Like Rashomon but Different
THE NEW BLACK CINEMA
Arthur Jafa on the Hughes Brothers' Menace II Society
It is only with difficulty that I tolerate the mediocrity of most contemporary black cinema, a trick I manage by constantly reminding myself that mediocrity is a necessary stage in the development of a mature practice. What I'm unable to tolerate is the delusional critical assessment of these films. Simply put, the so-called New Black Film Renaissance is as clear a case of the Emperor's new clothes as I can think of. With a handful of exceptions, these films are barely worth discussing in anything but the most base sociological or, worse, commercial terms. The incapacity, really the unwillingness, to address their general incompetence is patronizing at best. At worst, it actively delays the real work needed to develop black cinema.
The Hughes Brothers’ Menace II Society provided the kind of movie experience I’ve seldom had since childhood, intense experiences that had as much to do with adolescent hormonal raging as anything. experiences in which surrender to the narrative was total. Few films now seem capable of even suggesting that power. much less sustaining it. These experiences were a kind of virtual reality in which one lost sense of one’s body. became a sheer spectator. The curious side effect of which was the inevitable recoalescence with one’s physicality. A sort of postastral glow. An altered state.
I had a similar experience in 1986 at an early screening of Spike Lee’s She’s Gotta Have It. I remember excitedly proclaiming to Charles Burnett and Julie Dash. This is it. this shit gonna break.” Up until then, the L.A.-based core of black independent filmmaking had settled into a tacit acceptance of the incompatibility of its work and mainstream distribution. These filmmakers adhered to the generally unspoken yet ongoing, radical aspiration to create films with some measure of the power, alienation, and beauty of black cultural practices, particularly the music. Independents who’d compromised their visions for mainstream success were understood as traitors. She’s Gotta Have It demonstrated that an independent minded black filmmaker could be successful in mainstream terms. Its impact was immediate and profound.
As a cinematographer, I’m often approached by black producers who, to interest me in their projects, say things like “There’s nothing else like it. It’s like Rashomon but different.” Contradictory as such statements sound. this impulse to describe by analogy speaks to black film’s chimeralike quality, the degree to which it is inherently without precedent.It’s like crossing a bull’s head with a zebra’s body- drawing the forms of things unknown, things unborn but kicking just outside the periphery of the actual. These analogies are attempts to name, to describe films that don’t yet exist but are as powerfully desired, envisioned, as one’s first sexual encounter. Ben Caldwell has said black music is “densely coded African philosophy:” the same might be said of black cinema, and I believe it will have as profound a cultural impact in the coming century as black music has had in this one.
The second time I saw Menace II Society I ran into a black film editor I know. I told him, “It’s amazing man. I can’t remember the last time I saw a film that was spowerfully executed. I mean, probably Apocalypse Now. And it’s definitely the most strongly realized black film yet to surface in the mainstream. It makes Boyz in the Hood seem like The Cosby Show. Actually, I’d say it’s the most auspicious feature debut period by an American filmmaker since Burnett’s Killer of Sheep in the mid ’70s.” My friend said he’d read the script a while back but had felt it lacked anything “redemptive.” I just shrugged my shoulders; Menace II Society is undeniably violent and nihilistic. I didn’t arrive at a reply until after he’d split.
What’s redemptive about Menace II Society is its unflinching look at the despair and hopelessness underlying the rage so characteristic of young black male urban reality. The directors Allen and Albert Hughes. 20 year-old twins from Detroit who’ve made a string of hip hop videos over the past two years, are simply Children of the Damned, unnervingly precocious filmmakers.
I’d actually heard rumblings about the film the previous summer in L.A. The story went that the Hughes Brothers had walked into New Line Cinema with script in hand. When this script was compared to Boyz in the Hood they’d shouted “Boyz in the Hood, fuck Boyz in the Hood, we’ll show you some real violence,” upon which they were quickly signed. I laughed when told this.
The title Menace II Society misleadingly conjures expectations of a film short on complexity and long on violence. Violence it has, but what the film suggested to me was a brutal update of Killer of Sheep, a sublime standard to which any representation of black male victimization and its concurrent effects must be compared. Menace II Society covers much of the same terrain as Boyz in the Hood. It describes with ruthless efficiency the no exit quality of life in South Central L.A. What makes Menace II Society devastatingly on target is the relentless way in which it assays the cyclic nature of black on black violence and the pathological strategies employed by those for whom there is no escape. “Bitch, bitch, bitch . . . “: the characters obsessively use misogynistic verbosity as a means of dislodging their internalization of a fixed positionality in the continuing and nonconsensual s/m dynamic that characterizes black/ white relations.
I recently gave a lecture on the development of black film practices grounded in African American cultural assumptions. I pointed out the importance of “primal sites,” or those group experiences, such as the Middle Passage. that have determined so much of the psychic makeup of the African-American community- how formal reconfigurations of hegemonic norms into conventions and methodologies better suited to African American expressivity are dependent upon a sophisticated understanding of these sites. I was somewhat stunned when a questioner said that I seemed to be celebrating a sort of s/ m model of black culture. I replied, I wouldn’t call it ‘celebrating,’ but I am interested in trauma and s/m as frames within which to understand certain wide scale pathology behavior in the black community.” I also recounted a talk with a friend about trying to imagine a work that would function for black men as Ntozake Shange’s Colored Girls . . . had functioned for black women. But what I’d actually asked was, Could one imagine a work that functioned like Color Purple, not Colored Girls. The slip surprised me. It was hard to imagine a work that placed a male character in the Celie position. This, I decided, was because victimization, as a state, as an identity, was, in the black male psyche, feminized to such a degree that imagining “the male victim became a near impossibility. Adopting the identity of -victim” was de facto feminizing to the point of erasing one’s masculinity, revoking one’s status as a male. Of course there’s a long history of black men as victims, but this history has seldom been embedded in a black male subject position. The history of lynching and castration, for example, has rarely been articulated on the level of the pain of the castrated, or as the sexual violation that it is.
Contemporary black male articulation of victimization, notably in hip-hop, is typically constructed as a sort of insult to black manhood. The word “pain” seldom comes up. To speak of one’s pain would be to acknowledge one’s vulnerability- vulnerability in this context being understood as weakness. One can even read black cool- or its more recent configuration, being hard-as a sort of denial of victim status, a means of deflecting the insult generally added to injury. Menace II Society shows characters applying a number of disassociative strategies to the problematic of being victimized, being reduced to female status. One could say they resist being lowered in the food chain. What this communicates is a world view in which there are only two positions to occupy, that of the top or bottom, the victimizer or victim, the abuser or the abused. Bitches, male or female, are fucked.
Arthur Jafa was co Producer and Director of Photography on Julie Dash’s Daughters of the Dust and Spike Lee’s feature production Crooklyn. His interest in “Black Visual Intonation” is moving into the domain of painting.