Never Trust a Big Butt and a Smile:
I argue that black loving relationships are not present in most films with black male protagonists. Portrayals of black men in the context of black loving relations are dysfunctional. Black manhood is represented in its various sexually compulsive forms with an underlying sexist nihilistic thug mentality regarding women.
Sweet Sweetback Baadassss Song contextualizes the moment black male sexuality becomes overtly visible. The film opens with a child having sex with a whore in a brothel. We learn that this child is Sweetback and that the brothel is his home. Sweetback grows up to be a sexual performance artist. He is the epitome of the sexual buck; all show and no substance. His overt sexuality is the physical manifestation of the sexualized racist mythology that got black men lynched in the early 20th century. In the restricted environment of his home (a brothel) his sexuality is controllable; but director Melvin Van Peebles allows Sweetback’s sexual identity to explode onto the street to become a revolutionary stance against oppression.
Sweetback uses his sexuality as an expression of his control over himself and his situation. Instead of just saying “Fuck You!” he actually does it by performing in sexual shows. Sweetback as an erotic figure, is the ” paradoxical, distinctively masculine potential of the phallus…threatening to penetrate others…” so that he can thusly “absorb the whole world into himself” (Katz 113). The only control Sweetback has over his life is through sex, like the men in the other films discussed in this chapter. They are all playing out the sexualized roles prescribed to them from the dominant cultural milieu.
Sweetback was programmed, in his abusively sexualized childhood environment, that his survival and self worth were defined by his sexual performance. Even when not in that environment, he continues to use sexual performance as a method of survival. Facing capture by the police, he feigned sexual intercourse with a black woman who concealed Sweetback’s face. He projected his sexual pathology onto her, and it became intertwined with her protection. It was not just the community’s refusal to “rat him out”, but black women protecting a black man who they believe is working to make them free.
When cut while running, he makes a salve of urine and semen that helps harden his wound, thus saving his life. His sexuality, again, saved him. The primitivism of his survival techniques is similar to that discussed by bell hooks, “….black male bodies were not coming to the new world obsessed with sexuality; they were coming from worlds where collective survival was more important than the acting out of sexual desire, and they were coming into a world where survival was more important than sexual desire” (Cool 69). The marriage of sexual “desire” and survival all but eliminates the physical and emotional connections between desire and sexuality. It reduces sex to the performance of an individualistic physical act.
The performance aspect of Sweetback’s sexuality signals an emptiness that mirrors that of the world. Sweetback, like many of his black male counterparts who do have a voice, has no interiority. He wields his sexuality like a badge of honor because he has created his identity based singularly on his sexuality. The choice to make him the type of silent hero unlike his filmic antithesis the intellectualized integrated characters Sidney Poitier played made him a new figure in black visual life. Yet this silence provides no insight into the character of a man whose sexually abusive childhood has debased him into a sexual puppet. Sweetback is all show. There is no emotion behind his actions, and he personifies the stoic silences of abused men who continue the cycle of abuse. This sexist dismissal of black women as props for black men was the legacy of the Black Nationalist and Civil Rights movements. Sweet Sweetback’s Baadassss Song was required viewing for the Black Panthers, reaffirming the idea that racial political goals could not incorporate the discussion of the objectification black female body.
Sweetback’s character provided the prototype for the black male stud of Blaxploitation era films as well as most of the hero/ antiheros for the black male driven film vehicles of the 1990’s. Films such as Superfly, The Mack, Shaft, and numerous others depict black men as superstud with no regard for their sexual partners outside of any relation to themselves. Relationships with women were there to prove their own masculinity. While fulfilling racial revenge fantasies, black male film heroes also imitated their white male counterparts enacting their own version of phallocentric manhood.
These were the films older hip-hop generationers were exposed to during the 1970’s and then rediscovered during the early 1990’s. Blaxploitation employed pseudo-politically driven themes, initially, in that they were generally about racial revenge and pretended to demolish the servile stereotypical roles blacks had previously been relegated to in the dominant cultural and social arenas. Yet many of the films politics served more commercial vehicles supporting the white supremacist status quo than as anything that had black liberation or love in mind.
Black intraracial sexuality took a key revolutionary role in these films because of it had been historically ignored. In white America the justification for the separation of the races was to eliminate the risk of black men having sex with white women. In black community institutions, the upper and middle classes that are traditionally in leadership positions are also sexually conservative to the point of silence. West states:
But these grand yet flawed black institutions refused to engage one fundamental issue: black sexuality. Instead they ran from it like the plague…..In short, struggling black institutions made a Faustian pact with white America: avoid any substantive engagement wit black sexuality and your survival on the margins of American society is, at least, possible (124).
