DBW picks up mic. Stares at it. Wonders if she needs to disinfect it. Decides against it. Plugs it in. Turns it on.
Ahem…It seems like DBW is becoming a summer blog or something. I’ve neglected my damn manners: Hey y’all! How ya mama ‘nem doing?
You know all my excuses already so let me get on to this question which seems stupid…as most of the questions DBW asks herself usually seem.
But first be warned: this is a LONG post. So take a bathroom break and grab some snacks because I’ll be with you for a little while today. IT’S STILL FUN. But you know…DBW had lots of thoughts. Sooooo….
You ready? Let’s get into it.
Visibility clearly infers vision. Root words and stuff. So, yeah, visibility resides in that which you can see and count and create all the cognitive schemata for.
I’ve talked about the importance of visibility before with regard to BP riding bicycles or the need to be featured on the covers of Hollywood trade magazines when it comes time for the Important People™ to begin thinking about Award Season.
Seeing people who look like you on-screen is important for a host of reasons. It really is. But there’s a danger to that too.
Think about it: a bunch of folks vigorously demand to see themselves on-screen. While that’s often in itself a difficult task to complete for some of these folks, it’s actually not rocket science. So you look up and BOOM! It’s a whole screen of folks who look like you or not like you but sorta like you cause all y’all Brown and Black. And it’s nice. And they may even get a speaking part–which, I don’t have time to really talk about in detail just now but maybe, just maybe I can continue pressing on with this summer blogging thing and write about the trickiness of this really smart experiment.
But and here’s the kicker: seeing yourself and maybe talking isn’t actually TRUE visibility. Visibility is seeing a fully dimensional vision of self. It’s seeing a character and listening to her talk and realizing you know this person. That this is a person based on people and experience and CULTURE. Not a person built out of a
lab er colonial imaginary er…writing room.
Ahhh yes…Specificity. Resonate. AKA the two words DBW has said so many times she should get it tattooed on her back like whatever Ben Affleck had done to his.
If, then, (look at me setting up this flip on the balance beam of argumentation) visibility is not solely founded upon the visual, what else can it be made up of? The answer: Whatever it can link itself to in order to form a complete picture. And let me add this part for free: it’s not just that the visibility exists for the character; it exists for YOU the audience member. The visuals, the sounds, the settings that tethers you (in the film studies/cultural studies tradition we call it “suture” and “interpellation” which has a lot of heavy laden theory attached to it–suffice to say, something you see and hear in a film or tv show catches you and ties you into the film experience) to a film are just as much relying on your experience to make it resonate and feel specific as any line of dialogue.
Now, at this point, if I haven’t lost you already to the clickbaits and thinkpieces of this new Internet age because I intentionally buried my lede, you may sincerely be wondering what the HELL does this have to do with the price of tea in China.
So last week, on the 4th of July, I saw a movie that I was excited to watch but had no idea would inspire this post.
That movie was this:
WON’T HE DEW IT. Did not our hearts burn while watching that movie? Did we not all get DELIVERT by the time we got to sing “All I Do Is Win”? Did you also gain a new appreciation for swings and Trent Reznor and Cheetos and ice cream and mirrors and electric drills?
Let’s just look at some gifs okay? Just to…refresh our memories.
And DBW’s reaction in turn? It’s a mixture of:
And before we start in on spoilers, all those gifs come from the trailer so don’t feel like anything was spoiled.*
What was I talking about? OHHH. Yeah. Yeah. A more complex view of visibility. Yeah. Yeah. :clears throat:
So, outside of the Latino person of color (a point explicitly made in the dialogue 6 minutes into the film**), notice there are no BP on this poster. So if you’re confused as to what XXL has to do with all the stuff I said earlier, you have every good reason.
After the first film was released there seemed to have been some chatter that Magic Mike was too white and likely some criticisms about them using hip hop (Channing and his wonderful Pony performance) to add soulful swagger to these white menfolk.
And they were right.
But rather than double down and completely isolate an audience as some films are wont to do, some smart folks thought to do the opposite–to make it racially and sexually inclusive, and to make it most importantly, about women’s pleasure as we get so many opportunities to look or GAZE at these beautiful men.
Yes, yes, there are BM and BW throughout XXL that could easily check off the simplified version of visibility. Let’s see there’s:
There’s also a brothel-like house full of Southern Georgia BW getting their kicks and jollies from BM swinging them around and flipping their bodies like the curves and hips be lying, yo. It was WONDERFUL.
But that’s not where they stopped. They played plenty of trap music to satiate a mainstream audience familiar with those beats. But the moment of visibility for DBW–the moment where the film recognized me and my cultural experience was the moment in the BW Brothel owned by Jada Pinkett-Smith’s character when one of the dancers (MICHAEL. DAMN. STRAHAN.) danced to this song.
The minute the beat dropped on that song, I sat up in my chair–and not just because Strahan was giving his all with that buxom BW who made sure to wear her Spanx under her dress like we ALL do.
