Over the last three decades traditional feminism has been attacked by black feminist theorists who say they have been racially oppressed in the Woman’s Movement and sexually oppressed by men in the Black Liberation Movement. Black feminists have accused the latter of representing only black men and have accused white feminist women of concentrating on oppression in terms of gender whilst ignoring other forms of oppression like race, class and sexuality. In an effort to resist this marginalisation, new black feminist and womanist theories have been produced to represent the needs of and account for the differing historical experiences of black women. Film makers have also begun to address the misrepresentations and exclusions of black women in white aesthetics.
During this essay I will use black feminist theory to analyse the films Daughters of the Dust and The Color Purple. Firstly, a brief explanation of the black feminist theory that is relevant to this essay will be given, using the work of a number of theorists. This will be a very condensed outline and will in no way encompass the full richness of black feminist thought. Then an analysis of the above two films will ensue in order to investigate if and in what ways these films present a challenge to traditional feminism and whether they support an oppositional stance to that taken by most mainstream films with regard to the representation of black women. Finally, a summary of the arguments will be given.
Upon forming a movement of their own, black women needed to define the objectives of the Black Feminist Movement. Several authors have put forth definitions, among the most notable are Angela Davis, The Combahee River Collective and Alice Walker, whose works will be discussed below.
Angela Davis’s experiences of black sexism within the Black Liberation Movement of the 1960s and 1970s, along with white racism in the Women’s Movement and society at large, has prompted her body of black feminist work. Her 1982 book Women, Race and Class sets about exposing the previously overlooked assumptions of American feminism by revealing the racism and classism of white feminists, while stressing the strategic interdependences of gender, race and class.
In this book she problematises the white feminist concept that sees all women as a homogenous group, and sets about correcting previous histories of slavery illustrating how black women have always been actively involved in resistance struggle. She also depicts how the priorities of white feminists are vastly different from black feminists, because of their differing histories, and offers a more accurate historical account of black women’s roles during slavery. To this end, Davis deconstructs the stereotypical representations of women slaves previously offered by white male historians. Her main recounting of history tells how the majority of women did not in fact work in the house as cooks, maids and mammies, as white historians would have us believe, but alongside male slaves in the fields. This she argues gave slave women some status because their masters owned them equally with slave men and thought them equal in physical strength.
Thus, she argues that white feminists have misread the history of slavery applying their white middle class objectives to black women, especially with regard to domesticity and reproduction, which far from being oppressive actually freed black women and gave them a sense of community. She contends that, although mainstream feminists have viewed domesticity and reproduction as patriarchal tools of oppression (stemming from the 19th century ideology of the “myth of femininity”), it is not necessarily the same for black women. She maintains that black women have always worked in the public realm stemming back to their compulsory labour as slaves. Therefore, both in times of slavery and today, many found sanctuary in domesticity and family away from the harsh realities of working life.
She argues further that male and female relationships in slavery did not conform to the ideological patterns of patriarchy from western feminism. There were no gender divisions in domestic roles at this time; men and women shared the domestic duties equally. She illustrates how the cooking and sharing of food was an important and pleasurable way of maintaining family circles, enabling community bonding and keeping traditions and rituals alive. Consequently, she contests that many black women do not share the view that white feminists hold, that mothering and domestic duty is not as significant as work in the public realm.
She says that in the times of slavery mothering was deemed a very important job, an example being mother-daughter advice in which black mothers passed on wisdom for survival in a white world, in the black community and with men. Female slave narratives, folk tales and black poetry and prose reflect this tradition. Mothers were the keepers of memories and often developed mnemonic systems to remember the children that were taken away from them and sold as slaves. Mothers recorded family history, their oral traditions keeping memories alive and serving to pass on the history and spirituality that bonded the community. This oral tradition is still alive and important today in black feminism, where it is understood to be as meaningful as written documentation.
Further contributors to black feminism were The Combahee River Collective founded in 1974.
This group issued a paper in 1977 entitled The Combahee River Collective: A Black Feminist Statement, which set forth their specific, political definition. The main objectives of this group, like those of Angela Davis, were to voice a disillusionment with the women’s movement and to revitalise a history of black women that had been either undocumented or misrepresented in previous black and white histories. They were also instrumental in furthering the perspective now held by many black feminists that everyday phenomena are important. In their statement they pronounced the following: “A political contribution which we feel we have already made is the expansion of the feminist principle that the personal is political.” “Even our black women’s style of talking/testifying in black language about what we have experienced has a resonance that is both cultural and political.” (Smith, Smith and Frazier, 1977, p. 276). This statement has been taken up as a basis for contemporary black feminist thought and critical evaluation.
