The Genre Don't Know Where It Came From: African American Neo-Noir since the 1960s

By Covey, William | Journal of Film and Video, Summer 2003 | Go to article overview

The Genre Don't Know Where It Came From: African American Neo-Noir since the 1960s


Covey, William, Journal of Film and Video


BEGINNING IN THE LATE 1960s, a series of mystery thrillers focusing on African American detectives and police officers were released, including In the Heat of the Night (1967), The Split (1968), Up Tight (1968), Cotton Comes to Harlem (1970), They Call Me MISTER Tibbs (1970), and Friday Foster (1975). As this wave of African American neo-noirs was surfacing, nearly a decade after the original period of Hollywood film noir (1941-1958), white film noir discourse resurfaced in a series of Hollywood detective and police films: Harper (1966), Gunn (1967), Madigan (1968), The Detective (1968), and Marlowe (1969). Then, after approximately a ten-year hiatus in black neo-noir production, Hollywood released a second wave that included Deadly Illusion (1987), Deep Cover (1992), One False Move (1992), Clockers (1995), and the remake of Shaft (2000).

Alain Silver and Elizabeth Ward have loosely defined this complex era of film production from 1967 to the present as the "Neo-Noir period [where] many of the productions that recreate the noir mood, whether in remakes or new narratives, have been undertaken by filmmakers cognizant of a heritage and intent on placing their own interpretation on it" (398). Thus, the two cycles of black noirs constitute an indispensable element of the larger new noir discourse. African American neo-noirs appeal to both black and crossover audiences, and film criticism must consider more closely how these black films inform the general practice of neonoir filmmaking discourse.

The critical work on black neo-noir is both recent and sparse, creating at best a gap in noir criticism, and at worst suggesting confusion about the importance of these films. Still, some key authors stand out. For example, Paula Massood discovered a parallel between the themes of the white noirs and those of the late 19605 black films. She asserts that "the black action film genre ... incorporated subject matter and thematic concerns in which inner city impoverishment and crime acted as primary conditions for the narratives" (87). Julian Murphet's "Film Noir and the Racial Unconscious" and Eric Lett's "The Whiteness of Film Noir" both provide thought-provoking arguments about the many ways in which blackness was ignored in classic film noirs (1941-1958). Each critic recognizes the presence of black film noir, but perhaps still only at the edges of mainstream noir discourse. However, as Bill Nichols accurately claims, "Conceptual metaphors take on tangible embodiment through discursive practices and institutional apparatuses. Such practices give a metaphor historical weight and ideological power" (105). As such, African American neo-noirs as conceptual metaphors help represent and illustrate black experiences; they constitute a semiotic landscape that deserves the critical attention of the academy. Writing black neo-noirs into the history of film noir can begin to fill this critical gap. Providing historical context and analyzing key films, this essay argues that African American neo-noir discourse is an essential component of neo-noir studies, not merely a marginalized addition. The resulting dialogue expands the urban landscape that the neo-noir film defines and exploits.

In examining African American neo-noir filmmaking, cultural stereotypes surface about black men, especially black professionals in a white-run system. Neo-noirs analyze these topics, including myths about black "supermen," black male sexuality, and black criminality. Such issues occur within a general environment that includes each film's surrounding social text, the intertext of African American culture, and the overall neo-noir canon. Dan Flory accurately claims that "our sense of noir should include an understanding of it as a discourse involving aesthetic ideologies, theoretical movements, ways of reading, and historical moods as well as one involving films" (84). To exclude any one of these elements is to overlook a key component of film analysis. …

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