I had the good fortune of watching Killer of Sheep on the big screen earlier this year. The film program at Madison offered a class on American Independent Cinema last semester and Charles Burnett’s film was part of the course’s screening schedule. Since many instructors in the program open their screenings up to the public–the theater in Vilas Hall is technically a public space for other screenings–my partner and I seized the opportunity to watch it.
We knew quite a bit about it following its 2007 DVD release. Specifically, we knew about its prestige and various interventions from the Library of Congress, Steven Soderbergh, and a team of archivists to get the film preserved and distributed after its limited 1977 release. Having written a bit on Burnett’s contemporary Julie Dash, I also knew about the L.A. Rebellion, an underground African American film movement that was active during the 70s and early 80s and comprised of filmmakers responding to European Art Cinema and responding against the minstrelsy they believed typified blaxploitation films.
We also knew it was a film about a poor black family in Watts that poetized their humanity in ways similar to the cinematic traditions of British kitchen sink realism and Italian neorealism. Stan (Henry G. Sanders) is the young patriarch who works in a slaughterhouse to provide for his (unnamed) wife (Kaycee Moore) and children (played by Jack Drummond and Burnett’s niece Angela). He is lured into a criminal plan because his job cannot cover all of his family’s necessities and because the monotonous labor is killing him inside.
The film is austere. It commits to showing its audience dilapidated housing projects and the city’s limited and gendered recreational activities for black adolescents. It commits to having its audience hear black men argue about what it means to truly be poor–Stan is convinced that he’s not really poor because he hasn’t resorted to eating weeds yet. It features heartbreaking performances from characters who are punished by society for seeming too desperate, too proud, and too cunning, but ultimately because they live in a country that only values factory labor insofar as how it can profit from it and refuses to invest it in the poor black families dependent on that income or in the financial stability and emotional well-being of the men and women who hold down those jobs (until they get outsourced).
I recognize that Sheep‘s aesthetic realism is constructed, as is any attempt to use cinema either to put forth or avoid telling capital-t truths. But what is most effective about the film is its observational quality. It doesn’t feel manipulative or exploitative, perhaps in part because it doesn’t suggest that these characters’ lives are inherently tragic, so much as compromised by white supremacist systemic oppression. It is convinced of their particular beauty, despite–perhaps because of–all the concrete, shit, blood, and racism diminishing their environment. What makes Sheep rare and important is that it never condescends to that beauty. Burnett doesn’t speak for that beauty or talk down to it. He tries to honor his characters’ conflicted humanity by making a film that looks like it would screen at a cinematheque, except that it’s about people rarely seen on-screen or in the audience.
I also knew that Sheep had a period-appropriate soundtrack full of unlicensed soul and R&B music meant to further articulate black urban subjectivity that, unfortunately, contributed to its decades-long inaccessibility. In particular, I knew it made poignant use Dinah Washington’s version of “This Bitter Earth.” What I didn’t know is that it also had a scene that featured Angela Burnett’s character singing Earth, Wind and Fire’s “Reasons.” Clearly, it’s my favorite.
The juxtaposition between mother and daughter’s leisure time is obvious. The song–a love ballad about longing for carnal and emotional intimacy–is clearly meant to comment on how neglected Stan’s wife feels as she puts on makeup in an attempt to please him. But “Reasons” is placed within the diegesis of the scene and her daughter is singing over it, loudly stumbling over the words. The little girl is also playing with a naked white female doll, at once performing for it and ignoring it as she gets caught up in the joyful noise her voice is creating. It’s also a small window into black girl fandom. Given how rare it is to actually see mediated representations of black girlhood, witnessing black girls engage with popular texts emanating from black culture is something to treasure. I’m thrilled to hear Angela Burnett’s voice blend and clash with Philip Bailey’s falsetto and glad her uncle included it in this remarkable film.
