Five charismatic women navigate uneven terrain of racial gender and class stereotypes: Dorothy Dandridge, Pam Grier, Whoopi Goldberg, Oprah Winfrey and Halle Berry. The...

Five charismatic women navigate uneven terrain of racial gender and class stereotypes: Dorothy Dandridge, Pam Grier, Whoopi Goldberg, Oprah Winfrey and Halle Berry. The quintet charisma, as explored by Dr. Mia Mask in Divas on The Screen: Black Women in American Film (University of Illinois Press, 2009), range from erotic and a phallic idol of perversity and sexuality to comedic, cathartic and capitalistic to beauty in the multicultural age. Dr. Mask, associate professor of film at Vassar College, says they are the building blocks of our black women stars today. And the building blocks focus on what can we learn from the complex and contradictory careers of successful black women? Where do we find African-Americans in the performative, other-directed, narcissistic culture? What does African-American stardom as a social phenomenon reveal about the aspirations of black folks in the 21st Century? How have African-Americans-in their struggle for inclusion in commercial entertainment-complied with dominant culture? (Introduction 4).

Divas on Screen considers Dandridge’s status as a sexual commodity in films revealing the contradictory discourses regarding race and sexuality in segregation-era American culture. Grier’s feminist-camp performances in sexploitation pictures and her subsequent blaxploitation vehicles Coffy and Foxy Brown highlight a similar tension between representing African American women as both objectified stereotypes and powerful, self-defining icons. Mask reads Goldberg’s transforming habits in Sister Act and The Associate as representative of her unruly comedic routines, while Winfrey’s daily television performance as self-made, self-help guru echoes Horatio Alger’s narratives of success. Finally, Mask analyzes Berry’s meteoric success by acknowledging the ways in which Dandridge’s career made Berry’s possible. Dr. Mask teaches African American cinema, documentary film history, seminars on special topics such as the horror film, and auteurs like Spike Lee. She also teaches feminist film theory, African national cinemas, and various genre courses. Dr. Mask also curated and edited the anthology Contemporary Black American Cinema: Race, Gender, Sexuality at the Movies.

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