Philosophy, Black Film, Film Noir
Philosophy, Black Film, Film Noir
“The darkness of film noir was always meant to illuminate as well as reflect the shadows of the mean streets of Gangland USA. Now, in this fascinating synthesis of philosophy, film studies, and critical race theory, Dan Flory reveals to us the significance of the deeper blackness of African American noir—a light ‘doubly’ black aimed at exposing the larger crimes of White America itself.”
- Table of Contents
- Sample Chapters
Dan Flory explores the techniques and themes that are used in black film noir to orchestrate the audience’s emotions of sympathy and empathy felt toward morally complex characters whom people might not typically find appealing in real life, such as thugs, drug dealers, or murderers. Using an approach that combines the cognitive insights of theorists like David Bordwell, Noël Carroll, and Murray Smith with the reflective Wittgensteinian methods for considering film employed by Stanley Cavell, Stephen Mulhall, and William Rothman, Flory shows how these films scrutinize the state of race in America, induce their viewers to do so as well, and illuminate the ways in which categories of race have defined and continue to direct much of our vision of the moral self and what counts as appropriate moral sensibility.
“The darkness of film noir was always meant to illuminate as well as reflect the shadows of the mean streets of Gangland USA. Now, in this fascinating synthesis of philosophy, film studies, and critical race theory, Dan Flory reveals to us the significance of the deeper blackness of African American noir—a light ‘doubly’ black aimed at exposing the larger crimes of White America itself.”
“Flory argues that while some examples of film noir articulate reactionary perspectives on social order, the genre can also promote perspectives critical of social inequality and offer insights into the racialized structures of American culture.”
“Flory’s book opens up many new lines of inquiry for philosophers interested in examining how films can philosophize and the role that the emotions play in prompting such reflection. Because of Flory’s extensive knowledge of contemporary film aesthetics and critical race theory, there is much we can learn about these areas from reading his book. It is a work suitable for use in mid-level and advanced undergraduate classes as well as graduate classes on aesthetics, philosophy of film, and critical race theory.”
Dan Flory is Associate Professor of Philosophy at Montana State University.
Introduction: Philosophy and the Blackness of Film Noir
Recent Philosophical Theories of Race
Philosophy, Cognition, and Film Theory
What Is Black Film?
What Is Film Noir?
Film Noir's Subversive Possibilities
What Is Black Noir?
1. Spike Lee and the Sympathetic Racist
Whoand WhatIs Sal?
Critical Reflection and Sympathetic Racists
Spike Lee and Institutional Racism
2. Noir Protagonists and Empathy in Do the Right Thing
Moral Ambiguity, Suspense, and Noir Characterization
Hitchcockian "Subjective Suspense" and the Spectrum of Noir Characters
Do the Right Thing and Noir Characterization
Empathy for Radio Raheem?
Da Mayor and Moral Orientation
Critical Reflection and the Role of Empathy in Do the Right Thing
3. Race and Tragedy in One False Move
A Hurricane of Sympathy and Racism
Racism, Tragedy, and Empathy
Alignment, Point of View, and Empathetic Response to Lila
Sympathetic Racists and Audience Allegiance in Black and White
4. Nihilism and Knowledge in Clockers
Cultivating Empathy for a Clocker
Internalized Racism in Teaching and Explanation
Oppression and Alternative Possibilities
Rocco Klein as Sympathetic Racist Cop
Sympathy and How to Do the Right Thing
Aesthetic Response, Race, and Black Noir
5. "Guilty of Blackness"
Flawed Noir Narratives: New Jack City and Boyz 'N the Hood
Racial Oppression and Personal Psychology: Juice
Menace II Society and the Meaning of Life
Black Noir, Nihilism, and Film as Philosophy
6. Beyond the Gangsta
Working for "the Man": Deep Cover
Narrative Voice and Epistemic Authority
Learning from the Logic of White Power
Jerry Carver, Pimp for White Power
Making a Difference Epistemologically
Against Self-Interest: The Glass Shield
Race and the Noir Lessons of History: Devil in a Blue Dress
Black Noir Moves Beyond the Gangsta
7. Other Forms of Blackness
Eve's Bayou and Its Critical Reception
Film Noir and Female Gothic Melodrama
Eve's Gothic Noir World
Noir, Empathy, and African-American Female Characters
What Is It Like To Be a Caveman?
The Injustice of the Everyday: Always Outnumbered, Always Outgunned
Training Day, Empathy, and Moral Corruption
8. Noir and Beyond
White Fears of the Other: Summer of Sam
Transcending Human Differences in 8 Mile
The Evolving Racial Contract: Out of Time and Never Die Alone
Bamboozled by Blackface
A Noir Atlantic: From Hell, Empire, City of God, Dirty Pretty Things, The Constant Gardener, Catch A Fire, and Children of Men
Conclusion: Race, Film Noir, and Philosophical Reflection
Cavellian Individualities and Film as Philosophy
A Taxonomy of Empathy and Expanding Moral Imagination
Philosophy and the Blackness of Film Noir
The creation of film was as if meant for philosophy—meant to reorient everything philosophy has said about reality and its representation, about art and imitation, about greatness and conventionality, about judgment and pleasure, about skepticism and transcendence, about language and expression.
—Stanley Cavell, Contesting Tears
Men [sic] enjoy looking at images, because what happens is that, as they contemplate them, they apply their understanding and reasoning to each element.
It is knowledge itself that is dangerous in the noir world of American race relations.
—Paula Rabinowitz, Black and White and Noir
During the past two decades African-American and other filmmakers have refashioned the themes and techniques commonly associated with film noir in order to redirect mainstream audience responses toward race and expose the injustices and inequities that typically frame black experience in the United States. By doing so, these filmmakers have created a new cinematic subcategory, “black noir.” Many of their films offer trenchant critiques of mainstream conceptions of race by encouraging audiences to reflect on such questions as what it means to be white, what it means to be African American, what it means to be treated equally, and what it means to be acknowledged as a full-fledged human being. By eliciting such responses, these black noir films aim to reorient and redirect, à la Cavell, the perceptions, imaginings, and dispositions of their viewers regarding race and its relations to morality and knowledge, thereby carrying their achievement beyond merely breaking new aesthetic ground and into the realm of philosophical reflection.
