High Contrast: Race and Gender in Contemporary Hollywood Films

High Contrast: Race and Gender in Contemporary Hollywood Films

by Sharon Willis

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Overview

In High Contrast, Sharon Willis examines the dynamic relationships between racial and sexual difference in Hollywood film from the 1980s and 1990s. Seizing on the way these differences are accentuated, sensationalized, and eroticized on screen—most often with little apparent regard for the political context in which they operate—Willis restores that context through close readings of a range of movies from cinematic blockbusters to the work of the new auteurs, Spike Lee, David Lynch, and Quentin Tarantino.
Capturing the political complexity of these films, Willis argues that race, gender, and sexuality, as they are figured in the fantasy of popular film, do not function separately, but rather inform and determine each other’s meaning. She demonstrates how collective anxieties regarding social difference are mapped onto big budget movies like the Die Hard and Lethal Weapon series, Basic Instinct, Fatal Attraction, Thelma and Louise, Terminator 2, and others. Analyzing the artistic styles of directors Lynch, Tarantino, and Lee, in such films as Wild at Heart, Pulp Fiction, and Do the Right Thing, she investigates how these interactions of difference are linked to the production of specific authorial styles, and how race functions for each of these directors, particularly in relation to gender identity, erotics, and fantasy.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780822379218
Publisher: Duke University Press
Publication date: 11/24/1997
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 280
File size: 462 KB

About the Author

Sharon Willis is Associate Professor of French and Visual and Cultural Studies at the University of Rochester.

Read an Excerpt

High Contrast

Race and Gender in Contemporary Hollywood Film


By Sharon Willis

Duke University Press

Copyright © 1997 Duke University Press
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-8223-7921-8



CHAPTER 1

Mutilated Masculinities and Their Prostheses: Die Hards and Lethal Weapons


A battered white man collapses in the protective arms of a black man. This picture has become a familiar one in recent action films, and it is one of the strongest images shared by three 1980s blockbusters: John McTiernan's Die Hard (1988) and Richard Donner's Lethal Weapon (1987) and Lethal Weapon 2 (1989). The heroes of each film are versions of a familiar action film figure: the renegade cop who takes the law into his own hands and slaughters a series of criminals. In each case, the central characters enact the film's title: John McClane (Bruce Willis), the "die hard" New York City cop, single-handedly defeats a group of twelve terrorists who take over a high-rise office building in Los Angeles, and Martin Riggs (Mel Gibson), an unstable LAPD cop, seems unable to avoid killing any suspect he encounters. (Apparently he is also lethal to most women, by the way; until Lethal Weapon 3, any woman who falls in love with him seems bound to die.) In each case, the hero has lost a woman, has come uncoupled. Distraught over his wife's recent death, Riggs is considered to be on the verge of psychosis—either homicidal or suicidal. Die Hard's McClane is spending Christmas vacation in Los Angeles, attempting to restore his relationship with his estranged wife, an ambitious executive in a Japanese-owned corporation.

Arriving in the city, McClane is chauffeured directly to his wife's office Christmas party at Nakatomi Plaza. Just after the couple's first dispute, which concerns her career and her return to her maiden name, the party and the building are invaded by a group of apparent "terrorists." McClane, who has escaped their detection, spends the rest of the film in the building's elevator shafts and ventilation system, conducting a one-man guerrilla-style battle with the terrorists. Meanwhile, the film interrupts and parallels this romance plot, which aims to restore the marriage, with a buddy plot. Throughout the film, the cop on the inside, McClane, remains in CB communication with a black street cop on the outside. Al Powell represents one of several competing voices of the law (the others include the FBI, the deputy chief of the LAPD, and, to some extent, the television news people) gathered outside the building and vying with each other for radio time and for McClane's ear.

From the start, we can say that both Die Hard and Lethal Weapon offer curious and excessive rewritings of a plot familiar to us from westerns: the hero is a lawman—uncontained by marriage—whose renegade force is unleashed by a woman's disappearance or the threat of her disappearance. And as in westerns, the relationship of the hero to the law is unstable—does he represent it, or does he become it? But these contemporary versions of this plot both articulate new twists in the question of the law; they operate within an apparently generalized crisis of authority where the law itself is highly unstable—it vacillates between murderousness and ineffectuality. Significantly, the hero's relation to the law turns on the question of whether or not he can, or must, embody it—quite literally; that is, on whether or not his body can be the law, whether the law is written on the body. Finally, in each case the crisis of authority combines with masculine sadomasochistic spectacle in the context of bonding with a black man.

