Dr Zélie Asava introduces her book The Black Irish Onscreen: Representing Black and Mixed-Race Identities on Irish Film and Television, a critical investigation of race in contemporary Irish visual culture which explores concepts of Irish identity, history and nation in relation to screen representations of those who have become known as the ‘new Irish’.
In 2009, Ireland had the highest birth rate in Europe, with almost 24 per cent of births attributed to the ‘new Irish’. By 2013, 17 per cent of the nation was foreign-born. 2013 has seen a plethora of Irish films exploring the interstices of identity, borderlands and cross-cultural communications in the Irish space: Steve McQueen’s 12 Years a Slave features Irish-German actor Michael Fassbender and Irish-Ethiopian actress Ruth Negga in a slavery-era narrative; Neil Jordan’s Byzantium features Saoirse Ronan as an English vampire who falls in love with an all-too human Irish-American in Britain and brings him to Ireland to become immortal; Paula Kehoe’s An Dubh ina Gheal [Assimilation] looks at the Irish-Aborigines’ of Australia, Joe Lawlor and Christine Molloy positions the Irishman within a transnational, interracial context in Mister John; the Boorsma brothers’ Milo utilizes the racial narrative of ‘passing’ to illuminate issues of disability and discrimination, centralising an Irish family who are also Dutch-Romanian; and Ama’s storyline on Fair City examines the position of illegals in Ireland and the challenges of blending distinctly different cultural values.
As Fintan O’Toole notes, there is no genuine newness in the ‘new Irish’, as Ireland has a history of cultural and ethnic heterogeneity, but ‘understanding globalization in the Irish context is as much a task of remembrance as it is of encountering the new’ (2009: viii). Following O’Toole, my book aims to connect the ‘dislocated continuity’ of racial discourses which have been circulating for many hundreds of years in Ireland and highlights the need to break down essentialist conceptualisations of Irishness by asserting its diversity, nonfixity and instability. As racial representations tend to be focused on black/white issues, the book reflects this by looking at dominant screen representations of the ‘new Irish’ as non-white. However, it does also examine other marginalised identities in Ireland by referencing Jewish, Romanian, Traveller and a variety of Eastern European characters in brief. There is still much more work to be done on this subject and it is my hope that this book will serve as a contribution to that dialogue. The book asks how and why black and mixed-race characters are represented in Irish screen culture, and how this fits into broader shifts in the visual industries, in national politics and in the international landscape.
While mass immigration is a new phenomenon, Ireland has always been, as John Brannigan (2009) notes, ‘heterogeneous and hybrid’, and in the last century has become home to significant Indian, Nigerian, Italian, German, Spanish, French, Brazilian, Lithuanian, Polish and Chinese communities, many of whom are now citizens. This country has produced a series of high-profile mixed-race stars, including Phil Lynott, Ruth Negga, Samantha Mumba, Siva Kaneswaran and Paul McGrath among others, yet in screen culture as in the socio-political arena, Ireland remains represented through a series of tropes which often exclude its non-white citizens. Minority characters are predominately used as metonyms for social disadvantage though some films attempt to examine their positionality in a more complex way, e.g. Adam and Paul (Abrahamson, 2004) and Once (Carney, 2006) presents the Eastern-European in Ireland as a co-agent to the white Irish male. What Richard Did (Abrahamson, 2012) is one of few to use the inter-ethnic token as a symbol of wealth and power (the titular character is Danish-Irish, and a black rugby player features prominently in one scene, perhaps representative of mixed-race contemporary Irish rugby star Simon Zebo). Through an analysis of screen visualizations of the black Irish, The Black Irish Onscreen uncovers forgotten histories, challenges the perceived homogeneity of the nation, evaluates integration, and considers the future of the new Ireland.
Mixed-race and black actors have featured in many Irish fiction films (particularly since the influx of migrants in the 1990s) including: Pigs (Black, 1984); The Crying Game (Jordan, 1992); Mona Lisa (Jordan, 1986); The Nephew (Brady, 1998); When Brendan Met Trudy (Walsh, 2000); Breakfast on Pluto (Jordan, 2005); Isolation (O’Brien, 2005); Boy Eats Girl (Bradley, 2005); Irish Jam (Eyres, 2006); The Front Line (Gleeson, 2006); New Boy (Green, 2007); The Blaxorcist (King, 2007); Cactus (Molatore, 2007); Kisses (Daly, 2008); Trafficked (O’Connor, 2009); Sensation (Hall, 2010); Between the Canals (O’Connor, 2011); The Guard (McDonagh, 2011). Television programmes reflecting Ireland’s diversity include: Love/Hate (RTE, 2010-present); Love is the Drug (RTE, 2004); Raw (RTE, 2008-present); The Clinic (RTE, 2003-9); Single-Handed (RTE, 2007-present); Father and Son (RTE, 2009); Fair City (RTE, 1989-present). My book takes a close look at work from the 1990s to the present day, analysing intercultural figures and questioning the idea of Irishness as a static category which defines the ‘other’ but is not subject to definition. I examine questions in this study such as, how is the relationship between the white and black Irish expressed in Irish visual culture? Further, how is Irish identity defined, and how can we consider the black Irish as participants or even citizens in Irish society, and as part of the Irish diaspora? In examining how these figures are represented, the book also interrogates the relationship between the visibly different and the recognizably Irish (and the various other ethnic communities in Ireland).
