Films About Interracial Relationships (1991)

Festival of Festivals, Toronto. September 10-19, 1991.
Films About Interracial Relationships by Richard Fung
(Fuse, Winter 1992)

It used to be that if you wished to cause a real stir, if you wanted to test the liberal tolerance of a film or television audience, you would depict an interracial relationship. And it still works; ask Madonna. The corollary is that if you wanted to stay within the line and you had non-white characters, you either had to find them “one of their kind” or else make the character celibate. (Even as a child, I noticed that the Bill Cosby character in I Spy was alone, while his white counterpart, Robert Culp, was forever having affairs). In this context, any film or TV show that did cross the colour line was liberal and a work of conscience. A positive portrayal of interracial sex became the ultimate progressive statement on race.

Now what was assumed here, and what was always assumed, was that “you” the producers and “you” the audience, are white. No else mattered politically or economically. It never occurred to ask how black or Native or Asian or Latino people might see the issue. Besides, the liberal framework had no analysis of systemic power and therefore no room for the depiction of what might be seen as “coloured” prejudice. People of colour had to be shown as victims, not as subjects. And, in any case, it was taken for granted that they would simply be grateful to have some amorous (white) attention thrown their way. Now, with the highly touted “Black Wave” in American film, all this is beginning to change.

At the end of Spike Lee’s Jungle Fever (1990), the film’s protagonist, Flipper Purify, is firmly returned to “his kind” and his community, contrite after an affair with his white secretary. He was just “curious about white,” he tells her, explaining the unilateral breakup. Despite a modifying sub-plot (the Italian store owner’s budding affair with his black customer), a standard Lee device, the film is pessimistic about the possibility, or even the desirability of black-white relationships. My reading of the film is that Flipper’s eventual rejection of the white woman is the condition upon which his status as hero is constructed within the film.

It is precisely this assumption about race and sexuality – that the colour of someone’s bedmate is taken as an indicator of their politics – that British filmmaker-intellectual-activist, Isaac Julien, challenges in his most recent feature film, Young Soul Rebels (1991). The film asserts not only the possibility and the pleasure but especially the fact of interracial relationships. Set in 1977, during the royal jubilee and a period just before the birth of the autonomous black culture that Britain has since become known for, the film follows two soul boys, Cris and Caz, in uncovering the circumstances around the murder of their friend, TJ. Julien successfully subverts established stereotypes about the relationships of race, gender and sexuality in the mainstream, and also in the Movement. Chris is half-white, the “softer” of the two, heterosexual, and becomes involved with a successful black woman. Caz is dark-skinned, unapologetic, gay, the more “active” of the two (in terms of the film’s structure), and forms a relationship with a white, anti-racist punker. Although Young Soul Rebels is as consciously strategic in its character development, casting, structure and plot as Jungle Fever, Julien’s purpose is the opposite to Lee’s. The effect of Young Soul Rebels is to disrupt the notion that skin shade, sexual orientation, or racial-sexual preference determines a person’s sense of black identity or political commitment. And the film celebrates the transgressiveness of interracial sex, not from a liberal white point of view (as in Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner?) but against the tenets of black nationalism.

There is only so much that can be dealt with in any single film, and Young Soul Rebels is not principally about interracial sex. At the same time, the film is sure to elicit resistance from some viewers because it does not address the reasons why there is a demand for the representation of black-black relationships in the first place, especially in a gay context. This may be rooted in essentialist politics to be sure. But one does not have to espouse determinism to recognize that racialized notions of beauty and the desirability, and questions of power also inform individual taste. These matters cannot simply be dismissed as they involve longstanding historical issues.

In Black Skins, White Masks (Grove Press, 1967, p. 47), for example, psychiatrist and revolutionary intellectual, Franz Fanon, makes the following observation in the chapter on “The Woman of Colour and the White Man:” The number of sayings, proverbs, petty rules of conduct that govern the choice of a lover in the Antilles is astounding. It is always essential to avoid falling back into the pit of niggerhood, and every woman in the Antilles, whether in a casual flirtation or in a serious affair, is determined to select the least black of the men.

Fanon was writing specifically of his native Martinique, and his statement is rather sweeping even then. But judging from Curacao director Felix de Rooy’s Ava and Gabriel (1989), his analysis holds a general truth for the Caribbean under its various forms of colonial rule.

The unofficial language of Curacao is Papiamentu, which is a sort of naturally evolved Esperanto, consisting of an admixture of Portugese, Spanish, Dutch and English mixed with African languages. From the polyglot nature of the society, one can devise that this is a racially mixed populace. Yet what de Rooy demonstrates with utter clarity is how, in the colonial context, colour equates with power even in this seeming melting pot.

It is the late ‘40s. Ava is a young teacher of mixed race, engaged to be married to the white police major, Carlos. This opportunity for upward mobility is derailed when Ava is chosen to model for a painting of an “Antillan” Virgin Mary, destined to grace the local church. Ava falls in love with the black Surinamese painter Gabriel, much to the chagrin of her mother and the fury (and sheer disbelief) of her fiancé.

