Review: Mtume Gant's Intelligent, Stark, Haunting 'White Face'

May 26th 2017

Alter Eye Cinemaworks Alter Eye Cinemaworks

There is a scene in Ezra’s Edelman’s mesmerizing "OJ: Made In America" where OJ Simpson is quoted as saying to one of his white privileged cohorts, “I’m not Black. I’m OJ!” Such bizarre anecdotes are told throughout the film and this is part of what gives Ezra’s magnum opus documentary such a profundity for it’s gently insistent on the fact that OJ Simpson was/is a man who willingly accepted the delusions and perversions of white acceptance and who was, until the very moment when Al Cowlings took his foot off the gas of OJ’s Bronco: the double edge of colonial Black identity – both the hated “Other” and the persecuted “I”. Edelman’s portrait of OJ is harrowing. A blistering document of the contorted psychology of Black male celebrities who think they can eschew their wretched “blackness” in favor of a white guise that forever protects them. Michael Jackson, Bill Cosby – they’re classic examples of the “far gone” Black male who has made millions and so begins to think (actually convince himself!) that he is above white people’s racism and quite possibly even be one of “them.” They are prime examples of the American Nightmare.

Frantz Fanon, in "Black Skin White Masks" unearths the disturbing trappings and pathology of colonized Blacks and how we have subjugated our authentic Black selves in favor of our oppressor’s personal dominion and psychological make-up. In a paper for the Psychoanalytic Studies (Vol. 2, Issue 4, 2000) Simon Clarke explores how Fanon posed how interesting it is to track the development of a White person in relation to development of a Black person – via Jacques Lacan’s notion of the ‘Mirror’ stage. While reflections and doubles and shadows loom large in psychoanalysis, philosophy, theater manifestos and cinematic excursions – make no mistake about it: in a Fanonian film reading, works such as Mtume Gant’s new movie "White Face" shed light on the pathology that continues to manifest all over our culture in so many new ways. For as only a formerly colonized person can attest: it is not the mirror itself, but whose mirror you are looking into and for what reason?

The most disturbing aspect of "White Face" is not what Gant shows us about his character’s own Black-self-hatred, it is in the realization after the film that this type of madness does exist and in more sinister ways than a warped Black man painting his face white and wishing he were that white face staring back in the mirror. If the literal white face is the physical representative of our psychological schism, if it is merely an expressionistic nod to our raped mental hygiene – then we are certainly still riding high and wide in the post-colonial/civil rights delusion that we are who we are because that is truly what we want to be. Arguably the best African-American movie of the year, "White Face" may also be the most important American independent short film of 2017.

The second installment of his artist trilogy, "White Face" is a follow up to Gant’s hip-hop sonata "Spit," a heartfelt chronicle of Gant’s own struggle as an artist (in this case a hip-hop artist) against the stranglehold of capitalism.

This follow-up reunites Gant with producer Conchita Campos and cinematographer Frankie Turiano who endows this short with a sublime color palette and interesting tone – as if the colors from a confectionery had been utilized and then quickly tortured – for they “pop,” but there is a dazzling muted touch to the overall look of "White Face." Turiano made sure he didn’t – no pun intended – “lighten up” for the sake of the comedy of the piece. The film also features excellent design work by make-up artist Aria Ferraro.

"White Face" is an intelligent, stark, haunting flick that blends sketch comedy, domestic drama, psychological thriller, and vaudeville in one. Taken at face value it will disturb. For the converted, it presents food for thought in new ways and will continue prompting conscious audiences of all stripes to ask, “What the hell is going on in our world and where did we drop the ball?”

In a world obsessed with identity politics, "White Face" can fit easily into a discussion of an alarming concept of what I call “trans-colonialism.” Deciding when and how to be beneficially “Black” or “colonized” or what have you. If you are born a certain race because your parentage endows you with that racial definition and yet you fight it and try to become an “other” racial category based on how you “feel,” (specifically a race that historically oppressed you!) and yet you still claim to be part of your original tribe or act as a patronizing representative of that tribe – the conscious people of the world would easily consider you a long gone “colonized mind.” And you can see these unfortunate souls all over our highest tiers of income and media. They exist and live in all forms – some are mere Capitalist charlatans or tragic embarrassments. Beyonce instantly comes to mind.

