The dynamics of ‘ghetto masculinity’ and the upholding of negative representations in ‘Training Day’

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I am going to look at the ways in which ‘Training Day’ uses mythic stereotypes of black males and ‘ghetto masculinity’ to portray negative representations of black society in America, and how hegemonic values of white audiences leaves these representations unquestioned. My main focus will be the representation of the main protagonist, Alonzo, an African American police officer played by Denzel Washington. First I will look at the history and background of Black representation in film.

Early Black cinema, known as The Plantation Genre, began in 1915 with the release of ‘Birth of a Nation’ an overtly anti-black film which represented black slaves as untrustworthy and immoral and included positive representations of the Klu Klux Klan. In 1939 ‘Gone With the Wind’ contradicted these representations by portraying black slaves as loyal and happy, a representation that is said to be unrealistic. The Era of the Integrated Negro came about during the 1950s and 60s after the protests of Martin Luther King and the subsequent rise of civil rights movements in the 1940s.

Black representation in film was focused on black protest and the integrated Negro. One of the first integrated Negroes in Hollywood was Sidney Poitier who starred in films such as ‘Guess who’s coming to dinner’ which represented black males as intelligent, handsome, well spoken and respectful. Next came ‘The Blaxploitation Years’ from 1969 to 1975, when many films focused around black characters and narratives were released, and involved media saturation of black culture. This era saw the establishment of ‘ghetto masculinity’ and ‘black cool’, as seen in the first big-budget Hollywood blaxploitation film, ‘Shaft’, by MGM Studios.

The character of John Shaft is represented as a streetwise, confident anti-hero cop and was inspiration for many other films with similar characters. Black individuals were now cast as the main protagonists rather than minor characters they had been accustomed to. However, according to an article by Reena Mistry, institutions have appeared to create “different, but equally harmful, racial representations and to have repackaged the old stereotypes into forms more acceptable in a ‘liberalist’ society. ”

By the 1970s clear mythic representations of black males had been established and were defined by Stuart Hall as three stereotypes; the ‘subordinate slave’, the ‘unlawful slave’ and the ‘clown/entertainer’. These representations of black males have been seen time after time and so they have become hegemonic and unquestioned by society to the extent that white audiences believe they are entirely accurate and true to life. In the 1980s was the ‘Era of Hollywood Conservative Backlash & Creation of Crossover Black Stars’ which saw a decline in Black film.

Then in the late 1980s and early 1990s black film started to become prominent again with the showcasing of films by Black directors, such as Spike Lee and John Singleton, as well as Black actors. There were several different angles that these films used; films such as ‘Malcolm X’ which promoted black history; inner city movies such as ‘Boyz ‘n’ the Hood’ which attempted to portray life in the ghetto; and Black Middle Class films.

The stereotypes of these films link to Stuart Hall’s theory of the three stereotypes; the subservient slave: black sidekicks to a white hero; the unlawful slave: these are shown in many inner city films often known as ‘Gangsploitation’ films, such as Doughboy in ‘Boyz ‘n’ the Hood’; and finally the clown/entertainer: comedic roles such as those played by Eddie Murphy in ‘Beverly Hills Cop’ and Will Smith in ‘Men in Black’.

In ‘Training Day’, released in 2001, the mythic representation of the unlawful slave is used once again, with the character of Alonzo portraying negative mythic representations of ‘ghetto masculinity’. He is immoral and non-conformist to the law, despite being a police officer. His method of crime-fighting is “street justice”; his own twist on the law, as he claims it “takes a wolf to catch a wolf”. The audience of black film has become increasingly heterogeneous due to the vertical integration of industry; the influence of hip-hop and R&B music on youth culture means that white audiences are much more prominent.

This theory of vertical integration is backed up by an article in ‘Sight and Sound’ magazine by Ed Guerrero called, ‘Be Black and Buy’ which discussed the increase of heterogeneous audiences in America and black and white cultures being integrated into one, due to the “enormous influence of black cultural expressions, styles and ideas on consumer culture. ” There are several ways in which a heterogeneous audience of both black and white races are interpellated into ‘Training Day’.

The use of a white co-star, Ethan Hawke, who plays Jake, is used to identify with white audiences. The audience is sutured into Jake’s position from the establishing scene with the representation of white middle class family values and can identify with Jake’s safe home environment. This contrasts with Alonzo’s home life, in the ghetto, where he carries a gun in his hand even when talking to his five year old son. Alonzo threatens Jake’s safe family life by telling him to “never wear that wedding ring to work” as it will be used against him.

