Exposing the Tragic Mulatta in Film

Hollywood has undergone a paradoxical shift. In recent years, African American and mixed race faces and voices have become more mainstream, evidence of which is clear in various media spaces they now occupy, namely billboards, radio or television commercial air time, and print advertisements. These faces and voices are also being billed as lead actors in film more so now than ever before. Arguably, such a shift was inevitable when the emergence of a more prominent Black upper middle and consumer class in the U.S. is considered, which includes among their ranks a variety of entertainment industry moguls, African American entrepreneurs, academic and business professionals. But perhaps there is a more complex explanation for their inclusion. Let’s explore that alternative/complement. But first, here’s some background context to introduce the issues most pertinent to this conversation.

Oscars

Perhaps this is old news by now, but in 2001, three Black celebrities were honored simultaneously at the 74th Annual Academy Awards: Halle Berry, Denzel Washington and Sydney Poitier. This was an important historical moment. A far cry from the 2016 #OscarsSoWhite craziness. Despite the significant absence of color in the 2016 Academy Awards, since 2001 and still today, films like Straight Outta Compton as well as films produced and directed by Tyler Perry like Madea Goes to Jail, have proven that Black casts and Black leads can draw a crowd at the box office and join the folds of those who act as creators of content for mainstream and popular culture consumption. Shucks, Idris Elba is being seriously considered for the next Bond movies… at least in pop culture conversations. That’s progress, surely!

The increase in media presence and the slight increase in serious multi-dimensional dramatic roles available to Black women are particularly significant–much of which audiences owe to Shonda Rimes. Where in the past their images had been few and far between at best, on any given day one might now turn on the television or go to the movie theater and see the likes of Taraji P. Henson, Kerry Washington, Viola Davis, Sanaa Lathan, Halle Berry, Lupita Nyongo and other Black female actresses, entertainers and celebrities. How can the public interpret these gains? Do they mean that people of color, particularly Black women who throughout film and television history have been cast as mammies, superwomen, sex kittens, or aggressive bitches, can now expect to be full participants in Hollywood? And it is not lost on this author that much of these gains originate in TV rather than film. The question must emerge, “What do these advances really mean?” Can audiences interpret them as slight changes in ideology based on some evidence of acceptance and participation?

Halle Berry | Golden Globe Awards | Photo Credit: D'Orazio & Associates via Compfight cc
Halle Berry | Golden Globe Awards | Photo Credit: D’Orazio & Associates via Compfight cc

Halle Berry became the first African American woman to win an Academy Award for Best Actress in a Lead Role when she was recognized for her work in the film Monster’s Ball. Seeing the film for the first time on VHS more than 10 years ago, this author can recall the sheer discomfort with which she sat through it until the end. Indeed, the film kept her entranced as it probably did for others who saw it back then, but for a researcher and media scholar such as this Black, female, feminist author who is interested in representations of Blacks and women in popular culture, Monster’s Ball was an ideological nightmare. Imagine holding a pillow to your chest; your legs are curled up on the couch in typical horror movie mode. At one point the pillow gets dropped, you put your feet flat on the carpet and just stare at the television set in disbelief.

When the 74th Annual Academy Awards show aired live on television this author was also watching with mixed emotions. Berry accepted the Oscar in complete beauty-pageant-style–think, “ugly cry.” That moment and the feelings it engendered, led to the composition of this article (apologies for the dated references). This is clearly an important historical moment, especially as the world says goodbye to the first sitting Black U.S. President and may possibly say hello to the first female U.S. President (Hillary Clinton has become the presumptive Democratic Presidential Nominee as of the latest editing of this article).

This article represents an intimate reading of Monster’s Ball, the film for which Halle Berry’s performance was deemed worthy of an Academy Award for Best Actress–a nomination and award put through by what is in 2016, one of the least diverse voting bodies of any organization in the United States. The reading here is a feminist one, first and foremost and falls squarely within the criticism of Black feminists in particular. First, the article explains its grounding in Cultural Studies and Black feminist theory as it goes on to explore some of the history and academic background of previous media criticisms relevant to the subject at hand. The article then proceeds with an analysis and critique of the film as a rhetorical text.

The central argument here is that both rhetorical and cultural constraints exist with regard to how racial reconciliation and interracial relationships are represented in the film; these constraints serve to limit the transformative possibilities inherent in this film and others like it. In the end, Monster’s Ball not only sets a particular agenda for interracial desire, but it more importantly represents a subtle yet significant historical shift in the “femininity complex” that is used to represent Black women in mass media. Finally, while being aware that it is difficult to make strong generalizations about a whole world of mediated messages with one case, this critique offers some predictions and recommendations for the next generation of films that will perhaps usher in an even newer period in Hollywood’s narrative of (mis)representation. This articles only endeavor is to encourage deeper thinking on the issues here, in a non-academic context.

