by Allison Buckley
Published on: Jul 18, 2005
Type: Opinions

In a White society, Black personalities are more than often stunted for the benefit of a hegemonic environment. Black children are alienated because they have ‘cootees,’ and Black adults are oppressed in labor because they are either seen as not smart enough, good enough or White enough. For so long these issues have yet to be dealt with in a public setting. In Western culture, films teach the audience what to think and feel. In Julie Dash’s ‘Illusions’ and Ngozi Onwurah’s ‘Coffee Colored Children,’ one deals with Black women presented as taking back their shamefulness in their race and moving towards empowerment, while the other addresses the issues of race (wanting to survive by being White), gender (sexuality in being female, oppression faced in labor, the childhood wish of being a princess) and feminism (empowerment through voice) in White culture.

‘Illusions’ (1982), directed and written by Julie Dash, is set in the early 1940’s and portrays the relationship between three main characters: Lieutenant Bedsworth (Ned Bellamy), a White, male military officer stationed at National Studios by the Office of War Information as a consultant; Ester Jester, (Rosanne Katon), a young, Black female who finds occasional employment by doing vocal voiceovers for White film actresses; and Mignon Dupree (Lonette McKee), a middle-aged Black female who passes as White and is employed at National Studios as a producer. This film follows a day in these three individuals’ lives in the Hollywood film industry and demonstrates how race and gender, no matter what the era, play a major role in representation in the media. It is a film that represents the little to no credit given to Blacks and women in the United States, specifically those that do behind the scenes work in their daily lives and in their labor, in and out of cinema.

The film opens to the audience with the narrator quietly reading the lines of Ralph Ellison’s “The Shadow and the Act”: To direct an attack upon Hollywood would indeed be to confuse portrayal with action, image with reality. In the beginning was not the shadow, but the act, and the province of Hollywood is not action but illusion.

In this essay, Ellison is observing the powerful influence that popular culture can have on society. "In the struggle against Negro freedom," he argued, "motion pictures have been one of the strongest instruments for justifying some white Americans' anti-Negro attitudes and practices." 1. During the narration, the audience sees snapshots of white men at war--- loading guns, driving tanks--- basic shots of your everyday man-next-door becoming America’s hero. The camera then takes a bird’s eye view of Hollywood and you’re zoomed into 1942.

The narration continues:
As a grim and determined nation marshaled its manpower and vast material resources to meet the totalitarian challenge to the democratic way of life, the motion picture industry is privileged to stand in the very forefront of the united American endeavor… No other media has so adapted to building national morale…

Films have always been used as propaganda in the United States. For instance, during periods of war in the past, films have distracted Americans, similar to escapism, from the war, the reality, while still providing plenty of propaganda. Dash places Ms. Dupree in the film as the assistant to the head of National Studios in Hollywood and Ms. Dupree envisions a more real approach to cinema than the fantasy juxtaposed to illusion in Hollywood.

Thus, Lt. Bedsworth is introduced to the audience with his evanescent, American pride. During this time, pride was rampant, as can be seen on the sticker behind Ms. Dupree as she sits in the private telephone booth that reads: “I am so American… You better be sonny, no matter what your race or religion.” Perhaps this is one of Dash’s main reason’s for choosing the 1940s as a time to place this film. It was before any major civil rights movements, and the attack is less direct than if she were to place the film in modern times. It also happens that ‘classic’ films are almost never criticized. In addition it reigns true that women did take the places of men in times of war. This gave women and Blacks the chance to work in jobs they desired that they may have never had the chance to work in before. The 1940s was a time of hope for change. Unfortunately, the war did not spread equality; especially for Blacks, who didn’t have a chance in cinema until the 1980s.

Throughout the film, Lt. Bedsworth continues to talk with Ms. Dupree and eventually figures out that she is not White but Black. Throughout the film, Ms. Dupree fights to come to terms with her Blackness and confronts many dilemmas in which she is witness to discrimination in her professional life. Ms. Dupree is also seen as very solemn and unsure of her happiness in passing. In contrast, although Ester, the vocal voiceover for the White film actresses, faces much discrimination, including no credit for her talent; her beautiful voice; her professionalism; no film appearance (even though she is even more beautiful than the White film actress for whom she is dubbing); and receives little compensation, she is a young woman who is happy with her position in life, and proud of herself.

