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ared Sexton's new book Black Masculinity and the Cinema of Policing moves beyond a traditional critique of respectability politics to interrogate how Hollywood films make invisible global structures of anti-blackness through narratives of black incorporation and authority. Policing in this book refers not only to institutions of law enforcement but also to social and cultural practices which seek to adjust and reform expressions of black masculinity. These institutions generate black subjects who appear to transcend beyond the structural barriers of anti-black racism in order to occupy positions of authority, while at the same continuing to legitimize and uphold the very same structures that administer this social order. Sexton illustrates the ways in which the afterlife of slavery plays out through media representations of black men in a period saturated with narratives of racial progress. Cinema is the key medium in Sexton's argument that "popular representations of black masculine authority have become increasingly important to the cultural legitimization of executive power within the national security state and its leading role in the maintenance of an antiblack social order forged in the epoch of modern racial slavery" (vii).
Black Masculinity and the Cinema of Policing begins in the early years of Obama's political ascent from the Illinois General Assembly in 1996 and continues to what is now referred to as the post Obama years. Sexton's focus in the book, however, is neither Obama himself nor his presidency, but rather the way in which the period of his political career corresponds to changing discourses of neoliberal multiculturalism and neoconservative colorblindness. Providing close readings of several Hollywood films produced between 2001 and 2009, the book demonstrates the disciplining and punishment of black masculinity in mass media representations in order to complicate the idea of "an institutionalized black complicity with the structures of white supremacy, especially in the aftermath of 9/11" (xxiii). Sexton's most evocative, and perhaps controversial, argument in the book is that black men's occupation of authority is always underscored by a structural antagonism between blackness and the acquisition of structural or institutional power, an antagonism that complicates the idea of an institutionalized black complicity with systems of oppression and dispossession such as law enforcement.
Unlike much of Sexton's recent work this book does not contain a sustained engagement with the field of Afro-Pessimism, yet similar concerns regarding the ways in which the afterlife of slavery continues to inform black subjectivity remain central and continues to animate Black Masculinity and the Cinema of Policing. Moving through the political economy of Hollywood and the entertainment industry, changes in black popular culture such as the development of the black star and the black athlete, and late 20th century histories of urban social policy and reform, Sexton's analysis weaves together a cultural history of black masculinity in the last two decades. The book focuses primarily on three institutions which have significant relationships to the management of black masculinity: law enforcement, sports, and family. These three institutions are depicted in mainstream popular culture as the primary spaces of black male inclusion and exceptionalism. The black cop, athlete, and (adopted) child are figures of black masculinity which populate the cultural field as the protagonists of narratives of meritocratic exceptionalism—narratives, that is, through which black men are able enter civil society by way of specific expressions of masculinity. Sexton engages these institutions as spaces where individual narratives of black exceptionalism come face to face with the structural antagonism of antiblackness.
In the book's first chapter, “Chaos and Opportunity,” Sexton provides a reading of Antoine Fuqua’s 2001 film Training Day. Situating the history of the black cop film genre within the rise of the black culture industry, the chapter interrogates the "peculiar place therein of black masculinity inscribed in and as state-sanctioned authority" (3). Traversing a history of the genre, which culminates at the 74th Annual Academy Awards (unofficially dubbed "the black Oscars"), Sexton points out that nearly every "noteworthy black male actor of the post-civil rights era has made this professional rite of passage as Officer, Detective, Sergeant, Lieutenant, or Chief" (7). Reading the film In the Heat of the Night (1967) staring Sidney Poitier, Sexton notes how the black male agent of the state remains both unauthorized and unarmed. His relationship to his white partner is not one of collaboration, but rather of custody, an interracial relation of custody that is "not so much protective as it is punitive, less paternalistic, than punishing" (9). Here Sexton makes clear again that despite occupying the position of a police officer, Poitier's character cannot fully ascend to the authorial position of the cop. His custodial and punitive relationship with his partner, a white man who is afforded the protection and power of the position, demonstrates that despite occupying the position of the cop and inhabiting the institution of policing, Poitier's character still exists within a carceral relationship to the structures of civil society. Even in uniform Poitier's character remains figured as criminal because of his blackness.
