bell hooks on cinema: a remembrance

Iconoclast. Avant-garde Black feminist scholar. Unflinching pop culture critic. The inimitable Gloria Jean Watkins – best known by her pen name ‘bell hooks’ – died one year ago. To mark the anniversary, Jan Asante revisits her landmark Reel to Real: Race, Class and Sex at the Movies and other irresistible offerings.

14 November 2022

By Jan Asante

bell hooks
Sight and Sound

“It is said that the camera cannot lie, but rarely do we allow it to do anything else, since the camera sees what you point it at: the camera sees what you want it to see. The language of the camera is the language of our dreams,” wrote the novelist James Baldwin in The Devil Finds Work (1976). This memoir and critique of his nation’s racial politics was told through Baldwin’s experiential gaze as a Black viewer of an American cinema defined as much by its exclusionary colour-bar as by its ideological aspirations.

From Baldwin to bell hooks, there is an enduring continuum; a tradition of radical Black aesthetic intervention from margin to centre. The emergence of hooks in the late 1970s as a defiant young scholar and public intellectual, as attuned to the complexities of urban popular culture as to her working-class Southern familial roots, grounded her aspirations. As the writer Andrea Stuart framed it, “by integrating the personal with cultural criticism”, hooks collapsed traditional boundaries between the academy, autobiography, film and feminist theory. Writing in the Village Voice in 1991, the infamous contrarian critic Armond White posited the notion that “a generation of new Black filmmakers badly needs a generation of film reviewers not enslaved to Hollywood orthodoxy… If there are filmmakers with the guts or inspiration to put a frame around their individual view of the world – it may require a compatible critic who has a cultural head start to accurately describe the effort” – the moment signifying “too crucial a period in American cultural history to be left to fools”.

The release of hooks’ groundbreaking Black Looks: Race and Representation the following year gifted to the lexicon the concept of the ‘oppositional gaze’. It signified resistance; or as hooks’ expansive essay ‘The Oppositional Gaze: Black Female Spectators’ offered, a “tool that Black people use to disrupt the power dynamic that white cinema uses to perpetuate the Othering of Blackness in media”. Her objective? To reclaim space for “the transgressive image, the outlaw rebel vision… essential to any effort to create a context for transformation” – with a reminder from hooks that “little progress is made if we transform images without shifting paradigms, changing perspectives, and ways of looking”.

Killer of Sheep (1978)

Reel to Real: Race, Class and Sex at the Movies (1996) was hooks’ most immersive cinematic tome, interspersing essay with intimate conversations with filmmakers – among them LA Rebellion movement pioneer Charles Burnett (Killer of Sheep, 1978), Camille Billops (Suzanne, Suzanne, 1982), Wayne Wang (The Joy Luck Club, 1993) and cinematographer Arthur Jafa (Daughters of the Dust, 1991). “Movies make magic,” hooks passionately affirmed. To be immersed in visual ‘magic’ while excavating deeper contradictions was a call to vigilance in “the age of nomadism”. hooks recognised the allure of “border crossing” (the cinematic universe was “a new frontier… pulling away from the familiar and journeying into and beyond the world of the other”) and thus cautioned against un-introspective voyeurism – devouring “difference” and the “different” without having to experientially engage “the Other”.

The arc of Reel to Real is critical agency, advocating for a more equitable stake. On Blackness and the liberation of a new ‘Black cinema’, hooks wrote: “When Black filmmakers are able to treat a range of subject matter, not just that which highlights Blackness, then there is more freedom to resist the racial burden of representation.” That said, hooks was also acutely aware that “the simple fact of their skin color does not ensure that Black filmmakers will create images that are radical or subversive”.

“White-supremacist-capitalist-patriarchy” – conceptually explored in hooks’ literary debut Ain’t I A Woman: Black Women and Feminism (1981) was significant in contextualising Black cinematic production: “Until everyone can acknowledge that White supremacist aesthetics shape creativity in ways that disallow and discourage the production by any group of images that break with this aesthetic, audiences can falsely assume that images are politically neutral.” As hooks further evaluated, Black filmmakers themselves could endeavour to create imagery “from a decolonized perspective” but fundamental to this would also be “a new aesthetics of looking taught to audience[s] so that such work can be appreciated”.

The gulf between the “unenlightened” and the “visionary” was a distinction that hooks dared to make: “Our difficulty is in producing filmmakers who are Black who are willing to go to the edge… and to then have a criticism that responds in the same way.” In Reel to Real, hooks cast her razor-sharp gaze over many worthy moving targets; excoriating racialised fantasies in Quentin Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction (1994), unpacking exploitative vulgarity in Larry Clark’s Kids (1995), and highlighting phallocentric blindspots in Spike Lee’s She’s Gotta Have It (1986) in the provocatively titled chapter ‘Whose Pussy Is This? A Feminist Comment’ – to name but a few!

She’s Gotta Have It (1986)

In 1997, having recently received a research fellowship from the British Film Institute, hooks delivered a rousing series of lectures in the UK, interrogating ethics and accountability in artistic production. “Everything is political,” she asserted, taking aim at super-heroic blockbusters (notably the box-office hits Independence Day, 1996, and the Lethal Weapon franchise) as advertisements for “militarism, nationalism and global US imperialism”. Hollywood’s reluctance to own its political messaging left audiences to labour under the illusion that films were made primarily to entertain.

