(reprinted with the kind permission of Arthur Jafa)
Like Rashomon but Different
THE NEW BLACK CINEMA
Arthur Jafa on the Hughes Brothers' Menace II Society
It is only with difficulty that I tolerate the mediocrity of most contemporary
black cinema, a trick I manage by constantly reminding myself that mediocrity
is a necessary stage in the development of a mature practice. What I'm unable
to tolerate is the delusional critical assessment of these films. Simply
put, the so-called New Black Film Renaissance is as clear a case of the
Emperor's new clothes as I can think of. With a handful of exceptions, these
films are barely worth discussing in anything but the most base sociological
or, worse, commercial terms. The incapacity, really the unwillingness, to
address their general incompetence is patronizing at best. At worst, it
actively delays the real work needed to develop black cinema.
The Hughes Brothers' Menace II Society provided the kind of movie
experience I've seldom had since childhood, intense experiences that had
as much to do with adolescent hormonal raging as anything. experiences in
which surrender to the narrative was total. Few films now seem capable of
even suggesting that power. much less sustaining it. These experiences were
a kind of virtual reality in which one lost sense of one's body. became
a sheer spectator. The curious side effect of which was the inevitable recoalescence
with one's physicality. A sort of postastral glow. An altered state.
I had a similar experience in 1986 at an early screening of Spike Lee's
She's Gotta Have It. I remember excitedly proclaiming to Charles
Burnett and Julie Dash. This is it. this shit gonna break." Up until
then, the L.A.-based core of black independent filmmaking had settled into
a tacit acceptance of the incompatibility of its work and mainstream distribution.
These filmmakers adhered to the generally unspoken yet ongoing, radical
aspiration to create films with some measure of the power, alienation, and
beauty of black cultural practices, particularly the music. Independents
who'd compromised their visions for mainstream success were understood as
traitors. She's Gotta Have It demonstrated that an independent minded
black filmmaker could be successful in mainstream terms. Its impact was
immediate and profound.
As a cinematographer, I'm often approached by black producers who, to interest
me in their projects, say things like "There's nothing else like it.
It's like Rashomon but different." Contradictory as such statements
sound. this impulse to describe by analogy speaks to black film's chimeralike
quality, the degree to which it is inherently without precedent.It's like
crossing a bull's head with a zebra's body- drawing the forms of things
unknown, things unborn but kicking just outside the periphery of the actual.
These analogies are attempts to name, to describe films that don't yet exist
but are as powerfully desired, envisioned, as one's first sexual encounter.
Ben Caldwell has said black music is "densely coded African philosophy:"
the same might be said of black cinema, and I believe it will have as profound
a cultural impact in the coming century as black music has had in this one.
The second time I saw Menace II Society I ran into a black film editor
I know. I told him, "It's amazing man. I can't remember the last time
I saw a film that was spowerfully executed. I mean, probably Apocalypse
Now. And it's definitely the most strongly realized black film yet to
surface in the mainstream. It makes Boyz in the Hood seem like The Cosby
Show. Actually, I'd say it's the most auspicious feature debut period
by an American filmmaker since Burnett's Killer of Sheep in the mid
'70s." My friend said he'd read the script a while back but had felt
it lacked anything "redemptive." I just shrugged my shoulders;
Menace II Society is undeniably violent and nihilistic. I didn't
arrive at a reply until after he'd split.
What's redemptive about Menace II Society is its unflinching look
at the despair and hopelessness underlying the rage so characteristic of
young black male urban reality. The directors Allen and Albert Hughes. 20
year-old twins from Detroit who've made a string of hip hop videos over
the past two years, are simply Children of the Damned, unnervingly precocious
I'd actually heard rumblings about the film the previous summer in L.A.
The story went that the Hughes Brothers had walked into New Line Cinema
with script in hand. When this script was compared to Boyz in the Hood
they'd shouted "Boyz in the Hood, fuck Boyz in the Hood,
we'll show you some real violence," upon which they were quickly signed.
I laughed when told this.
The title Menace II Society misleadingly conjures expectations of
a film short on complexity and long on violence. Violence it has, but what
the film suggested to me was a brutal update of Killer of Sheep, a sublime
standard to which any representation of black male victimization and its
concurrent effects must be compared. Menace II Society covers much
of the same terrain as Boyz in the Hood. It describes with ruthless efficiency
the no exit quality of life in South Central L.A. What makes Menace II
Society devastatingly on target is the relentless way in which it assays
the cyclic nature of black on black violence and the pathological strategies
employed by those for whom there is no escape. "Bitch, bitch, bitch
. . . ": the characters obsessively use misogynistic verbosity as a
means of dislodging their internalization of a fixed positionality in the
continuing and nonconsensual s/m dynamic that characterizes black/ white
I recently gave a lecture on the development of black film practices grounded
in African American cultural assumptions. I pointed out the importance of
"primal sites," or those group experiences, such as the Middle
Passage. that have determined so much of the psychic makeup of the African-American
community- how formal reconfigurations of hegemonic norms into conventions
and methodologies better suited to African American expressivity are dependent
upon a sophisticated understanding of these sites. I was somewhat stunned
when a questioner said that I seemed to be celebrating a sort of s/ m model
of black culture. I replied, I wouldn't call it 'celebrating,' but I am
interested in trauma and s/m as frames within which to understand certain
wide scale pathology behavior in the black community." I also recounted
a talk with a friend about trying to imagine a work that would function
for black men as Ntozake Shange's Colored Girls . . . had functioned
for black women. But what I'd actually asked was, Could one imagine a work
that functioned like Color Purple, not Colored Girls. The
slip surprised me. It was hard to imagine a work that placed a male character
in the Celie position. This, I decided, was because victimization, as a
state, as an identity, was, in the black male psyche, feminized to such
a degree that imagining "the male victim became a near impossibility.
Adopting the identity of -victim" was de facto feminizing to the point
of erasing one's masculinity, revoking one's status as a male. Of course
there's a long history of black men as victims, but this history has seldom
been embedded in a black male subject position. The history of lynching
and castration, for example, has rarely been articulated on the level of
the pain of the castrated, or as the sexual violation that it is.
Contemporary black male articulation of victimization, notably in hip-hop,
is typically constructed as a sort of insult to black manhood. The word
"pain" seldom comes up. To speak of one's pain would be to acknowledge
one's vulnerability- vulnerability in this context being understood as weakness.
One can even read black cool- or its more recent configuration, being hard-as
a sort of denial of victim status, a means of deflecting the insult generally
added to injury. Menace II Society shows characters applying a number
of disassociative strategies to the problematic of being victimized, being
reduced to female status. One could say they resist being lowered in the
food chain. What this communicates is a world view in which there are only
two positions to occupy, that of the top or bottom, the victimizer or victim,
the abuser or the abused. Bitches, male or female, are fucked.
Arthur Jafa was co Producer and Director of Photography on Julie Dash's
Daughters of the Dust and Spike Lee's feature production Crooklyn. His interest
in "Black Visual Intonation" is moving into the domain of painting.
This text copyright 1993 by Arthur Jafa
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