Last summer, I was invited to take part in a discussion, ‘Fantasy or Reality? Afropolitan Narratives of the 21st Century’, as part of Africa Writes 2013 Festival. I was joined on the panel by Minna…
Mainstream conversations about feminism usually proceed from the standpoint of middle-class white women - but they need to know their experiences aren’t universal, including when it comes to hair.
The glorious messiness of identity, the wide and wonderful cornucopia of complexions that are produced, the possibilities of sexual orientation, companionship, pleasure and fulfilment, and the diversity of gender identification that exists beyond the binary ‘he’ and ‘she’… and yet we attempt to warp and twist ourselves into mean, tight little shapes, to dwarf all that choice, all those options, forcing ourselves, and each other, into impossibly limiting categories: ‘black’ and ‘white’, ‘gay’ and ‘straight’, ‘male’ and ‘female’. Reject one dimensional identities. Remember we are so much more!!!
Journeys into Genre: Talking Horror and Sci-fi with Jahmil XT Qubeka
Hot on the heels of Christine Singer’s nuanced review of Jahmil XT Qubeka’s Of Good Report, Emma Dabiri shares insights from her recent conversation with Qubeka – exploring whether Of Good Report can be described as a ‘horror film’ or even a ‘black horror film’, and celebrating the role of the imagination and the autonomy of the audience in his film-making.
AiW Guest Emma Dabiri
Prowling between horror, noir and macabre comedy, Of Good Report is a beautifully shot, stylish, off the wall account of the dark heart of a seemingly mild mannered high-school teacher.
After the film’s UK premier, I meet director Qubeka and tell him of a heated debate I had with an audience member following the screening. We had argued as to whether or not Of Good Report is a horror film – for Qubeka, however, the answer is clear.
It’s blatantly a genre film, its not some serious drama you know what I mean? It’s a fairy tale, for me at least, its a dark, grim nightmare tale, it’s a horror film.
However, he understands where the confusion may lie:
I think people watch it and they aren’t sure whether they want to see it as a genre film or as a social critique, or as a serious film, because for me, its kind of both. There’s a certain intended bubble gum element. This world isn’t necessarily real but at the same time the textures and characters make it very real, and I think that’s why people may put it up for debate.
It’s possible that in addition to this there still lingers traces of the misconception that black people don’t ‘do genre’. American actress Erika Alexander recalls pitching a predominantly black science fiction film to a Hollywood studio executive, only to be told that the race of the protagonists would need to be changed. According to this influential executive ‘black people don’t like science fiction — they don’t see themselves in the future.’
While such views may seem surprising, they are not uncommon. The irony however lies in the depth to which these clichés are incorrect. In his 1974 film Space is the Place futurist pioneer musician Sun-Ra considered space the ideal site to reconstruct black humanity, free from the limitations which circumscribed black life in the earthly realm. Similarly the future, reimagined pasts and the dimensions of the other-worldly have long been the landscapes in which black innovators have reworked their fates. Imaginative and speculative genres have rendered open spaces in which we can both challenge negative representations of blackness and experiment with more diverse formulations than those that have been promoted in mainstream spaces. Such potentiality has been taken up in literature, from Toni Morrison whose work plays with time, and whose worlds are populated by spirits, murderers, men who can fly and a whole host of mystical and mythical beings, to Octavia Butler whose fiction spans galaxies.
In her critical survey Horror Noire (Routledge, 2011) Coleman positions the horror genre similarly as a domain in which negative constructions of blackness can be inverted. She suggests George Romero’s Night of the Living Dead (1968) is of great cultural significance because of this, not only is it arguably the ‘first film to have a black man playing the lead role regardless of, rather than because of, his colour’ (Romero cited in Coleman 2011: 106) but the black lead, Ben, is also the film’s hero, and his interactions with the white characters in the film throw the racist dynamics that characterize black/white relations in the US into sharp relief.
Unfortunately however, such notable exceptions aside, the possibilities for racial transformation inherent in film are rarely actualised to their fullest potential. Traditionally, black folk have not fared well in horror films. Where we were featured at all -‘the black guy always got it first’ – black bodies in horror reduced to little more than sensationally transgressed organic material with which to bump up the body count. On occasions where black characters are permitted leave to remain beyond the opening scenes, we appear as zombies, slaves and voodoo priestesses with depressing regularity. Horror films with majority black cast and crew are rare – those that do exist can usually be noted for their B-movie type qualities and Blaxploitation themes. When I discuss this with Qubeka he mentions that he’s influenced by B-movies although, while this may be the case, Of Good Report is considerably slicker than most B-movie offerings. Considering African contexts more specifically, many Nollywood movies undoubtedly display elements of horror, but Nollywood is characterized by a particular look, feel, and aesthetic that again is not comparable to that Of Good Report.