This also threatens white ideology of hegemonic family values. The use of a white co-star to identify a white audience has been used many times before, specifically in the Bi-racial buddy films of the 1980s. However, in these films the black protagonist is usually put into a white context in order to suture in white audiences further, unlike ‘Training Day’ where these roles are reversed and the white protagonist is in a black context. ‘Training Day’ is targeted at both black and white audiences and therefore reinforces the idea of Vertical Integration.

At the start of the film Jake is represented as vulnerable and weak in Alonzo’s presence and his belittled by Alonzo due to his lack of experience. This representation is built upon when Jake is referred to as a “rookie” by several characters later in the film. However this role is reversed when Jake saves a young girl from being raped by two drug addicts. Jake is now represented in a similar light to Alonzo; strong, confidant and streetwise. Alonzo commends him on his work and the audience feels he has transitioned into Alonzo’s world; into the ghetto.

This is anti-hegemonic for both black and white audiences who are used to the “blacks only” mentality of the ghetto. However, Jake is placed back in this original stance when they are driving through the ghetto where Alonzo lives and he tells Jake not to go there without him, for his own safety. This reveals evidence of hegemonic power over pluralism as Jake is once again represented as a clean-cut, traditional white boy who is inexperienced compared to Alonzo. This is unquestioned by both black and white audiences as it has been seen so many times before.

The power of hegemony is clear through the changes in representations, as through time, the representations of African Americans has changed to coincide with the zeitgeists and ideologies of that time. With ‘Birth of a Nation’ the slanderous views of black people was fitting with the hegemonic views of that time. White people generally believed that Black slaves where lesser human beings who were there to serve them; this view was unquestioned among society. According to an article by Reena Mistry, these racist images can “be easily explained in hegemonic terms- particularly in relation to colonialism and white supremacy”.

This explanation suggests that racist stereotypes have evolved through the resistance to decolonisation and immigration. This can infer that the reasons for discriminating blacks in the media is due to political and social issues rather then genuine beliefs that they are lesser human beings. This remained the case until the 1940s when Martin Luther King protested against the discrimination of African Americans and civil rights movements dramatically changed the hegemonic views of white people in America.

With this change, came a change in the representation of blacks in film to well respected individuals, such as the representation of Sidney Poitier’s characters in “Guess who’s coming to Dinner” 1967, and “In the Heat of the Night” 1967. This again shows the power of hegemony on representation. This influence of hegemony on representation of blacks in film is also apparent in ‘Training Day’. With the increase of the negative stereotypes of hip-hop music; rap artists such as 50 cent who are portrayed as unlawful and rebellious.

This representation has crossed over into film and has become part of our mediated culture. Even white artists such as Eminem have adopted the image of ‘black cool’; this is reflected in Jake’s character, when he too, adopts this image and the characteristics of Alonzo. This is seen at the end of the film when Jake appears as Alonzo appears at the start; strong, confidant and expressionless. I am now going to discuss, using media language, the representations of characters in ‘Training Day’.

The mythic representation of Alonzo as an ‘unlawful slave’ is visible from the first introduction of his character. He is first seen in the coffee shop where he is meeting Jake and is dressed in black with silver chains around his neck to connote his image of ghetto masculinity. Alonzo’s N. V. C when he does not look up at Jake as he arrives and fails to acknowledge him as he sits down and greets him, symbolises his power and superiority. When he eventually speaks, there is a close up of his face looking at him over his glasses to show his intimidating presence.

The camera shots change from close ups to mid shots of Alonzo, to emphasise this and show his control of the situation. When Jake is talking about his female training officer, Alonzo makes several degrading and misogynistic comments, referring to her as a “fine bitch” and asking him did he “tap that ass”. His use of sexual language is a mythic representation of black sexuality and phallic power. Black men are frequently represented as being sexually confident and are often defined through this sexuality.

This was particularly popular with blaxploitation films of the 70s, such as ‘Shaft’. His sexist attitudes towards women are also typical of this mythic stereotype, and are expected by audiences because these views have been seen from many other black characters before, such as in ‘Boyz ‘n’ the Hood’ in which women are frequently referred to as “bitches” and “hoes”. In the next scene there is a low angle tracking shot of Alonzo as he strides across the street, looking straight ahead, causing several cars to break heavily.

His arrogance adds to his portrayal of ‘black cool’. Binary opposites are created between Alonzo and Jake through opposite representations. Jake is represented as a clean-cut, traditional white boy who is vulnerable and out of his territory. In the first scene, the audience is sutured into Jake’s fear of his new job through the blue filter, the close up of the alarm clock and of Jake’s N. V. C. Jake is represented as a positive father role through mid shots of his wife and child to create a sense of an idealised family.

