The guise of eroticism flows through the frames a man putting on a dress shirt, pulling out a drawer full of monochromatic ties, and a waifish young woman for whom an interview with this man is only a doorway to somewhere else. But, there’s something different. The wealth porn is still there, but, unlike the film that it’s parodying, the actors are people of color. It’s explicit in its title: Fifty Shades of Black, which, on its surface, is another kind of lame parody at popular filmmaking in the vein of Scary Movie and A Haunted House. But behind the bathroom humor is an act of politicization and reclamation: Marlon Wayans, along with directors like Justin Simien and Xavier Dolan, has it clear on his agenda that the goal is to subvert images that are made by and catered to white people. This presents itself in picking specific imagery – from Fifty Shades of Grey, Scream, Pierrot le Fou, Persona, Metropolis – and recontextualizing it to reveal that the politics of identity are, consciously or not, inescapable.
While Fifty Shades of Black operates more explicitly on a level of parody, its intent is hardly obfuscated by its superficial (dis)pleasures. It’s of the same political id and approach as the critically maligned White Chicks, a film in which whiteness and white culture itself are exposed as ludicrous; A Haunted House, where the white middle class malaise masquerading as supernatural horror is thrown under the bus as sort of trivial; and Dance Flick, a film that parodies movies that ostensibly promote subcultures for the ingestion of a supposed white audience.
But Marlon Wayans – who, here, takes on the name Christian Black, as if to suggest that we like to see our class politics portrayed in fairly Manichean ways – is far from the first director to invert or subvert this kind of ideology in filmmaking. While not working in necessarily the same form of reclamation, Buster Keaton’s Three Ages lampoons this concept of aggressive whiteness, especially as narrative trope. A loose remake and satire of DW Griffith’s Intolerance, a film that was itself a response to the reception of Birth of a Nation, Keaton feels like one of the first directors for whom identity politics could be utilized as a subversion.
However successful Keaton and Three Ages are, reclamation is contingent on the marginalized party being responsible for the subversion of the image in the first place. More contemporary examples of this exist in Justin Simien’s Dear White People and Xavier Dolan, a black queer director and a white queer director.
Simien’s film is on its surface about racial tensions at an Ivy League university, but, as the director quick to correct, the film is much more explicitly about identity: the way it’s constructed, performed, protected, infringed upon. His rapid fire dialogue sounds like it’s from Hawks and Hecht, but his frames are from a litany of films from a homogenous cinematic canon. Sam White (Tessa Thompson) is silhouetted against the blinds in her room, recalling Bergman’s Persona; a bunch of students argue the representation of black people on film at a movie theater, crowded together like in Lang’s Metropolis; Sam and ex-lover and former house president Troy (Brandon Bell) discuss the new responsibilities Sam has as house president, while the light enters in naturally, almost in a diffused manner, reminiscent of Kubrick’s Barry Lyndon. What’s the point of these “grab and go” movie references? The things we see on the screen – or at all, for that matter – are just as likely to shape our identities. There’s a language that sells itself as open to anyone, but has a hint of elitism and snobbishness that only manifests itself explicitly when they’re reproduced by the same kind of people repeatedly, and often within similar homogenous contexts. What Simien has done is invert those ideas and make identity the core of them. It’s critical to Dear White People that repurposing a scene from Metropolis include a discussion about representation on the screen, that taking from Barry Lyndon consist of a discussion of the political and the personal, and that using a shot from Persona the connection between sexuality and identity.
Similarly, Quebecois director Xavier Dolan peppers his films with cinematic references from both high art and low. One is as likely to catch a reference to Godard in one scene and Home Alone in the next, suggesting that both class and queerness are as integral to notions of identity as race. (Dear White People also has fun with a dialectic on class and emulation.) His Kubrickian frames in Laurence Anyways, his Hitchcockian perversity in Tom at the Farm, and his Godardian stubbornness in I Killed My Mother all nod to recontextualizing canonized directors and queering them. But the most potent example of this is in Heartbeats, where Francis (Dolan) and Marie (Monia Chokri) gaze upon their object of desire, set against The Knife’s “Pass This On” and intercut with images of Michelangelo’s David and Jean Cocteau’s illustrations of men making love. While it isn’t explicitly or specifically a cinematic reference (though Cocteau is an auteur in his own right, with Beauty and the Beast and Orpheus), the point is that two gazes converge into one: heteronormative and queer. It’s the complexity of sculpture and the simplicity of illustration that meld, their lust transcendent.
Dear White People admittedly has more prestige attached to it than the work Marlon Wayans has done, but the intent is there. Even though it’s mired in ridiculous slapstick and potty humor, there’s an aspect of the Wayans’ humor which is made to discomfit audiences (though, perhaps depending on whom you ask, it may straddle the line of stereotype). Evident in Fifty Shades of Black’s trailer (and present in Wayans’s other work) is African American English Vernacular, two characters – stand ins for Christian Grey and Anastasia – that linguistically perform a particular dialect of the English language popular within black communities. It’s juxtapose against “white sounding” dialect, “prim” and “proper” and “articulate”. But the point that Wayans is suggesting is not only that identity exists through language as much as the image, but the very necessity to ghettoize films that don’t subscribe or adhere to different dialects.
It’s an indictment of the audience that few will notice, and fewer will take seriously. Part of the “issue” may be that Wayans is fine with not labeling his films as satire, and instead as parody, the difference being that satire has a more overt political or ideological goal, where parody mostly exists in form and imitation in non-political contexts. That doesn’t deny the politics of his films, and how closely that exist with that of Dear White People or Tom at the Farm, the latter of which isn’t a satire either. What these performers are doing are taking something and changing nothing about it, but changing everything about it.