Tulane University Environmental Law School Clinics Discussion

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Ground rules: Please use complete sentences and answer the three (3) questions below thoroughly; this should be possible in around 4–5 sentences (or about 200–250 words) each. Upload your responses to our Canvas site as a .pdf, .doc or .docx, .pages, or .rtf file.

If you are curious to read more, or to engage the work mentioned in Questions 1 and 2 yourself, there is a short bibliography at the end of this worksheet listing the sources mentioned, with some links. (You are not required to do reading outside the assigned textbook chapters for this worksheet, and will not need to read these other articles in order to complete the worksheet.) I’ve also linked to Ella Fitzgerald’s recordings of the two songs featured in Illusions.

The required readings for this worksheet are: Chapter 1 and Chapter 2 of Film Art. The required viewing is Illusions (Julie Dash, 1982).

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1. Some scholars have argued that by telling the story of Mignon and Esther as a heroic narrative of triumph that ends on a high note (and as the viewer knows, one that is out of tune with the actual history of classical era Hollywood), Julie Dash is ultimately foreclosing the radical potential of Mignon’s political awakening. In an article on the film, Saidiya Hartman and Farah Jasmine Griffin claim that if Dash were actually working against the white supremacist and patriarchal grain in that particular filmmaking tradition, she would not have used the form of the “passing narrative” (wherein the main character’s racial passing is the primary source of conflict or dramatic tension in the narrative). In centering Mignon, who is more identifiable to white viewers as a sympathetic character than a Black protagonist would be, Hartman and Griffin argue that Dash forfeits any meaningful critique of dominant white cinema.

Others argue that Dash makes a radical change to the heroic narrative by placing Mignon in the role of triumphant protagonist. bell hooks makes the point that Mignon identifies as Black—whatever her white colleagues may mistakenly believe about her—that she acts in solidarity with other Black women (Esther), and that she expresses her intention to change the existing power structures from within, in order to force them to be more equitable (recall Mignon’s remark to CJ Forester about wanting to put an end to the business model by which agents like the one temporarily representing Esther profit off of the fact that the Black performers the studio depends upon are excluded from the industry trade unions and guilds; a remark that Forester may not have fully understood without the context that we the viewers have about Mignon’s motivations). Patricia Mellencamp argues, in direct response to Hartman and Griffin, that “there are many tactics to bring about change. One of the most effective is to tell the story in a familiar style but switch the point of view and enunciation. Many viewers will not notice that the political ground has shifted.”

Question: What do you see as the major ways that Dash’s film
a) reinforces the narrative tropes (another word for the patterns and motifs) and the politics of classical Hollywood cinema style based on your own knowledge and as described in the textbook (see especially Chapter 2, sections “Form and Feeling” and “Form and Meaning” on pp. 57–61 in 12th edition)
b) what are the ways the film subverts or critiques those tropes?

2. The vocals that the character Esther Jeter records for the film within the film (in which the character Leila Grant appears to be singing) are actually Ella Fitzgerald’s voice, from her recorded performances of “Sing Me A Swing Song (Links to an external site.)” and “The Starlit Hour (Links to an external site.).” One way of thinking about this creative decision of Julie Dash’s is that in addition to the two layers of illusion that the film acknowledges up front, there is a third layer, available to a subset of viewers, perhaps those with specialized cultural knowledge of jazz and popular music of the period (the 1940s). These three layers of removal involved in the illusion would be:
i. It’s not Leila’s, but Esther’s voice that we hear.
ii. It’s not really Esther’s voice, but Rosanne Katon’s, the actor who plays Esther.
iii. It’s not Rosanne Katon’s voice, but Ella Fitzgerald’s.

Question: Do viewers need to be aware of this subtext in order to understand the film’s meaning? Do you think it changes the way viewers receive the film to know that Dash is practicing on us the very same kind of illusion-making that Mignon, CJ Forester, and the sound engineers within the film are?

3. In the Illusions intro sequence, a glittering, rotating Oscar statuette set against a dark backdrop slowly approaches, as a voice-over reads Ralph Ellison’s words:

“To direct an attack upon Hollywood would indeed be to confuse portrayal with action, image with reality. In the beginning was not the shadow, but the act, and the province of Hollywood is not action, but illusion.”

In the essay from which this quotation is excerpted, Ralph Ellison argues that the movies don’t create anti-Black racism (they are the “illusion” or the “shadow”), they reflect the anti-Black racism of society (which is “the act” or “the action”). Ellison argues that to shift blame away from society onto the movies themselves would miss the point. In Illusions, Mignon argues that history is, at the end of the day, the version of the story that lives on in people’s heads, and this mythic history can largely be shaped by what people see: a situation that makes image-makers enormously powerful. Yet for Mignon, “there is no joy in the images if the seduction is false.”

Question: In what ways does Dash create a sense of history, or a historical narrative within the film? What kinds of cues does she give the viewer that this film is taking place in a specific moment in time?
At which levels of meaning (see Chapter 2 “Form and Meaning” pp. 58–61 in the 12th edition) do you think Julie Dash is making these historical claims, and at which levels is the film making an argument about the relationship between history and the movies, and between illusion and reality?
Do you find that Illusions is consistent along the levels of form and content (see Chapter 2, “Unity and Disunity” on p. 70), or were there aspects of the film (for example, in the plot, style, narrative arc, or technical execution) that seemed out of step or incongruent with others? Did this unity or disunity enhance or confuse your understanding and/or enjoyment of the film?

SELECTED REFERENCES FOR FURTHER READING

Ellison, Ralph. “The Shadow and the Act.” Reporter December 6, 1949. Shadow and Act. New York: Signet, 1966.

Felton, Wes. “Rewriting Hollywood History in Julie Dash’s IllusionsSenses of Cinema 49 (February 2009). https://www.sensesofcinema.com/2009/feature-articles/illusions-julie-dash/ (Links to an external site.)

Hartman, S.V., and Farah Jasmine Griffin. “Are You as Colored as That Negro?: The Politics of Being Seen in Julie Dash’s Illusions.” Black American Literature Forum 25, no. 2 (Summer 1991), republished in African American Review 50, no. 4 (Winter 2017): 851–863.

hooks, bell. “The Oppositional Gaze: Black Female Spectators.” In Black Looks : Race and Representation. eBook published by Taylor & Francis Group, 2014. Full text available through Tulane University Libraries at https://ebookcentral.proquest.com/lib/tulaneu/detail.action?docID=1813137 (Links to an external site.)

Mellencamp, Patricia. “Making History: Julie Dash.” Frontiers: A Journal of Women Studies 15, no. 1 (1994): 76–101. https://www.jstor.org/stable/3346614

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