This immediately aligns audiences with Jake’s character. In the next scene, this portrayal of the idealised family is interrupted by a menacing phone call from Alonzo; this creates binary opposites between the two characters before they have even met as Jake is eager to impress and show his appreciation, whereas Alonzo is rude and puts the phone down when Jake is speaking. In the coffee shop scene, high angle shots of Jake and his non-verbal communication, as he is talking to Alonzo across the coffee table, shows his vulnerability and helplessness.

These binary opposites are fully established after the Alonzo lets two drug dealers go free after attempting to rape a young girl. Alonzo doesn’t see the injustice of this and believes “street justice” is the way to deal with it. Jake, on the other hand, wishes to abide by the laws, showing he has morals that Alonzo doesn’t. He continues to take the law into his own hands throughout the film, searching a house without a warrant, holding a group of teenagers at gun point and forcing Jake to smoke drugs.

This leaves an enigma code of whether or not he will get his comeuppance, interpellating the audience into the narrative. At the end of the film, these mythic representations are challenged as the roles of Alonzo and Jake are reversed. A high angle shot looking down at Alonzo and a low angle shot looking up at Jake as he holds Alonzo at gun point shows this as Jake says, “it’s no fun when the rabbit has a gun is it? “. The rest of the black community turn on Alonzo and allow Jake to escape. This acceptance of Jake into the ghetto challenges hegemonic views and breaks down the barriers of the ghetto.

The dominant ideologies of this text are the negative mythic representations of black males compared to the representations of the white protagonist as the law abiding, moralistic hero. Even today, African Americans are still represented as the deviants of society, showing that the fundamental representations in ‘Birth of a Nation’ are still evident. Alonzo howling like a wild animal is reminiscent of the behaviour of black slaves in ‘Birth of a Nation’ and questions how much representations of black males have improved since.

This negative stereotype defines how black males are viewed in the media; this in turn “defines how black audiences define themselves”, according to an article by Christopher Miller. Black audiences observe these mythic representations and believe that this is what is expected of them from society; they don’t question them because they are hegemonic. Many young black men find that all they have to model themselves are these negative images in the media and so a “cycle of destruction of the black family is allowed to propagate”, as written by JoNina Abron in “The Black Scholar”.

Promiscuity, drug addiction and crime are the zeitgeists portrayed in films such as “Menace II Society” and “Boyz ‘n’ the Hood”, so this is what young, impressionable black audiences believe is acceptable. At the start of ‘Training Day’ Alonzo has the upper hand as he has power and control over Jake, which in turn gives the black audience the upper hand. At the climax of the film, Jake triumphs and walks away as the hero; leaving the black audience defeated also.

This ideology of good triumphing over evil projects very negative messages and values about the status of blacks versus whites on our society. It would be anti-hegemonic to see a black character triumph over a white character so Hollywood institutions choose to steer away from it. However, ‘Training Day’ is a polysemic text; therefore audiences may not always interpret the representations negatively. The acceptance of Jake by the black community in the final scene connotes a break down of barriers between blacks and whites and puts Jake at an equal position with the black ghetto.

It is true that Alonzo’s mythic stereotype as the ‘unlawful slave’ is a negative representation of black males, but the rejection of this unlawful slave by the black ghetto shows a turn around in hegemonic values. The crowd of black people have chosen to protect Jake, not because of the colour of his skin, but because they believe he is right. The action code of a man in the crowd placing his gun on the floor connotes the rejection of ghetto violence, which aligns with the pluralistic demands of the audience.

Overall, the preferred reading of the white protagonist (good) triumphing over the black ‘villain’ (evil) is the dominant ideology of this text. This reflects the zeitgeists of our time; that despite anti-racist views of society, discrimination of African Americans is still very much an issue in the media. Ed Guerrero, a professor of Black film and literature explained that the representations of black males in the media are very limited to hegemonic conventions and fail to show the “intellectual, cultural and political depth and humanity of black men and their contribution to the culture and progress [of America]”.

Black males are still shown in two extremities; the asexual, sterile representation as seen in characters of Sidney Poitier and the sexual representation of phallic power in character like Alonzo. However, black characters of more substance than this are becoming more common, such as Morpheous in the ‘Matrix’ films who is represented as a hero who is strong and powerful but also moralistic and intellectual. ‘Training Day’ certainly shows negative stereotypes of black males as sexual predators and amoral deviants of society.

Images of ‘ghetto masculinity’ are upheld by Alonzo’s violent behaviour and disregard for the law. This is further emphasised by Jake’s moral values. However, the rejection of these stereotypes at the end with the black community refusing to align with them reflects the needs of the black ghetto to rid itself of negative reputations. The zeitgeists of black people wanting to break free from the constrictions of the ghetto are voiced through this scene. Jake’s escape satisfies the audiences’ need for a utopian solution and the hegemonic expectations of him being reunited with his family.

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