Critic's Notebook: On Kanye's 'Blue' Eyes, Lupita's Alien Lives and Allowing Black Artists to Be Free
Kanye West stirred controversy by wearing light contacts to the Met Ball on Monday night, but we should stop policing black artists' aesthetic and artistic choices.
At Monday’s Met Gala, famous women wore fiber optics and latex for the "Manus X Machina" theme, while most men attending were more sedate, going for present-elegant rather than future-tech-dystopia/utopia. Two notable exceptions were Zayn Malik’s gangly robot arms and Kanye West’s eerie eyes. Was he wearing blue contacts, like a mixed-race girl in my junior high school did? Like the contacts worn by a tall, gay black boy I once worked across the mall from? Many on Twitter seemed to think so and BuzzFeed’s Executive Editor for Culture, Saeed Jones, even suggested buying ten copies of Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye to "throw" at West.
One could understand why some Twitter users may have been reminded of Morrison’s debut novel about a dark-skinned black girl named Pecola who has deeply internalized racism, longs to have blue eyes and eventually descends into madness. After all, long before he wore the controversial contacts, Kanye was drawing attention for weird tweet rants and other public outbursts.
West wore similar contacts when performing his song “Wolves” on Saturday Night Live’s 40th Anniversary last February. He had told the optometrist who outfitted him that he wanted to — no surprise — look like a wolf, according to an interview with this optometrist in People magazine.
To my eyes, the lenses West wore at the Gala were grey, or perhaps silver. French critic Fanta Sylla pointed out on Twitter that his look was similar to Yaya DaCosta’s silver-eyed siren in 2010's Tron: Legacy, and perhaps it was a direct allusion. I’d like to think it was inspired by The Girl With the Silver Eyes, the 1980 Willo Davis Roberts Y.A. novel that might have been circulating when Kanye was young. In that story, prickly Katie is a preteen with silver eyes, which give her the talents of telekinesis and the ability to communicate with cats. She’s an outcast, literally a mutant. She spends the novel in search of others like her. These themes seem perfectly on point for the mystic-neurotic-genius personality West has long been cultivating. When asked why he wore those contacts, Kanye said gnomically, "Vibes."
Light grey is beautiful because it reflects what’s around it. The outcry over Kanye’s eyes seemed to reflect hatred for the Kardashians and a fear that Kanye has — or will — become less himself, and less black, under their influence. There’s the common view among his fans that the family has inducted West into a sort of superficial zombie cult. So much sexism is behind this anti-Kardashian sentiment. (Is America more sexist or racist? Unfortunately, there’s no limit of situations allowing us to ponder this. And only black women know how deeply the answer is "both." Kanye’s own lyrics and tweets that seem to prize white women over black ones are an often disgusting indication of this fact.)
But more than any nefarious influence of his Met Ball companion, wife Kim, what West’s silvery eyes reflected back at the world that night was the judgement of others, also a theme of The Bluest Eye. The end of the novel is narrated by Pecola’s former foster sister Claudia, looking back at what caused Pecola’s demise. She concludes that it was internalized racism, not only on an individual level but collectively in their community (and in the whole country). It was the gossip and judgement of the townspeople that failed to nurture Pecola through her madness, which was ugly, beautiful, wild and hard to bear (as are some of Kanye’s moods).
Kanye West is done. He's finished. When a black man wears coloured contacts it's over. RIP black Kanye West pic.twitter.com/rC0OEHUR6J— Lippy Lickshot (@DonDadaLipz) May 3, 2016
Judgement of black artists' aesthetic and career choices was also a theme in an April 27 Vulture article that took issue with the recent use of black actors to play CGI-cloaked aliens or to voice animated animals. Kyle Buchanan writes, rather paternalistically, that seeing black bodies is good for the culture. "Idris, Lupita, Paula, and Zoe have faces that matter. Let us see them," he concludes.
But what if they don’t want to be seen? What if they want to focus on their equally beautiful voices, as both Idris Elba and Lupita Nyong’o were able to do in the The Jungle Book? And why are these actors’ real brown faces more important or authentic than the nuance of their real voices? Elba uses his authentic East London accent in The Jungle Book and Zootopia, while Nyong’o could finally speak in something closer to her natural Kenyan accent as a 1,000-something-year-old alien in Star Wars: The Force Awakens (a film in which John Boyega notably did the generic American accent that most black British actors end up using in American films).
What's best for the culture is for these brilliant actors to stretch out their talents and practice their craft in any way they damn well desire. Nyong’o has taken to defending her choices recently. On NPR program All Things Considered, she was asked by host Neda Ulaby (not a black woman) if her recent voice and motion capture work was due to the lack of starring roles for women of color. N’yongo said no. "I think subconsciously I was excited by work that was not about my body. It wasn’t about my skin or my body or its economy, whether we’re talking about slavery or we’re talking about fashion," she said, referring to the red carpet and magazine fame that came from playing a raped slave in Steve McQueen’s 12 Years a Slave. "12 Years a Slave is a lot about the economy of Patsey’s body. And then also the exposure the film gave me was a lot about my body."
She went on to elaborate on this stance yesterday in a beautiful essay in Lenny Letter, that seems to directly address the Vulture article: “I love the idea of people of color participating in mythical, magical stories, whether that’s as hero, villain, sage, or sorceress. Or all of the above!" Nyong'o wrote. "I think sometimes a singular catharsis can be found in genre storytelling — as I found when playing a thousand-year-old woman (Maz Kanata in Star Wars: The Force Awakens) and a wolf mother (Raksha in The Jungle Book). I’m able to be more engaged in roles such as those than I would be in playing 'the wife' when she is written with no motivation or singularity.”
In other words, leave black bodies alone! Let them run as wild as wolves, or aliens, or silver-eyed mutants, or whatever Kanye was on Monday night.