In Haile Gerima’s Bushmama (1976), the camera pans up from a man’s shoes, open and without laces, to an immaculate pair of white pants; on up past the holes in the sole of the other shoe to reveal a distinguished black man with a goatee, dressed in a vest and white shirt. This man is talking to his neighbor who wears a work shirt; they occupy a bench with two others. All are black. The first man talks in a monologue but with great emphasis:
“You see I am a prince here on a private visit… the Prince of Dahomey. You don’t believe I’m a prince? Look at my eyes. You see the stars of Dahomey. Just the other day I had a party thrown for me. […] Let me tell you what they served me. On a bun was a well-done piece of meat. And on the side, another bun. And on top of that they had a well-sorted out piece of lettuce. Let me tell you about that prince-food. On top of that lettuce they had a tomato. On one side of that they had a watusi-type pickle and on the other side a circumcised carrot… salt from the Red Sea and pepper from Egypt…. But that’s because I’m a prince. You don’t believe I’m a prince? I’m the Prince of Dahomey.”
After this speech, the bus comes, reframing the scene into one of passengers waiting at a bus stop. The “prince” gets up and a shot from the back shows that his shirttail is hanging out from his pants. Irony? The viewer is already aware of that because the monologue has been intercut with two shots that are external to the diegetic space: first, a shot of two black men laughing while drinking beer; secondly, a shot of a policeman manhandling a handcuffed black man on the ground.
The “prince” is signifyin(g) when he praises the simple hamburger with rhetorical flourishes; in black culture, the “signifyin’” speaker tries to establish his superiority by displaying verbal cleverness, most often in the form of putting down the addressee. As Geneva Smitherman puts it, “signification…refers to the verbal art of insult in which a speaker humorously puts down, talks about, needles – that is, signifies on –- the listener. Sometimes signifyin’ (also siggin’) is done to make a point, sometimes it’s just for fun” (Smitherman, 118).
The speaker in Gerima’s film shows himself to be a “prince” rather than a common man (like his interlocutor) by his fluent verbal inventiveness: at the same time, Gerima’s camera is signifyin’ too, putting the speaker down by contrasting the man’s poverty with his highfalutin’ claims to royalty. But Gerima is also signifyin’ on the audience: Gerima reminds us that black Americans are indeed the descendants of princes. The joke is on us, if we have identified with the camera’s ironic undercutting of the man’s speech.
Henry Louis Gates, Jr. writes in his seminal essay on “The Blackness of Blackness” that “the Afro-American rhetorical strategy of signifyin’ is a rhetorical act that is not engaged in the game of information giving. Signifyin’ turns on the play and chain of signifiers, and not on some supposedly transcendent signified” (1987: 238). Thus, ambiguity is at the core of the signifyin’ act. As Claudia Mitchell-Kernan explains, “labeling a particular utterance ‘signifying’ involves the recognition and attribution of some implicit content or function which is potentially obscured by the surface content or function” (Mitchell-Kernan, 318f). This obscurity, she goes on to say, may lie in the difficulty it poses for interpreting one of three things: the message itself, its effect on the addressee, or the intent of the speaker.
In a formal sense, “signifyin(g)” includes not only the traditional rhetorical tropes but also what Gates calls “black rhetorical tropes” -– “marking, loud-talking, testifying, calling out (of one’s name), sounding, rapping, playing the dozens, etc.” (1987: 237). At the core of signifyin’ is the folklore figure of the Signifying Monkey. The tale of the monkey who bests the lion by insulting him and tricking him into fighting with the elephant is a story often told in competitions between performers known as “toast-telling sessions” (Abrahams, 97-172).
As a form of competitive verbal sport and entertainment in African-American culture, signifyin’ naturally goes far beyond a counterhegemonic strategy of resistance to the white oppressor. Whites do, however, turn up as the object of the put-down. Here signifyin’ often turns intertextual, as the dominant culture becomes the object of parody and ironic transformation. Geneva Smitherman writes that
Signification… refers to the verbal art of insult in which a speaker humorously puts down, talks about, needles –- that is, signifies on -– the listener… [It is] characterized by the exploitation of the unexpected and quick verbal surprises… It can be both light and heavy… It has the following characteristics: indirection, circumlocution; metaphorical-imagistic (but images rooted in the everyday, real world); humorous, ironic; rythmic fluency and sound; teachy but not preachy; directed at person or persons usually present in the situational context… punning, play on words; introduction of the semantically or logically unexpected (118-121).