Coleman distinguishes between “blacks in horror” films, and “black horror films”, the latter often having black directors and writers as well as black performers. In many regards Of Good Report fits Coleman’s criteria for a “black horror film”. However, according to her definition, “black horror films” are also “race films” (2011:7). For this reason I would be reluctant to categorize Of Good Report as a “black horror film”. While the director and the entire cast are indeed black and the dialogue is comprised of a mix of South African languages, Of Good Report is not a film that calls attention to racial identity, or highlights racialised dynamics between black and white in the way a film such as Night of the Living Dead does.
To describe a film as a South African horror in which the characters are black sounds simple enough, but this seemingly innocent fact can be read as a somewhat revolutionary act. Of Good Report represents what could be seen as a watershed in cinema. Unlike in “black horror films”, racial identity politics are not central to its plot, nor even apparent in the narrative. The characters that populate its monochrome world are not circumscribed by the limited roles reserved for black actors in genre films. While much work remains to be done in the sphere of critical race studies, and art remains an integral way to probe, interrogate and extend these discussions, there is also the real need for a space in which art created by black people is liberated from overt considerations of racial identity politics. While Of Good Report is undoubtedly of special significance to black film, it is ultimately a universally accessible piece of art that should appeal to global audience, both populist and critical alike.
Of Good Report is violent, and distinctly unsettling, but Qubeka is a master of disquieting subtlety. Rather then indulging in scenes of graphic violence he favours revealing to the audience snatches and glimpses of horror, providing our imaginations with the grim tools to fill in the gruesome blanks. As a technique it is extremely effective, and one that countless Hollywood horror directors might do well to remember. As Qubeka remarks:
Never see the fear, it’s a huge disappointment. With a film or a great book, you want to immerse yourself in that world, -especially if you like horror stuff- you have to be scared, so what I’ve kind of found is that the more that I take away the more that there is to frighten people.
If you see how I’ve handled the violence against Nolita [the film’s femme fatale], people are so disturbed, but in fact, I show far less then they believe.
In that scene I take the camera away and I go to the perspective of the little boy. He’s not aware of what’s going on, it’s just him and his dog, and he’s upset that he can’t carry on with his video game. He’s just walking across the yard and it just so happens that as we go past, that in the background, through a silhouetted window, we see Nolita’s brains being splashed out, but its silhouetted, and the camera doesn’t stay there, it continues with the boy .The rest is in your head and that place is more scary then anything I could give you.
[OK, SPOILERS OVER…]
Qubeka’s approach –providing the audience with a level of autonomy, creating a space where they can work their own way through the narrative- permeates his philosophy far beyond techniques of how to convey horror.
We discuss the ‘Father of African Cinema’, Ousmane Sembene, who saw African film in large part as a tool for education. I ask Qubeka how he sees the role of film both in Africa, and more generally, and his reluctance to succumb to preaching or didacticism becomes apparent:
Film is there to entertain, to enlighten. I’m certainly not an advocate of entertainment for entertainment alone though. It needs to be engaging, and thought provoking. Even if its comedy. I’d rather it be far more open process in how each person interprets cinema for themselves, rather then just saying cinema is supposed to be an education. If I look back home at the kind of rhetoric I’ve heard, the kind of expectation of what filmmakers are supposed to do that leads to a certain way of doing things. I don’t tell a story necessarily because I have a certain type of ideology to convey.
One feels he has a lot to say, yet allows for multiple ways in which the elements of his work can be interpreted.
He tells me that an upcoming project (one of many; Qubeka has a lot of plans) is a feminist tale, one he has developed, in part to ‘purge my misogyny in Of Good Report’ (incidentally I would not label Of Good Report a misogynistic piece of art). Without giving too much away, it’s an Afro-futuristic sounding affair set 50,000 years ago in the Kalahari desert. Listening to Qubeka describe it, I cannot help but think how far Black African filmmakers have liberated the medium since the dark days of the ‘ethnographic’ filmmaking of directors like John Marshall, and his racist construction of the so-called Kalahari “Bushmen” in the feted 1957 film The Hunters.
