Winner of the 2021 Irish Association for American Studies Postgraduate Writing Prize

 

Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner (1967) and Foxy Brown (1974) interrogate the politics of respectability and the culture of dissemblance, concepts that operate within a broader “theory of black women’s performance” concerned with the social presentation of black womanhood (Nash 521). This article argues that Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner and Foxy Brown demonstrate the changing prominence of respectability politics and the culture of dissemblance from the Civil Rights Movement to Black Power. The Movement upheld ideals of uprightness, while Black Power rejected respectability politics as a form of rebellion.

Here, I seek to give a basis for the films’ genres and historical backgrounds, and then go on to examine the four main facets of black life identified by Evelyn Brooks Higginbotham and Darlene Clark Hine that are affected by the system of reputability and an attending structure of silence.  Higginbotham identifies respectability as a performative political strategy, one used by club women to prove themselves worthy members of society (Okello 1). The culture of dissemblance, which is intimately bound to respectability politics, is described by Darlene Clark Hine as a veil of secrecy attending the inner lives of black women (912). This secrecy is used as protection from the outside world (912). Dissemblance, therefore, is a concealment that allows an individual to control their representation by creating an air of mystery. Those aspects of black life affected by cultures of respectability and dissemblance include: the construction of black sexuality and appearance, the treatment of class and language within the politics of respectability, and the culture of secrecy. Despite their very different depictions of African American experience and their very different relationships to respectability politics, therefore, I argue that the films share an intention to deconstruct contemporaneous representations of blackness and in so doing to initiate new dialogues with dominant white culture.

Black Film and Genre

This article seeks to contribute to existing scholarship by examining the relationship between ideas of respectability and the two major strains of black liberation in the United States in the twentieth century. Film and respectability politics are intimately bound in that they are both concerned with the issue of representation. Both Hine and Higginbotham find that the roots of the structure of decency lay in an attempt to deconstruct harmful misrepresentations of blackness. As bell hooks argues, “images have an ideological intent” (5). The representation of African Americans on film has tapped into damaging stereotypes. (Bogle 4,6). Additionally, film has created a damaging construction of black sexuality, from the time of its first iteration in the controversial The Birth of a Nation (1915) which portrays a black man as a sexual threat to white women (Olund 927). Foxy Brown and Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner deconstruct these representations of blackness on film, if in very different ways.

The films’ genres demonstrate their differing attempts to unravel African American stereotypes produced by white culture. Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner focuses on the interracial relationship between Joey Drayton and Doctor John Prentice and their families’ reaction to it. John tells Joey’s parents, Matt and Christina, that their relationship will not move forward unless they get their blessing. The film has been deemed “the last of the explicitly integrationist message pictures” by Donald Bogle, a film that puts forth a moral tale about society (Wartenberg 112). The film can also be described as a social problem film, which seeks to find a solution for societal issues, such as interracial marriage (Perrin 846). Stanley Kramer, the film’s director, was particularly known for the message film, and defined the film’s focus as “the touchiest of all issues between blacks and whites: interracial sex and marriage” (Wartenberg 112). The film celebrates Joey and John’s relationship as an example of an integrated America, which is using respectability politics to present a vision of black masculinity that is distinct from previous iterations.

Likewise, the blaxploitation film, Foxy Brown, which caters to the black urban audience, engages with questioning harmful presentations of blackness through genre, if in a very different manner (Weems 81). Foxy Brown seeks to avenge the death of her boyfriend, killed by members of a drug syndicate. Foxy must go undercover as a sex worker and enlist the help of her community to achieve this. Foxy moves away from the representation of race within the integrationist message film, emphasizing a black-defined aesthetic. The growth of the blaxploitation genre fits within the “soul market” of the late nineteen sixties as racial pride became marketable though it prompted very different critical reactions (Weems 77). On the one hand, the genre was deemed to be “proliferating offenses” to the black community, according to Junius Griffin, then president of the Beverly Hills-Hollywood branch of the NAACP, as black characters were often involved in crime (Anderson). On the other hand, film critic Rebecca Theodore-Vachon contends that blaxploitation films “showed a different side of American life, pimps and prostitutes” that was actually “pushing back against Hollywood’s expectation of black people and their thoughts on how we act” in explorations of some aspects of black urban life (Anderson).

