Paula J. Massood. Black City Cinema: African American Urban Experiences in Film.
Paula J. Massood is concerned in Black City Cinema with urban spaces, particularly areas of Los Angeles and New York City, and how they have been represented or acknowledged in black cinema. Acknowledging that cities are "highly politicized locations with a long history in African American and American culture," Massood uses Bakhtinian concepts to investigate the "relationship of African American film to migration and the growth of black urban populations." The approach allows her to discover how the "play between visual and aural signifiers contributes meaning to a film, anchors the narrative in an historical moment, and acknowledges the existence of complementary or contradictory spaces and times in a single text." The time flame for Massood's study runs from 1912, when the Foster Photoplay Company released The Railroad Porter, to two 2000 releases: Spike Lee's Bamboozled and John Singleton's Shaft. For most of her project, Massood utilizes a combined genre and period approach; however, chapters 4 and 6 are devoted specifically to Spike Lee's work, and that factor, along with the Epilogue, makes for a slightly disjointed, but nevertheless engaging, read. All in all, the volume is filled with useful contextualized analyses presented in a manner that is fluid and compelling. Massood's use of Bakhtin's concept of the chronotope enables her exploration of "spatiotemporal systems that generate cinematic genres." Massood finds Bakhtin's dialogism useful because its basic definition, "the relation of any utterance to other utterances," easily accommodates cinematic discourses, works well with the concept of the chronotope, and generally allows for a consideration of both diegetic and extradiegetic aspects of film production.
The first two chapters of Black City Cinema provide the historical background for the rest of the book and allow Massood to expand "the historical and aesthetic borders of black city films" beyond the blaxploitation films of the late 1960s and early 1970s and the hood films of the 1990s. Chapter 1, "The Antebellum Idyll and Hollywood's Black-Cast Musicals," considers the Great Migration in relation to all-black musicals produced between 1929 and 1943, including Hallelujah (King Vidor, 1929), The Green Pastures (Marc Connelly and William Keighley, 1936), Cabin in the Sky (Vincente Minnelli, 1943), and Stormy Weather (Andrew Stone, 1943). Here, she uses Bakhtin's concept of the idyllic chronotope to argue that, prior to the 1940s, such musicals often associated the city with evil, sin, or hell. In Chapter Two, "Harlem as Heaven: City Motifs in Race Films from the Early Sound Era," Massood backtracks and broadens her consideration of early film history. (Her focus on genre in these first two chapters does not easily lend itself to a chronological approach to the films.) Her particular focus is on the films produced in the late 1930s and early 1940s, when black film makers made the switch from race or uplift films to more popular genres, like the Western, in order to be more competitive. (Oscar Micheaux's work is featured in this chapter.) Here, she identifies a Harlem chronotope in part to illustrate the manner in which black Westerns invoked Harlem as a cinematic trope signifying movement. She calls attention also to the differences between representations of black migration in sound-era films and earlier films, and further distinguishes between race films produced during the silent era and those that came later. She locates in the sound-era race films the first use of the city (primarily Harlem) as a place of promise.
Massood attributes the disappearance of the city in films of the 1950s and early 1960s to the nation's preoccupation with the aftermath of World War II, the Civil Rights Movement, and a concomitant turn away from race films to films (often starring Sidney Poitier or Harry Belafonte) reflecting the kinds of social messages that fit with integrationist discourse of the time. In the late 1960s, the city would re-emerge in a big way however with, you guessed it, the ghetto chronotope. In Chapter 3, "Cotton in the City: The Black Ghetto, Blaxploitation, and Beyond," Massood credits A Man Called Adam (Leon Penn, 1965), set in New York, and Up Tight (Jules Dassin, 1968), set in Cleveland, for a return to black city cinema spaces. Films covered in this section include Melvin Van Peebles' Sweet Sweetback's Baadassss Song (1971), Ossie Davis's Cotton Comes to Harlem (1970), Haile Gerima's Bush Mama (1976), and Gordon Parks, Sr.'s Shaft (1971) and Superfly (1972). Massood notes importantly that the central trope in these films is movement and confinement, and she stresses that movement and mobility did not signify leaving the ghetto; rather, they meant change and transformation of the ghetto space. It was during this period, Massood argues, that "the black city became a recognizable trope in both industrial and non-industrial films."