"White Face" introduces us to New York actor Charles Rodgers, who despises his black skin and all the hardships that come with it. Feeling imprisoned by his race Charles convinces himself he’s found the solution to his problems: become a white man.

Not just any White Man. Charles emulates Donald Trump!

The character and conceit of the film is a conscious or unconscious spiritual reference to the great Black counter-culture underground classic novel "The Wig" by Charles Wright. Wright lampoons the notion that in order to “succeed” in a white world we must become white men – and so Lester Jefferson decides to treat his hair so that he can enjoy beautiful blonde locks instead of black kinky hair and can use his blonde locks to enter the society of which he was intended for! It is a phenomenal book, full of high absurdity and perhaps given a run for its money by the high-octane seismic performance Godfrey Cambridge offers in Melvin Van Peebles’ manic "Watermelon Man" (1970), a grossly misunderstood, patronized, and erroneously labeled “blaxploitation” movie.

In "White Face," Gant revolutionizes the convention of employing whiteface by one conscious choice: he shows the application of whiteface. He reveals Charles’ whitening. This Brechtian trope could be a fascinating technique down the line if it is developed even out of context. Because while “blackening up” only exists in a specific context and relationship, “whitening up” could be related to anything because we all see the world as owned by and interpreted through the white establishment’s eyes. The white world’s obsession with blackface and dressing themselves up as “Black” people and turning themselves on with BLACK along their face, etc. – is a symptom of their disease and their privilege.

And yet, only we as Black people could wonder what it would be like to be White-so I could know what it would be like to want to be Black. Conscious Black people are mortified by Blacks who desire to sell-out or are ashamed of their ancestry and puzzled and intrigued by Caucasians who exceed Norman Mailer’s “white negro” problem and actually pose as Black people and appropriate every hard-earned, fought over, bled-over cultural and political contribution in the USA. White people like this are extremely dangerous. Rachel Dolezal, the disgraced leader of the NAACP and teacher, is a prime case study of this frightening complex – a White woman who pretended to be a Black woman!

But we are all in collusion. The conspiracy extends to our other brothers of color as well and Debord’s spectacle looms large:

Thanks to the frightening racial cross-dressing defining our zeitgeist from the sibling of TV star Mindy Kaling (“The Mindy Project”), an Asian-East Indian who shortened his “eyelashes and shaved his hair off” so he could be accepted into Medical school as a Black man to Lin Manuel’s deranged "Hamilton" mania our 21st century a la carte approach to life is hip and here to stay: everyone is free to do what they want, however they want, whenever they want to, from, and with the African-American identity. Period. It’s a continual spiritual-political problem that goes on and on and it doesn’t matter who is President or in charge of the bathroom key.

By seeking to adopt Trump’s brand of whiteness – Gant reveals something else about Charles. Charles doesn’t just want to be “white,” he wants to be white in a very specific context. Charles patterns himself after a Trump type of clown; as if Alfred Jarry’s gorgons had somehow decided they wanted to dignify themselves. This is where it gets interesting. Gant’s portrayal as Charles portraying Trump is more dignified and sophisticated than the real Donald Trump could ever be! Which begs the question – what is Charles’ real intention? Charles admonishes Blacks for being slovenly and obnoxiously takes to the streets like some kind of deranged lone wolf cleaning up society, a racist-George Zimmerman-vigilante-type that, instead of shooting Black people, tries to act like an erudite Dirty Harry and instill a “Love For the State” with his keen white fascism. Charles’ spiritual hell is our own hell because we are bearing witness to this obscene game and yet can do nothing about it. But the technique of actually witnessing Charles indulge his colonized mind and “put on his face” – is actually what gives the film its radical nature. Had we just seen the scenes alone and never Charles’ private moments the movie would not only be acceptable to whites, it would be less threatening. And one thing artists don’t need to be to the establishment is less threatening.

