Monday, 28 January 2013

In what ways, if any, is Black masculinity portrayed as powerful and powerless in African American cinema?

Through the history of cinema we are given constant representations of black men who have their masculinity compromised (mainly white characters). However, certain films do show the black man as, if not more, powerful than their white counterparts. One example of this is the film Shaft (Gordon parks (1971) USA) and it is this film that I will look at in order to see if, even in this powerful character, black masculinity is compromised.
The character of John Shaft represents a different type of character being portrayed by a black actor. Shaft appears to be an aggressive, highly sexually, highly influential character. Not only this but he isn’t constrained by anybody. He can go anywhere and into any space. But the main point is that his white superiors appear powerless to stop Shaft doing whatever he feels like. This contrasts strongly with the characters that Sidney Poitier used to play. Although Poitier did break through to the Hollywood film industry, Ed Guerrero points out, most people saw that Hollywood neutralised Poitiers sexuality and in doing so his masculinity.
Shafts character is in contrast with how black people and especially the black man had been portrayed in film before, Donald Bogle sets out five signifiers of the black subject in American film. That being toms, the good Negro enslaved and obedient, and the signifier that Poitier was considered to be a prime example of. Coons, lazy good for nothings, and the mulatto, the tragic mixed race figure. Mammies, large women devoted to the white family and bucks, sexually potent big black men who are feared by plantation owners. John Shaft breaks through all of these confined roles laid down in American cinema history. Where as these perceived roles serve to neutralise the black male and take away his masculinity by either showing characters as sexually powerless or controlled by the white man, the character of Shaft is shown as just the opposite. Showing that even though he is sexually powerful and threatening to those around him, he is not controlled and thus his masculinity is not compromised by any other character within the narrative.
We see right from the very start of the film that Shaft is completely unshaken by and in control of his surroundings - this is shown to us where he walks across the road and is almost hit by a taxi. Shaft responds aggressively to the driver and then he continues on his way. Again in the opening scene a man tries to sell Shaft a watch. Shaft shows the man his badge and he runs away, showing us that he could have arrested the man but choose not to, he has all the power and any decisions he makes are because he wants to make them, not because he is following orders from anybody else. This sets up the character as a powerful presence that stands out from anything else on screen, it's impossible for the character to have his masculinity diminished because he always appears bigger, brighter or just far more in control than anybody else. Instead, it is the characters around him that appear to be weak and have their sexuality neutralised.
Another example of Shafts power within the film is clearly shown by the fact that he knows all the information about what is happening. In one scene a white policeman is pleading with Shaft to tell him what is happening. The way this is done suggests to us that the entire mainly white police force is completely lost without Shaft. As nobody else seems to be able to find out the information that Shaft can, this boost his masculinity as he can have the knowledge required to enter any space. It also reduces the masculinity of the white policeman, as they cannot.

    Furthermore the representation of women in the film further adds to the idea that Shaft has a powerful masculine presence. The women serve just for him to reinforce his own masculinity, and not compromising it in any way. Where as in other films and notable in the film noir genre women act as femme-fatal characters or characters that serve to neutralise their male counterparts, hear they are clearly their to love Shaft and be made love to be Shaft. Not once does Shaft show any real feeling, other than sexual towards the women he beds. Without him showing any feelings for the woman his masculinity is never brought into question.

Another point which acts to emphasise the character of Shaft as a sexually powerful black male, is the fact that the characters around him are set up as completely unisexual constructs. The men in the text that surround Shaft tend to be middle aged, white policemen who are losing their hair and highly strung. So there is no possibility of Shafts masculinity, and sexual power being challenged by one of these characters. Even when Shaft is attacked by somebody he always comes out on top no matter how outnumbered or against the odds it may seem. For example, when he is ambushed by a gang of people he still manages to fight them all off and come out on top.
To conclude I would say that while it is clear that within the history of American film black masculinity is constantly undermined and rendered powerless by white characters - Shaft clearly breaks away from this. Nowhere in the film to we see Shafts masculinity compromised. He assumes almost super hero qualities as he tackles anything that comes his way, he becomes a construction of everything that is sexually powerful and masculine. To emphasise this every other character in the film is there seemingly to add weight to this idea, either in the guise of a submissive woman for Shaft to sleep with, a middle aged cop who acts as no threat to Shaft or a villain for him to beat up.


Hooks, Bell 1992 Black looks: Race and Representation South Bay Press UK

Guerrero, Ed 1993 Framing Blackness: The African-American Image in Film, Temple University Press USA

Bogle, Donald 1994 Toms, Coons, Mulattoes, Mammies and Bucks: an Interpretative History of Blacks in American Films USA

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