Black film’s artistic development illustrates more generally how film noir, by virtue of its capacity to urge audiences to question the validity of assumptions that guide their moral judgment, may function to criticize the unfairness of existing social orders. Although a dimension of noir films intermittently from their “discovery” by French criticism more than sixty years ago, recent African-American filmmakers in particular have sharpened these critical capacities in ways that highlight their potential for encouraging serious reconsideration of ordinary moral perception, thinking, and action—a potential for which I aim to promote greater appreciation.
This book further examines African-American and related cinema for ways in which they orchestrate audience emotions of sympathy and empathy so as to encourage viewers to think philosophically about the racialized dimensions of film perception, the human condition, and current circumstances of human equality. By addressing these facets of narrative fiction film I draw particularly on recent work in philosophy, critical race theory, and cognitive film theory to make sense of how filmmakers have reconfigured film noir for the purposes of social critique and reflective inquiry into race. As a work of what might be called philosophically informed cultural studies, this book owes a significant debt to thinkers such as Cavell, Noël Carroll, Murray Smith, David Bordwell, Charles W. Mills, Lewis R. Gordon, Tommy L. Lott, Stephen Mulhall, and Richard Dyer, who opened up new possibilities for analyzing connections between film, culture, and philosophy. I extend their projects to the “black film wave” that began in the mid-1980s, its subsequent internationalization, and the employment of film noir techniques by these aesthetic movements to encourage what amounts to philosophical reflection in viewers.
Ultimately, I argue that these thinkers’ work helps to reveal how many African-American and other filmmakers have discovered innovative ways to spur a “Socratic impulse” regarding race by means of film noir. Numerous instances of black noir, for example, challenge us to use our reasoning capacities to think in sustained and focused ways about fundamental human questions, such as “What is it to be human?” and “How should I live?” By virtue of such challenges to reflect, we are encouraged to devise new “ways to think” that allow us to better understand ourselves and the world around us, and that are here applied to race. From clearly recognizable black noirs such as Carl Franklin’s One False Move (1991) to Spike Lee’s noir-influenced Bamboozled (2000) and beyond, these films engage contemporary understandings of what it means to be a raced human being. Filmmakers as diverse as Franklin, Lee, Bill Duke, Charles Burnett, Kasi Lemmons, Ernest Dickerson, and the Hughes brothers have deployed and invigorated film noir conventions in order to portray matters such as African-American struggles with cinematic representation as well as racial injustice. In the process, they have created new possibilities for generating critical perspectives on contemporary American society and forms of racialized thinking that underlie standard conceptions of film perception, humanity, and how we should live.
With the exception of Africana Studies scholar Manthia Diawara’s crucial pair of essays in the early 1990s, however, few scholars have addressed this development in detail. Moreover, no work has examined the philosophical dimensions of black noir or its continuity into the twenty-first century. This book rectifies these oversights by analyzing how the use of film noir in the recent black film wave and elsewhere highlights representations of blackness in conjunction with moral and criminal transgression in order to provoke viewer analysis of racial inequities that encourage stereotypical representation as well as moral and criminal transgression in the first place. These works of art goad viewers to concentrate reflectively on typical conceptions of race, equality, and knowledge that often form the foundation of their moral action and thought. In this manner the films bring into focus presumptions that undergird the state of race in America and the world, and induce their viewers to do so as well, thereby mirroring comparable discussions now taking place at the intersection of critical race theory and philosophy. By promoting sustained and deliberate audience attention to fundamental questions of human existence such as the status of one’s humanity and how its social ranking may contribute to the shape of one’s overall moral treatment, these films urge viewers to contemplate race in ways that enhance, augment, and extend more formally philosophical discussions.
In order to better reveal these epistemological interconnections through cinema, I rely on recent advances in analytic philosophy of film, particularly those developed by Carroll and Smith. By theorizing how audience members may develop allegiances with different kinds of morally complex characters through modulation of the sympathy or empathy we typically feel toward them, these critics have made possible more precise understandings of how we evaluate figures such as those standardly found in film noir, in particular those characters with whom we might not ordinarily sympathize or empathize in real life. Analytic philosophers of film, however, have addressed issues of race rather less than their Continental counterparts, an omission that my study helps remedy. By combining the theoretical structures analytic thinkers provide with recent critical race theory and the reflective method for considering film worked out by Cavell, William Rothman, and Mulhall, I outline the traditional themes and techniques of film noir that have sustained critical as well as viewer interest over the years and that African-American directors, writers, and other film artists have found advantageous to employ.
The narrative features in many black noirs tacitly recall elements found in such classic noir films as Double Indemnity (Billy Wilder, 1944), The Big Sleep (Howard Hawks, 1946), The Naked City (Jules Dassin, 1948), Sunset Boulevard (Billy Wilder, 1950), and The Asphalt Jungle (John Huston, 1950). Classic noir as well as African-American noir frequently address matters of power, confinement, determinism, and marginalization. Both regularly depict unknown or inadequately understood forces that are far more powerful than their protagonists, who are marginalized from mainstream society or lured into unjust fates from which there seems to be no escape. Both also encourage sympathetic or empathetic responses from their audiences for morally ambivalent characters. In black American cinema, however, such noir elements often become powerful tools for disclosing the inadequacies of racialized understandings of humanity, justice, and morality. By urging viewers to think and reflect on their presumptions about race, many of these films make knowledge dangerous, as American Studies scholar Paula Rabinowitz would point out, in the sense that questioning presuppositions has often incurred the wrath of those who premise their lives on such beliefs. Of course, philosophy has been familiar with such epistemological dangers since at least Socrates, but placing it in the context of American race relations is something relatively new to the field, as it is to mainstream U.S. cinema.
