Monday, March 31, 2014

Whitewashing Black Agency in the Movie 'Glory' and the PBS Series 'The Abolitionists'

The Jacobin has a great piece on the 2013 PBS documentary The Abolitionists. There Jay Driskell details how:
...Rob Rapley’s 2013 TV mini-series The Abolitionists excises African-American voices from the abolitionist struggle in the United States, skewing the history of one of the nineteenth century’s most important social movements...But the black abolitionist perspective in Rapley’s script is almost entirely excluded from that conversation. Augmenting the standard talking head interviews with prominent historians, the bulk of the film comprises a series of inventive dramatizations that bring to life the lives of William Lloyd Garrison, Angelina Grimké, Harriet Beecher Stowe, John Brown, and Frederick Douglass. Though Douglass does play a major role in the film, he has been completely removed from the community of African-American abolitionists with whom he argued, fought, and debated over how best to bring about the end of slavery, and thus relegated to what is essentially a supporting role.
Even more problematic:
The film’s omission of the ACS offers a sanitized version of early American abolitionism in which white heroes rescue grateful and downtrodden slaves. It’s a two-dimensional story that has distinct similarities to contemporary narratives of black suffering crafted by the like of Nicholas Kristof, Invisible Children (creators of the Kony 2012 campaign), and other professional white saviors...Not only does the film marginalize the voices of black abolitionists, it often chooses to project a history of the fight against slavery in which the portrayal of black suffering simply provides a vehicle for white redemption and sacrifice.
What is so frightening about black agency? Moreover, what is so frightening to, and challenging for, dominant White sensibilities about allowing people of color--black folks in particular--a central role in our own Freedom Struggle?

These are questions we have returned to many times here on We Are Respectable Negroes in our discussions of films such as Lincoln and Django Unchained.

Films and other cultural products are the result of many decisions made by many people. A story does not come into existence fully formed. Nor is the sound stage a "real" "historical" place: it is an artificial space for invention and creativity. Films are also a product; the creators of said product should be held accountable for the decisions they make (or do not) regarding race, representation, and "historical truth".

Popular film does political work because it is a space for teaching political and social values. More generally, popular culture is also integral to identity formation because it influences how we both see ourselves, and how other people relate to us.

Film is a reflection of a society's collective subconscious. And in the United States, a country which remains highly segregated along lines of race and class, the insight into reality (however skewed and distorted the resulting vision is) provided by the filmic imagination is of critical importance as we negotiate our social environment.

Jay Driscoll's essay reminded me of the movie Glory. As a child, I was moved by seeing black men fighting for their own liberty and freedom in the American Civil War.

In college, I rewatched the movie many times.

But, I was sensing that a movie about black folks' freedom struggle as told through the lens of a white main character was problematic. Yet, I was more worried that criticizing Glory would somehow undercut the overall intent of a movie that finally showed a mass public audience that black folks were not happy slaves, sitting around on the plantation, content to be saved by white people.

Now, quite a few years later, I see Glory as a movie with good intentions--but I also now understand how white privilege and the white racial frame are often, quite literally, excused away with the white lie of "good intentions" and white racial innocence.

Yes, a film or other text can be motivated by the good intentions of its creator(s). However, such intentions are separate from how a film or text does the work of white supremacy or reinforces the normality of Whiteness.

Glory is an exploration of black masculinity, citizenship, and agency through military service and warfighting.

What I did not have the words or critical framework to articulate in either middle school or college is how Glory's central problem is the assumption, most clearly seen when Morgan Freeman (the good, loyal, "reasonable", black free man) confronts Denzel Washington (the angry, willful, obstinate, "angry", slave runaway) about the latter's bad attitude and the true meaning of what it means to be a "black man" as opposed to a "nigger".

White Northerners who are ostensibly fighting for black people's freedom in the Union Army are "real" men.

By comparison, African-American bondsmen are not "real" men. Consequently, only by putting on the Union blue, can black men achieve their proper role as citizens who are "masculine" and "strong": it is important to note that African-Americans who served in the Union military during the Civil War, and in other eras as well, often described their military service in those terms.

The necessary intervention here is simple and direct: African-Americans, both free and slave, were active participants in their own freedom struggle. Black men who happened to be owned as human property, participated in slave rebellions, ran away, committed sabotage, and resisted in other ways both small and large. African-Americans, slave and free, were all "real" men.

Glory and other white savior films are unwilling (or perhaps unable?) to acknowledge that fact. A black man may be president of the United States, but black agency and black freedom remain a source of great (white) cultural anxiety. Post civil rights era America is beset by many paradoxes along the color line. White anxiety towards black and brown collective and individual agency, as well as freedom, remains one of them.


RPM said...

