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Hollywood Fantasies of Miscegenation analyzes white fantasies of interracial desire in the history of popular American film. From the first interracial screen kiss of 1903, through the Production Code's nearly thirty-year ban on depictions of "miscegenation," to the contemplation of mixed marriage in Guess Who's Coming to Dinner (1967), this book demonstrates a long, popular, yet underexamined record of cultural fantasy at the movies.
With ambitious new readings of well-known films like D.W. Griffith's 1915 epic The Birth of a Nation and of key forgotten films and censorship documents, Susan Courtney argues that dominant fantasies of miscegenation have had a profound impact on the form and content of American cinema.
What does it mean, Courtney asks, that the image of the black rapist became a virtual cliché, while the sexual exploitation of black women by white men under slavery was perpetually repressed? What has this popular film legacy invited spectators to remember and forget? How has it shaped our conceptions of, and relationships to, race and gender?
Richly illustrated with more than 140 images, Hollywood Fantasies of Miscegenation carefully attends to cinematic detail, revising theories of identity and spectatorship as it expands critical histories of race, sex, and film. Courtney's new research on the Production Code's miscegenation clause also makes an important contribution, inviting us to consider how that clause was routinely interpreted and applied, and with what effects.
THE INTERRACIAL SCREEN KISS
A recent cover story in Jet entitled "Is It Still Taboo for Blacks and Whites to Kiss in Movies?" helps me articulate two apparently simple but persistently significant characteristics of this book's subject: its particular forms of cultural familiarity and spectacularity, both of which function (paradoxically) to keep us from thinking about what the filmic representation and repression of interracial desire can mean. The first of these is evidenced by my strong, if unsubstantiated, memory upon discovering the cover at the grocery store of having seen others like it at checkout counters past. That this sense of familiarity is not simply that of an author's with her subject is further evidenced by the most recent waves of films that feature, and loudly contemplate, interracial couples (e.g., Far from Heaven , Monster's Ball , Bulworth , Jackie Brown , Lone Star , One False Move , Zebrahead
, Jungle Fever ). Our cultural familiarity with such representations predatesthese films and is certainly tied as much to the extensive legal, extralegal, political, economic, and familial histories of "miscegenation" in the United States, as to the extensive history of interracial fantasies throughout American popular culture and its cinema. What I am calling cultural familiarity might also be described as a sense of cliché, or "obviousness," that clings to them. To say this is to suggest that to the degree such fantasies have become cliché, the ideologies sustained with them remain obstinately obscured.
The simultaneous sense of our collectively knowing and not knowing about this subject is demonstrated by the story that lies behind Jet's inquiring cover. Apropos of checkout stand literature, and of Jet's particular interest in black celebrity, the story effectively consists of a star-oriented list, with pictures, of contemporary black actors who have and have not kissed whites and in which films. The "still" of the title's question is given no historical context; there are none of the expected references to first or forbidden interracial kisses in film and TV history, and scant attention is paid to the politics of the filmic "taboo." The most direct answer to the title ambiguously asserts: "If it's still taboo, they [Laurence Fishburne, Whitney Houston, and Lela Rochon ha]ve all committed the forbidden act." Perhaps because the structure of the question wants a "yes" or "no" that is not forthcoming, the most interesting complexities hinted at are not acknowledged or pursued.
I begin here not because I expect critical analysis in the checkout line but because this example so resonates with the popular screen productions that preoccupy this book; and because, until recently, the academic world, certainly in film studies, has been a good deal like the reader constituted by the article in Jet: we knew such couples signified a lot, we did not take much care to consider exactly what.
Certainly that state of academic affairs has changed considerably in recent years, as is attested by the growth of scholarship in history, literature, and a range of critical "studies" (e.g., legal, cultural, American) interrogating "border" crossings, breeches of "the color line," and the like. Such scholarship, much of which has emerged in the course of this book's writing, signals increasing awareness that representations of interracial desire and sex have much to teach us about the erection and transgression of racial categories. In a short but provocative essay, Nick Browne declared as much about Hollywood film in particular, arguing that "the ideological centerpiece of American popular representation of racial relations" was a certain "constituting prohibition"-"no non-white man can have sanctioned sexual relations with a white woman"-that effectively "constructs parallel racial worlds and puts a boundary between them." Interrogating open transgressions of such boundaries via blackface, Michael Rogin proposed in a different vein, borrowing from the lyrics of an Al Jolson song, that the figurative couple "Uncle Sammy and My Mammy" is fundamental to the cultural production of white American identity. The project at hand pursues these and related issues that emerge when one recognizes that a whole range of interracial pairs, triangles, and quadrangles have perpetually served as key sites of American cinema's mutual constitution of race and gender, and of continuous, shifting relations among these and other categories of identity and difference.
