Blue Velvet, Cornel West, David Lynch, Invisible Man, Minority Report, Ralph Ellison, Steven Spielberg, Tom Cruise
Whenever I critically consider what I mean when I say that I’m a film critic or that I cover film, some part of my consciousness slips free of film itself and what I think about its storied past, its ever-changing current perspectives and mood swings, or its much-discussed limited future as a form. I think about what it means to see and be seen, up there, writ-large in flickering yet seductively moving images. And that immediately conjures up Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man, in particular the book’s prologue where his unnamed protagonist says, I am an invisible man. No, I am not a spook like those who haunted Edgar Allan Poe; nor am I one of your Hollywood-movie ectoplasms. I am a man of substance, of flesh and bone, fiber and liquids – and I might even be said to possess a mind.
Readers who have undertaken this writing journey with me here in Cincinnati for the past 20 years will certainly recall reading those words in essays or critical works before. They have echoed in my mind, longer than I can remember. I truly can’t remember the first time I read Invisible Man. I know it wasn’t in a class, which is how it should have gone down, how I and my peers – mainly white (whether in gifted classes back in public school in Asheville, North Carolina or at prep school in Chattanooga, Tennessee) – could have shared this quintessential and uniquely American narrative, where we would have discussed how someone or more broadly some groups have been marginalized to the point of being unseen. A few lines later Ellison continues on, explaining, I am invisible, understand, simply because people refuse to see me, before recounting the harsh and plain truth of the matter: When they approach me they see only my surroundings, themselves, or figments of their imaginations – indeed, everything and anything except me.
I know how, systemically speaking, this happens, although I should point out that I’m focusing mainly on the images and reflections of black folks onscreen. We are invisible because, for so very long, our stories were not deemed worthy of being recorded and displayed. We were merely part of the surroundings, props on the stage or frames to be maneuvered around or compelled into action by commands from the main or supporting characters whose stories were the only ones that mattered.
Black Lives Matter.
Now, that phrase, those words have meaning, still not the fully realized contextual definition demanded, but some greater measure than ever before. What meaning which has been carefully culled and carved out of the corner of this block of raw humanity, has been shaped by a steady stream of moving images documenting systemic abuses, actions without repercussions or meaningful yet tragically futile attempts at the pursuit of justice. Images that we have seen. Before, so long before, there was invisibility.
Think back to Rodney King. The camcorder video of his beating at the hands, boots and batons of a gang of police officers stirred something in the national consciousness. I don’t want to overstate its power or impact because, truth be told, it was only a rumbling noise and a surprising disruption of the norm, like a folding chair flying into the frame from off-camera, and the people at the center of that image, well, they ducked and cowered for a moment before they took control of the narrative swiftly and sought to move on as if nothing had happened. The riots sparked by the dismissal of the courts; they gained attention when folks who were not Black were involved and/or impacted.
But what do we remember more – Rodney King and pictures of his face and body or the scenes of the riots in the streets, the broken storefronts, the looting? This is the familiar recasting of the narrative and the recollections.
I want to talk about film; that is supposed to be the point of all this, right? I’m a critic, a writer and commentator, film programmer. My art, such as it is, is about critical discussions of moving images and the narratives contained therein.
But I can’t talk about where this career path, this vocation originated for me, without unpacking this other cultural baggage, the burden I carry and most times, don’t have the opportunity to share with readers. It would be too much and seen by some as being beside the point. What does David Lynch’s Blue Velvet (my all-time favorite film, mind you – one that I have seen more times on the big screen than any other and I have a trove of fading ticket stubs from 1986 to 2016 to prove it) have to do with race and representation and invisibility, man? Can’t a movie – especially a surreal noir like Blue Velvet – just be a movie, unrelated to concerns about how many people of color might or might not have appeared onscreen?
That is the sentiment of folks who see themselves so often (and like Ellison said, even when they look at others who do not look like them) that they experience a sense of obliviousness to anyone else. I understand this viewpoint in ways that those who live it will never grasp mine without it being pointed out to them – because I see…
Now, I was a senior in high school when I saw Blue Velvet at least three times during its opening weekend. Once each day (Friday through Sunday) at a mall theater in Chattanooga. I was intrigued and mystified by the creepy ferociousness of its images – the severed ear, that swaying swatch of seemingly living, breathing blue velvet, the swarming ants, the hallucinogenic bar scene as Frank Booth (Dennis Hopper) watches Ben’s (Dean Stockwell) rendition of Roy Orbison’s “In Dreams” – but what tickled my fancy even more was a desire to share in the experiences of the film’s protagonist Jeffrey Beaumont (Kyle MacLachlan), to become an intrepid truth seeker, a junior detective and would-be hero who could woo both the put-upon temptress Dorothy Vallens (Isabella Rossellini) and the innocent good girl Sandy Williams (Laura Dern). I wanted to be Jeffrey Beaumont, yet I knew that on the deepest level, I could never achieve that figurative goal.
