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Divas on Screen

Divas on Screen: Black Women in American Film

Mia Mask
Copyright Date: 2009
Pages: 320
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  • Book Info
    Divas on Screen
    Book Description:

    This insightful study places African American women's stardom in historical and industrial contexts by examining the star personae of five African American women: Dorothy Dandridge, Pam Grier, Whoopi Goldberg, Oprah Winfrey, and Halle Berry. Interpreting each woman's celebrity as predicated on a brand of charismatic authority, Mia Mask shows how these female stars have deftly negotiated the uneven terrain of racial, gender, and class stereotypes. As international celebrities, these women have ultimately complicated the conventional discursive and industrial practices through which blackness and womanhood have been represented in commercial cinema, independent film, and network television._x000B__x000B_Mask examines the function of these stars in seminal yet underanalyzed films. She considers Dandridge's status as a sexual commodity in films such as Tamango, revealing the contradictory discourses regarding race and sexuality in segregation-era American culture. Grier's feminist-camp performances in sexploitation pictures Women in Cages and The Big Doll House and her subsequent blaxploitation vehicles Coffy and Foxy Brown highlight a similar tension between representing African American women as both objectified stereotypes and powerful, self-defining icons. Mask reads Goldberg's transforming habits in Sister Act and The Associate as representative of her unruly comedic routines, while Winfrey's daily television performance as self-made, self-help guru echoes Horatio Alger's narratives of success. Finally, Mask analyzes Berry's meteoric success by acknowledging the ways in which Dandridge's career made Berry's possible.

    eISBN: 978-0-252-09182-7
    Subjects: Sociology, Film Studies

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-iv)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. v-vi)
  3. Acknowledgments
    (pp. vii-xii)
  4. Introduction
    (pp. 1-12)

    Ever since the silent era, African American women—like their Asian American, Hispanic American, and Native American sisters—have broken new ground, paved the road, and struggled alongside their more privileged white counterparts, seeking inclusion, access to acting opportunities, respectable roles, and professional treatment. Traveling this winding road, women of color have met with varying degrees of career success.Divas on Screenis an examination of the star personae of five African American women, all of whom have transcended—but also been shaped by—personal, professional, and sociopolitical obstacles to cross over into mainstream international celebrity. Dorothy Dandridge, Pam Grier,...

  5. 1 Dorothy Dandridge’s Erotic Charisma
    (pp. 13-57)

    The American cultural and political landscape of the 1950s was rife with contradictions. As a decade, the 1950s were plagued by fear yet filled with frivolity. The postwar era of relative economic prosperity led middle-class Americans to believe the “good life” had finally arrived. Yet social injustice, institutionalized racism, and bureaucratic mismanagement undermined the promise of democratic freedoms, the enjoyment of civil liberties, and equal access to opportunity. America was legally segregated by race (Jim Crow), geographically stratified by class (in Levittown-like suburban enclaves), domestically divided by gender (through the cult of domesticity), unnerved by McCarthyism (the Hollywood blacklist), and...

  6. 2 Pam Grier: A Phallic Idol of Perversity and Sexual Charisma
    (pp. 58-104)

    The early 1970s screen persona of exploitation movie diva Pam Grier is best understood in the context of social and political events of that decade. In the final years of the 1960s, major social policy changes engendered the sexual liberation of American film culture. First introduced in 1960, the birth control pill became a symbol for societal change in the Western world. In November 1968, the second major change occurred: the restrictive Hollywood Production Code gave way to the new Rating Administration. The new classification system did not solve the problems Hollywood faced with censorship but relaxed preexisting codes that...

  7. 3 Goldberg’s Variations on Comedic Charisma
    (pp. 105-140)

    Whoopi Goldberg is an atypical film and television star. She’s the image of physical excess, iconoclasm, and rebellion in an industry preferring its women contained, controlled, and submissive.¹ Her stardom, itself a source of controversy and ongoing critical commentary, evokes feminist criticism of the 1970s, when writers like Molly Haskell and Laura Mulvey analyzed the limited roles available to actresses working within the patriarchal structures of Hollywood. Haskell faulted the industry for perpetuating “the Big Lie”: mythic fantasies of marital bliss and conjugal euphoria, which ignored the facts and fears arising from an awareness of “the End”—the winding down...

  8. 4 Oprah Winfrey: The Cathartic, Charismatic Capitalist
    (pp. 141-184)

    In the mainstream press, Oprah Winfrey has repeatedly been dubbed “the world’s most powerful woman.” As television talk-show host, she is the female equivalent of the nation’s most beloved anchorman, Walter Cronkite. A media producer, she is the third woman in history to own a major production company and sound stages, following in the footsteps of Mary Pickford and Lucille Ball.¹ Together her talk show and magazine have resulted in the “Oprah Effect,”² influencing the careers of authors, the consumption of novels, the reception of films, and the dissemination of self-help techniques, making her the most influential bookseller in the...

  9. 5 Halle Berry: Charismatic Beauty in a Multicultural Age
    (pp. 185-232)

    In an era of multiculturalism, transnationalism, and globalization, mass media circulate among increasingly fragmented, multiracial audiences. Genre evolution and film star systems are driven by industry sensitivity to transnationality, multifocality, and syncretism.¹ Hybrid subjectivities, immigration narratives, and even biracial identities deterritorialize and deessentialize the process by which spectators imagine communities and experience cinematic narratives. Contemporary celebrities are simultaneously local and global, national and transnational, racially identified yet socially hybridized. The celebrity of Halle Berry, who is biracial but identifies as African American, exemplifies the way media in general, and cinema in particular, utilize bifurcated subjectivities to reach growing multiethnic populations....

  10. Notes
    (pp. 233-268)
  11. Selected Bibliography
    (pp. 269-290)
  12. Index
    (pp. 291-306)
  13. Back Matter
    (pp. 307-309)