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Spider-Face

This morning between midnight and 02:00 Eastern, I saw Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man 3. 1 The film weaves together storylines from the Spider-Man comic book and graphic novel sagas (both largely unfamiliar to me).2

One story arc in the Spider-Man saga involves an extra-terrestrial symbiote that insinuates itself into one of Peter Parker’s Spider-Man suits. The symbiote magnifies the darker aspects of Parker’s personality and in the film this magnification takes the form of 80s-era Gothic dress and an urban kinaesthetic style which at times is fully within the realm of blackface. Parker’s skin becomes noticeably paler, his hair darker and hung over his eyes. Parker also seems to wear hair-thin strokes of eyeliner on his lower lids. His clothes and appearance are playful references to Robert Smith’s look in the early 80s. However, Parker’s mannerisms and bodily comportment are pure blackface.

He dances with his hips in a manner more characteristic of jazz and swing dance than the upright postures more closely associated with European kinaesthetic forms.3 He swaggers down the street, shooting at the women he passes with a thumb-and-forefinger gun. Parker struts, preens, ogles, and spins, pimpin’ for the pretty mamas of midtown. He thrusts his pelvis in the air, hand up to his head. A black extraterrestrial has darkened Parker’s looks, dress, and style chromatically and racially, and the spectacle is funny (or nauseating) in the way blackface can sometimes be in mainstream media (think, for example, of Dr. Evil’s and Mini-Me’s jailhouse dance routine in Austin Powers: The Spy Who Shagged Me.) But this is the “happy” side of blackface.

In an article currently under review (if those editors will ever get back to me!), I refer to Lisa Nakumara’s analysis of the racialization of computer interfaces in The Matrix Reloaded. Nakamura applies Sander Gilman’s methodology for analyzing race in European painting to study how race is used in the cinematic representation of computer interfaces. Nakamura comments on the docking of the Nebuchadnezzar, where viewers see “a transparent screen, from which [they] peer at the absorbed and enrapt white user, while a marginal black figure who looks in a different direction lingers on its margin” (135). Nakamura reads the representation of virtual interfaces in frames that foreground white actors and relegate non-whites to the edges as “visual anchors of darkness that symbolically [fix] white interface users in real reality versus virtual reality” (134). An entirely different racial logic informs a cinematic technique used in Spider-Man 3 which I will call subliminal blackface horror.

For a film derived from a comic franchise, Spider-Man 3 takes pains to develop the emotional range of the narrative, sometimes with anomalous results.4 In one scene, Harry Osborn emotionally manipulates Parker and Parker abruptly leaves the coffee shop. Parker crosses the street and looks back to Osborn inside. Osborn turns and (in slow motion) gives Parker a leering grin and a disingenuous wink. A truck sweeps from frame right, obscuring Osborn. Once the truck has passed, Osborn is gone and replaced in the screen’s center by a dreadlocked black man in a business suit.5

The audience in this moment is emotionally identified with Parker who has just witnessed his best friend express sadistic pleasure in betraying him. The cinematic frame then erases the perpetrator of the black-hearted act and replaces it with a figure who is literally and racially black. My argument is that the frame swap not only draws upon viewers’ negative associations of blacks to emphasize the anxiety produced by their identification with Parker, but also that the swap forges an unconscious association between (in this scene) betrayal, heartbreak and blackness. In other words, this scene cinematically engenders unconscious racism in its audience.

It will be a few months before I can acquire a copy of this film, which I recall having perhaps half a dozen such scenes where negative emotional outcomes between white characters are immediately followed by frames that have black people at their centers. This is not to say that the representation of blacks (the most prevelant non-whites in the film) in Spider-Man 3 is limited to moments of subliminal blackface horror. There are many scenes in which blacks seem to be portrayed neutrally and even positively. However, my intuition and memory lead me to believe that a significant number of scenes which depict emotional trauma in the film make use of this technique, and I can’t stop wondering what frame-by-frame analyses of the representation of non-whites in the film will reveal. end of article