I would never be in position – even back then – to discover a severed ear in a field, bring it to the police and not have them consider me the prime perpetrator of whatever foul misdeed led to said ear being removed from its rightful owner. I would not have been seen as a cool character, able to bumble into a kinkily complex arrangement with the mysterious Vallens or earn the chance to engage the lead detective’s teenage daughter (who would end up leaving her clique-certified high school boyfriend) as an accomplice in my Hardy Boys adventure. And let’s not even get into how I wouldn’t have survived the initial encounter with Frank Booth at Dorothy’s apartment. He would never have considered me a good neighbor if he saw me there.
Celebrated critic Pauline Kael, in her September 22, 1986 review of the film in The New Yorker, points out that readers should recognize the film as “a coming-of-age picture” focused on a college-aged protagonist returning home coming face-to-face with a seedy and tainted underworld lurking beneath the quiet and quaint façade that he should have known, even before he left, wasn’t real. Kael describes Jeffrey Beaumont as “wholesome” looking, despite the fact that he’s a bit too curious about the violent and sensual kinks underneath the surface. He’s a good kid, eager to flirt with being bad.
When’s the first time a critic, a viewer, or another character onscreen offered that impression of a young Black man? Notice I’m bypassing the cliched approach of assuming this has happened before, because realistically, it hasn’t and we shouldn’t pretend it has.
Further into her review, Kael, while praising MacLachlan’s performance addresses how “his proper look is perfect for a well-brought-up young fellow who’s scared of his dirty thoughts (but wants to have them anyway).” No one, critics or anyone else, imagines or talks about college-aged Black men like this. Back then, no one probably would have assumed a late-teen/early twentysomething Black man would have been attending college at all. I know because even though I went to a prestigious Southern prep school and then attended an Ivy League university, most folks who didn’t know me and happened to pass me on the street probably wouldn’t have dubbed me a “well-brought-up young fellow” despite the fact that I was.
But I enjoyed the escape into this quite tame yet thoroughly Lynchian world, made even more unbelievable due to these dynamics. I never addressed my concerns with my white friends and classmates who went back to watch the film with me again and again. I never knew if these thoughts or other somewhat similar considerations ever crossed their minds while they sat back in the dark and entered that world. I just knew things were different for us.
The fact that these issues never lessened my passion for Blue Velvet or most of the films I watched before or since, speaks to a reality that separates me (and most critics of color) from the majority of our colleagues. Our imaginations, by nature and cultural circumstance, have to be more active, more engaged with a series of societal truths each and every time we settle in to do our jobs.
I have experienced a confounding lack of imagination, especially early on during my time as a reviewer/critic. Back before I assumed a position where I could decide which films I wanted to cover in either print or in televised segments, I had to take whatever leftover titles were assigned to me, usually the lower-profile releases barely deemed worthy of the 200-words or less and sidebar designation on the back pages. In most cases, that meant covering slick genre exercises or the latest Tyler Perry production, which, during that phase, were little more than static camera stagings of his melodramatic and overtly preachy plays.
I became an expert of the evolution of Perry’s burgeoning oeuvre, but I noticed that there weren’t many non-critics of color on this particular beat. Talking to these peers, I picked up on the off-hand dismissal they offered for not engaging with Perry’s work, which on the surface, wasn’t rude or intended to be racially motivated. It was just assumed that these films were part of an invisible world and belonged to an audience that was invisible to them and not worth their critical imaginations.
Make no mistake though, the lack of imagination I’m referring to here belongs as much to the audience as it does to the artists creating the works, the industry distributing and exhibiting the films, as well as the reviewers and critics I shared the beat with. The film industry, in the last few years, has attempted a degree of course correction; an admission of understanding that their fictional creations can, and should, reflect a larger variety of social and cultural identities. Yet, there is a price to be paid in the inevitable pushback.
