The Black Irish Onscreen: Representing Black and Mixed-Race Identities on Irish Film and Television by Zélie Asava (review)
Volume 7, Number 1, Fall 2015 (New Series)
Isabelle Le Corff
Asava, Zélie, The Black Irish Onscreen: Representing Black and Mixed-Race Identities on Irish Film and Television (Oxford, Bern, Berlin, Bruxelles, Frankfurt am Main, New York, Wien: Peter Lang, 2013)
The Black Irish Onscreen makes an original contribution to the field of Irish film studies. Author Zélie Asava has gone to great lengths to confront the political hierarchies of black and white in Ireland and question the links between visual culture and social reality. Pointing at Ireland’s long history of cultural and ethnic heterogeneity, the general introduction shows how, although Ireland has shifted from a land of emigrants to one of immigrants, it continues to consider foreigners as people who come to work rather than to settle permanently, the immigrant probably reminding the nation of its own migrant past and present.
Challenging the idea that “being Irish is still often seen as a question of being the product of two Irish people descended from a long line of Irish ancestors,” Asava describes her familial and cultural roots in Ireland and explains that her politics as a heterosexual mixed-race woman have been deeply influenced by the cultural productions of Ireland. As an Irish woman with dual citizenship, her experiences of misrecognition have framed her intellectual interrogation. She can thus assert that the personal is highly political, and stress the importance of using art to challenge socioeconomic and cultural norms.
Since the emergence of the Celtic Tiger and mass immigration as a new phenomenon, there have been enduring problems of racism and acceptance in Ireland. Asava ironically observes that Irish identity now expands to include the seventy million of the diaspora but still excludes non-Europeans living in Ireland, the majority of whom are African. Questioning the link between reality and onscreen representations, she insists that despite a marked increase in the visibility of gay, lesbian, minority-ethnic, and socially excluded characters on the Irish screen, it is still extremely difficult nowadays to find images of mixed-race or black people in Irish visual culture, and the existing representations are frequently stereotyped and prejudiced. Asava cherishes the hope that, with more focus on commonalities than differences, the black and hyphenated Irish may come to be seen as part of the nation rather than as a fractional ethnic group defined as “Other.” Being critical of the way Otherness may be referred to in cultural products is imperative. Different aspects of Irish public culture are pointed out as a means of de-legitimizing the Irishness of anyone who isn’t white or the product of Irish ancestors. Such aspects range from the constant media references to the men of 1916 to the focus on parochial origins, which inevitably position all hybrids as foreigners, albeit foreigners born and bred on Irish soil. Asava’s book is the first in Irish film studies to consider Ireland as a black mixed-race country and explore manifestations of Irishness which challenge the concept of Irish identity as a static, homogeneous ethnicity, seeking to produce a more inclusive and far reaching vision of Irish identity. It complements Debbie Ging’s “Goldfish Memories? On Seeing and Hearing Marginalised Identities in Contemporary Irish Cinema,” published in 2008.
The Black Irish Onscreen is divided into six chapters. The first chapter is devoted to Neil Jordan’s The Crying Game (1992) and Breakfast on Pluto (2005), two Irish films featuring mixed-race protagonists. Jordan’s work was among the first to explore racial narratives in Northern Ireland during the Troubles, and to draw parallels between the political situation in Northern Ireland and interracial and queer/trans* love. His film Mona Lisa (1986) is also cited for starring Cathy Tyson and comparing mixed-race Great Britain and white Ireland. In this chapter Asava briefly refers to Diane Negra and Richard Dyer’s pioneering works on racializing whiteness and showing how representations of gender, sexuality and race have been shaped by the film industry. Sexuality and race are thus equated as alien in an Irish screen culture characterized by major gender imbalances, male directors and male protagonists dominating an industry that favors historical and gangster genres.
The second chapter focuses on black or mixed-race women on Irish television. Different television programs such as Prosperity (RTE, 2007), Love is The Drug (RTE, 2004), and Fair City (RTE, 1989–) are considered for the way they portray black or mixed-race female protagonists. While…
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