White Ashes, Black Embers

This academic paper compares the different ways in which two schools of 70s filmmaking – The Hollywood New Wave , and the LA Rebellion – tackle the post-traumatic stress that its male protagonist’s face post Vietnam-war. Major Spoilers for “Taxi Driver,” (1976) and “Ashes and Embers (1982).”

Vietnam is over, but its images and sounds raged on. The war had once offered a definite political goal for the Americans – “to establish a self-sustaining government in South Vietnam.”[1] However, increased military involvement and misuse of force increasingly blurred that primary objective, making it harder for the people involved to discern their purpose in this massacre. This disillusionment only grew once the soldiers came back home, left with time and space to ruminate about their war experiences. Slowly but surely, that firm belief in American exceptionalism, nationalism, and trust in the government began to wither, with uncertainty engulfing their psyches more than ever before.

All of this tumult, however, was not just because of Vietnam. The Civil Rights Movement, the Women’s Liberation Movement, and Richard Nixon also marked the beginning of the 70s. In the 1960s, movements led by revolutionaries like Martin Luther King Jr. sought to abolish racial segregation in public spaces and dismantle the unfair obstacles that prevented black citizens from voting. These movements led to several violent upheavals throughout the decade, “most notably in the Watts Section of LA in 1965, Newark in 1967, and everywhere, it seemed, in 1968.”[2] Similarly, the gender war also began to take charge, affecting the “most intimate and private relations, inside the home.”[3] Betty Friedkin’s The Feminine Mystique and political acknowledgment of the widespread discrimination of women in the society sparked this fire that fully ignited by the beginning of the 70s with the feminist movement asserting the need for a fundamental reassessment in how society treats women. And then there was Nixon, who fuelled this already-simmering paranoia tenfold. The President’s corruption of power and privacy, exposed in 1974’s Watergate Scandal, was unprecedented, only making Americans ask more questions of their government and themselves more than ever before. 

Invariably, 70s New Wave American Cinema tapped into the confluence of these anxieties, producing sounds and images that both formally and thematically attempted to capture this paranoia and mistrust that dominated American society. This stylised grittiness harkened back to American film noir from post-World War II that similarly captured somber protagonists stumbling through the urban decay that promised little other than uncertainty. This confusion led to isolation. Isolation to pessimism. Pessimism to violence. Capturing protagonists, both female and especially male, in this continual spiral of decay, 70s New Wave Hollywood cinema posited that more than individuals, it was society itself that was going through an identity crisis. The despairing individuals caught within it had no way out, or at least could not see any way out because of how much the thick paranoid smog covered their point-of-views.  

However, this smoke-screen of unrelenting despair belongs to a movement in American cinema history primarily dominated by the white male. The underground L.A. Rebellion Movement – comprised of black filmmakers like Charles Burnett, Haile Gerima, and Julie Dash – takes place parallel to the 70s New Wave, tackling racism, police brutality, and war trauma as challenges that can be overcome. The positivity in these film’s resolutions, despite the gruesome brutality at their heart, can in part be due to the various positive reforms that took place for the African American community in the 60s. However, it also defines the activist goals for this movement – to emphasize community over the individual.

Formally too, this movement exists in opposition to Hollywood. There is no historical reference point to create a particular aesthetic. Nor is there a singular “black film aesthetic.”[4] This diverse group of filmmakers creates aesthetics to emphasise the multi-dimensionality of black characters through the experimental use of sound, cinematography, and genres. Whether it is Gerima’s use of a cacophonous sound design that mimics its protagonist’s subjectivity in Bush Mama or Julie Dash’s didactic deconstruction of Hollywood hypocrisies in Illusions, these films emphasise their differences in representing black people from the stereotyped portrayal that Hollywood gives them.

