Inside Man | What is a “Black Film”?

I thought this question – is Inside Man a “Black film”? – that was raised in class on Thursday, is one worth thinking about.

Lee locates the action of Inside Man squarely in a post-9/11 America, and as with Do the Right Thing the wider social reality that the characters live in is signaled by what is in the background.

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This environment is also home to the new racial landscape of the 21st century. For a Spike Lee movie that is supposedly not about race, one racially-charged incident in particular stands out. A worker in the bank, Vikram Walia, is one of the earliest hostages to be released. As soon as his mask is removed, however, he is met with instinctive suspicion and fear by the police officer with a rifle trained on him:

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“Oh shit, a fucking Arab!” – even as he is a hostage, even as his hands are tied behind his back, even as he is, in fact, a Sikh American, Vikram is visually typed, by his turban and beard, as a Muslim terrorist who inspires fear. Almost immediately, Vikram is tackled to the ground, and his turban, which he wears for religious reasons, is stripped off and taken from him. He later talks with Frazier and the other detectives, and insists on speaking up about his anger at being racially profiled and roughed up, not just in this case, but on a regular basis.

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Lee’s Children v. Superpredators


Lee’s caring, considerate portrayal of children as children, entitled to childhood and mischief, speaks directly to the rise of the term”superpredator”. Coined in the mid-1990s, the theory was that America was on the verge of being terrorized by “feral youths devoid of impulse control or remorse” – coded, institutionalized language meant to inspire fear in the hearts of white people about black youth. Look to Hillary Clinton using this same language as she campaigns for Bill Clinton’s crime bill, in which she says “we must bring them to heel,” referring to black American youth. This bill would go on to create, in large part, the prison industrial complex as we know it today: everyone should watch this video of a Black Lives Matter protestor crashing one of Clinton’s private donor lunches to confront her.

It’s worth noting that Hillary’s use of the term superpredator is nothing new – in fact, it comes from a long, historical, racist tradition of white people imagining black people as superhuman and monstrous, as something inhuman, as incapable of feeling pain or demonic. This kind of racist imagination begins its language in the colonial encounter,  and stretches throughout the history of America from slavery into the present day.

Many of the films we’ve discussed in class were being made at exactly this time, as the idea of the superpredator inspired a nation-wide fervor and got mobilized by various governmental and social entities to criminalize and dehumanize black children. Lee has never shied away from being political, and so the preeminence he plays on portraying black children and adolescents humanely, kindly, and lovingly stands in direct opposition to the language of the superpredator and the personhood that that term denies.

I quote a New York Times article above, which for the most part lays out some weak points about the myth of the superpredator, but ends on a note that I wanted to share with all of you:

“As for superpredators, not everyone has abandoned the notion. In the ‘90s, Mr. DiIulio called those youngsters “remorseless” and “impulsive,” describing them as unburdened by “pangs of conscience.”

Hmm, said Richard Eskow. Or words to that effect. Mr. Eskow, a senior fellow with the Campaign for America’s Future, wrote for The Huffington Post two years ago that he knew a group of people who matched those very descriptions. They were, he said, the reckless bankers and Wall Street high rollers who almost brought the United States economy to its knees a few years ago.”

I know some of the articles I link to are rather long, but they’re definitely (besides the NYTimes one) worth reading! Let me know what you guys think.