Camera Lucida: Progressive Fantasies

Against the Current, No. 99, July/August 2002

Arlene Keizer

THOUGH FEW THINKING people believe that the Academy Awards honor the best films and the best actors, these awards retain enormous cultural capital, which has made them, over the past several years, a target for complaints about the under-representation of people of color in Hollywood movies.

This year’s ceremony — in which two Black actors won in the “Best Actor” and “Best Actress” categories — provides an illusory sense of progress in the arena of filmic representation. Denzel Washington and Halle Berry delivered remarkable performances, in roles that are profoundly disturbing because of the ways in which they conform to and revivify ancient stereotypes.

In both films, the actors play against type — they clearly relished these roles because of the range of emotion and nuances of character they’re able to explore. But greater artistic freedom for these actors and other actors of color in mainstream films often means freedom to flesh out tired images of Black and Brown people.

My theory, as I began this review, was that Sidney Poitier’s Oscar-winning performance in the 1963 film “Lilies of the Field” would stand in stark contrast to the roles Berry and Washington play in “Monster’s Ball” and “Training Day.” I expected Poitier to play the respectable and righteous Black man he portrayed in so many films far better known than “Lilies,” films like “In the Heat of the Night” and “To Sir, with Love.”

But “Lilies of the Field” was not what I expected. Poitier plays Homer Smith, a handyman and drifter who stops for water for his radiator at a convent in a remote area of the U.S. Southwest. The convent’s Mother Superior (Lilia Skala) convinces him to stay, promising to pay him for chores, though the convent actually has no money with which to pay him.

Much of the humor in “Lilies” focuses on the language barrier between Homer and the nuns — they’re a German Catholic order, who escaped from East Berlin! Poitier’s character teaches them English, but also imparts to them aspects of African-American culture. He leads them in singing the spiritual “Amen,” the film’s theme song, and slips bits of Black English into the standard English he helps them to study.

Once he decides to stay, out of a sense of both charity and challenge, Homer Smith’s natural talent for architecture and construction allows him to build the chapel the Mother Superior has dreamed about. He laments the fact that he’s never been able to afford the kind of education that would have enabled him to be an architect, but designing and building the church satisfies his need to complete something significant in his life.

A Flawed Anti-Racism

This message, of how discrimination and poverty have limited the life chances of African Americans, is part of the film’s consciously anti-racist stance. Poitier’s Homer Smith also talks back to a white man who calls him “boy;” this man is eventually so awed by Smith’s talents that he offers the Black man the job of foreman at his construction site.

However, the liberal message about race that made “Lilies” so popular in its time is undercut by the filmmakers’ reliance on many of the standard symbols of Black servitude.

Despite his remarkable skills as a builder, Smith is content to roam the country in a ramshackle station wagon that he has equipped as a makeshift mobile home. He owns nothing but his car and tools and seems happy that way.

He chauffeurs the nuns to and from church at the insistence of the Mother Superior. It wouldn’t be quite fair to call the film “Driving Mother Maria,” but not too far off the mark either.

Disgusted by the nuns’ failure to pay him and the fact that there are no available materials with which to build the chapel, Smith leaves at one point, only to return a few days later with a black eye and a very loud Hawaiian shirt. He’s clearly been on a bender.

He only temporarily upsets the racial balance of things; he refuses the job of construction foreman (no doubt so that white Southern audiences in 1963 wouldn’t have to see a Black man giving orders to whites). He does direct the building of the church, but all the workers are Mexican/Mexican-American; one subaltern group is brought in to secure the partial elevation of another.

Asexuality and Hypersexuality

It’s telling that Poitier was awarded the Oscar for this role and not for one of those that broke new ground in Hollywood’s representations of Black men. Despite the fact that he is the epitome of masculine beauty and cool in the film — throughout “Lilies” he wears a white denim jacket and pants; if the Gap ever comes across the footage, it will be their next ad campaign — his sexuality is erased.

He refuses the nuns’ offer to sleep inside the convent and he makes no connections with other potential lovers; in fact, his apparent asexuality mirrors that of the nuns. Again, one can see the filmmakers figuring out how to show Black men and white women on the screen together without completely alienating some segments of the U.S. film-going public in the early `60s.

Oddly enough, a hidden sexuality is what Poitier’s Homer Smith and Denzel Washington’s Alonzo Harris share. Mainstream representations of Black men ricochet between the poles of asexuality and hypersexuality, rarely settling anywhere in between, so one would have thought that Washington’s rogue cop would be overly sexed. He is, but in word rather than in deed.

 (Warning: I reveal important details of “Training Day” and “Monster’s Ball” in the following section of the review.)

“Training Day” tips its hand from the beginning; it opens with scenes from the domestic life of Jake Hoyt (Ethan Hawke), the young cop trying to prove himself worthy of a spot on a special LAPD undercover squad.

The audience is being told that this is the point-of-view character, the character with whom they’re supposed to empathize. Once Washington’s character appears, however, it’s hard to keep one’s eye on anyone else. One can feel the film exploiting yet also trying to contain the energy and charisma of the good-cop-gone-bad.

Keeping his sexual encounters with his mistress off-screen is, I think, a way to reduce the vulnerability, complexity, and allure of such a character.

LAPD Rehabilitated

The most disturbing aspect of “Training Day” is that it puts a Black face on the corruption of the Los Angeles Police Department. Close to the end of the film, as Harris is descending toward his inevitable demise, Hoyt pulls Harris’ LAPD badge from around his neck, shouting, “You’re not fit to wear this!”