This post is dedicated to the four-year-old girl I met on the bus home from class earlier this week. We talked about Dora the Explorer, her older sister’s boyfriend, her alter ego Juanita, and sang “No More Monkeys Jumping on the Bed.” She also named the women on the cover of Jacqueline Bobo’s Black Women as Cultural Readers. A reproduction of Varnette Honeywood’s Snuff Dippers, the women depicted are now named Sophia and Danielle, respectively. This girl is the fucking future.
When I lived in Austin, I watched several Tyler Perry movies with my friend Erik. Perry is an industry unto himself, so to avoid watching his films seemed short-sighted to us. The politics of avoidance shaped and raced reception practices around his films. Perry’s consumer base are people of color, particularly within African American communities. Erik wanted to have some understanding of these movies because many of his co-workers are fans of Perry’s films. Thus, he wanted to be able to discuss them if they ever came up in conversation at work. I believe he saw Perry’s entire filmography, including filmed performances of the stage plays, which include intermissions, flubbed lines, improvisations, musical numbers, and discussions from Perry about moral lessons and thematic elements.
As a media studies scholar, I’m troubled by the racial politics of distinction and selection when choosing not to see a Tyler Perry movie. Pretty much all of the white people of my acquaintance, both within and outside of the academy, refuse to see Tyler Perry movies primarily because of the charges of sexism, homophobia, and misogyny led against his work. I can certainly understand the rationale behind the boycott, especially from within communities of color. At least one of my girlfriends refuses to see any of his films, in part because she is bothered by her parents’ fandom. Womanist Musings’ Renee Martin argues “Perry has said on many occasions that Madea is his version of a tribute to Black women, and I for one would much prefer he erase us.” Public figures like Todd Boyd seek to turn it such resistance into a social moment.
Likewise, I certainly understand the tacit privilege and threat of appropriation that occurs when white filmgoers take up a Tyler Perry film. While some white critics are engaging with Perry’s work in thoughtful ways, as Matt Zoller Seitz does in an essay that compares Perry’s work to Pedro Almodóvar’s filmography, these contributions should be problematized rather than taken as given. I’m also not discrediting claims against homophobia, sexism, and misogyny, as they are foregrounded and embedded within many of Perry’s films. Successful women are constantly vilified or pathologized in ways that play directly into black patriarchy. The threat of male emasculation looms so large it begs psychoanalytic intervention. Finally, the ways in which violence against women is played as high melodrama and violence against children is figured as slapstick is troubling, though perhaps speak to larger cultural histories of discipline and racial difference. Nor do I want to suggest that Tyler Perry’s films speak to or stand in for universal black experience, as no such thing exists.
But in my field, there is no justification for seeing a shitpile like Transformers because it is a successful film franchise (and thus a potential conference paper or book chapter) but avoiding a financially lucrative yet potentially problematic set of film titles and franchises from a controversial black male director. Even when Perry’s work is discussed in these contexts, the conversations can be disappointing. The logic behind such selectivity reminds me of an anecdote Kristen Warner shares at the beginning of her Flow column on black women and affect on reality TV. At a conference panel she attended, a presenter spoke on the Real Housewives franchise, but made clear that she didn’t watch the Atlanta season. Warner continues, “While others laughed, I was inwardly infuriated because, honestly, in a franchise based on ridiculous women behaving badly, how can one distinguish which cast is the worst?” Exactly. The troublesome rhetoric of positive representations and resultant policing and exclusionary strategies are at work here.
Though my screenings with Erik were casual, we knew as white twenty-somethings that there might be something potentially anthropological about what we were doing. Though we did see Why Did I Get Married Too in theaters, we decided against seeing it opening weekend, as it coincided with the Texas Relays. Instead, we saw it a few weeks later at my neighborhood movie theater. We also saw Why Did I Get Married, Daddy’s Little Girls, Medea Goes to Jail, Madea’s Family Reunion, and I Can Do Bad All By Myself.
