Hybrid Identities: Hybrid Filmmaking

According to Harry Benshoff and Sean Griffin, AIDS activists in the 1980s and 1990s used film and video to counter mainstream media images of AIDS, unveil police abuse and governmental indifference, document their own experience of the crisis, empower the queer community, and recruit people to their cause (212). Kobena Mercer explores how black gay artists have used the film medium, especially its capacity for montage and expression of disparate styles, to address hybrid identities. Though these essays deal with different topics, Chocolate Babies seems highly relevant to both, which speaks to its location at an extreme intersection of race, sexuality, artistic expression, and an international health crisis.

Both articles cover the theme of a compound style of filmmaking for the purpose of self-representation and resisting various forms of violence, which sheds light on the techniques used by the director Stephen Winter in Chocolate Babies. The movie is an exciting mix of influences, from early music videos to underground subcultures and cinematic realism. The director combines found news footage with fictional scenes—interrupting the mass media’s hold on truth, which is typical of AIDS activist film as Benshoff and Griffin describe it. The authors explain that these films, “tended to be unruly, confrontational, and more than willing to break with the usual conventions of cinematic or televisual form,” drawing on 1960s experimental film traditions, blending historical footage of protests with elements of autobiography and fiction (213). The compound style of the film seems completely appropriate considering the myriad  issues that the movie addresses. It seems like classic Hollywood conventions simply could not be the container for a work that fights a whole range of urgent and deeply troubling issues concerning those on the margins of representation (homophobia, racism, drug abuse). The somewhat chaotic format of the film and its rollercoaster-like pace mimics the complex identities and struggles of the characters.

Though they don’t fully develop the point, Benshoff and Grifin do briefly touch on how queer activist film challenges viewers in more than one way: “Like the street protests and zaps enacted by previous generations of queer activists, AIDS activist videos were meant to effect change via confrontation shock effects—to entertain and educate but also to educate about the very nature of entertainment” (215). The subversion that is embedded in the formal properties of Chocolate Babies is essential to supporting the content of the film. The unusual narrative arc, lack of character identification, intense “attacks” on the camera (actually government representatives) all disorient the viewer, removing the viewer from a safe place of easy recognition and categorization. Mercer claims the styles of Riggs and Julien are about the contradictions of real life, which leaves viewers with more questions than answers, and this seems highly relevant to the mode of filmmaking evident in Chocolate Babies (246). Chocolate Babies resists the Hollywood “master codes” of filmmaking just as it resists Hollywood ideology, neat stereotypes, and identity categories. The hodgepodge style of the film works and carries meaning because the film is about people at the borderlines, who are part of several communities and who are working to assert their individual voices as multidimensional results of diverse influences.

Lorna Simpson is not an activist in the same way that Stephen Winter is, but she is one of the most interesting contemporary artists whose work “confronts and challenges narrow, conventional views of gender, identity, culture, history and memory” (lsimpsonstudio.com). The installation piece, Corridor, is not aggressive or overtly political like Chocolate Babies, Tongues Untied, or Looking of Langston; however, like these works, it exemplifies a hybrid style (drawing from Vermeer, jazz, American Revolutionary folk tunes, early video art) that is crucial to artists investigating complex identities of members of society that are often left out of mainstream American narratives. The use of video (cheap and accessible) and the quotidian acts performed by the two juxtaposed women bring history closer to viewers, making them confront some of the major themes of the black female experience throughout history. These videos demonstrate how women have operated within a patriarchal framework and how even with progress, the remnants of that position linger. What both of these women across time and space have in common is that their daily actions are shaped by the demands and desires of males that are off-screen (master, lover). Though never explicit, Simpson’s work poetically asks viewers to consider the way violence against women and African Americans permeates everyday lived experiences.

Link to Corridorhttp://lsimpsonstudio.com/filmvideo03.html

Works Cited

Benshoff, Harry and Sean Griffin. “A Matter of Life and Death.” Queer Images: A History of Gay and Lesbian Film in America. Lanham: Rowman & Littlefield, 2006. 201-218.

Chocolate Babies. Dir Stephen Winter. 1997.

Corridor. Dir. Lorna Simpson. 2003.

Looking for Langston. Dir. Isaac Julien. 1989.

Lorna Simpson Biography.  http://lsimpsonstudio.com/biography.html Web. 29 Jan. 2013.

Mercer, Kobena. “Dark and Lovely Too: Black Gay Men in Independent Film.” Queer Looks: Perspectives on Lesbian and Gay Film and Video. London: Routledge, 1993. 238-256.