Critical Theory and Mass Media Criticism

In producing motion pictures, television programs, radio, print and the advertising to finance each mass medium, media professionals are active and very powerful storytellers. They create narratives that both reflect and influence the dominant ideologies of the culture in which they are produced. Media analysts and cultural critics investigating the cultural narratives and ideologies inherent in mass media today, have typically looked at language, images, identities, types of interactions and material content through quantitative analyses and trend charting. They have been able to demystify to some extent the constructed nature of media representations of socio-cultural reality. Cultural Studies alternatively uses more interpretive and intuitive approaches in attempting to understand how signs, symbols, coded messages are communicated through media and have the potential to affect people’s everyday realities. Cultural Studies as a body of theoretical knowledge guides the effort here.

Cultural Studies scholars are centrally interested in media representations of race, class, gender, sexuality and the ways in which those representations collude with or challenge systems of inequality. A Cultural Studies approach allows for an interpretive and intuitive method of analysis that reveals the meaning and construction behind the surface of Monster’s Ball, which in turn, allows one to view the film as a complex, discursive text that on its face seems to challenge old racial ideologies but upon closer inspection, actually promotes them. Such a perspective acknowledges the more subtle influences media have on shaping social and cultural realities. Paul Gilroy provides key testimony for this more contextual approach. He describes the aforementioned shift in U.S. mass media and in Hollywood in terms of the climate around race and representation in particular:

The perfect faces on billboards and screens and in magazines are no longer exclusively White, but as they lose that uniformity we are being pressed to consider and appreciate exactly what they have become, where they fit in the old hierarchy that is being erased, and what illicit combination of those familiar racial types combined to produce that particular look, that exotic style, or that transgressive stance… It is best to be absolutely clear that the ubiquity and prominence currently accorded to exceptionally beautiful and glamorous but nonetheless racialized bodies do nothing to change the everyday forms of racial hierarchy. The historic associations of Blackness with infrahumanity, brutality, crime, idleness, excessive threatening fertility, and so on remain undisturbed.  1

Openly bisexual actress Queen Latifah embraces Ursula as a symbol of queer empowerment.
Queen Latifah as Ursula: Is she a symbol of empowerment or just another aggressive bitch? Rather, is she depicted in a more feminine way than in previous historical eras?

Although all mass media more broadly influence our thoughts and behavior, film in particular has a special power to carry in it, important information that communicates to the spectator what is “real” and “true” and worth knowing. Through film, “ideas about culturally-accepted values, beliefs, and behaviors are transmitted.” 2 Film often demonstrates the most dominant notions of social reality, the deepest of our cultural myths as well as the eldest of society’s scripts for social behavior. Ideological representations such as these attempt to “fix” our places, our rank in society, and assist in limiting individuals’ social mobility as well as the range of political advancements social groups can make. More importantly, in an information age, what audiences can learn about other members of society increasingly comes packaged through technology-centered means of communication. Mass media cultures privilege space as opposed to time. Today, media spaces emphasize: political beliefs, centralized federal administration, bureaucracy and expansion. This has startling implications for how members of non-dominant groups are perceived, especially in the United States where race is the fundamental axis on which society is organized. 3

Mass media and in this case film are central to the perpetuation of what Black feminists refer to as controlling images of womanhood. Black women with few exceptions have appeared historically in mass media as mere specters, visions of women who seem to possess little in the way of productive knowledge and resources, often exerting little to no control over their material circumstances. Most of the mediated images audiences encounter of Black women lack fully developed dimensionality, depth and positive possibility. These exploitive conditions have had lasting psychological impacts on Black women beyond the slave generation in the Americas. Such exploitation continues with the perpetuation of mass media images reincarnating historical experiences.

Dandridge-medium
Dorothy Dandridge | Photo Credit: Truus, Bob & Jan too! via Compfight cc
Lena-Horne
Lena Horne | Photo Credit: s59v via Compfight cc

The tragic mulatta specifically, is an archetypal female character who can pass for White or tends to have some physical and emotional qualities generally associated with European standards of beauty. She may either appear to be White because of her biracial status or appear to be Black with European features. Dorothy Dandridge and Lena Horne are examples of actresses who played these roles in the early to mid 1900s; these women played roles that typified the image of the bad-black-girl. 4 Despite her mixed blood, the mulatta’s lack of access to power because of her racialized state is what makes her characterization tragic. Her racial identification due to the one drop rule combined with her social position as woman means she is destined to remain without agency. In a typical narrative the character is a protagonist who seeks to escape her Blackness by using her ability to pass as White. She often seeks social acceptance through a romantic encounter with a White man. In most narratives the story ends tragically, for even if the biracial woman succeeds in seducing a White man with her beauty, he usually abandons her in the end. Interestingly, the ending of Monster’s Ball marks a slight separation from this typical ending. This article begins with this knowledge and seeks to take the reader on a journey through Monster’s Ball and its construction of an interracial love affair.

