Go to Semiotic Review of Books Home Page
Go to SRB Highlights
Go to SRB Archives


SRB Archives

This review appeared in Volume 5 (1) of The Semiotic Review of Books.

The Semiotics of Black and White

by Jim Knippling

Framing Blackness: The African American Image In Film. By Ed Guerrero. Temple University Press, 1993. xi,255 pp. ISBN 1-56639-126-1.

The question of commercial cinema's representations of African Americans--in history and up through the present time--may inspire in some readers a certain reflex cynicism: doesn't everyone recognize and resent crude stereotyping --of what film critic Donald Bogle called "toms, coons, mulattoes, mammies and bucks"--when they see it? Equally, can the current wave of Black produced films be either passed off as a momentary vagary or univocally celebrated as a kind of once-and-for-all corrective to Hollywood's persistent devaluations of Black people? As Toni Cade Bambara put it in late 1992, "I could wallpaper the bathroom with Variety headlines from the days of Hallelujah!, through the forties accord between DuBois/NAACP and Hollywood, through the 'Blaxplo' era, to this summer's edition covering Cannes and the release of works by Lee, Rich, Vasquez, Duke, and Singleton and still ask the question: Never mind occasional trends, when is the policy going to change?" What Ed Guerrerots wide-ranging study, Framing Blackness, seems to suggest is that cynicism, while often justified, is never enough. The book instead engages in lively and ingenious analyses of dozens of Hollywood movies, weaving turbulent and startling historical paths from film to film into a diverse social topography of fluid and uneasy dreamings.

One of Guerrero's key presumptions is that Hollywood's dominant racial ideologies and stereotyping tactics are not static or fixed but are "a set of dynamic, lived relations" which continually shift "under the pressure of material, aesthetic, or sexual conditions." This enabling insight disallows any simplistic notion of African Americans as the victims of Hollywood and gives shape to Guerrero's intricate but lucid method, which crosses the synchronic, sometimes uncanny persistence and recurrence of stereotypes, tropes, and genres with ever foregrounded diachronic manifestations of specified and multiple determinations, such as political activism, apparatic development, Hollywood's always shifting economic fortunes, social pathologies of the historical moment, transitory tactics of accommodation and cooptation, and so on. Informing the mix is an astutely theorized and genuine enthusiasm for heterogeneity and flux:

Because ideology is constantly negotiated, Hollywood cannot construct a permanent, seamless image of white superiority on the screen, any more than the film industry can completely control or eradicate the oppositional or emergent ideological impulses of African Americans or make black people vanish from the historical scene. The ongoing nature of this renegotiation, the struggle to liberate themselves from the psychic chains of what Amiri Baraka has so poetically called 'devil pictures,' is one of the most important in African American culture.

While Framing Blackness focusses especially upon commercially successful movies, taking these to be both influential and symptomatic of the popular imagination, it also offers penetrating accounts of numerous alternative, independent films which manage to challenge the domination of Hollywood's timeworn habits and rituals.

Initiating his study with an in-depth analysis of filmic treatments of slavery in the U.S., Guerrero establishes Birth of a Nation (1915) as both one of the media culture's inaugural moments (Hollywood's first feature-length production and the first film screened in the White House) as well as the prototype for an enduring "plantation genre" which would thrive especially during the 1930s. Birth provoked the first organized protest by the recently founded NAACP in what would become a storied record of confrontation with Hollywood (the protest in this first case led to President Wilson's disavowal of the film and the cutting of several scenes). The film shared with later, Depression era plantation spectaculars (such as Dixiana, Mississippi, Jezebel, and Gone with the Wind) the music-enhanced sentimentalizing of slave labour and the evasive depiction of the master-slave relationship as congenial and natural. But Birth contrasted the mythology of the docile, contented slave with images of free Reconstruction-era Blacks as rapists and beasts--interestingly, this latter slander disappeared from the 1930s instances of the plantation genre as Hollywood "began to conceptualize and produce the 'Old South' as an escapist vehicle, a panacea for depression-era anxieties." Guerrero stirs each of these texts into its historical moment, with Birth 's threatening rapist imagery functioning to recuperate the masculinity of Southern males experiencing social and economic instability, by recruiting them to a imaginary role of protectors of White womanhood. In the 1930s films, the black image is required not as a threat to plenitude but as its guarantee, assuring the dual narcissistic totality of masters and slaves sharing not only a common contempt for "poor white trash" but a life of exclusive leisure in the opulent "Big House"--fantasy on a scale uniquely capable of providing the romantic diversion equal to the needs of 1930s audiences.