This paper focuses on how these two radically different filmmaking approaches in the 70s address male alienation post-Vietnam war both thematically and formally. By comparing Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver (1976) and Haile Gerima’s Ashes and Embers (1982), this paper highlights how much the 70s New Hollywood film emphasizes the pessimism of post-war film noir to depict its protagonist as doomed from the very beginning, whereas Gerima’s film finds solutions in moments of grave despair. In Scorsese’s film, the protagonist’s interactions with both male and female supporting characters in the film inform not Travis Bickle’s conflict between using trauma to reform positively or negatively but his gradual descent into violent despair. Conversely, Gerima opts to paint his protagonist’s active struggle to make sense of his trauma, with his interactions with the community around him, ultimately positively impacting him. Aesthetically, these film’s introductory sequences re-enforce their contradictory attitudes towards finding solutions to this sickening post-traumatic stress disorder. Whereas Taxi Driver diligently sticks to its protagonist’s point-of-view, visualizing New York as a rain-drenched, fog-filled film noirish urban hellscape that foreshadows everything but certainty,[5] Ashes and Embers undercuts its experimental sound design and montage editing through its didactic soundtrack. This stark contrast in both approaches to their respective protagonists’ trauma dominates the discussion of both form and content.

How does the psychologically tormented “God’s Lonely Man” find support if everyone around him is equally reprehensible and uncertain about day-to-day society? Taxi Driver poses this dichotomy for the psychologically worn down Travis Bickle less as a question and more as a defeatist statement that resonates throughout the film. It is not that Bickle does not want to get better. He tries. He wants to see the “white light” in the women, and to a lesser extent, men he encounters. However, his interactions with the men, particularly fellow taxi driver Wizard, and the two women at the centre of the film – Betsy and Iris – inevitably make him see the “filth” more, fuelling his already prejudiced and disturbed psyche to push him towards alienation, and eventually, violence.

One of many such small interactions takes place in his cab with a psychotically disturbed white man (played by director Martin Scorsese himself!) who details the gruesome ways in which he will kill his wife for having an affair with a “nigger.” This mostly one-sided conversation with the unnamed passenger nervously telling Travis about his uncontrollable rage for knowing about his wife’s affair piques his interest. He listens to it attentively, absorbing every word the passenger emphasizes – the “.44 magnum pistol,” the “You don’t need to answer.” He doesn’t. He tilts his rear-view mirror up to observe the man’s face. However, he quickly realizes that he is as much, if not more “sick” than this passenger. Tellingly, the film shows the spectator how much this conversation sticks with Travis in subsequent scenes where he begins to interrogate the black people he meets suspiciously. Again, there is no clear conversation in which he expresses his racist point-of-view. It is all internalized through that one sinister interaction with a passenger until this racialized hatred manifests into violence. Bickle buys a .44 magnum pistol and shoots an unknown black man robbing a store in the street without any hesitation.

Whereas this interaction, dominated by Travis’ silent acceptance of humanity’s worst tendencies, suggests that the protagonist is only seeking to satiate his urge for violence, his strained interaction with a fellow cab driver, Wizard, highlights how much Taxi Driver is about the social malaise that leads to Bickle’s downward spiral. Riddled with rejection from the girl he thinks will take him away from this urban decay, Travis becomes increasingly volatile, unable to understand what he is honestly thinking or feeling. He reaches out to the experienced “cabbie” Wizard to express his thoughts; perhaps, even get helpful advice from the experienced man. He begins by stuttering, “I got… It’s just that I got a…I got a..,” suggesting the apprehension he feels in expressing his feelings. He reiterates, “They got me real down…They got…I just want to go out and – and, you know like really – really – do something.” Performed in that very hesitant manner with a voice that seems to carry the world’s weight in it, Robert De Niro reveals the depths of psychological torment Bickle is going through at that moment. Peter Boyle’s genuinely clueless reply, “Taxi life, you mean?”