The Case of Monster’s Ball

The film Monster’s Ball, 5 takes place in a small Southern town. Hank Grotowski, played by Billie Bob Thornton is a lead corrections officer assigned to the death row wing of the local prison; he is responsible for overseeing executions. Hank, his son Sonny (Heath Ledger), and his father Buck (Peter Boyle), represent three generations of white Southern males who have worked at the prison, but in a larger metaphorical sense they are constructed as three generations of attitudes toward racism and women.

Buck represents the most malicious form of racism. He is a retired prison guard, but his character shows us that he always wears his uniform, that is, he never retires from what he interprets as a moral duty to see hardened criminals, particularly Black men put to death. In the first half of the film, Buck is shown adding a newspaper article with a photograph of the next prisoner set to die by electric chair to his scrapbook. Here he documents the execution date of Lawrence Musgrove, another Black man executed during his lifetime. Buck’s overtly racist incorrigibility is what motivates the rest of the film’s characters. It is this attitude that can be read as the sole reason Buck’s wife, Hank’s wife and later in the film Sonny, all commit suicide. On its face, the film tells us: racial hatred, wherever it exists is deeply pathological, poisons relationships and often involves violence and death. The Grotowski family is one situated by a history of white, male, violent, sexist, and racist ideology—altogether at an unknown point in time, in the Southern region of the United States. The film therefore uses historical ambiguity as a rhetorical device to construct a supposedly transgressive interracial narrative.

In comparison to the Grotowski family, the Musgrove family is similarly constructed with “a bad man” at the center. Condemned Black inmate Lawrence Musgrove, played by Hip Hop mogul Sean Combs, is constructed as a peaceful, friendly individual portrayed as head of his household. Though the nature of his crime or further details of the trial that led to his death sentence remain elusive in the film’s narrative, Lawrence’s attitude and behavior indicate that he has a lot of regret, especially as it relates to his inability to support and protect his wife and child. His wife, Leticia (Halle Berry), is weary of visiting him over the past 11 years. In an early scene, Leticia and their son Tyrell (Cornoji Calhoun) say their final goodbyes to Lawrence as he promises to make one final phone call to them before he is put to death. While Tyrell walks away saddened by his father’s impending death, Leticia seems bitter and angry about the loss of support. The Black family is thus constructed as a normative nuclear entity that includes a father, mother and child, which is disrupted by the actions of “a bad man” at the helm. The film’s narrative presents this as a major crisis that seems to have no other solution than to replace the bad Black patriarch with a transformed White patriarch in order for the Black family to survive.

The Black feminine paradox: While it can no longer be justifiably claimed that Black women are completely excluded from mainstream mass media, one would be remiss to assume that Black women’s latest roles have done a complete one-eighty. Monster’s Ball uses the tragic mulatta as a controlling image to construct and define Leticia’s role in the film, complete with sex as a central selling point. Leticia’s character is presented with very little dimension or history. The audience can see that she lacks independence after losing her husband to prison and execution. Additionally, she lacks access to resources: a good, working vehicle, a good job (she is a waitress), a good husband, a supportive family, access to social services even are missing. There is only one scene of the film’s final cut in which she aggressively interacts with her son. And the scene in which Leticia has sex with Hank is a raw expression of her desperation. Berry, as the choice actress for this role and her characterization of Leticia, were also clearly designed to appeal to White mainstream audiences. Leticia possesses the softened feminine feel and qualities of a typical tragic mulatta and Berry’s biracial identity, just as Dandridge’s and Horne’s identities had in past films, most likely accentuated those qualities.

Photo Credit: hto2008 via Compfight cc
Left: Halle Berry as Dorothy Dandridge. Center: DVD Cover. Right: Dorothy Dandridge | Photo Credit: hto2008 via Compfight cc

Berry as an actress, does a great job of melding life and art in her acting role selections. This is perhaps the reason she garnered such attention for the Oscar with this film. Perhaps, fellow artists recognized how much she put herself into the role and the inherent sacrifice she made in doing so, for the sake of artistic practice. A key example with relevance here: Berry worked overtime to play Dorothy Dandridge, an actress known for her tragic mulatta presence in real life and on the big screen. In promotional interviews for Introducing Dorothy Dandridge (1999), Berry who co-produced and starred in the made for television film, likened herself to Dandridge when asked about her determination to bring Dandridge’s story to the small screen. Press coverage of Berry’s personal life and romantic relationships have demonstrated a close fit with the stereotypical image of the tragic mulatta that she continues to select for her film and television roles. Berry’s slim figure, slight nose and straight hair bode well for the physical features required of the idealized and iconic figures for which she is typically cast. The tragic mulatta however, remains a negative image. It is a caricature that assigns to Black women the same deficiency of little to no agency typically expected of and endured by White women.

