Divas on Screen: Black Women in American Film

Article excerpt

* Divas on Screen: Black Women in American Film. Mia Mask. Champagne, IL: University of Illinois Press, 2009. 306 pp. $25 pbk.

Mia Mask's scholarly work, Divas on Screen: Black Women in American Film, clearly "pushes the discussion of African American celebrities" and the debate on their representation in film into a new dimension. The author examines how African American celebrity functions as a social phenomenon. She peels and reassembles the layers of charisma in her study of five African American film divas: Dorothy Dandridge, Pam Grier, Whoopie Goldberg, Oprah Winfrey, and Halle Berry.

Mask, who teaches film and drama at Vassar College, uses a historical and theoretical approach to examine each heroine's struggles and triumphs. She goes beyond previous theoretical models that evaluated the "good, politically progressive against the bad, regressive black stereotypes."

Mask integrates the skepticism of the Frankfurt School social theorists with what she describes as the more balanced feminist film theory of sociologist Max Weber. She also acknowledges the work of film historian Donald Bogle, novelist James Baldwin, English film professor Richard Dyer, and P. David Marshall in their critical examination of Hollywood films. Additionally, the author credits the work of sociologists Christopher Lasch, David Riesman, and others for their research on celebrity and stardom. But Mask is the maestro in this public discourse. She poses important questions about the effects of popular culture and helps readers understand how the power of charisma transcends time.

Acknowledging the legacy of previous artistic trailblazers who paved the way for the five divas, the book explores the popular and early film works of each celebrity. Mask explains the how and why of the "film industry's social manufacturing of African American beauty" and its contribution to black identity.

For example, Divas discusses Dorothy Dandridge's struggle to break Hollywood's racial barrier, along with her exploitation and success during the postWorld War II and Jim Crow eras. This occurred against the backdrop of African American women fighting for social justice. Despite the physical, sexual, and emotional abuses Dandridge suffered, she became a celebrity and "phenomenon of consumption," Mask observes. The author contrasts Dandridge's wholesome film character in the movie Bright Road, for example, with the fallen women in the movies Carmen Jones and Porgy and Bess. Dandridge the person and the actress transcend time, and the author shows how the star's persona lives on in current day celebrities.

Enter the 1970s and the sexual revolution, where Pam Grier emerges as a crossover film star with what Mask calls phallic or psycho-sexual charisma. …