This painfully awkward conversation continues for nearly three minutes with silences, repetitive words, and half-formed sentences dominating the dialogue. Bickle desperately needs help and repeatedly tries to tell Wizard that he has “got some bad ideas in (his) head.” However, Wizard’s replies to him are either entirely mechanical – equating Bickle’s problems with his profession – or condescendingly uncaring – “Go out and get laid. Get drunk, do anything.” The more experienced “cabbie” sees the world around Travis no differently than he does. He, too, believes that “(they’re) all fucked.” He, too, does not possess the ability to understand the trauma that other people are going through.

Neither do the women, who Travis mistakenly thinks will be his salvation. In the first half, the film characterizes Betsy as the “light” at the end of the tunnel for Travis, whom he naively claims “society cannot touch.” Bathed in bright light, angelic white costumes, and flicking her hair in slow-motion, the spectator first sees her as the utopian illusion that Travis propagates. She appears like a dream. She might even be just that. Gradually, however, the conversations between her and Travis begin to illuminate the irreparable schisms between them. The first signs of this illusion cracking come when Travis and Betsy go out for lunch. Claiming to understand the organizational problems that her political firm is going through, Travis makes a joke about how he should get a sign that says that he needs to get “organiz-ized.” Betsy looks flustered and does not laugh, asking if he means “organize” before correcting him that the sign he is thinking about says “organiz-ize.” Later on, in the same conversation, Betsy tells Travis that he reminds him of “that song…by Kris Kristofferson,” which Travis does not recognize. These minor gaps in understanding for the two accentuate when the protagonist decides to take Betsy for a date to a pornographic film. Visibly uncomfortable, Betsy expresses her disgust at Travis’s belief that she would want to see this movie. He tries to reason with her, making her understand that he “doesn’t know much about movies.” She leaves, coldly stating, “We’re just different.”

Destroyed by the realization that Betsy is, in fact, like the “rest of them,” Travis turns from his obsessive quest of sexual gratification to violence in the film’s second half by forcing a paternal relationship with child prostitute – Iris.[6] Initially, he seems to care about her, wanting to save her from the exploitation she has to suffer. However, here too, Travis’s tone comes off as traditionally patriarchal, hinting at his unawareness of the growing Women’s Liberation movement. He repeatedly yells the sentiment, “A girl should live at home,” emphasizing the “real home” as one with her parents, whom she mentions she left because of their negligence towards her. Rather than interrogating her problems, Bickle repeatedly asserts her need to leave this New York filth. Iris, casually, approves of this. However, the film never delves deeply into her personal life or their relationship. Therefore, the climactic eruption of violence at the end of the film feels less a motive for Travis to save Iris and more an avenue for him to externalize his inner torment. The coda, too, deliberately obfuscates if the two ever shared a father-daughter relationship, making it seem like Iris was only a conduit for Travis to satiate his violent urges. 

Despite similar issues of identity, miscommunication, distrust, and hopelessness infesting the African American protagonist’s psyche in Gerima’s Ashes and Embers, the director displays a genuine belief in people around the protagonist. The three central characters he interacts with – his mentor, girlfriend, and grandmother – shape the film’s narrative. Throughout its runtime, they question Nay Charles’ isolated and nomadic lifestyle. Sometimes this probing leads to immense internal strife. Other times it allows Nay to see their compassionate and caring nature towards him. However, crucially, these people continuously imprint their presence in Nay’s life as symbols that will challenge his despair because they want him to emerge from this trauma positively. The “we’re all fucked” belief just does not exist. 

Jim, Nay’s mentor figure, most explicitly voices this need for his positive reform. At times, the older, more experienced Jim sarcastically mocks Nay’s inability to move on from the Vietnam War traumas. He occasionally pokes him, “Why don’t you just go run someplace? Escape, go to the movies…Get your brain lobotomized.” However, Jim’s impatience with Nay never outweighs the underlying care he harbours for him. Gerima introduces him, asking Nay, “You all right?” Later, when Nay receives a letter from the military that reprimands him for the money he expects to receive from them, Jim gently consoles an infuriated Nay, reaffirming him that “it’s not that bad.” “Come on inside. We can handle this.” Gerima highlights this vocal support that Jim provides Nay most in the scene at the pier, which marks Nay’s turning point from living inside his psyche to a political awakening. Jim tells Nay, “You haven’t began to live. We’ve got a long way to go.” He adds, “My strength comes from the warriors, men like Du Bois…It (my strength) can be yours too.” Gerima emphasizes Jim’s clarity of expression when he talks to Nay about the importance of hope in his life. There is little to no hesitation in his belief that he can improve. Most importantly, Jim believes that Nay is not alone in this journey of positive reform.