Furthermore, the films’ genres are closely related to their historical backgrounds, as they align with contemporary black liberation movements. In the case of Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner, Kramer uses the message film to address the issue of interracial relationships. This was a central issue within the Civil Rights Movement. The film’s representation of a loving interracial relationship came in in the same year as Loving V. Virginia, which legalized interracial marriage in a state in which it was banned, is a political act. The lead actor, Sidney Poitier, was also closely connected to the Civil Rights Movement, even deemed “the Martin Luther King of the movies” (Goudsouzian 3). In 1964, the same year as the Civil Rights Act, Poitier became the first black actor to be awarded the Academy Award for Best Actor in a Leading Role (Goudsouzian 3). Likewise, Foxy Brown, and blaxploitation in general, was linked to Black Power, as the plot of the film arguably boils down to “getting Whitey” (Weems 81). Moreover, it places the new emphasis on black masculinity that was also reflected within Black Power. The male hero “puts Whitey in his place”, in the process reclaiming the power historically taken from the black community (Weems 83). Thus, despite their differing affiliations, both films are interested in liberation politics.

Ultimately, the shift regarding the importance of respectability in the Civil Rights Movement and Black Power can be summed up through the changing reputation of Poitier. Because Poitier was one of the only black leads during this time, and his characters were often remarkably similar, he was viewed by the audience as playing himself (Goudsouzian 24). When Poitier first appeared on screen, he was applauded by white audiences because, according to Carrie Weems, he comforted them in the face of looming desegregation (Weems 81). His co-star Katharine Hepburn even remarked that “I can’t consider Sidney as a Negro”, highlighting the degree to which he was seen by whites as nonthreatening (Goudouzian 279). This sense of comfort is encapsulated in what Sharon Willis describes as “The Poitier Effect”, which she describes as representing the dream of achieving racial integration with no change to the white world (5). Poitier captures the hopes of white liberalism, since he follows along with the guidelines of uprightness in his films regarding sexuality, appearance, class and language.

With the emergence of Black Power, however, African Americans grew tired of “the Sidney Poitier Syndrome” (Weems 81), which, according to a 1967 New York Times article, represented “a good boy in a totally white world, with no wife…helping the white man solve the white man’s problem” (Weems 81). Opinions on representation were changing, and there was a growing expectation of “authenticity” from African American audiences. In an era of Black Power, the codes of propriety that Poitier embodied came to be seen as inauthentic (Willis 5).

Four Facets of Respectability Politics and Dissemblance

Respectability politics finds its roots in the nineteenth century, but the Movement and Black Power were in a dialogue with ideas of decency as they developed. The Civil Rights Movement upheld codes of propriety as a key weapon in combating racism, and was particularly rooted within the middle-class (Ford 633). The sexual politics of the Movement was also embedded within respectability politics. For example, King denounced rock and roll, stating that it “plunges men’s minds into degrading and immoral depths” (Russell 122). Black Power refused the Movement’s adherence to the construction of a specified etiquette as a form of middle-class values that they wished to dismantle (Harris 114). Furthermore, Black Power emphasized the sexual prowess of the black man in response to centuries of emasculation (Wright 63).

Higginbotham argues that race has become a “metalanguage” used to construct the meaning of other sectors of life, particularly sexuality (255). Sublimation of sexuality became a means of showing African Americans’ compliance with middle-class values, in ways that reinforced an image of a virtuous black subject (Rhodes 207). In the Montgomery Bus Boycott, for example, Rosa Parks was chosen as the icon of the movement over the pregnant teenager Claudette Colvin (Fackler 273). As an unmarried pregnant teenager, Colvin threatened the image the movement wished to project. Likewise, Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner continually emphasizes John’s sexual virtue. This is clear when Joey’s mother Christina asks “how far” their relationship had gone (Guess 36:51). Joey, played by Katherine Houghton, says that they have not yet had sex because John “wouldn’t” and causes her mother such a surprise that she burns the shirt she is ironing (Guess 37:04).

Moreover, John engages in the culture of dissemblance, just as those involved in the Civil Rights Movement did. The culture of dissemblance is summarized by Rita Dove who writes “If you can’t be free, be a mystery”, advocating for a degree of control over the representation of the body (Nash 519). While Hine highlights the secrecy of women, the film shows men engaging in similar ways, with John “represent[ing his] sexuality through its absence (Higginbotham 266). The film consequently flips the narrative that overemphasizes black sexuality and instead shows the interracial relationship through a particularly asexual lens. There is a veil of mystery surrounding John’s sexuality, which is constructed by John himself. The viewer rarely sees the physical aspect of the relationship since the couple only share one kiss throughout the film (Wartenberg 127).

