From whitewashing to blackface, anyone who loves Classic Hollywood knows its images of blackness were weak at very best. In bell hooks’ terms, blacks were generally a “present absence”: invisible whether on screen or not. There were exceptions — great individual roles and films offering unusual consideration of race — but they were few and far between, and generally produced by and for a white audience.
For noir, I’ll give credit where credit is due to films such as No Way Out in which a young African American doctor (Sidney Poitier) faces racism head-on as a town erupts with black-white violence. (See my write-up of the film for BNoirDetour and another post on Linda Darnell’s pivotal white character). More generally, however, my viewing experience leads me to share at least to some degree the view of critics who argue that noir was a displacement of fear of blackness-as-difference (i.e. the other). (For a contrary perspective, read “Race and Film Noir: Black and Noir.”)
With this in mind and perhaps also in reaction to the yellowface mess of The Shanghai Gesture (screened last week), on 8/30, #BNoirDetour will consider two approaches to writing the wrongs, omissions, and slanders of Hollywood noir re blackness.
RED WIND (1995), 9-10pm ET
As part of its Fallen Angels series of hour-long mysteries, Showtime presented “Red Wind,” an adaptation of a story by Raymond Chandler, featuring Danny Glover as his famous detective, Philip Marlowe. In this production, we see how it would and would not have worked to have an African American private dick take center stage back in the day of the Hollywood hard-boiled dick subgenre of film noir.
ODDS AGAINST TOMORROW (1959) 10:15-11:55 ET (recommended by @WhooliganG)
From director Robert Wise (of Born to Kill fame) and co-produced by Harry Belafonte (uncredited), our second/main feature is the tale of the planning and execution of a bank raid. Odds Against Tomorrow tells a classic noir story — of desperate criminals in a setting of urban and moral decay — that just happens to feature an African American as one of the central figures.
The film emphasizes realism in the racism of white characters and the anger of some young black men seeking respect and success. As Belafonte — who staked his money and career on the film — stated, “My own personal desire was to put things on the screen that reflected the deeper resonance of black life, things that had never been approached before […].”
For a more complete analysis of the racial politics of the film and its production context, I recommend “Robert Wise’s Odds Against Tomorrow (1959): A Work of Art.” As it’s author Tony D’Ambra writes: “Odds Against Tomorrow is a work of art: truly the culmination of film noir and deserving of much greater recognition not only as a consummate film but as the harbinger of the re-invention of noir in the 60s by Sam Fuller in Hollywood and Melville in France.”
We will screen Odds Against Tomorrow through a three-part YouTube playlist:
Please join us!