Interracial Border Crossings in Cinema: Haters Gonna Hate
Cinematic depictions of interracial couples speak to the pop cultural imaginary.
Posted March 31, 2014
Research (Childs, 2009; Ramoutar, 2006) supports my contention that interracial couples are rarely depicted in films and novels, and when they do make an appearance, they are presented as inherently problematic, conflicted, and hyper-sexualized (Killian, 2013). In fact, black-white intimate relationships rarely survive narrative closure in literary and cultural depictions, including black literary works. Where’s the love?
Over the past eight decades, cinematic interracial couples have encountered violence and death threats, and more often than not the relationship does not survive to the end credits (Ramoutar, 2006). For example, the interracial relationship in Borderline ends abruptly in a knife-fight between the lovers. In Touch of Evil, Los Robles is the Sodom of stereotypical border towns, replete with debauchery, drug use, and criminal activity, a menace lurking just across a line in the sand from the U.S. In this setting, the Latino-white couple (Charlton Heston, in dark make-up, plays a Mexican police detective, and Janet Leigh, his wife) experiences violence and danger almost immediately: Four minutes into the film, as soon as the couple’s lips meet, a car explodes nearby. By the time the credits roll, they have barely survived numerous threats and traumas. In Jungle Fever (read fever as a symptom of an infection or contamination), Wesley Snipes’ character Flipper Purify, following a one-night stand and a brief, anemic attempt at a relationship with Annabella Sciorra’s Angie Tucci, dismisses the affair as having stemmed from racial curiosity. Purify’s (whose name signals a process of “racial purification”) dogma against mixed children (“mixed-up mixed nuts”), and insistence that Angie was only “curious about black” represent a position that explicitly pathologizes interracial couples and their children. As some folks I have interviewed in my own research have related, the film does not focus on a relationship between two committed adults, and chooses to highlight the social upheaval, grief and danger associated with this rather spontaneous and transient border crossing. Jungle Fever can be interpreted as a warning, an interracial Reefer Madness for the late twentieth century. The message? Racial border crossings are fraught with risk, and danger. Or, haters gonna hate.
Childs (2009) asserted, “Stories about interracial sex told in communities, in the media, and in popular culture are an integral part of the contemporary racist framework because they rationalize and legitimize white oppression of blacks and other racial minorities. This is achieved through presenting interracial couples as deviant, privileging and promoting whiteness, and strategically using interracial relationships to simultaneously deny race matters while perpetuating racial inequalities” (p. 183).
The danger of cinematic and literary representations of interracial relationships is that they can be pointed to as evidence that racism is a thing of the past (i.e., proof of a “post-racial” society) while they simultaneously provide for consumption images of “deviant”, problematic interracial relations and sexuality that do not challenge entrenched stereotypes about persons of color or border crossings. Thus, a racial logic continues to be perpetuated in the popular cultural imagination. Next blog, I hammer Hancock, the 2008 movie that I love to hate.
Kyle D. Killian, PhD is author of Interracial Couples, Intimacy & Therapy: Crossing Racial Borders from Columbia University Press.
Childs, E. C. (2009). Fade to black and white: Interracial images in popular culture. New York: Rowman & Littlefield.
Ramoutar, N.A. (2006). The color of love on the big screen: The portrayal of women in Hollywood films of interracial relationships from 1967 to 2005. Dissertation Abstracts International, A: The Humanities and Social Sciences, 67(06), 1963.