Hollywood is only interested in white male power fantasy. You will need to look to outside media to find actual representation regardless of dominant cultural norms. I know, I tried and got ripped of in the process. Hollywood isn't interested in ideas that don't conform to white male power fantasy. You see it everywhere. The young version of the white savior power fantasy is evidant in super hero and sci-fi movies and tv. Comedies have the most perplexing version of white power fantasy. Sitcoms are full of fat white males without a single redeeming characteristic that still manages to score a hot intelligent wife/girlfriend, good kids and a breezy life. One where they can fuck up constantly and still always be rewarded and forgiven. So if you don't conform to the white male power fantasy you won't see the story see the light of day. Best bet to see cultural and historical representation is through crowd funded works that aren't assembled by committee to satisfy that limited fantasy. Even when minorities are represented it is through the prism of whiteness or to subtlety subvert minority independence or self determination. Best to avoid all their shit movies if you ask me. Forrest Whitaker was considered to play King in the next biopic. Dude is 52 going to play a man who died in his late 30's. Can't have Hollywood depict a young black male as intelligent, righteous, and thoughtful. You know that when they make that film one of these days it will be that sanitized, don't upset white people crap. Remove their sexuality, passion and self identity to appeal to white audiences as the magic negro. Or make them dependent on misunderstood, blameless white saviors. That line of thinking insults all audience members. I'm not intimated by those different from me physically to be shown as autonomous, individual multifaceted humans and I dislike that the media doesn't recognize this. Women don't have to be presented as a love interest solely. Children don't always have to exist to humanize adults. Elders don't always have to be mentors. And blacks don't have to fall into one of the two "positive"stereotype portrayals. I could watch a civil rights movie or freed slavery movie that didn't need white supporting characters marching in unison. How insecure do you have to be if you can't see a story if your ethnicity isn't represented? Based on those that fund these repetitive projects, damn insecure.

chauncey devega said...

Another great and thorough comment. I had been thinking about this for some time and the great Jacobin piece pushed me to just put those thoughts together in a first draft.

I like this:"How insecure do you have to be if you can't see a story if your ethnicity isn't represented? Based on those that fund these repetitive projects, damn insecure."

Is this just garden variety privilege and narcissism or something else?

Myshkin the Idiot said...

Regarding Abolitionism, while I haven't watched the documentary referenced, I do recall when I learned just how much black agency was involved in the abolition movement. It wasn't until I was an adult that the lesson of how much black people worked before, during, and after the revolution to become free themselves and to free all slaves settled in with me.

I've realized when trolls say something about how the Western world freed slaves and gave black people rights (usually around the time they are explaining how black Africans enslaved other black Africans) just how wrong and faulty they are. They are essentially doubling down on their racism with a comment like that, denying black Americans and black people globally the insight and vision to fight and demand their rights as human beings.

The social world someone like Frederick Douglass had to navigate through, being told to his face that his humanity was not equal to a white person's... And it didn't end mid 19th century either...

I think denying and subverting that part of the narrative is just a convenience for white people. There they can control the narrative, the play of human history to decide what lessons were important one's "we" learned and which lessons were less important. That puts black and brown people in a bind and suggests to them just what course of action or persona is acceptable for white people to participate with.

RPM said...

Art shapes culture. It can outlast civilizations or get swept up in it and quickly forgotten. All art however (how you define art and that is a subjective matter) tries to shape the conversation they wish to have. An artist who says otherwise is either lying to the audience or themselves. Even if you are trying to showcase the reality as you perceive it, you are still doing that with the agenda that it is a reality worth highlighting. I can see how people can view these decisions by the higher ups as privilege and narcissism but it's more than that. Media doesn't want stories about class because they belong to a class that wants to pretend it doesn't exist. They don't want stories about minorities who can exist out of the sphere of dominant majorities influence. They don't want people to think. That's the heart of it. And if they say they do, than certaintly not too critically. That might lead the audience places the financiers don't want them to go. When I pitched ideas to Hollywood about science fiction, which in my mind is meant to make you think about current issues while putting them in a future or past context, they wanted quote "Just shit blowing up". Given their shitty feedback on gender and age in stories I didn't bother with ideas dealing with religious minorities or non-Caucasians. If they couldn't handle a 70 year old protagonist I doubt they could handle a Muslim, Jain or Sikh one. Especially if any of them were women. If they can't put forth a white male power fantasy it has to be a MALE power fantasy. Media is propaganda to serve the established order. There is a giant audience out there that would go against that grain but money has never been the ultimate goal of art. Controlling the narrative is. Since people's attention becomes more and more fragmented that will be harder to do. They will still try like hell. Power only serves itself.

The Sanity Inspector said...

Well, just think of how disappointed you would be with Glory if the filmmakers had stuck more closely to the historical facts. The real Robert Gould Shaw did stick up for his men, but seldom mingled with them--the black childhood friend is an invention. Even the final scene, of the white officers and black troops being buried, united in death, is a cinematic touch. In reality, the Confederates buried the Union dead in segregated mass graves.

If 12 Years A Slave had been released in the 80s, it would have sunk without a bubble--neither the studios nor the movie-going audiences would have been ready for such a blowtorch.