The other voice that silently supports Nay through his internal strife is that of his girlfriend – Liza Jane. Intended by the director to be the intellect to Nay’s emotion, the character’s interests often violently conflict with Nay’s.[7] She is part of an activist group who occasionally meet at her house to discuss potential reforms for the African community. They rally against the militarization of African Americans in Vietnam, believing that one does not need to have fought the war to know the trauma the black man suffers compared to the white man. To the person who has fought in the war, though, this statement feels naïve and irresponsible. Nay angrily confronts the group, berating them for relying on books to form their ideologies without ever experiencing reality. In one of the film’s most protracted scenes of expressed anguish, Nay lays bare his bitter feelings towards Liza and her rebellion. He shouts at her, repeatedly expressing this similar disapproving sentiment towards her group. What Nay also does, however, is painfully reveal how he still believes “Vietnam is still happening” for him. Liza processes this full-bloodied performance of trauma silently, allowing Nay the opportunity to express everything he is feeling. She very rarely contests him or outright rejects his beliefs. Understanding the burden of his traumas, she constructs an environment that allows Nay to genuinely express himself in front of her.

Nay’s most complicated relationship in the film, however, is with his grandmother, who triggers his deepest traumas about Vietnam but also provides the most vital voice in providing him a pathway to positive reform. Initially, the protagonist sees her and the countryside as his haven to get away from city life pressures. In his first interaction with Grandma, she plays the role of a caregiver, telling him, “When you were there fighting, I was here day and night holding the bible, hoping for you to come out of that war alive.” Nay cherishes this affection, expressing his gratitude and love for her at every turn.

Though, even before he knows it, the bullets from Vietnam rattle this gentleness. Primarily because in his next interaction with Grandma, she becomes more activist than the caregiver. Recalling her struggle in maintaining ownership of her countryside land, she suggests that to keep one together, they ought to have a “fighting soul.” This rhetoric reminds Nay of the things he hears in the city, chipping away at the freedom he felt Grandma’s countryside offered him. Moreover, Grandma’s repeated attempts to make him join the Church jar with his unstable mentality. He feels that she is trying to force reformation for him without really understanding his trauma. The whirlwind of these factors disorients him, making what he thought to be an escape from Vietnam into that very battleground. He begins to see Vietnamese locale faces in his Grandma’s, imagining that this world co-exists with his present one. This sensory overload sends him into a downward spiral, culminating in an extended outburst where he dominates the conversation. Like in his interaction with Liza, he extensively details his inner turmoil. Re-emphasizing his crippling alienation, he tells Grandma that her methods of reform are ineffective for him. Unlike her, he may not possess that “fighting soul.”

However, Gerima disapproves of this defeatist attitude, using Nay’s most painful interaction with Grandma as a marker for exorcizing his traumas. In the film’s climactic montage of Nay’s political awakening, Gerima emphasizes Grandma’s memories and voices that most dominate his psyche. These are not images of a mournful grandmother desperately trying to help her grandson, but sounds of a strong matriarch who almost hypnotically sermonizes Nay to “not forget what (she’s) telling (him).” The images that complement this recurring dialogue are also empowering – beginning with Grandma narrating a story of the Black struggle and revolution and ending with Nay and Grandma gracefully embracing each other. Recounting these images throughout the film, Gerima highlights these people’s foundational significance in Nay’s transformation. Whether in their patient approach to understanding Nay or their confident belief in the power of the growing Black revolution, these women represent alternatives to the unrelenting pessimism that the psychologically-worn down war survivors decided to drown themselves in.