The final contributor to black feminist thought that I will discuss is Alice Walker, who also considered traditional feminism to be too bourgeois, middle-class and academic. As an act of resistance she coined the term “Womanist” to describe the Black Feminist Movement. This concept she presented in her book In Search of Our Mothers’ Gardens, from which many women have appropriated the notion as a way of affirming themselves as black while simultaneously owning their connection with feminism and with the Afro-American community. The concept of a womanist allows women to claim their roots in black history and culture. According to Walker, being a womanist involves loving women, sexually and/or non-sexually, and sometimes individual men, also loving oneself regardless. It also requires a commitment to the survival and wholeness of both men and women. In this book she sets out an Afro-American aesthetic, which is very distinct from a white Euro-American aesthetic, that entails a love of the everyday items that the western world would not allow into academia, such as music, dance and quilt making. The term womanist introduces a new sensibility that is not present in the ideals of the white bourgeois feminist. It speaks of black feminists or feminists of colour. Or as Walker says, “Womanist is to feminist as purple is to lavender” (Walker, 1984).
It can be seen in all of the above that black feminist women are advocating a mode of identity that is not fixed but flowing and based on difference.
I will now analyse Daughters of the Dust and The Color Purple in order to investigate if and how they challenge the dominant depictions of black women in film, and how and in what way they take an oppositional stance to mainstream cinema.
Part of the black feminist struggle, according to the above theorists, is to rewrite black history in order to challenge its negative stereotypes, give black women a voice and show how women have always been actively involved in the resistance struggle. Daughters of the Dust confronts these issues in a number of ways; in particular it forces the spectator to take a different viewpoint. Firstly, the story refers to a black history that most spectators will not be familiar with. It is set in the Sea Islands of the coasts of South Carolina and Georgia in the summer of 1902. It looks at the experiences of the indigenous Gullah women in the Peazant family. According to Dash’s extensive research the Sea Islands were the first and main dropping-off point for Africans brought to North America as slaves during the days of the slave trade and it became the region in which the richest retention of African culture was preserved (Dash, 1992, p. 161). Dash’s story of the Gullah people who actively resisted assimilation into American culture can be seen as an illustration of how women have always had a major role in the fight to assert the validity of their own cultures.
Secondly, Daughters of the Dust offers a new way of thinking about history from a uniquely black, female perspective. Throughout this film Julie Dash privileges black women’s voices in the recording of history. Black women are the central focus of the film, the cast is entirely black, with all but a handful of the meaningful characters being women. Furthermore, as all dialogue is spoken in the Gullah dialect, the voices represented are an authentic representation of these particular black women, rather than their words and thoughts transposed into a dialect fit for a mass media audience. Dash’s use of these devices serves to undermine hegemonic history and its western accounts in which black women’s voices are invisible, and where black women are misrepresented by a white historian’s viewpoint. It also has the effect of making white western viewers understand how privileged they are in normally being able to understand and identify with their representations. The uncomfortableness of this film may put people in touch with how difficult it is for black peoples to watch films that they do not identify with and thus fully comprehend. Having said this, the film does not completely alienate a white audience because it uses subtitles in places where the dialect is particularly incomprehensible.
In fact, language has a central role in the film, especially as it highlights how African cultures challenge the western notion of the primacy of written over oral history. It shows how the lack of this written tradition, with memories instead carried in the mind or suggested by devices like Nana Peazant’s bottle tree, is seen to suppose a lack of history and hence an inferiority to western culture. As Angela Davis says “…..there are multiple African-American feminist traditions….feminist traditions are not only written, they are oral, and these oralities reveal not only rewrought African cultural traces, but also the genius with which former slaves forged new traditions that simultaneously contested the slave past and preserved some of the rich cultural products of slavery (Davis, 1998, p. 7).
This film is unique in that it requires a different viewing experience of its audience if it is to be fully understood. It requires the viewer to be actively engaged with the text, instead of passively consuming it; the spectators must do there own research in order to understand the historical and cultural context in which the events take place. This is unusual as, although many films may presuppose an audience having a knowledge of historical events or figures, these events occurred outside of the hegemonic historical record, and will therefore be new territory for most audiences, so fostering a greater understanding of black feminist history.
Daughters of the Dust also addresses notions of whiteness being the normal visible racial signifier in mainstream cinema by completely removing it from the film. Black-African is the norm in this film, thus making whiteness the racial “other” and hence forcing the audience to identify with racial signifiers in a totally different way to most mainstream media. Gone are the traditional black roles of classical Hollywood-there are no mammies, jezebels or matriarchs, even the newer, more sophisticated, stereotypes of the eighties and nineties are erased. Firstly, the binary relationship between white and black that fosters many of these stereotypes does not exist, but more importantly Dash portrays her characters as rounded and whole, choosing to produce an historically accurate portrayal rather than to rely on stereotypes.
