She’s spectacular, yes? Cathy Rosier as Valérie, the pianist in Jean-Pierre Melville’s Le Samouraï. In every scene she functions as the strangely twinned counterpart to Alain Delon’s Jef Costello. Delon was just as uncannily pretty, but so steely as to be less versatile. Seeing it again raised that itch at the back of my brain, and prompts me to ask: why did Melville cast a Black woman in this role?

Her eyes, her clothes, that gorgeous sleek helmet of hair, the perfect position of her lips which never quite make a pout — there’s no doubt she was an ideal choice. My question comes from the fact that casting a Black woman in a film noir was an unusual choice for 1967.

Le Samouraï is as much about style as anything else — so one answer might be that Rosier was chosen not for her race but for her extraordinary look. When I say she functions as Delon’s uncanny twin, I’m quite serious. Both possess such femininity and languid grace that it almost breaks your heart. In contrast, Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall look like hardened fishmongers.But I’m inclined to think Rosier was also selected because she’s black, because she offers that racialicious contrast to Delon’s eminent white Frenchness. Her beautiful skin contrasts so beautifully against the shimmering white-and-goldness of this room with the piano. When she posed in that crazy beautiful leopard-skin coat while the detectives took her statement, she evoked a dark danger to Delon’s character’s anonymity. By using this spectacular coat, the director evokes unknowable Africanness to go with his film noir.

Yet another writer sees the tale as a riff on Orpheus. Julian Petley believes that Le Samourai plays with the tale of Orpheus being called to the underworld. “If, in Orphée , it was the otherworldly Princess who becomes susceptible to human feelings and returns Orpheus’s love, here it is the icy, solitary Jef whose feelings are awakened and who, thus shorn of his strength, deliberately accepts death and destiny. And just to underline the parallel with Orphée , the Princess is a white woman dressed in black, while Valérie is a black woman dressed in white.”

Maybe, maybe not. As with so many things in film, perhaps it’s ultimately impossible to explain the racialiciousness surrounding Rosier’s role in this movie. Part Lieutenant Uhuru, part glamour goddess, part mysterious African savage (or Josephine Baker), part separated-at-birth Delon twin … all these incomplete musings make me ponder the possibility of examining blackness in “white” movies of the 60s, that era of racial tumult. (Or maybe I’ll leave it to the experts. Stay tuned.)

Coming to France from Senegal, she believed her white employers when they promised she’d be taking care of the kids. Instead, she’s become an all-purpose maid and cook — shall we say slave? The English title of 1966’s Black Girl only captures part of the original French, La Noire de… which means “the black girl of…” and Senegalese director Ousmane Sembène is quite serious in exploring what it means to be owned, or at least under the thumb of raced power. What does it mean to be in a strange nation, far from one’s family and anyone else Black, trapped in a house under the watchful, cranky eye of the same couple who misled you in bringing you here? And how do you protest?

Living in the south of France should have been heavenly, but Diouana (Mbissine Thérèse Diop) only catches a few glimpses of it. The kids aren’t even there yet, so she spends all her time trapped in that apartment where nothing she does is good enough. She doesn’t even have the right clothes for the job; all the fashionable dresses she brought with her — again, anticipating spending time in city parks with the children — are too fancy for mopping floors, and they just seem to make Mrs. Pouchet even angrier. Over time, Diouana has become quietly obstructionist, insisting on wearing her pumps when doing housework, while her mistress buys an insulting little maid’s apron. In other words, Black Girl is the most vivid expression of colonialism I’ve seen in film.

What the film captures most eloquently is the interplay between voice and silent resistance. How does a Black girl respond to a white mistress? In Diouana’s case, with surface impassivity and an angry inner monologue that we hear as voiceover. When Mrs. Pouchet calls her lazy and pronounces imperiously, “If you won’t work, you won’t eat!” Diouana thinks to herself, “If I don’t eat, I won’t work.” It’s especially bad when the Pouchets invite guests and pretend she does not speak French at all, but claim she “seems to understand intuitively,” like an animal. One man rises from the table and kisses Diouana, turning back to the room and announcing, “I never kissed a Black before! My first Black!” How does a Black girl respond except to feel ever more alienated? Is there any way out of this situation for a girl without money, without friends, and unable to speak except in her own thoughts?