What happens when a filmmaker forces us to re-orient to a character based on racialized casting? Based on the internet and social media, we explode, we fight against these affronts to the natural order of things. The Fantastic Four’s Johnny Storm can’t be Black. Captain America must be white. James Bond can be blond or Scottish, but by God, he can’t be Black (even as Black Brits have proven they can come over to the US and play red-blooded American Civil Rights figures). I singled those fictional characters out for a reason. Two are superheroes from comic books and one is a spy from a series of pulpy novels that have been adapted into an ongoing franchise that has been rebooted almost a half-dozen times with everything from giant henchmen with metal teeth to invisible cars and ice palaces. Do we need to be so precious about our fictions?
Almost every time I watch a mainstream movie, I twist and pervert the narratives and the casting. I’ve rarely mentioned this out loud before, which means I may be damning myself in the eyes of long-time readers and viewers. This admitted betrayal might be too much to bear, but at least you know now. I place myself in these narratives and I don’t always go through the even more consuming process of converting everyone’s race to match up with my own configurations. I imagine being the protagonist in Christopher Nolan’s Memento or one of The Usual Suspects (Fenster’s my first choice even though he’s the first to die – like Black folks usually do in horror movies, so…), which means inserting my Black body and consciousness into these overwhelmingly white spaces. It’s not that different than what I do most days as I navigate through the world.
And now, after Steve McQueen’s Small Axe series, I dream of a trilogy of stories about the American flag and its colors, similar to Kieslowski’s Three Colors films that explored the themes of the French flag or his Dekalog that examined and recontextualized the Ten Commandments in a Polish housing project. I long for Black experiences in the United States to be seen as embodiments of what it means to be American. I pledge allegiance to Ellison and James Baldwin, John Edgar Wideman and Toni Morrison, Charles Burnett and Spike Lee, McQueen and Barry Jenkins, Prince (because he certainly wasn’t afraid of his dirty thoughts or where they might lead him), 9th Wonder and Dave Chappelle. The last two have taught me more about the intellectual and philosophical nature of criticism than any straight-up practitioners of the form I’ve read.
Cornel West, in the weighty Reader compendium of his essays, introduced the notion that being American is part of a dialogical and democratic operation that grapples with the challenge of being human in an open-ended and experimental manner. What I’ve taken this to mean over the years since I first came across it is that America is all about changing and (re)creating ourselves as often as necessary. To do so requires imagination and a willingness to accept a fundamental truth about the human experience. Living is constant change, a continual evolution of body, mind, and spirit.
What reminds us of this better than film? Film presents perspectives on the past and the present, potential multiverses, if you will, and offers us the opportunity to create and share even more reflections, but only if we willingly and actively submit to seeing and considering the possibility of those other perspectives. We have to deem them worthy.
Is that an inalienable right? Was that meant to be included in our Founding documents? Can we make amendments to ensure this happens?
Again, I do this every time I sit down and expose myself to film. My longing and desire to enter those frames, to explode and transform them by my very presence and with my critical awareness of their limitations (by not including me in the first place) is my way of granting a degree of worth. I’m just acknowledging here that I’m tired of doing most of the heavy lifting alone.
The first time I remember feeling like critics-at-large had emphatically joined me in this endeavor came with the release of Steven Spielberg’s Minority Report – back in 2002. I was still a relative newbie as a writer and critic, not even sure I deserved to be considered a true player in the game. I was still reading and studying the outlets and voices I held in the highest of regards. Like The Village Voice, which ran a full-on special section of coverage on Minority Report from a multitude of angles. Rather than limiting the discussion to just film critics, The Voice invited a host of arts and culture and political writers to speak to Spielberg’s (and co-screenwriters Scott Frank and Jon Cohen working from a Philip K. Dick short story) moodily blue take on the truth of crime and punishment.
And why not? The film is set in 2054 in Washington DC. Policing has embraced a new initiative dubbed Precrime, which depends upon the drug-induced dreams of a trio of gifted (or cursed) human pre-cogs who see crimes of passion before they happen. The pre-cog “court” releases a murderball, a symbolic charge attached to a digital presentation of the upcoming deadly assault, allowing special coordinated tech support at headquarters and a mobile strike force to apprehend the would-be criminals before their urges become tragic facts.
