by Mia Mask
University of Illinois Press
320 pages, Illustrated
Book Review by Kam Williams
“By examining the persona of five African-American women celebrities, Divas [on Screen] seeks to push the discussion of African-American celebrity beyond the of Divas is slightly different. It asks: what can we learn from the complex and contradictory careers of successful black women? Where do we find African-Americans in the performative, ‘other-directed,’ narcissistic culture? What does African-American stardom as a social phenomenon reveal about the aspirations of black folks in the 21st Century? How have African-Americans—in their struggle for inclusion in commercial entertainment—complied with dominant culture?”
— Excerpted from the Introduction (pg. 4)
Vassar Professor Mia Mask has both a bigger vocabulary and a higher IQ than I do, judging by how often she had me reaching for the dictionary and by the many, marvelous insights about cinema she makes that had never occurred to this film critic before. So consider this a fair warning: this sage sister’s book, “Divas on Screen: Black Women in American Film” is not light reading but an academic enterprise of considerable substance. That being said, those willing to make the intellectual effort are likely to find themselves richly rewarded by the author’s fresh perspective, priceless pearls of wisdom and impressive background in terms of the cultural, biographical and historical contexts.
The title might strike you as a bit of a misnomer, for it suggests more expansive coverage of African-American actresses than the five icons focused on here, namely, Dorothy Dandridge, Whoopi Goldberg, Pam Grier, Halle Berry and Oprah. Yet, Professor Mask’s unorthodox approach to the subject still feels comprehensive for, along the way, she manages to incorporate bon mots about many of their accomplished contemporaries.
As for that primary quintet, each enjoys her own chapter. Blaxploitation era idol Pam Grier is given her props for playing macho roles which placed an “emphasis on her body in such a way as to create an image of phallic femininity.” At the other extreme, early pioneer Dorothy Dandridge is credited with cultivating “a public persona of respectable, black bourgeois womanhood, feminine beauty, and domesticity.”
Dr. Mask describes Whoopi as an actress excluded from typical romantic screen liaisons whose repertoire instead reflects an inclination to disrupt “the dominant social order” which explains why she has so frequently defied conventional notions about race, gender and sexuality. Of course, Halle and Oprah’s careers are deconstructed, too, and in a thought-provoking fashion that will prevent you from thinking of them in the same way ever again.
A fascinating, feminist examination of a struggle for self-definition in the face of a dominant culture and an entertainment industry perfectly comfortable with serving up stereotypical images of black women designed for mass consumption.