b.O.s. 2.3 / Lena Horne’s Side-Eye / Racquel Gates

Clockwise from top left: Pascale Marthine Tayou, Landscape Sierra Leone [detail], 2010. Marc Brandenburg, Full Circle [detail], 2001. Senga Nengudi, R.S.V.P., with Maren Hassinger, 1977.Katharine Hepburn and Lena Horne, April 1949. 

Black One Shot is a series that stages brevity and precision in response to a single work of black art, contemporary and/or prescient. Using a 1000-word conceit, it references the pressures on scholars and curators to present complex discussions and formulations of blackness for public consumption, political action, and academic relevance. It disputes staid frameworks of interpretation that cannot or will not account for the speculative, ambivalent, and irreconcilable ways of black forms. It speaks to the ongoing case for black lives and art mattering. And it conjures up the necessary intimacy generated between a critic and their object.

As an assembly of strategies, impulses, and circuits, these pieces conduct an historiographic and aesthetic review of how blackness and the arts demand and distend. We circulate them as a new measure of art criticism, one keyed to the channels and frequencies of blackness, pleasure, and critical contemplation. Black visual and expressive culture and all to which it is connected is better for these queries.

With 30+ contributors, b.O.s. will run the course of summertime, when the living is (un)easy. We invite you to follow and share as new work is issued every two weeks. Thanks to all the contributors and special thanks to Abram Foley, editor of ASAP/J.

This second transmission (6.17.18) features Leora Maltz-Leca on Pascale Marthine Tayou’s Sierra Leone Landscape, Priscilla Layne on Marc Brandenburg’s Full Circle, Racquel Gates on Lena Horne’s Side-Eye, and Joshua Chambers-Letson on Senga Nengudi and Maren Hassinger’s Spooks Who Sat by the Door.

– Michael Boyce Gillespie and Lisa Uddin (Editors)

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In April 1949, MGM hosted a luncheon to celebrate the 25th anniversary of the studio. The luncheon, hosted by MGM co-founder Louis B. Mayer, assembled all of MGM’s biggest stars in an act of shameless self-aggrandizement. The actors and actresses enter the dining hall one by one, an announcer calling each of their names as they emerge from an elaborately designed set piece, pausing just long enough for the gathered studio executives and employees (as well as those presumably watching the recorded film) to gawk at them. “Ms. Ava Gardner… Ms. Judy Garland…Mr. Fred Astaire…” The announcer reads off their names in succession, keeping the line moving at an efficient pace, occasionally offering a polite smile or simple pleasantry to the star as they pass, but more often than not, barely glancing up from the sheet of paper that he holds containing the list of their names. When Lena Horne emerges from the backstage area and walks onto the stage proper, the announcer lasciviously looks her up and down and utters a wanton “aww yeah” as she walks past him. It is a fleeting moment, but one that is unmistakable once you are looking for it.1

via GIPHY

From there, the recording cuts to a shot of the dining hall, where the camera tracks down each row of stars engaged in eating, socializing, and being. Ava Gardner and Clark Gable smoke. Judy Garland’s face is turned away from the camera as she chats with someone in the row behind her. Fred Astaire…Betty Garrett…Katherine Hepburn. And then the camera passes Horne. She is not dressed outlandishly like some of her studio mates who seem to have arrived directly from filming period pieces, and she does not mug for the camera. She sits, not talking with anyone, simply eating her lunch.2 Yet, as with the previous scene with the announcer, if you are looking, you see it: Horne sits with her head turned to the right and then her eyes glance almost imperceptibly down and then back up again, her jaw set in such a way that the viewer can almost feel the tightness through the screen. It is a look that speaks volumes to those who know, those who have either been on the receiving end of a withering visual appraisal from a woman of color or who have deployed it themselves when no words, no utterances, could possibly capture the utter contempt that one has for the situation that one finds herself in. Lena Horne is giving side-eye.

via GIPHY

Side-eye is “a physical act that communicates any number of things: suspicion, scorn, annoyance, jealousy, veiled curiosity.”3 Sitting there, what must Horne have been thinking? Perhaps, as a sea of MGM executives gawked at her like a freak show attraction, other incidents of similar humiliation flashed through her mind: the studio coiffeurs who had refused to touch her hair when she first arrived at MGM, the fact that the studio lacked any makeup suitable to her skin tone and thus had to have cosmetics guru Max Factor literally invent a color, “Light Egyptian,” for her.4 What might have been weighing on Horne’s mind as she digested the (likely bland) banquet hall food surrounded by “peers” such as Clark Gable and Gene Kelly, men who could never play her onscreen love interests due to the anti-miscegenation laws of Hollywood’s Production Code? Was she frustrated at the way that MGM congratulated themselves for giving her a contract, yet meanwhile relegated her to standalone appearances designed to be easily edited out of the final films when exhibited for audiences hostile to seeing black faces onscreen?  Perhaps she was annoyed that NAACP president Walter White held her up as the pinnacle of respectable black femininity onscreen and attempted to dictate which roles she took out of his own notions of what her image might do to break stereotypes, disregarding that the single mother of two needed to work to support her family. Maybe Horne was preoccupied with concern for her good friend Paul Robeson and the growing backlash against his political sentiments. Was Horne already anticipating the fraught position that she would find herself in very soon, eventually asked to denounce Robeson in order to appease the studio?5