By deploying these and other features, many black noir films urge their audiences to contemplate claims strikingly similar to those advanced by recent philosophical theorists of race. Throughout this study, I reference the diverse ways in which these theorists upset what Charles Mills calls an “epistemology of ignorance” by providing insights into alternative systems of social cognition that challenge dominant systems of moral knowledge. In the process, I argue that certain cinematic works, consistent with perspectives offered by critical race theorists, demonstrate how racist oppression deforms African-American life even as the majority of white Americans perceive it as nothing out of the ordinary. Ultimately, the revelation of such perspectives calls for a reconsideration and redirection of aesthetic perception as well as moral thinking. Both the philosophical and cinematic works provide critiques of moral or aesthetic knowledge that place before us the obligation to question and rethink what most people would otherwise observe as “normal” forms of life in America, and do so by mobilizing sympathetic and empathetic responses that promote a better understanding of the moral circumstances of many African Americans. Moreover, in the last few years international filmmakers have applied this critical focus of black noir to issues concerning human rights in a global context.
In this way, I argue that the recent intervention of critical race theory into the field of philosophy crystallizes much of the recent black film wave’s innovative development of film noir. By bringing black noirs into dialogue with philosophical examinations of race, I explore such matters as the theory and practice of “white privilege,” the distorting effects of white supremacy on justice and morality, and the ways in which categories of race have defined and continue to direct much of our vision of the moral self and what counts as appropriate moral behavior.
Crucial to note here is that I consider “race” to be a social construction that possesses very real consequences for human beings, even though it has no basis in any sort of objective reality. As such, race fails to be what philosophers of language call a “natural kind,” like “gold,” “water,” or “tigers,” which may lay claim to identifying essentialistic properties founded in something outside us. Rather, racialized senses of the terms “black,” “white,” and so on designate sets of power relations that contingently depend on particular, historical circumstances existing between groups of human beings designated by these terms. Race and its attendant conceptions, then, turn out to be “sociopolitical rather than biological, but . . . nonetheless real”; that is, socially real rather than rooted in natural facts about the world. Depicting the nonnatural and imposed character of race constitutes a fundamental dimension of many black noirs, which I bring out by means of placing them side by side with philosophical analyses of such concepts.
One reason I have chosen to focus on this particular group of films is that they exploit film noir’s distinctive potential for encouraging viewers to question presuppositions that might otherwise go unnoticed. For example, as Mulhall has argued, among the most arresting aspects of Blade Runner (Ridley Scott, 1982) are its efforts to encourage viewers to think about what it means to be human. It might also be argued that the iconic 1970s noir Chinatown (Roman Polanski, 1974) attracts many viewers because it elicits troubled reflections about the degree of corruption with which many municipalities are run. More classic films noirs such as Force of Evil (Abraham Polonsky, 1948), Thieves’ Highway (Jules Dassin, 1949), In a Lonely Place (Nicholas Ray, 1950), and The Damned Don’t Cry (Vincent Sherman, 1950) operate analogously, bringing to the surface societal presumptions regarding class or gender in ways that invite critical examination on the part of the audience. Furthermore, film historian Sheri Chinen Biesen notes that generally, “Wartime noir films were provocative and challenging. They demanded thinking from filmgoers just to figure them out.” This subversive potential in film noir has served African-American and other filmmakers well, as it has paved the way for constructing new methods for eliciting sophisticated audience contemplation regarding justice, morality, knowledge, and their relations to race.
Recent Philosophical Theories of Race
An illustration from the autobiography of African-American writer Chester Himes might best serve to bring out a crucial, long-standing relation between race and philosophy. In My Life of Absurdity, Himes wrote that problems of race had created such complexities in his day-to-day existence that he often could not tell the difference between what was real and what was absurd in the existential sense of that term. Himes’s observation about his own life fittingly describes the general status of race in modern Western philosophy. On the one hand, until well into the 1990s race had at best a marginal place in most philosophical discussions, particularly those taking place in the United States. Problems linked to the concept of race were predominantly considered to be of peripheral interest; empirical, nonphilosophical matters to be discussed after the “real” theoretical disputes had been settled. On the other hand, since the seventeenth century, Western philosophy has profoundly influenced the treatment of nonwhites and their status as human beings, even while it outlined and established the bases for “universal” human rights and theories of liberalism. While providing the foundations for these cornerstones of modern Western society, philosophers such as Locke, Rousseau, Hume, Kant, and Hegel also established the theoretical underpinnings for modern racism. This contradiction continues to induce simultaneous dimensions of utter absurdity and brutal realism into discussions of race in Western philosophy. Because many scholars in the discipline have such difficulty admitting the fact that some of the “founding fathers” of human rights were also “founding fathers” of racism, they have frequently had difficulty telling the real from the absurd with respect to race.
In contrast to this typical way of treating racial matters, some contemporary philosophers argue that while Western philosophy’s influence on people of color has been profound, that influence has been consistently ignored, evaded, or obscured. They suggest that modern liberalism has historically and conceptually presupposed the systematic and racialized oppression of entire groups of human beings from whose domination whites, as the main beneficiaries of modern liberalism, have long benefited and from whose circumstances they continue to benefit. For these thinkers, the everyday, as configured through the category of race, emerges as a primary battleground. They argue, for example, that, like many standard conceptions of liberalism, the typical day-to-day lives of white Americans presuppose systematic and racialized oppression. In other words, the everyday life of persons counted as white in the United States takes for granted a system of dominance and advantage that, when examined in its actual, specific details, has as one of its dimensions the unconscious presumption of full human rights for whites while also presuming a lesser schedule of rights for nonwhites.
This social structure continues today as an implicit legacy of explicitly advanced white supremacy in the past. Being white in its typical configuration, then, continues to have its social, political, and moral advantages, a conclusion that should surprise no one. Perhaps the astonishing consequence broached here, however, is that typical whiteness also possesses and imposes implicit cognitive requirements, with moral consequences for both whites and nonwhites. When looked at as an entrenched social institution that continues to be supported and maintained by the practices of actual human beings, the standard form of whiteness amounts to an epistemological stance that fundamentally determines moral action and what is perceived as morally relevant.