Guerrero pursues the repressed and "sedimented fragments of slavery and their resounding echoes" throughout feature films of the Blaxploitation wave (e.g., Mandingo) and up to the present day, noting eruptions of the recurrent preoccupation in disguised or allegorically distanced form in films of all genres. One of the book's most signal readings examines the 1985 "art house" film, John Sayles' Brother from Another Planet. For Guerrero only occasionally champions or condemns any text outright; more typically, a given film's progressive, innovative, or insurgent qualities are registered alongside its "sedimented" inscription of normative conceits. As an allegory rendering a mute, alien runaway slave's exploits in contemporary New York City, Brother comes in for acclaim on several fronts: for its rare focus upon a runaway slave's uncertain future in the North; for its dramatization of Brother's entree into collectivities of allies who, when confronted by Brother's authoritarian "slave catcher" pursuers, provide protection by activating "the African American cultural code of silent or evasive resistance in the face of such persons and institutions"; and particularly for its astute and pointed connection of the injustice of the "distant" institution of slavery with the conditions under contemporary urban apartheid:

here in the ghetto, where black labour has been rendered obsolete, as clearly shown by the unemployed black men roaming the streets and hanging out In Odellss bar, neoslavery takes the form of commodity consumption: the ultimate and most compelling commodity in this community being heroin. Thus the film constructs a causal chain of exploitation, which is revealed by Brother's psychic detective work, tracking the line of profit from an overdosed junkie kid found dead on a trash heap through the street pushers and up to the ultimate dope dealer, a white corporate businessman directing the drug traffic from his plush office suite atop a Manhattan skyscraper. Here . . . srotheres political argument is dialectically sharp, revealing drug addiction as the insidious new slavery and the corporate businessman, hidden behind a chain of transactions, as the new slave master.

Guerrero at the same time delineates the film's ideological limitations: its celebration of Brother's marketable psychic mechanical skills, which resonate with often cited neoconservative standards of the exceptional or "model minority"; its ultimate isolation of Brother from the solidarity which enabled his escape; its dependence upon Brother's muteness, which recalls early historiographic indifference to slaves' accounts of their own experience; and its dominant cultural unwillingness to forego sentimentalizing Black ballplayers. Diverse films come in for Guerrero's subtle, counterbalancing readings throughout the book until harmonic resonances begin to recur among the proliferating issues.

The centrepiece of the book is its vibrant chapter on "The Rise and Fall of Blaxploitation," in which Guerrero dilates upon the wave of ghetto-centred action-adventure narratives released in the period from 1970 to 1974, with particular focus on Sweet Sweetback's Baadasssss Song (1971), Shaft (1971), Superfly (1972), and Coffy (1973). This chapter elaborates multi-layered and richly textured accounts of the origins, peaking moments, and the rather abrupt demise of the wave, with each stage linked to a range of determinations and relations. Within his discussions of the key films of this moment, Guerrero's judiciously counterbalancing skills achieve their ultimate refinement. For the chapter fully registers and explores the exploitative ramifications and formulaic drawbacks of the genre, which cashed in on "black people's new-found identification with its increasingly politicized and militant underclass" even as the films tended to privilege individualist perspectives over the potency of the collective. The genre is described not only as contributing to increased cocaine use among African Americans of inner cities but also as stunting "the development of a black political voice and emancipated consciousness." At the same time, Guerrero acknowledges the films as symptomatic catalysts which brought long-simmering social energies, fissures, and contradictions to the surface of public discourse. He further seems less quick to completely renounce the pleasures of the most original of these films than many critics, as evident in the chapter's account of the visual and audio allure of Superfly:

The film not only managed subtly and convincingly to visualize the space of the inner-city black world from the decaying, junkie-infested tenements to Priests' tacky penthouse, but the musical score by Curtis Mayfield turned out to be brilliant and absolutely relevant; it added deep commentary, texture, and mood to the production. Also contributing to Superfly's magnetic appeal was the films exaggerated but polished costuming as Youngblood Priest traipsed through the story world in long, narrow-waisted overcoats with leather trim and high collars off-set with big-brimmed hats and a gaudy, customized El Dorado to match. Further suggestive of its politics, Superfly featured at its center a four-minute photo montage ... depicting people of ail races and orientations pleasurably consuming cocaine as a popular recreational drug, presumably supplied by Youngblood Priest.

The book positions the Blaxploitation genre's irruptive representation of Black masculinity in relation to the box office stardom of Sidney Poitier in the late 1960s. Poitier's film persona--a sexless, saintly "paragon of virtue completely devoid of mature characterization or of any political or social reality"--is historicized as a construction by which Hollywood answered political protest and social pressures regarding its compulsive use of crude racist stereotypes. One of the recurrent conceptual threads running through Framing Blackness is the sense in which the simple reversal of mythologizing or stereotyping tropes and images tends to reproduce an obverse flatness and emptiness (a phenomenon after manipulated by the film industry to contain, stymie, and frustrate political activism). This insight energizes the book's reading of Mandingo (1975), which is credited with accessing an African American perspective on slavery, depicting slaves' rebellions, escapes, and resistant strategies, and thereby puncturing the myth of contented slave so endemic in the plantation genre But both cinematic views of slavery, "the original white hegemonic impulse and the reversed black perspective, are, for the most part, one dimensional, with all characters turning into oppositional cutouts produced according to Hollywood's economics needs"; Guerrero calls for films whether mainstream or independent, which would convey the continuing pertinence and bearing of slavery upon all Americans today.

