Academic journal article African American Review

Noir by Noirs: Towards a New Realism in Black Cinema

Academic journal article African American Review

Noir by Noirs: Towards a New Realism in Black Cinema

Article excerpt

Le film noir est noir pour nous, c'est-a-dire pour le public occidental et americain des annees 50. (Borde and Chaumeton 5)

Looking eastward from the towers of Riverside Church perched among the university buildings on the high banks of the Hudson River, in a valley far below, waves of gray rooftops distort the perspective like the surface of a sea. Below the surface, in the murky waters of fetid tenements, a city of black people who are convulsed in desperate living, like the voracious churning of millions of hungry cannibal fish Blind mouths eating their own guts. Stick in a hand and draw back a nub.

That is Harlem. (Himes 93)

There are two sides to film noir criticism: One formalist, and the other content-based. Feminist criticism, for example, often emphasizes the formal elements of film noir--the stylized lighting the eroticization of violence, the typecasting of detectives, the bad guys and femmes fatales--in order to show the devices by which the genre stabilizes patriarchy, and the ways in which the genre maintains itself by preventing the emergence of other types of women. Formalist criticism links the epithet noir to the grotesque, the sinister, and the image of women as monstrous in Western culture. Women, bad guys, and detectives in film noir are "Black" by virtue of occupying indeterminate and monstrous spaces that Whiteness traditionally reserves for Blackness in our culture. In film noir there is clearly an oppositional discourse between dark and light, underworld and above ground, good and evil and it is through the blurring of these boundaries that characters partake of the attributes of Blackness. From a formalist perspective, a film is noir if it puts into play light and dark in order to exhibit a people who become "Black" because of their low moral behavior. As a formalist device, Feminist criticism exposes film noir's attempt to paint White women as "Black" in order to control their agency and self-fashioning.(1)

Marxist criticism, too, equates the noirification of film style and characters in the genre with pessimism and the decay of the capitalist system. It is in this sense that, commenting on the noir writers of the '30s and '40s, Mike Davis states that "noir was like a transformational grammar turning each charming ingredient of the boosters' arcadia into a sinister equivalent. Thus, in Horace McCoy's They Shoot Horses Don't They? (1935) the marathon dance hall on Ocean Pier became virtually a death camp for the depression's lost souls" (38). The attempt to look to the noirification of characters and subject matter as a Marxism manque by the creators of the noir style is also echoed by Carl Richardson, in an excellent study of the subject entitled Autopsy: An Element of Realism in Film Noir. For Richardson, film noir derives its realism from a sense of pessimism, a light cast on the dark background created by the Depression: "It is traumatic for an individual to lose a set of beliefs. For a world-wide coterie of intellectuals and artists, it is a dark, frustrating process. It is a film noir on a large scale" (183).

Another side to film noir criticism, one that is complicated through ethnicity and the present crisis in American cities, involves the description of such films about Black people, or directed by Black filmmakers. I want to make the argument here that the new Black directors appropriate film noir styles, among others, to create the possibility for the emergence of new and urbanized Black images on the screen. Whereas the first epigraph taken from the book by Borde and Chaumeton describes film noir as purely a style which uses the tropes of Blackness as metaphors of White characters' moral transgressions, and falls from grace, the second epigraph from Chester Himes's A Rage in Harlem focuses the noir style on Black people themselves. For Borde and Chaumeton, film noir is Black because the characters have lost the privilege of Whiteness by pursuing life styles that are misogynistic, cowardly, duplicitous, and an eroticization of violence. …

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