- The Black Man on Our Screens and the Empty Space in Representation*
Film critics, media scholars, and cultural historians have commented often enough on the nation’s vexed and paradoxical fascination with the image of the black male. But perhaps black woman novelist Toni Morrison best catalogues the psychic energies feeding the construction of the black male in the social imagination when her character Sula ironically observes that because of penis envy, rape fantasies, and a pervading fear of the demonized black Other, “everything in the world loves” the black man. 1 As the old refrain goes, “with a ‘love’ like that” a wicked continuum of images, from photos of the mutilated body of Emmett Till to the videotaped torture of Rodney King, crystallizes for all who pause to reflect on the subliminal currents that animate so much of our media culture. Certainly one can find abundant evidence of a love-hate obsession with black men in commercial cinema. If nothing else, the huge, black, and fantastic King Kong climbing the Empire State Building while clutching his scantily clad, blonde object of desire presents us with a powerful, enduring metaphor for dominant society’s barely repressed fears of black masculinity, sexuality, and miscegenation. As for the genre of comedy, add the fact that for over two centuries ending in the late 1950s, “Sambo” was one of America’s most popular, and exportable, images. 2 So the bewitching allure of black men runs deeply through the historical trajectory of mainstream culture. This includes cinema from its inception with Gus, the “renegade negro” and molester of white women, in The Birth of a Nation (1915), through the minstrel antics of Stepin Fetchit or even Eddie Murphy’s resurrection of “Buckwheat,” right up to the contemporary moment with the much debated cinematic interpretation of “Mister” in The Color Purple (1985), or the parade of “New Jack” gangstas crowding our screens, dismissing women as “bitches and hos.”
Yet to understand the ambivalence and confusion of “love-hate” we must not totally skew the evidence toward monsters, Sambos, and black brutes. Commercial cinema has also given us a succession of black male idols, from Sidney Poitier’s “ebony saints,” Melvin Van Peebles’ sexually rebellious “Sweetback,” and Richard Pryor’s biracial buddies, to the, oftentimes, more complex, humanized 1990s characters of Lawrence Fishburne, Denzel Washington, and Danny Glover. In any event, one could never argue with Sly Stallone about the wisdom and profit of “loving” black men while simultaneously “hating” them. Stallone’s biggest money-making ventures [End Page 395] have resulted from formulaic, epic struggles with black men, from the Rocky cycle, with Carl Weathers and Mr. T, through Demolition Man (1993) and the dystopian, punked-out super villain played by Wesley Snipes.
Conversely, filmmakers—from the black pioneer independents Oscar Micheaux and Spencer Williams, to “Blaxploitation’s” Melvin Van Peebles and Gordon Parks, to the contemporary artists John Sayles and Isaac Julien—have struggled to define and contextualize black manhood in broader terms and against the grain of Hollywood’s flattened out, negative-positive binary. Take a moment in Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing (1989), which explores the unease and suspicion with which dominant society routinely measures black manhood. Open with two working-class white cops on patrol as they pause to exchange hostile stares with a group of black “corner men.” “What a waste,” the cops mutter in judgment as they drive off. But the contempt is mutual. And while these cops, as the mediating gaze of dominant society, see idle, wasted lives, the black corner men return society’s gaze with a degree of social insight and irony. If the corner men know nothing else, they know that those cops’ jobs are entirely dependent on the black men trapped in America’s ghettos or warehoused in its prisons. Under-educated and unemployed black men are the raw material that society pays its police to contain or sweep conveniently from view. So Lee’s camera interjects an illuminating, counter-hegemonic moment into the popular discourse about the shape and crisis of black manhood.
Yet to fully comprehend society’s love-hate bond to its fetish, the black male...