It’s a shocking moment for anyone who remembers Rodney King’s beating, the Ramparts division’s physical abuse of suspects and fabrication of evidence (the exposure of which eventually resulted in dozens of overturned convictions), and decades of police-brutality scandals.

The imaginative rehabilitation of the LAPD’s image through the portrayal of an absolutely incorruptible young white cop is not simply difficult to believe, it’s politically insidious.

Hoyt keeps warning Harris that he can’t get away with his actions, that “it’s open season on misconduct.” Though the film does show a cabal of corrupt white higher-ups to whom Harris reports, we never see their actions. They’re removed from the violence they’re endorsing, while Harris is deeply immersed in it and, unlike his real-life white counterparts, he can’t just retire to Simi Valley.

Of course, Black and Latino cops have been implicated in police brutality/misuse of power scandals, including the Ramparts scandal; no one afforded that kind of power is immune to the temptations of its misuse.

Yet what is so disturbing about this filmic representation of a manipulative, greedy, megalomaniacal and murderous Black police officer is that it flies in the face of a growing understanding, even in mainstream culture, of the problems of racial profiling and the history of police abuse of communities of color.

I cannot think of a Hollywood film that critiques this violence; the independent film “New Jersey Drive” is one of the few to dramatize a problem deeply embedded in the structure of law enforcement in this country.

Status Quo Rewarded

While Washington’s performance makes a formulaic and self-righteous film worth seeing, the fact that he won the Academy Award for this performance, instead of his portrayals of Malcolm X, Hurricane Carter, or the detective Easy Rollins in “Devil in a Blue Dress,” speaks volumes. These actors are being rewarded for maintaining the status quo in terms of how Blackness is imagined in Hollywood film.

Berry’s Oscar tells a similar tale. Like Poitier’s Homer Smith and Washington’s Alonzo Harris, Leticia Musgrove is a strangely deracinated character. She appears to have no family (besides her husband, who’s executed early in the film, and her obese, depressed son, who dies soon thereafter), no friends, and no connection to the local Black community.

There is no familial history to account for her violently abusive and humiliating treatment of her son; it’s presented as a product of her stress or assumed as a natural part of her character. Though she clearly loves her son, she embodies the stereotypical bad Black mother for the first third of the film.

The son’s obesity is the visible sign of the Black family’s dysfunction. I hope the actor who played the son Tyrell (Coronji Calhoun) is older than he looks, because the film itself came to feel abusive toward this character. I see very few films in which young children (the boy is about 13 or 14) are actually pushed and hit by adults.

Leticia’s lover, Hank Grotowski (Billy Bob Thornton), is also an abusive parent. He’s a fiftyish white guy racist enough to use a shotgun to scare off young Black boys whom his son has befriended (at the behest of his father, an old-fashioned, dyed-in-the-wool southern racist, played by Peter Boyle).

Hank’s discriminatory behavior would be noteworthy in the present-day South; he also calls one of his co-workers a nigger in a fit of anger and shows no obvious remorse.

The film wants us to believe that the death of Hank’s son utterly transforms him and that he can, over the course of a few weeks, overcome a lifetime investment in white supremacy and patriarchy.

Love and Family Dysfunctions

“Monster’s Ball” is clearly interested in showing the white, working-class, patriarchal family being destroyed from within by its violence. Unlike Leticia, Hank does have links to family and community, but most of these demonstrate the implosion of the family, which can only be revivified by reaching out, across the color line.

The most repulsive indicator of a community turned in upon itself is the fact that Hank and his son Sonny (Heath Ledger) both visit the same prostitute to fulfill their sexual needs. The scenes in which they have sex with her are profoundly anti-erotic and are presented, at least in part, to serve as a foil to the spontaneous and ultimately tender love-making of Leticia and Hank.

Hank feels something for the first time in a very long time when he first makes love with Leticia; he’s about to enter her from behind as he does the prostitute but she looks back at him and they make love face-to-face.

Underlying the film’s story of redemption through interracial love is a story of economic dependence. While showing Hank’s growing generosity toward Leticia — he drives her to and from work and gives her his son’s truck when her car can no longer be repaired – the film doesn’t address the fact that the lovers reunite and begin living together because she’s been evicted from her house.

“Monster’s Ball” shows us the signs of Leticia’s subordination to Hank, while also trying to draw our attention away from that power hierarchy toward the image of pure and egalitarian love.

Leticia’s choice of a white cowboy hat as a present to thank him for the truck is a symbol of these conflicting impulses: She pawns her wedding ring to buy him a substantial gift in return for his gift of the truck, but the hat is laden with the history of white southern manhood and power.

Old-Time Stereotyping

The fact that Leticia is the sexual aggressor in the first encounter between the two lovers is another invocation of a stereotype so worn one wonders why it has any life left in it. Though Leticia’s sexual hunger is explained by her recent loss of her husband and son (an understandable need for sexual contact and its confirmation of life in the presence of death), I can’t believe there’s an African American woman viewer who didn’t wince when she saw this scene.

In a southern context, this representation invokes a history in which Black women were portrayed as sexual aggressors to deem them impossible to rape. In “Monster’s Ball,” the sexual abuse of Black women as an integral part of slavery and successive systems of white racial domination is raked to the surface to be submerged under a romance plot, believable only because of the charisma of the actors who flesh out these wounded and wounding characters.

Once she learns that her new lover served as her late husband’s executioner, Leticia decides to remain with Hank, accepting the bizarre ironies created by a criminal justice system formally founded as a means of recapturing Black labor after emancipation.

Because we, as viewers, are enticed into believing in the goodness of Billy Bob Thornton and Halle Berry, this love story seems like it has a future.

ATC 99, July-August 2002