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There is no other crime than time itself.

—Gilles Deleuze, Cinema 2

1. Gaze and Identity

Since the advent, over the course of the twentieth century, of black responses to cinema, the challenge of film to black spectators has tended to focus on the dangers of fantasy. “One of the irreducible dangers to which the moviegoer is exposed,” writes James Baldwin, is “the danger of surrendering to the corroboration of one’s fantasies as they are thrown back from the screen” (1976, 29). The idea of cinema as a kind of “throw-back” (of fantasy or, more accurately, its corroboration; a danger which seems to immediately raise the question of what it might mean to be so “thrown”) was frequent in first black responses to film, to be replaced by more sociopolitical concerns with cinematic “realism.”1 Whence comes, among other things, a concern with what it means to view a [End Page 163] film when the “reality” being screened is not black but “what whites think and feel about Negroes,” and we are aware not of dreams but of “nightmares” made up of “anti-Negro attitudes and practices” (Ellison 1995, 306, 304). This eclipse of the “real,” and the trope of cinema as nightmare was not, or not only, a metaphor but a means to raise the question of racism in cinema. Such concerns are implicitly present in many works in which the terms “phantasy,” “illusion,” “stereotype,” or “omission” play a prominent part.2 Without being able to undertake a reading of these terms here, one of the main focuses of these studies stems from the analogy between screen and mirror, which threatens self-presence and blurs self-recognition. In most cases, this analogy is governed by assumptions that go back at least as far as early cinema; hence the need for historical clarification as a preliminary to a more systematic treatment of film media or rhetoric. One has to return, in the history of modern cinema, to the moment when the racial-fantasy-media idea underwent significant changes that are at the center of important tensions (in philosophy, and elsewhere). A first and obvious example would be the change that takes place in film theory, when the word “look” (or “gaze”) tends to supplant other denominations for filmic language, including that of realism.

Although the problem is perhaps most evident in the history of French film theory and philosophy, I do not intend to trace the trajectory that led Bergson or Merleau-Ponty to consider the real and cinema as antithetical, when they were still more or less synonymous for Sartre or Bazin.3 The trajectory is too complex to be touched on here, and the omission of race is too problematic, or ambiguous. However, with the 1952 appearance of Frantz Fanon’s Peau noire, mask blancs, the question of race in cinema was raised directly.4 In chapter 5, for example, Fanon makes being seen, at the expense of seeing, coincide with the affect of a racist gaze in modern cinema. In such cinema—his examples include Duel au soleil, Réquins d‘acier, and Sans Pitié—race emerges via a fantasy that is able to capture the “reality” of black experience rather than its mere “representation.” Whence too the explicit suggestion in Peau noire, mask blancs that there is a new experience of racism in the postwar period—a racism tied to an experience of rupture and crisis and corresponding with the breakdown in the narratives of [End Page 164] colonialism, and the emergence of neo-liberalism, in modern cinema. Chapter 5 on “The lived experience of the Black” offers a rigorous account of this break, and a singular reading of why race, in cinema, is marked by an experience of the “imago” (a word which Fanon derives from a reading of psychoanalysis).5

“Attend showings of a Tarzan film in the Antilles and in Europe,” Fanon suggests. “In the Antilles, the young Negro identifies himself de facto with Tarzan against the Negroes. This is much more difficult for him in a European theater, for the rest of the audience, which is white, automatically identifies him with the savages on...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1539-6630
Print ISSN
1532-687x
Pages
pp. 163-240
Launched on MUSE
2013-12-11
Open Access
N
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