The pre-cogs – named after crime fiction/detective novelists – exist and operate in concert, despite the fact that their visions don’t always agree. The Precrime unit only hits the streets if Arthur (Michael Dickman), Dashiell (Matthew Dickman) and Agatha (Samantha Morton) unanimously agree on the murderball verdict. But we learn that Agatha, the strongest of the three, sometimes produces a “minority report”, a vision that tells a different, more compelling version of the truth.
Of course, nothing matters until a murderball drops down the chute targeting lead Precrime operative John Anderton (Tom Cruise), sending him on the run with a mere 36 hours to prove his seemingly impossible innocence. He discovers the glitch in the system – Agatha’s dissenting minority report – and kidnaps her, in an effort to determine the real crime and heightened ethical stakes as Precrime is poised to become a national initiative.
Spielberg makes sure to dazzle and amaze audiences with all of the expected futuristic bells and whistles in action sequences and obligatory scenes of Cruise running around like a chicken after the blade has fallen. We’re teased and titillated by the fleeting appearances of recognizable performers like Tim Blake Nelson, Colin Farrell, Max von Sydow and Peter Stormare as a shadily sadistic unlicensed doctor who conducts an eye transplant in what feels like a dive-bar restroom after last call on its final night before its long-awaited demolition.
And while the kink and grime stick and stink like 3D “smell-o-vision” at its best, the real hook, which some of The Voice features zeroed in on, was the presentation of law and order. The pre-cogs were the unintended results of off-the-books experimentation on addicts and their offspring, requiring Arthur, Dashiell, and Agatha to remain captive in drug-cocktail tanks with wires and monitors detailing and documenting their dreams of the violence of others. They exist only as a sacrifice for the greater good.
So what’s the big deal, you might ask? Why would I (and all of those Village Voice contributors) care so much about this action-oriented Tom Cruise vehicle?
How could I not be flummoxed by a futuristic iteration of Washington DC where only 2 Black actors have speaking roles (Anna Maria Horsford and Steve Harris) and our presence as a whole draws no attention. What the hell happened to Chocolate City? Had there been so rollout of an early Precrime initiative that took out all of the Black folks – knees on necks and bullets in the back as part of an Executive Order? Is the future taking seed now?
Yet, after watching the film several times, I couldn’t shake a nagging creative and critical fault, in relation to the fundamental principle of inclusion, which – to be fair – is a word and concern that has more relevance now than it did at the time of the film’s release. Still, I found myself fantasizing about how easily Spielberg could have made a single simple change significantly altering the representational power of the film. One casting choice.
It should be noted that I am a huge fan of Morton and her work in this film, in particular, but additional levels of nuance open up if Agatha had been a Black woman.
I know the argument that critics are not supposed to waste time on alternative notions concerning what a film might have been like; instead, our job is to analyze and explore what the filmmaker has presented to us. But, as a critic of color, a challenge emerges that must be confronted from time to time. Why do we not get the opportunity to see ourselves? Critical reflection requires a framework where we can observe some version of ourselves in the moving images.
Agatha, as a character, wouldn’t require any changes to the script. No need to punch up lines to create cultural distinction or flavor. Change nothing but the race of the person playing the role and watch what happens.
Say, switch out Morton for Halle Berry who won the Best Actress Oscar for Monster’s Ball, which was released in 2001 or Thandie Newton, coming off performances in Beloved (1998) and the Tom Cruise franchise sequel Mission: Impossible II (2000) or Kimberly Elise who a few years later would be featured in the remake of The Manchurian Candidate, but never garner a breakthrough opportunity quite like working with a director of Spielberg’s pedigree.
Let the narrative spin out as intended with Cruise’s Anderton compelled to trust this particular minority report. Agatha wouldn’t need to deviate from her small but pivotally necessary arc, but Anderton, again without disrupting the dialogue or narrative, has a far more unique journey. In the end, this version of the film presents viewers with a subtle and potentially uncomfortable reflection on their own experiences/realities of trusting Black truths. Would this re-imagined truth set anyone in the audience free? I would love to know the answer to that question.
We – and I mean all of us – need to ask and search for answers to these types of questions in all of the frames of moving images that play before us every day.
Note: This is the first in a series of long-form pieces based on my 2021 “Truth & Reconciliation” project. These essays and a soon-to-debut podcast (Critical Reflections) would not be possible without the support of ArtsWave, the City of Cincinnati, Duke Energy, Greater Cincinnati Foundation, Fifth Third Bank and the Arts Vibrancy Recovery Fund.