Dash’s narrative also highlights one of the main anachronisms of the western feminist discourse (which has claimed to speak for all women), that domestic and reproductive roles are seen as oppressive or unimportant. The film portrays the Gullah women at ease with their domestic and maternal roles, it shows how they bond with each other and form important community ties. In the context of slavery, where women were subjected to extremes of physical labour, these roles were actually a form of freedom and empowerment according to Maggie Humm’s writings on Angela Davis “Often the strength a black woman gains from her family community and reproductive roles cushions her in her harsh public labour” (Humm, 1992, p. 128).
Dash’s intensive exposition of the everyday, without major emphasis on dramatic events, alludes to the Combahee River Collective’s insistence that for black women “the personal is political” (Smith, Smith and Frazier, 1977, p. 276), an idea that is given little credence in the traditional western feminist arena. Dash illustrates this point perfectly with her strikingly beautiful imagery of patchwork quilts, white linen, African jewellery, food, walks along the beach and many other events that could be considered mundane in mainstream cinema.
In fact, Dash throughout the entire film develops a firmly Afro-American aesthetic with uniquely African principles. The cinematography of the film illustrates this clearly-by exploiting the characteristics of the Agfa film used, the women’s dark skin takes on a very different quality from that seen in mainstream cinema with predominantly white characters. Instead of trying to show the women as lighter than they are, Dash acknowledges the dark tonality but emphasises variation and beauty within blackness. The structure of the film itself has two main characteristics that emphasise this different aesthetic even more. Firstly, it does not allow the audience to empathise with any one individual, by having no clear protagonist, a non-linear narrative, discontinuous editing and often no clear cause and effect. Instead it encourages identification with the sense of the Gullah people as a community, with communal rather than individual values. Secondly, the disruption of the so-called “master narrative”, by ignoring strict chronology and avoiding standard structural formats such as action rising to climax, questions the “phallocentricity” of mainstream cinema which has come to signify the silencing of women’s voice and experiences. The film’s exposition of mysticism in a wholly unsensational manner also gives it a distinct aesthetic. The sequence where the unborn child speaks to its future parents is presented in a matter-of-fact, everyday manner, placing spirituality and mysticism
naturally within the community and culture of the Gullah. This film adheres to the black feminist ideals of the theorists discussed earlier, who advocated a distinct Afro-American aesthetic. It can therefore be said that Dash’s film corresponds closely to a black feminist agenda.
The Color Purple, however, is not such a straightforward representation of black feminist thought. The book upon which the film is based was written by Alice Walker, the prominent black feminist mentioned previously, and it focuses primarily on the journey of one black woman, Celie, from abuse and neglect to self-love, independence and empowerment. One of the major criticisms levelled at the film on its release was that Steven Spielberg, the director, had produced an insensitive, over-sentimentalised adaptation of the original story, which shifts this focus too far and hence loses its black female sensibility.
Jacqueline Bobo argues that Spielberg as a white male is positioned directly in the patriarchal system that is Hollywood, and so could not truly understand black history enough to do justice to the original text. Spielberg, and by implication his Dutch male screenwriter, Menno Meyjes, are alleged to have brought their own white male patriarchal ideologies and world view to bear on the text. Bobo is particularly critical of the way in which they shifted the focus of Walker’s book away from Celie and onto Mister, whose character travels from being an evil woman abuser to eventual repentance (Bobo, 1993, p. 279). By changing the emphasis away from the woman’s story they conform to the Hollywood norm of viewing events from a male standpoint, and lose much of the black female sensibility of the original novel.
Bobo illustrates clearly how potentially powerful scenes from the book are re-envisioned from Mister’s viewpoint, and how this shifts the focus on to the male world view and away from that of the victims. In the scene in which the injured Celie is subjected to sex with Mister, for example, Spielberg concentrates on the male abuser’s reaction rather than the female victim’s. Celie has just been stoned by Mister’s children, is still bleeding and talks to herself throughout her sexual ordeal to get her through her trauma, yet the scene closes by concentrating not on her pain but on Mister’s gratification. There are other similar examples which Bobo cites and she postulates the viewpoint that often the film’s power is numbed by its privileging of the perpetrator’s point of view (Bobo, 1993, p. 279).
Bobo also criticises the negative stereotyping of both male and female characters (Bobo, 1998, p. 90). Of the male characters, for example, Bobo states that Celie’s father is an incestuous rapist who gives her children away, Mister is a violent sexual abuser, while Harpo is a clowning comic relief. The women fair little better-Sofia is a strong black matriarch with a cowering husband, Shrug is a sex-crazed night-club singer and Celie herself is at times nearly a “mammie” who is a docile cleaner and cook for Mister’s family.
