Frantz Fanon: Black Skin, White Mask (1996)

You can’t abstract a cultural sign from its context.
— Stuart Hall, Frantz Fanon: Black Skin, White Mask

“I do not come with timeless truths. My consciousness is not illuminated with ultimate radiances.” Appropriately, the first words uttered by the subject of Isaac Julien’s Frantz Fanon: Black Skin, White Mask are elusive. This self-introduction, using language that is seemingly deprecating, even negative, is typically artful, and followed by the philosopher/cultural critic’s unavoidable, real point: “Nevertheless,” he says, “in complete composure, I think it would be good if certain things were said. These things I am going to say, not shout, for it is a long time since shouting has gone out of my life, so very long.”

These “certain things” are arranged here as a kind of puzzle, part biography, part interrogation, part elegy. Alternately disjointed and sinuous, provocative and poetic, the film — screening in select cites as part of a Julien installation called “Frantz Fanon S.A. 1997-2004” and available from California Newsreel on tape and DFVD — presents an idiosyncratic vision of Fanon’s lifelong struggle, as a colonized subject seeking freedom of thought and identity. Using interviews with Fanon’s associates, family, and scholars, the hour-long, 1997 film considers Fanon from his birth in Martinique in 1925 and training as a psychiatrist in Paris, to his work with the FLN in Algeria and death from leukemia in Washington, 1961.

Though Fanon (played here by Colin Salmon, a favorite of director Paul W.S. Anderson, and so best known on U.S. movie screens as a valiant fighter of zombies and aliens) began his professional life as a psychiatrist hoping to “help patients to regain that freedom they have lost in madness.” To this end, the young student went to France, where he came face to face with the colonizing force — the very ideology — that had shaped Martinique’s past and future, and so, the young doctor’s. His arrival in Europe is smartly illustrated in the movie as an overlay of images that simultaneously underlines its own artifice and multiple contexts: Fanon stands before a photo image of the Eiffel Tower and turns to face the “documentary” camera to announce, “You must understand, dear boy, that color prejudice means absolutely nothing to me.” The moment shows that, early on, he has fully absorbed the social and political frames of Western whiteness, colorblind being a privilege afforded only to those in power to say so.

This moment is surely brief. Almost immediately, Fanon will fulfill the role that cultural critic and Chester D. Tripp Professor of Humanities at the University of Chicago Homi Bhabha asserts that of the many theorists of his era (including Castro, Marx, and Simone de Beauvoir), Fanon “stood apart,” believing in the efficacy of “pure violence” and emerging as “an avenging angel” against the slave-masters — the “us” who worked so hard and over so many centuries to colonize, contain, and crush a so-called “them.” In his first book, Black Skin, White Masks (published in 1952, originally titled “Essay for the Dis-alienation of the Black Man”), he describes being called out on the street by a French child (“Look mother, a Negro!”), and so, “sees himself being seen.”

Here, as cultural theorist Stuart Hall puts it, Fanon also “sees that the colonizer-colonized relationship is a struggle to the death,” in which the colonizer’s terrible, enduring trick is to deny any “recognition” of the colonized, to refuse to see him at all. Fanon theorized this denial, naming the structure of possession and objectification: finding himself gazed on as an other, he resisted the process by articulating it, and finding in it the interdependence of master and slave. “His gaze,” he wrote, “fixes me in my place,” but the colonizer defines himself in relation to the oppressed (“A white song all around me, a whiteness that burns”). Further, Fanon sees, the relationship is not only about racism, but about desire, the black man’s wearing of a white mask, and the white man’s desire for the black man, to possess him. Observing this sexual dynamic in power relations, Fanon challenged the colonizing gaze on multiple levels.

His own experience must change wit this challenge. He can no longer understand himself as French, or even as Martinican, in the same way he once had. And so, Fanon takes up the search for an alternative identity, a “post-colonial subject,” as well as a community with whom he might feel affinity. As the film has it, he finds this in two very different sites. First, in his love for and marriage to Josie, a white French woman (a relationship the film treats briefly, as it might have embodied what Françoise Verges calls the “desire for whiteness,” but also as a wholly individual event: they fell in love).

The film does not explore this relationship, the family it produced (his son Olivier briefly speaks on being “light-skinned,” and so a source of some “anxiety” for his father), or even the worries about it among Fanon’s political associates. Still, it does present the marriage as a complication, a means to rethink — again — the political absolutes that might have once seemed clear. Is Fanon’s desire for a white woman a sign of his colonialist indoctrination? Is he able to see past race in his personal life? Or is anyone’s identity and desire a function of multiple forces and influences, never to be sorted out wholly or rigidly? As the film puts it, “He was a dreamer perhaps but his dreams born from that nightmare of history, where the third world was neither simply reality nor ideology. No such crude opposition of history and consciousness can represent Fanon’s insight into colonialism and the making of the modern world.”

The second focus for Fanon’s reimagined self has to — initially — with his work. He aligns himself with the FLN in the war for independence in Algiers. While working with patients in Blida-Joinville beginning in 1954, Fanon asserts, “We shall deal here with the problem of mental disorders which arise from the war of national liberation that the Algerian people are carrying on.” Through this therapy, he began developing his theory of the relations among racism, desire, and colonialism, in his book, The Wretched of the Earth. It is here that Fanon’s thinking becomes acutely relevant for today’s realities, as he examines torture, imprisonment, and armed resistance. The film includes reenacted testimonies regarding the infamous tortures of the time (also recalled in Gillo Pontecorvo’s 1967 film The Battle of Algiers).

While, as Verges says, “the Algerian fighter was for Fanon the real man,” the film also suggests Fanon was troubled by the incorporation of colonialist tactics in the battle against colonialism. His patients recall the trauma of being tortured and inflicting torture: “We’re not interested in killing them,” says one soldier, “What we want is information.” And so again, Fanon’s work reveals its lasting relevance, as such definitions remain under scrutiny today, as do central questions for Wretched of the Earth, here stated, “Can the peasantry be a revolutionary class? What’s the relationship between armed struggle and revolutionary reform?”

Even more complicated is the film’s framing of Fanon’s controversial essay, “Algeria Unveiled,” in which he describes the uses of deception, “what is veiled and what is revealed.” The essay describes the insurgent situation, in which women — because they can turn the expectation of the veil against their French enemies — were able to move guns and explosives from place to place. It has been read as a “rationalization of Algerian conservatism,” and indeed, Fanon sustained a focus on and celebration of a particularly masculine opposition to colonial forces.

This, then, is Julien’s most compelling insight into Fanon, who has been both reviled and revered, that his complex interrogations of cultural and political affairs are forever entangled with his self-understanding as a “colonized individual” who lived his own revolt. As Fanon “speaks” at film’s end, the story of nationalism and colonialism is laid bare, as a story of power and possession. “Desire,” he asserts, “is the movement of memory: the psyche shrinking back, muscular tension, barbed wire entanglements, and then violence. Violence quickens the petrifying. The act of violence is not the killing field, the orgy of destruction. Violence is the visibility, the shared evil that forces together the oppressor and the oppressed. Violence is the awareness of freedom’s proximity of the fragility of survival.”