A significant part of Black culture is reproduced through these spaces. The reader's identification with Gus, a lawbreaker--the desire to stand in his place, dress like him, and walk like him--signifies a revalorization of the lawbreaker as hero in the Black community, where the Black world is colonized by the police and other institutions. To break the law is to fight one's captivity, and to claim the right to invent oneself. Lawbreakers are usually the first to challenge the status quo, and to generate new ways of being that later become styles for the community, symbols of freedom, or elements of Black nationalism.
Lawbreakers in A Rage in Harlem also produce economic narratives from the informal sector that may be seen as the stuff--i.e., the material--of film noir. Just as Father Divine's church and other nationalist religious spheres promise a heaven for Blacks who are materially disenfranchised, the informal sector provides Black people with an opportunity to beat the system that is inhospitable to them. The gold motif in the text (one character is named Goldy, Hank, Slim, and Jodie come to Harlem looking for their gold) symbolizes the wish to remove the obstacles of racism from Black people's way, to get rich quickly, and to live free, like White people in America. The lawbreakers draw Black people to the sphere of the informal sector by keeping alive the dream of becoming rich promptly, and circumventing the colonizing systems. Himes's bad guys mix the language used by advertising agents on Wall Street with the discourse of Black nationalism to sell their fake gold. Gus lures Jackson into his snare by explaining to him that the shares in the gold mine are reserved for "worthy" colored people: "|A real eighteen-carat gold mine, Jackson. And the richest mine in this half of the world. A colored man discovered it, and a colored man has formed a corporation to operate it, and they're selling stock just to us colored people like you and me. It's a closed corporation. You can't beat it'" (62).
The informal sector, with its vision of Black social institutions that will support the reproduction of a Black good-life society, generates more economic dreams for Black people than are workable through public systems controlled by White people. Perhaps this is the reason that, in the Reagan/Bush era, where Affimative Action was curtailed and Black life recolonized, Black filmmakers began turning to the structure of film noir, in which lawbreakers are not simply bad guys, and identification with them is possible. Himes's roman sociologique, which glances at the Black underclass in the 1950s, is, therefore, an interesting paradigm for a reexamination of the new urban Black films which deploy the noir style to unleash Black rage against the colonization of Black life in the 1980s and 1990s.
Noirs on Noir in the Reagan/Bush Era
The emergence of Black male cinema in the 1980s is linked in part to the development of Rap music, which thematizes the culture of Black youth in urban areas. Rap musicians created the condition of possibility for a Black good-life society in which art which describes Black rage from a Black point of view is commodified in order to raise Black consciousness, and to uplift Black music producers in the economic sphere. Rap is the music of identification par excellence with the lawbreakers. The new Black films use Rap musicians (Ice T and Ice Cube) who impersonate lawbreakers in the stories, play Rap songs to support the themes in the films and to reinforce identification with certain scenes. Crucially, both Rap music and the new Black films picture Black men and women trapped by systems,(5) and the performative acts which enable them to remove obstacles from their ways and to reinvent themselves.
It is in this vein that Himes's representation of Black rage and his identification with the structure of the noir style become important for the analysis of Black films today. The bid of Himes's characters to remove obstacles, by any means necessary, from their path coincides with an ideology of Black progress and modernism which, if present in a film, reinforces its links with Rap music and the new Black nationalism and, if absent, associates the film with the conventional film noir style. Using Himes's A Rage in Harlem as a paradigmatic text for the way in which Black artists inter the roots of noir structure in their works, it is possible to distinguish two categories of noir by noirs in the Reagan/Bush era. The conventional category includes films like A Rage in Harlem (Bill Duke), One False Move (Carl Franklin), and possibly New Jack City (Mario Van Peebles), which belong more to the gangster genre than the noir. The realist and Black nationalist category includes films like Joe's Bed-Stuy Barbershop: We Cut Heads (Spike Lee), Malcolm X (Spike Lee), Boyz N the Hood (John Singleton), Straight Out of Brooklyn (Matty Rich), Chameleon Street (Wendell Harris), Juice (Ernest Dickerson), and Deep Cover (Bill Duke).
The film A Rage in Harlem employs the noir genre differently than does Himes's text. The film redeploys the "funk" associated with Himes's characters in barrooms and in the streets, but most of the identification with lawbreakers, which is innovating in Himes's text, is attenuated in the film. Goldy no longer masquerades as a fat Black woman going by the name Sister of Mercy, but as a slick Father of Mercy played by Gregory Hines. The famous Himes detectives Grave Digger and Coffin Ed are no longer tough and misogynistic cops, but buffoons who always arrive at the scene of the crime late. Crucially, the role of public spheres like the police precinct and the train station are not shown as hindering the development of Black subject positions. Jackson and Imabelle leave Harlem for Mississippi on the train in the film, whereas Imabelle is stopped at the train station in the book. Most of the eroticized violence in the film is directed toward White cops, whereas in the book Himes emphasizes Black-on-Black crime, misogyny, and sexism.