As for Frederick Douglass not being shown engaging with other black abolitionists in the PBS doco, one of the dvd extras for Glory is a deleted scene featuring him haranguing a crowd of free blacks. I don't immediately see it on YouTube, but it's worth seeing.

chauncey devega said...

Sometimes you are sane but other times not so much and a bit presumptuous. The white racial frame and the Fox News bubble still got you. Therapy is available though.

"Well, just think of how disappointed you would be with Gloryif the filmmakers had stuck more closely to the historical facts. The real Robert Gould Shaw did stick up for his men, but seldom mingled with them--the black childhood friend is an invention. Even the final scene, of the white officers and black troops being buried, united in death, is a cinematic touch. In reality, the Confederates buried the Union dead in segregated mass graves."

No. I would have preferred that level of veracity. I think I would have preferred it even as a child. But like Django and other movies, the real audience is white folks for a mass produced Hollywood film. Such nice endings make them feel good and offer a way of reconciling the white racist history and present of the country by providing them a "good" white protagonist to identify with.

What ending to Glory would you have preferred? The truth or the white lie?

12 Years a Slave was a tiny bit of truth-telling. Many white audiences will never be ready for the truth of the barbarism and evil of white slavers. Many blacks too are not ready to confront the truth of what was done to their people and how it still resonates in the present.

chauncey devega said...

The audience for the PBS special like many other works is a very benign and empowering view of the role played by white people in slavery. The post racial lie allows white audience members to identify with the "good guys".

Shady Grady said...

" Many white audiences will never be ready for the truth of the barbarism and evil of white slavers."
So true.

skilletblonde said...

You're right Shady. But African Americans must know, and face, that barbarism. If most of us were aware of how brutal it was, the scales would fall from our eyes. The thrill would be gone. Perhaps then we would stop trying to be accepted by those who continue to stomp on our backs. After all, you can't expect humanitarianism from persons who have no humanity.

The Sanity Inspector said...

Apologies for the presumptuousness; I see it on second reading. I guess what I mean to say is that, if the film had really turned it up to eleven, many fewer people would have gone to see it and, movie executives being the way they are, many fewer such films would subsequently have been made. With its faults, it was still a serious, high quality big budget major release with a mostly black cast--a relative rarity even today.

chauncey devega said...

You are right about the movie being crafted for "mass" i.e. white public consumption. About 95 percent of the show runners, execs, and other shot callers in Hollywood are white men. They are going to make movies that validate how they would like to see themselves. With other means of distribution and fundraising I hope that more and more folks make movies that speak to other perspectives and needs.

OldPolarBear said...

I saw Glory in the theater when it was released, but haven't watched it again, except for catching bits of it on cable now and then. I don't remember everything in it, but I think my impression at the time was mostly positive. Like you said, it had "good intentions," and for the times (barely post-Reagan!) at the time seemed pretty groundbreaking. I addition to it having all the racial framing elements, white savior, etc., that you mention, I now see from watching the clip above that it had another formulaic element of the army movie: the misfit with the bad attitude, the fkup who wants to fight everybody and then miraculously turns around to become the hero.

This is somewhat OT, but since it's film-related, I will go ahead and mention it here. I finally got to see Negroes With Guns a couple of weeks ago. I broke down and ordered a copy directly from California Newsreel. It was a small splurge, but there was no other way I was ever going to see it. I wish it would be shown somewhere, like on PBS. NWG is definitely not filmed through a white lens! And is all the more powerful for that. I will have to watch it again, as I found myself somewhat distracted part of the time. Some of it was emotional; a couple of times I suddenly realized that I was so angry at the events portrayed that I had stopped paying attention to the film itself. At other times, I was caught up in imagining a dramatic film adaptation or a biopic of Robert Williams. It would be great if Steve McQueen could get $10,000,000 or so to make that film.

Geoffrey Carter said...

Hollywood still hasn't made subsequent films like "Glory" in the sense of having major black stars and large black casts and featuring some sort of positive story about black people. Django certainly doesn't count, and "12 Years a Slave" is closer to the truth than "Glory" and told from a black perspective.

Geoffrey Carter said...

You mentioned that you were afraid to criticize "Glory" when it came out. I, however, was deeply disappointed when I first saw it. I love Morgan Freeman and Denzel Washington, but "Glory" made Matthew Broderick the hero, the great white hope. As depicted in Glory, Frederick Douglass, one of the greatest orators of the 19th century, was not given a mumbling word of dialogue in the picture as released. The only educated black man in the picture, the fictional boyhood friend of the Shaw character, was shown as ineffectual as a soldier and rather obnoxious as he kept addressing his commander by his first name. I don't know the proportion of educated black men in the 54th Mass, but Frederick Douglass' two sons were members, and one of them was the first sergeant or sergeant major of the regiment.

chauncey devega said...

What is the documentary of Brother Williams like? I applaud you purchasing it, as we need to support such projects. I would love to see a movie about his life too.