Representations of the tragic mulatta endorse a patriarchal ideology as it pertains specifically to Black women. 6 The root of Berry’s paradoxical performance is in the combination of her pseudo-feminine qualities, in Leticia’s limited power to abuse her son and seduce Hank, and in her limitless suffering that she is apparently powerless to end on her own. Her biracial body becomes a site of, nay a fountain of renewal for Hank. Hank exploits Leticia’s body as an opportunity to redeem himself through knowingly and willfully participating in the cultural transgression of an interracial sexual affair. In the case of this film, Berry’s character is that of a tragic mulatta who in White men’s estimation is “the body of a white woman imbued with the mythic sexuality of Black women.” 7 Berry’s passing for White qualities combined with her sexual appeal are what make her attractive to both the male protagonist, Hank and White male viewers in general.

Leticia is a woman trapped by her Blackness and rescued by anti-racist-white-hero, 8Hank. Her subliminally hidden Blackness perhaps represents the dark erotic shadow of the White man’s own soul. Arguably, the film is centrally a story about Hank making peace with his shadow, eliminating the need for us to revisit the racial past. Leticia’s past, Hank’s past, are erased. The narrative becomes a hetero-erotic, interracial Adam and Eve story—a transformed beginning, but not a transformational one. Leticia’s body is used to mediate Hank’s anti-racist transformation while Hank actively uses his White male privilege and access to resources to transform Leticia into a completely feminized object.

More on what kind of transformation this is: Hank’s acts of heroism are inherently selfish. He does what he does not to save Leticia, but to save himself. Monster’s Ball never reveals the context out of which Leticia’s or her familial characters emerge. The film uses the tragic mulatta as a controlling, racialized image to project the audience into an imagined interracial future that allows patriarchal ideology to maintain its discursive and hegemonic status. By the end of the film Leticia’s transformation is complete as she submits to her circumstances and hands her fate over to Hank. In the final scene she sits with Hank on the back steps of her new home mute, a now completely feminized figure trapped by her own pain–a tragic mulatta. Her passive acceptance is represented through her crushing, taken for granted silence. Herein lies the Black feminine paradox.

Photo Credit: The Barbie Room via Compfight cc
Black Barbie Doll | Photo Credit: The Barbie Room via Compfight cc

The paradox lies in the contradiction between Leticia’s/Berry’ appeal as a feminized sexual goddess and her very powerlessness and lack of ability to control the ongoing dynamics of her own oppression. The notion of goddess is fitting as it helps to explain the mythical qualities of the tragic mulatta’s sexual prowess. A goddess is believed to have mystical qualities; she is revered for her charm and beauty and has power over nature. In this case, Leticia has power over sex. She is the gatekeeper that lets Hank in. And like the Venus, Hank places her on a pedestal. Leticia’s influence seems to lie only in the power of her sex to both seduce and redeem Hank. She is hence a goddess objectified–not a goddess at all.

The other major irony here is that the film partially breaks with the typical tragic mulatta narrative because in the end Leticia is not abandoned by the White male protagonist. She gets to keep her man, but only in some very specific ways and under extreme circumstances. Ideologically, for Leticia to become completely feminine she has to sever her ties to the Black community and become sexually available to Hank. The film orchestrates the deaths of both Lawrence and Tyrell, the only family Leticia seems to have, facilitating her and Hank’s interracial affair (an interracial affair is suggested here due to the fact that Hank demonstrates no clear intention of marrying Leticia). Hence, Monster’s Ball sets a particular agenda for interracial desire.

It not only sends a message to Black women and all women about what is expected of true women in society, but it presents a curious method for getting there. To become worthy of White male attention and protection, Black women must be cut off from the rest of the Black world. The message to White men and other men is that it is acceptable to sleep with and financially support Black women; marrying them is not presented as an option. Black women thus remain ineligible for formal State protection through marriage. But at least Black women finally get to have a Cinderella story, right?

The idea that Leticia and Hank have something in common in their experiences of loss masks the underlying truth of both their transformations; from racist White man to redeemed savior and poor Black woman to a more completely feminized sexual object. Monster’s Ball tries to have it both ways when it attempts to present us with a narrative of a White paternal figure who is emancipated from his racism through his affection for a Black feminized mute. Leticia is no heroine, she remains a slave. There is no triumphant revision of the feminine esthetic in the choice of Berry for this role or in the raunchy sexualization of both her character and that of a female prostitute who has pornographic-like sex with both Hank and his son, Sonny. The frank treatment of violence within the scenes of prison execution, prostitution, and suicide do nothing more than reproduce ideological assumptions that are at the center of both racial and gender oppressions. Such scenes, pathologized in superficial ways act to disassemble rather than assemble the very promise of White and Black transformational politics to which the film endeavors.