In 1991’s The Commitments, the positive black slogan immortalized in music by James Brown in 1970, is used for the Irish, by the Irish: “I’m black and I’m Proud”. This problematizes the position of actual black (and mixed-race) Irish figures in Ireland at the time, and those who remain subject to acts of racism. The appropriation of black cultural production by white artists can be read as an act of cross-racial solidarity, minstrelsy and masquerade, or exploitation. Indeed, if the Irish adopt political blackness but remain tied to racialised discourses which exclude black agents, then where does that leave the black Irish? Such questions are overlooked by the film. Race and class are conflated when the characters claim that as Northsiders they are “the blacks of Dublin” and that, given Ireland’s weak economic position, “the Irish are the blacks of Europe”, although the word ‘nigger’ is used in the novel by Roddy Doyle on which the film is based. The use of the ‘n’ word in The Commitments is a misguided attempt at solidarity which ignores its negative use by white Irish people. This raises a question first illuminated in Pigs and continued in works such as Love is the Drug, The Nephew and Fair City – why is it possible for Irish culture to identify with blackness unproblematically, while black people who identify as Irish are still subjects of bemusement or perplexity?
In The Black Irish Onscreen I examine the possibility of concepts of nation expanding so that the collective Irish identity might extend to those who are non-white or non-Irish and yet living in Ireland and becoming part of the nation, as well as those who are mixed-race. I begin by framing the position of the black Irish in Ireland, looking at historical, sociological and visual responses to immigration. The first chapter explores work by Neil Jordan, who across his career has privileged in-between identities and questioned certainties in his representations of race, sexuality and nationality as flexible and changeable. I focus on his films The Crying Game, Mona Lisa and Breakfast on Pluto (starring mixed-race Irish actress Ruth Negga, who is currently on the small screen in Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.). Breakfast on Pluto is particularly interesting in this analysis as it not only positions the black Irish as part of the diaspora but ends with a radically modern vision of the Irish family as a two parent, non-sexual, unmarried, interracial, transgender, feminized unit raising their child as a London urbanite.
The next chapter critiques the position of the black Irish on television. It comparatively analyses Lenny Abrahamson’s Prosperity (starring English actress Diveen Henry as a Nigerian cleaner in Dublin being drawn into prostitution), with representations of Fair City’s Ama character (played by mixed-race Irish actress Donna Nikolaisen), alongside Gerry Stembridge’s Black Day at Black Rock (which looks at the reaction of a small town to an influx of refugees and portrays how the locals ultimately prevent their arrival), and Negga’s role in Love is the Drug (which also featured Downtown Abbey’s Allen Leech as her onscreen lover). While, the Fair City storyline can be read as a contemporary love story, it features notable historical stereotypes derived from early American cinema – Ama is a well educated woman, a nurse from Zambia, fluent in English, and yet she is initially framed within the white working class men of Carrigstown, a group of unskilled labourers and underclass criminals. Here the show, like Prosperity, vividly depicts the possibility of the black Irish becoming part of what Bryan Fanning (2009) called the ‘sub-Irish’, subject to a form of ‘administrative apartheid’. Yet the soap has also featured black and mixed-race characters as legal consultants and social workers (that is, as symbol of the middle class black Irish). Once Ama becomes part of respectable society however, a new problem emerges – as a Christian she does not believe in sex before marriage and yet lives with Damien, a situation which causes him to have an affair. That this affair is with a white middle-class woman may be explained by the fact that Ama is the only non-white or indeed non-Irish person in Carrigstown, and yet it brings us back to the ‘tragic mulatta’ storylines of American cinema, immortalised in 1959’s Imitation of Life. Ultimately, as with the earlier Udenze family narrative, the races are positioned as incompatible and same-race relationships are privileged. Although, while Ama remains a central character on the show there is always the potential for change. 2004’s Love is the Drug offers an alternative view as the mixed woman at its heart is Irish and local, and her love story with a white man is successful. Yet, the programme also featured a series of racialised nightmares as fantastical interludes, where the white male protagonists dreamed of being overpowered by stereotypically tribal male African monsters, who colluded with their Irish female love interests. The series conflated gender with race, suggesting that Irish men were unsettled by the new Ireland, where men of all races worked alongside them and women had more power than ever before.