Drawing these marked differences in how Ashes and Embers and Taxi Driver approach the protagonist’s relationship with the society around them, it is easy to understand the allure of film noir for the 70s Hollywood film. In his seminal essay, “Notes on Film Noir,” former film critic and Taxi Driver’s screenwriter, Paul Schrader, details the popular film style’s many stylistic characteristics. He lists that films belonging to this particular style often use lighting for night-shots, expressionist camera angles and lighting, restrained tension over action, and “romantic narration” to portray their dark worlds.[8] Notably, he also echoes the now common cliché – the city as another character – in the film noir. The cumulative effect of these techniques, Schrader believes, complements the film’s narrational themes, creating an environment of “post-war disillusionment” for both the protagonist and the spectator.[9] 70s New Wave Hollywood filmmakers never copy-pasted this widely popular aesthetic. Each of them added their auteurist flourishes to it. However, their choice to draw most on this particular film style helps explain their penchant for ambiguity and pessimism.

Taxi Driver’s introductory sequence draws upon several of these techniques to represent its protagonist in a constant flux state, alternating between uncertainty, sadness, and anger. The screen opens with the image of smoke occupying the centre of the frame more and more as Bernard Herrman’s bombastic score violently crescendos and then immediately plateaus. The spectator has not yet seen the taxi passing through this smoke. The medium-wide shot emphasizes that before observing the yellow cab pass-through this smog. As the title of the film and cast appear, only more smoke emanates. Fade out. An extreme-close-up of our protagonist’s eyes, accompanied not by drums’ violent orchestration but by a soft jazz score. The camera lingers on this shot as the lighting changes from expressive deep reds to dim whites to navy blues. Before, fade out again to a point-of-view shot of Travis looking at the rain-drenched city through his windshield. It is only a blur of reds and blues, devoid of specificities. Abruptly again, the image fades out to a wide shot of the people walking on the street in slow-motion. It also seems like a point-of-view shot made to look incredibly expressionist by the superimposition of a flaming fire occupying the image’s foreground. The soundtrack, too, at this point has reverted to the declarative beats that dominated the film’s first shot. Then, fade again to the extreme close-up of the protagonist’s eyes, lit by expressive reds and accompanied by the saxophones’ sadness.

This tension between stylized grit and heightened sadness with the soundtrack hinting at explosions of violence permeates throughout this opening, foreshadowing the moods that Travis Bickle will operate through the rest of the film. Characteristic to film noir, the film’s first image is set in the night-time with the soundtrack establishing the film’s dark, ominous underbelly. Furthermore, Scorsese symbolizes this with the imagery of smoke that exists even before the taxi appears on the screen, suggesting this world’s complicatedness before the protagonist even tries to interpret it. However, is the world the spectator seeing even a real world? Or does this all exist within the psyche of Travis Bickle? The film’s subsequent fade-outs that reveal Travis’ point-of-view shots confuse the viewer, making them less sure about the reality of the images they see on the screen. The final shots in this sequence only accentuate this feeling, introducing ambiguous and expressive imagery to foreshadow the protagonist’s relationship with the city. The most curious of these is the seemingly superimposed image. Taking cues from the drum beats’ declarative notes and red lighting, the spectator can read this image as Travis’s burning rage when he sees these people on the street. However, Scorsese undercuts this representation of seething anger by ending the sequence on the sad image of Travis’ eyes darting left to right, almost searching for companionship.

This form of ambiguity, leaning towards pessimism, rarely appealed to Gerima and the L.A Rebellion school of filmmaking. Their stories differed in perspective. Hence, their film form too began to replicate that. Attempting to stray away from adapting Classic Hollywood styles that predominantly emphasized white perspectives, filmmakers here focused on “creating” new styles and images that highlighted their communities’ plights and triumphs.[10] The societal problems did not vanish from these films. Ashes and Embers highlights post-war trauma with as much vigour as Taxi Driver. However, it was important for these filmmakers to also look ahead with clarity, to suggest that black protagonists could grow out of this trauma.

