On the Backs of Blacks and Sorrowful Black Death Is Not a Hot Ticket

On the Backs of Blacks and Sorrowful Black Death Is Not a Hot Ticket

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On the Backs of Blacks and Sorrowful Black Death Is Not a Hot Ticket

     In both Toni Morrison's "On the backs of blacks" and bell hooks' "Sorrowful Black Death Is Not a Hot Ticket" the authors attempt to analyze the role and treatment of blacks in motion pictures. Morrison's essay deals with what she calls "race talk", and defines as "the explicit insertion into everyday life of racial signs and symbols that have no meaning other than pressing African Americans to the lowest level racial hierarchy" (Morrison, 1993). Hooks' essay similarly analyses the issue of death for blacks in movies to which she concludes "that there can be no serious representation of death and dying when the characters are African-Americans." (hooks) In both these essays there are huge errors made in their thinking, and their analyzation.


 Hooks, in her opening paragraphs attempts to compare the portrayal of black vs. white death in films. In her comparison she blows all future credibility with critical readers by using examples that obviously don't have any baring on the point she is trying to make. The example she gives for a white death is that of Tom Hank's character in Philadelphia, a homosexual lawyer with AIDS who had taken his firm to court because of their bad treatment towards him because of his disease. For this case she points out that "even before tickets are brought and seats are taken, everyone knows that tears are in order." (hooks) Hooks then goes on to explain that "There is no grief, no remembrance" for the deaths of blacks.  She uses the film The bodyguard for her example of black death, citing the scene where "the sister of Rachel Marron (Whitney Houston) is accidentally assassinated by the killer she has hired" to kill her own sister (Hooks). These two examples have nothing in common. The character in Philadelphia deserved sympathy when he died because he was treated unfairly for a condition he had no control of. The character in The Bodyguard neither deserved nor received recognition for one reason. It had nothing to do with her blackness, that was a non-issue, it was because she was a murderer who in an ironic twist was murdered by the assassin she had hired.

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It seems hooks felt that the fact that she tried to have her own sister murdered was unimportant, and that audiences should be made to weep for her just because she was black. It is almost impossible to imagine, as hooks suggests, that Hollywood would seek to cause remorse for such a character no matter what her skin color.  It would seem that if hooks idea was valid she would be able to find a movie to cite as an example, that involved the death of someone who deserved remorse.


 Morrison makes a similar credibility blowing analysis when she starts her paper with an example of her "race talk" from Elia Kazan's film America, America. The movie about Stavros, a young Greek man determined to immigrate to America. Morrison chooses its closing scene for her analysis. In the scene Stavros, just after arriving in America, has landed a job shining shoes at Grand Central Terminal. While working in the terminal one day "Quickly, but as casually as an afterthought", Morrison explains, "a young black man, also a shoe shiner, enters and tries to solicit a customer. He is run off the screen --'get out of here! We're doing business here!' -- and silently disappears." Morrison claims that "It is this act of racial contempt that transforms this charming Greek into an entitled white." and that "without it, Stavros' future as an American is not at all assured." (Morrison, 1993) Having not seen the movie myself, I cannot dispute its content, but given Morrison's description of the scene it seems more like an act of job preservation than an act of racial contempt. The man, happening to be black, apparently invaded his business territory and threatened his livelihood. Whereas not a kind act, I am given no inclination that he would have acted differently towards an invading shoe shiner of any race. Morrison herself sums up this argument later when she states that "All immigrants fight for jobs and space". (Morrison, 1993)


 Hooks repeatedly makes references to movies, that have little or nothing to do with the conclusions she comes to, or have been taken way out of context. One example of this is when she lists five movies that exemplify her feeling that death in movies is not sorrowful, and even more importantly that black death is not sorrowful. These five movies include; One False Move, Reservoir Dogs, True Romance, Menace II Society, and A Perfect World. All of which are violent films, but none of which really should be used for such an analysis. The films are violent, and at times unremorseful, but they are meaningfully so. The movies she lists all follow the lives of bad people. Also with the exception of Menace II Society, the people's lives they follow are predominately white, and therefore have little to do with blacks death, the topic hooks is addressing. One False Move, True Romance, and Menace II Society are all about drug dealers. Reservoir Dogs is all about a diamond heist gone bad. And A Perfect World, which really isn't that violent, is about an escaped convict. These aren't stand up citizens. The movies are violent, but only because they cover topics that go hand in hand with violence. You can't portray an armed robbery done by five professional criminals without any violence. Drug dealers,  escaped criminals, armed robbers, these topics require at least a minimal amount of violence. Without it they would be not only boring, but completely unrealistic. And hooks is wrong when she says that these movies "leave us no time to mourn." (hooks) In both Menace II Society and A Perfect World there are very emotional endings involving the deaths of the main characters. And even more importantly in Menace II Society it is a black person that dies. A fact that directly refutes hooks' idea that black deaths are never emotional.


 Morrison, even more so than hooks, takes things way out of context with her examples from movies and books. In trying to make a point about a supposed current problem, she continually chooses to uses stories that were written and take place in the past. Elia Kazan's America, America, F. Scott Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby, Mark Twain's  Huckleberry Finn. None of these stories take place even close to the present, yet much of Morrison's arguments are based on debatably racist statements made by the characters in these stories. Morrison is unable to give one current example of her "race talk" in modern times, except for a headline from the Star-Ledger in Newark, that stated "Patterns of Immigration Followed by White Flight". She explains this to mean that "newcomers are dangerous to stable (white) residents. Stability is white. Disorder is black." (Morrison, 1993) How she arrives at this definition for the headline is at best, unclear. She gives no background as to what the article was about, but it most likely had more to do with the mass immigration of Hispanic or Asian people, than it had to do with blacks. There hasn't been a high level of African immigration, if it can be called that, in a long time.

 The one thing Morrison was able to do well was to stay on topic. Morrison began her paper by addressing the issue she refers to as "race talk", and continued with that issue through to the end. Except for a few minor sidetrackings, taking time to point out, for instance,  that "dysfunctional white families jam the talk shows and court TV" (Morrison, 1993), she is able to stay on track with her topic. As for her statement about dysfunctional whites jamming the talk shows, there are plenty of dysfunctional people of all races, including a high amount of blacks, in such shows.


 Hooks, halfway through her paper, seemed to forget what she was writing about, and adopted a whole new topic. The title of her paper was "Sorrowful Black Death Is Not a Hot Ticket", and for the first two pages that is what it covered. Then the topic of black death was forgotten and she switched to reviewing Spike Lee's Crooklyn. From then on her paper was about Crooklyn and the previous topic of black death was all but dropped and only addressed briefly when the mother in Crooklyn dies. When reading her paper it seems that she took two separate essays and unsuccessfully combined them for no apparent reason.


 Both hooks and Morrison chose topics that were worthy to address, but fail the readers with their proofs and examples. With little thought any reader who has seen the movies, or have read the books cited by the authors, will be left with great doubts as to the validity of their statements. Neither author gives substantial evidence of their claims. They both rely on the hope that the reader will accept their very liberal and inaccurate translations of the scenes.


Works Cited

Morrison, Toni. "ON THE BACKS OF BLACKS."  http://cgl.patnnnuer.com/time/community/morrisonessay.html

 (09 feb. 1999)

bell hooks, "Sorrowful Black Death Is Not a Hot Ticket," in  Writing As Re-Vision, (Simon & Schuster Custom Publishing,  1998), 99-107

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