The acting school scenes are ripped out of the accepted curriculum of any American conservatory Drama program that posits that Black, Latino, and Asian actors are all ‘American’ national actors and therefore devoid of their own color, ethnicity, or cultural psychological baggage – all perfected in a neo-Liberal campaign by the mid 1990’s when “color blind casting” was all the rage. It effectively ended and helped to de-politicize actors of colors’ existence and condition under white American capitalism. If it sounds ominous it is and it is worse than the film implies.

The centerpiece of the film is the scene with Kara, Charles’s sister, superbly played by Kara Young. She takes him seriously. And so we do for a few brief moments. Remarkably for a moment the surrealist edges of the film melt into a sober ‘slice of life’ scene between a brother and sister’s remembrances and conflicting views of their blackness. The memory of their brutally self-hating mother is painful: she warned them to never trust Black people and that of course Black people are their own worst enemy. We discover that Charles’ career as an actor is forever thwarted because since Charles is neither “black” nor “white” all he can do now is affirmatively accept what the world has forced him to become: a freak. It’s creepy because it makes sense.

"White Face" will irritate the people who take refuge in a Liberal’s wet dream such as "Get Out." Gant does in 20 minutes what Jordan Peele’s tenuous imagination, impressive marketing, BuzzFeed allegiance, millions-of-dollars and 90 minutes could not achieve. All he had to do was have something honest to say about racism other than be quick to flatter and titillate. Had Peele’s hero in "Get Out" not been some silly-solly brother who was nervous about white folks in the suburbs and resisted venturing out there (a tired cliché)– but was instead a willing participant in his and Black people’s demise – you’d truly have had a horror movie. That would be something to see. And that’s what Gant has made – a scary haiku that puts in perspective our inability to emancipate ourselves and move forward.

The Black Panther Party were against capitalism. What do we have today? The Black Lives Matter movement that is about cozying up to capitalism: they’ve got their own credit card! We’ve given up our desire to fight the enemy by simply deciding to become him. The “when in Rome” mentality will ultimately seal our fate. The Charles Rodgers’ of the world have convinced themselves that there is no other alternative. And most of us seem to believe this. What they all choose to ignore is the fact that Rome burned. And while there may not be a fire in front of us (depends who you ask) it would be affirming to know that we all agree that there at least is such a thing as a flame.

In the radical homosexual Jean Genet’s 1958 play "The Blacks: A Clown Show" – written for Black actors to portray their white oppressors with literal white masks – Genet purports that as Blacks undergo their colonized wish to become white – they will become just as, if not more so, morally corrupt and evil as their oppressors. White Face helps to illuminate this losing battle Black people have on their consciousness: we don’t want to create our own world or “thing” - we want to out-do white people at their own game. That is how sick we are.

As long as conscious filmmakers become more aware, supportive, and critical (pro and con) of – the conscious Black Radical Left’s independent filmmakers then something, no matter how small, can happen. I am not a believer in micro-aggressive tactics neither in politics nor in activism and certainly not a believer in them for art or “culture” – but they hold more weight than a pamphlet. And if we can start to imagine what it would be like to hold something other than a pamphlet in one’s hands and imagine a “conscious-raising” grenade instead – we will begin to get somewhere.

May God or fate or Fanon’s bones – or whatever providence you may believe in – get us back into ourselves such for a moment. It will not change the trajectory of our decline. But it will make the exit a lot more joyful.

"White Face" screens next at the Lower East Side Film Festival on June 13th. Follow the film's travels on Facebook here.


A longer, extended and alternate version of this review was published as a long form essay on the Shoot to Kill blog, April 9, 2017.

Dennis LeRoy Kangalee is a writer & critic and best known as the director of the 2002 cult film, "As an Act of Protest." His new blog, Shoot to Kill evaluates Black film and revolutionary art through a Fanonian lens. He can be reached at outsiderartkangalee@gmail.com.

by Dennis Leroy Kangalee on May 26th 2017

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