Parody and pastiche figure prominently in the intertextual dimension of signifyin’ pratice. Henry Louis Gates, in The Signifying Monkey, provides many examples of parody (for instance, the poem “The Black Man’s Burden”). If parody exaggerates aspects of the original model, pastiche caricatures it. In either case, Gates remarks, “the reader must supply the model, of which the author’s text is a distorted image, mirrored in some way” (1988: 110). Gates also extends the intertextual aspect of signifyin’ to film, remarking that Jean Renoir’s silent film Sur un air de Charleston (1927) is a parody of René Clair’s earlier films Paris qui dort and Entr’acte, as well as of the literature of discovery (108f).
From 1960 until the mid-1980s, the exclusion of African-American filmmakers from Hollywood led to the adoption by several film artists of aesthetic strategies that can be best understood if they are seen in the context of signifyin’ as it has been practiced in African-American culture. In black independent cinema, signifyin’ is mainly employed as a counterhegemonic strategy. As in the example from Haile Gerima’s Bushmama that I cited above, signifyin’ is not only represented in black independent films; it becomes part of the formal structure –- a bravura style that reverses the concept of “production values” to make a virtue of limited means.
Melvin Van Peebles’s first feature, Story of a Three-Day Pass (1967), was shot in France after the director tried unsuccessfully to work in Hollywood –- a Hollywood studio offered him jobs as either elevator operator or parking lot attendant (Bogle, 475). The simple story line recounts the brief love affair between Miriam, a French woman, and Turner, a black American soldier, during his leave from his base near Paris.
Van Peebles successfully employs the techniques of the French New Wave: freeze frames (Breathless, 1959, and My Life to Live, 1963), the protagonist talking to himself in the mirror (Hiroshima mon amour, 1959), rapid montage, and philosophical monologues by secondary characters (My Life to Live). Yet Van Peebles uses these techniques as pastiche, pushing them to excess. The freeze frames are linked to Turner’s growing sexual arousal, as the camera freezes not just on her face but on her bare knees in the car. When he realizes that Miriam is going to share the same bed with him, his sense of triumph is conveyed by imaginary sequences consisting of parodies of Hollywood-style movies about African ritual sacrifice. When Turner speaks to himself in the mirror, his double replies, taunting him with the epithet “Uncle Tom.” The New Wave directors’ predilection for unusual camera angles is also used humorously, as the seduction scene begins from a high angle in the bedroom so that the two lovers are made to look like animals in a cage.
By pushing popular New Wave techniques to the point of excess, by parodying Hollywood films, Van Peebles “signifies on” a culture that only begrudgingly gave him the opportunity to practice his filmmaker’s craft (Story of a Three-Day Pass was made on a budget of $200,000, $70,000 of which came from French government subsidies). Van Peebles finally came to the attention of the Hollywood studios when Story of a Three-Day Pass was presented at the San Francisco film festival in 1967 as a French film (Van Peebles interview 1980). He was hired by Columbia to make Watermelon Man in 1970; but he turned his back on Hollywood to make the independently-financed Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song in 1971. Here the black hero attacks two white policemen (interrupting their brutalization of an innocent black man) and successfully escapes across the Rio Grande –- a story of revolt against racism that already lay dormant in the signifyin’ ironies of Story of a Three-Day Pass.
Van Peebles’s film does most of its signifyin’ through intertextual play on French and Hollywood cinematic codes; Julie Dash’s Illusions (1983), voted one of the best films of the 1980s by the Black Filmmakers Foundation, goes even further in employing intertextual strategies by reproducing the look of a ’40s Hollywood film. Her protagonist is a black studio executive who is “passing for white” and who, in her position of power, is able to find employment for black actresses. Ironically, though, the actress she finds work for has the modest job of dubbing her voice over the image of a white singer.
The title of Dash’s film, “Illusions,” refers implicity to the phenomenon of “masking” so eloquently evoked by Paul Laurence Dunbar’s classic poem.1 As stated before, the style of the film itself is masked in the cinematic codes of the period it represents – in particular the deep focus shots made popular by Citizen Kane (1941). The complex image of the black singer dubbing her voice while watching a screen image of the white woman -– shot through the glass of the control booth -– is another reference to Welles’s film. In Citizen Kane’s corresponding scene, Kane is reflected in the window above the shot of his two associates Leland and Bernstein.