It’s beautiful, harsh, eloquent — and only 56 minutes long in the streaming Netflix version (which makes me think I can use it in class!) I can’t think of a better way to get across these ideas about post-colonialism, power, and identity to my students. Senegal had been independent from France for only six years when Sembène made this film, so those themes were quite germane when it was made — and they’re no less pervasive now. For any of you who wonder whether the subaltern can speak — or how to analyze that question with your students — Black Girl is a partial answer. But I don’t mean to indicate that this film is academic or theoretical, because it’s not. I can hardly wait to see more of Sembène’s films and learn where he went from this, his début, to other explorations of identity and expression. In the meantime, the dreamlike/nightmarish qualities of this film haunt me.

Turner Classic Movies — that stalwart throwback of basic cable TV, the channel that still doesn’t have commercials or flashy series, is doing us all a public service this month:  they’re showing a new seven-part documentary on the history of Hollywood and moviemaking in America called “Moguls and Movie Stars.”  Tonight starting at 7pm EST/6pm CST they’ll show two one-hour episodes back-to-back:  “Peepshow Pioneers,” about the earliest days of film in the twentieth century, and “The Birth of Hollywood.”  Subsequent episodes will premier each Monday night until mid-December.  Best of all, tonight’s installments will be followed by a series of early silents that discuss race in film, starting with “Traffic in Souls” (1913) and “The Indian Massacre” (1912).

I’ve never had the luck to see “Traffic in Souls” before, but I’ve read about it — it played a big role in the early 20th-c. hysteria over white slavery.  White slavery had worked right-thinking members of the public into a lather since the mid-1880s, but had peaked in the 1910s with the passage of the famous Mann Act, or the White Slave Traffic Act, that forbade the interstate traffic of women “for immoral purposes.”  Like many public hysterias, this one got a good deal of its oomph from racist fantasies that nice white girls were being captured for sexual slavery by dastardly dark men (mostly Chinese and Jews); movies like “Traffic in Souls” and others were intended to keep fear alive, a la Stephen Colbert, so the public wouldn’t forget how terrible such crimes were.  Reputedly, however, film studios gradually cottoned on to the fact that audiences saw these films as titillating, so they got pulled from release.  No wonder that by the time Rudolph Valentino played “The Sheik” in the 1920s, women were well-primed to find his masterful quasi-rape of white women to be so wonderful as to be damn near pornographic.

TCM is following these two films up with D. W. Griffith’s classic “Birth of a Nation” (1915), that histrionically racist portrayal of the South and the KKK — one of those films that can only point out how much the 1910s were a foreign country.  But don’t despair, for immediately afterward will be shown one of the earliest films by a prolific black director, Oscar Micheaux, whose “Within Our Gates” (1920) exposes the nation’s history of lynching and mixed-race blending only loosely covered up by extreme white racism.  (I’m also glad to see, with this opening intertitle, that he challenges Northern fantasies of being altogether superior to those hicks in the South.)  I’ve never seen any of Micheaux’s films, and I’m looking forward to it.  It’s always good to know that there were prominent Hollywood directors who talked back to the movies’ racism even at one of the darkest points in American history. 

I know, after posts on “Buffy” and Julie Taymor this stuff is hopelessly geeky — and with that, I hope you’re as excited as I am.

Feel good

9 March 2010

Two thoughts on the Oscars last night.  First, and most obviously, it takes truly awful writing to make the naturally funny Alec Baldwin fall flat as host.  Second, and more substantively, it takes a collective cultural willingness to ignore reality to award the best actress Oscar to the woman who plays the nice, rich white lady who helps the poor black boy rise out of poverty and ignorance — rather than give it to the woman who plays the overweight, impoverished, sexually & psychologically abused black woman. 

I don’t think I’d be complaining so much if one of the other actors had won.  And my response has nothing to do with the actual performances by Bullock and Sidibe.  It’s just that the politics are so transparent here.  Sidibe forces us to witness the experience of one of America’s true subalterns; Bullock gives us hope for white agency.  And then there’s the fact that we already know and like Bullock, despite a career of mostly pulpy films — whereas few can imagine Sidibe getting many parts from here on out (Jennifer Hudson, the lighter-skinned, thinner, and vocally extraordinary singer, has obtained only minor parts since winning a best-supporting actor award three years ago).  Sigh.