Bright Lights Film Journal

Dancing Across Borders: Blackness That Isn’t (African) American

Can there be co-cultures instead of subcultures?

Calls for Pan-Africanism and Afrocentricity purportedly allow African Americans to draw connections with people of African descent around the globe. Yet when deigning to look outside of Fortress America, African Americans have often found Blacks in France or the UK to be a problem. When African Americans assume that their own experiences constitute real Blackness, they can find Blacks in England both naïve and amusing — in their Rap on Race, James Baldwin patronised Nigerians in London who thought they could be English, and Margaret Mead used the anecdotal evidence of Black American GIs to conclude that Liverpool-born Blacks couldn’t dance because of their “white lower-class mothers”!

American visitors don’t only have difficulty incorporating Black Europeans into their vision of Blackness. When “European American” has become a synonym for “white,” and Europe retains a “quaint” image, people of colour can’t “really” be European… can they? Blacks in Europe don’t only face incredulity and inspection from American tourists. Some White Europeans, worried about the “dark immigrants” they equate with Hollywood’s brash images of Blackness, certainly hope that Blacks won’t intrude on “their” history and public image.

So, do Black folks in Europe just tell everyone else to go to hell and retreat into splendid isolation? Not really, and their longstanding creative synthesis of cultural forms, especially when it’s available in major urban centres like Paris and London, has allowed “non-racists” to display their tolerance by packaging “diversity” and appropriating an Other that suits their politics.

White French liberals breathe a heavy sigh of relief when they can denounce Le Pen and the far right by showing the limited levels of segregation in their areas (as compared to the U.S.). When documenting the ways in which African American cultural forms are adapted by alienated French youth, films such as La Haine have a multiracial cast. American reviewers of La Haine such as Roger Ebert can inform their readers that the film shows how in French society “friendships are as likely to be based on class as race,” yet fail to view the central characters as “ethnically French” or emblematic of a dynamic French youth culture. Similarly, Barbara Shulgasser seems to get upset that Vinz, “a Jewish white kid from the projects,” tries “to walk, talk and act like a black kid from Harlem… It makes you wonder why he hasn’t the language and passion to express his anger in a way that has something to do with French culture.” French rap group Authentik can remark in “Blanc et Noir,” “The United States is not always good to copy/Multiracial is our society/So let’s work together and create unity” (“Les Etats-Unis ne sont pas toujours bons à copier/Multiraciale est notre société/Alors bougeons ensemble, et créons l’unité”), leaving their message open for French traditionalists who decry Americanization, and those hoping to produce a rainbow coalition attractive to multinational investors.

Yet we need to turn to the U.K. for the exemplary commercial film about happy, smiling multiculturalism. Bend it like Beckham is the most profitable all-British film of all time, appealing to a multicultural Britain where Robin Cook, former Foreign Secretary, recently declared Chicken Tikka Massala the most popular national dish. White Brits tend to love Bend it like Beckham because it doesn’t focus on race and racism — after all, many are tired of feeling guilty. Representatives of ethnic minority communities, including the film committee of the NAACP Image Awards, can like the film because they can identify with non–white-middle-class role models (although they may be rather ambivalent about its emphasis on interracial romance). And in a joyous crescendo, everyone gets to sing along with the actors as Bollywood meets English summertime fun. Maybe Timbaland can understand what they’re saying and produce a soundtrack inspired by the movie; McDonald’s certainly missed a golden Happy Meal tie-in.

So, is this anything more than a rant by a person of colour tired of the ruthless adoption and labelling of colourful themes to sell to the mainstream? The bemused commentary of someone not lucky enough to be American, and therefore unable to understand why “Afrocentricity” should mean “Americo-centrism — a discourse of racial particularity that does not translate well to other circumstances”? The objections of a peripatetic traveller finding terms such as “international community” becoming euphemisms for the United States and invited guests of her choice? My analysis is certainly informed by my desire to ask Black Americans to think about the commodification of bodies that aren’t African or African American. I’d also like people of colour in Europe and places such as Canada and Australia, to look toward each other and their historical predecessors as much as their contemporary national governments, companies flogging “urban chic” and African Americans.

Nonetheless, the consequences of the trends I’ve outlined are not seen just outside of the U.S. We can observe the prominence of ethnically ambiguous celebrities like the Rock and Vin Diesel, who announce that they are Americans first and foremost, and the multiracial casts of films such as SWAT. Such developments are not just a result of multiracial or Hispanic movements in the U.S., or the need for American solidarity against (Islamic) “terrorists.” Although we must appreciate the internal American dynamics that prevent many “Arab looking” Americans from joining the pseudo-Benetton ads on the silver screen, we must also recognise the ways in which American artists continue to mine European sources for modern multiracial fables. Nor can we forget the ability of American directors to reimagine swashbuckling European crusaders and imperialists to feed White pride.

“Redemptive diversity” only seems de rigueur for films that don’t draw on ancient European myths and legends. Alexander might offer Rosario Dawson, but films about the Macedonian, and those chronicling Troy, will match The Lord of the Rings for action, adventure, and almost all white casts. Meanwhile, epics about Egypt and Nubia don’t seem to be inspiring Hollywood producers. Like other countries with a white majority, the United States has to ask itself whether it just wants to be multiracial and “see” differences that can be rolled out for political points or “interesting” nights out. Is it enough to fit contemporary non-white folks into the national picture, or try and put more into visual representations of European folklore? Or will people in the United States ask themselves the same questions Black Europeans ask African Americans about Black diasporic identity: Can there be co-cultures instead of subcultures? And if so, is it just to develop new marketing opportunities?