These scholars thus contend that one overlooked aspect of race is how it permeates everyday cognitions as well as dominant sensibilities; that is, ordinary ways of perceiving, thinking, believing, and acting. Mills argues, for instance, that whites normally operate by means of a structural blindness to their own power and privilege, as well as to the consequences of that lack of vision. “An idealized consensus of cognitive norms” informs their thoughts, beliefs, and actions, constituting a system of knowledge that imposes certain misperceptions, insensitivities, and presumed incapacities regarding persons counted as nonwhite. Moreover, this epistemological blindness is a condition of whiteness in its idealized form, in the sense that to think and perceive from that subject position requires that one possess such cognitive incapacities. Whiteness, considered as a set of institutionalized power relations, rather than as an aspect of biology or heredity, has profoundly disturbing epistemological as well as moral consequences.
Thomas E. Hill Jr. and Bernard Boxill concur with Mills’s assessment of this cognitive deficiency on the part of many whites, even as these philosophers work from a strict Kantian moral perspective. They argue that knowing the right thing to do can be tremendously difficult for such individuals because knowing the relevant moral facts is deeply problematic for those comfortably ensconced in power. Hill and Boxill elaborate: “Confident, complacent, well-positioned white people will not only find it difficult to do what they know to be right; they will find it still more difficult to know what is right, even when they sincerely claim that they are trying to do so” (470). This difficulty arises because whites may be easily deceived by their own social advantage into believing that it accrues to all, and unable to see with adequate vividness cases of racial injustice because these phenomena are so far removed from their experience (469–70). Such obstacles place whites at a cognitive disadvantage as a price of their social advantage. They are prone to self-deception regarding racial injustice because their social power seriously impairs their ability to grasp the morally relevant facts in such cases. Their “white privilege” thus typically blinds them to its absence in the lives of others. As a result, their capacity to know or “do the right thing” becomes substantially disabled.
From a phenomenological perspective Lewis Gordon argues similarly that most whites misperceive systematic misanthropy, abnormality, social pathology, and injustice involving African Americans as normal. Rather than see what in the situation of fellow whites would be deemed unfair, iniquitous, or even morally perverse, one sees merely the ordinary lives of blacks, normalized by its presumed pervasiveness as well as by waves and waves of alleged explanation aimed at justification. In other words, it is “those people’s” living conditions, their nature, social relations, economic circumstances, family structures, or overall potential for intelligence that are to blame. Gordon notes that such misperceptions dehumanize whites and nonwhites both. Whites who presume—whether consciously or unconsciously—a racist outlook on humanity possess, as he puts it, a “misanthropic consciousness” that not only ignores, but is incapable of appreciating significant aspects of the social world. Whole dimensions of human interaction, lifestyles, sensitivity, and even language become off-limits as a condition of presuming typical forms of whiteness. One aspect of having taken on these very ordinary forms of whiteness, then, is that they require cognitive, moral, and social constriction of one’s full human potential, the results of which have disastrous consequences for one’s self and others with whom one comes in contact.
A striking parallel to this point may be found in Mulhall’s analysis of Blade Runner, in which he argues convincingly that one of the film’s main focuses is the importance of recognizing and acknowledging the humanity of others in order to recognize and acknowledge the humanity in one’s self. It is precisely this lesson that the main character, Deckard (Harrison Ford), learns from his encounters with the replicants. Mulhall follows the lead of Cavell here, who analyzes in The Claim of Reason how taking a person seriously as a person must involve such acknowledgment and recognition. Neither Cavell nor Mulhall apply their arguments to matters of race in film per se, even though both analyze the related issue of slavery and Cavell discusses issues of race in a more general context. In a striking manner, however, their explorations of the importance of recognition and acknowledgment of humanity in others, and its consequences not only for others but one’s self, correlates with Gordon’s discussion of race. As we will see, the cinematic disclosure of this reciprocal relation between one’s humanity and that of others plays a fundamental role in my discussion of black noir’s philosophical dimensions.
Critical race theorist David Theo Goldberg explores related points by examining how some racist exclusions may be justified by rational means. While many, perhaps most, forms of racism are indeed not rational—as we might expect—others, Goldberg argues, turn out to be consistent with accepted criteria of rationality such as providing sufficient evidence, accepting reasonable doubt, being open to criticism and revision, and the like. Those forms of racist belief that achieve the typical benchmarks for rationality thus become cognitively “normalized” by endorsement from the highest standard of human behavior. It becomes “perfectly reasonable,” in other words, for whites to assume in everyday life that new, expensive clothing or valuable possessions operate as markers of criminal accomplishment if possessed by African Americans, but not whites; that skin color may be understood as a sign of criminal guilt or at minimum suspicion; or that neighborhood residencies may be taken as indicators of good or bad morals on the part of their inhabitants.
More recently, legal scholar Jody David Armour has augmented Goldberg’s arguments by considering how some versions of the philosophical position known as Bayesianism may actually support “rational discrimination” by whites. If one uses certain forms of probablistic reasoning to weigh statistics of violent felony convictions, overall criminality, and the like, then believing that, say, blacks possess a far higher potential to be violent assailants of one’s person or property passes the test of rationality. While Armour goes on to argue that such reasoning fails to meet a higher standard of reasonableness, the point I wish to underscore here is that some forms of racism have an at least prima facie claim to being rational, which as Armour points out has been accepted by many U.S. courts as well as some philosophers (e.g., Michael Levin). Elsewhere, I have noted how some forms of racism that were deemed rational in the past have served to explain racialized aesthetic response to melodrama. These revelations about rationality’s role in supporting some forms of racism would seem an unfortunate discovery for almost anyone working in philosophy, to say nothing of those in the culture at large who would wish to support full and impartial equality for all.
