Ross begins her work with the idea that individuals in economically developed regions of the world are increasingly reliant on mass media for information, education, and entertainment. In this context, the issue of representation is becoming increasingly important as people in distant locations become more reliant on mediated symbols to shape their perceptions of various social issues. The aim of Ross’ book is to explore the media presentation of ‘national’ identities and explore traditional and emerging representations of blackness as diasporic communities mobilize resistance against more conventional images of the black as ‘other’, which have been perpetuated by a white-dominated media industry.
Nations and Nationalism
Ross begins this section with the statement that nations, nationalities, and nation-states have never been mere political entities. They have also included systems of representation that connote ideas and ideals of nationhood. She refers to Anderson’s point about ‘imagined communities’ to support this point, and she adds, that nations have never been strictly homogeneous. It has been the goal of nationalist discourse to represent the nation as one people.
With the increases in globalization; decline of the nation-state, we are seeing a regression to a very defensive and highly dangerous form of national identity which is partially driven by racism. Ross notes the influence of fascist organizations in Western societies and a general retreat into a right-wing fundamentalism that is intent on maintaining ‘ethnic boundaries’.
Nation and Identity
Ross refers to Hall’s discussion of ‘Englishness’, reiterating his point that as an ethnic category, Englishness has always been a hybrid masquerading as a pure and homogeneous culture, as it absorbed all its many different constituent parts. Hall argues that the diversity of the English nation has been obscured and absorbed by those who are in favor of a homogeneous nation.
The resurgence of neo-nazi and fascist groups across Europe signals a significant retreat into nationalistic notions of ‘pure’ ethnicities and a form of cultural racism. Hall describes the state of ethnic communities as settled and foreign at the same time. Odds are, they will never return to their original homeland and even if they did, it would have become transformed from what they had known.
Afrocentric Identity and its Critics
According to Ross, white America attempts to unify itself against the ‘other’. In reaction, Afrocentric perspectives and nationalistic constructs are increasingly attractive to various sectors of the black community. Hall argues that the cultural debate is a struggle over cultural hegemony. Components of this include the idea that identities are constructed through difference and the notion that black has never been a stable category but rather a construction.
The work of African American male filmmakers such as Spike Lee speaks fluently of an authentic black experience which is nationalist and Afrocentric but which at the same time operates within implicitly homophobic and misogynistic codes. It parades proud nationalism, but simultaneously silences those other black voices of women, gay men, and lesbians. According to Ross, there should be no more finite cultural categories and no more fixed identities, but rather an expansive, multi-layered, multi-ethnic culture, a ‘black Atlantic’ culture which embraces Africa, America, the Caribbean and Britain all at once, whose themes transcend ethnicity and nationality, synthesizing into a new and vibrant cross-culture.
It is inescapably true that the position of black people in the image hierarchy has been framed, historically, by the ideological contours of race and representation. Ross seeks to analyse how white media depict differentness, otherness, blackness, ‘us’ and ‘not us’. Mass media plays a significant role in the transmission and maintenance of cultural identity, through a repetitive display of cultural norms and values which eventually become seen as simple ‘truths’.
The way images of black communities have been historically constructed from a white perspective has had clear consequences for the perception and portrayal of black communities in Western societies. When we see a portrait of blackness, it does not describe the actuality of being black but rather references a particular way of thinking about blackness: it is not about being black but being thought of as black. The media construct a certain by the aspects the represent: “The politics of representation considers the changing institutions which govern the encounters between constructed images and constructing eyes” (King, 1992).
Semiological and cultural studies approaches to the media have correctly insisted that the text is capable of diverse readings because the viewing public is constituted of individuals rather than a simple mass, but such approaches might obscure the limited number of significantly alternative readings which are possible, over-estimate the motivation of the viewer to challenge the text and under estimate the ideological power of the media to persuade by the reiteration of the familiar. If black communities are constantly framed by media texts within a narrow repertoire of meaning, then viewers who do no have first-hand experiences of those communities will have no reason to challenge them, since their frame of reference would not include opposing conceptions of blackness.
Black media images: modern and traditional
There is a relative absence of black images, and those which are available take on iconic dimensions, signifying in one constructed image, the complex of diverse and heterogeneous communities, reducing individual uniqueness to a false and essentialized black ‘other’. Representational orthodoxy dictates that if the black ‘other’ is allowed to make films, they must be authentic portraits of that other’s own community.
White filmmakers in contrast have the whole world as their backdrop. “Correct” cultural filmmaking usually implies that Africans show Africa; Asians show Asia; and Euro-Americans the world (Minh-ha, 1989). It is not expected that they represent their own community within that among Euro-Americans, but black filmmakers are not limiting themselves to the constraints that are set upon them by the white audience in order to satisfy them.
It cannot be assumed that white filmmakers adequately and authentically represent the picture of the black within Euro-American white communities. However, a libertarian approach would signify that the perception of white filmmakers could stand for representatively for the experience of the black ‘other’.
