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An Analysis of Daughters of the Dust and The Color Purple using Black Feminist Theory

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Introduction

Belinda Clarke Student No: 9505215 An Analysis of Daughters of the Dust and The Color Purple using Black Feminist Theory Over the last three decades traditional feminism has been attacked by black feminist theorists who say they have been racially oppressed in the Woman's Movement and sexually oppressed by men in the Black Liberation Movement. Black feminists have accused the latter of representing only black men and have accused white feminist women of concentrating on oppression in terms of gender whilst ignoring other forms of oppression like race, class and sexuality. In an effort to resist this marginalisation, new black feminist and womanist theories have been produced to represent the needs of and account for the differing historical experiences of black women. Film makers have also begun to address the misrepresentations and exclusions of black women in white aesthetics. During this essay I will use black feminist theory to analyse the films Daughters of the Dust and The Color Purple. Firstly, a brief explanation of the black feminist theory that is relevant to this essay will be given, using the work of a number of theorists. This will be a very condensed outline and will in no way encompass the full richness of black feminist thought. Then an analysis of the above two films will ensue in order to investigate if and in what ways these films present a challenge to traditional feminism and whether they support an oppositional stance to that taken by most mainstream films with regard to the representation of black women. Finally, a summary of the arguments will be given. Upon forming a movement of their own, black women needed to define the objectives of the Black Feminist Movement. Several authors have put forth definitions, among the most notable are Angela Davis, The Combahee River Collective and Alice Walker, whose works will be discussed below. Angela Davis's experiences of black sexism within the Black Liberation Movement of the 1960s and 1970s, along with white racism in the Women's Movement and society at large, has prompted her body of black feminist work. ...read more.

Middle

As Angela Davis says ".....there are multiple African-American feminist traditions....feminist traditions are not only written, they are oral, and these oralities reveal not only rewrought African cultural traces, but also the genius with which former slaves forged new traditions that simultaneously contested the slave past and preserved some of the rich cultural products of slavery (Davis, 1998, p. 7). This film is unique in that it requires a different viewing experience of its audience if it is to be fully understood. It requires the viewer to be actively engaged with the text, instead of passively consuming it; the spectators must do there own research in order to understand the historical and cultural context in which the events take place. This is unusual as, although many films may presuppose an audience having a knowledge of historical events or figures, these events occurred outside of the hegemonic historical record, and will therefore be new territory for most audiences, so fostering a greater understanding of black feminist history. Daughters of the Dust also addresses notions of whiteness being the normal visible racial signifier in mainstream cinema by completely removing it from the film. Black-African is the norm in this film, thus making whiteness the racial "other" and hence forcing the audience to identify with racial signifiers in a totally different way to most mainstream media. Gone are the traditional black roles of classical Hollywood-there are no mammies, jezebels or matriarchs, even the newer, more sophisticated, stereotypes of the eighties and nineties are erased. Firstly, the binary relationship between white and black that fosters many of these stereotypes does not exist, but more importantly Dash portrays her characters as rounded and whole, choosing to produce an historically accurate portrayal rather than to rely on stereotypes. Dash's narrative also highlights one of the main anachronisms of the western feminist discourse (which has claimed to speak for all women), that domestic and reproductive roles are seen as oppressive or unimportant. ...read more.

Conclusion

Spielberg also clearly depicts the black women's indomitable strength, whether it is Celie's strength to overcome her oppressors, Shrug's power to live by her own rules, Sofia's force in resisting and surviving her oppression or Hettie's will in reuniting her family. Again to quote Alice Walker, a womanist "appreciates...women's strength" (Humm, 1992, p. 141) thus Spielberg's depiction is in many ways faithful to the author whose story he has adapted. It can therefore be seen that this film is more problematic as a feminist text than that of Daughters of the Dust. Its impact is compromised by the stereotypical character representations, the dilution of focus from the women's point of view and a lack of any distinct Black aesthetic. However, because of its entry into the mainstream and its 'womanist' elements, especially that of giving voice to black women, it is still a valuable black feminist text. In conclusion, we have seen that black feminist theory seeks to establish a sense of a unique black female aesthetic. Of the two films analysed here, while both are powerful and affecting pieces of work, one approaches this aim with more success. Spielberg's The Color Purple manages to highlight the issues and narrative of a black woman's struggle and espouses well Alice Walker's visions of female love, survival and strength. However, as might be expected coming from a creative team who are enmeshed so thoroughly in the patriarchal systems of mainstream cinema, it fails to either transfer the specifics of Celie's individual struggle into a wider context of black feminism or reflect the tonal aesthetic advocated by writers such as Angela Davis or Alice Walker. This is not to understate, however, the adventurousness of such a commercial director tackling what for him, and mainstream cinema at the time, was contentious material. Dash's Daughters of the Dust, on the other hand, offers a groundbreaking exposition of a black feminist agenda, creatively using structure, cinematography and characterisation to create a unique Afro-American aesthetic. While it may not have had the commercial success of The Color Purple, as an artistic statement and a feminist tool it is highly effective. ...read more.

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