Unfinished / Unpublished: Black Bodies in Hollywood

The following is an essay I began writing not too long after Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle was released in late 2018. As in a lot of the writing I was doing around this time, Get Out served as an initial focal point through which I begin to discuss a larger issue. For this essay, I was interested in how Welcome to the Jungle mediated its racial politics through cyber-technology. I wanted to discuss how black bodies were controlled in science-fiction and fantasy films. In the case of Welcome to the Jungle which involves characters in the real-world delving into a video-game, I would argue that Welcome to the Jungle is the latest in a long-line of films in which a White male retains power through the emasculation of a Black male. I never got around to finishing this piece, but given my continued interest in cyber-related topics, it’s one that I’d like to revisit someday. As will be the case for future posts in this topic, rough-drafts have been left un-edited.

The summation of Get Out’s themes can be found a quarter of the way into the film when the protagonist Chris attends a party thrown by his white girlfriend’s parents and attended by their all white friends.

In a montage of Chris’ conversations with the other party-goers, director-writer Jordan Peele displays the everyday micro-aggressions that black-bodies go through in white-spaces.

Chris is fetishized by the elderly white guests who compliment him as an object of their various fantasies, praising him for being cool because “black is in fashion,”and on two other occasions, appraising his physicality; the first time by an ex-professional golfer who “knows Tiger” and the second time by a gentlewoman who feels up his body and comments on how strong he must be.

Through Chris’ reactions to these opinions of himself, Peele imbues the scene with a satirical edge, highlighting the absurdity of the white characters who are out of time and out of touch with the progressive politics of contemporary society.

The party scene speaks towards both the political and cinematic history of America, from the setting connoting the Antebellum South with its Greek-influenced architecture and outlying woods, to the racially-charged sexual compliments Chris receives, recalling Mandingo stereotypes whose elements resurface and are subverted in characters like Shaft and Sweetback.

Peele continues this exploration, subversion, and critique throughout the rest of the film, culminating in a radical ending where Chris proves the strength of his body by brutally murdering his white captors.

He uses a deer’s taxidermy head to impale the father of the household, an ironic twist to the Black Buck stereotype; he continues upstairs where he allows the mother to stab his hand through with a pair of scissors before proceeding to turn the weapon on her, literally; he’s ambushed by the brother who locks him in a choke-hold, but manages an outmaneuver that allows him to pin the brother to the floor and subsequently stomp him.

Peele films this particular moment of violence from afar as opposed to the close-ups he employed previously. He positions the camera behind a door where it skitters so as to give the appearance of someone torn between wanting to watch the scene or tear themselves away.

Even with the visual confrontation, Peele doesn’t allow audiences to shy away; he emphasizes the brutality of it all through the sound of bone being crunched. It’s American History X, but of course with the roles reversed, but more importantly, without the patronizing and cartoonish sympathy.

Peele presents racial tensions on-screen in the same manner that they’re experienced by minorities in reality. That is, uncomfortable, exhausting, and severe.

The film’s plot concerning a group of White cultists who abduct African-Americans so as to literally take over their bodies of course draws—once again—the cinematic and political parallels of American reality, be it the founding of the United States being built on the backs of forced Black labor or Black characters such as those played by Sydney Poitier bent to the whims of White Hollywood screenwriters and producers.

Critics have consequently rightly praised Peele for Get Out’s satirical aspects, and the film’s overwhelming financial-success bodes well for Peele’s criticisms against racial-injustices reaching mass audiences.

Yet, it is imperative to retain a degree of realism and not fall into an ideological trap of believing Get Out will end racism in America or bring about a radical change to Hollywood’s inclusion of Black minorities both on and off-screen.

Perhaps what Get Out’s mainstream-success can achieve, however, is a lesson in what to be aware of when watching Black characters on-screen.

Functioning in a similar manner to John Berger’s “Ways of Seeing,” Get Out teaches how to watch Black bodies in film; how to watch how Black bodies can be controlled and how Black bodies can resist, ultimately through its use of metaphor.

Within this discourse, however, Get Out isn’t the first film to achieve this. Charles Burnett’s Killer of Sheep shows the exhaustion of Black bodies when their communities are results of the established White hegemony; Wendall B. Harris Jr’s. Chameleon Street displays White authorities attempting to control a Black body who refuses to follow their conventions and rules.

But these films among many others never managed to reach an audience beyond cinephiles, and so therein lies the distinction in Peele’s film. It is appropriate then that with the awards season underway, and Get Out on everyone’s mind, that a film such as Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle is released.

Whereas the original Jumanji focused on the eponymous board-game coming to life, writers (placeholder) update the new film to reflect more modern-times, turning Jumanji into a virtual-reality video-game.

Borrowing from The Breakfast Club, Welcome to the Jungle focuses on four high-school students from varying social backgrounds: There’s W, the awkward and shy nerd; X, the football jock who used to be W’s best-friend; Y, the popular “dumb-blond,” and finally, Z, W’s somewhat female-counterpart, save for her wit and forwardness.

The setup of the film immediately brings the film into a conversation of Black representation on-screen. X is portrayed as manipulative, asking W to do his homework in return for a chance to come to the always-coveted “cool-kids” parties of the genre. The homework is delivered, but the invitations are not;

When W brings up their past ties and subsequent drifting, X ignores him in favor for the equally popular girl [1]who drives by and offers him a ride. The setup of the film consists of each the characters being punished with detention, and when W and X are caught, despite X’s berating that W has ruined his life, W insists on shouldering the blame.

[1]   The girl is also Black, which bears importance when understanding how the film handles sexual relations; the script may hints towards both homosexual and mixed-race relationships, but this can only come about within the virtual (both literal and Deleuzian) world of Jumanji. Within the world of the film, the social norms that would be more radical to break must be preserved.

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