TW: Sexual Assault
I found Spike Lee’s 1996 film Get on the Bus to be an interesting, although not satisfying, look at Black American masculinity in its multitude of forms in the mid-1990s. One aspect of the movie that stuck out most for me was the depiction of queer (in this case, gay or MSM) identity. I was particularly interested in the character of Kyle, played by Isaiah Washington, a black, gay republican whose relationship difficulties play out on the bus over the course of the movie. One detail I noticed during the screening is the book that Kyle is reading during the road trip.
The book is called B-Boy Blues: A Seriously Sexy, Fiercely Funny, Black-on-Black Love Story. Referred to by most simply as B-Boy Blues, the book was the debut novel of writer James Earl Hardy. The novel tracks the love affair of Mitchell Crawford and Raheim Rivers, two young Black gay men in the early 1990s. More broadly, B-Boy Blues is “about the lives of black gay men in New York City [and] is unabashedly and unapologetically written for the African-American male. Rough, sexy, humorous, and authentic, B-Boy Blues is a first-rate love story.”
Many black queer folks talk about the impact that B-Boy Blues had on them– especially the significance of being able to read a love story about someone who looked and talked and loved like them. I’ve attached an article here that I think describes pretty well just how important this work was at this particular period in time.
B-Boy Blues was published in November of 1994, less than two years before the release of Lee’s Get on the Bus.
I probably wouldn’t have noticed B-Boy Blues in Kyle’s hand had I not read the book before. I’m glad that I did though, because Lee’s inclusion of the novel in his film says something about black gay men’s culture in that particular moment– or at least the way that it was being represented in media at the time. Hardy’s B-Boy Blues brought the very siloed conversation of different expressions of black gay identity (i.e. anything other than effeminate expression) out into the mainstream. In some ways, this made the representation of Black gay identity that was Kyle’s character (a macho military-serving, Black, gay, republican on his way to see Farrakhan) possible.
One of the more frustrating things about Lee’s filmography this semester has been his treatment of black women. Going from film to film, he often reifies and reinforces the kinds of negative stereotypes about black women that plague the media and the popular American social imagination: hypersexual black women, angry black women, deviant black women. Rarely do the women in his films get to be at the center of attention for anything other than their bodies, and when they do, rarely do they get to push back against the limited and limiting spaces Lee puts them in. Chi-Raq promised so much, putting Lysistrata front and center on posters, on-screen, and in the plot, and then fell so far: Strata’s body and sexuality were featured as her most important attributes for a long time, the site of her power only her vagina and the denial of access to it.
Crooklyn was, in this respect, a breath of fresh air – focusing on Troy and her childhood, her subjectivity, her girlhood – and I can’t help but wonder how much of that was influenced by Joie Lee being one of the co-writers of the script, and Spike Lee a producer. I would say more, but Dani over on Blog 4 has written a beautiful post on why Troy and Crooklyn matter, and I encourage everyone to read it.
I also encourage everyone – and here I come to my main goal in this post – go to watch Lemonade. If, like me, you have grown frustrated about Lee’s portrayal of black women, or if you’re curious about what a raw, powerful, redemptive, honest, urgent, reclaiming, and human look at black women would be like, please go look at Lemonade. I could go on and on, but frankly I am not the person to speak about Lemonade – please click on any of the articles I linked to in the previous sentence, where amazing black women have written highly important pieces about it (thoughtful, potent engagements and critiques) – and please, if you can, go watch it (on Tidal’s free trial, because I know we’re all broke college students) for yourselves.
When the black and brown women take the armory, they set themselves up in formation. It is as if they are preparing for warfare, but their goal is peace. The alternating wide angle and close-up shots of the unified ritual gives the perception that there are more women in the room than there are, giving them a sense of grandiosity in the viewers’ eyes. The women stand in a large room where every sound (slapping their butts, snapping) is heard loudly. This amplifies each move that they do, creating a loud booming sound. Form informs content in this instance because their bodies become the mechanism for sound and communication, and their bodies physically are what gives them power over the men and society at large, hence why their sexualization can be read as empowerment and reclamation. The women make themselves the subject, not the object.