Gerima’s film’s introduction offers an extraordinary tension between this experimental style that the filmmaker employs to throw the audience into Nay Charles’ distorted psyche and didacticism through music that defines the existence of a path that the protagonist must follow to emerge stronger from this trauma. The film opens with the darkened image of the protagonist; the non-diegetic soundtrack dominates. Unidentified shrieks from a man follow the painful screams of a woman. Then, jump cut. The wide-shot now reveals the man, presumably behind a prison cell, directly looking at the camera. The shot lingers. The soundtrack does, too, continually emphasizing these disturbing screams whose source remains unknown to the spectator.[11] Then the brightly lit image unnaturally degrades, appearing jarringly overexposed. The soundtrack still dominates before fading to a wide-establishing shot of a cityscape. Here, the sounds of news on the radio replace these screams. The conversational scene that follows is much more conventional than this opening but again eschews general shot-reverse-shot compositions. The soundtrack, incredibly, still feels discomforting, with police sirens overlapping with general conversations. Following Nay’s words, “Who the hell are we, man?” though, the image and sound become peculiarly synchronous.

Zulema Cusseaux’s “American Fruit, African Roots” plays through the film’s brief credits sequence, both highlighting the history of the Black struggle and Nay’s need to embrace his role in it to emerge stronger from his traumas.[12] The lyrics “We came from a distant land. Our lives already planned” complement the wide-shots of the police holding Nay and his friend in handcuffs. Followed by the echoes of his grandmother’s voice, the film fades to the protagonist traveling through the countryside as Cusseaux’s lyrics detail the African American struggle, poetically and painfully questioning “What is to become of the American Fruit with African Roots?” Crucially, as Nay approaches his Grandma’s home, Gerima does leave the answer to this seemingly open-ended question. The lyrics declare, “The time is here for us to join hands. And be no longer punished by the rules of this land.” Highlighting this importance of belief in the knowledge of the Black struggle and the need to embrace the community even further, Gerima introduces the spectator to Grandma for the first time not with the question of African roots, but with lyrics that equate strength and certainty with this awareness of the Black struggle.

The clarity in this expression counters the first images’ cacophony so radically that Nay’s subsequent struggle to break from his trauma feels even more tragic. For Gerima, the community and the people around him do offer a solution. Connecting with their ideologies and histories gives Nay the opportunity to break from the chaotic recesses of his mind finally. That the protagonist fails to see this until the end of the film highlights how much the trauma eats away at his ability to see outside of his mind.

This critical difference in seeing people, of at least one’s community, as belonging to a support system that could help distressed people create a more productive, healthy life helps define the activist spirit that Gerima inspires in Ashes and Embers. For him and fellow L.A. Rebellion filmmakers, depicting the moral ambiguity and uncertainty of the 70s was not the primary goal. It was to learn from tumult, to understand the importance of togetherness in the black community to inspire “The Second Coming.”

  1. Kirshner, “Before The Flood,” 14.
  2. Kirshner, “Before The Flood,” 14.
  3. Kirshner, “Before The Flood,” 15.
  4. Young, “Shot in Watts: Film and State Violence in the 1970s,” 217.
  5. Quart, “A Slice of Delirium: Scorsese’s Taxi Driver Revisited,” 67.
  6. Keyser, “Taxi Driver: Bringing Home the War,” 198.
  7. Gerima, “Thoughts and Concepts: The Making of Ashes and Embers,” 346.
  8. Schrader, “Notes on Film Noir,” 10-11.
  9. Schrader, “Notes on Film Noir,” 9.
  10. Stephenson, “The Sounds of War in Ashes and Embers: Race, Trauma, and Dislocation,” 37.
  11. Stephenson, “The Sounds of War in Ashes and Embers: Race, Trauma, and Dislocation,” 44.
  12. Stephenson, “The Sounds of War in Ashes and Embers: Race, Trauma, and Dislocation,” 46.

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