American Neo-Noir and the Postcolonial Unconscious

I’m taking a turn down some adjacent Crime Fiction “noir” paths right now. I’ve been watching some “neo noir” American films, and reading some cultural theory around the noir genre.

Film poster for Last month, I watched a 1981 film that can be considered part of the American neo-noir trend of that period: Sharky’s Machine, directed by and starring Burt Reynolds. The film is set in late seventies, early-eighties Atlanta.  I watched this film in tandem with reading and watching fictional and non-fictional treatments of the 1979-1981 Atlanta Child Murders. The film is based on a novel by William Diehl, who was from Atlanta. The novel was written in 1978, before the news about the growing number of unsolved missing and murdered cases of Black youth, mainly boys, became more widely known, so the movie doesn’t address this specific part of Atlanta history. But that doesn’t mean they aren’t connected.

But what the Hollywood film does cover is an interesting period of time in which the politics and economic trajectory of Atlanta is in flux. Atlanta is transforming its business outlook, leveraging its growing international airport and the Coca Cola company to position Atlanta as an international brand that could transcend its “southern U.S.” image and history.

Meanwhile, in the film’s plot, Sharky, a narcotics detective for the Atlanta police department who is demoted to vice after a botched undercover drug sting, is tracking down leads in what will turn out to be a large, convoluted network of drugs and sex trafficking that is shielded and enabled by corrupt city politicians and police officers. While the perils of daily life for the marginalized communities of Atlanta — like the missing children from the poor neighborhoods — isn’t seen here, the film’s focus on the seen/unseen (i.e. “noir”) dynamics of money, success, and crime in the emerging transnational American southern city provides some pop-cultural representation of the intersecting issues that lead to and allow the circumstances of the child murder cases.

This film, which includes a “villain” who has an unidentifiable “foreign” accent, speaks multiple languages, and runs a sex trafficking and political blackmailing scheme, fits well into the neo-noir genre which, I believe, offers a kind of “postcolonial unconscious” aesthetic. This is a developing idea that requires, first, some foundational exploration of the aesthetics and cultural context of the American “noir” genre.

Julian Murphet’s article “Film Noir and the Racial Unconscious” (1998) is an important starting place for thinking about how American noir film represents, either explicitly or implicitly (or uncannily), anxieties about race and gender in the 20th century U.S. “collective conscious” (if there can be such a thing). Importantly, though Murphet doesn’t use the term “intersectional,” his argument includes the premise that racism is always entwined with sexism, and vice versa.

I am proposing that the representation of antagonistic sexual relations in film noir serves as a ‘manifest content’ behind which what I am going to call a racial unconscious can be seen to determine certain symptomatic effects. Noir’s excessive sexism suggests an illegitimate subtext of racist polemics which, I am arguing, is alluded to by the absence of women from the spatial seme of the street It is an absence which masks another, deeper absence The absence, that is, of black citizens from noir’s ‘everyday’ space, a repression from the space of representation as definitive and determinate as any in the history of what Toni Morrison calls ‘American Africanism’ (27-28).

Here Murphet lays out his argument that “Noir’s excessive sexism,” as crystallized in the genre’s construction of the femme fatale trope, is an extension or “manifestation” of the culture’s racist anxieties.  Now, I am all about anything that learns from Toni Morrison’s cultural analysis about U.S. history and the constructions of race in the American consciousness (and culture), but I am a little wary of the seamless slipping from sexism to racism. Yes, as Kimberlé Crenshaw theorized in the 1980’s, every social interaction involves an “intersection” of social conditioning and statuses, including, especially, gender and race as conditioned categories of experience, but as she and many others since have tried to make clear, that intersection is important.

Perhaps Murphet is generally thinking along the same lines, but there is something too simple about the jump from “the absence of women” to the absence of “black citizens.”  Especially considering the historical and cultural role that “white women” have played in the policing of Black men and women, I think it’s important to be very clear about the contingencies between representation of presence/absence of white women in public and private spaces, and representations of presence/absence of Black men and women in public and private spaces. They are dependent on each other, but, of course, they don’t stand in for each other.

Murphet does tie this layered anxiety to the economic and geographic shifts of the 20th century, which began early in the 20th century but increased around the world wars:

Under the stimulus of the USA’s industrial armament for war, hundreds of thousands of Southern African-Americans migrated north and west during the mid 1940s, both to escape the Jim Crow South, and to find work in the munitions factories, aircraft plants and shipyards in the metropolitan industrial centres. Nor did this intra-continental pattern of migration cease after the War, given the demand for labour in the boom economy inaugurating the brief ‘American century.’ (28)

This coincides with my own research on the relationship of tropes about white women —the Surplus and Trafficked Women — in conjunction with these other global and local anxieties (on the part of white patriarchy, and a spirit of white imperialism or supremacy). And in this sense, Murphet’s argument might become clearer to me. That the femme fatale figure or trope projects multiple anxieties that “cohered into a new and arresting paradigm of American identity,” the “new white man” (Murphet 24). These anxieties include discomfort with economic and geographic movement of women and Black Americans outside of their restricted and segregated private/controlled spaces.

Murphet ties this U.S.-specific socio-geographic shift to housing crises and subsequent tensions around jobs, property rights, and crime:

But this black influx to the conurbations of New York, Chicago, Detroit and Los Angeles was not matched by an integrationist housing policy in any of the city halls. The more [Black migrants] who came to the cities, the less space they had to occupy. Deed restrictions, naive public housing initiatives and pervasive racist intolerance all contributed to the impaction of black communities in small and impoverished ghettos. (28)

This description reminds me of the letter Langston Hughes received in 1944 describing the housing and labor issues for Black residents in California, which referred to the “Green Glove Rapist” case in San Francisco, in which “auxiliary” police forces patrolled (read: intimidated and terrorized) neighborhoods that were predominantly inhabited by Black workers and families during a serial rapist scare in which the suspect was thought to be a Black man, but turned out to be Jewish — demonstrating the complicated layers of racism, housing/spatial segregation, and policing.

And this last turn to geography, housing, crime, and how this relates to the cultural genre of “noir” leads me to the work of Dean MacCannell, a scholar of landscape architecture and cultural geography, who contributed an essay “on Homeless Noir” to the 1993 collection, Shades of Noir (ed. Joan Copjec):

That no one would really want to live in the imagined proletarian and sub-proletarian space of film noir is precisely the basis for its attraction. It is a space of survival: demanding, exhausting. (280)

I’ll leave this last quote to linger, as I continue to watch and think about the aesthetics and tropes of neo-noir. There’s still more groundwork to cover before connecting these local issues of race and crime in the U.S. to a global historical age of postcolonial (un)consciousness.

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