It is the existence of this carceral relationship which leads Sexton to read Fuqua's film and his early works as symptomatic of two historical trends: firstly, of changes in both the material and ideological bases of Hollywood (including "the emergence of virtual monopolies in the corporate mode of film production, the selective incorporation of black filmmaking talents since the turn of the twenty-first century, and the rise of black celebrity personas across the whole mass media environment"), and secondly of increasing "popular dissatisfaction with homegrown “structural adjustment programs” dictated by corporate globalization" (13). For Sexton the racialized political economy of filmmaking does not allow for a black director behind the camera to make a substantive difference to the conventions of Hollywood filmmaking. It is through this rubric that he reads Fuqua's Training Day and his overall cinematic imagination as presenting black sociality as that which "only follows from the most repressive state interventions and seems to require gratuitous loss of life in the process" (16).
Sexton's most compelling insight in this chapter is his reading of Denzel Washington's final monologue as the antagonist Alonzo, a decorated but corrupt narcotics officer for the LAPD. In a final showdown scene against partner and white protagonist Jake Hoyt, Alonzo finds himself alone and without options as his former partners have turned on him. Turning to the neighborhood men around him in a state of melancholic rage, Alonzo says, "I'm the police. I run shit around here. You just live here. Yeah, that's right, you better walk away. Go on and walk away... cause I'm gonna burn this motherfucker down. King Kong aint got shit on me." Sexton notes the singularity of a director getting one of the most celebrated black actors of the twentieth century to compare himself on screen to the figure of the ape— the archetypical figure used to conflate blackness with the non-human—in an otherwise liberal Hollywood film. Even in the moment where Alonzo uses his status as a police officer to exert power over the men of the neighborhood, the black men who without the protection of the badge have no claim to the space they inhabit, this power is intimately tied to the non-human figure of King Kong. Sexton goes on to ask whether "in constructing big screen stories about 'mans inhumanity to man', there is not something about the singular terror of that 'execrable trade' in human cargo that repeatedly intrudes open Fuqua's work, a filmmaker blithely apolitical in his stated understanding of historical suffering" (30).
Here Sexton's reading of the film offers not merely a sense of indignation at the liberal politics which underscore the genre of the black cop film, but a comment on how even these mainstream, almost apolitical, Hollywood films are unable to avoid the intrusive specter of racial slavery. Even as a decorated officer for the LAPD, a position attached to fantasies of a post-racial distribution of labor and status, Alonzo is unable to escape the horrors of the slave trade through his evocation of the inhumanity of blackness. In turning towards the political economy of filmmaking and the entertainment industry, Sexton suggests that the role of black Hollywood filmmakers and actors mirror those of the characters in these films, whose occupation of positions of authority and power is always in tension with the structures of anti-black racism that bar them from entrance into civil society. Like Alonzo, Fuqua is unable to escape the protocols and figurations set out for black men in Hollywood despite occupying a position behind the camera. The specter of racial slavery which emerges through the fabrics of the afterlife of slavery is the force which restricts black subjects, regardless of their position or status, from occupation of structural or institutional power. This specter returns even when these subjects attempt to disavow or downplay this history, as is the case with Fuqua's Training Day.
The next three chapters of the book are organized around professional sports narratives and the political and social worlds they are supposed to elevate their protagonists from. The first of the three chapters, “History and Power,” traces the history of the punchline "Blacks can't swim" to maritime slavery, using sociological and historical accounts of segregated public swimming facilities to ask the question, "Is there a common logic underlying the claim that blacks are at risk in the water and the claim that whites are at risk in the water with blacks?" (41). Sexton uses the history of municipal segregation of public swimming facilities as an introduction to the 2007 film Pride by Sunu Gonera. Using the story of former competitive swimmer turned coach Jim Ellis, the chapter demonstrates how the film follows the logic that "earning respect from state-sanctioned white power is not related to the restricted economy of exchange” (55). “One does not simply give respect and receive it in return,” writes Sexton, “That is, one is not respected for being respectful. One is respected for being strong, even if one, is like ghettoized black youth and their mentors circa 1974, in a position of relative powerlessness" (55). Sexton reads this logic as redirecting Ellis's project from one of empowerment or community organizing to strength, training, and character building. For Ellis, recognition and respect from white state-sanctioned power exists in an economy of exchange wherein black men receive recognition through a process of adjudication and moral training; structural issues of power are eschewed in favor of a neoliberal cultivation of acceptable masculinity. Rather than working to remove the structural barriers which disenfranchise black men, the film casts the experience of sport and athletics as an educational force that allows black men to cultivate the type of selfhood which would allow them to transcend these structural barriers.