Sexuality was also a source of shame because of the importance whites gave it: the slightest hint of sexual impropriety could get one killed. The reality of black men’s lives is often the antithesis of emotional equality, reciprocal vulnerability, and communicative intimacy. When the thug mentality is about street survival, the fundamentals of a loving human relationship are outside of the parameters of survival, leaving one open to cracks in the armor of invincibility of the street. To care too much for anyone, even one’s self, makes one vulnerable.
Drug dealing, pimping and unbridled individualism, as portrayed in the Blaxploitation classic Superfly also came to define the black male dominated film boom of the 1990’s. The visual representations of black manhood in Superfly encapsulate the general mood of most of the Blaxploitation films. The story of Youngblood Priest, a drug dealer and pimp, who wants to get out of the game, contains one of the sexiest love scenes between blacks on film. Priest and Georgia, strategically covered in bubbles in the bath set to Curtis Mayfield’s sensual and revolutionary soundtrack is a beautiful scene amidst a misogynistic, unloving, counterrevolutionary film. Donald Bogle in Toms, Coons, Mulattoes, Mammies, and Bucks: An Interpretative History of Blacks in American Film observes in that Superfly’s sex scene “like the sex scenes in other black films…frequently was more graphic and lingering than any such scene in white movies of the time and looked as if it had been inserted simply to play on the legend of blacks’ high-powered sexuality. While the movies assiduously sought to avoid the stereotype of the asexual tom, they fell, interestingly enough, into the trap of presenting the wildly sexual man” (240). It was gratuitous in that it did nothing to drive the plot or give any insight into the characters. Sex was a transaction to Priest because he was after all, a pimp. Despite his tenderness with his “main lady,” it did not stand in the way of his plan to flood his community with enough drugs to finance his freedom or cheating on Georgia.
The stereotype of the nihilistic drug dealing thug in films such as Menace II Society and Baby Boy that dominated the visual landscape of the early 1990’s continues through today, now mostly in music videos. With Blaxploitation’s renaissance in the early 1990’s, the hip-hop generation was reintroduced to these images when their reality closely paralleled those represented in those films. “The Hughes brothers gave us horrific displays of Black-on-Black youth violence at a time when young violent criminals were being labeled ‘super-predators’ and experts lamented the rise of youth crime, predicting a 20-25 percent increase in the youth population by 2006” (Kitwana 127). It was when America’s essential underground drug economy was being glorified and demonized simultaneously. The drug boom of the 1980’s created a new brand of drug dealer that was young and black, with nothing to lose. This model of behavior is the dominant thematic model for many of today’s music videos. Young men, who were then the problem of the day on the nightly news, are now marketing fodder in popular entertainment.
In films such as Menace II Society and Baby Boy, black male sexuality is defined by and for young men through peer interactions and emulations. There are adult males present in these films but the peer-oriented nature of the male fraternization is poignant. “Women are discussed as less valuable than drugs and money, including endless references to Black women as ‘bitches,’ ‘hos,’ and “skeezers.’ Furthermore, abusive and violent language is used indiscriminately to describe all women, including those with whom the leading characters were most intimate” (Kitwana 130). These films show a cross section of class representations yet at base black male sexuality is still closely linked to a nihilistic thug mentality. The nihilism of the male characters in terms of love, which has more to do with sex than any emotional vulnerability, is representative in their relationships with women.
In Menace II Society, the relationship between Caine and Ronnie is the only space Caine receives any loving care. Caine’s life is one of violence and a general disregard for human life. Only in his relationship with Ronnie does he find a safe harbor where he can open himself up emotionally and attempt to lovingly care for someone else. Nelson George writes, “Without sucking her teeth or flaunting a ‘ghetto’ accent, [actress Jada] Pinkett’s Ronnie shows the growth of an urban woman child from gangster moll to suddenly mature mother. As a homegirl free of clichés Pinkett gives Menace a feminine souls and offers Caine salvation, both romantically and with her dream of them building a life…” (204). While Ronnie’s love and affections offer Caine a place to explore his own vulnerabilities. (It is important to note George’s prescribed idea of black female behavior. Being without “homegirl clichés” defines her as mature.)