To return to this crucial and conditioning figure for these films: in all three cases the embrace between the white man and the black man constitutes the film's strongest form of closure. In Lethal Weapon this scene seems nothing short of an obsession, repeated at the ends of both the original and its sequel, Lethal Weapon 2. Moreover, Lethal Weapon 2 exhibits a particularly—and jocularly—anxious fascination with its own homoerotic subtext, expressed in Riggs's jokes on two occasions. When his partner, Roger Murtaugh (Danny Glover), finds himself sitting on a toilet that is wired with explosives, Riggs loyally remains with his partner for the controlled detonation that ensues. The two end up in a sexually suggestive pose, with Riggs on his back and Murtaugh on top of him. Riggs smirkingly suggests that they get out of this embrace, as he wouldn't "want anyone to find us like this." At the film's end, we find Murtaugh holding the wounded Riggs in his lap, as they wait for the police to arrive. Riggs quips, "Give us a kiss before they get here." Such wit here seems designed to diffuse and contain the overtly homoerotic charge these scenes produce—to offer and then withdraw the lure of homoeroticism. And this strategy persists, persists to the point that it becomes visibly crucial to the signature formula of the Lethal Weapon films. Tania Modleski has characterized that formula as follows: "a feminist/psychoanalytic critic is entitled to regard the ingredients of the film's formula as a heavily condensed mixture of racism, misogyny, homoeroticism and heterosexual panic." What requires our further attention, it seems to me, is the structural interdependency wherein each term of the formula serves to guarantee the others, as well as this structure's bearing upon the formula's tendency toward repetition. Repetition seems to produce shifts that most often tend toward more obviously "camp" readings, which we will explore later.

Even more interesting, the obsessions that compose this formula are shared, although more subtly articulated, by Die Hard, and the success of Lethal Weapon and Die Hard seems to unleash a series of films organized around reworkings of that formula and extending beyond the direct sequels—Lethal Weapon 2 and Lethal Weapon 3 (1992), and Die Hard 2: Die Harder (1990), The Last Boy Scout (1992), and, finally, Die Hard with a Vengeance (1995). When scenes of interracial embrace operate as narrative resolutions, they raise the question of what connections the films are working to establish through the figure of racial difference. Inevitably, it seems, this figure connects the mutilation of the white male body to social and erotic bonding. This is not a new question. It arises as early as 1958 in The Defiant Ones (Stanley Kramer), which starred Sidney Poitier and Tony Curtis as convicts who escape from a prison transport truck while handcuffed together. This film ends with the wounded Tony Curtis cradled in Sidney Poitier's arms as they wait for the police to catch up with them.

James Baldwin takes up these issues in his The Devil Finds Work, a 1976 study of American cinema, particularly the cinema of his own youth, and its constructions of race. Baldwin characterizes The Defiant Ones as a rather mystified allegory of American race relations played out on the level of individual hatred and reconciliation. This film's bonding, however, is possible only by virtue of reciprocal sacrifice: the white man gives up a woman, and the black man gives up his chance for freedom. As Baldwin puts it: "A black man and a white man can come together only in the absence of women: which is, simply, the American legend of masculinity brought to its highest pressure, and revealed, as it were, in black andwhite." Reflecting on what he calls the "rigorous choices, rigorously arrived at," that condition bonding in the several black-white buddy films he considers, Baldwin arrives at the following question.

Why is the price of what should be, after all, a simple human connection so high? Is it really necessary to lose a woman, an arm or one's mind, in order to say hello? And let's face it, kids, men suffer from penis envy on quite another level than women do, a crucial matter if yours is black and mine is white: furthermore, no matter what St. Paul may thunder, love is where you find it. A man can fall in love with another man: incarceration, torture, fire, and death, and still more, the threat of these, have not been enough to prevent it, and never will. It became a crucial matter on the North American continent, where white power became indistinguishable from the question of sexual dominance. (The Price of the Ticket, 600)


What Baldwin understands as the embedded subtext in these films emerges as well in Die Hard and the Lethal Weapon films, with two significant changes. The heroes are now police, and not criminals, and race is not centrally thematized. This says something about changes in our culture since the 1950s. First, the black and white buddies can now uphold the law rather than threaten it; second, racial difference can appear on screen without any mention; it can be passed over in silence (despite a social world in which we are constantly, if obliquely and unproductively, talking about it).