Photo Credit: 5alarmmusic.com via Compfight cc
Blackish, sitcom ad | Photo Credit: 5alarmmusic.com via Compfight cc

Adding to this sense of tragic irony is the fact that Monster’s Ball is directed by Marc Forster, an African American filmmaker who is quoted in a November 20, 2001 edition of Village Voice saying, “I tried to keep Monster’s Ball raw so it wouldn’t be manipulative, but I like the absurd approach as well” (p. 122). Such an attitude is an indication of how “an image can so infiltrate a culture that even Black filmmakers sustain it in their work.” 9 Forster’s attempt, if it can be called an attempt to comment on Black families’ struggle to survive in a racialized cultural context that disproportionately imprisons Black fathers, is peripheral at best. A clear example of another film attempting to tell a Black story through a White lens: the anti-racist-white-hero is still the central figure, portrayed as an outlaw in his willful abandonment of the racial codes of his social and familial environment.

Arguably, what Forster and the screenplay authors created and what Halle Berry supports with her role and image, is the larger transformation of Black women into more feminine than masculine caricatures–something closer to the cult of true womanhood. It is perhaps this subtle but significant shift that got the attention of the Academy which tends to reward its artists for taking high level risks. In this newer context, sparked by a genesis of roles in Monster’s Ball, Black actresses are now more acceptable as completely feminized icons like Marilyn Monroe, Jean Harlow and Rita Hayworth. It is unfortunate that Berry (Black women) had to get there on her (their) back(s).

Conclusion

The general meanings of masculinity and femininity in U.S. society persist, particularly in film—“To be masculine is to be strong, ambitious, successful, rational, and emotionally controlled… To be feminine is to be attractive, deferential, unaggressive, emotional, nurturing, and concerned with people and relationships.” 10 The paradox of Black femininity is now encapsulated in contradictions between racialized images and gendered expectations. But what seems like a positive transformation for Black women, is evidence of the work all women and women’s movements have yet to complete. Since Berry’s recognition as Best Actress along with the awards that went to Washington and Poitier in the same ceremony, Black Hollywood has emerged a much more visible force. Monster’s Ball therefore represents a formal turning point in U.S. films; a new epoch in the annals of representational politics, perhaps illustrating transformations in both Hank and Leticia as examples of expected shifts in the U.S. American population. Both their transformations are made believable through their violent familial losses, which motivate their acceptance of each other and their acceptance of newer roles.

Today, typical feminine images have become more ambiguous. Now Oprah is the “girlfriend” next door to every woman, regardless of race. Queen Latifah’s lovable “Mama” characters since the hit film Chicago illustrate some of what is believed to be true about Black stereotypes but recasts them within stronger and more accurate depictions of the Black family and Black communities in general. And it has been amazing to see films like Dreamgirls reach a wider audience and receive the applause it has generated. These are all instances in which Black performers, directors, producers and creative artists seem to possess a significant level of agency in determining production quality, content and distribution of their images. So can audiences interpret these shifts as slight changes in ideology based on some evidence of acceptance and participation? Yes and no.

Based on a subtle yet significant shift, Black women are more “woman” than ever.

In considering depictions of Black men and women in mass media today, there is more at stake than mere accuracy. Because of the increasing visibility of African Americans in U.S. media and the dominance of the U.S. media industry in the global market, what North America thinks about Black people and Black women in particular, is now something the entire globe must consider. These images as Collins suggests, assist in the development of contemporary ideologies of race, gender, sexuality, and class in a now globalized setting. With the historical context of these images absent or actively disconnected from their pasts as they are in Monster’s Ball, the exhibition of Berry’s sexuality is an international sale laden with complexities that may have an impact on foreign societies that has yet to be understood. The paradox of the racialized sexual politics in America is that the perceived abnormalities or pathologies of Black sexuality are actually revered by mainstream culture, but must be kept hidden from view. Black feminist scholar Patricia Hill Collins thus puts forward the idea that African Americans are presented to the world as “…icons of sexual freedom served up as the antidote to American sexual repression.” She goes on:

“As part of the color-blind racism that has accompanied the erasure of the color line, the ubiquitous inclusion of images of Black sexuality that permeate contemporary movies, television shows, and music videos can replicate the power relations of racism today just as effectively as the exclusion of Black images did prior to the 1960s.” 11

In moving forward and in looking back, it is important to witness and take account of how the backlash of improvements made during the decade of civil rights continues to redefine itself throughout the cultural marketplace. Ironically, most people this author has conversed with about Monster’s Ball over the last decade, still view the film as a “love conquers all” story and find it quite entertaining. This author agrees with this sentiment, with one important caveat. Yes, the performances in the film are divine and Berry perhaps deserved the Oscar for her performance. Yes, Oscars are historically not given for performances based on accuracy or on their contribution to improving the images of social groups–perhaps they should be. The caveat: beneath the surface, Monster’s Ball advises us to seek escape from our pasts in order to live in newer, more metropolitan societies. Is the past something that should be “escaped”?—and what about the risks of pursuing justice and social equality?

