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Visual Culture and the Black Masculine

From: Wide Angle
Volume 21, Number 4, October 1999
pp. 2-5 | 10.1353/wan.2004.0002

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Wide Angle 21.4 (1999) 2-5

Keith M. Harris

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Figure 1, Cover Art
D'Angelo performing in Untitled, music video directed by Paul Hunter. Video frame enlargement.

In 1991, Wide Angle published the very successful volume entitled "Black Cinema." Though it was not the first such publication dealing specifically with black film, the essays collected in that edition set a standard of scholarship on black film. This scholarship served to situate black film as a dialogic, intertextual medium, rich in its aesthetic, historical and political legacies. The current issue of Wide Angle exploring visual culture and black masculinity emerges from these legacies. Let me elaborate.

Contemporary black film and scholarship on black film has broadened the horizon of what is discussed as film. Indeed, questions now exist as to what is black film, what is the "black" in black film, what do we talk about when we talk about black film. These questions are deliberate, and at times contentious, but informative of the current issue on black masculinity and film. For, to speak about black masculinity in film is to speak about the aesthetic, historical and political legacies of the medium itself and the cultural context in which the medium is produced and in which it circulates. Furthermore, when one considers these legacies, one must ask if it is enough to speak solely of film. A term of preference, especially when discussing questions of gender and race, is visual culture. The idea of visual culture embraces the span of black film, the questions it raises, and the issues of concern. Positioning black film as part of a broader black visual culture, indeed, allows for a greater understanding of the intertexts and dialogues of black film.

The next question may be, why black masculinity? On the one hand, black masculinity is provocative and timely; on the other hand, interrogating notions of black masculinity raises even broader questions of femininity and the construct of blackness. In other words, black masculinity as a topic is one of many starting point. As such, one can speak of not only race, masculinity and femininity, but also aesthetics, politics and history. In doing so through the spectrum of visual culture, one can determine how film as a medium circulates with other media such as video, performance art and photography. Furthermore, one can determine the relations between film, masculinity and the various "ethos" of blackness such as gangsta, hip-hop, homo thug, post-soul, post-black, etc. Finally, by examining masculinity and black film as part of black visual culture, one can discern the continuous, and often discontinuous and ruptured, historical relations among race and gender and representation.

The essays in this issue of Wide Angle are few but wide ranging. David Gerstner's "'Other and Different Scenes'" provides a provocative addition to the growing body of scholarship on the work of Oscar Micheaux. Gerstner's focus on the use of parallel editing in both Micheaux and D. W. Griffith reveals that all is not the same, at least not ideologically so. Gerstner's examination of Micheaux's use of parallel editing, on the one hand, implicitly critiques Griffith construction of a "White structure of feeling" through editing, and, on the other hand, provides an understanding of Micheaux's editing as a discursive aesthetic impulse which serves to project visions of the struggles of African American men and women. In "An Aesthetic Appropriate to Conditions," Paula Massood re-visits Killer of Sheep (Charles Burnett 1977) and the LA Rebellion. Massood considers the impact of the social and cultural context on aesthetic choices, placing Killer in an aesthetic dialogue with (Neo)Realism and Griersonian documentary. Furthermore, Massood gives a close reading of the main character, "Stan," a reading which reveals the character to be an allegory, of sorts, for the condition of African Americans in post-industrial Los Angeles. The essay by Celine Parreñas Shimizu, "Master-Slave Sex Acts," re-works criticism of Mandingo (Dino De Laurentis 1975). By re-framing the object under the lens of sex, sexuality and the sex act, Parreñas Shimizu shifts the focus of discussion of Mandingo to one of the paradox of master and slave...

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