Speaking to Qubeka fills me with hope. Perhaps he is harbinger of a new dawn – although perhaps this is too hyperbolic a mantle to bear. Regardless, his fertile imagination and deft technique suggest a man capable of recalibrating not just African cinema, but the landscape of film itself.
“There is no love left between a black man and a black woman. Take me for instance. I love white women and hate black women. It’s just in me so deep that I don’t even try to get it out of me anymore. I’d jump over ten nigger bitches just to get to one white woman. Ain’t no such thing as an ugly white woman… and just to touch her long, soft, silky hair. There’s softness about a white woman, something delicate and soft inside of her. But a nigger bitch seems to be full of steel, granite-hard and resisting…I mean I can’t analyze it, but I know that the White man made the Black woman the symbol of slavery and the White woman the symbol of freedom. Everytime I’m embracing a Black woman, I’m embracing slavery, and when I put my arms around a White woman, well I’m hugging freedom” (Eldridge Cleaver 1968:107).
“No other group in America has so had their identity socialized out of existence as have black women…. When black people are talked about the focus tends to be on black men; and when women are talked about the focus tends to be on white women”.
Here in the UK, the visibility of black women in representations of mainstream Black British culture is such that you might be forgiven for thinking we are an endangered species. The near erasure of Black British women from this terrain, which is in the main dominated by black men and white women, is rarely commented upon, despite its prominence. What is actually going on here? Is this some manifestation of the quite frankly ridiculous Eldrige Cleaver quote above. Or is it something else?
The (ahem) ‘urban’ (we know what they really mean) landscape that provides the basis of so much of Britain’s somewhat depressing representations of mainstream youth culture, borrows heavily from black culture, yet sometimes seems entirely devoid of black women. The characters who populate this world are black men and white women. Access may be permitted to the occasional mixed-race girl but beyond such tokenism, this is the white woman’s world!
From movies such as Kidulthood, to the presenters of the Kiss FM Takeaway show, who typify this phenomenon, the symbols of ‘Urban’ or Black British youth culture are routinely Black men and their white female partners.
British popular culture provides a wealth of examples to illustrate perceptions of what differently racialised women represent. Check out Wileys Heatwave video which is representative of this trend. Here, the absence of black models- in preference of white- is stark, but unfortunately is not an isolated example, it is an all too common feature of UK Black British popular culture.
“Within the binary thinking that underpins intersecting oppressions, blue-eyed, blond, thin White women could not be considered beautiful without the Other—Black women with African features of dark skin, broad noses, full lips, and kinky hair. Race, gender, and sexuality converge on this issue of evaluating beauty… African-American women experience the pain of never being able to live up to prevailing standards of beauty used by White men, White women, Black men, and, most painfully, one another.Regardless of any individual woman’s subjective reality, this is the system of ideasthat she encounters. Because controlling images are hegemonic and taken for granted, they become virtually impossible to escape” (Collins, 2000: 89-90).
Although Hill-Collins is taking about the African-American context, her insights are more then pertinent here.
Referring to Britain specifically, Mama informs us that this phenomenon is reflected in black men’s choice of partners. “As young women, many Black girls experienced rejection from Black males as ‘in white dominated situations black and white boys alike tend to conform to the prevailing aesthetic, and fancy white (if not blonde) girls more.” (Weekes 1997 cited in Mirza 1997).
Despite all this, Weekes goes on to outline Black women’s agency in the face such oppression, and notes that rather than passively accepting hegemonic beauty norms many black girls reject white constructions of beauty. However she acknowledges that despite this rejection whiteness is still too often used as the yardstick against which other types of beauty are measured.
Seemingly oblivious to any of these issues, the 2009 EHRC Ethnicity and Family report interprets their findings that at least 48% of African-Caribbean men are in “inter-racial” relationships, (usually with white women), as positive, a thermometer of improved societal interethnic relations, indicating a movement to a less racist society. Hmmmm, really?
©Emma Dabiri October 2013
 In Kidulthood, the actresses are in the main white, there is however one ‘mixed -race’ character but I have written elsewhere (http://www.intermix.org.uk/events/Emma%20Dabiri.asp) about how casting directors still seem reticent to commit to featuring black people. A convenient alternative is to employ mixed race individuals who serve the need to represent diversity but are still, less threatening, acceptable faces of blackness.