Monster’s Ball is an example of a film that employs racialized and gendered discourses strategically to privilege Whites’ moral struggles with their own dominance. It evidences racism’s self-serving nature in that, even in the construction of the protagonist’s ethical transformation, doing the right thing does not include disrupting or questioning one’s control or lack of control in Leticia’s case. Audiences must demand more accurate and multidimensional representations of ethnic groups in U.S. media. Public intellectuals must cultivate in the general public, a responsibility of dealing more accurately with the past, with history, with memory. Teachers, artists, contemporary media critics must expose this culture of convenient forgetting, and the strategic use of performance and ambiguity at tools of oppression. By developing principles of responsible, perhaps more unselfish communication, perhaps the public will be ready to take on a newer context of global relations that is poised to help us develop more sustainable cross-cultural relationships.

Ethnic America
Ethnic America

Film will eventually catch on to the openness with which television has embraced more multidimensional dramatic characters of color. And the rise of Netflix and Amazon content productions as well as other web-based companies in the burgeoning internet market should help light a fire under film to move a little faster to catch up. But right now, more work still needs to be done to make this happen.

First, and ultimately, the demographic make up of the Academy of Motion Pictures and Artists needs to change, so that it’s voting body can consist of a more multicultural set of representatives. Perhaps, then films like Straight Outta Compton, after beating box office record after box office record, will be at least included in the list of nominations for best film. The nominees should at minimum reflect the diversity in the U.S. population–that should be the standard. If this one change is made, it can affect almost everything else. Then films with more multi-dimensional Black leads will appear more in the nominations.

Second, Black artists and content producers can’t wait for this first thing to happen; that is, for Whites to get on-board and turn the car around. Producers, directors, writers, playwrights, and other content producers of color need to up the ante and do a better job of sharing the stage with both equity and equality. The addition of Black female characters in Barbershop2 is a prime example of how this can be done. Without these two things happening, the future looks bleak at best for film. Hopefully, if or when more audience members vote with their dollars and keep showing up to see films that show multidimensional characters who just happen to be people of color, the studios will get the message. Here’s to not another ideological nightmare to wake up to that wins an Academy Award credit.

Further Reading

Adorno, T. W. (1990). The culture industry: Selected essays on mass culture. London: Routledge.
Althusser, L. (1998). Ideology and ideological state apparatuses. In J. Rivkin and M. Ryan (Eds.), Literary theory: An anthology (pp. 294-304). Oxford: Blackwell.
Berry, V. T. (1996). Introduction. In V. T. Berry and C. L. Manning-Miller (Eds.), Mediated messages and African-American culture (pp. vii-xviii). Thousand Oaks: Sage.
Carrillo-Rowe, A. (2007). Feeling in the dark: Empathy, whiteness, and miscege-nation in Monster’s Ball. Hypatia, 22, 122-142.
Cazenave, N.A. and Neubeck, K. J. (2001). Welfare racism: Playing the race card against America’s poor. New York: Routledge.
Collins, P. H. (2000). Black feminist thought: Knowledge, consciousness, and the politics of empowerment. New York: Routledge.
Gitlin, T. (1980). The whole world is watching. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press.
Hall, S. (1981). Television as expression of ideology. Communication Research Trends, 2, 5-6.
hooks, b. (1993). Male heroes and female sex objects: sexism in Spike Lee’s Malcolm X. Cineaste, 19, 13-15.
—. (1992). Black looks: Race and representation. Boston: South End Press.
Innis, H. J. (1977). The bias of communication. Toronto: University of Toronto Press.
Jewell, K. S. (1993). From mammy to Miss America and beyond: Cultural images and the shaping of US social policy. New York: Routledge.
Lindsey, L. (1997). Gender roles. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice-Hall.
Lubiano, W. (1992). Black ladies, welfare queens, and state minstrels: Ideological war by narrative means. In Toni Morisson (Ed.), Race-ing Justice, en-gendering power (pp. 323-363). New York: Pantheon.
Moynihan, D. P. (1965). The negro family: The case for national action. Washington, D.C.: Government Printing Office.
Nichols, B. (1981). Ideology and the image: Social representation in the cinema and other media. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.
Postman, N. (1979). Teaching as a conserving activity. New York: Delacorte Press.

Author note: A previous version of this article was presented at the 2004 National Communication Association Convention in Chicago Illinois. The original paper was awarded a Top Student Paper Award by the organization’s Black Caucus. The paper was presented under the maiden name Elvinet Wilson and titled “Big wheels keep on turnin’: The persistence of ‘anti-racist-white-hero,’ films and the negative depiction of black women’s sexuality.” 