One shared conclusion of these and other philosophical theorists who examine the epistemology of race is that instances of unfairness and injustice in black life frequently escape detection by whites. The task of the theorist thus becomes that of bringing attention to the epistemological misperception of everyday details, so we may reformulate and redirect typical white moral vision in ways that would recognize and acknowledge the unjust and unfair circumstances constituting many people’s ordinary lives, rather than letting what Frantz Fanon calls the “white gaze” determine dominant moral perception. Recent philosophical theorists of race have therefore worked to expose what Mills has called a racial fantasyland that undergirds white dominance and social advantage. The beliefs and presumptions that create this fantasyland constitute an epistemology of ignorance that typically prevents whites from perceiving the reality and effects of their own beliefs concerning racial difference. As these theorists argue, such cognitive blindness requires fundamental revision, for it rests on what Mills calls a “consensual hallucination,” an invented delusional world where standard white moral consciousness is filtered through norms of social cognition that derive from a typically unconscious sense of dominance and advantage in the world (18). The necessity of redirecting and reformulating this flawed white moral vision is forcefully brought home by many black American noir-influenced films.
Philosophy, Cognition, and Film Theory
In analyzing this recent wave of black filmmaking, I work from a theoretical position that synthesizes the broadly cognitivist outlook exemplified by the work of Smith, Carroll, and Bordwell with the more reflective, Wittgensteinian method employed by Cavell, Rothman, Mulhall, Richard Allen, and others. Such a theoretical approach might be called “analytic film theory,” a term suggested by Allen and Smith in their collection Film Theory and Philosophy. This approach focuses on investigating the actual linguistic practices and beliefs we employ regarding our efforts to understand films as an appropriate starting point for theoretical analysis. In doing so we might better understand and clarify such cognitive components for the sake of greater technical and theoretical facility (5). The point of such analysis, then, is to reveal “the conceptual structure [on] which such usage depends” rather than its literalization, replacement, or reformation (6). With theoretical hallmarks such as philosophical clarification, precision, and “truth-tracking” to the greatest extent possible, this approach attends to argument, reasoning, accuracy, and recognition of complexity where it actually exists. It also seeks consistency with recent advances in other fields of study, such as those achieved by cognitive science, insofar as they inform our knowledge of human perception, psychology, and other matters crucial to a proper understanding of film (25–26). In this manner we might theorize about film in more interdisciplinary ways and diversify its foundations. Analytic film theory addresses artists’ intentions as well, although these aesthetic aims in no way determine what might be important in a film. Rather, they are simply features relevant to an artwork that are as worth considering in our attempts to grasp what a film means as cultural considerations, political ideology, and other factors that contribute to the creation of art.
In bringing these aspirations to bear on film, Carroll argues that such theorizing should be provisional and piecemeal. Rather than aim to achieve a unified, single theory that would explain all film for all time and all places, film theorizing—at least for now—would be better served by a variety of projects that accurately hypothesize, insofar as possible, about more limited objects of study, like the function of point of view editing or the operation of narrative suspense. Such theorizing, in other words, would “proceed at varying levels of generality and abstraction,” depending on the needs of the project at hand (39). Such theorizing, “like most other forms of theoretical inquiry, . . . proceeds dialectically” (56), which accounts for its provisionality. In addition, attempts to formulate new theories take place in the context of past theoretical endeavors (57). Criticism and revision, then, will be fundamental to this philosophical style of inquiry into film (58). Insofar as such efforts will be “truth-tracking,” the aim will be some sort of approximate truth rather than an absolute, Platonic conception (60).
Carroll, Smith, and other film theorists have further argued that film viewing in general should be understood as predominantly a matter of acentral imagining—that is, viewing a film from the outside, as if one were observing it, rather than experiencing it oneself. Whereas some forms of spectatorship from perspectives internal to a character remain possible, such a theoretical position directly opposes most stances that take “identification” as fundamental to film viewing, particularly those that require we perform some sort of “Vulcan mind-meld” with the characters, as Carroll puts it, so that we may grasp a film’s chain of events and comprehend its meaning through imagining that we literally are the characters. Unfortunately, most theories of film that invoke identification presume just that sort of undiscriminating, immediate imagining.
Building on this insight, Smith constructs a theory to replace theoretical uses of identification in film and outlines a hypothesis to explain how we imaginatively engage with characters. He accomplishes this by introducing the interlocking concepts of recognition, alignment, and allegiance. These concepts provide a more finely grained way to understand our grasp of characters than those offered by theories of identification. For example, recognition is a matter of how viewers assemble cinematically depicted traits into a specific character. By putting together narrative elements in analogy with ones we typically find and use in identifying human beings in the real world, such as the presumption that persons are embodied creatures, we construct characters that we understand as functioning in roughly the same way as actual individuals (82). Alignment, by contrast, “describes the process by which spectators are placed in relation to characters in terms of their access to their actions, and to what they know and feel” (83). Viewers’ spatiotemporal attachment and subjective access to characters provide the means for audience members to acquire information about the characters, the plot, and other events taking place in the film. By specifying narrative range and restriction to their characters, filmmakers may determine what audience members know about the story they are telling. Alignment, then, accounts for the viewer’s visual and aural congruence with characters and offers a theoretical structure through which audience limitation or freedom to gather information may be explained.
To have a relationship of allegiance to a character, on the other hand, is largely a matter of having a moral orientation to him or her; viewers evaluate characters from a moral point of view and respond accordingly. In its positive sense, allegiance will typically be a matter of feeling a broadly favorable moral connection to a character, such that the viewer approves of what the character thinks, believes, or does. Allegiance may be based on a variety of factors, but in general depends on reliable access to the character’s state of mind, an understanding of the context of the character’s actions, and a moral evaluation of the character based on this knowledge (84). Narrative understanding of such figures may be rooted in explicitly depicted features, such as the character’s actions and statements, or on more subtle cues, such as iconography, music, or star persona (84). Smith also notes in passing a matter of primary significance to this book, that allegiance may be based partly on considerations stemming from presumptions regarding “ethnicity” (84).