Gah! If you need to follow a style guide that breaks down how to achieve a ‘quirky’ ‘kooky’ or ‘eccentric’ look, I’m guessing you are none of those things. Used to be people dressed in interesting ways through a natural impulse of self expression. You cant do this shit by numbers, because somebody told you to. Where the adornment of a body with an ‘alternative’ look was once an act of imagination, increasingly it has become rather an act of lack of such.
Fashion brands such as ASOS, TopShop and Urban Outfiitters have a lot to answer for. Distilling cool, to mass marketed, mass produced rubbish. Where the language system of clothing, once used to convey so much, is reduced to meaningless costume for pretentious, depoliticized clones!
If you are buying your punk inspired look off the peg, online at any of the above (or their multiple cohorts), from the comfort of your overpriced Hackney or Peckham flat (cos lets be honest you are as predictable and unimaginative in where you live as in how you dress) that mummy and daddy pay the rent on, so that you can pretend to be an ‘artist’/photographer/filmmaker/fashionwhateva/musicwhateva (delete as appropriate) please don’t for one moment think that you are hip, or cool, or counter-cultural. You are a privileged, conformist cog in a depressingly monotonous machine.
Topshop. Kooky Individualism by numbers! Lovely!
The Eazy E hologram and it’s terrible implications for hip hop
After the appearance of the Tupac hologram last year I wrote a juvenile, jokey piece about how it spelt the end of humanity as we know it. Now, watching this computer simulation of a chubby, middle-aged Eric Wright performing 20 year old hits to a sea of iPhone screens gives me the chills. They may seem obvious, but can we just consider the implications of this corpse reanimation?
1) A generation of new artists are going to be left high and dry. Not only do their releases have to vie for attention on Spotify/ itunes/ wherever with ‘legendary’ back catalogue hits, now the live arena- the one place where they had the edge- is going to be a closed shop. Big promoters have been shutting out new artists in favour of reunion tours and ‘best of’ shows for the last decade. In the weird, risk averse world of promotion, a well loved dead performer offers a guaranteed crowd, a tightly scripted show that runs like digital clockwork, and zero chance of a no show. There are enough legends in coffins to keep festivals, stadiums, sponsorship deals and global tours sewn up for the next decade. When you factor in the disproportionate control companies such as Ticketmaster have over venues and festivals, you can guarantee that if you’re a breaking performer you’re gonna have to stick pretty closely to a toothless, status quo affirming script to get a look in. Where would this have left a young ‘Fuck the Police' Eazy? Certainly not headlining Rock the Bells. Even assuming people eventually get sick of being sold pre-programmed light and artificially hollowed sound, by the time they do there's very likely going to be a massive shrinkage, or, at worst, complete collapse of infrastructure that supports new blood.
2) Dead artists can be neutered by technology. I’m convinced that ‘the man’ - yeah, I know I’ve used a lazy phrase like ‘the man’ - but you know what I mean- if you really don’t think that there are a group of powerful men putting an unholy amount of effort into controlling the direction of hip hop culture then you don’t know shit about Clear Channel, and there’s not much point reading further. Let’s just agree to disagree….. Anyway, I’m convinced that ‘the man’ put a lot of effort into making Tupac seem more of a G and less of a revolutionary in the years following his death. Countless shitty, cynical Pac albums were (and still are) pushed out, scraped from poor outtakes and abandoned projects, all serving to dilute the righteous, incendiary anger of the stone cold classics he made whilst alive. Hologram’s go one step further. Artists like ‘Pac and E, were essentially media hate figures whilst alive. NWA terrified middle America, and now their chief vulgarian, the unashamed, snot nosed, gang banging, drug dealing, cop hating street punk E can be tamed and turned into a fairground ride. He’s a comedy bogey men, swearing and raging about nothing that matters to no one who cares, cavorting for white kids to capture on tablets. Of course he hasn’t got anything to say about George fucking Zimmerman- Eric Wright’s long fucking dead. Sit down and enjoy the show.
Hip hop has been made rich by artists retelling the tales of former rappers. You hear echos of echos running through the music, ghosts of cadence adding layers of meaning- and these ghoulish holograms stymie this oral tradition. New MCs recontextualising old rhymes are going to struggle to emerge from the long shadows cast by shadowless illusions. I can’t help but think that this is going to lead to a fundamental cankering of the artform’s soul. It’s worth noting that the hologram shows are currently confined to dead African American performers - there’s talk of a Left Eye Lopez reanimation doing the rounds - but it’s no surprise really. The major labels have been steadily reducing the culture to a limiting series of imaginary props - bitches, guns, dollars, blah - for years, so I guess we’re already used to illusions of blackness spitting nothings for someone else’s profit.