In the wake of Blaxploitation's collapse, the book documents a number of depressing trends marking the late 1970s and Reaganite 1980s: not only the unrelenting reduction of films with Black narratives but the resurrection of racist imagery from the pre-civil rights past--what Guerrero dubs "neominstrelsy," evident in features such as The Blues Brothers (1980), Soul Man (1986), and Clara's Heart (1988). Guerrero adds original insight to cultural studies' understanding of the oft bemoaned 1980s by identifying the updated strategy of containment operating in his searingly described category of "biracial buddy films," which include some of the decade's top moneymaking movies and which place Black male leads within the "protective custody" of a White chaperon. This subgenre, which has frequently proscribed the talents of Eddie Murphy, Richard Pryor, and Danny Glover, is linked to Hollywood's more widespread tactic of positioning African American stars in White milieus, isolating them from any reference to Black culture or contact with other Black characters. A labyrinthine psychic social map of the genre is then elaborated to devastating effect, with a particularly astute theorizing of how these films' occasional representations of Black institutional authority and leverage are structured so as to provide White spectators a safely distanced, masochistic titillation.

One of the book's most compelling and disturbing arguments concerns the causative relation between periods of economic downturn in the film industry and two highly visible waves of black-focused films--Blaxploitation of the early 1970s and the "new black movie boom" of the early 1990s. In substantial detail, Guerrero establishes the periods from 1968 to '72 and 1991 to '92 as periods of economic crisis for Hollywood. In a telling combination, he then cites several studies which estimate that African Americans-about 13 percent of the U.S. population--make up a disproportionate segment of the movie going public, between 25 and 30 percent. The argument is that African Americans provide Hollywood a sort of reserve audience, to be ignored or taken for granted in times of prosperity but to be solicited-by co-opting insurgent images--in times of hardship.

The "boom" of the early 1990s is in this sense connected to Blaxploitation even as it occurs within a fundamentally dissimilar social climate. Guerrero contrasts the late '60s identitarian nationalism and rising social expectation which informed Blaxploitation with the "nihilism, fragmentation, and self-doubt" of the current moment. His most pressing cautionary note within this moment concerns the paradoxes of learning "the master's form"--this amounts not to the familiar endorsement of avant-garde signifying practices as disrupting the fixity of the Symbolic, but a quite urgent note of warning regarding the "mixed bag of tricks" which Hollywood has historically utilized to appropriate African American vision and aesthetic perspective. Spike Lee's talent for "guerrilla financing," media politics, cultural insights, and in certain cases actual film-making come in for resounding acclaim in Framing Blackness even as Guerrero points out the land-mines afoot; he fears that Lee "could be betrayed in much the same way that Fellini was betrayed by the sheer opulence and technological excess with which Hollywood diluted and smothered his creativity." A number of subtle objections to Do the Right Thing (1989) are registered, including the overall judgment that "the film's slick, colour-saturated look has the effect of idealizing or making nostalgic the present, rather than dramatizing any deep sense of social or political urgency." Guerrero's consistent dedication to questions of cinematic language and form motivate his indispensable readings of Daughters of the Dust (1990), Looking for Langston (1989), Sidewalk Stories (1989), To Sleep with Anger (1990), and Boyz N the Hood (1991), among many others.

One of the overarching theoretical interests of Framing Blackness is the manner in which its enabling concepts and hypotheses are so fully absorbed into its method that there's no gap between prefatory abstraction and textual interpretation. The book makes use of an Althusserian understanding of ideology but avoids the limitations of certain Althusser-influenced film studies which, by regarding a film's structured interpellation of the viewer as loosely analogous to the subject's very entry into language, place a proper emphasis upon a film's ideological functions while simultaneously rendering those functions mystically consuming and primally foreboding. By acknowledging the uncanny while foregrounding a politically activist faith in the mutability of ideology (manifested often in his historically peripatetic method) as well as faith in a future of contestatory filmic images and narratives, Guerrero succeeds in extending the implications of Alhusser's asserted--if not achieved - transcendence of "false consciousness."

Framing Blackness, Guerrero's first book, activates and explores more issues, of course, than can be touched upon here. Its arguments tread firmly on materialist ground while still taking the reader to frequent rhetorical heights, alive to paradox and pleasure, penetrating yet expansive. Many of Guerrero's proof-texts have received widespread criticism, but none more judicious, multivalent, or elucidating of historical crosscurrents within U.S. society.


Bambara, Toni Cade. 1993. "Reading the Signs, Empowering the Eye: Daughters of the Dust and the Black Independent Cinema Movement." In Miantha Diawara, Ed. Black American Cinema. 1993. New York: Routledge.

Bogle, Donald. 1973. Toms, Coons, Mulattoes, Mammies & Bucks. New York: Bantam.

Cripps, Thomas. 1978. Black Film as Genre. Bloomington: Indiana UP.

Jim Knippling teaches English at the University of Nebraska-Lincoin. He is working on a study of novelist Chester Himes (1909-1984).

Go to Semiotic Review of Books Home Page
Go to SRB Highlights
Go to SRB Archives