These interlocking concepts account for the structure of sympathy for characters in cinematic narrative and provide a theoretical explication of commonsense uses of the term “identification” (73). Of particular relevance to this study is how allegiance involves cognitive and emotional dimensions that result in a “moral orientation” to the character—a sense of moral approval, disapproval, or ambivalence toward what he or she does and believes. In this fashion we may explain in theoretically sophisticated ways how film viewers engage favorably, unfavorably, or ambivalently with characters. Of special note here is how Smith develops the idea that we might understand some morally complex characters as “alloys”—a “combination of culturally negative [and] culturally positive traits.” This alloying of good and bad characteristics can serve as a way to encourage audiences to sympathize with characters who hold aberrant social beliefs or commit immoral acts, such as theft or even murder. Smith explores this possibility mainly in regard to “perverse” beliefs about human sexuality, but in applying this idea to noir characters I broaden it to incorporate beliefs about other forms of moral and social transgression.
In general, the good-bad structure of characters who are “alloys” in Smith’s sense allows for audience sympathy with characters whom they might otherwise reject as unacceptable. Viewers are led to judge the characters in the story according to a system of preferences that they themselves construct from they experience through the film. These judgments, which may develop, evolve, or change over the course of the narrative, give the viewer a moral perspective toward the characters he or she has experienced cinematically. Viewers thus organize and rank characters according to a structure of character classification they create in response to what they see and hear. In addition, certain characterological alloys can make us question our habits of moral judgment—interrogate typical applications of moral rules and principles and introduce greater subtlety into our moral assessments.
As Cavell, Rothman, and Mulhall have still more generally argued, some films may provoke us to think deeply about fundamental human questions, such as what it is to be a human being or what acknowledgment of another as a full-fledged person might involve. Some films may even do some of this thinking for us and present it to us for our consideration, as Cavell argues some comedies of remarriage and melodramas of the unknown woman do, or as Mulhall argues Blade Runner does. The idea that some films may encourage or even embody philosophical reflection harmonizes with the general cognitivist approach I have outlined, insofar as both theoretical positions seek to “make sense” of human experience while at the same time responding to the “claims of reason,” as Cavell and Mulhall have stressed. These positions also see theorizing—particularly philosophical theorizing—as matters of questioning, inquiry, outlining new ways of thinking, and dialectical criticism, without necessarily achieving definitive, final answers. The point over which these two theoretical positions differ most concerns where such reflective theorizing may legitimately occur. Cavell, Rothman, Mulhall, and their cohort believe that it may occur almost anywhere, as they do not see an essential break between ordinary human reflectiveness and more formally philosophical reflectiveness that professionals in the field might hope to achieve. As Cavell notes, they see the latter as an intensification or radicalization of the former, whereas many cognitivist philosophers of film argue for a more restricted sense of philosophy with closer links to formalized conceptions of argument and giving good reasons for or against a position in question. While there exists considerable room for dispute regarding this difference, in my analyses of black noir I will exploit what I see as the productive affinities between these two theoretical camps.
What Is Black Film?
In “Aesthetics and Politics in Contemporary Black Film Theory,” Tommy L. Lott argues that the “plethora of black film-making practices suggests that the political and aesthetic differences among black independent films cannot be captured by a single paradigm.” Noting not only the diversity of art objects designated by the term “black independent film,” but also that the definitions offered to capture these works range from being too broad to too narrow, Lott advances instead the idea that the dialectic relations existing between black independent film and Hollywood are simply too strong to permit a clear and absolute division to be drawn between them. Rather than, say, focus on the supposed need for black film to be definitively and financially, aesthetically, or politically independent from mainstream cinematic products, Lott articulates a more complicated view that accommodates the reality of a symbiotic relation between these two kinds of cinema. He acknowledges black film’s need to distinguish itself from the stereotypical themes and imagery of mainstream cultural representations, but adds that independent black films actually speak in both “mainstream” and “independent” voices. They are, in other words, “hybrid” or “polyvocal” cultural products (288). As an example, he analyzes director Melvin van Peebles’s Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song (1971), which is often advanced as an exemplary instance of black independent cinema. Lott argues, however, that this film subverts the traditional Hollywood crime narrative and conventions of film noir in order to challenge the status quo and introduce the awakening of a black political consciousness (290–91, 300 n. 27). The film’s hybridity makes it “politically ambiguous” (288), but viewers may nonetheless “read through,” say, the film’s sexism and conventionality, in order to grasp its political point (292–93). Such films often—perhaps even typically—create an ambivalence in their viewers and offer at best a complicated identification with their characters (294–95); however, by taking on some aspects of Hollywood’s aesthetic codes, they can both reach an audience that understands and embraces such codes while at the same time subverting those codes to convey political messages that encourage their reformulation. Without ultimately offering a definition of black independent film himself, Lott effectively shows that historical factors such as the symbiosis between Hollywood and independent black film, as well as the possibilities of subverting standard Hollywood convention from within, cannot be ignored when seeking to formulate conceptions of what black cinema’s independence is.
As one might expect, the prospects for a straightforward, essentialist definition for the broader term “black film” are bleaker still. In an earlier essay Lott advances the suspicion that previous attempts to define black film founder because there are “no underlying criteria to which an ultimate appeal can be made to resolve [the] underlying issues,” such as what counts as black identity itself. Noting that here, too, definitions typically break down by being either too broad or too narrow (140), Lott argues that “biological criteria are neither necessary, nor sufficient, for the application of the concept of black cinema” (141). In place of “biologically essentialist view[s] of black cinema,” he suggests a focus on the “plurality of standards by which black films are evaluated” (145). Black films require neither black filmmakers, nor actual black audiences (146), nor even some conception of a “monolithic black audience” to which one might appeal as an ideal (148). Instead Lott offers a criterion for such a definition that eschews the independent / mainstream distinction and emulates the currently existing political conditions of black people as a prerequisite for something to be a black film. Namely, “black film-making practices must continue to be fundamentally concerned with the issues that currently define the political struggle of black people,” which will require any theory of black cinema to account for an “aim to foster social change,” such that it “incorporates a plurality of political values that are consistent with the fate and destiny of black people as a group engaged in a protracted struggle for social equality” (151). Such struggle, of course, may occur either inside or outside mainstream cinematic practice, whether economically, aesthetically, culturally, or nationally.