I sat up in my chair because I cannot think of many movies–or, to be even more specific, movies with predominately white casts that feature Jodeci (JODECI!!!!!!!!!! CLASSIC JODECI) as a part of the soundtrack. Last movie I could think of that used Jodeci? This one:
Think Like A Man. You only need to listen to the first five seconds of the scene to hear this song:
I remember sitting in the movie theater watching this movie and getting to this scene and it was like all of us realized “Cry for You” was playing and ALL OF US STARTED SINGING FOR OUR LIVES. JODECI WILL DO THAT TO YOU.
I mean, in XXL, as Strahan is dancing and they let the song play to the point (at 2:07) when the gospel chords start sliding down and you just feel inclined to do the air piano along with the music (just me? Y’all lying.) I realized that this film had my full attention.
That? Is a moment of visibility. It seems small because it is. Visibility doesn’t mean what folks imagine it to mean. It’s not stomping around yelling “WE BLACK. WE BLACK.” No. It’s deciding on a plot point that has our white characters visit a BW strip club owned by a BW. A plot point that subtly acknowledges cultural tastes and knows that BF love them some Jodeci. And as we as audiences look on with our primary cast who are watching BW of all shades, sizes, and ages get grinded on, laid on, flipped, dipped and snatched by these men…maybe even one of our main cast members…you never know (and I won’t spoil it for you), there is this small realization that this film is paying attention to some specific mode of Blackness.
DBW was so damned pleased with how BW factored in this movie–especially in that scene. I felt seen and acknowledged.
And, after that, I was willing to go down whatever path XXL wanted to take because, for once, they catered to ME.
Look: I ain’t trying to feast on a small moment neither am I saying the film was perfect. Jada Pinkett-Smith’s role became in some ways perfunctory.
BUT this was the right track. That moment speaks to possibilities. I mean, they even played 112 (a mainstream WHITE film played 112 AND R. Kelly?! Christ Jesus there’s a fire.) in the movie. That is meaningful.
And it’s meaningful if you consider just how meaningful specific kinds of visibility would be if injected into existing Black films and shows. Imagine Olivia Pope not just dancing to Stevie Wonder (Scandal’s go-to) but Anita Baker or Sade or goddamn: Luther Vandross.
You going through a painful breakup and you don’t listen to this?
It occurs to me at this point that I may need to put up all the disclaimers. Do I really need to though?
1. Me suggesting these songs does not mean ALL BP listen to the same music. It doesn’t. It does mean though that music has a connection to a specific kind of Cultural experience.
2. That means that if you as a BP are unfamiliar with Jodeci, no problem. But they were important to some BF in the 90s (to the point that we are all still trying to decide if we are actually gonna support that new album or just pretend it didn’t exist–seems like we chose the latter).
Anyway, the main takeaway from this is that fully dimensional visibility isn’t actually that hard. Hailing folks– essentially the act of waving and signifying that you see them–can be done with the most minimal amount of effort.
Think about these moments from television that do that:
The famous wig scene. What a moment for BW to see themselves. Yes, this is primarily visual but it’s more than a Black body on the screen and more than her saying (general) lines. It’s a moment of recognition and identification. And, as DBW understands it, it wasn’t written in the script but something that Viola Davis requested be put in.***
All those visuals (BW and their mommas and sitting on the floor to get your damn hair combed), the actions (she scratched
Anna Mae…Annalise’s scalp, dammit had she greased it I mighta died right there on my couch), the words (“your kitchen is tight”): all that makes for visibility. All of that hails BW viewers and says, “I see you and I acknowledge your experience is valuable enough to be on-screen.”
One more from this damn show (I DON’T EVEN LIKE IT BUT THE WAY IT REVERSE ENGINEERS THE BLINDCAST CHARACTER INTO A CULTURALLY SPECIFIC ONE THANKS TO VIOLA’S INSISTENCE TRIPS ME OUT.)
All of this is visibility. Remember this scene from Scandal?
What I liked about it was how they decoded the message that hailed them and put it in words we are just as familiar with:
Oh damn I love that. The last thought I will leave you with is that I’m selecting these examples primarily because while they have Black bodies on-screen (visibility light) that appease those calling for diversity in the simplest forms (the kinds where you can count the difference on the screen), they are shows that aspire to target mainstream audiences. Thus, these moments of hailing BF are significant.
But I’ll tell you what would be even more significant: If this song played during one of the many Olivia Pope and her men crying jags****:
Or this in one of Scandal’s many “we work hard” montages:
CAN YOU EVEN IMAGINE?!
Too much? Too much. Okay, I’ll stop.
DBW is curious to hear your thoughts on this. Share ’em.
* It would really be difficult to spoil this movie as really, “nothing” happens yet I will abide by the rules of the game. As much as one can.
**One day I’ll write about how the movie made very explicit over the course of several scenes that it heard some of these criticisms and it doesn’t so much feel like they were defensive about it as much as proactively attempting to shift it. Which: congration.
*** One day I will also write about how Viola Davis intentionally infuses cultural specificity into her role on How To Get Away With Murder despite the role being written as normatively white. I hate that show (the opening shots were so repetitive I think I had visions of stabbing the cheerleader thrown up in the damn basket toss) but I gotta give it props for letting her dimensionalize (I made that word up…hush) her character.
**** I know I know. Music licensing is a tricky thing. I know. I know. Shonda Rhimes wants to stay in a certain era. I know all this. And yet: I still want MORE. Shrugs.