Sunday, April 13, 2008

Men Without Women

It’s probably good luck that I saw Blood In Blood Out, Taylor Hackford’s 1993 film about Chicano life in East Los Angeles and San Quentin, right after I wrote the previous post about male homoeroticism, sexless love between men, and movies. BIBO, scripted by the Chicano writer Jimmy Santiago Baca, follows three young men from their late teens to their early thirties. They begin in 1972, playing on the edges of outlawry, mainly squabbling over neighborhood turf with rival gangs, but as Mom told you, it’s all fun until someone loses an eye – or, in this case, gets a broken back and internal injuries. At which point the guns come out, someone gets killed, and one (Damian Chapa) of the lead trio is sent to San Quentin. One of the others (Benjamin Bratt), also implicated in the killing, enters the Marines and serves with distinction, later becoming a cop. The third (Jesse Borrego), after multiple surgeries, becomes a junkie and a brilliant but death-obsessed artist. It’s a long film, most notable for its minute and apparently authentic portrait of barrio life and prison life: Santiago Baca spent his early adulthood in prison, but began educating himself there and became a poet; the prison scenes were actually filmed at San Quentin.

At the same time, BIBO is unsparing in its critical take on men’s culture, its obsession with turf, pride, and honor. (The theatrical release of this movie was titled Bound by Honor. As Adrienne Rich wrote many years ago, honor for men has something to do with killing: I could not love thee so much, dear, loved I not Honour more.) All the important relationships in BIBO are between men, in prison and out. There is not even a romantic interest. While it’s not surprising that Miklo (Chapa), whose destiny is prison, should be single, neither Cruz the artist (Borrego) nor the cop Paco (Bratt) are provided with lovers. (Cruz is with a girlfriend the night he’s attacked, but after that, zilch.) The important women in the film – the only women, in fact, aside from a gringa art dealer -- are mothers, aunts, grandmothers, and the Virgin of Guadalupe. These women are not the doormats of wishful patriarchal stereotype: they withhold support from their men when they get involved in violence and drugs, and cut off the worst offenders. Adored though they may be, however, these women are not listened to. They can do nothing to stop their sons from rushing to their respective dooms.

So there’s no rivalry for women’s favor in BIBO. While the male leads love each other, often passionately, they also keep a safe distance from each other. Even when the reconciled brothers Cruz and Paco weep in each other’s arms at the end, there’s something, well, bloodless about it. I doubt anyone would find “homoeroticism” in these relationships, or that they’d want to. Miklo, who sought refuge in his mother’s familia after beating up and fleeing his abusive white father, fights to keep his anal virginity in prison, and finds a spiritual father in the icy Montana (Enrique Castillo), the leader of La Onda, the Chicano prisoners’ syndicate. Sex between males is kept outside this holy circle, embodied in punks and queens and the wolves who penetrate them; the one member of La Onda who tries to help himself to Miklo turns out to be the chief villain of the film (well, one of them).

Somewhere else Adrienne Rich wrote of the deadly passivity of men; whether or not Hayward or Santiago had ever read Rich, their movie is an explication of that phrase. Read the comments under the YouTube clip embedded above. It’s obvious even this early in the film that Miklo is doomed, but you can feel the little boys in the audience getting boners over those rigid faces, the expressionless voices, the discipline, the male bondage. A few scenes earlier we saw Paco in his Marine Corps uniform, seeking the same slavery, but he escapes by the skin of his teeth, as does Cruz: simply, they grew up.

In an essay on African-American mothers in his book Black Gay Man (NYU, 2001), Robert Reid-Pharr quoted the Black Panther militant and martyr George Jackson, who was killed in the yard at San Quentin in 1971:

In the civilized societies [wrote Jackson] the women do light work, bear children, and lend purpose to the man's existence. They train children in the ways of wisdom that history has shown to be correct. Their job is to train the children in their early life to be men and women, not confused psychotics! This is a big job, to train and propagate the race!! Is this not enough? The rest is left to the me[n?]: government administration, the providing of means of subsistence, and defense, or maintenance of life and property against any who would deprive us of it, as the barbarian has and is still attempting to do. The white theory of the “emancipated woman” is a false idea. You will find it, as they are finding it, the factor in the breakdown of the family unit [Reid-Pharr, 68].

Black Mama, you're going to have to stop making cowards. … Black Mama, your overriding concern with the survival of our sons is mistaken if it is survival at the cost of their manhood [Reid Pharr, 74].

As Reid-Pharr notes,

The irony is that at the very moment at which Jackson was imagining a black world with an essentially cloistered female population, the reality was that black women were entering in unprecedented numbers precisely the institutions that Jackson was hailing as exclusively male. As Jackson expressed his rage, his revolutionary ardor, inside increasingly small jail cells, female lawyers pressed his case, female activists kept his name before the public, and a handful of celebrity radicals: Angela Davis, Betty Shabazz, Kathleen Cleaver, Elaine Brown were left with the mantle of Black radicalism as the men in whose shadows they had once stood either died or ran [69].

Blood In, Blood Out ends in the mid-1980s; I’ve been idly imagining what a sequel might be like. Despite decades of struggle by activists of both sexes and various colors, American apartheid persists in our schools, our economy, and of course our metastasizing prison system. Manhood – as the Rule of the Fathers, as Boy Culture grown in on itself, as a Holy Grail to be sought – is one more God That Failed. More than ever, as ruined human bodies pile up around the world, it’s clear that Big Daddy’s overriding concern is that his sons achieve their manhood at the cost not only of their own lives, but of everyone else’s.