By taking a step back from defining “black film” itself to focus on the difficulties surrounding the definition of what might count as being a black person, Lott suggests that offering definitions that provide necessary and sufficient conditions in this context may well be misguided. Instead he argues in favor of a criterion for such a definition: black films as currently and contingently configured must aim at values consistent with blacks’ protracted struggle to achieve full social equality. Such a definitional condition will operate very loosely to include works from across the political spectrum and from a variety of sources. Certainly all the films discussed in this book meet Lott’s criterion, but so do works not generally considered black films. For example, as Lott observes, some films about blacks made by white filmmakers, such as Michael Roemer’s Nothing But a Man (1964) and John Sayles’s The Brother from Another Planet (1984), would arguably require inclusion under any reasonable characterization of black film. The same could be said of white-produced “race movies” like The Scar of Shame (Frank Perugini, 1928) and perhaps the Jack Johnson prizefight films (1908–16), as well as black director Bill Gunn’s Blaxploitation-era, studio-produced Ganja and Hess (1973) and Stop! (1975), which Lott explicitly argues must be accommodated as well, even though most definitions of black film would exclude them. While this criterion does not settle the issue of what definitively determines “black film” as a concept, it goes a long way toward indicating the shape that such a definition should take.
As Lott notes, a good part of the difficulty here is that “black film” must cover a very heterogeneous group of films, a collection of artworks arguably too diverse to be characterized as having any common properties. Since the term has been applied to “race movies” of the early twentieth century, the “Blaxploitation” films of the 1970s, and independent works of black filmmakers over the past two decades as well as isolated other movies, it should hardly be surprising that “black film” holds out little hope of being described by means of a single shared characteristic. Lott’s outlining of a condition for such a definition, then, may well be the best we can hope for in aiming to delineate what these films have in common. On the other hand, Lott’s analyses provide a useful delineation of the general context for black noirs and their examination in this book.
What Is Film Noir?
Even though critics have frequently addressed this question, for good reasons no one seems to have answered it satisfactorily. Perhaps most important, in Anglophone film and literary studies applications of film noir and its related critical terms have been ones of ever broadening scope. From its initial reference to a small group of Hollywood movies made during the 1940s to its designation of ongoing aesthetic forms in both film and fiction, English-language noir studies have grown in ways that few might have imagined. Yet even prior to this development, French critics used the term noir in similar ways. For example, the term was initially employed during the nineteenth century to describe British gothic novels—littérature noire. Slightly better known was its use to describe French cinematic works of poetic realism such as Pépé le Moko (Julien Duvivier, 1937) and Le Quai des brumes (Marcel Carne, 1938) just before World War II—films noirs, but of an indigenous variety. Just after the war Gallimard publishers adopted the term to title their new line of American hard-boiled detective fiction translated into French—Série Noire. Then most famously French film critics Nino Frank and Jean-Pierre Chartier, seeing American films again for the first time since before the war, proclaimed a handful of them films noirs. Over the next several years noir became a critical term of art in France for discussing American cinema.
The term film noir then took another dozen years or so to cross the Atlantic, arising both in French and in English translation in Charles Higham and Joel Greenberg’s Hollywood in the Forties (1968) and exclusively in French in essays by Raymond Durgnat, Paul Schrader, and others a few years later. The latter school won the battle terminologically, so to speak, largely because another kind of “black film” or “black cinema” arose in America at the time—a rather ironic result from the point of view of this study. The focus of scholarship subsequent to the term’s introduction into English was mainly the “classic” period of American noir films, 1941–58, a bracketing apparently first suggested by Schrader, but very quickly adopted as the benchmark for discussing American film noir in general. There followed a fairly stable period of roughly two decades in film studies where most noir scholarship focused on whether this collection of films was a genre, cycle, style, mood, historical period, and so on, as well as cataloging what might be called the noir canon. Although there were raging controversies over the definition of the term, exactly which films should or should not be counted as actual or exemplary noirs, and whether the concept was a legitimate one at all, few scholars contested whether the term applied (in English) to anything but films to be found predominantly within Schrader’s bracketing.
Overlapping with this de facto research program but becoming particularly prominent in the last decade and a half, more and more noir scholars—both inside and outside the academy—broadened the term’s application to incorporate films far outside the classic period. This generalizing tendency had always been an internal problem anyway, as even most classic film noir critics could not help offering examples beyond Schrader’s time span. In addition, the term’s use in English evolved to include film noir’s origins in literature, thus mimicking earlier French practice. Further areas of scholarship included noir’s relation to the urban landscape and television shows and British film noir. French film noir was discovered by English-language researchers and extended far past the prewar years; and hard-boiled detective fiction was redubbed noir literature, both in classic forms such as works by Hammett, Cain, and Chandler, and contemporary, such as works by James Crumley, Elmore Leonard, and Andrew Vachss. Noir’s racial dimensions came under scrutiny as well, in film, fiction, and the critical literature.
Even as some critics over the years have suggested putting aside the term in favor of more conventional film genre concepts (for example, crime melodrama, gangster film), others have embraced a more general “noir sensibility” and sought out its central meanings by analyzing objects at or near its conceptual borders. By “noir sensibility,” these critics mean a feeling or attitude that invokes the features and effects of noir, especially its ability to critically examine existing social institutions. For example, in 1996 James Naremore published “American Film Noir: The History of an Idea,” at the conclusion of which he observed that in the closing years of the twentieth century the term noir was no longer confined to describing films or literature, but could be used to sell fashion in the New York Times. Other scholars discerned similar uses of the term in pointing to perfumes named “Noir!” or its employment to sell hamburgers in McDonald’s commercials. Naremore took this broadening application and general ubiquity to signify that noir really operated more like “a discourse—a loose, evolving system of arguments and readings, helping to shape commercial strategies and aesthetic ideologies” (14). Rather than being merely about the objects themselves (a bunch of moldering old Hollywood movies in cans), noir was also a highly malleable but nonetheless useful way of talking about them that could be readily applied elsewhere. Paralleling Naremore’s analysis, Rabinowitz employs the term noir as a tool of historical analysis to understand wartime photographs of single working women, African-American literature, the Popular Front and melodrama’s influences on documentary, novels about female “juvenile delinquency” and social work, women’s shoes (especially stiletto-heeled pumps), and avant-garde film. Through a strategy of juxtaposing such borderline items with classic noir films, she extends as well as delineates more clearly what noir might mean.