Street life leaves no room for vulnerabilities and Ronnie’s love cannot erase Caine’s past. Despite all of the murder he has both borne witness to and participated in, it is his creation of life that ultimately leads to his own murder. Caine’s sexuality was not like Sweetback in that Sweetback’s “ability to perform skillfully require[d] the discipline of a soldier intent upon killing the enemy; such a performance cannot be interpreted as primitive lust nor a reflection of emotional desire” (Reid 77). Caine’s primitive existence is based only on desire. All things and people become material to satisfy his lust. When a young woman he casually had sex with calls him crying, telling him she’s pregnant; he dismisses her after questioning the paternity of the child because he has no regard for anything outside of his desires. She was a receptacle of his desire and is now the potential mother of his unborn child.
Kitwana observes that “[a]lthough the stigma has retreated, the expressions ‘baby momma’ and ‘baby daddy’ point to the antagonism brewing between young Black men and women who make these dubious social connections” (116). The “baby mama/ daddy” situation agitates the already precarious relationship between black men and women. Unwed parenthood is not hip-hop generation specific, its lack of stigma is. For Caine, the price of this “dubious social connection” is death, as violence ultimately was the answer for an ill-fated sexual encounter. He was not afforded the opportunity to live with the consequences of his actions, unlike Jody in Baby Boy.
Baby Boy, like Menace discusses the nihilist worldview of young black men, only it speaks more to the sexual obsessions of the men who feel they have no control over their lives. Jody is introduced to the audience as an adult embryo in the womb. His life is that of a child with the ability to spread his seed throughout the neighborhood. Upon returning from a brief incarceration, he returns to his childhood room with nothing to do but have sex, live off of his two ‘baby mammas’ and his own mother.
His maternal dependency is replicated within his two sexual relationships. He expects these women to provide for him and when they do not he accuses them of not caring for him. His mother is portrayed as young mother trying to still have a life after raising her son to adulthood. She insists that he grow up, but it is obvious he hasn’t been given the skill set to do so. Like Caine at the end of Menace, Jody wants to do something, but does not know how or what and is not given any guidance. Jody’s identity is his sexuality — like Caine and Sweetback before him. When confronted by Yvette, his main ‘baby momma’, about the reality of his cheating, unproductive economic situation and his life in general, he flees and begins a new sexual relationship. He ultimately does not complete his new sexual transaction, but the compulsion to gain a sense of power through sexual means shows his immature emotional development. For hooks, “Equating manhood with fucking, many black men saw status and economic success as synonymous with endless sexual conquest” (Cool 71). Jody seems to solve his problems through his ability to sexually satisfy young women. The young men in these films are moving through life with no sense of a non-sexualized self. Even attempting emotional equality, communicative intimacy or reciprocal vulnerability is outside of their frame of reference.
Lack of emotional maturity cannot be seen as simply a symptom of the hip-hop generations’ youth. When looking for contemporary models of behavior, Spike Lee (with his proliferation of black visual images) is poignant because despite his sexism, as an older member of the hip-hop generation, his view on manhood is highly regarded. When applied to representations of older black men the hip-hop generationers could emulate, the same behaviors exist even in the absence of financial and social woes.
In Spike Lee’s Mo’ Betta Blues, the same lack of caring for women’s feelings or even existence as seen in Baby Boy and Menace, is also exacted by the film’s male protagonist, Bleek. Mo’ Betta Blues creates a love square between a man, two women and his music. This film’s emotional nihilism supercedes the materialist aspects of the previously discussed films yet the lack of trust and respect for black women and their bodies still provide the narrative with its dominant force. Bleek is a jazz musician who is dedicated to his music and engaged in sexual relationships with two women who know about each other. One of his “lovers”, Clarke, tells him “We don’t make love because you don’t love me… but I’ll take some of that mo’ betta. [sex]”. In hooks’ discussion of the film, “…he is unable to see the ‘value’ of the two black women who care for him. Indeed, scenes where he makes love to Clarke and alternately sees her as Indigo and vice versa suggest the Dixie cup sexist mentality (i.e., all women are alike). And even after his entire world has fallen apart, he never engages in a self-critique that might lead him to understand that phallocentrism (he is constantly explaining himself by saying’ it’s a dick thing’) has blocked his ability to develop a mature adult identity, has rendered him unable to confront pain and move past denial” (Black Looks 105).
The women are interchangeable objects that fulfill his sexual needs, not individuals who have any thoughts or feelings without reference to Bleek. Lee reinforces their irrelevance to Bleek by never letting the audience experience these women’s personal lives. When Clarke asks for his support and possible assistance in attaining her singing goals, he is literally unable to hear her. Like Baby Boy’s Yvette, Clarke’s desire to fulfill her own life is dramatized as her being a manipulative shrew, as opposed to Indigo’s quiet victim. Bleek is caught in a web of his own selfishness, and the women are distractions- literally something to do outside of his homosocial jazz world. To love one woman would take him away from his art. They exist only to satisfy his sexual needs.
