On confrontations with race and the “unknown” in cinema.
Pleasure and Pain, Not Pain Then Pleasure
In “Mass Culture and the Creative Artist,” and “Many Thousands Gone,” James Baldwin suggests that fear is an unknowable yet inescapable part of the human experience. For this reason, in an effort to lessen our feelings of terror, pain and isolation, humans atomize fear in order to face it. In Baldwin’s words, “They merely rearrange its elements into something that we can bear. They also weaken our ability to deal with the world as it is, ourselves as we are.”1 From a cinematic perspective, I am interested in analyzing the act of looking directly at the “unknown” aspects of life in which Baldwin discusses in his work. This unknown is potent because humans use the construction of race as protection against that which they are seemingly afraid to see.
This conscious or subconscious blindness alleviates the threat of emotional emptiness which Baldwin refers to as the “void.”2 Many American movies such as King Kong (1933) keep the audience safely away from the inevitable realities of suffering that are associated with this “void.” Baldwin alludes to feelings of “emptiness” being a fundamental aspect of the human experience. It is an “experience” that we each hope to escape through pleasure seeking and unnecessary consumption. For example, Baldwin claims that the creators of popular entertainment and those who consume this content, “must continue to produce things they do not really admire, still less love, in order to continue buying things they do not really want, still less need”3 As a result of mass production, there is a cyclical desire to buy, eat and use things we do not need in order to feel secure in our minds and bodies.
In the visual field, such as in film and TV, when directors choose to design scenes in which the white characters look directly at the black subject (or vice versa) for extensive periods of time, a legitimate kind of intimacy is able to form. It is an intimate interaction that is neither “good” nor “bad.” It is an exchange of feelings that are dynamic and fluctuate with time. This is an important point because an individual’s ability to generate closeness is a representation of their creativity and humanness. According to Baldwin, this is why the notion of race is fixed and in turn inhumane. In other words, race is inhumane with respect to the question of closeness, creativity, and humanness. This is because the concept of “race” and “racism” precludes a real look—look interaction. Rather, racialized looking is about projection, negation and the active denial of one’s humanness.
In film, it is crucial to highlight these moments of authentic eye contact between white and black subjects. This is because the “look” represents realistic interactions between each subject, showing vengeance and peace. Unfortunately, the producers of King Kong failed to generate intimacy between Kong and the lead female protagonist, Ann. For this reason, the viewers of the film witnessed an overly simplistic exchange shared between the black (Kong) and white (Ann) subject as their interactions were rooted in curiosity, and most importantly, fear.
Kong and Ann have a distinct relationship that lacks dialogue, depth, and authenticity. Kong is nothing more than the monstrous guerrilla who lives on Skull Island. The most terrifying aspect of Kong’s characterization is his “unknowingness.” In other words, no one seems to know what Kong’s general intentions, goals, and aspirations are on this island. At first glance, King Kong is depicted as a “scary” creature who has black fur, crooked teeth, and enormous hands. Arguably, Kong is the antagonist in the film whose character positioning reflects Baldwin’s notion of an individual’s ability to think ethically when faced with the unknown. That is to say, Kong embodies the unknown and therefore tests the viewer’s ability to think ethically. In Baldwin’s essays, he questions this look of authentic connectedness shared between a white (Ann) and a black (Kong) character. In this film, the look begins as a simple act of observing, followed by a gaze of curiosity that is shared innocently. However, this moment of connection becomes problematic once it is rooted in hierarchy. In other words, Ann’s innocent gaze became a fearful one as her needs throughout the film are prioritized over Kong’s individual thoughts and feelings.
Throughout the film, the quick close-ups and medium shots that depict Kong and Ann interacting with one another lack substance. This is not to say that intimacy cannot be felt. It is only to say that each person must choose to engage with these feelings, even if they are fleeting. The viewer watches as Kong and Ann quickly observe and engage with each other, as Kong uses his fingers to poke around Ann’s dress, lift her up sporadically, or hold her in his grasp tenderly. Repeatedly after Kong and Ann “look” at one another, Ann becomes overwhelmed with terror, so she searches desperately for an escape route. Ann expresses her fear through screams, shrieks, and bulged eyes that are looking directly at Kong. And yet, even when Ann’s eyes are wide open, she chooses to see nothing. “Nothing” being Kong, and Kong being the “unknown.” This is because the portrayal of Kong never becomes more detailed or nuanced. Why is it seemingly necessary to either control or avoid the unknown when attempting to feel safe?
In his essays, Baldwin challenges the concept of whiteness, consistently questioning the purpose of whiteness as he studies how the use of whiteness is used interchangeably with terms like “beauty,” “purity,” “cleanliness,” “wealth,” and “goodness.” Baldwin consistently questions the purpose of creating tools for identification such as the “racial identity.” Perhaps the white identity was constructed as a tool for survival because it lessens the impact of tragedy. The “tragedy” that Baldwin refers to is associated with fear. The fear of facing sadness, instability, and death. Though, it is impossible for humans to avoid painful experiences and hardship because life itself is temporary. For this reason, even in pleasure there is pain.