But this is the problem: black identity is expected to represent itself as an isolated community from that of white people embedded with their ethnical origins of, for example, Afro-Caribean countries. What is unvalued and unappreciated in this context is that, according to Stuart Hall, in the search for an English homogeneity, ‘Englishness’ has obscured the fact that there has never been such a thing as pure ‘Englishness’, but rather that ever since the culture is characterized by an accumulation of hybrid identities. Thus, these facts have been obscured by traditional advocates of the pure race of the white class.
Down and out in Beverly Hills: Black Film Portraits and the White imagination
Knowledge about those who are different from ‘us’ is often gained vicariously through various media forms. The repetitive framing of particular images in certain ways eventually leads to those images being seen as the definitive statement on ‘those’ people and the groups to which ‘they’ belong . Thus, images become transformed over time, from being merely symbolic to connoting reality.
The media’s tendency towards simplification means that sophisticated discussions which contextualize histories and events are routinely ignored in favour of reductionist explanations which the imagined mass audience will more easily understand. Contained within the stereotyping process is the structuring of implicit power relations where the gaze is of the dominant, looking at the subordinate.
From one medium to another
With the emerging technology of film, stereotypes and pre-existing images of black communities burst into vibrant life. The limited range of perceptions about black people from the view of the white film industry meant that black artists were routinely placed in shadow to suggest darkness or evil. In the early 1900s, white filmmakers demonstrated the picture of black people suspended in a white world, which ignored stable black institutions such as the family and the church.
Uncle Tom and Aunt Jemima
A lack of progress of black women behind the camera (still true in the 1990s) has resulted in a cinematic history of stereotyping and a steady procession of mammies, sirens and whores.
The burden of representation
The broader problematic revolves around the issue of representation and issues which speak from a black perspective but not for black communities. The main problem around the issue of representation and representativeness is that the relatively small number of black art works which are available to a potential audience means that each one must necessarily bear the burden of having to authenticate and typify heterogenious black communities.
No matter what a black filmmaker might say about the very particular point being made in afilm and the very specific position from which the author speaks, that work will nonetheless be seen as emblematic and typical of the community to which the write belongs or to which he refers.
If only one voice is given the “right to speak”, that voice will be heard, by the majority culture, as “speaking for” the many who are excluded or marginalized from access to the means of represenation. The constant positioning of the one black voice as the only black voice results in a serious double mind: 1) individual subjectivity is routinely circumscribed by the appropriation of specific experiences as typical of an entire community, 2) because that individual voice is perceived as the voice of the many, it is forced to occupy the position of stereotype, where all black people are regarded as the same.
The radical political context of America in the 1960s with a renewed black militancy campaigning for Civil Rigts led to the production of a new movement in independent black filmmaking. Films such as Super Fly constituted a renewed attempt by black filmmakers to portray their communities for themselves.
She’s Gotta Have It : misogynistic and homophobic sub-themes underlie much of Lee’s work. According to Ross, this contributes to the perpetuation of derisive forms of black subjectivity. By positioning the narrative in an all black world, the action can concentrate on the development of male-female relations within a film structure which supports patriarchy and heterosexuality as the norm. Therefore, it is hard to conceive of the film as revolutionary, either cinematically or any other way.
The objectification of black women in popular film exposes the writer’s use of patriarchal forms to amuse the largest audience, and sexism masquerades as female independence. By representing these images, Lee himself contributes to the stereotyped and derisive image of the black. He shows ambivalence toward women: women’s portrayals do not go beyond stereotypes, women do not provide revolutionary energy; they only scream.
Lee’s portrayal of cultural oppression as unconnected to political and economic structures is as illusionary and utopian as the liberal view that racism can be dispelled by reasoning and goodwill (Libertarian perception that intelligent people can work against racism does not work). Instead of keeping the less desirable aspects of black community firmly within the domain of the private, Muwakkil argues that Lee’s iconoclastic insistence on showing the diversity of black experience is the only way in which the image can be subverted.
The 1990s have not brought forward any great innovation in the representation of black communities on television. Even though there have been a marked increase in the number of black background characters, very few leading roles. It is arguable if the representation of black communities is significantly better now than it has been in the past of whether the climate of political correctness simply gives the appearance of being so.
Reading black media
Hall argues that the history of marginalization, both cultural and socio-economic, has led to significant movements of resistance in late twentieth-century society, movements whose members contest the orthodox image of ‘the other’ and unite under a politically and self-constructed ‘black identity to represent themselves in their own images and develop their own black aesthetic and discursive code.
Hall argues that ceasing to idealize a fixed black subject enables a celebration of the diversity of black experiences, cultures and histories.
Hall speaks of 2 main objects that the voices of the silences can be heard:
- the question of access to the rights to representation by black artists and black cultural workers themselves
- contestation of the marginality, stereotypical quality and the fetishised nature of images of blacks by the counter-position of a ‘positve’ black imagery