Greater Level of Literacy

BELL HOOKS—CULTURAL CRITICISM & TRANSFORMATION

Part 1

And the issue is not freeing ourselves from representation. It’s really about being enlightened witnesses when we watch representations, which means we are able to be critically vigilant about both what is being told to us and how we respond to what is being told. Because I think that the answer is not the kind of censoring absolutism of a right wing political correctness but in fact of a proactive sense of agency that requires of all of us one, a greater level of literacy. I think that we cannot begin to talk about freedom and justice in any culture if we are not talking about mass based literacy movements. Because I think that literacy as we know from the work of Marshall McLuhan and many others that the degrees of literacy determine so often how we see what see, how we interpret it, what it means for our lives and that there’s a way in which radical movements for freedom in the United States devalue the significance of literacy as a radical agenda for politicization. So it seems to me that two major factors of intervention have to do with both critical thinking and then the capacity to read and write. Because so much enlightening information only comes through the printed page, so if people are not able to read and write they already don’t have access to those forms of enlightenment. I mean if we look at someone like Malcolm X, he charts his own intellectual development through reading. If you look at me I chart major radical interventions in my life with books that I’ve read. Not movies that I’ve seen, not television shows, but books that I’ve read. We cannot over-value enough the importance of literacy to a culture that is deeply visual. I mean rather than seeing literacy and the visual and our pleasure in the visual as oppositional to one another, I think we have to see them as compatible with one another. I don’t think we will get much further in terms of decolonizing our minds. So that we can both resist certain kinds of conservatizing representation and at the same time create new and exciting representations.

Part 2

It’s always difficult when I want people to see that I can be deeply moved by a film and at the same time see the kind of dilemmas that are involved in the production of certain kinds of representations and Hoop Dreams was another case where I wanted people to see that this documentary reflected as much about the individuals who shot it and directed it as it did the lives of the people that they were shooting and that they made certain kinds of choices. They made choices about when to show us that one of the boys had a girlfriend and that she was pregnant. It’s like all of a sudden you blink, you think wait a minute, we didn’t even know he had a girlfriend and now he’s going to be a father. What happened? What that moment should have made audiences remember is that you are not getting some direct account of this individual’s life or these two individuals, but that in fact, you are getting a version of their life mediated by the concerns and interests of the filmmakers. And I think people were very hostile to having again, to be asked not to think of this as a true story in the sense of the innocent filmmaker who is just turning the camera on the lives of these young black men and we get to see it, but in fact as people who had a very definite message that they wanted to get out of those lives. I mean what really struck me about Hoop Dreams was that it presented itself initially as a critique of certain aspects of American sports, American idealism, American notion of democratic access to success.

[Movie: Hoop Dreams] You have to realize that nobody cares about you. You’re black. You’re a young male; all you’re supposed to do is deal drugs and mug women. The only reason why you’re here, you can make their team win, if the team wins, these schools get a lot of money.

But in fact, as the film develops it re-inscribed those values as the important values. And in fact, the young man who turns his back on those values, I felt cinematically became the lesser character, the non-heroic character in the film. But we’re not made to feel that it’s heroic when he chooses to focus on his academic studies and not to play basketball. Which is where the film begins, I think, to let down its earlier critique in the interest of having a mass base appeal. The upbeat ending, the sort of conclusion that suggests, it was still possible for one of these black guys to succeed, to make it was part of what the thrill for many moviegoers, you know. That it wasn’t an indictment of the American dream ultimately. That in fact it was a film that was saying, in spite of it all, in spite of the corruption, you can still hold on to this dream and it can give your life meaning.