Richard Dyer’s “White”

Though lengthy, I found myself engaged with this article throughout the entire thing. The information was relevant, true, and well supported. Dyer’s main purpose is to use Simba (1955), Jezebel (1938), and Night of the Living Dead (1969) to prove that whiteness is related to order, rationality, and rigidity while blackness is related to disorder, irrationality, and looseness. However, he also makes clear that these films attempt to contest white domination and expose the idea that while white people hold power, they are materially and emotionally dependent upon black people.

To introduce his thesis, Dyer explains that “whiteness” isn’t generally seen as anything in particular because nobody studies the majority, proving that studying minority groups makes it seem like they are not part of the norm. He says that whiteness had a property to be everything and nothing, making it a hard concept to grasp. The only way to study whiteness, is to also study minorities so there can be a comparison. When talking about cinema, white people must be divided down into groups such as “English middle class” or “Italian-Americans” and if they aren’t, they are just considered “people” rather than “white people.” Dyer brings up that mainstream cinema should be analyzed in the context of the “commutation test,” attempting to put a black actor in a white role and see how well it works. Dyer asks the question, what does this say about whiteness if a black man cannot play a white role?

Simba: Dyer explains that this film shows the binarism between black and white and that this is represented through mise-en-scene, lighting, sound, and action. Also, the editing of the film is used to calm and stress the viewer in direct correlation to what is shown on screen. This can be seen in the meeting scene on page 828. Dyer later explains that there is a repeated failure of narrative achievement by white characters creating a sense of white helplessness. On page 831, he rounds up with a quote that reads, “Simba is, then, an endorsement of the moral superiority of white values of reason, order, and boundedness, yet suggests a loss of belief in their efficacy.”

Jezebel: Dyer explains that compositionally, black people generally begin scenes by being on camera first and also act as a dominant image in each scene, interrupting moments where the viewer is watching white interaction. They do not serve a very dramatic function but play an essential role. Here Dyer begins his belief that black people have more life than whites because they are more natural and white people are too caught up on thought. To show this, Dyer shows the growth of Julie, the white female protagonist, throughout the film. Julie starts out as wild and free, her inner blackness as Dyer calls it, and ends the film with very little movement. She asks her black maid, Zette, to see who has come to visit and the camera follows Zette as she runs around and is lively while Julie is still and calm and lifeless. As a final punch, Dyer talks about the singing scene at the end of the film and how only specific feelings can be expressed through black people. He gives examples of frustration, anger, jealousy, and fear and says “there is no white mode of expression” for these “pent-up feelings” and they can “only be lived through blacks.” He then sums up with, “The point of Jezebel is not that whites are different from blacks, but that whites live by different rules” (834).

Night of the Living Dead: Dyer makes a nice segue to begin this film’s analysis by saying, “If blacks have more life than whites, then it must follow that whites have more death than blacks” which in this film, is very true (834). All the zombies are white people and living whites are mistaken for them frequently. Dyer then makes the comment that the film may be a metaphor for both white people and the USA in general. The main character is named Barb, she has pale skin and blonde hair and has the same name as the best-selling American doll. Dyer notes that you can kill the zombies through their brain. Another hint at the white obsession with thought and knowledge rather than emotion and body. The protagonist of this film and it’s sequels is a black man. This says that blacks are in control of their bodies and can survive alone while whites have no control over their bodies unless they are zombies, and in that case they hunger for white brains.

In conclusion, Dyer really makes no conclusion. He instead brings up a question on why glamour lighting in Hollywood is fitted for the white female. It is designed to make her transparent, almost hiding her flesh and blood. Because of this, blacks are more difficult to photograph. He also says that the white ideal that embodies all heterosexual men is the white female.

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