[the] Negro being compelled to accept the fact that this dark and dangerous and unloved stranger is part of himself forever. Only this recognition sets him in any wise free and it is this, this necessary ability to contain and even, in the most honorable sense of the word, to exploit the “nigger,” which lends to Negro life its high element of the ironic and which causes the most well meaning of their American critics to make such exhilarating errors when attempting to understand them.4.
This act of exploitation becomes most apparent in films where the white subject searches for a reflection of themselves in a black face. The white subject’s lack of finding a face that resembles his or her own then pushes him or her to construct the “Negro,” the “Nigger,” the “Other,” or Kong. As a result of this distorted reality, Baldwin urges the white subject to look inward instead of outward when feeling an absence of love.
Baldwin refers to the concept of blackness as the “color of damnation.”5 Though, in condemnation there is freedom and ambiguity. In other words, beyond initial feelings of agony lies the unknown. What would happen if humans were to “sit” in their feelings of loneliness as a result of suffering? This is important to question because humans instinctively crave belonging, and yet we are each biologically different and physically alone. For this reason, Baldwin wonders “Why was it necessary to have a Nigger in the first place?”6 Baldwin argues that whiteness began to form as a way to grapple with loneliness and the ongoing fear of a fluctuating self. The inability to control time, space, and aspects of the self (such as ageing) create a raging paranoia that oppresses anything that is Other. In brief, in an effort to gain control of the uncontrollable aspects of living, “whiteness” was created as a superior form of being.
In King Kong, Ann acts as the gatekeeper of safety and in turn, whiteness. As a result of her whiteness, Ann is the person worth protecting from Kong. At the same time, Ann is also the character “worth” sacrificing because she is female. Her contradiction of race and gender add to Kong and Ann’s distinct relationship. Ann’s being a woman enhances Kong’s curiosity about her female body. This is because Kong is not female, white, nor human. The producers constructed this film so that Kong is identified as different in comparison to Ann in as many respects as possible. However, it is not as obvious that Ann is extremely different when compared to Kong. This is important to acknowledge because the viewer is positioned to think that Ann is the ideal standard of looking. Therefore, Kong is the monstrous Other, whereas, Ann is “normal,” “innocent,” “peaceful”; she is the film’s representation of an ideal version of white femininity. In “Mass Culture and the Creative Artist,” Baldwin wonders who benefits from this repression of struggle and why:
We do not want to know about sad human nature. We do not want to know about ourselves. We are very cruelly trapped between what we would like to be and what we actually are. And we cannot possibly become what we’d like to be until we are willing to ask ourselves just why the lives we lead on this continent are mainly so empty, so tame, and so ugly.7
In other words, humans “[run] from torment” toward “impossible standards of perfection.”8 This is why it is common for individuals to be fearful of life and living because even in pleasure, there is struggle. No human being can escape pain since we are each built to inevitably feel lost.
James Baldwin writes to his nephew, “There is no reason for you to become like white people and there is no basis whatever for their impertinent assumption that they must accept you. The really terrible thing old buddy, is that you must accept them with love.”9 Baldwin encourages his nephew to not only accept, but love the white subject. This is because he believes that “love takes off masks that we fear we cannot live without and know we cannot live within.”10 In other words, there is a newfound sense of power that lies within an act of loving one’s colonizer. In Baldwin’s analysis of whiteness, he shows the ways in which the invention of racial, economic, and social hierarchies are not an exemption for death. The human body is temporary and therefore it is an illogical desire to mark someone else’s life as more tragic than your own.
As an act of resistance, Baldwin suggests a disruption of peace. He believes that this is the only way the “mind can be improved.”11 Films such as King Kong create a visual and emotional safety based on a lack of character development, plot, and dialogue. This “lack” of humanization and struggle is what Baldwin refers to as “the problem.” King Kong represents the part of society that cannot see humans as they really are and in turn, this combination of pain and pleasure is marked as unsafe. Baldwin believes that an alteration of filmic techniques can rearrange racial constructs that reflect the reality of being human. This then begs the question as to whether or not an authentic recognition of multiple identities in film can directly combat mechanisms of oppression.
- James Baldwin, “Mass Culture and the Creative Artist,” The Cross of Redemption: Uncollected Writings (Vintage, 2011), 6
- James Baldwin, “Everybody’s Protest Novel,” The Cross of Redemption: Uncollected Writings (Vintage, 2011), 17.
- “Mass Culture and the Creative Artist,” 5.
- James Baldwin, “Many Thousands Gone, Collected Essays, (Library of America, 1998)33
- Baldwin, “Many Thousands Gone,” 33
- I Am Not Your Negro, Directed by Raoul Peck, (Magnolia Pictures and Amazon Studio, 2016).
- Baldwin, “Mass Culture and the Creative Artist, 6.
- Baldwin “Mass Culture and the Creative Artist,” 1.
- James Baldwin, “The Fire Next Time,” Collected Essays, (Library of America, 1998) 294.
- Baldwin, “The Fire Next Time,” 341.
- Baldwin “Mass Culture and the Creative Artist.” 4.