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Shanesha R.F. Brooks Tatum
Revising the Carmen Myth: The Politics of Race, Place and Vocal Authenticity in Four African and African American Film Adaptations

SATURDAY, NOVEMBER 10, 2007
Transmodernities/Translocalities: Panel Discussion

12:30 p.m. – 3 p.m. Polycentric sessions and screenings, San Francisco Art Institute, Lecture hall and classrooms
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Carmen, Georges Bizet’s 1875 opera, explores the consequences that a foreign, dangerously sexy, and unattainable woman faces in a male-dominated public sphere that attempts to restrain and to ultimately confine her. As one of the most adapted operas in world history, Carmen remains an eminent reference point for a variety of contemporary dramatic renderings in the performance world. With some eighty-two known film adaptations to-date, thirty-two non-theatrical interpretations, and countless aural, visual, and thematic references in commercials, movies, and print advertisements, nods to Carmen in popular culture and media are ubiquitous. Through these various forms of cultural reproduction and resignification of Carmen, the opera's narrative has been transformed into the “Carmen myth,” the fantasy of the foreign, compelling and unattainable woman floating freely beyond domestic and social bounds, loving and leaving whomever and whenever she wills, even in the face of death.

But what happens when the “Carmen myth” is transplanted into African and African American social and geographical contexts, when the central dramatic narrative is not sassy, Romani gypsy Carmen meets indifferent, naïve and native-born Don José? What new dramatic and interpretive potential of the Carmen myth do we discover when all of the characters are Other/othered and not just Carmen herself, when nearly everyone in the production is racially, culturally and geographically similar? I contend that while the plot of the original 1875 opera (and also many of the twentieth-century European- and American-based film adaptations) is predicated upon the interplay between the free-spirited, foreign gypsy woman and the socially-constrained, indigenous male, the Carmen film adaptations either casted by and/or written, directed and produced in part by African and African Americans do not retain this original and important racial, cultural and geographical dynamic that so popularized and scandalized Carmen from the beginning.

Alternatively, in these African and African American adaptations of Carmen racial and spatial politics commingle with sexuality and gender politics to forward poignant critiques of distinctive political and social situations. In these spatially, racially, and culturally transplanted and transformed versions of the Carmen myth – the fantasy of the free-spirited woman as an outlier of social mores and moral codes – becomes a native-born woman contesting societal constraints in a context that she seems thoroughly familiar with. The racial, gendered, and sexual markings inscribed upon her body transform her into the visual and narrative vehicle for exploring the legacies of tripartite oppression: sexism, colonialism, and racism. At times this critique of tripartite oppression, along with its exploration of cultural imperialism is explicit within the film's staged performative dimensions. At other times, as I will explore in my presentation, this critical commentary surfaces in the off-stage, performative dimensions of racial and spatial politics, boiling over behind the scenes of film production. My presentation, based on a forthcoming publication, explores the representations of race, sexuality, and spatiality in four African and African-American film adaptations of Carmen: Carmen Jones (USA; 1954), Carmen: A Hip-Hopera (USA; 2001), Karmen Geï (2001; Senegal), and U-Carmen eKhayelitsha (South Africa; 2005). As these productions are haunted theatrically by previous film adaptations of Carmen, I will illustrate that sex and death operate metaphorically as potential spaces for the containment of Carmen in all of her sexual and feminine prowess, while vocal and visual signifiers of race and space are rampant in each of the considered translocated, transmodern film productions.

Participant's Bio:
Shanesha R. F. Brooks Tatum, UC Berkeley alumna, is a doctoral candidate at the University of Michigan where she specializes in nineteenth- and twentieth-century American music and literature. With a specialization in African American and Afro-Caribbean musical and literary forms, Tatum's previously published research analyzed Langston Hughes's creation of a literary translation of jazz and blues music techniques in his Harlem Renaissance poetry and how his poetry instituted new ways for complicating the concept of double consciousness in African American experiences. Her current work explores secular and sacred boundary crossings in American culture and cultural production, as well as and artistic and political challenges to musical, literary and operatic canons.