Academic journal article Genders

Black and White Masculinity: In Three Steven Soderbergh Films

Academic journal article Genders

Black and White Masculinity: In Three Steven Soderbergh Films

Article excerpt

[1] Steven Soderbergh, director of both experimental films and big-budget genre films, has been unusually candid about racism in Hollywood. In a June 2003 New York Times profile of African American actor Don Cheadle, Soderbergh bluntly states that Cheadle would have advanced further at this point in his career if he were white (Hochman, 13). Soderbergh's assertion of racially discriminatory hiring practices in the film industry allows Cheadle to avoid making the case himself and thereby drawing the charge that he is attempting to benefit professionally by "playing the race card."

[2] However, despite Soderbergh's vocal stance on industry discrimination, and despite the progressive politics consistently advanced in his films, Soderbergh's films themselves perpetuate a long-standing tradition in U.S. cinema of representing black men as predators intent upon victimizing women, particularly white women. A close reading of Out of Sight (1998), Traffic (2000) and Full Frontal (2002) suggests that these stereotypical figures indicate neither an investigation of black masculinity nor, finally, an effort to demonize black men. Instead, the dangerous black men who recur in Soderbergh's films function as villainous counterparts to the non-traditional white men in whom the films are deeply invested. Ultimately, the rapacious black men in Out of Sight and Traffic are caricatures that serve to emphasize the heroism of the white protagonists. The films posit white men, even the alternative white men Soderbergh returns to repeatedly, as agents of rescue and valor. Soderbergh validates the thoughtful white men in his films by demonstrating their accordance to traditional forms of white masculinity, such as the use of vigilante violence to protect white women. Drawing upon feminist film theory, critical race theory, and analyses of popular U.S. cinema, I argue in this paper that the inclusion of stereotypical black masculinity in Soderbergh's films provides the threat that mobilizes otherwise non-macho white men, thereby rehabilitating their active masculinity.

[3] Soderbergh's films lend themselves to an auteurist analysis because as a director, he maintains a striking amount of control over his films and has significant creative input into them. As well as serving as director, Soderbergh edited his first three films himself (sex, lies, and videotape [1989], Kafka [1991], and King of the Hill [1993]) and wrote the screenplays for four films (sex, lies, and videotape, King of the Hill, The Underneath [1995], and Schizopolis [1996]). Having begun his career as a low-budget filmmaker, albeit an immediately successful one, he has often been regarded as the catalyst for the independent film movement in the U.S., a movement characterized in the cultural imagination as challenging the confines of traditional Hollywood filmmaking conventions. Soderbergh has gone on to make a succession of experimental films (Kafka, Schizopolis, Full Frontal, and Bubble [2005]) over which he exercised a great deal of creative control because of their relatively small budgets and small crews. Through his emphasis on stylish editing, sound, camera work, frame compositions, and color, Soderbergh has imported into Hollywood some of the formal preoccupations of experimental filmmaking, such as challenges to character identification and narrative structure. He has also managed to maintain an independent director's control over his films, even while working on projects with much bigger budgets. It was not particularly unusual for Soderbergh to double as director and cinematographer for the low-budget, experimental film Schizopolis. However, in every film he has made since Erin Brockovich (2000) he has also functioned as his own cinematographer (credited with as Peter Andrews), an unprecedented combination of roles for big-budget studio films such as Traffic, Ocean's Eleven (2001), Solaris (2002), and Ocean's Twelve (2004). Soderbergh's investment in using a hand-held camera also reinforces his control over the image, in that the camera is literally attached to his own body (Traffic contains just four non-hand-held shots, which is remarkable for a lengthy, big-budget feature film [Kaufman, 161]). …

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