- Reckoning Day:Race, Representation, and Redress in Women's Literature and Film
In "Revolutionary Attitude," esteemed feminist and cultural critic bell hooks self-consciously admits, "Even those of us righteously committed to black liberation struggle, who feel we have decolonized our minds, often find it hard to 'speak' our experience" (2). Judylyn S. Ryan and Hilary Neroni confront this struggle in their new books as each speaks out about underrepresented areas of inquiry in literature and film studies. For example, Ryan reexamines liberation theology as represented in contemporary black women's literature and film, and Neroni focuses upon the field of psychoanalysis but through a lens of the violent and tough woman characters of current neo-noir and action films. Both critics employ their own versions of hooks's [End Page 705] "oppositional gaze" concept in order "to develop critical spectatorship" ("Oppositional Gaze" 117) toward each topic. Together, their books reaffirm the importance of female agency in women's art.
From the opening dedication to her grandmother, her statement that "the purpose of life is to make more life possible" (v), her focus on black female agency, and her invitation to live an examined, spiritual life, Judylyn Ryan's Spirituality as Ideology in Black Women's Film and Literature delivers kind-hearted and well-intentioned humanism to its readers. Besides the arguably more well-known left liberation philosophies of bell hooks and Cornel West, little recent work focuses on the importance of spirituality to women's cultural texts. Because of her interest in this marginalized field of study, Ryan is a trailblazer even if her book is concise at a length of six chapters.
Ryan's introduction to the book sets up the parameters of her study. Invoking a non-denominational, broad-based theory of spirituality as a "life force" (2), Ryan promises to examine specific characters and auteur's visions from a selection of black women's texts in literature and film. While largely on her own in this subject area, Ryan has precursors and is especially indebted to the cultural work of Toni Morrison and the critical work of Barbara Christian whose bedrock ideas underlie her expanded analyses. Ryan's introduction sets up a dual argument: "that spirituality functions as a life-affirming ideology in Black women's art, and that, in the choices informing narrative construction and characterization, Black women filmmakers and writers embrace the role and responsibility of the priestess, bearing and distributing life-force to sustain the community of viewers and readers" (5). To the author, this priestess role is ideological and thus separates Ryan's views of ideology from left-leaning critics like Cornel West. West, for example, employs postmodern theory, specifically Michel Foucault's concept of genealogy, to define how the hegemonic power of white supremacist beliefs negatively impacts black life. To West then the "genealogical approach subscribes to a conception of power that is neither simply based on individual subjects . . . nor on collective subjects . . . but rather a history made by the praxis of human subjects which often results in complex structures of discourses" (49). Whereas West aligns black experience with forces of slave history and hegemony, Ryan chooses an optimistic framework based on the role of spirituality. Thus, West's agenda defines society through postmodern theory while Ryan relies upon humanistic self-redemption.
As such, Ryan defines spirituality differently than West from the first chapter entitled, "Interpreting Spirituality" where she recognizes black agency and labels her approach as a "paradigm of growth [that] derives from and reflects specific principles of traditional African religious [End Page 706] cosmology" (15). Ryan sees the individual as in charge of producing their own culture and thus her "paradigm of growth supplants the paradigm of resistance that has prevailed in most theoretical approaches to African diaspora cultural studies" (16). Ryan believes in Romantic "self-perpetuation" (17) because she argues that, "even individuals whose presence is temporally...