Once upon a time the state of Black cinematic representation was a topic of raging debate among our media-panicked African American intelligentsia. As with most topics that inspired folk to rant, rave, and reflect, critical powwowing around Blacks on film has been hushed, if not extinguished, by careerism. Or has it? Beneath surface reports on Ice Cube’s weekend grosses and Will Smith’s per-film salary, a spirited dialogue is still happening on more intimate ground between friends, lovers, and fellow travelers. The close releases of Blade, Slam, Beloved, and Belly this year provoked some of the broadest disagreement I’ve been party to around Black cinema. All four have in common an embrace of fantasy, mythology, and mysticism in the depiction of profoundly alienated, if not schizophrenic, Black antiheroes. The films also used well-worn genres—the prison flick, the slavery epic, the horror film, the ‘hood movie—to address themes of martyrdom, transgression, redemption, and love. If not all were Black-directed, all had the involvement of Black screenwriters and/or producers.
Invited to rip out guts, read entrails, and discern whether these ambitious projects supplied manna or suffocated on their own bile was a motley crew of scribes, shamans, and wits: composer Vernon Reid, novelist and musician Jimmy Lee, filmmaker and theorist Arthur Jafa, composer and choreographer Grysha Coleman, playwright and performer Daniel Jones, composer and vocalist Tamar-Kali, novelist and literary scholar Imani Wilson, writer-director-performer Carl Hancock Rux, and the Voice‘s own rapier ninja swordsman, Gary Dauphin.
Splendor, Misery, Slam
Dauphin: For about three quarters of the film I thought this was a really interesting take on what you can do with speech—the prison-yard scene spoke to this belief in the power of the word, and for all that to end up at the poetry slam cheapened what went before. It was like a break-dance movie where we’re going to win the block back or something.
Coleman: Inserting that mythical, literary realm into the real world made us want to experience it; the poetry slam experience flattened and deadened it. Where it was supposed to live more freely was where it became the most stale.
Wilson: I also don’t see what’s novel about a so-called hustler talking his way out of trouble. That to me is the paramount fake moment besides Sonja Sohn’s character being in a tank top in the prison. The only parts that worked were very organic, like the kid rhyming when he was beating on the wall. The rest of it left me completely cold. They were making me nervous for them—like, “y’all gonna do that, y’all really gonna do that?”
JONES:The moment I heard Oprah had the rights I was distressed. I have this thing with a lot of my people where they’re giving you High Negro Drama, and there’s just that aesthetic of bad acting. That was everything Oprah seemed to be a part of and I was terrified that the story would be lost in this really constricted aesthetic. But within 10 minutes I had to rethink my assumptions. The thing I liked most was the performance of Beah Richards, seeing her have the kind of authority she has onscreen and seeing something move through her to us made everything worthwhile. The gaze of Kimberly Elise in the film also reminded me of real people and not the tradition of masking.
Jafa: I liked the book a lot and I think one of the things the film doesn’t even attempt to do is counterbalance this melodramatic plot with an oblique formal approach. So what you’re left with was this Stephen King kind of story. It started off as slapstick with the kids running around like Little Rascals, and I had so many problems with the end during the exorcism scene where they wheel Jason Robards in, the only person who sees Beloved disappear—like there is no Black subject that can be the authorizing look. And it sort of replicates what happens in the big scene when she kills her child, where you have this white slave-owner cry. The voice of dignity and civility is this white slave-owner? That scene where she’s getting raped and milk is pouring out of her breast I thought was pornographic—if we’re going to go there, put us in her position and let’s see her in the uncomfortable moment of being raped, but don’t flash it.
Tamar-Kali: I appreciated the fact that in a Hollywood film slavery was depicted in such a horrifying way. I still have nightmares about that breast scene—it was so traumatizing I wanted to vomit, but it was real and people need to be shocked in such a manner.
Jafa: This is where I feel the whole problem around Black cinema lies—we have seen so little that we’re like famine victims and you can put anything in front of us. I’m not saying it’s not a legitimate response, but compared to, say, In the Realm of the Senses and Pasolini’s Salo, I say if you’re going to go there, really fucking go there or don’t deal with it at all.
Dauphin: Not a week goes by where I don’t have to write about a Booty Call or some bullshit like that or some so-called indie movie, so I don’t think I’m a famine victim, if anything I feel like I’m glutted with these crappy images. There are a lot of things in the film that are done sloppily but from the beginning it announces its intentions as a hybrid horror movie and I appreciate this image of Black people in the horrific.