Where Van Peebles appears to be signifyin’ mainly on his audience -– his style a bravura statement that taunts the spectator with a film about American racism couched in the language of the French New Wave and Hollywood -– Dash deploys a form of signifyin’ whose ambiguities lie in the author’s intent. What is the “illusion,” finally -– that black women can work in Hollywood? The final irony is that Dash’s film, made in the 80s, is the only “40s Hollywood film” to deal with black issues or with racism. Her film Illusions thus creates the illusion of visibility for people who were basically invisible in ‘40s-era films. Dash’s subsequent feature film, Daughters of the Dust, partially financed by American Playhouse in 1991, ignored the conventions of Hollywood film and explored instead the structure of African griot narrative. She left the practice of signifiyin’ behind, unless we can say that the puzzlement this film produces among white spectators is her way of signifyin’ on them.
More complex than either of the two works discussed is Charles Burnett’s Killer of Sheep (1978). This film was among the first 100 films on the Library of Congress National Film Registry, films chosen because they are “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant” (Library of Congress News, 1992). It won the Critics’ Award at the Berlin International Film Festival in 1981 and was listed in 2002 by the National Society of Film Critics as one of the “100 essential films of all time.” In February 2007, a restored print was premiered at Lincoln Center and then re-released by Milestone Films and Steven Soderbergh.
Killer of Sheep is an unsentimental portrait of life in a black family in the Watts neighborhood of Los Angeles over a timespan of about two weeks. Stan, the father, works in a sheep-slaughtering factory. His wife stays home to mind the three children, Stan junior, his sister Angela, and their little brother. The diegetic space of the film sharply divides the world of women (indoors, the household), the world of men (the workplace, the hustle), and the world of children (outdoors, play). In its organization, the film has a mosaic structure, moving from one focus to another; each scene appears relatively independent. A strong visual rhythm is created by the periodic recurrence of scenes from the sheep-slaughtering factory where Stan works.
The film form sharply differentiates itself from the Hollywood norm of linear narrative; instead its organization in episodes corresponds to what David Bordwell has named “categorical form,” usually reserved for documentaries. There is another group of films that fall into this set: the comedies of Chaplin. Killer of Sheep signifies by alluding to the comedic structure of Modern Times (where a factory also plays a major role), yet reversing the thrust of comedy to make a bittersweet commentary on black working-class family life.
This reversal of comedy is also an homage to Chaplin, who invariably presents his protagonist as an outsider -– in the opening shot of Modern Times, that sense of being “other” is metaphorically represented by the one black sheep in the herd that crowds the opening shot. Where the Chaplin film clearly makes a metaphor of the sheep by juxtapposing the shot with people swarming out of a subway station, Burnett’s purpose is more ambiguous. As a trope, the shots of the sheep being slaughtered in the factory work metonymically (they have a diegetic function); yet the way in which they rhythmically punctuate the film suggests that they are not merely there to illustrate Stan’s workplace. Instead, they are one instance of the way this film creates ambiguity -– “signifies.”
Framing is another. Bodies crowd the screen, as Burnett’s closeups move in to cut off the tops of heads or to focus on legs and arms. In one shot of boys outside sitting next to each other near a railroad track, the camera focuses on the boys’ legs without showing their torsos or faces. In a shot of Stan’s household, his wife comes in from downscreen and her back blots out the image of Stan and his friend sitting at the kitchen table. In both these sequences, Burnett’s framing creates emotional intensity by moving in close to its subject – the energy of the boys after they have thrown rocks at a passing train, the anger of Stan’s wife at feeling excluded. In a household scene, a shot foregrounds her as she sits in the darkened bedroom crying while Stan and his daughter are framed through the doorway in the bright light of the kitchen.
I see Burnett’s framing style as a type of signifyin’ because it decenters the spectator, creating uncertainty about the image. From the beginning, the film announces itself as a strongly marked visual statement that differs from the norms of Hollywood entertainment film: the first shot after the credits begins with what the script describes as “a boy’s face peeping out from something that looks like a moving wall.” This later proves to be a wooden plank that the boy is using as a shield in a “playful” battle being fought with real stones. In another scene of children at play, the camera records from the street how the children jump between the roofs of houses – an image with a strong visual signature.
Burnett, who was also the cinematographer for this film, creates ambiguity in part by eschewing point-of-view shots. A scene where boys run toward a moving train to throw stones is shot first from inside the train, then from behind the boys in a long shot. Neither shot allows the viewer any identification with a character’s look, and the shot from inside the train in particular seems unanchored, floating.