The power of the film lies with its rethematization of "funk" as a Black cultural element, a narrative structure of film noir, and the characterization of Imabelle, played by Robin Givens, as a Black femme fatale. The scenes of the undertakers' ball and Cathy's saloon are filmed with a particular recourse to funk that reproduces Black culture in the tradition of lawbreaking.
By lawbreaking, I refer to that heroic and defiant tradition in Black culture which dares every form of policing the Black body, mind, or air. Artistic lawbreaking consists in mimicking through dance, song, and storytelling the heroic performances of Blacks who resist the policing of Black life in America. In the scene of the undertakers' ball, the master of ceremonies, with snakes dangling around his neck and his magic potions, is the master of funk. Like the lawbreakers whose acts he is putting on the scene, the master of ceremonies has to look grotesque, terrifying and possess the powers of a voodoo priest to be able to exorcise his foes. When he sings "I Put a Spell on You," the people who dance to the tune are temporarily empowered, like him, their bodies escape the colonization of the church and other controlling systems. Moreover, they enter into funk, and become emancipated.
Imabelle as the femme fatale in the film (she is a "kiner," and does not get killed at the end) controls the actions of the characters around her. She is always dressed in red, while, or blue, except at the end where she wears a black top with a red skirt. She is as tough as any man in the film, but wears a sexualized innocent look that keeps her in everybody's game. Imabelle changes at the end of the film, presumably leaving the world of crime to live a forever happy life with Jackson in Mississippi.
By leaving Harlem for the South, a temptation that Spike Lee resisted at the end of his film Joe's Bed-Stuy, the director of A Rage in Harlem opted for a nostalgic ending in which Black people are linked to their roots in the South. In One False Move, too, the violent crimes in the city are relocated to the South in order to connect them to the unresolved race relations there; and the protagonists are made to revisit the scenes of their "original sins" before dying. Duke's A Rage in Harlem rings a conventional note in its denouement by restoring as usual, Imabelle to a traditional position for women--i.e., wife. The film begins with Jackson thanking God "for not putting obstacles in my way, such as women." Imabelle's involvement with Jackson, at first, seems like a distraction from Jackson's resolve to save money and be a good Christian. It is interesting that the film is less ambivalent than the book about the treatment of Christianity as a guarantee of progress for Black people.
But as the story unfolds, Imabelle moves from the status of a minor distractor to that of a principal player who stands up to Jodie, scares Goldy with her reckless driving and kills Slim at the end. For a while, Imabelle is like the lawbreakers in the book, and the characters in Rap songs, who refuse to be colonized by the system in place. She removes obstacles from her way, and progresses. The informal sector emancipates her from such traditional Black women's roles as mother and domestic worker. But the point of view shifts again, and we see Imabelle through Jackson's eyes. Straight out of the romance genre, Jackson is a knight, intoxicated by love, who wants to fight fair and square in the underworld for Imabelle. He throws away his gun, and asks Slim to put down his knife: "I'll fight for her like a man." Slim gives the noir genre's response to Jackson's chivalry: "I can't believe you'd say a funky shit like that:" In the text Jackson says the opposite: "|I'm not going to fight them fair,'" he says, in response to Goldy's warning that "|those studs is wanted in Mississippi for killing a white man. Those studs is dangerous'" 43). Himes's characters, like Rap lyricists, believe that a fair fight will not get them far in America.
The point in the film A Rage in Harlem is to create a comic space by mixing the romance and film noir genres, by deflating the tough detectives, and by attenuating the scenes that seem out of the rules of bienseance with respect to the conventions of decorum in Hollywood. But the flight of Jackson and Imabelle to the South signifies the surrender to an Afro-pessimism which views the city as bad, and symbolizes repair of the Black family, identity, and natural life. Jackson turns down his share of the money at the end, and runs after true love. Clearly, this constitutes an antimaterialistic annoucement which also moves away from the realistic style of Himes's text, Rap music, and other new films. By turning to the nostalgic simplicity of the South, the film implies that Black rage is a product of the city. Jackson looks to the South as a place to rest his tired feet.
The new Black nationalist and realist texts, on the other hand, posit materialist demands that, as I have shown in Himes's text, resist the colonization of Black life by systems that are continued by White people, and revalorize the public spheres that emancipate Black women and men. Even in Boys N the Hood, in which the protagonists go south at the end of the film, they go to Black institutions where they plan to learn the knowledge necessary to modernize their communities. The construction of a Black community that can emancipate Black lives from the ghetto is also the goal of many recent film. In Deep Cover, the main character realizes at the end that
public law in this society has a long
history of committing offenses against
the African American community,
from slavery to Jim Crow and onwards.