Tate: The things that work best about the film are those moments that seem from a family album of abuse and molestation.
TATE: Blade was hands down the most dynamic portrayal of a Black superman in the history of cinema.
Dauphin: The thing that I thought was most interesting about Blade was the whole battle between vampires who are born and vampires who are made. It wasn’t even like a race thing but more a class thing.
Lee: It was like the jigaboos and the wannabes in School Daze.
Tamar-Kali: I liked the whole thing of the old vampires having become very saditty and drinking blood out of wine glasses and the young ones wanting to be on the hunt.
Reid: There’s an amazing moment when Stephen Dorff’s villain confronts Wesley Snipes and says ‘When are you going to stop the Uncle Tom routine?’ and you know he’s only referring to the fact that Blade is a vampire.
Dauphin: I saw it not so much as a debate between races but as more about creolism, hybridity, and biraciality. For me, all the vampires are Black people and it’s like a contest between new Black people and old Black people.
Jafa: The Uncle Tom scene is the quintessential African American dilemma of dual consciousness. Where do you fit in, and who do you identify with? And do you want your power?
Reid: The film really worked well as an allegory about Black people. And I though it was really well constructed in other ways too, because afterwards I thought about relationships that weren’t spelled out—like Dorff’s relationship with the CEO of the old regime. When the CEO tells him, ‘You bore me,’ I realized that they were probably ex-lovers and when Dorff yanks his fangs out, it’s like a symbolic castration.
Dauphin: We talk about hybridity as being transformative and I don’t like that idea. The thing that’s always disturbed me about Octavia Butler is that she identifies with the new hybrid creature as a necessary cost of future living but at the expense of the original.
Tate: Well, she’s an antihuman humanist turned alienist.
Belly Up, Hos Down
REID: The very first scene with DMX and Nas in the club is photographically amazing and from that point it starts to fall apart. It looks astounding but it’s a really hollow film, a pastiche. There’s stuff that happens, like when Nas says he’s going to Africa, that makes the audience snort in derision.
Coleman: Did it have a pretension to be anything other than a vehicle to show how beautifully the director can shoot pictures?
Reid: Basically, it’s ghetto trife-life: two guys—one has more conscience than the other—people get shot, and then more people get shot, and then at the very end DMX has a change of heart and Nas goes to Africa.
Jafa: Call me biased, but I think the way this film looks is a real breakthrough in terms of how Black people look on the screen. They don’t go for something obvious like Essence magazine—it’s hard and it’s burnished and it’s not slick.
Tate: I though it picked up where Menace II Society left off in terms of attempting a reflective gangsta film.
Reid: Menace II Society was a harrowing experience. That film left me shaking. And if that becomes the basis of comparison, Belly really loses.
Wilson: I think the visual definitely mediated the space between it being stupid and being worth consideration as a narrative. The visual was so rich it gave them a venue to reach you on other levels.
Jafa: When I see Beloved, I say, this is a Hollywood film based on a Black novel. I don’t see its failure or success having anything to do with constructing possibilities for Black film. I don’t see it as Black film in the first place. Just ’cause Leontyne Price is singing opera don’t make it soul music. Whereas when you take something like Belly you are talking about the product of some Black filmmakers who are trying to construct something visionary. There is a way Black people occupy space in Belly. DMX has a roughness Tupac didn’t have and he holds the space.
Hancock Rux: You could say the same thing about Lisa Gay Hamilton, Thandie Newton, and Beah Richards in Beloved.
Jafa: But my point is that there are certain failures that are more important than certain successes. There are ways Beloved could have succeeded that would have been less valuable than ways Belly failed. I give it a lot of points in going for this almost Castaneda moment at the end. And even though there’s sexism and glamorization of violence, we haven’t often seen films where the conflict doesn’t orbit around Black self-loathing.
Wilson: But also contrast that with the Slam line—”Yeah, it’s fucked up you were born Black”—it’ll make you go see Belly again.
Tate: What bodes well for [director] Hype [Williams]’s future is that he made a film that attempted to seduce his generation and to confront them with an incredible betrayal of their affection for DMX.
Jafa: I feel it was brave in terms of alienating the audience who was supposed to subsidize the film.
Wilson: My problem with the film is the women, because I was down with Belly, but if I meet Hype I’m going to have to ask him, ‘What, you never met any sisters? Would you like to see one for research?’