During the media frenzy over the alleged incident of domestic violence between singers Chris Brown and Rihanna, I remained silent. Silent, but observant. I listened to the countless number of citizens who called into black radio stations to cast their pronouncement of guilt or innocence. I watched Oprah, Phil, and Tyra as they launched their special (and much-hyped) episodes about teen dating violence. I read the articles, commentaries, and blogs about patriarchy, victim's rights, and the potential impact on the careers of these two talented artists. And in the midst of listening, watching, and reading, I noticed a screaming silence. No one was talking about the glorification of relational violence in black film and how it might have impacted those two young people or the public dissection of their lives.
In fact, with the exception of Kevin Powell, who was given very limited talk-time on one of Oprah's episode, no one was talking about the American fascination with violence at all. Just take a look at the slate of movies lined up to hit theatres in this year's blockbuster season: Wolverine, Terminator Salvation, Transformers, Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince (this series stopped being appropriate for children by about book two). Sure, there are lots of other good, non-violent films coming out too, but many of them won't do nearly as well as those about aggression, violence, and death.
But as far as it relates to black film, I'm talking about a different, more insidious type of violence. I'm talking about relational violence - physical aggression between two or more people who are linked together by kinship, friendship, or romantic intimacy, that is, spouses, romantic partners, parents and children, siblings, etc.
In my undergraduate class on black love, I require my students to watch a series of black popular movies that deal with romantic relationships. Our selections over the past two years have included Baby Boy, Diary of a Mad Black Woman, Claudine, Love Jones, Jungle Fever, The Color Purple, Something New, Jason's Lyric, Waiting to Exhale, and Tyler Perry's Why Did I Get Married?. And after two years of watching and re-watching these films, I realized that very many of them contain scenes of explicit relational violence.
In some cases, this might be expected. After all, abuse - and liberation from it - is a central theme in The Color Purple. And Jason's Lyric and Baby Boy are dramas in which young couples try to form and maintain intimate relationships in the midst of violent, chaotic environments. But relational violence is often woven into films in which it really doesn't seem to be needed.
Take, for example, This Christmas. There aren't many holiday movies about African American families, so I was happy to see this one starring Loretta Devine, Delroy Lindo, Regina King, and ironically, Chris Brown. I didn't expect it to be Oscar-worthy; after all, it's a Christmas movie, a genre which usually includes a fair bit of cheesiness, contrived drama, and overly simplistic themes. But Christmas movies also tend to be heart-warming and family-oriented. And I expected no less of This Christmas.
What I did not expect was a scene of graphic, premeditated domestic violence. The eldest daughter in the Whitfield family (played by Sharon Neal) drenches the bathroom floor with baby oil and assaults her husband with a leather belt as he steps out of the shower. Wearing nothing but a towel, he is defenseless against the attack as he falls and slides on the oil-slicked floor. Apparently, the beating is supposed to be legitimated by the husband's infidelity (and in general, being a jerk).
That's the scary part about the depiction of relational violence in black film - in some ways, it is always seen as being legitimate. Over and over again, black filmmakers pay homage to what theologian Walter Wink names as the "myth of redemptive violence" - the idea that violence saves, solves, empowers, or makes whole. In black film, violence is often trotted out as the "fix" for wayward lovers, children, siblings, or friends.
But there's something even more disturbing than the way filmmakers use violence in black film - the way black audiences respond to it. John Singleton describes this best in the DVD commentary for Baby Boy. During an extended film in the scene, the main character, Jodi and his best friend, Sweet Pea, encounter a group of young boys who had earlier assaulted Jodi and stolen his bike. At gunpoint, Jodi and Sweet Pea line the boys up and punch them, one by one. Unlike his friends who cower before the punch, the last boy stares the "men" in the face boldly. So instead of punching him, Sweet Pea takes off his belt and beats the boy mercilessly.
In the commentary, Singleton said that he meant this scene to be a dramatic depiction of how violence and its valuation are transmitted from one generation to another in urban communities. He meant it to be horrifying. But he found that when the film is watched by predominantly black audiences, they - we - laugh.
It's not funny, people.
Now granted, black filmmakers hold neither the patent or the monopoly on televised violence. White filmmakers have issues of their own, especially the routine depiction of sexualized violence against women. But that's another post for another day. At issue here is the statement that is being made about African Americans' valuation of relational violence by its depiction ad nauseam in black movies and by audiences' response to it. What meaning does this have for our relationships? What meaning might it have had for Rihanna and Chris? Perhaps none. But we need to raise the question.