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The Othello Effect: The Performance of Black Masculinity in Mid-Century Cinema

By Charles Eugene Gentry


This dissertation attempts to theorize the performance of black masculinity in the mid-twentieth century as a cultural process, by analyzing films with narratives that creatively confronted the problem of race and intercultural relations in the modern Atlantic world, and by directly or discreetly invoking the archetype of the tragic black hero. Examining the film careers of Paul Robeson, Harry Belafonte, and Sidney Poitier, this thesis argues that international travel and transnational work were not only significant in the development of a sense of cultural identity for these performers as individuals, but also essential to the transformation of the African American image in popular culture. It offers a critical interpretation of screen performances, celebrity persona, and political activism, and contends that the heroic figure of black masculinity was often a contradictory and controversial subject for critical inquiry, yet it was integral to the popular revaluation of racial representations in the United States. The “Othello effect” describes the signifying power of black masculinity to achieve social change through performance practices, and the reactionary tendency of normative structures to contain or control these practices. With respect to Othello, Robeson welcomed the role throughout his career and repeatedly embodied its potential meanings, for which he was initially admired but eventually stoked fear and resentment in a postwar period of popular consensus. Belafonte encountered the Othello trope obliquely in Island in the Sun (1957), then inverted its connotations in his independent films. Poitier repeatedly wrestled with the idea of playing the part, and then portrayed another version of the noble Moor in The Long Ships (1964), but later rejected it

Topics: Black Masculinity, Performance Studies, Cinema Studies, Paul Robeson, Harry Belafonte, Sidney Poitier
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