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The Psychosis of Whiteness is a full length documentary film made in 2018-19, directed by Eugene Nulman. The film explores society’s perceptions of race and racism by investigating cinematic representations of the slave trade, taking an in-depth look at three big budget movies that focus on the transatlantic slave trade. It argues that these depictions are metaphoric hallucinations about race. Rather than blaming the powerful institutions that are responsible for slavery, these films rewrite history by praising those same institutions for abolishing the slave trade. Below is an interview with Eugene Nulman about the making of The Psychosis of Whiteness and its relationship to social justice activism.
Is this your first film?
Yes, I’ve never made a film before so it was a bit of an experiment. I’ve played around with editing software before and always had a big passion for film and filmmaking but never had any formal training. So it was a learning process.
Are you a full time filmmaker?
I wouldn’t even say that I’m a part-time filmmaker, but it was a project I enjoyed working on and something I would certainly like to do again. I’m a sociologist working at Birmingham City University and my research focuses on social movements. Recently my research has gone in the direction of understanding the media’s impact on our political consciousness.
What attracted you to filmmaking? Why not write an academic paper or a book on the topic instead?
I was very interested in getting academic information out there to a wider audience and in a way that is entertaining and interesting, which I hope I was able to do with the documentary. Where an article might have hundreds of views, the documentary has had thousands and most of the academics who would read the article might not do very much about it, but when it gets out to the wider public, conversations can start happening and it can help to inform activists.
What is the film’s background? From where did the idea originate?
The film is actually based on an academic paper written by a colleague of mine, Kehinde Andrews, Professor in Black Studies. The paper looks at the representations of the transatlantic slave trade in two British movies, Belle and Amazing Grace. I expanded this analysis in the film to include Steven Spielberg’s Amistad and identified some of the key themes we can see across all three films.
Part of the motivation for making this film was to experiment in bringing academic work that is often hard to access and often couched in complex language into a medium that is easier to consume and attracts a wider audience.
The film has a very interesting title. How did you come up with that? I assume you are not saying that all white people are crazy, that you are using psychosis and whiteness in some special sense or specific way.
The film title is based on the paper and yes, it doesn’t mean that all white people are crazy. The film defines whiteness as “a worldview that produces privilege for those who are labelled white in a specific society at a specific time.” Whiteness is a system of constructing a hierarchy and this system produces a metaphorical psychosis – a blindness that prevents us from seeing the truth, the extent of racial oppression that not only built the West but continues the cycle of capitalist accumulation on the backs of the third world, countries whose populations are not accidently brown and black.
Why are you interested in the history of the slave trade? Why do you think it is important to get it right? What would you say to people who say that slavery is all in the past, let’s move on.
The psychosis of whiteness is about more than just media representation or the way we think about history, but the film uses both of these ideas as examples of how the psychosis of whiteness works. The films show how the history of slavery is wrapped up into a feel-good story of white saviourism. All the films show how the institutions that did the most to develop and sustain the slave trade for more than 200 years should be valorized for ending the slave trade, rather than portrayed as the problem. Each film tries to show how parliament or the courts intervene to stop the slave trade and restore a moral system, but when looking closer we see how these events actually did very little. These films like to tell a story about the transition from one terrible system to our current enlightened system. A transition from slavery to ‘freedom’. But no such transition really happened. As we can see from reporting coming out of the US on police shootings, mass incarceration, racist hiring and banking practices, voter suppression, and forced vasectomies there was simply a shift from one type of oppressive system to another. Actual slavery turned into wage slavery while racial prejudice was used to fuel animosity within the working class, pitting them against each other.
How can people see the film? Are there ways in which people can engage with the ideas presented in the film?
We first started off by asking people to host screenings so that conversations could happen after they saw the film. That stopped once the COVID lockdowns occurred so we moved the film online where anyone is able to view it for free. Just go to the website psychosisofwhiteness.com
I notice that you give 50% of all donations made by viewers of the film to the Black Visions Collective. Could you say something about why you do that and why you chose that particular organisation to support?
The plan was to donate to Black Visions Collective but they haven’t been taking any more donations so 50% of what we receive now goes to Black Lives Matter. Black Visions Collective was one of the groups that initiated protests in Minnesota following the killing of George Floyd. Black Lives Matter – as an organisation – supports a wide range of local groups who organize communities in a variety of ways.
Do you have any other film projects in the pipeline for people to look out for?
Sadly I’ve had to put any potential film projects on hold while I do my day job but I am working on a book that argues that film and television have failed to provide us with visions of alternatives to capitalism and the state which has subsequently prevented people – including many on the left – from imagining an alternative and actually believing that something better than capitalism and the state can exist. The book is a culmination of my analysis of over 400 TV series and films.
[INITIAL SUBMISSION: Mark Evans | AUTHOR: Collective 20 (Andrej Grubacic, Brett Wilkins, Bridget Meehan, Cynthia Peters, Don Rojas, Elena Herrada, Emily Jones, Justin Podur, Mark Evans, Medea Benjamin, Michael Albert, Noam Chomsky, Oscar Chacon, Paul Ortiz, Peter Bohmer, Savvina Chowdhury, Vincent Emanuele)]
[Collective 20 is a group of writers located in different places throughout the globe. Some young, some older; some long-time organizers and writers, others just getting started, but all equally dedicated to offering analysis, vision, and strategy useful for winning a vastly better society than we currently endure. The members of Collective 20 hope their contributions concerning social, political, economic, and environmental issues will generate more useful content and better outreach through a collective publication effort as opposed to individuals doing so on their own. Collective 20’s cumulative work can be found at collective20.org, where you can learn more about the group, see an archive of its publications, and comment on its work.]