Black Movies and the Myth of Relational Violence

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.

4 thoughts on “Black Movies and the Myth of Relational Violence

  1. I have had the troubling experience of talking to parents, both black and white, who insist that beating butts is the only way to communicate with some children, especially boys.

    “You don’t know what these boys are like,” they say to me. “It’s the only way to get through to them.”

    I would not demonize parents who spank, even though I would try to talk them out of it. And the critical reason is something you said — there are concrete ways in which relational violence gets passed from one generation to the next.

    If we do not believe that it is possible to persuade and change in peaceable ways, then we are likely to feel compelled to use some sort of violent intervention to make our point and turn things around.

    “It is very difficult to get over a philosophy of non-violence to people who have been taught from the cradle that violence must be met with violence. But you mist somehow continue to follow this way in word and deed. you must get over to your comrades taht the man who does not hit back is the strong man. To return violence for violence does nothing but intensify the existence of violence and evil in the universe. Someone must have sense enough and morality enough to cut off the chain of violence and hate.” –Martin Luther King, Jr., Ebony Magazine interview, Feb. 1958, p. 84.


  2. Anonymous says:

    that violence, especially relational violence is normalized, glofied, and even expected it film. we cannot expect our youth and the general population to be unaffected. these messages, when surrounding us, really distort our perceptions of what is acceptable…i promise not to laugh and to stand against relational violence.


  3. This brings up a conflict that I have over the appropriateness of spanking my child as a strategy of behavior management and general rearing. On one hand I do not count it as violence, but as a final tool among many others I must use to raise my daughter. There is familial and cultural tradition (which includes generational wisdom) behind my use of spanking as well. On the other hand, I have been challenged by a scene in the film <>Manderlay<> (Danny Glover) where the generational cycle of violence is played out among a slave family. This scene is etched into my mind and has challenged me deeply ever since.

    That said, I think this illustrates the depth at which shades of violence must be acknowledged as we work out the question of whether or not all “violence” (including relational violence) is named as violence.

    As far as black films and their effect on Chris, Rihanna, and others, I suspect that the “fascination” stems from the same stereotyping of blackness and the same commodification of blackness that arises in other forms (has any other president in the history of America been so merchandised?). The effect of this is that a people suffering from identity crisis grab on to that which is available to them…even if it’s nonsense. (i.e. over-valuing sneakers, obsession with “name brands”, the projection of affluence amid poverty, etc.) So, if you don’t know who to be or how to act in life (and no one is helping you learn) you do what you think everyone else would do. The thinking goes along this line of reasoning: since black movies “keep it real” they merely serve as a visual survey of what most other people like me (a black viewer) would do, in terms of who to be and how to act. Voila! Life imitates art…even stereotypical, market-driven art.

    Keep Thinking…


  4. Mike and Marcus – I can relate to both of your comments. I could discuss the spanking issue forever. But I’ll leave that for another time.

    However, I think that corporal punishment highlights the way in which we create linguistic and ideological spaces where certain forms of violence are sanctioned or are redefined as “not violence.”

    But with black film, it often goes beyond acceptance; relational violence is used as comic trope. Many people “accept” war as a necessary evil, but they do not find the idea or depiction of war amusing (hopefully <>Tropic Thunder<> is not the beginning of new trend). Similarly, when we are confronted with scenes of relational violence, shouldn’t we feel saddened, horrified, outraged, maybe even guilty?

    Of course, laughter is often used to cover up feelings such as these. But there’s something else in the laughter, something that I find much more perverse – a certain kind of glee that someone is getting what s/he deserves.


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