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Free, M. (2015). Envy, Guilt, Symbolic Reparation and Images of Whiteness in Contemporary Hollywood Sport Themed Films. Free Associations, 16(1):20-53.

(2015). Free Associations, 16(1):20-53

Envy, Guilt, Symbolic Reparation and Images of Whiteness in Contemporary Hollywood Sport Themed Films

Marcus Free

Taking a primarily Kleinian psychoanalytic approach, the article first examines how the Rocky series of boxing films (1976-2006) illustrates the displacement of a problematic of downward economic mobility onto race in contemporary Hollywood cinema. The theme of white man as innocent casualty of a society that rewards style over substance evinces an enduring envy of the exalted status of the ‘black athlete’, who in these films is taught a moral lesson in ‘heart’ and commitment. At the psychodynamic core of their narratives is an embedded, but disguised envy of the supposedly natural ability of African American athletes. His defeat in the ring enables the redemption of the white protagonist and, figuratively, the white working class community he represents. The article then considers how more ostensibly liberal and reflexive films, which acknowledge and explore the psychodynamics of racial envy and resentment, might be seen as a form of symbolic Kleinian ‘reparation’. It is argued, however, that these films tend to privilege the enlightenment, learning and capacity for empathy of their white characters. Superior psychological complexity reproduces a racial hierarchy that the narrative challenges. Even films that highlight and problematise whiteness as constructed through envy of the ‘black’ other share this hierarchisation by distinguishing ‘good’ from ‘bad’ white people, or by associating whiteness with cleverness and dissimulation, or with lost innocence, boyhood, tradition and community. The films considered here are The Hurricane (1999), O (2001) and The Fan (1996).

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