Furthermore, it is Joey who reveals the details of their sexual relationship, and not John. John’s attitude is illustrated by the scene where he is changing his shirt. The scene shows John changing in the foreground with the door in the background, as Tillie barges in. The camera follows Tillie as John covers his chest with the shirt. Tillie is the dominant figure in the scene as she leads the camera shot, which feminizes John. I argue that the film represents John’s sexuality in a feminine lens because the black man is seen as the most threatening to the power of the white male, as represented by Matt. By feminizing John, the film indicates that he does not threaten the hierarchy of power (Levine 376). This is illustrated in the close of the film, as Matt jokes, “‘Tillie, when the hell are we gonna’ get some dinner?” (Guess 1:46:55). Furthermore, this puts into question the degree to which Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner deconstructs representations of blackness, as the film ultimately acts to restore clear cut power hierarchies.

In contrast, Foxy Brown represents a great shift from this version of black sexuality that follows the framework of respectability politics. The film depicts a view of women’s sexuality created within the black community. Foxy Brown, played by Pam Grier, harnesses what Shoniqua Roach calls “black pussy power” (14). Roach defines this as acts that use sexuality to secure small victories (Roach 14). Foxy and Claudia seduce a judge who views them as “dark meat” (46:21). The two women clearly hold the power in the scene, as the camera follows their movements as they tower over the judge. The women mock the judge’s body by deeming him a “little man”, as the shot shows only the top of the judge’s head (49:15). The women appear to seduce him as Foxy says “Now you’re gonna get the real taste of honey”, before the women work together by pushing him out of the room (50:23). Foxy takes a dominant stance as she stands over the judge as he lays on the floor. Hence the film rejects reputability and instead shows the power of sexuality and eroticism. There is a similar repudiation of social concealment. In the opening scene, Foxy dances in a bikini (1:44) to a song whose lyrics state “Oh girl, you’re cute and sweet, No, but you don’t play around” (1:26). Foxy is celebrating her sexuality outwardly. Moreover, the use of funk music to open the film connects her to Black Power. The genres of funk and soul was used by those involved with Black Power to connect the community as Stokely Carmichael, a key leader of the movement, said “We are an African people, so it was natural that from the beginning…music would be our weapon and our solace” (Vincent 3).

The film, however, also communicates the sexual violence experienced by black women. Hine notes that there is a lack of analysis regarding black women’s sexual vulnerability as victims of rape, and Foxy Brown confronts this (912). This is done by exploring the issue directly, and consequently resisting the construction of dissemblance that stems from the threat of sexual assault (Hine 912). The exploration of the threat black women face is clear when Foxy is raped while being held at a ranch (1:04:08). The setting of the assault is key since it places it within the broader history of the rape of black women during slavery (Dunn 126). Crucially, following the sexual assault, Foxy continues to use her sexuality to her advantage and eventually defeats the perpetrators when she steals a plane by seducing the pilot. As Stephanie Dunn puts it, despite the assault “the black heroine wins at the end” (Anderson).

The issue of sexuality is intricately linked to the upkeep of a certain form of appearance. Those in the Civil Rights Movement wore their “Sunday best” on the March on Washington (Powers). So, African Americans used dress as a form of “armour” to deflect racial stereotypes (Lee and Takako Hicken 422). In Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner, the suit is part of this armour. John always wears a full crisp suit, in contrast to the white male lead Matt, played by Spencer Tracey, who is often wearing a disheveled shirt and blazer. Black characters must uphold a sophisticated appearance to be welcomed into white society, which is exactly what John is hoping to achieve by asking Matt to approve of his relationship with Joey.

Foxy Brown questions the system of reputability that demands a version of black appearance that is accepted by white society, by putting forth a black-defined image. Those connected to Black Power abandoned their straightened hair in favour of a natural Afro which had previously been perceived to be “unkempt” (Rhodes 206). During Black Power African Americans took the advice from Marcus Garvey to “take down the pictures of white women from your walls” and “elevate your own women” (Craig 161). In Foxy Brown, the protagonist’s Afroed look with a leather jacket is plainly modelled on Angela Davis, a key member of the Black Panther Party (Holmlund 100). The anti-slavery committee, evidently inspired by the Black Panthers, also shows a veneration of black defined beauty because their headquarters are filled with posters of Afroed women and “Black is Beautiful” signs (1:13:55). Moreover, Foxy’s choice of clothing shows a clear denial of dissemblance, as her clothing often accentuates her body (Dunn 119). However, hints of the structure of respectability politics can be detected through her hair choices throughout the film (Dunn 119). For example, when she disguises herself as a sex worker, Foxy wears a straightened wig, reversing the associations between conventional appearance and sexual propriety.