The bookend-like "classics" near the historical extremes of this study, The Birth of a Nation (1915) and Guess Who's Coming to Dinner (1967), make it apparent that to imagine an interracial couple in popular American cinema has always meant to imagine identity in ways that put into alignment, and utterly bind together, a series of identity categories. Birth begins with highly patriarchal and bourgeois depictions of family and home that are then threatened and restored in explicitly interracial terms that in turn give birth to the white supremacist and decidedly phallic nation finally celebrated. In Guess the alignment moves in the opposite direction. With its "How would you feel if your daughter ..." premise, the film takes us from the public space of a crowded airport where the young lovers are first spotted to the private, patriarchal space of Tracy and Hepburn's modern mansion and, ultimately, to the titular dinner table of the film's final shot-here figured as the last stand and absolute core of all social relations. In any number of permutations, with an assortment of functions and outcomes, and despite common assumptions that they are simply "about race," Hollywood fantasies of miscegenation thus invariably bind together multiple registers of difference, necessitating interrogation of that very binding despite, and because of, the excesses of cliché that also often accompany this process-excesses that drip and bleed from Guess and Birth, respectively.
While the chapters that follow attempt to map the crowded intersections of difference thus embedded in, and negotiated through, American screen fantasies of miscegenation, I should clarify from the outset the primacy of race and gender for this project. For the inextricable join between these categories in popular American cinema is perhaps nowhere more visible than in texts that fantasize interracial desire. And here we arrive at the second point I take from Jet's cover story, more specifically from its images, and that is the spectacular quality of my subject.
The cover is filled by four stills of interracial embraces (not kisses) from four contemporary films. The story within is also photo-filled, with thirteen more illustrations, nine of which are explicitly intimate. The text asks, without really answering, the title's question. But the sheer volume and repetition of images-mostly close-ups and medium shots of couples holding and touching each other, in compositions that emphatically juxtapose light and dark faces, arms, and hands-insist that even if interracial desire is not categorically taboo (there are seventeen images after all), it is nonetheless a sight to behold. Even so, despite all this exposure, the sight of interracial kissing itself is mostly withheld, even in the photos from films that the text reports include it. Nevertheless, whatever the identities of individual readers attracted by the cover, and however they might interpret the ambiguous messages about the subject (something "still taboo" for better or worse? a liberating sign of changing times? a titillating transgression?), all are invited by the serial repetition of seventeen photographs to consume it as an immanently visible one. Like the publicity still that covers the front of the videotape box for Spike Lee's Jungle Fever, a close-up of interlaced white and black fingers, the details of photography and layout in Jet produce the interracial screen couple as an iconic image that presumes to signify instantly, transparently. In fact, such representational details produce the complex and ambiguous subject as if its meaning were transparently visible.
What is more, these images produce race and gender as themselves visible categories and insist upon the certainty of each in part by drawing upon the visual codes of the other. The repeated juxtaposition of contrasting skin tones draws attention to skin color in ways that reaffirm the notion that it is a natural, "obvious" signifier of "race." And visual codes of heterosexuality and gender also permeate the depictions of bodily posture (the men often hold protectively as the women cuddle under and wrap around them), hair (shortly cropped vs. long and "soft"), and states of dress and undress (floral prints, bridal gowns, plunging necklines; suits, athletic and military garb). In combination these images make especially clear that if the possibility of sexual "mingling" across racial lines always implies the potential dissolution of those "lines" and the categories and social structures they enforce, then such destabilizations of race are partly grounded by the rigid conventions of gender identity and heterosexual romance also on display. Conversely, on the occasions when those conventions seem less absolute (e.g., when couples are dressed or undressed similarly), lighting and casting often produce differences of skin tone and hair as more visible. This kind of interplay, wherein temporary transgression of one register of difference is negotiated or stabilized through the reassertion of another, is a regular feature of interracial screen fantasies, providing unique opportunities to interrogate such simultaneous, but shifting, coproductions.
Two contemporary films explicitly comment on the familiarity and spectacularity of popular fantasies of interracial desire, one largely suggesting and the other all but insisting on their cinematic histories. In Spike Lee's Jungle Fever the camera suddenly aligns itself with an unidentified gaze from an apartment window that (mis)sees a playful lovers' quarrel on the street below as a black man's assault of a white woman; this look of white surveillance quickly results in the black man's harassment and near beating by police. The combination here of the camera's pronounced alignment with an invisible witness (the only such shot in the film), the instantaneous judgment that presumably leads to the phone call to the police, and the police's arrival with blinding lights (and guns) immediately pointed at the accused emphatically places the scene in a history not only of lynching and police brutality but also of vision and visibility. Indeed, the view from the window Lee momentarily forces us to occupy is in part the product of a history of white vision that cannot be read apart from the history of American cinema. And insofar as this is the moment that makes Flipper Purify (Wesley Snipes) turn away from his white lover (Annabella Sciorra), the overwhelming force of that white gaze and the blinding violence it portends are pivotal to the film's final rendering of what the relationship between the black man and the white woman signifies. For this is the encounter that makes Flipper flip back, so to speak, to his black family and neighborhood to purify himself and the young (light-skinned) black prostitute he protectively embraces in the film's final shot.