A significant exception to this general silence about racial difference is Die Hard with a Vengeance (John McTiernan), which pairs John McClane this time with Zeus Carver (Samuel L. Jackson). A contemporary reworking of the historical "race man," Zeus keeps the question of racial difference and McClane's assumptions about it constantly before us, referring repeatedly to "that race shit." Zeus specifies and analyzes the uncritical assumptions that seem to underlie McClane's position on racial difference and his efforts to "relate" across it. His efforts to "relate," of course, have gotten off to a hyperbolically bad start, since his adversary Simon, the bomber, has coerced McClane into standing on a Harlem street corner wearing nothing but a sandwich board that proclaims hatred for blacks through the crudest racial epithet. Zeus intervenes, not, as in McClane's interpretation, out of motives that can be tied to the personal or to the personhood of the beneficiary; not, in other words, to save the other's life, but rather, for political reasons, to prevent the murder of a "white cop," which would bring a thousand more white cops to the neighborhood. At the level of language, this relationship is characterized by conflicting interpretation, interpretive misfires in both content and address. (Right from the beginning, Zeus emphasizes that their negotiations involve competing definitions of their very relationship: "I ain't your partner, your neighbor, your brother or your friend. I'm your total stranger." Of course, he is also calling attention to a curious compensatory gesture in which the white man claims a false intimacy that gives the lie to the social gulf he feels in his encounter with the black man.)

In a film that thematizes misrecognition and miscommunication across racial lines, Zeus's critical discourse highlights the super "ordinariness" that has constituted McClane's appeal throughout the Die Hard series. And it links that ordinariness to racial identity. McClane is just an ordinary white guy, whose very ordinariness—as whiteness— is marked by his unselfconsciousness about race. At the same time, however, like McClane himself, the film never quite admits to any of Zeus's accusations. Instead, it constructs Zeus as obsessed with race, where McClane is relaxed, and it asks us to consider if Zeus suffers from the mythical racial paranoia, or "reverse racism," so commonly evoked in dominant discussions of race prejudice. If Zeus is liberated from the task of embodying race for this film, the price is that he is the one who is charged with "speaking" it for himself and for McClane.

Despite their ironic moments of sophistication about masculine display and the constructedness of masculinity, these action films bear similar versions of the subtext that Baldwin describes. That subtext, the site of enormous anxiety and resistance, concerns the destabilization of masculinity as a category. Somehow, these contemporary representations have anxiously and unconsciously recognized that masculinity never exists as such. Rather, it is constructed within relations of and to race, class, and sexuality. What these films put forward as the central figure of masculinity in crisis is really white heterosexual masculinity desperately seeking to reconstruct itself within a web of social differences, where its opposing terms include not only femininity, but black masculinity and male homosexuality.

To construct this version of masculinity, these representations must continually renegotiate and reestablish differentiations, and they must hold off homosexuality as well as interracial desire. Probably this is why the favored buddy figures are lawmen; symbolically, they both uphold and submit to these prohibitions, if not to the prohibition on murder. What I am interested in here, however, is the specific representation of this "crisis": the ways in which black-and-white bonding takes place across and through the spectacle of the battered white male body, displacing any aggressive component into vicious combat between white men. In these contexts, such an operation needs to marginalize women, to foreground romanticized figures of class in the represented crisis of authority, and to displace residues of the enormous energy that this crisis mobilizes onto relentless destructive action. The narrative, visual, spatial, and discursive relations among black and white figures propose particular readings of race, gender, and class, while pretending that these differences are no longer at issue. Despite its explicit discourse about race, even Die Hard with a Vengeance participates in this tendency. While its heroes speak of race almost obsessively, that dialogue is contained and ironized in the framework of the banter which characteristically binds the action film buddies together as it holds off more direct erotic interaction. Finally, of course, the power of racial difference to produce division is radically diminished in the face of Die Hard with a Vengeance's concluding resolution, where Zeus is presiding over McClane's effort at reconciliation across the apparently more unbridgeable gap of sexual difference as he encourages his buddy to call his wife.