The third chapter of the book looks at race, hybridity and horror, exploring the roles of the mixed-race Irish female protagonists who respectively lead 2005’s Isolation and Boy Eats Girl. In Isolation, a young bi-racial woman and her Traveller lover find themselves on a farm where experimentations have led to monstrous birth defects in the animals, producing bloodthirsty mutants. In Boy Eats Girl, a D4 suburb is thrown into chaos when a bi-racial girl’s boyfriend tries to commit suicide and is resurrected by his grieving single mother as a zombie. Horror is an ideal genre for unpacking questions of plurality as it is creatively based on the blurring of boundaries and the unsettling of certainties. In these films, the women are both symbols of the positive potentials of social and cultural mixture and symbolic of the threat this presents (which is reinforced by the mutants surrounding them). This chapter also considers how the depiction of two sexually active non-white leads (one of whom becomes pregnant) in films released the same year that the Citizenship Act came into effect reflects political concerns regarding migration, ethnicity and kinship.
The next three chapters of The Black Irish Onscreen centralize the interaction between race, genre and gender structures, first looking at the position of African and African-American male characters in the melodrama and the thriller genres, before moving on to considerations of the black/non-white character as mirror to the white Irishman in a series of thrillers. From The Crying Game to David Gleeson’s The Front Line to Ciaran O’Connor’s Trafficked, black characters have been used to reveal a certain Otherness, loss or estrangement in their white male counterpart, and to highlight the political differences between Englishness and Irishness by illuminating the off-whiteness of Irishness and its oppositional formulation.
The final chapter examines new forays into racial representations in Irish screen culture, exploring transnational narratives like John Michael McDonagh’s The Guard and Phil Harrison’s The Good Man (starring Aiden Gillen, a film set between Northern Ireland and South Africa). In my analysis, these films are compared with contemporary crime dramas such as urban thriller Between the Canals and rural thriller Sensation, and again this chapter draws out the challenges of illuminating racial discourses onscreen, looking at regressive stereotyping and more positive subjective characterisations of the black agent in the Irish space.
Finally in the conclusion, I explore the future of the black Irish onscreen and consider short films and emerging work on multiculturalism, centralizing fascinating pieces such as the Oscar nominated New Boy by Steph Green, Alessandro Molatore’s Cactus, Ed King’s The Blaxorcist, David O’Sullivan’s Moore Street Masala, and the Boorsma brothers’ Milo.
Since the emergence of the Celtic Tiger, Irish society and its cinema has changed drastically. As Debbie Ging notes ‘it is reasonable to expect, therefore, that such developments should result in a more pluralistic, multi-vocal film culture, and indeed there has been a marked increase in the visibility of gay, lesbian, immigrant, minority-ethnic and socially excluded characters on the Irish screen in recent years’ (2008: 1). My book responds to Ging’s work to ask whether this multi-vocal culture has transpired, or if we still have a film culture where brown faces are used in a tokenistic fashion to imply integration when in fact the subaltern remains spoken for and estranged within Ireland. Films such as Reefer and the Model (1988), Buskers (2000), Once a Man Called Omar (2001), Caught Offside (2002), Pádraig agus Nadia (2002), Push Hands (2003), Adam and Paul (2004), Detention (2004), Pavee Lackeen (2005), Ghostwood (2006), Once (2006), A Simple Piece of Cloth (2006), W.C. (2007), Kings (2007), Ondine (2009), Savage (2009), The Daisy Chain (2009), 3 Crosses (2009), Promise and Unrest (2010), Pyjama Girls (2010), Knuckle (2011) and Between the Canals (2011), explore Irishness and Otherness, but all too often non-Irish characters seem to be signifiers of difference, whose brief presence onscreen is used to visibly express the oppression and exclusion experienced by the Irish characters (whose Otherness is less visible than that of the foreigners presented). In these films, the foreign is often a silent image used as a visual metaphor for intolerance and inequality. As such my book seeks to establish, as Ging puts it, whether these films ‘give disenfranchized and disempowered groups “image space”, as opposed to a genuinely empowered voice’ (2)?
Fintan O’Toole observes that the migrant had a doubling effect on boom-time Ireland, as a signifier of the old and the new, the foreigner within:
They were… the most visible sign – and through the multiple languages, sound – of radical globalisation. They literally embodied a major break with the past. Yet… they were also… us – twenty years, or fifty years, or 150 years before. Their presence created overlapping realities… what the Irish were experiencing as new – rapid urbanization, multiculturalism, the need to make one’s way in a polyglot and physically unfamiliar society – was a recapitulation of their own ancestors (2009: xiv).
Visual culture is intimately tied to society and can perform an important social role for spectators, revealing new truths, new social partners and new challenges. By presenting former Others as identifiable rounded characters, film and television enable audiences to move beyond social borders and identify with characters despite differences in race, class, age, ability, language, gender or sex. Thus The Black Irish Onscreen aims to provoke a series of questions regarding racial representations which may contribute to wider social discourses on race-relations in Ireland, new understandings of Irish cinema, and the potential for new visualizations of Irish identity based on, as Gerardine Meaney put it: ‘the cultural maps that the new immigrants will produce, the possibility of a very differenced Ireland in the world’ (2007: 61).
Dr Zélie Asava lectures in film and media studies at Dundalk Institute of Technology.
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