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Essay on Shadows (1959)

Sunday 18 September 2011, by Martin Appleby

The directional debut of celebrated film-maker John Cassavetes, Shadows (1959) is heralded as a land mark in independent film making, film critic Elbert Ventura suggests that the date of the film’s release should be celebrated as the birthday of American independent cinema (Ventura, E. 2009. John Cassavetes’ startling directorial debut changed American movies forever). Vastly different in style, tone and content to what audiences of that era were familiar with seeing, and had come to expect from a film. They were not used to witnessing such stark realism, and casual exploration of race.

The film was made on a minuscule budget, thought to be around forty thousand dollars (Giddins, B. 2004. Shadows: Eternal Times Square), shot with hand held cameras, and dialogue allegedly improvised in its entirety by the actors. In a New York Times review, critic Bosley Crowther describes the film as “fitfully dynamic, endowed with a raw but vibrant strength, conveying an illusion of being a record of real people.” (Crowther, B. 1961. New York Times). The film has a very naturalistic, documentary-like quality, which adds depth, and honesty to the themes that are explored within the story.

The film takes place in New York City, and centres on three African-American siblings, Lelia, Ben and Hugh, following them in their everyday lives over a period of several days. Although they are African-American, the two youngest siblings, Lelia and Ben, have very light coloured skin, and can pass for being Caucasian. The eldest sibling, Hugh, has much darker coloured skin. It is possible that Lelia and Ben are of mixed-race; having one white parent and one black parent, however, their parents are never introduced, or mentioned at any point during the film.

All three siblings have very differing attitudes, and feelings regarding race and identity. The youngest, Lelia, is impartial, and as Bosley Crowther points out in his review; “indifferent to the matter of race”. (Crowther, B. 1961. New York Times). She wants to be accepted for who she is, and judged on her creative and artistic endeavours as a writer, rather than on the colour of her skin. On meeting a romantic interest, Tony, at a party, he asks her to whom she belongs, to which she replies “I belong to me.” (31 mins). She is fiercely independent, but very naïve. She succumbs to Tony’s charms, and has sex with him the same night they meet. He then declares his love for her, however, only when he meets her brother Hugh, does he realise that he she is African-American. This changes his view of her completely, exposing his racist sensibilities, angering Hugh, and deeply hurting Lelia.

The middle sibling, Ben, is an out of work trumpet player. He openly resents being African-American, and chooses to spend the majority of his time with his white friends. At a party, organized by his brother Hugh, in which all of the guests are black, Ben feels like an outsider. A black woman approaches him during the party, and encourages him to integrate and join in, when he refuses, she verbally lambastes his attitude;

“Pull yourself together, because you’re not kidding anybody but yourself … You have your sense of values all mixed up.” (57 mins)
This upsets him, and leads to a physical altercation between them. Ben is then attacked by his brother Hugh, who is angered by his actions. Ben leaves the party and goes to a bar, but before entering, he poignantly recites a line from a nursery rhyme to himself; “Mary had a little lamb, it’s fleece as white as snow. Everywhere that Mary went, the lamb was sure to go.” (59 mins) This is a clear metaphor for his desire for his skin to be “as white as snow”.

The eldest sibling, Hugh, is a struggling Jazz musician. It appears that he has a much stronger relationship with Lelia, than with Ben. He is very nurturing, and protective of her, but being a very proud man, he is frustrated by Ben’s resentment of his race. This is evident in a scene in which Lelia is upset after being scorned by the racist Tony; Ben enquires as to what is troubling her, to which Hugh replies; “Nothing you’d be interested in … Just a problem with the racists, that’s all. Like I said, nothing you’d be interested in.” (53 mins) This subtle dig suggests that Hugh believes that Ben is not concerned with the struggles of being black, preferring to intentionally pass himself off as white. Ben does not deny this statement, indicating that he knows it to be true.

This candid, honest portrayal of life from an African-American perspective was not something that was seen in mainstream cinema in the 1950s (or previous). In Representation: Cultural representations and signifying practices (Hall, S. 1997. Sage), Stuart Hall studies the representation of black people in early American cinema, looking at the early work of pioneer black film-maker Oscar Micheaux, who produced what Hall describes as ’segregated’ cinema – films made by black people for black people (p.252). In mainstream cinema black actors were generally cast in stereotypical roles, Hall lists these stereotypes as “jesters, simpletons, faithful retainers and servants.” (p.252) These roles were often very degrading, and disrespectful to black people.

In the 1950s mainstream films finally began to deal the subject of racism, with black actor Sidney Portier at the forefront of these films. The characters that Portier portrayed were often “everything that the stereotyped black man was not”, (p.253) his characters were always refined, intelligent, well dressed and well mannered. He was accepted by white audiences because he “met their standards” suggests Hall (p.253).

These films, Hall states, were often made “from a white liberal perspective.” (p.252). Appearing to actively seek being ’politically correct’. Having Portier play so “rigorously against the grain” (Hall, S. 1997. p.253) was an extreme opposite to the aforementioned stereotypes that black actors were previously confined to play - with neither seeming to be an entirely honest or accurate representation of most African-American’s real lives. That is one of the key differences between these mainstream films and Cassavetes’ Shadows. Even though John Cassavetes is himself a white man, Shadows’ subtle exploration of race has an air of honesty, and realism about it. As Elbert Ventura points out; “Cassavetes and his actors aren’t afraid to have their characters act in unlikable ways” (Ventura, E. 2009. John Cassavetes’ startling directorial debut changed American movies forever) Cassavetes’ film doesn’t preach or become politically minded in delivering its message. It would seem that If there was an intended meaning within the story, the characters and their actions are allowed to dictate it in an honest, uncompromised and naturalistic manner.

Primary Source -
Shadows, 1959. Film. Directed by John Cassavetes. USA: Lion International Films.

Secondary Sources -
CROWTHER, B. 1961. Film Improvised Under Cassavetes Opens. New York Times. [online] Available: http://movies.nytimes.com/movie/review?res=9C0CE0DD133DE733A25751C2A9659C946091D6CF. [accessed 09 December 2010]

HALL, S. 1997. Representation: Cultural representations and signifying practices. UK: Sage.

VENTURA, E. 2009. John Cassavetes’ startling directorial debut changed American movies forever. [online] Available: http://www.slate.com/id/2235169/pagenum/2. [accessed 09 December 2010]

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