It takes his complete destruction to make him decide to marry Indigo. Indigo, like Ronnie believes through patience and by ignoring his lies and disrespect, she can change him. In this film, a man must reach a point where he identifies his incompleteness before he can commit to marriage. Bleek and Indigo’s lives literally become a mirror of Bleek’s childhood familial structure. It is not of his own desire that he becomes emotionally available, let alone vulnerable to this woman. It is only after his life becomes unmanageable yet still absent self-reflection that he is able to commit. It could be argued that his “settling down” and marrying Indigo is exactly that. Since he is incapable of performing music, which is his first love, he settles comfortably into a monogamous patriarchal structure where he has some control.
The concept of love within committed relationships (such as marriage) is, arguably, an alien concept to hip-hop generationers because they rarely see it work or desired within their age demographic. It could also be assumed that marriage is often position as something done only by “old people”. The singularity of sexuality as the discursive space by which black males exist necessitates that certain other imagery (namely black loving relations and family) be ignored. The result is an increase in transactional relationships, which are “relatively uncommitted and often meant to be short-term.” (“Survey”). The skills necessary to develop lasting committed connections such as honesty, mutual respect, and care are not nurtured while sexual promiscuity is celebrated. These conflicting messages create ambivalence about marriage and committed relationships among the hip-hop generation.
The images created in this filmic space were reinforced by the music and music videos of the time. In Menace a powerful example of the marriage of music to film (which provided a summer’s worth of music videos) was when Caine was preparing his drug product for sale to Too $hort’s “Dopeman”,
The choice of music, the gangsta rap song ‘Dopeman’, provides an additional layer of meaning. The lyrics describe dope dealers as lecherous entrepreneurs who supply illegal substances to a community of desperate drug addicts. The composition of the sequence skillfully portrays the dilemma that confronts black youth like Caine: whereas participation in the underground economy is an attempt to gain advantage over a social and economic system that has little use for poor youth beyond menial labor, this lifestyle also establishes a counterideology that functions mainly to exacerbate the already wretched conditions of ghetto poverty (Watkins 209).
The male dominated world of hip-hop through the 1990’s into the 21st century flaunts a “keeping it real” drug dealing/ pimp mentality. The argument for “keeping it real” is how many urban youth’s accept the reality of the limitations of their lives. Glorifying ghetto life with a tough nonchalance backed up with the sexual drama of the “bad boy”, many black men use this glorification as a shield against the real hopelessness of their situations. In the 1990’s a new crop of young black male filmmakers created a body of work that re-created images of sexualized thuggery. With rap music (as film soundtrack) and using rap music videos as commercials; images of misogyny and violence became the lingua franca of the end of the century.
Cultural and social incidents such as the rape convictions of boxer Mike Tyson and rapper Tupac Shakur informed cultural production while stirring controversy regarding black male sexual stereotypes. At a time when hip-hop music videos were dominated by men creating patriarchal images for and of each other, “[f]or many young black feminists, the support their male peers gave Tyson and Tupac reinforced the overwhelming evidence that many Black men do not like or respect Black women. Increasingly, the feeling is mutual. Although this attitude is not universal among young Blacks, it is such a significant segment of our generation that it has become apparent in our day-to-day interactions. For some, the feeling has crossed the line beyond resentment to hatred” (Kitwana 106). These incidents not only increased black male and female fragmentation, but the mainstream media’s involvement exacerbated an already unpleasant situation. Gendered battle lines were drawn as to who was believed and in the midst of it; the lack of trust between black men and women became woefully apparent.
Emotional equality, reciprocal vulnerability, and communicative intimacy are outside of mainstream male homosocial practices. As evidenced by this chapter’s discussion of popular mainstream films, since black manhood is so steeped in sexuality, sex alone becomes the outlet for these three qualities (behaviors). “Once the image of the playboy was projected as desirable, it became acceptable for black males to father children and assume no responsibility for parenting.” (hooks, Salvation 138). In addition to the lack of parental responsibility assumed by the men, women began to expect less emotionally from them intensifying the lack of trust and hope for care between them. Some women of the hip-hop generation created their own defense mechanisms by expecting only sex from men to ward off the disappointment that that is all they had to offer.