The next chapters, “Fantasy and Desire” and “Origins and Beginnings,” focus specifically on football and coaching culture. In the third chapter, Sexton compares two high school football films, the predominantly white Friday Night Lights (2004) and the predominantly black Coach Carter (2005), to argue that the success of the former is dependent on the failure of the latter, and that race serves as “the fulcrum of this distribution, the organizing principle of its economy” (68). The chapter argues that in these films high school sports act as spaces for adjudicating the education of young black men and as allegories for the prospects of economic development and racial equality in the U.S. Both hinging on narratives of individual salvation through the tough love and values of patriarchs, they depoliticize and displace questions of political struggle and organization in favor of neoliberal entrepreneurism cultivated through normative masculinity. As Sexton states, “they (black men) may achieve proximity to political, economic, and social power but they will only ever gain access as interlopers” (72).
The fourth chapter examines the film The Blind Side (2009) and suggests that the NFL and the larger Athletic Industrial Complex must be "essentially understood as aspects of the larger mission of public education in particular and of public services in general i.e. the welfare state" (93). Focusing on the protagonist Michael's relation to his adopted family and specifically to his adopted mother, Leigh Anne, Sexton explicates the disparate, often illegible forms of kinship at play in the film. Placed under the foster care system and estranged from his parents, Michael is seen as without kin. As Sexton notes, however, "Michael's inheritance is not lost; it is taken away, stolen" (98). Highlighting the role of state intervention in black kinship structures by way of the foster care system and the fetishization of this experience in football narratives, this chapter shows Michael's situation as marked by an "other, illegible kinship, a racialized kinship forced and forged in the crucible of modern slavery, that absorbs the attention of sports commentators and fans throughout the world of professional football and its tributaries" (98). The fascination surrounding Michael's origin, and the general interest in sports regarding the origin narratives of black athletes, is related to a conceptualization of the athleticism as a site "for the discovery and adjudication of human capacity, of limit and possibility, but also of social recognition and the reiteration of official morality" (98). Natal alienation, from the transatlantic slave trade to contemporary institutions such as foster care and CPS, increasingly come to define the way blackness is understood and lived in the US. Sexton's analysis shows how this natal alienation is fetishized in the world of sports in order to use black athletes as blank states on which white authority and morality can recognize and legitimize itself.
The fifth chapter of the book moves away from Hollywood cinema to focus on two television sitcoms from the 1980s, Diff'rent Strokes and Webster. While the previous chapters have looked at the preoccupation with black men's origins in order to educate or punish them through moral education or hard work, this chapter focuses on an earlier stage in the development of black men: childhood, whose representation in popular culture Sexton reads as a commentary on the racial politics of kinship. Teasing out the politics of the child welfare system in the face of a widening racial wealth gap and against cinema's tendency to depoliticize through the individualization and privatization of social problems, Sexton shows how in these programs alternative white family formations become sites for "the re-institutionalization of black natal alienation, a gentrified revision of the bourgeois family that insulates interracial intimacy from the potential turbulence of its historic association with miscegenation" (150).