Laura Mulvey has argued that the camera and its attendant technologies (cinematography, invisible editing, etc.) give the viewer a sense of masculinist domination over the seemingly “natural” cinematic diegesis. Many scholars, such as bell hooks and Manthia Diawara — among others — have nuanced, extended, complicated, and pushed back against Mulvey’s original premise, most notably in considerations of spectators for whom sexuality or race trouble an easy identification with the white, heterosexual, male gaze of the camera.6 Horne’s side-eye suggests yet a different take on the relationship between performer, camera, and spectator. In the MGM 25th anniversary luncheon recording, Lena Horne is at once image and spectator. This requires combining Mulvey’s originary concept of the gaze with W.E.B. DuBois’s understanding of seeing oneself through the eyes of others (double consciousness). Horne possesses her own subjectivity, yet she is also able to see herself as she is seen by a multitude of varied audiences: the white MGM executives present at the luncheon, the lecherous white announcer, the community leaders in the NAACP, the white fans who liked Horne because of her brand of “acceptable” light skinned blackness, and the black fans who saw her as a trailblazer for black representation in Hollywood. Horne’s side-eye is the onscreen icon recognizing how she is being regarded in that moment by all of these sectors. It is a look that tells us that Horne neither falls victim to the control of the cinematic gaze nor breaks the fourth wall, but instead, acknowledges her construction as a cinematic object while simultaneously demonstrating her disdain. Thus, there is something else in Horne’s glance, too: a knowing — a reflexive awareness of her engagement with the luncheon, her fellow actors, MGM, the studio system, Hollywood, the NAACP, and the entire politics of representation itself.

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This is one of four essays from the second transmission of b.O.s. (Black One Shot). Read the other essays here:

b.O.s. 2.1 / Sierra Leone Landscape / Leora Maltz-Leca
b.O.s. 2.2 / Full Circle / Priscilla Layne
b.O.s. 2.4 / Spooks Who Sat By the Door / Joshua Chambers-Letson

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About the editors: 

Michael Boyce Gillespie is Associate Professor of Film at The City College of New York, CUNY. He has published on film theory, black visual and expressive culture, and contemporary art. Recent work includes co-editing (w/ Racquel Gates) the “Dimensions in Black: Perspectives on Black Film and Media” dossier for Film Quarterly 71.2 (Winter 2017). He is the author of Film Blackness: American Cinema and the Idea of Black Film (Duke University Press, 2016). He is currently working on his next book tentatively titled Death Grips: Film Blackness and Cinema in the Wake. He would rather live in Oakland than Wakanda.

Lisa Uddin is Associate Professor of Art History and Visual Culture Studies and Paul Garrett Fellow at Whitman College. She has published widely on race, space, and human/nonhuman entanglements in modern and contemporary visual culture, and is the author of Zoo Renewal: White Flight and the Animal Ghetto (University of Minnesota Press, 2015). Her current book project, Sunspots: Black Cosmologies of California Design, considers black expressive practices in formations of California architecture and urbanism since the 1960s. She is mid-tone beige.

Endnotes

  1. I have watched and rewatched this recording countless times, trying to figure out if perhaps I am mistaken, if I am misinterpreting the announcer’s lascivious glance or mishearing his catcalling. I am not. The announcer had exclaimed “ah, yes!” when Jimmy Durante entered the hall, yet with Horne, the lilt of his voice, the direction of his gaze, make it clear that the underlying tone of his address is, indeed, sexual.
  2. To be fair, in another part of the video, Horne is engaged in a conversation with Katherine Hepburn.
  3. https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/side-eye
  4. According to Horne, this is the same foundation that would later be used to darken Ava Gardner’s skin to play the tragic mulatto Julie in Showboat, a role that Horne had hoped to win herself. The story about the use of Horne’s signature “Light Egyptian” foundation on Gardner is one of Horne’s oft-cited tales about her time at MGM. Lena Horne, “Live on Broadway Lena Horne: The Lady and Her Music,” Rhino/Warner Brothers, November 19 2012, streaming.
  5. That same month, Robeson would appear at the World Peace Conference in Paris, infamously declaring that African Americans should side with the Soviets rather than the United States should a war between the nations erupt. John Meroney, “The Red-Baiting of Lena Horne,” The Atlantic, April 27, 2015. https://www.theatlantic.com/entertainment/archive/2015/08/the-red-baiting-of-lena-horne/398291/
  6. bell hooks discusses an oppositional gaze that she argues characterizes the looking relationship between black women spectators and onscreen images. Manthia Diawara advances the concept of a resisting spectator, or one who resists the dominance of white-oriented representation, a viewing position that both black and white viewers may occupy. These responses are crucial interventions into Mulvey’s seminal work — ones that suggest the various combinations of possible spectator relationships that do not always operate in straightforward ways. At the same time, however, these concepts focus squarely on the relationship between the spectator and the image (and by extension, the camera and the filmmaker, too). Laura Mulvey, “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema,” Screen, Volume 16, Issue 3, 1 October (1975): 6–18. bell hooks, “The Oppositional Gaze: Black Female Spectators,” in Black Looks: Race and Representation (New York: Routledge, 2014): 115-132. Manthia Diawara, “Black Spectatorship: Problems of Identification and Resistance,” Screen, Volume 29, Issue 4, 1 October (1988): 66–79.
Racquel Gates
Racquel Gates is an Assistant Professor at the College of Staten Island, CUNY. Her research focuses on blackness and popular culture, with special attention to discourses of taste and quality. She has written numerous essays on film and media, with some of her work appearing in Film Quarterly, Television & New Media, and The Los Angeles Review of Books. Her book, Double Negative: The Black Image and Popular Culture, will be published by Duke University Press in August 2018.