The second installment of a trilogy, which includes the prize-winning Almacita di Desolato (1986), Ava and Gabriel is a loose restaging of the Christian messiah myth, with Ava as the mother of Jesus and Gabriel as the archangel of the Annunciation. But while spirituality is a major theme in the film, its breakthrough lies in the insightful depiction of the social and political forces that inform everyday life in the Caribbean.

The predicament of Ava’s and Gabriel’s mutual attraction and the eventual tragedy that befalls Gabriel because of it, is framed by an elaborate set of intermingling sub-plots. Balancing Ava’s engagement to Carlos is Gabriel’s flirtation with Louise, the (white) wife of the governor. Gabriel’s eventual rejection of her in part leads to his downfall. There is also a gay relationship which is effectively treated and furnishes further observations on class, colour, and sexuality. However, particularly significant is the contextualizing narrative of the resistance of the Catholic church hierarchy and the local white elite to the heretical and subversive image of a black Virgin.

The cinematic representation of interracial sex as threatening, in fact, goes back to the beginnings of Hollywood itself, with D.W. Griffith’s negrophobic Birth of a Nation (1915) and his (ostensibly) sinophilic Broken Blossoms (1919). In the former, an epic glorification of the birth of the Ku Klux Klan, the evils of miscegenation are most clearly embodied in the character of Lynch, the film’s villain, a mulatto. In Broken Blossoms, a film about bigotry which was meant to foster liberal (white) tolerance for Asians, the Chinese hero – like Lynch, played by a white actor – is portrayed as sympathetic, only in so far as his love for the tragic, white heroine can be established as chaste and unconsummated.

Since that period of early Hollywood, television and mainstream Western cinema have continued to depict miscegenation as threatening, but also, increasingly, as tragic or even, optimistically, as a (defeatist) strategy for overcoming racial conflict. Yet the topic is rarely taken up from the perspective of experience rather than as metaphor.

In her autobiographical film, the ironically titled Coffee Coloured Children (1988) British filmmaker Ngozi Onwurah developed a personal lexicon of images to evoke the pain and confusion of growing up the child of an English mother and a West African father in racist Britain. In Onwurah’s most recent work, The Body Beautiful (1991), the starting point is her mother’s mastectomy. Featuring Madge Onwurah as herself, with actresses playing Ngozi at different stages of her life – from the innocent malice of childhood to the self-absorption of young adulthood and a fashion model career – the film is an unabashedly emotional, though never sentimental, confrontation with the conflicting feelings of guilt, resentment, admiration, embarrassment, and love that constitute the mother-daughter relationship.

It is of course through their bodies that these two women are connected. Yet, it is their bodies, as carries of racial and sexual meaning, that separate them as young and old, beautiful and “disfigured,” and black and white. This is summed up most eloquently towards the end of the film as the two women lie naked, side by side, on the mother’s bed. The voice of the daughter explains that a child is made in the image of both is mother and its father. Yet, in a world which sees solely in terms of black and white, she is regarded only as her father’s daughter; but it is her mother who has shaped her thinking.

Though she draws on established cinematic codes, mixing them freely as she goes, the effect of Onwurah’s filmmaking style is one of freshness. Not only does she take up topics not often treated in film – and there are few of those – but her approach is sometimes daring to the point of challenging even “progressive” orthodoxies. The Body Beautiful, for example, features one of the most trangressive sex scenes I have ever seen on film. As the two women relax in a snack bar, the camera takes up the look of the mother as she watches a handsome, young black man. This transposes into a fantasy sequence in which the mother and man are naked, making love in a dreamscape of gossamer curtains, with the character of Ngozi orchestrating and at times inhibiting the action.

The fantasy sequence is at once an affirming presentation of Madge’s sexual desire and a depiction of aching nostalgia: for being desired, for youth, for her breast, and for her estranged husband. I find this scene exhilarating for its bravado and at the same time profoundly unsettling because it foregrounds those sensitive issues of power surrounding the cinematic gaze. Many viewers will no doubt raise the question of who has been more victim of cinema’s fetishization – black men or white women – and therefore who has more of a right to represent their own fantasies in their own terms. (Remember the controversy that surrounded A Winter Tan (1987)?

Jungle Fever, Young Soul Rebels, Ava and Gabriel and The Body Beautiful each takes up the issue of interracial sex in distinct terms. Their filmmakers work at varying levels within the industry, in separate countries, and with very different aesthetic and political concerns. In a highly publicized incident at Cannes, for example – which Isaac Julien says is basically a fabrication of the press – the filmmaker (who won the critics prize there) supposedly refused to pose for photographs with Spike Lee, saying that his films were sexist and homophobic. However, what these films have in common – whether they highlight the oppressiveness, the celebratory, or the ordinariness of interracial sex – is that they take up the question differently than it has ever been asked before in commercial cinema.