In Warren Beatty's Bulworth the spectacular status of a very different interracial couple is also unmistakable, and its familiarity is called out. When a powerful white male senator (Beatty) finally goes public with his desire for a black woman (Halle Berry), a circus of reporters' flashing cameras literally renders their kiss a mass tele-photo event. While the film's politics are debatable, it speaks one cinematic truth for this book in the implied assertion of a knowing bystander, played by Amiri Baraka. Admonishing the gathered spectators who stand agape at the spectacular interracial kiss, he asks, "Why are you looking like you haven't seen this before?!" Reading "this" not simply as the sexual encounter of a white man and a black woman-that most disavowed but institutionally sanctioned miscegenetic encounter in U.S. history-but also as the production of miscegenation fantasies for our viewing pleasure, this book confirms that viewers of American cinema certainly have seen it before, or at least have been sorely tempted, whether or not we remember it. And when cinematic energy has not been expended on showing "this" to us, it has been spent in equally meaningful ways on withholding it from view.
TUNNELING BACK: THE MISCEGENETIC BIRTH OF A NATIONAL CINEMA
Perhaps the most striking evidence of Hollywood's preoccupation with the subject is the fact that the most long-beloved origin story of classical Hollywood cinema itself depends upon a relentless fantasy of miscegenation. For it is the ostensible fear of black men raping white women that not only sets the narrative of The Birth of a Nation in motion but increasingly fuels much of the cinematic form that caused an earlier generation of film historians to celebrate the film as the "birth" of Hollywood cinema, and to crown its director, D. W. Griffith, as that cinema's honorary father. Identifying the desire it strives to eradicate, but upon which it ironically depends, in one of its intertitles the film names miscegenation, like a kind of shadow title, the "blight [of] a nation."
But the mixed origins of American cinema can be traced back further to a host of early short films, beginning at least with Edwin S. Porter's What Happened in the Tunnel (1903). And ongoing Hollywood preoccupation with the subject is evidenced not only by a wide range of films produced in each subsequent decade but also by the industry's explicit prohibition against it for nearly thirty years. With a clause inherited from the guidelines known as the Don'ts and Be Carefuls (1927), the Production Code forbade the depiction of "miscegenation (sex relationships between the white and black races)" from 1930 to 1956. Interrogating such striking appearances and disappearances, this book attempts to understand miscegenation as variously defined and denied by popular American cinema itself, focusing on fantasies of black and white sexual relations when appropriate but also considering related fantasies of desire between whites and Native Americans, Asians, Mexicans, and a range of typically unspecified islanders. In analyzing such a range, I aim to discern how such fantasies are depicted and modified throughout the larger historical period, and to what ends.
I do not attempt a comprehensive treatment of this history. Rather, I read pivotal clusters of popular films, censorship documents, and related cultural material at a series of punctual moments. In the process, my readings are guided by two primary concerns. The first I have come to think of as the musical chairing of popular Hollywood (and pre-Hollywood) fantasies of miscegenation: the arrangements and rearrangements of players and interracial scenarios that invite us to consider how perpetually shifting and recurrent paradigms are revised and resurrected over time. The second focuses on matters of cinematic form, interrogating how conceptions of gender and race have been mutually produced and negotiated through filmic articulations of vision, visibility, voice, and cinematic space. The ways in which these two conceptual paths repeatedly converge in turn lead me to propose that particular interracial scenarios in particular historical periods reflect not only historically specific ideological concerns but also specific filmic mechanisms for (mutually) constituting race and gender.
Excerpted from Hollywood Fantasies of Miscegenation by Susan Courtney Copyright © 2004 by Princeton University Press. Excerpted by permission.
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|Introduction : what happened in the tunnel and other open American secrets||1|
|Ch. 1||The "agony" of spectatorship at biograph||19|
|Ch. 2||The mixed birth of "great white" masculinity and the classical spectator||50|
|Ch. 3||"The un-doable stories," the "usual answers," and other "epidermic drama[s]" : coming to terms with the production code||103|
|Ch. 4||Picturizing race : on visibility, racial knowledge, and cinematic belief||142|
|Ch. 5||Out of the plantation and into the suburbs : sensational extremes in the late 1950s||193|
|Ch. 6||Guess who's coming to dinner with Eldridge Cleaver and the Supreme Court, or reforming popular racial memory with Hepburn and Tracy||250|