Clues that Burnett’s marked visual style is not just a formal exercise often come from the soundtrack (until now, the film had never seen popular distribution due to the expense of the music rights). Music is used to call attention to the fact that the images have a second meaning beyond their referential one. A scene of Stan cleaning up at the factory after work is accompanied by the second movement of William Grant Still’s Afro-American Symphony. Its New Orleans jazz motif is in marked contrast to the antiseptic look of the factory, suggesting that Stan feels alienated in his job. In another factory scene, the heads of some “Judas goats” (used to lead the sheep to the killing floor) are framed so as to anthropomorphize them; on the soundtrack, Paul Robeson sings “Going Home,” a song about reconciliation with death. In a third factory scene, children are intercut with shots of sheep being strung up upside down and skinned. A dark shot of sheep running in a panic -– Bergmanesque, foreboding -– is followed by a shot of a boy counting for some of his pals who are seeing how long they can stand on their heads. The boy counting neatly ties up the theme of “counting sheep” that is interspersed throughout the film -– Stan, the sheep-slaughterer, counts sheep because he has trouble sleeping. He wants to change jobs. In the course of the film, Burnett metaphorizes the sheep in the way that Chaplin does in Modern Times, though with some ambiguities. It’s never clear that the fate of the children is equated with that of the sheep –- its’s just a nagging anxiety.
The film ends with the announcement of a pregnancy by one of the women, then a shot of the sheep crowding onto the killing floor while Robeson singing “Going Home” plays again on the soundtrack -– a marked contrast with the lullaby that begins the film.
Overall, the blues inform the film as much as does film history; Burnett’s soundtrack includes numerous other blues songs in addition to the ones already mentioned. Burnett “signifies” on the tradition of the blues, weaving his story about separation (between men and women, adults and children) and the hard facts of life, illustrated most poignantly by the sheep. True to the tradition of “signifyin,’” though, it is not possible to pin him down to an exact statement. The closest he comes to direct social commentary is a scene where children are playing in what the script describes as “a rather dangerous area where workmen have been tearing down houses.” These images are accompanied by Robeson singing “The House I Live in” and providing a bitter note on the “playground” of these children:
What is America to me -– a name, a map, the flag I see,
A certain word, “Democracy…” What is America to me….
The children in the playground, the faces that I see,
All races, all religions, that’s America to me.
Killer of Sheep is a film of consummate art, even though made with a small budget of $10,000 (Burnett 1981b). Its signifyin’ strategies are multiple, and consitute an integral part of its poetic structure; its ambiguities lie in the message itself.
I have tried to show how these examples of the black independent cinema draw their aesthetic from the practice of signifyin’ that comes out of black culture. These films also help to define the culture from which they spring. Perhaps the practice of signifyin’ should be understood as a particular stage in the development of black voices in opposition to mainstream culture. After The Story of a Three-Day Pass, Melvin Van Peebles’s Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song is much more direct in its portrayal of a hero who is demanding “payback” from police brutality and from the systematic oppression of blacks by white hegemony. The making of this film, as represented by Van Peebles’s son Mario in Baadasssss (2003), was a milestone in black independent filmmaking and launched the lucrative “blaxploitation” genre aimed specifically at black audiences. Julie Dash’s Daughters of the Dust is a poetic meditation on the Gullah community of freed slaves in which relations to white society are no longer central. Charles Burnett has turned to more commercial projects, such as Glass Shield (1994), a film that confronts the relations between black and white police officers in the LAPD. Spike Lee, after the ironic twists of his debut film She’s Gotta Have It (1986), achieved mainstream acceptance with films like Do the Right Thing (1989) Malcolm X (1991), and Inside Man (2006) in a way that would have appeared unthinkable 30 years ago.
Still, sometimes signifyin(g) is the only way to respond to a society that has still to confront its deep-seated racism. When Barbara Bush, after the New Orleans debacle, intones at the Houston astrodome that “so many of the people in the arena here, you know, were underprivileged anyway, so this–this is working very well for them,” we are grateful that we can count on Spike Lee, in his searching video series When the Levees Broke: A Requiem in Four Acts (2006), to contextualize that remark with signifyin’ irony.
*I wish to thank Yusuf Nuruddin for providing helpful information and suggestions.
1. We wear the mask that grins and lies,/It hides our cheeks and shades our eyes, –/This debt we pay to human guile;/with torn and bleeding hearts we smile,/And mouth with myriad subtleties.
2. [Set to the third movement of Dvorak’s “New World” symphony] Going home, going home,/I’m just going home./Quiet-like, slip away — /I’ll be going home./It’s not far, just close by;/Jesus is the Door;/Work all done, laid aside,/Fear and grief no more.
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