Of Perry’s films, I like I Can Do Bad All By Myself the best. For one, it’s got Byron (Frederick Siglar), a charming kid who delivers some of the best reaction shots I’ve seen in recent memory. For another, it boasts cameos from Mary J. Blige and Gladys Knight, two black female artists whose music has been transformative for many black women. More importantly, Taraji P. Henson is excellent as April, a night club singer and alcoholic who is charged with and later embraces caring for her nephew Byron and his siblings Jennifer (Hope Olaidè Wilson) and Manny (Kwesi Boakye) after their family falls apart. Given the recent exclusion of the Academy Award-nominated actress from a TV Guide cover story for Person of Interest, such demonstrations of her formidable talent serve as necessary reminders. Of Perry’s work, it might also be the most female-positive and least pathological.
A couple of years ago, I attended a conference panel presentation that featured a prominent communication scholar who presented on Perry’s films. Apart from failing to demonstrate basic knowledge of Perry’s filmography or any interest in acquiring it, what disappointed me most about the scholar’s presentation was that she refused to dialogue with any discourses around fan and reception practices that might challenge her extremely negative reading of his work. While reading Jacqueline Bobo’s Black Women As Cultural Readers for class this week, I wondered how black women would discuss texts like the Medea series, The Help, or Adventures of Awkward Black Girl. Thankfully, such discourses are constantly evolving online.
What strikes me most about Bobo’s book is the role translation plays in black women’s reception practices. In a chapter focusing on black women’s discourses surrounding Julie Dash’s Daughters of the Dust, the director recalls resistance toward having the film subtitled. She discusses her initial inability to engage with Miller’s Crossing because it took her a bit to adjust to the characters’ thick accents, then adds “You may not understand every sentence but you’ll surely get the general idea, the sensibility of the whole thing. We’ve grown up translating. We’ve had no other choice.” This makes me reflect on teaching, both as a college instructor and as music history workshop facilitator for Girls Rock Camp. With GRC, I seek to challenge the organization’s riot grrrl origins, how genres are privileged, how fan cultures around musical genres are raced, and acknowledge the reality that riot grrrl might not mean much to black female campers’ reception practices or lived experiences. I’m completely fine with this. As a feminist, I strive toward building a curriculum of inclusion where black girls can participate and influence. Translation will always be a part of this process, though hopefully we can think of it as an invitation rather than a challenge.
The other night, my heart broke while watching Douglas Sirk’s Imitation of Life. It seems like All That Heaven Allows has a greater impact on the culture–feminists love Jane Wyman, Rock Hudson provides ample fodder for the queer theorists, it got the Criterion treatment along with Written on the Wind. However, Todd Haynes seems equally influenced by Heaven and Imitation, bringing both films’ preoccupations with closeted identities and tenuous racial integration into Far From Heaven.
Imitation resonated with me in terms of how women attempt to form bonds across racial lines and the racism and self-loathing women internalize to accommodate white Eurocentic beauty standards. I can’t relate to the second issue like Sarah Jane Johnson (Karin Dicker as a child, Susan Kohner as a teenager), a biracial girl attempting to pass as white in pre-Civil Rights America. Nonetheless, I ache for her to love and accept Annie (Juanita Moore), her black single mother who works as a caretaker for Lora Meredith (Lana Turner), a successful Broadway actress whose career places demands against being a full-time mother to daughter Suzie (Terry Burnham, later Sandra Dee).
As a white woman, I’m sensitive to Annie and Lora’s friendship and its power imbalances. Black and white women historically have a difficult time being friends. It’s hard to ignore cultural differences and systems of inequality while holding onto them at the same time, figuring out when to be empathetic and remembering to treat people as individuals and not symbols. Speaking in generalities, many white women feel good about being friends with black women, and thus disregard black women’s humanity. They aren’t friends with black women so much as they’re proud of themselves for being friends with black women, factoring black women out in the process. When you bring in the racial injustices waged by white mainstream feminism(s), it’s little wonder that many black women’s default mode around white women is incredulity.