Works Cited

  1. Gilroy, P. (2004). Between camps: Nations, cultures and the allure of race. London: Routledge, pp. 21-22
  2. Manatu, N. (2003). African American women and sexuality in the cinema. Jefferson, NC: McFarland & Company, p. 33
  3. Omi, M. & Winant, H. (1994). Racial formation in the United States. New York: Routledge
  4. Jewell, K. S. (1993). From mammy to Miss America and beyond: Cultural images and the shaping of US social policy. New York: Routledge
  5. Daniels, L. (Producer), & Forster, M. (Director). (2001). Monster’s Ball. [Motion picture]. United States: Lions Gate Films
  6. Anderson, L. (1997). Mammies no more: The changing image of black women on stage and screen. Lahnam, MD: Rowman & Littlefield Press
  7. Anderson, L. (1997). Mammies no more: The changing image of black women on stage and screen. Lahnam, MD: Rowman & Littlefield Press, p. 46
  8. Madison, K. J. (1999). Legitimation crisis and containment: The ‘anti-racist-white-hero’ film. Critical Studies in Mass Communication 16, pp. 399-416
  9. Manatu, N. (2003). African American women and sexuality in the cinema. Jefferson, NC: McFarland & Company, p. 34
  10. Wood, J. T. (2001). Gendered lives: Communication, gender, and culture. Belmont, CA: Wadsworth, p. 22
  11. Collins, P. H. (2004). Black sexual politics: African Americans, gender, and the new racism. New York: Routledge, p. 43

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El Noeme Zaire (Elvinet Wilson-Piard) is a dedicated Communication professional whose work has sought to understand race and gender constructions in the U.S.and North America.

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35 Comments

  1. Shu Yount
    0

    Another great article on The Artifice. Hope for more great content.

  2. Effie
    1

    Excellent post. I am a Professor at the University of Toronto and I am lecturing on Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye tomorrow. As you may know, Pauline, a black woman in the novel, who loves to go to movies featuring ‘white women actresses’ (such as Jean Harlow–the novel is set in 1930’s), names her own child ‘Pecola’ after the child in the movie Imitation of Life (1934). This is about a black woman who meets a white woman who hires her to be her maid. Each of their children become best friends; the daughter of the black woman tries to ‘pass’ as white with “tragic results”. Great post! I will add it to my class facebook. There are 300 students in this class.

    • El Noeme Zaire

      Thanks, Effie. I’m available for Skype conversations if students want to talk with me further about this article. I support teaching on these issues wherever and whenever I can. All the best!

    • mayweather
      0

      I have always really enjoyed that novel.

  3. Vincela
    1

    I’m mulatto (métisse in french) half congolese, half french. Why American people are so obsessed about races ? One drop rule, slavery, colonization are Also in french history. France actually is a multiracial sociéty, racism exist but we live like we want. They are more and more mixed couple and children. It’s not a taboo. I’m mixed and i haven’t a complex. I’m proud of my african and my french part. Sorry for m’y english.

    • Nydia Schulze
      0

      Americans are obsessed with race.

    • El Noeme Zaire

      Vincela: Race and racism are a part of U.S. American DNA. However, if you look at the recent outcry against refugee communities in France, you will see similarities. The histories are not the same, but anti-Black racism is a global problem, not just a U.S.-American one. There is anti-Muslim racism (in France, in particular), anti-Semitic racism, there are various deeply held prejudices against nomadic tribal groups in Europe… the word “gypsy” still indicates that kind of prejudice. These are just some examples. If you look for it, you will find it. But if you prefer to remain “color-blind” you will miss both the good and the bad related to these important differences.

  4. Riddle
    0

    I just figure everybody has an inferiority complex about everybody else. We are one race.

  5. In. Lunsford
    0

    I feel like a “tragic mulatto” at times especially at university.

  6. Jamee
    0

    Thank you for your open and honest posting.

  7. Flanagan
    0

    Mulato is an appropriate term when used in Latin America, as it does not carry the insult it does in America. As well, the word does not simply derive from the Spanish/Portuguese word, but also has some roots in Arabic with the word muwallad, which means “a person of mixed ancestry”. The use of the word depends on the country and context, but it is often mostly offensive in countries of European descent with a higher history of slavery and systematic discriminatio

  8. lEON
    1

    I have no doubt that as long as you educate your children on the history of both of their ancestries they will be cultured well rounded people that will identify with self love and not self hate and confusion like society would have them do. My mother instilled cultural values and self esteem in me very young and those teaches have made me the proud woman of color I am today.

  9. Xiao
    0

    You’re so smart and good at putting explanations together. It goes to show your deep understanding.

  10. NiKKi
    0

    Thank you for this post, I just learned more than I did in all of my years of school.

  11. As the mother of biracial sons I read your article with great interest and complete agreement. Another movie that has a tragic end for a biracial protagonist is 47 Ronin

    My best friend is Black and I have watched movies with her for years and heard her frustration at the portrayal of Black women in movies and on TV since the early 90s. She always said how she hated that young Black women on TV were always portrayed as being the friends with benefits type relationship. I had never noticed this before but once she pointed it out of course I saw the stereotype more and more.