Notes
1 Around 22:00 on Friday, 3 May, IMDB users had rated Spider-Man 3 8.2/10. As of this writing, it has fallen to 7.9/10. I gave it a 5/10.
2 The information in this entry may be flawed as I am writing this only as a placeholder for possible future research regarding the film and other media representations of Spider-Man.
3 In Swinging the Machine: Modernity, Technology, and African American Culture between the World Wars, Joel Dinerstein discusses the African American and West African origins of swing and jazz dance and the characteristics which distinguish them from Anglo-European forms of dance such as the waltz.
4 When the Osborn family servant tells Harry the truth about his father’s death, members of the audience I was among laughed derisively.
5 If I remember correctly.
Filmography
Austin Powers: The Spy Who Shagged Me. Dir. Jay Roach. 1999.
The Matrix Reloaded. 2003. Dir. Andy Wachowski and Larry Wachowski.
Spider-Man 3. 2007. Dir. Sam Raimi.
Works Cited
Dinerstein, Joel. Swinging the Machine: Modernity, Technology, and African American Culture between the World Wars. Amherst, MA: U of Massachusetts P, 2003.
Nakamura, Lisa. The Multiplication of Difference in Post-Millennial Cyberpunk Film: The Visual Culture of Race in the Matrix Trilogy." The Matrix Trilogy: Cyberpunk Reloaded. Ed. Stacy Gillis. London, England: Wallflower, 2005: 126-37

Comments

#1

A fascinating post, Squid. J told me on Friday that this was your take on Spiderman 3. So when I watched it yesterday, I went in with eyes attuned to your reading. While I like your post immensely, I guess I'm not completely convinced. I saw the Goth Peter Parker as more of a hopeless wannabe Robert Smith from the Cure, but I do see that in a couple of scenes he "struts" and is "pimpin'" (or trying to do these things--the comic tone suggests he is failing), and the jazz club scene is certainly aware of jazz culture. Yet, the point of the sequence suggests that Parker falls short of pulling off this performance (he's too much white boy/nerd to pull off urban hipster). I see that one could read this as Peter Parker being "too white" (i.e. "too good" perhaps) to "be black." As an aside, I'd also think that Tobey Maguire's lack of dancing skills is probably part of my take on this as well; another actor might have performed this differently. If you expand this reading, I do wonder how you will read the difference between the experiences of Parker/Black Spiderman and Eddie Brock/Venom in terms of black face performance. Brock/Venom loses himself/destroys himself in his performance (could you argue that he "becomes black"?), while Parker ends up rejecting the performance. While I understand the connection between the black uniform and Parker's bad side is clearly problematic, I do wonder how you think about him rejecting the black suit (the performance of blackface) as a problematic enterprise that he in the end wants no part of. That is, do you see this as rejecting the project of blackface or essentially him deciding that he will not "be black" (that is, "bad") anymore?

Anyway, thanks for this post and your reading of the film. There's lots for me to ponder here. I'll look forward to talking about this more in Ellis this week. I actually wouldn't have seen any of this in the film if you hadn't mentioned it--PJ

#2

Squid--more thoughts on this (I'm obviously avoiding tackling the stack of papers on my desk waiting to be graded): I do wonder if it's ever possible to separate Western culture's use of blackness (the whole "bad guys wear black" thing) from its racial implications in America. As I think more about this, the film certainly raises the notion that crime/villainy (insert whatever negative term here) is done by "black people." This is most clear in the cover picture on the Daily Bugle of Spiderman as Criminal (it is a picture of black Spiderman--though it has been altered/mocked-up, like the infamous picture of O.J. Simpson on Time or Newsweek, by the media to convince readers that Spiderman is bad). I do think this is a commentary on (and perhaps a critique of) our culture's tendency to racialized crime. However, I guess your reading suggests while the film might critique this tendency it also is guilty of it. That is, Harry Osborn wears a black outfit as the Goblin, and Brock becomes black as Venom. Yet, both of these figures are pretty bad before they "become black." How might your reading address this?

OK, by now, you should see that I find all of this very intriguing. I'm also reminded that some day we need to talk about Star Wars. I'd love to hear what you think about this little white kid who grows up to be a big black man (with James Earl Jones's voice).

#3

Your remarks, PJ, have set my mind racing, especially your analysis of Parker’s rejection of the black because he’s too good (another layer is the addiction theme which Parker is able to leave behind whereas Brock/Venom loves being bad). I also hadn’t considered Brock‚Äôs doctoring of Spider-Man’s photo in light of the blacking of Simpson’s pictures by Newsweek. You’re exactly right on this.

Your idea that Star Wars is in some ways the tale of a small white kid who grows up to become the black overlord of an intergalactic empire is delightful.