Interviewed in Black Film Bulletin in Spring 1997, hooks distinguished genuine progress from racial tropes and skewered, gendered constructs, amid an explosion of roles for Black male performers in 90s cinema. The “sidekick Black” and “faithful servant” (above all when militarised) were intended never to truly “interfere with the white male star”. The newer Black male archetype – a solitary, metaphoric island (read: frequently troubled or detached from all joyful semblance of family life, yet ever-ready and willing to save the nation) often valiantly played by the great Denzel Washington (see 1993’s The Pelican Brief’ or 1996’s Courage Under Fire) contrasted ironically with barely existent parallels for Black women, as “the female star is so often sexualised, it is harder to have a sidekick who isn’t a competitor”.

Yet cinemagoers held agency, and hooks was unequivocal: “Audiences have the power… the real power of audiences that we as Black people do not exercise is to not pay our money for images that are degrading and dehumanising.”

In the pages of BFB, hooks would warn against the trickier duplicities of political correctness – specifically when deployed to silence, subvert and “mindf *ck” (hooks’ precise wording) the aesthetically marginalised into “the worst kind of mental terrorism”. Dissent, and “it is dismissed as your problem”. It’s useful to recall this metaphor of “terrorism” as a visual device when placing into critical context future controversy – namely, a scorchingly unfiltered take on the star power of the global phenomenon Beyoncé, expressed by hooks in her residency at the New School in May 2014. In a panel conversation titled ‘Are You Still a Slave? Liberating the Black Female Body’, responding to an image of the bikini-clad Black and blonde cover star, ranked among Time’s ‘100 Most Influential People’, hooks had opined: “It’s what that body stands for… desire fulfilled; wealth, fame, celebrity – things that so many in our culture are lusting for… Or is it the combination of all of those things at the heart of the imperialist, white supremacist, capitalist Patriarchy?”

When enchanted by the imagery of Black subjectivity centred in the politically erotic, hooks bestowed high praise. Awed by the “mythic” quality of writer-director Julie Dash’s 1991 debut Daughters of the Dust, hooks exulted: “We have to redefine our history, and our mythic history – Daughters does this in such an incredible way, it creates a new kind of art film – but also a progressive political intervention.” Nearly three decades later, that ‘mythic’ reclamation so lusciously captured in Daughters would inspire the iconography of Beyoncé’s visual album Lemonade (2016) – arguably the artist’s most intentional and explicitly political rebuttal of her critics.

Beasts of the Southern Wild (2012)

Denouncing the malevolence of wayward mythicism, hooks loathed the 2013 Best Picture Oscar-nominee Beasts of the Southern Wild, directed by Benh Zeitlin. In ‘No Love in the Wild’, a blistering repudiation published in the NewBlackMan (in Exile) blog by fellow academic Mark Anthony Neal, hooks voiced both anger and “sorrow: for all the lost traumatized children, but especially abused and abandoned Black children, whose bodies become the playing fields where pornographies of violence are hidden behind romantic evocations of mythic union and reunion with nature. In the end there is no one to lift these small bodies up, to call down from the skies a healing grace that can redeem and set free.”

Spike Lee’s status as America’s most prolific Black filmmaker inspired in hooks near forensic appraisal, of both cinematic messaging and unmistakable symbolism. In ‘Sorrowful Black death is not a hot ticket’, a 1994 essay for Sight and Sound on Lee’s Crooklyn, she lambasted the “sexist politics” of erasure in Lee’s semi-biopic family drama: “Whereas Crooklyn attempts to counter racist assumptions about Black identity, it upholds sexist and misogynist thinking… whether it is the grown woman’s body erased by death or the little girl’s body erased by violent interruption of her girlhood.”

hooks’ vehement critique of Lee’s She’s Gotta Have It (1986) was fully laid out in 1996 in Reel to Real; but like poetic intervention, that same year delivered Girl 6 – Lee’s female-centred allegory of patriarchy and sexual exploitation in the shadows of Hollywood. Though it was derided somewhat by the mainstream, to hooks, Girl 6 was progress. In ‘Spike Lee: Hollywood’s Fall Guy’ – a chapter in the second half of hooks’ two-part video series Cultural Criticism and Transformation, she stated a defence: “No matter how successful Spike Lee has been in Hollywood he is still put down by mass media… I think that his bitterness towards that system is actually concrete – the kind of radicalization that comes from a person who wholeheartedly embraces the rules of the game and finds that no matter how well they follow those rules, they still are not a real contestant in the game and they still cannot win. A major magazine… just recently carried a story on Lee as a failure… How could you talk about Spike Lee as a failure?” (In 2016, the Academy would eventually award Lee an Honorary Oscar – his first.)

To the detriment of my American studies curriculum, the cinematic interventions of bell hooks were unmandated reading. A pilgrimage to Waterstones Piccadilly did yield youthful epiphany – my fortuitous encounter with Reel to Real,a solitary copy perched upon a distant shelf, representing one among too few books on postmodern cinema envisioned through the diasporic lens of an African-American woman.

The late Penelope Houston, long-serving editor of Sight and Sound, once lamented an “unattractive truth”: “that there is plenty of reviewing and not nearly enough criticism.”

“You have to be willing to tell the truth,” hooks affirmed to Black Film Bulletin in 1997. “Otherwise you will always be a victim of the lies told to you and about you.” With unbounded clarity, bell hooks was a critic unbeholden to the lie. And therein lies her inimitable legacy: a beauty and benevolence of culturally corrective empathy, even as she dared to expose the ugliness of obfuscated truth.

More by bell hooks

Dreams of conquest: bell hooks on Hoop Dreams

By bell hooks

Dreams of conquest: bell hooks on Hoop Dreams

Sorrowful black death is not a hot ticket: bell hooks on Spike Lee’s Crooklyn

By bell hooks

Sorrowful black death is not a hot ticket: bell hooks on Spike Lee’s Crooklyn

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