Furthermore, the issue of class looms large in Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner. As Higginbotham writes, those constructing enforced decency “equated normality with conformity to white middle-class models” (271). Segregation was a social tool that allowed “race effectively [to] serve as a metaphor for class” (Higginbotham 259). John R. Lynch, for example, noted that a “modest, refined colored lady” is not afforded the same rights as “her social inferior of the white race” (Higginbotham 261). The Civil Rights Movement attempted to project a middle-class image in order to persuade a white audience that segregation was inappropriate on class grounds (Ford 633). In the film, the Drayton family are “lifelong liberals” and John is comparably middle-class (Waternberg 112). His status as a doctor is constantly emphasized as he is first introduced as “Doctor Prentice” (Guess 5:17). His title is initially questioned when Joey’s parents research his accreditation and are impressed when they find out he is “an important guy” (Guess 31:12). His class status facilitates his acceptance into the family, and his class is what allows the family to be racially liberal.

Foxy Brown rejects this middle-class image of black life pushed by respectability politics and instead represents the experience of the working-class. Black Power considered the middle-class values espoused by the Movement to be a form of “Uncle Tomism” that catered to white society (Bausch 260). Instead, those connected to Black Power served and celebrated the working-class community, such as through the Black Panther Party’s Free Breakfast for Children Program (Bausch 260). Foxy Brown similarly espouses these views, an example being the anti-slavery committee who protect the black community against the “new slavery” of “hard dope” (45:44). The film therefore reveals Higginbotham’s point that drugs have been linked to the working-class black community, but in reality those who are gaining from drug addiction are often not from that background (254). Foxy Brown reveals this reality through Link, Foxy’s brother, who is a victim of the drug crisis. Link sees “all them nice people in their fine homes” and says that he is “full of ambition” that “doesn’t know what to do with” (11:04). By showing the experience of the working-class, the film reveals the struggle of the working-class African American who must combat the racial and class structures that limit their opportunities.

Likewise, the films illustrate the link between language and class, how “language has been completely taken over, shot through with intentions and accents” (Higginbotham 256).  What is notable about John is the fact that he never uses African American Vernacular English. He goes even further in his attempt to use language to communicate virtue by referring to Joey as Joanna, unlike any other character. The only character that does use the vernacular is Tillie, who greets Joey saying “your folks didn’t know that youse was coming” (Guess 7:45). Tillie is the family’s maid and the only black character that comes from a working-class background, which links her use of language to her class.

Foxy Brown openly celebrates the African American vernacular. The characters in Foxy Brown create a form of camaraderie through a mutual understanding of the language. An example of this is a scene when a member of the anti-slavery committee says “You dig?” and Foxy’s boyfriend replies “Right on, Brother” (45:57). The scene is similar to the language of the Black Panther Party that called to “the brother on the block” (Ongiri 19). This underlines Higginbotham’s point that the language of race is a “double-voiced discourse”, and that language is “the voice of black oppression and the voice of black liberation” (Higginbotham 267). If John spends the entire film convincing Joey’s parents of his integrity, their acceptance of him allows them to view themselves as a beacon of tolerance. Christina notes the fact that she has raised a daughter that believes that “white people were not superior” (Guess 30:55). Foxy Brown denies the terms of any white approval, and reveals that the nation can be “taken away” if black people do not accept the conditions of the system of reputability. Link notes that he is left with little opportunities as he says, “jail is where some of the finest people I know are” (11:04). Hence, these two films demonstrate the shifting prominence of the system of reputability from the Civil Rights Movement to Black Power. The Movement clearly aimed to adhere to the rules of respectability while Black Power vehemently denies the construction of respectability.

Legacies

These entrenched codes of honour continue to be the subject of debates in black liberatory movements. The responses to the Black Lives Matter movement demonstrate the difficult legacy of the codes of propriety when looking at the murder of Trayvon Martin compared to the murder of Michael Brown, described as “no Rosa Parks” (Powers). Martin is viewed to be a “respectable” victim, while Brown was not as easy to label as such because he had committed a petty crime (Powers). Black Lives Matter activists reject this framework of respectability and has continued to protest brutality against all African Americans regardless of their previous actions (Powers). A framework of “anti-respectability” is advocated by Collins-White as a methodology based within “African-centered ways of knowing” that moves away from Western definitions of gender and sexuality (143). Cooper sums up respectability politics and its effect on the African American community when she writes “We’ve been trying to save our lives by dressing right, talking right and never, never fucking up since about 1877. That shit has not worked” (Lee and Takako Hicken 423).

 

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