If you like your chicken served bleeding, with a side of sexism and a dollop of racism then please head the Dissenting Academy (the irony of the pseudo radical intellectual name is not lost on me) in Newington Green. I went there for lunch today following the naming ceremony of a friends baby and just WOW!!
I ordered chicken and two sides ( I pretty much never eat chicken and on this occasion wish I had followed my normal course of action). It came moments later (suspicious) and when I cut into the chicken it was a little pink. Against my better judgement I ate some more. I cut deeper and it started to BLEED!! Yes, that’s right it wasn’t just pink, or even red, but BLEEDING.
I took it to a staff member who brought it back to the kitchen. In the meantime, sickened, I went to wash my hands. When I got back to my table the plate was plonked back down where I’d been sitting and the (white, male) manager was explaining something to the (all white) group I was eating with. I don’t think he was even going to bother speaking to me. I walked over and asked him what was going on with the food. I was informed that because the chicken was organic it was fine if it was bleeding. Already alarm bells should have been ringing as the guy was obviously treating me like a moron.
He went on to say that because it was a blood vessel it was absolutely fine and I should finish it. He was explaining to me, in the sort of impatient tone one might use with a tiresome child. I decided not to eat any more but to let the issue go as he was being so final and matter of fact I could tell further remonstration at this stage would get me no-where. Moreover, I was there with my son, I was hungry and tired and didn’t want a big confrontation. I decided I would do a quick Google search to see if this blood vessel story was plausible and give him the benefit of the doubt until then. My plate sat untouched as I typed. Reading for about 10 minutes I came across nothing to suggest that what he’d told me was to be believed. I went up to him again, really friendly, smiley and reasonable. I said I couldn’t eat the food and he told me that he didn’t care.
I was stunned. He was just being really needlessly aggressive. I said I wanted my money back and he just said there was no-way that was happening. And we left it at that.
In the meantime, one of the guysI was dining with found a huge bone in his burger, which is pretty unacceptable to say the least. He went and spoke to the same manager. When he returned to our table I asked what happened. I was told the manager had been really conciliatory, apologetic and offered him drinks on the house.
I felt as though I’d been punched in the stomach (but that might just have been the chicken). Everyone at my table looked really uncomfortable and started trying to justify this seemingly inexplicable disparity in treatment. It was suggested that the manager was perhaps getting his shit together because it was the second complaint from our table.
If that was the case (which I doubted) I thought I should try again. I went up to him and said that I really wasn’t able to eat the bleeding chicken and could he please refund me. He went OFF. Going on and on about the years of expertise he had. How dare I challenge him. He was telling me it was fine, so it was fine. HIS WORD WAS THE LAW.
Whether or not you can eat bleeding chicken vessel I do not know, but that’s not the point.
I asked him if he really expected me to disregard the overwhelmingly prevailing consensus which states you don’t eat bloody chicken but I was getting nowhere! No apology, certainly no offer of ‘drinks on the house’ (I don’t drink but it would have been nice to have been extended the same courtesy that my white male companion was),no offer to replace the meal. All I got was the aggressive, bullying refusal of a refund.
Feeling really shaky and upset I returned to the table. One friend had missed all of this and asked me what was happening. I told her and she was like ‘Right, I’ll go up with my husband”. I suspected they would get very different response! And Ta-daaaa with depressing prophesy I was right!
Within minutes they were back.
‘He’s going to refund you’. I was gobsmacked!!
The refund didn’t materialise in the end although five minutes later a replacement meal, was placed in front of me by the waitress.
One of the other diners cut it open to see if it was bleeding. It wasn’t but by this stage I felt so upset that my appetite had long dissipated.
I was disgusted not only by my meal but by this incident of everyday sexism/racism. It was undoubtedly an intersection of the two demonstrated at its very finest.
I was talked down to, dismissed and effectively told to shut up.
I could like it or lump it basically. In exactly the same situation two white men were apologised to, consoled, and offered compensation. How many decisions -ones more important than this incident- which affect the life chances of black women, are infused by these biases against us?
I have no idea how the manager would have treated a black man or a white women. I do however have irrefutable and first hand evidence of how he treats black women, and the vastly different treatment which he reserves for white men!
The Dissenting Academy in Newington Green.