Die Hard and Lethal Weapon have in common the central thematics of accidental partnerships between white and black policemen. These pairings articulate very particular stories about race relations and male bonding within the specific narrative framework of the action film. At one level, action films participate in the same kind of logic that Philip Brophy attributes to contemporary horror films: that their textuality is "integrally and intricately bound up in the dilemma of a saturated fiction whose primary aim in its telling is to generate suspense, shock, and terror." Like the horror films that Brophy studies, these action films produce a gratification based on "tension, fear, anxiety, sadism and masochism" (5). And these characteristics must account for both the popularity of the two genres and the critical contempt that goes along with that popularity. But perhaps equally important, this gratification seems intimately bound to the repetitive quality of the action film genre. Susan Jeffords highlights "the pattern of internal amnesia" that she contends is "typical of male action film sequences of the 1980s." For Jeffords, the sequentiality that emerges in these films produces a pattern of increasing externalization: emphasis on the body as spectacle, at the expense of "internal character developments" (246). But, even as these films repeat thespectacle of the male body as a machine for generating and undergoing aggressive assault, even as they repeat some fantasmatic body/mind split as spectacle, we might ask: what exactly do they keep forgetting in order to remember it? For, clearly, the forgetting is deliberate.

Paul Smith describes another structuring tendency for action films, one that implicitly seeks repetition as well, we might suggest. Smith contends that "the pleasure proffered in action movies can be regarded, then, not so much as the perverse pleasure of transgressing given norms, but as at bottom the pleasure of reinforcing them." Fundamentally, it may be the case that these films rely as much on reinforcing norms as on transgressing them, but it seems most important that they require both moves. And this requisite suggests a pleasure in repeating the instability of the "law" in order to maintain it. But the "law" in this case comes to look more and more like a law that secures sexual difference and racial difference in order to secure itself through them. In the end, the objects of repetition—remembered and forgotten—are sexual and racial difference.

As each action film resolves the fantasmatic problem, it reproduces a troubled and unstable legacy—to be repeated in its sequels—both direct and indirect. So, Lethal Weapon generates the next two Lethal Weapon films, but it also reproduces the buddy formula, whose major threads—race, gender, and sexuality—are realigned in numerous subsequent biracial buddy films. Die Hard, on the other hand, begets direct sequels in Die Hard 2 and Die Hard with a Vengeance, this latter recalling 48 Hrs. (1982) in the resistance of the black partner to the white one's police business and in the hostility between the two. Die Hard also shadows Passenger 57 (1992), where Wesley Snipes substitutes for Bruce Willis, as the renegade loner trapped in an airplane with a hijacker. And the Die Hard formula is rewritten in The Last Boy Scout, a film whose plot is organized around Willis again, metonymically attracting residues from Die Hard. The Last Boy Scout's Joe Hallenbeck presents a degenerate and failed version of McClane; his wife respects him less than Holly McClane did her husband, and she betrays him sexually rather than professionally. Hallenbeck's degraded masculinity and paternity play off Damon Wayans's character, former football star Jimmy Dix, a far more active and erotically charged sidekick than the portly desk cop, Al Powell.


(Continues...)

Excerpted from High Contrast by Sharon Willis. Copyright © 1997 Duke University Press. Excerpted by permission of Duke University Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents

Contents Acknowledgments Introduction Part I. Battles of the Sexes 1. Mutilated Masculinities and Their Prostheses: Die Hards and Lethal Weapons 2. Insides Out: Public and Private Exchanges from Fatal Attraction to Basic Instinct 3. Combative Femininity: Thelma and Louise and Terminator 2 Part II. Ethnographies of the "White" Gaze 4. Do the Wrong Thing: David Lynch's Perverse Style 5. Tell the Right Story: Spike Lee and the Politics of Representative Style 6. Borrowed "Style": Quentin Tarantino's Figures of Masculinity Notes Index

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