Annie convinces Lora to hire her as a nanny when Lora is still struggling to break into show business and Annie is ostensibly homeless. However, Lora becomes a sensation, acquiring the means to essentially buy her friend. I wouldn’t go so far as to say that Lora enslaves Annie, because I’m cautious to use a term so loaded that disregards Annie’s agency and suggests that Lora doesn’t consider Annie to be a person. But Annie is staff. As she reminds Lora late in the film, she’s paid to be the mother Lora didn’t have time to be. The sad irony is that she’s more of a mother to a blonde white girl than she is to her own daughter, who wants very badly to be treated like a blonde white girl.
Since it’s a Sirk movie, there are some amazing shots that beautifully visualize key themes. The opening credits shimmer as an avalanche of diamonds overwhelm the frame. They gesture toward Lora’s opulence. About half of the film’s budget was for Turner’s wardrobe, and I’d imagine most of it was spent on jewelry. The credits are accompanied by a song that shares the film’s title, sung by Earl Grant. The word “imitation” suggests that the diamonds could be fake, and thus represent a emotional hollowness underneath Sarah Jane’s aspirations. Don’t be an imitation of life, the song encourages. Embrace who you truly are. Lauryn Hill gave similar advice to self-hating black women in “Doo Wop (That Thing)”: “don’t be a hard rock when you really are a gem.” In this context, the jewels are garish and oppressive.
Another image that stays with me is Sarah Jane’s discarded black doll. Perhaps because I came of age during kinderwhore and the mainstream coopting of riot grrrl, dolls embody a white feminine ideal. As Ann DuCille notes in her seminal essay, “Dyes and Dolls: Multicultural Barbie and the Merchandising of Difference,” that ideal often excludes black femininity and its integration is troubled by colorism, hair politics, and fallacy of colorblindness. Even though I don’t want girls to see themselves as dolls, I don’t want Sarah Jane to hate the doll in her arms.
Sirk’s Imitation was the second film adaptation of Fannie Hurst’s 1933 novel. A lot of changes were made, particularly that Lora became independently successful as an actress instead of building her fortune on Annie’s pancake recipe. The casting is also interesting. Sarah Kohner is Jewish and Mexican American. She’s not black, and perhaps today the part would go to Hallie Steinfield (though don’t be so sure). But I think Kohner is a more progressive casting choice than Natalie Wood, who was considered for the role.
It hurts to witness Sarah Jane’s desire to pass as white and her anger toward her mother that she can’t. She’s well aware of the limited choices and consequences of her racial identity, but hates her mother and herself instead of a racist society that so totally values whiteness. I was angry with Sarah Jane for how she treats her mother, and how Annie allows herself to be treated. She removes herself from Sarah Jane’s life as requested rather than fight to stay in it. I wanted her to shake Sarah Jane for her racist behavior and tell her that black is beautiful. But maybe this is just what I wanted to see, affirming that audiences prefer films that represent racism as a choice made by characters instead of an entrenched societal problem.
Annie dies of a broken heart after Sarah Jane runs away to be a white chorus girl. She returns for the funeral, throwing herself on the casket and claiming that she killed her mother. There are so many powerful moments in the final sequence, though I was particularly moved by the image of a black boy having his hat removed by an adult as a sign of respect when Annie’s carriage passes by. But Mahalia Jackson’s performance as a church soloist defines the film. I don’t want to make Jackson the voice of the Civil Rights Movement anymore than I want Annie to be reduced to a sacrificial figure, but it’s hard not to feel shame and heartbreak in Jackson’s solemn rendition of “Trouble of the World.” Mavis Staples believed the NPR segment linked above would make listeners stop and take in the power and grace of Jackson’s voice. She certainly does that in Imitation, reminding us of two lives cut short by racism that deserved to be lived.
In other news, I wrote a review for Ruth Nicole Brown’s wonderful Black Girlhood Celebration: Toward a Hip-Hop Feminist Pedagogy for Scratched Vinyl. Check it out.