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November 1996, Week 4


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David Conner <[log in to unmask]>
Reply To:
Film and TV Studies Discussion List <[log in to unmask]>
Fri, 22 Nov 1996 14:10:15 -0500
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On Thu, 21 Nov 1996, Denis Seguin writes:
>Is not this phenomenon a byproduct of Hollywood tokenism, whereby black
actors were introduced into films as martyrs (like Dirty Harry's partner in
Magnum Force), then later as bland sparring partners (like Danny Glover in
the Lethal Weapon franchise)? In "raising" the black male, Hollywood abased
I just finished reading a very interesting piece from Fred Pfeil's recent
book, White Guys: Studies in Postmodern Domination and Difference (Verso:
1995), which suggests that a lot more is going on in black/white buddy films
than just "bland sparring."  Through close readings of several of these late
Eighties action films, Pfiel argues that each is engaged in a project of
reconstructing the meanings of white masculinity by way of a complex set of
negotiations with both "blackness" and "femininity."  For example, it's
extremely telling in Lethal Weapon that Riggs (Mel Gibson) is represented as
the Wild Man (unstable Vietnam vet with the hair trigger, damaged
emotionally, etc.,etc.) while Rog (Glover) is figured as the solid, stable,
"domesticated" family man, on the verge of retirement and loath to ever draw
his gun, much less use it.  By the end of the film, Pfeil points out that a
kind of symbolic exchange has taken place between the two buddies: Riggs'
influence has allowed Rog to unleash his own potential for "wildness" and
violence (in response to the terrorist threat against his family), and Rog,
by providing a "safe space" for male introspection and "sensitivity," has
given Riggs an opportunity to acknowledge his grief and guilt over the death
of his own wife.  If the most urgent project for white masculinity at this
historical moment is to make some sort of concession to the ongoing cultural
effects of feminism, as Pfeil seems to be arguing, then these partnerships
afford a means for creating a discursive space in which masculinity can still
be violent but now in a more "sensitive" and caring way.  The blackness of
these buddy characters (Rog in the LW series and Al in the Die Hard films)
serves, then, as a way not only for white guys to work through their own
fantasies of black men's "hypervirility" but also to deal with "feminine"
tropes of sensitivity and domesiticity very conveniently by not involving
actual women at all.
The other interesting point to be made about these films is the way that the
interracialism of these buddy relationships serves as a kind of defense
against what Eve Sedgwick would call homosexual panic.  That is, if any
public representation of two similar-looking guys together is now instantly
open to accusations of homoeroticism or at least a homoerotic possibility
(Butch Cassidy might have been the last film to slide by on this count;
Midnight Cowboy makes the problem explicit, but it's Quentin Tarantino's
"queer theoretical" monologue about Top Gun in that otherwise boring Gen-X
film that signals the definitive demise of unsuspect, "naive" white/white
buddying), then adding the element of racial difference seems to offer a
provisional way to deflect this awareness.  Of course, even more complexly,
the only way this can work is by drawing on a generalized racism that sees
the potential for white/black eroticism as even more remote than
homosexuality at this point!
I guess the broader point that I'm trying to make here is that black/white
relations in contemporary film are never just about race.  Racial
differentiation is a process that always takes place in a heterogenous
discursive field, intersected at *every* point by other modes of
differentiation - racialization, that is, is always already overdetermined by
the vectors of gender, sexuality, and class too.
David Conner
History of Consciousness
UC Santa Cruz
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