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The critical role of race in John Cassavetes’ first film

Shadows is the first film John Cassavetes directed and, regarding the version he released in 1959, it is the only film he created that distinctly explores themes of Blackness and Black identity in an American urban landscape. Too Late Blues, A Woman Under the Influence, The Killing of a Chinese Bookie, and Love Streams all depict identity and race in different and attention-worthy ways as well, but none of Cassavetes’ directorial work after 1959 engages with these topics to the same degree or with the same immediacy.

And yet, the director largely disavowed this viewpoint on Shadows, saying in interviews that the film is primarily a story about people and their lives, not one of race. Some critics have reinforced that disavowal, some have resisted it, but the film itself opposes even its director’s objections: Shadows inarguably focuses on exploring race and identity in the Black America of its time.

It is also a film to which we can turn in the present, putting our focus on same and similar themes. At the time of this writing, these are the first months of a post-Obama nation and these are the first months in nearly a decade that Americans can look at their president and not lookas Whitney Dow writesupon a non-White face. Americans in 2017 do not have to immediately consider a non-White identity in the context of the American president, and in the context of all the reactions and provocations that often came with Blackness in that role. This shift arrives at a time when writers such as Jeff Nesbit tell us that we also face a kind of threatthat the nation stands to lose touch with what focus on race and identity its first Black president helped prompt, further, and develop.

One response to Nesbit’s cautionary note is to turn to stories that address race and racial identity in other ways, to exercise the gift of the human brain, as Nesbit puts it, and share the worksthe documents of culturethat prompt discourses and examinations of race and identity in our own times. Shadows can be a powerful lens for that effort. Acknowledging and celebrating Shadows as a film deeply invested in stories about Blackness and Whiteness, at this moment in American history, is to reassert its place among the most crucial, nuanced, and humane stories about race and racial identity to which we can turn.

Shadows is largely the story of three Black charactersBennie, who runs with a gang of White friends; Lelia, his sister, a socialite in a largely White circle; and Hugh, their brother, a singer struggling with his career. From Manhattan diners to mid-town museums, to swank apartments, humble tenements, and downtown music clubs, the film follows this trio’s days and nights, the three characters’ relationships, frustrations, and hopes unfolding in a Beat-inflected, mid-century America, New York City on the edge of a crucible decade.

John_Cassavetes_Johnny_Staccato_1959
Photo of John Cassavetes as Johnny Staccato from the television program of the same name, NBC Television. Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons.

In numerous ways, the lives of these characters as Black Americans are steeped in states of apartness. To be Black in Shadows is at times to disappear into a crowd, to withdraw into corners, to resist even the most inviting moments of companionship. And to be Black in New York City, and in America, in the world of Shadows, is to strain against vanishing, to struggle for a spotlight, to strive for time and a voice and a chance to express and create without shackles or the near-certainty of short-shrift.

Taking this dynamic further, experiences of Blackness and identity in Shadows are also shaped by the relative lightness and darkness of one’s skin. It is crucial to each characters’ narrative.

Bennie, who is Black and passes for White, and who, for a time chooses a White identity in the filmas Cassavetes explains the dynamic at work, in a character sketchis characterized by anguish and spins away from the people and places around him. We find Bennie jamming himself into corners at jazz parties, climbing up and out of the throng or squashing himself into the far reaches of diner seats, masticating late-night lines until he finally says to a White woman who leans close: “I think I’m caught in this booth”. These tensions and anguishes take the form of close-ups during an apartment party, a striking scene in which all the details of the Black people Bennie sees are exaggerated in Cassavetes’ lens. Black mouths, Black teeth, Black lips; Bennie’s hyper-focus finally erupts. He lashes out, striking a Black woman. She has just said to him, “You really want to join in the party but maybe you don’t know how”. Later, Bennie stands outside a club, the sound of jazz coming through the door. He sings a nursery rhyme: “Mary had a little lamb / its fleece as white as snow / And everywhere that Mary went / the lamb was sure to go.” The refrain resonates with Bennie’s struggle to inhabit an identity, whether to lead his White friends into another alley dustup or instead, perhaps, to join that other party, the one waiting back at his own apartment.

Bennie’s sister, Lelia, is also on a journey in which she passes for White. Her days and nights at the start of Shadows revolve around intellectual parties and literary gatherings, apartments full of academics and drinkers and almost everyone in them is White. When Lelia makes love to a new friend, Tony, who is a White man from these parties, Cassavetes pointedly moves the camera from an African mask on the wall over his bed, panning down to the two of them in the sheets. Lelia is crestfallen, following this first sexual experience. She tells Tony that she thought making love would mean, “Two people would be as close as it’s possible to get. But instead we’re just two strangers.” Strangers to each other, in the moment, because of her words, and soon to be strangers in new ways because of Tony’s words as well. When he meets Lelia’s brother, Hugh, whose skin is dark, he realizes Lelia’s Blackness and his confusion and realization are plain for all to see. The consequences are irreversible. After Hugh sends him away, and after Lelia resists reconciliation, Cassavetes makes it clear that Tony will find no avenue back to that bed under the African mask, the world he briefly joined but in a critical moment rejected.

Hugh is locked into cycles of compromise, a dark-skinned Black singer in the business of White-run entertainment, struggling with the ways race and identity play into that business. And they are also about his convictionswhether he is to be a respected singer or a dressed-up buffoon telling jokes before the White show girls dance. When Hugh finally shouts out his frustration, arguing with his friend and manager in Grand Central Station as they prepare to leave on another string of falling-apart gigs, he tells us something crucial about how race and culture intertwine for him: “Let’s get the hell out of here, the States,” he cries. “We’ll go to Paris…France… Africa!” Hugh’s expressed optionslife as an expat or a full-on return to the land of descentcarry more weight than a struggle with artistic integrity alone.

Cassavetes provides no neat solutions to the challenges these three face, though they will in some ways, to some degree, rearrange the ties that bind. Hugh does not leave America; he boards a train for the next show, now pursuing a career and life he has not been able to control but doing so within the context of having stated what it is that ails him. Lelia dances in the arms of a Black man, a new friend with whom there are no guarantees, but no longer must she confront Tony and the apartness that came with that embrace. Bennie, bloodied after a new fight, finally tells his White friends that he’s giving up on the scene they’ve created. Standing alone in the darkening street, smoking, he becomes a silhouette joining others on the sidewalk, slipping from Cassavetes’ lens.

Cassavetes responded to questions about Shadows and its depictions of race by first striving to keep the film open to numerous interpretations, to preserve it as something anchored to matters of the heart.

Addressing Shadows as a film about race, however, does not diminish its other elements, or deny that it is also heavily invested in human experiences beyond those of race. Depictions of race and Blackness are simply among its most significant components. As Hugh puts it, in one scene, the conflict its characters experience stems from and revolves around “problems of the races”.

Shadows is a monumental work in this respect, a film that presents dimensions and details of Black identity in America that are complicated, compassionate, and provocativeCassavetes’ exploration, circa 1959, of a subject that envelops us still.

Featured image credit: Castle Gardens, Lisburn, November 2010 by Ardfern. CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

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