Approaching subject matter on race or relating to race there is always the question of where to draw the line between representing reality as a way of protest or defying it by displaying what is needed. This is already an existing argument in relation to class and whether African American struggles are realistically depicted on the screen. Sydney Poitier’s importance in black film history and in the civil rights movement initiates such an argument. He arguably did not utilize his platform as a leading African American on the screen and instead acted as a concept for the white viewer to find comfort in. Marvin Van Peebles similarly factors into this argument but, contradicting Poitier, he reinforced stereotypes of the community by way of being separatist. Ultimately both stars represent the extremes of the spectrum of black visibility on the screen turning us back to the question of where the line lies for the most effective visibility in films. Identification, resistance, and, as a result, progress all factor into what makes this visibility possible. However, what magnifies this issue even more is the representation of women.
“Black films were. . . subject to critical interrogation. . . Critical, interrogating black looks were mainly concerned with issues of race. . . They were rarely concerned with gender” (bell hooks, 2000, pg. 231). As Ed Guerrero states while discussing Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song (Marvin Van Peebles, 1971), there was a “significant absence of any black feminist criticism of the film at that time… [A] politicized black women’s agenda was generally submerged under a male-focused black nationalist discourse” (1993, pg. 91). The concentration on men and their desires and, as a result, degradation of women is prevalent in film like Sweet Sweetback and She’s Gotta Have it (Spike Lee, 1986). These films have denied “the body of the black female. . . [and] the woman to be looked at and desired is ‘white’” (hooks, 2000, pg. 231) In She’s Gotta Have It, Greer says he should date a white girl implying that the race of a girl determines the success of a relationship. This treatment of women is prevalent within other races as well. In The Godfather (Francis Ford Coppola, 1972), Connie gets kicked around by her brothers and her husband and is expected to be inferior to them. In short, The Godfather and certainly She’s Gotta Have It and Sweet Sweetback all represent a reality where women do get treated like objects rather than human beings.
On the other hand however, Foxy Brown (Jack Hill, 1974) is a film that embraces female objectification and treats it as empowering. Pam Grier appeared as a strong independent maternal feminine woman. This was unusual then as women, especially black women did not have this type of agency on screen. Grier redefined the black woman’s role in film and treated their beauty, womanhood, and sexuality as completely their own and nobody else’s.
Foxy Brown, similarly to the dynamic of Poitier and Van Peebles, represents a polarity to the Second Wave feminism that rose to prominence in the ‘70s with now-popular icons like Gloria Steinem by its side. Second Wave feminism, with the help of radical feminists like Catharine Mackinnon and Andrea Dworkin, was anti-pornography. This included exploitation films and material that needed, in their eyes, censorship or removal of any explicit sexual content. Ultimately, their position was to fight for women’s empowerment by proving that they too can be as masculine as any leading man. Characters like Ripley in Aliens (James Cameron, 1986) and Sarah Connor in The Terminator (James Cameron, 1984) resemble this desire to depict female heroines as masculine. (Holmlund, 2005, pg. 97) This mirrors Sydney Poitier’s approach in African American visibility on the screen in that he too wanted to show that blacks can be just like the whites.
The trouble and difficulty with attempting to represent a type of reality is the resulting condemnation of a group collectively as something, does not matter if it is good or bad, just something as a whole. The result of which can be reproducing another kind of reality. That is what James Baldwin was ultimately saying in his 1968 essay in Look. One man (Poitier) cannot represent a whole community. Neither can a movie formula (Blaxploitation). It is Hollywood’s responsibility to make certain that there is a full range of visibility for each community, which is more than possible. For that to happen, audiences must realize that the line between representing reality and defying it is becoming a resisting spectator, as bell hooks calls it (2000, pg. 230). While watching a film, viewers must remember to be critical of what they are consuming. They must realize the power in financially supporting films and also demanding that there be more diverse writers and directors making films.
What Ed Geurrero, when talking about the issues of Blaxploitation only briefly mentions, is Hollywood’s ability to find ways in masking its racism but also simultaneously making profit. It does not represent or defy reality; it is “perpetuating fantasy of American life” (Guerrero, 1993, pg. 74.) Hollywood is still “restrict[ing] its political vision and mask[ing] its conservative assumptions about race” (Guerrero, 1993, pg. 78). The repression of a group shifts to another and the resisting spectator of the black film theorists is not aware of that. This awareness is essential because, as Stuart Hall says, identity is not outside representation but within it (1989, pg. 80). How else can stereotypes be broken than for there to be abundant visibility and awareness of spectrum instead of only extremes. Manthia Diawara, analyzing The Birth of a Nation, said, “the black experience is rendered absent in the text” (1988, pg. 70) Many Hollywood films render many experiences as absent to this day like Kathryn Bigelow’s Hurt Locker (2008) that seemed to make sure to show that the only victims of the Iraq war were the Americans and no one else. Even now, with the stars having easier access to a social platform, Hollywood takes advantage of that. An example would be casting an unknown actress with a strong and routed political stance against Palestine. This is Gal Gadot, from Wonder Woman (Patty Jenkins, 2017).
To conclude, it is correct to say that the resisting spectator is necessary but the resisting spectator is not aware enough. We must recognize Hollywood’s incessant need to have an object, representing the American dream, in disguise with all the power. We need to take that on as a whole, and resist that. If we only resist portions of it, it will shift to another group.