On August 17, 1990, David Lynch’s Wild at Heart opened in theaters across the United States. Followed by credits set against a black background entrenched in flames, the film opens at a hotel in Cape Fear (between the border of North and South Carolina). Swing music commences the entrance of white couple Sailor (played by Nicholas Cage) and Lula (played by Laura Dern) as they start down the stairs of the hotel when stopped by black male, Bob Ray Lemon (played by Gregg Dandridge). Lemon admires Lula stating “you mine baby” before conversing with Sailor when he states that he was just paid by Marietta (Lula’s mother) to kill him. Lemon whips out a knife. “Slaughterhouse”, the heavy rock song by the band Powermad begins playing as Sailor hits Lemon, shoves him against the wall, and beats him. With all white spectators looking on, Lemon’s head is bashed against the staircase railing and then the floor by Sailor’s bear hands in which you could hear the sounds of his head pounding at ever action. Numerous times, the camera cuts to just pools of blood on the floor. When the lynching is over, the “Slaughterhouse” ends, the orchestra music continues, and Sailor lights a cigarette while standing over his supposed assailants body (McGowan 117). This film is classified as a romance; a love story between Sailor and Lula in which nothing will get in the way of them being together (Wild at Heart).
What we as the audience experience in this scene is the many ways in which a black body inflicted with violence, pain, or laying dead on the floor has been displayed in film. We are never given a name of this black man in Wild at Heart (I retrieved his name on The Internet Movie Database) unlike the other characters in the scene at which their names are given to us from the start. Therefore, he is reduced to just a black man, or better yet a black body made available for an audience (both the spectators in the film and spectators watching the movie) to marvel at. His very body has been commodified which is nothing new in American society. However, whereas African Americans were commodified during slavery and their very value was determined in labor in which they were bought and sold, this black man is commodified in a dynamic where there is value in his dead body on the floor. Yes we live in a violent society where death and violence portrayed in film is nothing new. Violence, even to the extent of death sells. But, when meanings turned fetishes are made about blackness in film, then associated with violence inflicted upon the black subject, and that pain is made available for public consumption, it says that blackness is a viable commodity that can best be seen in the image of the black wounded body. When blacks or blackness is commodified and made available for public consumption, whether it is physically as in slavery or in media representations as in film, what is really being valued (as a commodity is defined as a useful or valuable thing) is the devaluation of blackness thus represented by the literal devaluation or destruction of the black body.
In the opening scene in Wild at Heart. When Lemon first approaches Sailor and Lula, he shows an attraction to Lula by looking at her body and then tells her “you mine baby.” So automatically, the film establishes this black man as a threat to this white female with his sexuality. Then, he makes it clear to Sailor that he is here to kill him, thus a threat to Sailor and an example of a way in which a white male can be threatened by an empowering black race that whites must put a stop to, which Sailor does. As none of the people in the hotel try to stop Sailor during his murder of Lemon, it is proof that the white audience sees Sailor as justified in this violence toward this black man, who is seen as bringing it on himself. The violence that Lemon wanted to do to Sailor is wrong but the brutal violence that Sailor actually takes out against Lemon is the only one allowed, the only one that is right. There is a re-representation of hypersexual and violent black men like Lemon in film today in the images of aggressive criminals, pimps, hustlers, and players all of whom break rules and take advantage of people.
*Warning: The following video is extremely graphic.
Blackness and Whiteness are polar opposites and one cannot exist without the other. Blackness is commodified in order to define a value in Whiteness. Whiteness is valued because it is different from blackness. A way in which whiteness defines these values of distinction is by fetishizing the black body to be inferior, savage, and dangerous. Whenever these qualities are deemed as a threat to whites (although whites created them) and whenever blacks gain power and seem to cross that line of distinction, whites answer it with violence. What we see in the opening scene of Wild at Heart is the devaluation of Lemon’s body because Lemon is inferior which then depicts Sailor, the white male, as stronger, better, and more valuable. Also we see violence acted on Lemon’s body in order to keep him in that inferior and devalued position. The spectators do not try to put a stop to Lemon’s murder, because Lemon does not matter, he is not physically valued in that way. The spectatorship in this scene is also reminiscent of the spectatorship involved in lynching. The ritual of lynching took place across the United States between 1880 and 1930. Lynchings served as a response to black male hypersexuality that threatened white females. Thus most of the time black men were lynched because they were rumored to have raped a white female, (a sign that they were trying to advance in society). Lynching served as way to halt black social advancement (and black value) and through lynching, the murder of the black body transferred power to whites (Young 650, 652). Crowds of people traveled to the site of lynchings to take part in the violence inflicted on the black body. They took photographs and were entertained by this public display of physical devaluation of the black body. What they walked away with was a deeper sense of power and value because as Harvey Young writes “The Black Body as Souvenir in American Lynching,” “the act of witnessing death, which entails being in its presence, leads not only to the recognition that the witness too could have died but also, and perhaps more importantly, that the witness has survived” (652).