Massood follows up her discussion of the black ghetto chronotope with her discussion of a Brooklyn chronotope in Chapter 4, where she explores the influence of certain of Spike Lee's earlier films, including She's Gotta Have It (1986) and Do the Right Thing (1989), on city representations in hood films of the 1990s. In "Welcome to Crooklyn: Spike Lee and the Rearticulation of the Black Urbanscape," Massood argues that, as the ghetto chronotope waned in popularity for a variety of reasons, the cityscape was initially diluted in films such as Cooley High (1975), Mahogany (1975), and Car Wash (1976). With Lee as a guide, the black cultural mecca shifted from Harlem to Brooklyn. Thus, she credits Lee with, among other important achievements, rearticulating the black cinematic city from black ghetto to hood.
Appropriately titled "Out of the Ghetto, into the Hood: Changes in the Construction of Black City Cinema," Chapter 5 features Massood's use of the hood chronotope to examine spatiotemporal representations of the city in films such as Mario Van Peebles' New Jack City (1991), Matty Rich's Straight Out of Brooklyn (1991), John Singleton's Boyz 'n' the Hood (1991), Ernest Dickerson's Juice (1992), and Allen and Albert Hughes' Menace II Society (1993). As always, Massood points to the changing socio-political environment that resulted from twelve years of Reagan-Bush administration policies. One major similarity between hood films and blaxploitation films from the 1960s and 1970s, Massood explains, was the use of techniques that suggest "both temporal immediacy and documentary verisimilitude." Hood films exemplify for Massood an understanding of the "historical city," the effects of voluntary, forced, and coerced movement and migrations, and also "the tropes of the inner city as shaped by a different set of sociological and political discourses." Much of the chapter centers on a reading of Boyz 'n" the Hood against Menace II Society, in which she comments on the relationship between rap lyrics and the geographic areas explored in the two films.
Spike Lee once again takes center stage in the final chapter, "Taking the A-Train: The City, the Train, and Migration in Spike Lee's Clockers," where Massood credits the film maker for acknowledging in his films the historical influence of movement and migration on African American cultural production. The chapter features a thorough discussion of Clockers (1995) and notes in particular the manner in which Lee revised the screenplay to focus on the young black drug dealer (or clocker) Strike (Mekhi Phifer) and his obsession with trains and movement. Massood's Epilogue, which no doubt would have proved more fruitful as a well-developed concluding chapter, attempts to respond to the question posed in Spike Lee's Bamboozled (2000)--whether black representation in film has come full circle, whether the hood has become a "problematic, potentially self-parodying, repository of stereotypes or whether a rejection of urban signifying and a return to rural settings and themes necessarily repeats an older form of minstrelsy." For this reader, Massood's consideration of Maya Angelou's Down in the Delta (1998) and John Singleton's Shaft (2000) is not enough to support her definitive reply of "no." In the end, however, Massood's careful consideration of historical representations of city spaces makes implicit and explicit the importance of an awareness of history so as to avoid the trap of "coming full circle," returning to the harmful caricatures and stereotypes of the past.
Though one notes very little consideration of films by black women in Massood's study, the obvious (easy?) explanation is that much of their work simply does not fall easily within the parameters she sets out. With only minor lapses into jargon, Black City Cinema is accessible to a good cross-section of persons interested in African American film. Always attentive to socio-political contexts, Massood's study is informative, insightful, and compelling. The author is at her best when she showcases her extensive knowledge of black film history and her keen familiarity with technical and other aspects of film making in a variety of genres.
Pennsylvania State University, University Park
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|Publication:||African American Review|
|Article Type:||Book Review|
|Date:||Jun 22, 2003|
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