Jaap’s Recitation 3/21 (11:00-12:15)

We began by discussing new requirements regarding the in-class presentation, which are now limited to five minutes and require discussion points to posit to the class.

After screening a clip of the finale from Rocky, discussion arose from Guerrero’s analysis of the film in relation to his ideas of the “cinema of recuperation,” denoting a wave of films during the 1980s that featured “backlash sentiment” against racial equality by depicting a constant struggle between white and black Americans. Attention was given to the the boxing ring’s patriotic set design and usage of rousing music against Rocky’s fight against Apollo’s black “champion.” A counterpoint was made against the supposed presence of racial subtext in Rocky in that not only does Rocky fail to win the fight, but he doesn’t care because he “wins” Adrian; the film’s emphasis on Apollo’s status of “champion” rather than his race characterizes Rocky as less of a film about racial superiority and more of a film about an average man who learns to defeat a champ. However, the fact that Rocky and Apollo’s teams are visibly cast according to race suggests that the film could be interpreted in Guerrero’s fashion.

Jaap subsequently returned to Guerrero, who proposed that the presence of “soft male heroes” in films like Easy Rider and The Conversation made after the loss of the Vietnam War and Watergate suggested a demasculization of the American hero and that after the rise of Reaganism, there was an attempt to “re-masculinize” this archetype; one of these methods involved discrimination against Black people. As Ross notes, this discrimination was utilized by either placing African-Americans as an antagonistic force that needed to be dominated in Rocky or by depicting them them in isolation–noting the prevalence of films like 48 HRS that, while featuring Black characters, lacked a sense of an external Black community, as if depicting a journey of assimilation into a white community. The suggestion is then made that a film like Do the Right Thing can be seen as a reaction to films like Rocky, depicting different representations of what it means to be African-American. A clip was then played of Eddie Murphy’s standup routine, criticizing the exaggerated reactions of Italian-Americans against African-Americans after watching a film like Rocky–a routine that was in turn subject to criticism.

We then segued into the class’ sole presentation, regarding Ross’ analysis of  1989‘s Batman and Do the Right Thing. Aspects of Ross’ essay that stood out to the presenter were Batman’s depiction of a savior of white society and his subsequent equivalence to a Klansman; for Do the Right Thing, it’s the lack of police response to the climactic fire, revealing a judicial lack of interest in solving Black crimes. The issue at stake for Ross is the struggle to establish a national culture–what is “doing the right thing?” The presenter remarks that although Ross creates this distinction of National culture, he seemingly fails to define the term. The presenter then screened the trailer for The Dark Knight Rises, which dramatizes contemporary social concerns like Do the Right Thing, but in the context of a different take on the universe of Burton’s film.

In the resulting class discussion, Burton’s films are seen as more comic and whismical while Nolan’s franchise is more overt in its social criticism, showcasing conflicts of class and poverty. However, one student remarks that one shouldn’t consider Burton’s film any less reflective than Nolan’s franchise simply because its social criticism is less overt, citing Joker’s vandalism of the museum as an example. The question is raised as to the representation of race in both Batman franchises. To some, the issue of race seems to be “disguised” or rarely addressed in Nolan’s films, featuring actors like Morgan Freeman in wise, advisory roles yet, like earlier films, in isolation from a larger community. Other students remain unconvinced of Ross’ analysis of the Joker as embodying white fears of the black community, instead viewing the character as representative of a widespread social evil than one rooted in specific racial fears.

The class then moved onto the films of Spike Lee, screening a clip of the beginning of Malcolm X, made 3 years after Do the Right Thing. Jaap characterizes Spike Lee as an African-American independent filmmaker making films about the African-American community on his own terms with a black cast and crew, films where African-American characters are no longer isolated or depicted in relation to the white “norm.” When asked why Lee chose to begin his film like he does, students responded that the opening of Malcolm X not only seeks to portray the time period or the origins of its protagonist, but also a sense of identity; as Malcolm X’s father pontificates about returning to Africa and the barber scene reveals a desire to “look white,” a struggle to negotiate an African-American cultural identity within a white society is brought to light.

Jaap repeats Prof. Zinman’s earlier question of whether or not Do the Right Thing is a realistic film and/or rhetorical film, especially in regards to the ending. One student brings up Ross’ question of doing the right thing versus what one has to do, supported by the trash can scene at the film and the following ideologically contradictory quotations by Malcolm X and MLK.


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