From Hell: a rebuttal to white society's view of the Ghetto?

I watched the Hughes brothers From Hell over the weekend. It was hard not to remain conscious throughout that it was directed by the brothers whose brilliant Menace II Society was such a powerful portrait of black American life (keeping in mind that as a middle-class white guymost of what I know about black American life I’ve learned from movies such as the Hugheses’, Charles Burnetts’, and John Singletons’, e.g.). With that uppermost in my mind while watching it, it seemed to me that From Hell serves as a kind of rebuttal to the pervasive misconception that the blame for the problems of “ghetto life” can be simplistically laid at the feet of the modern black Americans who live there. Drugs, prostitution, murder, extortion, etc., are a product of the Industrial Revolution and subsequent urbanization. In other words, the modern “ghetto” was invented by Victorian England at the height of the British Empire.

This interpretation leaves me with a couple questions: is it racist on my part to be unable to see this film except through the lens of its having been made by black directors? or was that their intent? (I’ve since learned that the Hughes brothers referred to it as a “ghetto film,” so I may not be that far off.)

Would it be the same film if made by a white artist (as Schindler’s List, for example, would be a VASTLY different film if made by a German director)?

Er, have you read the comic?

no, but that’s not really relevant to this discussion: I’m talking about the Hughes brothers’ take on it.

I suppose it depends greatly on what you mean by “modern” but the notion that a crime-ridden, poverty-impaired, hopeless ghetto was invented as late as Victorian England simply doesn’t fly. Ghettos ware extant in cities for centuries if not millennia earlier.

I also didn’t think that the ghetto displayed in From Hell was much of a ghetto either. It was easily rivaled by the one in Gangs of New York and I thought that one was essentially prettified too.

None of this means that the Hughes weren’t making some sort of social commentary, or that it matters what their source was. But if they were making the comment you think they were, it was way too little and too late to be meaningful.

I think you (original poster) make some good points. The Hughes brothers on the DVD commentary made a number of remarks regarding Victorian society’s hypocrisy (if I recall correctly) and they seemed to make that a recurrent theme in their film.

It seems only too obvious that ghettos and poverty have affected all races and places. Class warfare is pretty ugly. Throw race in the mix, as here in America, or religion, as in other spots, and it gets even uglier. So I don’t think the Hughes’ said anything really new, but they did it in an interesting way.

Exapno, I think the modern urban landscape is unique to the post-Industrial Revolution world, and it presented some new problems.

And Well, I think what From Hell says that’s new is, by carrying the context of having been made by black artists, turns the image of the ghetto as a black issue on its ear: at the same time its pointing out what a red herring that is, it’s rubbing white-European-society’s nose in its own native savagery, to use two words that were deeply loaded in Victorian England.

It says, more clearly than it would if it had been directed by an Englishman, that that kind of savagery is indeed native to all humankind, and not just to the races considered “savage” by Victorians, and by modern racists.

I believe that there are a huge number of issues that point up both the basic continuity of ghettos through the ages and also the enormous differences between today’s ghettos and those just after the onset of the Industrial Revolution.

For examples: most people in those days could not vote - women not at all and male suffrage was widened (but not universalized) in England only after the Second Reform Act of 1882, so that ghetto dwellers had no political leverage and no true representatives. There were also cultural and social barriers to rising from poverty that have largely been lost. Financial ones as well - even such simple things as business loans and mortgages did not exist. There was virtually no welfare state and health care was about non-existent. When all the major cast members of a picture about a ghetto have full sets of even white teeth you are in neverland. Sanitation, free schooling, electric power, clean milk and water - all the things that are provided even to the lowliest modern ghettos were nonexistent. I truly believe that most people living in a Victorian ghetto would find today’s ghettos to a be a paradise almost beyond their imaginations.

Yet there was not a word or a hint or suggestion of any of these political issues in the most basic (and marxist) sense in the movie. Just a dreary cop film set against a nonsensical Hollywoodized ghetto. One that had been a center of poverty for hundreds of years, and had hardly changed at all despite the Industrial Revolution. (And the movie also lost all the social satire of Moore’s spoof of conspiracy theories.)

Again contrast it to Gangs of New York, another dreary and stylized view of the ghetto. They were not an English invention; England was merely one of the countries that experienced them for the same reasons. And that movie is set a quarter century earlier and is consumed with political issues that can be usefully set against today’s world. If either film makes a comment about today’s ghettos, it is this one.

The Industrial Revolution did create a set of crowding that had previously never been seen in the western world but it also created the kind of mass political and social phenomena that allowed for a way out of the ghetto. From Hell doesn’t touch on any of these but any film that sought to make a comment about the “problems of modern ghetto life” would have to.

There are certain schools of criticism that imply that just setting a text in a location makes a political statement about that location, but I consider that a tautology that has no meaningful extension.

If the Hughes brothers wanted to make a film that did all you you read into From Hell I’d be curious to see it. But I can’t agree that it’s come out yet.