However, Shrug in particular could be viewed as a strong feminist character; she sets her own morals and values which include sexual freedoms, financial independence and the ability to drink like a man. Although Bobo criticises Spielberg’s depiction of Shrug’s character as seeking the approval of her father, it could be viewed that she still leads the life she wants for herself, even after her marriage.
It appears that the film is full of stereotypes and yet many black female audiences received it with great enthusiasm. Jacqueline Bobo suggests that black women who have had favourable responses to the film have then in subsequent discussions produced “political” or resistant readings critical of the status quo (Bobo, 1998, pp. 90-109). This has a parallel with Bell Hook’s observation in her essay The Oppositional Gaze: Black Female Spectators, where she states that “Black viewers of movies and television experienced visual pleasure in a context where looking was about contestation and confrontation…watching television was one way to develop critical spectatorship” (Hooks, 1993, p. 290). Bobo states that in order for black women to enjoy mainstream cinema they have always had to negotiate their readings of it. “Out of habit, as readers of mainstream texts, we have learned to ferret out the beneficial and put up blinders against the rest. From this wary standpoint, a subversive reading of a text can occur” (Bobo, 1998, p. 96).
Bobo also highlights the fact that Spielberg individualises the story around Celie and does not relate the story’s events to the struggles of black women in general, thus negating the power of the film to some extent. Spielberg’s tone in The Color Purple is very melodramatic and as Bobo states this often leads to over-sentimentality. In comparison to Daughters of the Dust, the strict chronological, linear narrative and adherence to the conventions of mainstream cinema is far closer to a patriarchal world view. Spielberg’s use of cinematography, rich colours and soft-focus is lush but similarly traditional.
Therefore, according to Bobo, the film seems to reject black feminism in many ways and it uses one-dimensional stereotypical representations of black people. It focuses heavily on Mister’s character to the detriment of the potential impact of the female protagonists. Bobo argues that is the story of an individual woman and does not represent issues in the wider black community-and yet it is still a powerful film.
In its favour, it can be said that this is a film about black women who love, survive and have strength, and Spielberg depicts these black feminist qualities beautifully. Alice Walker’s agenda for a feminist movement, as set out earlier, states that being a womanist involves “loving women, sexually and/or non-sexually” (Humm, 1992, p. 141). The Color Purple is a film that superbly depicts the love that women have for one another: the intense love of Celie and Nettie for each other, the love of Shrug and Celie that leads to Celie’s awakening and eventual empowerment, and the love that Celie held for all the women in her life, exemplified in the way she looked after Sofia. Walker also states that to be a womanist requires “a commitment to the survival and wholeness of both men and women” (Humm, 1992, p. 141). This is a film all about survival: Celie’s survival of her abusive existence, Sofia’s survival of her unjust persecution, Mister’s survival through his eventual moral redemption, the survival of sisterly love and the survival of Celie’s family.
Spielberg also clearly depicts the black women’s indomitable strength, whether it is Celie’s strength to overcome her oppressors, Shrug’s power to live by her own rules, Sofia’s force in resisting and surviving her oppression or Hettie’s will in reuniting her family. Again to quote Alice Walker, a womanist “appreciates…women’s strength” (Humm, 1992, p. 141) thus Spielberg’s depiction is in many ways faithful to the author whose story he has adapted. It can therefore be seen that this film is more problematic as a feminist text than that of Daughters of the Dust. Its impact is compromised by the stereotypical character representations, the dilution of focus from the women’s point of view and a lack of any distinct Black aesthetic. However, because of its entry into the mainstream and its ‘womanist’ elements, especially that of giving voice to black women, it is still a valuable black feminist text.
In conclusion, we have seen that black feminist theory seeks to establish a sense of a unique black female aesthetic. Of the two films analysed here, while both are powerful and affecting pieces of work, one approaches this aim with more success. Spielberg’s The Color Purple manages to highlight the issues and narrative of a black woman’s struggle and espouses well Alice Walker’s visions of female love, survival and strength. However, as might be expected coming from a creative team who are enmeshed so thoroughly in the patriarchal systems of mainstream cinema, it fails to either transfer the specifics of Celie’s individual struggle into a wider context of black feminism or reflect the tonal aesthetic advocated by writers such as Angela Davis or Alice Walker. This is not to understate, however, the adventurousness of such a commercial director tackling what for him, and mainstream cinema at the time, was contentious material. Dash’s Daughters of the Dust, on the other hand, offers a groundbreaking exposition of a black feminist agenda, creatively using structure, cinematography and characterisation to create a unique Afro-American aesthetic. While it may not have had the commercial success of The Color Purple, as an artistic statement and a feminist tool it is highly effective.