Sexton notes that shows such as Diff'rent Strokes and Webster were part of a post-civil rights ranting mania in which "programming selected in order to capture maximum market share was monitored on a daily basis and risks were minimized ruthlessly" (136). Sexton suggests that what made these shows a safe bet for networks such as NBC was that they followed an integrationist theme established by shows such as The Jeffersons in 1975. And yet there was a major difference between The Jeffersons and shows such as Diff'rent Strokes and Webster, both of which featured "lone black characters isolated in white settings with scant connection to any larger black community, history, culture, or politics" (137). Citing communications scholar Catherine Squires, who notes that in 70s and 80s sitcoms black children were increasingly depicted as incorporating into white adopted families, Sexton connects Squires' claim that the characters’ "Black origins had little to offer them" (137) to the National Association of Black Social Workers' public criticism of interracial adoption. For Sexton, this controversial claim highlights the importance of black cultural incorporation and kinship and serves as a response to the popular idea that black children under state care have nothing to gain from their black origins.
The final and arguably the strongest chapter of the book, “Shadow and Myth,” turns towards instances of black filmmaking which try to keep open the crisis of category that opens up at the appearance of blackness in an anti-black world. Working through Cheryl Dune's films, Sexton demonstrates how her work illustrates the conditions that both create and subjugate black women and asks what it means to think difference as an intimate matter. Using Kara Keeling's formulation of looking after as a perceptual mode of "care taking what is no longer in view"(170), Sexton turns towards an analysis of Barry Jenkins’ Moonlight (2016), arguing that the protagonist Chiron can be read as a “figure of wonder rather than of identification or desire” (180). In reading Chiron as “more likely struck by the strangeness of his, and all, social life, from the otherness of the body and the internal foreignness of desire to the inevitable failure to adequately grasp the entire system of operations” (180), Sexton seems to open up a space for a different experience of black life outside of the normative protocols of the various masculinities and institutions discussed in the book. Throughout the book Sexton has used a language of proximity to describe black men's inclusion into the structures of civil society:
“they (black men) may achieve proximity to political, economic, and social power but they will only ever gain access as interlopers” (72, emphases added).
Until this point, terms such as proximity and interlopers have been used to signify a limit or a barrier towards power; however, towards the end of the book Sexton appropriates this in-between space and argues that ultimately this proximity can be harnessed to point towards expressions of black masculinity that, despite not being able to escape the structures of an anti-black social order, are able to elide the protocols of normative masculinity, however briefly.Asked about Moonlight’s somber ending, Jenkins replies with a confession:
“I love happy endings, and even obviously happy endings. But I can’t force one upon my characters” (quoted, 189). It should come as no surprise that Sexton cites this quote favorably, since this book too leaves readers without the satisfaction of a happy ending, refusing to read films such as Moonlight and The Watermelon Woman as explicit refusals of the constraints put on black filmmaking. Instead, Sexton's book asks how we might generate a cinema that doesn't fall into the traps laid out for black subjects, traps laid out in terms of knowing and knowledge of subjectivity. In cinematic terms this occurs through the tropes and stereotypes which have come to define blackness within restrictive frames and figurations. While Sexton shows that there is no outside to these tropes for black representation, he seems interested in dealing with these figurations without fully ascending into them, in staying “within the anxiety of antagonism (and the narrative crisis it precipitates) to be guided by it, and, again, even to will it?” This book can be seen as an attempt to stay with the anxiety of cinematic antagonism to see what such an engagement affords.Ultimately Black Masculinity and the Cinema of Policing provides a stronger cultural and political history of black popular culture in the 20th century than a theoretical argument. Sexton's use of political economy to situate his objects within larger flows and circuits of capital and his historicization of 20th century cultural and political policy regarding black Americans is expansive and illuminating. This research assists his excellent readings of the films and television shows used in the book. However, the decision to not engage as explicitly with Afro-pessimism presents not only a slight disconnect from his previous work, but can also make the process of understanding the nuances of this book more difficult for readers who are not familiar with his work. Without these nuances, the book can, at times, appear to deal with surface level representations of character and dialogue. While he provides strong readings of different texts, Sexton does not in the end provide any new theoretical claims, arguments, or terms for the reader to take away. Thus while the book successfully accomplishes what it sets out to do, it doesn't provide something new, something beyond the scope of Sexton's excellent and thought-provoking oeuvre.