This method of considering noir from a historical perspective yields a loose collection of traits, various groupings of which might constitute different objects as noir. Naremore and Rabinowitz’s analyses thus approach noir as a sort of aesthetic “cluster concept,” which as Berys Gaut argues provides many advantages in discussing and analyzing aesthetic concepts. Film scholar Ben Singer has deployed this strategy in discussing the related idea of “melodrama” because such a theoretical approach provides more coherent and accurate possibilities for understanding what the term means.
The point of my brief history of noir is that as a critical term it has never been strictly circumscribed in its use. Even Frank’s and Chartier’s famous essays use it to characterize what otherwise apparently quite different films had in common. The group of movies to which these critics referred specifically as films noirs were The Maltese Falcon (John Huston, 1941), Murder, My Sweet (Edward Dmytryk, 1944), Double Indemnity and Laura (Otto Preminger, 1944), The Postman Always Rings Twice (Tay Garnett, 1946), and The Lost Weekend (Billy Wilder, 1945). Perhaps as surprising is the fact that another American noir classic, director Fritz Lang’s The Woman in the Window (1944), was released at the same time in France but did not strike critics there as a noir—only a “bourgeois tragedy.” Subsequent attempts to delineate the boundaries of noir have fared little better, as shown by the 1970s and 1980s controversy in Anglophone scholarship concerning its definition. In spite of decades of arguments seeking to outline the noir canon as well as its proper conceptual limits, knowledge of those limits seem little improved from the sketchy contours provided by midcentury French critics. For all its vagueness and ambiguity, Borde and Chaumeton’s Panorama du film noir Américain, 1941–1953 remains in many respects the benchmark for those who wish to define noir.
On the other hand, this brief history also indicates that there is a clear sense in which noir operates as a useful category, even if it does not precisely fit into standard definitions of “genre.” As Steve Neale argues in Hollywood and Genre, “it is in essence a critical category” whose “corpus can only be established by means of critical observation and analysis.” Although I disagree with Neale that the concept of noir is “incoherent” (154), I concur that it may hardly be confined by means of necessary and sufficient conditions. Rather, noir’s definition is “fuzzy” at its edges, as is its canon, aspects that can deeply frustrate those who like clean and easily delineated boundaries to their ideas. In a sense it is a paradigmatically “open” concept, to use terminology made famous by Morris Weitz, one about which we must constantly make decisions regarding what to include or exclude, rather than being a closed concept, one for which necessary and sufficient conditions may be more straightforwardly provided.
For all that, however, noir is not much different from many other genre concepts, which also frequently possess unclear borders, changing characteristics, and expanding canons. To take noir’s generic cousin melodrama as an example, the latter’s core features have changed considerably. As Smith explains, melodrama’s notorious flexibility derives fundamentally from significant shifts in its use over the course of a more than two-hundred-year history, a conclusion with which Neale concurs, especially with respect to melodrama’s more recent development in the history of film. Noir has developed with even greater flexibility, as reflected in Naremore’s and Rabinowitz’s studies, which foreground, in part, an interplay between noun and adjective, the distinction between noir and noirish, and the ways in which adjectival uses may influence the employment of a term as a noun. In this way their studies concur with film scholar Rick Altman’s work on the noun/adjective distinction in the creation of film genres, which he explains is often a matter of adjectival uses being offered to characterize various films becoming nominal ones over time, which is precisely how he characterizes noir’s development in English.
The danger here, of course, is to avoid slipping into theorizing about noir by “inventing your own” genre, a common strategy employed by philosophers (!), according to Deborah Knight and George McKnight. As they admit, however, internal coherence among films or their “family resemblances” to one another may offer ways out of such a dilemma (332, 338). Cavell, with his studies of comedies of remarriage and melodramas of the unknown woman, has employed just such strategies in order to argue for the unity of his “philosopher’s genres.”
On the other hand, I think that film noir has a stronger claim to coherence than a philosopher’s genre, even of the sort Cavell proposes. Namely, its application as a term is rooted in generally consistent viewer as well as critical practices that, while perhaps not definable as a genre in the strict sense that scholars like Neale would require, nonetheless stem from ways of thinking and talking that make sense and possess their own internal logic. The use of the term noir has, for example, yielded a relatively stable set of films that are recognized as canonical. Recent extensions of its uses are moreover understandable and explicable, even if they are at times arguable.
References to noir mean something significant and nontrivial to people when they use it or extend its employment to other areas. Such characteristics indicate that its application to art objects may be considered illuminating, interesting, or aesthetically pleasing, as Gregory Currie describes Cavell’s genre of comedies of remarriage. Grouping films as noir is, in other words, critically useful because it facilitates the study of “their commonalities, responses, and progressions in relation to one another.” As a recognizable even if not always clear category of film, noir may also serve to “criterially pre-focus” audience expectations regarding what sorts of characters to look for, situations to think likely, themes to anticipate, and so on. It is thus a worthwhile, historically based concept that helps us to better describe, explain, and analyze viewer’s actual psychological engagement with art objects they perceive as similar. In other words, noir operates like other genres in the sense that Currie theorizes for the term, even if it does not function as a genre in the more strictly classic sense presumed by, say, Neale. Although discussing films as noir may not always be rooted in artists’ first-order intentions, advertising, or other clearly specifiable features, it remains a worthwhile critical practice to discuss certain films as noir, particularly when attempting to describe, explain, or analyze viewer’s expectations and presumptions about artworks, because it makes particular aspects salient that would otherwise not be. This perspective on noir, in Currie’s sense of “genre,” becomes especially effective when reflecting on its use as a form of “critical cinema”—that is, noir’s use as a form of social criticism.
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