    But I think you are absolutely correct about TV shows on Netflix etc. and actually I hardly watch mainstream TV anymore unless they have diverse casting where the characters have true depth and complexity. I try to be very strategic in my TV viewing habits. Thanks for a great article and analysis.

  12. Bostic
    0

    It makes me wonder whether we will ever be able to overcome the tiny differences that exist in all of us, and what purpose does cultural identity really serve?

    • El Noeme Zaire

      Hi Bostic. The way I see it, cultural identities do serve to separate us in some strange ways, but it would still be an error to pretend we are all the same and equal. I don’t think inequalities will ever go away. We can only work to balance our differences through programs and efforts that are based in morality and that seek “equity.” If equity is the goal and we are always reaching for it, we will be okay.

  13. Kong
    0

    Mulatto is a word with a complicated history. It was around a long time before 19th Century America.

  14. beon
    0

    This is why Halle Berry is stupid.

    • El Noeme Zaire

      beon: I wouldn’t use “stupid” to describe Halle Berry. She is a very talented artist and businesswoman. The truth is, art and business don’t always include what is best for society, the greater good, moral codes, social group advancements, etc.

  15. Phelan
    0

    This is well-researched and articulate. Thanks for doing this. Great job!

  16. Lacroix
    0

    ok theres a difference between lightskin and a mullato Lightskin means light but black and mullato means mixed. For all the mixed people out there that’s wanting to mix with white….

  17. Landis
    0

    Mulatto is only 1/4 black.

  18. It’s terribly sad when you grow up to realize that people of colour are primarily recognized/applauded for playing the roles predetermined by their race and it’s traditional connotations in patriarchy. As good a step as it would be for films like Straight Outta Compton to be recognized and given equal space as representations of Black society, I think it’s equally critical that there is a rise in people of colour playing typical white roles, i.e. Bond- albeit a continuation of masculine and western ideals, these films will continue to be made so it would be a small but crucial step in the right direction.

  19. Rowan
    0

    I have a fantasy story in which the main character is quite a determined woman with heavy responsibilities. I wanted to break with some of the notions about virgins and “virtuous women” and have written her very confident in her sexuality. She used to be white but I decided to change her to black because I realized it would make my story more balanced in that area. Now, however, I’m starting to worry that by making her black I’m strengthening a charicature of black women as strong and over-sexualized. She has a love interest (who used to be black but now that she’s black I decided to switch his race (to white or asian), so it wouldn’t be buying into the “people have to be the same race” thing) and their love story isn’t just a happy ending kind of story. Now I worry that by making their end less happy I’m also strengthening the stereotype of black women not deserving love. Argh. And all because I wanted some representation in my story. Would it be better to keep her white and him black?

    • El Noeme Zaire

      Rowan: You are still the author and can be as creative as you want to be. It’s fiction. As long as you give the characters a back story and dimension that makes them human (with both good and bad qualities; not just defective), you can tell a great story reflecting something, real, and true about the human condition.

  20. Tony
    1

    Even in films on slavery, the female field slaves tend to be lighter than male field slaves, as if dark-skinned men can be portrayed on film but not dark-skinned women.

  21. Byrne
    0

    Very informative.

  22. masak
    0

    Everything you said is so true!

  23. mayo
    0

    Thank you for writing this article! It’s really well thought out (and heartbreaking) and you brought a lot of good points. I was always uncomfortable with the discussion of mulatto in class because I am a mixed race child and it disturbed me that there was this ranking system concerned with how white you are.

    Even now as I grew up, everyone always asked me what race I was and I didn’t really want to detail that my dad were these races and my mom were these races so I’m a mix of those. Or even worse when people would be like “oh you’re so pretty. I want mixed babies too” but they only think I’m pretty because I have relatively lighter skin than some of the races I’m part of. It’s even more disturbing when my other mixed race friend wants to get married to a white guy just so her babies could possibly have blue eyes.

  24. NKR
    0

    Stop putting pressure on biracials to only ID as “black”.

  25. Ginn
    0

    People need to stop this shame game that they are doing onto themselves.

  26. Francesca Turauskis

    Really interesting, thank you 🙂 It will be great to see actors and actresses of all races being cast in and applauded in films that aren’t specifically about race. Star Wars used its popularity to do this, let’s hope it starts a trend…

  27. Zyana Hault

    It’s a very great content. Truly nice and pretty much indepth. Great job. Keep it up!!

  28. What a wonderful read. It was very thorough and your passion can clearly be read. As a biracial person this article spoke particularly well to me. I had a thought while reading this. Perhaps it isn’t just the lighter color of skin (though that is certainly important,) maybe there is a degree of cultural segregation at play as well. Being biracial, I grew up with two halves that inhabited two different worlds; family reunions of my black side were always far different than from my white side. Perhaps it is also the biracial’s understanding of white culture that allows them to be successful. Not necessarily on the screen per se, but behind it. In this light, minorities with a cultural understanding of white culture would have an undue upper hand.

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