46 The Other Pleasures: The Narrative Function of Race in the Cinema
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46 The Other Pleasures: The Narrative Function of Race in the Cinema ANNA EVERETT Even with the phenomenal influence of cultural studies and of cognitive and feminist theories, there remains a conspicuous absence of theorizing about the narrative function of race qua race in contemporary films. I contend that Scenes from the Class Struggle in Beverly Hills (1988), The Player (1992), Cool Runnings (1993), Blue Chips (1994), The Nightmare before Christmas (1993), and The Perfect Woman (1993) all, in varying degrees, devise narrative situations that rely on race to authorize their speaking the unspeakable, performing the prohibited, defiling the sacred, and generally transgressing most sanctioned codes of social conduct. These films deploy racialized archetypal characters to underwrite audiences' suspended disbelief and thereby ensure what Peter Brooks has termed film's "textual erotics." Because race functions in these films to reify established hierarchies, its influence often proceeds undetected or, at the least, unchallenged. By covertly voicing the ideology of race in popular entertainment vehicles, filmmakers assure perpetuation of racist attitudes throughout our society. And because of counter movements such as multiculturalism and pluralism, which resist the ideology of racial supremacy, narrating race in this way becomes the means of choice for recruiting and sustaining adherents. This is especially true for young children. Consider, for instance, the treatment of race in The Nightmare before Christmas. This animated film, significant for its dual address to both adults and children, features an embedded "nightmare," or what Roland Barthes would term a nested narrative , implicitly named as blackness. The villain, who imperils the film's protagonist, Jack, and who functions as narrative disruption, is codified in terms of racial otherness. Far from being a mere descriptor of physiognomy, race must be acknowledged for its structural as well as thematic centrality to the narrative situations of popular films today. Consider, for example, the narrative structures of The Player, Scenes from the Class Struggle in Beverly Hills, The Perfect Woman, The Nightmare before Christmas, Cool Runnings , and Blue Chips. In studying these particular filmic texts, I have found three types of racial inscription in narratives that organize spectatorial pleasure around notions of racial blackness and whiteness. I call these segregated, partially integrated, and fully integrated 20 FILM CRITICISM, no. 1-2 (1995-96), p. 26. Originally published in Film Criticism. Reprinted by permission. Excerpted from THE OTHER PLEASURES: THE NARRATIVE FUNCTION OF RACE IN THE CINEMA. Copyright © 1994 by Anna Everett. Copyrighted Material The Other Pleasures 281 narrative structures, based on the racial identities of the film's significant characters and their interrelationships. I have found that each of these structural modalities imposes narrative conditions on the fulfillment of pleasure for its privileged or ideal spectators. Further , the racialized inscriptions in these films suggest that it is still the white, bourgeois male to whom these narratives are addressed. However, I hasten to add that these films do cast a wide enough narrative net so as to snare the not-privileged spectators as well. These spectator positions are dependent on the hegemonizing nature of racialized cinematic narratives wherein spectatorial identification is achieved via the lure of highly desirable racialized characters as ego-ideals. Protagonists and antagonists in these six films are little more than stock racial stereotypes updated so as to avoid character anachronisms. These narratives construct a preferred reading of the narrative events which, accordingly, require the construction of a preferred spectator to interpret the given work. What does it mean, for example, when a film widely publicized and received as being conceived outside the political maelstrom of Hollywood finds it necessary and indeed desirable to devise a racially constructed arch-villain as well as a racially spatialized underground never-never land as plot points par excellence, wherein race, specifically blackness, functions as the perfect narrative interruptus? I am referring here to Tim Burton's The Nightmare before Christmas. In having his arch-villain speak in a constructed black dialect , Burton is little concerned with representing the polyphony of voices that are the American vernacular. Rather, it is clear that this particularized instance of "blackspeak" has the narrative intent of invoking existing notions of black male criminality. Moreover, when contrasted to all other speech representations that signify normative "whitespeak" in this film, this insidious use of cinematic blackspeak renders untenable the recourse to pleas of misconstrued irony on behalf of the filmmaker and his target audiences (interestingly , irony and satire are favored terms for rationalizing or excusing white racist utterances , but few would argue that Leonard Jeffries...


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