The very structures erected to acquire
liberties and property for African
Americans often existed outside of the
law. So, for an African American to
embrace public law and to further
pledge to uphold that law means
sacrificing on some level a commitment
to a Black nationalist loyalty.
In Juice, too, the transformation of the main character at the end of the film constitutes a step toward the emancipation of the community from the ghetto. It was unfortunate that Juice and Straight Out of Brooklyn received little attention during the rise of the new Black films. Less glossy than Boyz N the Hood and, unlike Spike Lee's films, less oriented toward crossover and race relation narratives, Juice and Straight Out of Brooklyn are masterpieces of Black realism as film noir. Juice imitates the realist style by detailing the everyday life of four urban Black youths. We see them wake up in the morning get dressed, eat breakfast, and leave home. They are ordinary kids who love their parents and people in the neighborhood. But soon the film gets scary as they begin to skip school shoplift, rob a neighborhood store, and kill the owner. In a scene, which I consider the most brilliant among the recent film imitations of urban Black youth realism, the four boys see on television an eyewitness news report of the death of one of their friends who had just asked them to participate in the robbery that ends his life. As the audience sees the boys seeing their friend on television, art and reality get blurred, and the structure of identification reveals that people in the audience, too, may be related to the four boys on the screen. The colonization of the neighborhood transforms it into a ghetto, and the value of Black life decreases. The boys gradually change from innocent children to dangerous criminals in the neighborhood. The friendship relations between them become unstable, and they begun to kill one another, until one of them realizes the deleterious effect of the vicious circle and changes. The ending of Juice, like that of Deep Cover, restores the characters to the community, toward a Black good-life society. It constitutes a rite of passage from childhood to adulthood, from chaos to organization, from powerlessness to empowerment.
It is perhaps due to the nationalistic denouements of Rap music, of works by writers such as Toni Cade Bambara, and of recent Black films that Malcolm X, the archetypal Black nationalist figure, makes a return as a commodity in the public sphere. It is also remarkable that Spike Lee's film Malcolm X makes recourse to the new Black realist style and to film noir as a narrative device. Makolm's transformation in the first part of the film is similar to character changes at the end of films like Deep Cover, Do the Right Thing, Joe's Bed-Stuy Barbershop: We Cut Heads, Boyz N the Hood, and Juice. The characters accumulate through the transformation of the consciousness of Blacks caring for Blacks, the resistance to colonizing structures, and the move toward a good-life society which is based on material conditions.
(1.) See Kaplan. On Woman as a Dark Continent, a familiar device of linking White women to Blackness in order to discipline and punish them, see Shohat. (2.) See J. Habermas on On colonization of the life world by systems. (3.) The Rodney King incident is interesting in light of the sociology of race relations that Himes provides here. In spite of class differences, and to heterogeneity of subject positions, Blacks are still interpellated by such events as the Thomas-Hill controversy, the Mike Tyson trial, arid the Ro King event. (4.) On the BAM good-life society, see Diawara. (5.) Whereas the 1980s and 1990s action films are so far made by Black males, both men and women participate in the production of linear, action-oriented Rap music (see Rose).
Austin, Regina. "|The Black Community': Its Lawbreakers and a Politics of Identification." Southern California Law Review May 1992:1769-817. Borde, Raymond, and Etienne Chaumeton. Panorama du film noir americain. Paris: les Editions du Minuit, 1955. Davis, Mike. City of Quartz: Exavating du Future in Los Angeles. New York: Verso, 1990. Diawara, Manthia. "Black Studies, Cultural Studies: Performative Acts." Afterimage Oct. 1992: 6-7 Habermas, J. The Theory of Communicative Action. Volume One., Reason and the Rationalization of Society. New York: Beacon, 1984. Himes, Chester. A Rage in Harlem. New York: Vantage Crime, 1991. Jones, Jacquie. "Under the Cover of Blackness." Black Film Review 7.3 (1992): 30-33. Kaplan, E. Ann, ed. Psychoanalysis and Cinema. New York: Routledge, 1990. Richardson, Carl. Autopsy. An Element of Realism in Film Noir. Metuchen: Scarecrow, 1992. Rose, Tricia "Never Trust a Big Butt and a Smile." Camera Obscura 23 (May 1991). Shohat, Elia. "Gender and Culture of Empire: Toward a Feminist Ethnography of the Cinema." Quarterly Review of Film and Video 13.1-3 (1991): 45-84.
Manthia Diawara is a member of AAR's advisory board. He directs the Africana Studies Program at New York University.
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|Publication:||African American Review|
|Date:||Dec 22, 1993|
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