But what you’re saying is largely tautological too: you’re suggesting that since “ghettos” existing previously–in order to prove which you’d have to convince me of the accuracy of Gangs, which is unlikely–that there’s NO WAY the Hughes brothers COULD make a film set in Victorian London be a commentary on modern ghettos. Your arguments against my “thesis,” in other words, is based entirely on historical context, and not on an artistic critique of the film. I certainly don’t buy that. If Puritan New England, or the Wild West, can frame critiques of the Cold War, then certainly nineteenth cent. London can be used just as creatively.

In any case, I feel that it’s pretty clear that such was their intention, to a certain extent. The textures and shadows of the film almost serve to throw the actors’ pasty whiteness into stark relief; “This is not your mama’s ghetto, but the same problems exist.”

Anyway, you seem to be stuck on my use of the word “invent,” which is not the central issue. Though I think that many of the specific issues which continue to plague “ghettos” to this day are post Ind.Rev., I’m willing to drop that debate to focus on the bro’s artistic intentions, and the role of conext in film analysis (cf, again, Schindler’s List, and the unique pass that film was given due its director’s being American and Jewish; the same film, if made by a German non-Jew, would have been condemned as an Aryan apologia: conext is everything).

Also, you’re saying that the brothers were not successful. Fine, arguable; I was trying to decide what their intentions were, not whether they succeeded. For me, that message is there: projected or intentional. For you, it’s not. Mostly I’m curious about the debate on projected VERSUS intentional.

You might want to try watching Murder By Decree by way of comparison (it’s another Ripper movie, with a similar theory. Also, it a darn good flick.)

Seen it; don’t remember. Maybe I will. This reminded me more of The Boston Strangler for some reason; not sure why.

lissener, I stated that Gangs was stylized, so I’m hardly claiming that it was historically accurate, but if you think that means that the Five Points ghetto it depicted didn’t exist, you need to read some New York City history. It existed; it was far worse than that movie showed.

As for the rest: it’s normally somewhere between hard and impossible to gauge a filmmaker’s intentions. However, I thought my list of issues that were not brought up in the film gave sufficient reason for my not thinking that they were intended to be elicited in the viewer. I can’t understand what else they are but an artistic critique.

My contention is that you are reading into the film things that are not there. You disagree. You now to have state exactly where they are in the film. Just setting a movie in a poor section of a city doesn’t count all by itself.

And for historic purposes, the very word ghetto comes from an island off Venice that Jews were made to live on. The ghetto concept comes from the sections of the cities in which Jews were confined to live. This started hundreds of years ago, when the stirrup was high technology.

I know; that’s why I consistently enclose the word in quotes.

Hmm. Disagree: does a director hide his intentions? Part of the “duty,” as it were, of the critical movie watcher, is to reconcile the director’s–indeed, any artist’s–intentions with his success in fulfilling them. The narrower that gap, the better the artist (acknowledging the subjectiveness involved). I don’t think it’s particularly useful to start a critical discussion with the premise that, since a director’s intention can’t usually be empirically proven, that it’s not relevant to the discussion: it is in fact a HUGE part of the discussion.

First, not as interested in what was NOT brought up as in what WAS. Second, your response seemed to focus on my use of the word “invent,” and to suggest that since that was debatable, the Hughes brothers could be saying no such thing: your response was limited, in other words, to MY words and their relationship to YOUR understanding of history. The Hughes brothers, nor their art, never came into it.

There is a difference between the act of writing and the act of reading, and it’s accepted–even cliche–that more goes into a work than its creator may be fully conscious of. So I don’t tend to look down on “reading into things”; I think reading into things is a perfectly valid part of the artistic process. Surely you wouldn’t argue that Bettelheim’s deconstruction of Grimm is only valid insofar as the Grimms’ were conscious of their stories’ rich subtext.

Not unless I want to convince you, which I don’t care much about.

Nor, of course, have I suggested any such thing; although contextual juxtaposition can go a long way to forcing an intended comparison.

The problem with your question is that with both film and literature is that you can argue nearly any interpretation, and make it “work.” Tell us that this is a symbol for that, and do it convincingly, and you have a viable theory, completely divorced from the intentions of the creator of the work.
I, for example, have argued that Drop Dead Fred is a criticism of the industrial revolution. Now, the argument is strange, but I am able to support it pairing Marxist theory symbols and elements of the movie . While it’s a silly agrument, it works (for the most part). And I’m 99.99% positive that the movie makers had no intention whatsoever of representing things the way I chose to interpret them (although you have to worry about the mental health of someone doing critical theory for fun, don’t you.)

I also wrote a much more serious paper implying that Owen’s “Dulce Et Decourum Est” borrows in part from the myth of Icarus - which was a believable enough interpretation to earn me an A from a professor who rarely gave them.

Bearing this in mind, I’m inclined to believe that people can see whatever they want in things, and the validity of the views are determined only by how many people you can sway to your opinion; the author or film maker’s intentions rarely fit into the equation. That’s one of the things that made being an English major so entertaining :smiley:

I agree; see my recent deconstruction of Moby Dick. Seems pretty obvious to me, though, that two artists whose work to date has pretty clearly identified with the urban black experience would not entirely abandon that sensibility for a project in which, perhaps tellingly perhaps not, there is not single black character.