-rebeccah18, graceanjela, ssy, mattbuon
Deconstructing “The Cycle”
During our discussion of the final montage in Mo’ Better Blues, we spent a lot of time discussing what it meant for Bleek to “Repeat The Cycle”. Frankly, I had a very hard time understanding the connection of this notion to the montage, because I didn’t think that it applied to the film.
In class we talked about Clarke as a “success” and the fact that many people started to root for her by the end of the film. However, I saw Clarke’s character as a representation of the way men limit women’s access to the public sphere, specifically in the music industry. By the end of the film, Clarke is a very successful musician with Bleek’s old band, but she only receives her big break after engaging in a sexual relationship with Shadow. That’s not to say that she isn’t talented, or that she is with Shadow only to further her career, but I was surprised that we didn’t discuss her success in the context of her sexual relationships because a clear point may be drawn from the relationship between the two. The idea that men in Clarke’s life impact her musical success is also supported by the scene in which she asks Bleek to collaborate while in bed. For her, her intimate relationships and career are not separate, because, it seems, that one is the pathway to the other. But Bleak has the ability (or privilege?) to keep them separate.
This returns my thoughts to our discussion of Spike Lee’s possible clumsiness around gender and sexuality– I continue to oscillate between whether I think Lee attempts to make a point with his unequal and derogatory representations of women or if these representations are part of that clumsiness. In class we talked about how we may settle this debate by looking at what the film gives us to dissect and therefore look for Lee’s intention– but I run into a similar dilemma, swinging back and forth between whether I am interpreting poor representations as meaningful or if his representations are intentional. Does anyone have any thoughts?
We’ve raised a lot of interesting points in discussing the famous “Good and Bad Hair” scene from School Daze. We’ve considered the technicalities of the dance styles being used as well as what these differences communicate regarding the larger themes of the scene. We raised questions surrounding exclusion and inclusion within the scene and how these moments of belonging and non-belonging function. We also discussed, among many other things, the elements that make the scene appear as seemingly disjointed from the rest of the film. It has a dreamlike quality, with the cuts between the scenes occurring in the hallway but is also largely a product of the move to the hair salon. We’ve moved off the college campus now into this distinct and different space. There remained lingering ambiguity surrounding the effect of putting the scene in the hair salon, and I think that it’s important to consider the heterotopic nature of this space to help resolve (or possibly intensify?) some of this ambiguity. The heterotopic nature of the salon highlights power dynamics between men and women in the film as well as between women and the women that they view as “other”.
While the scene clearly evokes tensions between women, it also serves somewhat as a stand for agency; the voices of women have been largely silenced or mediated by a man throughout the film. This is where the function of the hair salon as a heterotopic space becomes important. The salon serves as a break away from the male-dominated campus. Geographically, it might be right around the corner, but it is the first transition away from the bubble of the campus thus far in the film. The heterotopic space renders the voice of the women more powerful by effectively silencing men within the scene. By bringing the viewer to a space traditionally dominated by women the subsequent actions and effects of this actions are further validated. Hair salons might function as a space of sanctuary for women, and thus allow this claim for agency to occur. This isn’t an attempt dismiss the other problematic themes present in the scene, but to underscore the effect of devoting this large chunk of time to portraying solely women in this film, but outside of the college campus.
While, to me, the inherent heterotopia of the space between men and women and its implications are clear, the effect on the divisiveness of the women remains ambiguous. Alex made a point in class that the women with different types of hair within the scene would not all be served within the same hair salon. How does this translate to power dynamics? When I first watched the scene I found the interaction through movement of the W’s and J’s to be really interesting. Despite the apparent tension, the women moved across the screen and seemed to be moving fluidly. The closing shot shows the women standing with W’s and J’s scattered throughout instead of standing separated as I originally expected. These few visual cues have an equalling effect, but other elements of the scene point to tension and the hierarchal nature of these differences. The effect of the heterotopic hair salon seems to be multi-layered, simultaneously providing power but also forcing it to be relinquished.