There are several illusions that take place in this film: 1) the illusion of Ms. Dupree passing as white; 2) Ms. Dupree has illusions about her own capabilities to make a difference in the film industry; 3) assimilating into society so one can achieve something, even when one can’t fit in; 4) the illusion of the audience watching this movie and the movie in the movie; 5) Dash creates illusions to pass as a Hollywood film from the war era (old style film, bad sound quality, etc.), except in recognizing the actress and the address of issues --- a pretense but depends on who is looking: a split awareness; 6) is Ms. Dupree an illusion for telling the story of Julie Dash, the director, in the Hollywood film industry? This film has exposed the secret world of sexism and racism in the 1940s, as very apparent, and one could still apply this scenario to the film industry today.

In Coffee Colored Children (1988), directed and written by Ngozi Onwurah, Onwurah navigates her childhood feelings of isolation, alienation and self-hatred sparked by racism in her English society. The film covers the debacle of being the child of interracial parents and the suffering that follows when she becomes the butt of recess games and when her own home is vandalized. After suffering the aggression of racial harassment, Onwurah and her brother attempt to wash their skin white with Vim, a scouring powder similar to Comet, while testifying the profound internalized effects of racism and the struggle for self-definition and pride.

Onwurah’s parents are of different cultural backgrounds. Her father was a Nigerian doctor of the Ebo tribe and her mother was from England. Onwurah’s family lived in Nigeria until Onwurah was elementary school-aged, when her father left her mother, and her mother, brother and herself moved to England.

Onwurah uses repeated images of scenes with the children in the tub, washing their bodies until they bleed, and then repeats the image as the adult Onwurah and her brother in the tub scrubbing their skin. The viewer can feel the anxiety of torment and self-hatred in the childhood lives of Onwurah and her younger brother. They are children trying to cope with adult problems, and you can see their coping mechanism within the repeated words and images. As the words of a young Onwurah echo, “I want to be a princess” and you see the image of a young bi-racial girl in a frilly white dress with a blonde wig on, sometimes twirling and twirling and twirling, sometimes looking at her own reflection in the mirror, while applying the Vim powder to her face like it her face powder, so thick one can see it caked on. One can feel, actually feel, her need to feel loved and cherished. The wig and dress; the white powder being applied to her face, or scrubbed deeply into her skin; and the dancing and colliding in a circle repeatedly brings on an anxiety-like feeling.

These repeated images are effective in reinstating her daily childhood anxieties of not being accepted in her community. Child anxiety is the type that is repeated over and over again: the scrubbing of the skin with the cleaner Vim, repeating over and over again until it makes the viewer queasy in the stomach. When the young Onwurah repeats over and over “She is my mom… She is my mom,” it was like repeating it to believe it, to reaffirm it, but also as a tormentor in a bad dream. This is a common theme in many children’s films, such as the missing mother that is repeatedly present in Disney films, and by repeating “She is my mom” can help make it true, while also questioning herself: “Is she my mom?”

But perhaps it is this self-hatred and the “isolation disguised as independence” that has helped frame Onwurah as the open and free-spirited director that she is today. Her “melting pot versus incinerator” attitude has allowed her to further scrutinize and reexamine and explore her life, including issues with her identity as a black woman, in the past and present; and has opened doors, as a result, that were before firmly closed because of her childhood self-hatred.

These two directors are two very different people, being raised in very different environments (Dash in New York City and Onwurah in Nigeria, and then England); having very different experiences in their training as screenwriters and directors; but both of these womens’ issues grapple with the same themes. These themes transcend barriers as large as oceans for these two Black women, each offering their own subtle feminist voices in their films. Both films feature Black women’s issues in dealing with their racial identity; both films feature the discrimination Black women face, no matter their talent or intelligence; both films feature the unhappiness of Black women who are not content with themselves as women of color; and both films feature Black women finding solace in their race, either burning, washing or talking out their self-hatred or avoidance with their race.

Another issue that was commonly dealt with was the issue of the Black woman’s body being exploited. In Dash’s ‘Illusions’, Ester’s voice is unfairly compensated in what is expected to be a “blockbuster” of a film; whereas, in Onwurah’s ‘Coffee Colored Children’, children chased each other around the playground with cootees that might turn them Black. Racial tensions can be seen in Ms. Dupree as she battles for her true identity in the face of Lt. Bedsworth outing her, and in young Ngozi saying, “I want to be a princess, a white princess.” The idea that Ms. Dupree was able to pass as being White, while Onwurah would have done anything to be ‘normal” or White, transcends as the major theme for both of these films.

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