Imagining Blackness

One point of overlap between the texts for this week is the image of the black body presented on screen. On pg. 32 in Close Up two screen stills are presented from Samba der Held des Utwalds: one picture of two African lovers and the other a fight scene between rivals (fighting over a woman?). Borderline (1930) features Paul Robeson as Pete, a regular guy who frequents a brothel and is in love with Adah. There is a similar focus in this film on black intimacy and competition between rivals (I would use the word double for Borderline.

The shots from Samba offer primitivist stereotypes for what blackness is—from the African attire (or lack of attire) to the aggressive, violent black male. The captions for the photos want us to understand this movie as “realism”: by using “native actors” the film illustrates “Pudowkin’s theory that realism is best achieved with persons who have never played before.” There is a claim to authenticity made for this film, whether through the race of the actors (“native”) or through their inexperience. The suggestion is that this film gets to the heart of something—the life of Africans and black people? In the context of primitivism, the unmitigated, pre-modern nature of humanity?

As I’m writing this, I’m wondering if I should contrast or compare this page in Close Up to Borderline. Both imagine black intimacy, but the contest/conflict in Borderline is interracial. Both, as well, display imagines of the black body and violence in the struggle for power. Samba seems to lean into the violence. The film still shows Samba with his hands around the throat of his rival, both awkwardly positioned to be open and visible to the camera. Borderline, on the other hand, is more subtle with images of violence and the black body—Adah is first pictured on the floor, suggesting that she is the victim of domestic/sexual violence at the hands of Thorne. The audience doesn’t see the preceding violence, however, only its aftermath. There is also the scene where Pete physical protects/stakes claim over Adah’s body in a confrontation with Thorne. This suggests that Pete is capable and willing to resort to violence, but it doesn’t come to that. Pete, however, is shown in one violent scene as he punches the Joyce-looking guy after he insults Adah (?) (this is happening after the fallout from Thorne killing his wife and it’s not entirely clear how the narratives are connected). Two things fuel the conflict of the film: Paul’s physical and emotional intimacy with Adah and his violence toward the Joyce-looking guy.

Considering the whole of Borderline, Pete’s character is controlled and even-keel throughout. Boring almost, though he is given quite a bit of interiority and emotional depth (the love between him and Adah is convincing, I’d say). This contrasts with the excessive, chaotic violence between Thorne and his wife. And the emotional swings of the white characters, often fueled by racism or sexism. The movie is sympathetic toward Pete, and I think it accurately captures the racial injustice at the time: a white man could be acquitted for murder while a black banished from a town for punching another (the letter from the mayor, as well, speaks to the attitude of the town’s people, suggesting racial violence if he doesn’t comply).  I suppose that Paul Robeson’s image in Borderline counters more typically racist, stereotypical, and primitive images of blackness (such as those in Close Up). But there are lingering questions about a lack of emotional depth and interiority, and agency. Pete contrasts with other characters (Thorne and his wife, for instance) in this way.