Tongues Untied. Dir. Marlon Riggs. 1989.

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4 thoughts on “Hybrid Identities: Hybrid Filmmaking

  1. Kareli Lizarraga

    At the time of its production, Chocolate Babies was addressing a topic that most studios in Hollywood had rejected to address altogether. Even though it had reached epidemic levels, AIDS and those affected by it were seen as marginal and scorned subjects. I agree with Wednesday that the film does a very successful job of melding different mediums and elements to portray the AIDS epidemic in a way that contrasted with the uniform manner in which it was done through mainstream media. The chaotic conventions of the film convey to audiences the urgency with which this issue needed to be addressed.

    In this same way, this film is also very successful in showing the overlap and as Wednesday states “individual voices as multidimensional results of diverse influences.” The intersectionality of race, gender, class, even infection status, are all addressed through the bodies of individuals; queer subjects of color were finally the protagonists of a movie addressing AIDS in a way that did not demonize but emphasize the complexities of living with this condition. No character is shown as a hero but as flawed and struggling; as an audience we are not meant to feel compassion but rather respect for their ability to continue their lives with AIDS without becoming victims or martyrs. Chocolate Babies however, does not make this a necessity for audiences to understand the gravity of the AIDS epidemic. Identification or cookie-cutter plotlines are not a requirement for society to face on AIDS and provide help and support to these communities.

    Wednesday, I enjoyed your blog entry and especially the link that you provided for Lorna Simpson’s work since it so closely reflects the complex structures that have often been ignored by major Hollywood studios.

  2. juliersanchez

    While watching Chocolate Babies last week, I picked up on the repeated use of TV news reports, but I didn’t realize this was found footage. I agree with your reading that this compound media form is an effective way of challenging both mass media and Hollywood’s cinematic paradigms, but I think it does a few other things, too. Using found news reports breaks the veneer of fiction. Usually, when watching a movie, or a fake TV news report in a movie, it’s all too easy to dismiss what we see as fiction. Fiction is safe, comfortable, and most importantly, unthreatening. It’s removed from our reality; it can’t hurt us. Hollywood filmic representations of AIDS like Philadelphia (despite being based on a true story) don’t push a sense of immediacy or danger on the audience. Chocolate Babies does, by presenting AIDS as an immediate danger, a disease that can (and does) affect anyone (and everyone). Using real news reports reminds viewers that the crisis is real, that it exists beyond the world of the movie, in their own lives. It’s definitely a confrontational approach, but also an effective one.

    Also, I’m really intrigued by Lorna Simpson’s work. Looking forward to going through her site in greater depth.

  3. lexijwhite

    I like the emphasis that Wednesday’s post places upon the element of confrontation in Chocolate Babies. In a queer activist film, one might expect that all the confrontation would be noticeable between the oppressors and the oppressed. It is tempting to look at the radical activists of color in the film as “the oppressed,” and the city, the police and folks like Sam’s parents as “the oppressors.” While this is certainly true to an extent, another very important element to this film is the element of confrontation that exists amongst the activists themselves. This kind of confrontation, I think serves to give light to the oppressions that even the “oppressed” can place upon each other. These confrontations are very real and potentially very dangerous to the solidarity of marginalized groups who ultimately need to come together to fight their fight. As portrayed in the film, such confrontations can manifest around anything from identity politics to the daily stress of circumstance- illness and discrimination included. The call to action I take away, is to confront the oppressors in each of us and within our own communities as we confront the oppressions of wider institution. I am reminded of an Audre Lorde Quote from Sister Outsider which says, “The true focus of revolutionary change is never merely the oppressive situation which we seek to escape, but that piece of the oppressor which is planted deep within each of us.”

  4. channabach

    You do a great job of analyzing the political/activist function of multiple genres and mediums in the film, from music videos to found journalism footage to cinematic realism. You write “classic Hollywood conventions simply could not be the container for a work that fights a whole range of urgent and deeply troubling issues concerning those on the margins of representation (homophobia, racism, drug abuse)”. I’d love to hear more about this. How do you see music video aesthetics or politics at work in Chocolate Babies? Do you notice any similarities between, say, the video we watched in class (Salt ‘n Pepa’s “Let’s Talk About Sex) and Chocolate Babies? Divergences?

    The Lorna Simpson connection is intriguing. There is certainly a different aesthetic at work in her piece than in Chocolate Babies. But your reading of the two work’s overlapping concerns as well as hybrid forms is quite compelling. What do you make of Simpson’s emphasis on interior domestic spaces, in comparison to Chocolate Babies’s exterior public spaces?

    Good. job.

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