In This Article African American Cinema

  • Introduction
  • The Idea of Race
  • General Overviews
  • Textbooks
  • Contemporary Reflections on the State of the Field
  • Filmographies and Bibliographic Guides
  • Journals
  • Directors
  • Performers
  • Other Production Personnel
  • Gender and Sexuality
  • Black Film Critics
  • Economics
  • Sound and Image Technologies and Representing Race

Cinema and Media Studies African American Cinema
by
Arthur Knight
  • LAST MODIFIED: 27 October 2016
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199791286-0213

Introduction

The category “African American Cinema” presents important conceptual challenges for scholars, critics, and moviegoers. Before laying out those challenges, though, it is important to note that African American cinema is often thought of as part of American cinema, while at the same time, African American cinema is also often thought of as part of a global black diasporic cinema. Consequently, other articles in this bibliography that focus on elements of American cinema include entries relevant to research on African American cinema, and many articles on non-US cinemas—for example, African Cinema, British Cinema, Cuban Cinema, and Transnational and Diasporic Cinemas—include entries relevant to researching topics in “black cinema.” Now back to the conceptual challenges African American cinema presents: To clarify these challenges, think about three prepositions: by, of, for. Does African American cinema mean films made by African Americans? If so, who are the key figures in the making: director, writer, performers, producers, financiers? Does it matter if the finance comes from Hollywood or independent sources? If a researcher is interested in “by,” then the articles on Authorship and Auteur Theory and on the black directors Charles Burnett, Spike Lee, and Oscar Micheaux, and actor- director Sidney Poitier, may be of interest. Does African American cinema mean films of—films that depict—African Americans? If so, must such depictions make an African American a central figure? Must that figure be “positive” or “realistic” or, indeed, performed by an actor who would self-identify as African American or black? If a researcher is interested in “of,” see also The Birth of a Nation, The Jazz Singer, King Kong, and more general categories like blackface, blaxploitation, Exploitation Film, Pop, Blues, and Jazz in Films, Race and Cinema, and African American Stars. Does African American cinema mean films that seem to be for African Americans—films that aim to address or appeal to African American moviegoers or films that, by whatever measures (say, box office success or critical approbation by black critics), succeed with African American audiences? If a researcher is interested in “for,” see also Exhibition and Distribution and also entries on various genres and modes of filmmaking. Underlying many of the critical and scholarly studies of African American cinema are additional questions of—and passionate arguments about—how politics, activism, social connections and commitments, aesthetics, pleasure, entertainment, art, and commerce interrelate with one another—and how they should interrelate with one another. This article does not favor one position in these debates over another, but aims to present a range of positions in the scholarship on African American cinema.

The Idea of Race

Researchers in African American cinema are generally motivated, at least in part, by an interest in the complex dynamics and history of race and a sense that cinema (and audio-visual culture more broadly) has played an important part in those dynamics and that history. They certainly need an understanding of those dynamics and that history. (Most researchers in African American cinema would also argue that anyone researching American—implicitly “white”?—cinema should also have such an understanding.) There is a lot of scholarship on the idea of race, so the resources listed here are a selective introductory sample. Fuentes 2012 provides an introduction to current scholarly understandings of race from the perspectives of the humanities and social sciences; the American Anthropological Association’s Statement on “Race” shows a professional scholarly association’s thinking, and how scholars collectively debate and develop positions based on collecting, analyzing, and interpreting evidence. Pigliucci 2014 provides an introduction to problems with the idea of race from the perspectives of biology, genetics, and the philosophy of science. Rattansi 2007 and Omi and Winant 2015 are book-length studies of the complex, shifting ways in which race has been conceptualized and used. California Newsreel’s Race: The Power of an Illusion covers the topic in documentary form. See also Whiteness.

  • American Anthropological Association. “Statement on ‘Race’,” 17 May 1998.

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    The main US scholarly society of anthropologists’ official position on the idea of race. Anthropology played an important role in the rise of the idea of race as a “scientific,” biological category in the 19th century; from the 20th century it has been pivotal in debunking that idea.

  • California Newsreel. Race: The Power of an Illusion, 2003.

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    This three-part documentary, available for inexpensive streaming rental, is a useful overview of contemporary scholarly and popular thinking about race. Its affiliated website provides additional resources and bibliography, and California Newsreel also carries many other documentaries focused on “African American Perspectives.”

  • Fuentes, Agstun. “Race Is Real, But Not in the Way Many People Think: Busting the Myth of Biological Race.” Psychology Today [blog] (9 April 2012).

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    An accessible, short piece that provides an overview of contemporary scientific and social scientific understandings of race and an argument for why it is crucial for people to have a clear understanding of the history of the idea of race. Also provides a useful brief bibliography.

  • Omi, Michael, and Howard Winant. Racial Formation in the United States. 3d ed. New York: Routledge, 2015.

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    Latest edition of an influential work (first published 1986) analyzes how the category of race has functioned at the core of US society, politics, and culture. Argues race is not a stable property but rather a constantly shifting “formation” deployed (and fought over) in organizing and controlling the nation.

  • Pigliucci, Massimo. “On the Biology of Race.” Scientia Salon blog (29 May 2014).

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    Strong criticism of recent attempts to revitalize race as a “scientific” category that is also nuanced in its analysis of continued social, cultural, and political (what Pigliucci as a biologist and philosopher of science calls “folk”) uses of ideas of race. Includes useful bibliography.

  • Rattansi, Ali. Racism: A Very Short Introduction. New York: Oxford University Press, 2007.

    DOI: 10.1093/actrade/9780192805904.001.0001E-mail Citation »

    Accessibly written overview—from an international, comparativist perspective—of the history and changing definitions of race and the ways it has been used in shaping social and political power. Concludes with useful guidance on the analytic uses—and limits—of the idea of racism as a critical tool.

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