In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Race and Cinema

  • Introduction
  • Casting and Representation
  • Racial Positioning
  • Screening Blackness
  • White
  • Beur
  • Latino/Hispanic
  • African
  • Asian

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Cinema and Media Studies Race and Cinema
Diane Negra, Zélie Asava
  • LAST REVIEWED: 28 January 2013
  • LAST MODIFIED: 28 January 2013
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199791286-0127


Because of the influence that American cinema has had on ideas of race globally, both as film representations and as sociocultural concerns, and in keeping with the large output of its film industry and of American academic writing on issues of race in film studies, American films and film studies will form the central focus of this examination. Because the black/white binary defines the history of US racial discourse, this bibliography will centralize this binary and consider other racial groups (under terms constructed according to American discourse, using “black” as an umbrella term) in relation to black/white screen politics. Critical race theory has proven race to be a construction, yet racism remains a part of lived experience and racial stereotypes frequently recur even in an era marked by discourses of race transcendence and “postracial” cultural celebration. Hollywood can be read as an ethnographer, reinforcing the hegemony of whiteness onscreen by producing experiences of the black racial types it creates. Representations of blackness in early and silent cinema were largely characterized by the ideology of a landmark 1915 film Birth of a Nation, which would form the template (textually, visually, and in many ways, thematically) for filmmaking that followed. This film centers on racial politics and supports a white supremacist standpoint; here (as in most Hollywood films until the civil rights era), black men were loyal chattel or aggressive “Bucks,” black women were fat, caring housekeepers, and mixed-race women were tragic, disturbed beauties (see Bogle 2001 and Gaines 2001, both cited under Screening Blackness; Courtney 2005, cited under Casting and Representation). The American film industry has produced many distorted representations that have positioned screen characters as “Other” because of their designation as nonnormative (whether black, gay, etc.). In such ways, both visually and narratologically, film codes can position the Other as inferior to the white (male) hero, even where a superficial egalitarianism might seem to prevail (e.g., the “buddy movie,” where black men play foil to their white hero partner). Very recent cinematic productions, such as The Help (2011), deploy race knowledgeably but still problematically. Thus films may both deny and recognize the notion of race as visible given that social and cinematic language still uses “race” as a social framework. In fact, while it has been established that there is no biological basis for the idea of race, notions of racial difference are routinely dramatized by filmmakers and expressed through film and visual media technology.

Casting and Representation

A 2007 study by the UCLA School of Law and UCLA Chicano Studies Research Center found that Latino, African American, Asian American, and Native American actors have few acting opportunities available to them. It suggested that 69 percent of roles were reserved for white actors and another 8.5 percent were open to white actors as well as nonwhite actors. Nonwhite actors were limited to between 0.5 percent and about 8 percent of the roles, depending on their racial background. Thus nonwhite actors continue to be marginalized and cast according to largely denigrating racial types (e.g., black man as criminal, Native American as savage—see Miller 1980, Aleiss 2009). The study also found that American cinema remains deeply patriarchal and centered on white masculine heroes. In a content analysis of major films, men were almost three times as likely as women to work in the first-billed lead role. Women made up 44 percent of second-billed roles and 40 percent of third-billed roles, but were outnumbered by men in each category. Due to institutional and cultural sexism, filmmakers still privilege male characters and limit female roles. Thus nonwhite female actors continue to be the most marginalized within the system. Scherr 2008 claims that even films that appear to pose a challenge to dominant representations of identity “do not successfully confront the implicit whiteness of U.S. cinema” (p. 3). Courtney 2005 says that it is imperative to interrogate this cinema’s “history of white vision” (p. 4) (see also Davies and Smith 2000, Bernardi 2007). (References to whiteness as a hegemonic structure are expanded upon in the section titled White.) Hence contemporary references to the miscegenation taboo in films such as Hancock (2008), where races are positioned as incompatible and interracial romance is rejected in favor of racially homogenous unions. As Robinson 2006 observes, casting breakdowns prove that the cinema industry is subject to extreme racial and sexual discrimination. As Shohat and Stam 1994 notes, fictional identities are creative ventures, and so casting can be seen as unimportant. But casting must be seen “in contingent terms, in relation to the role, the political and esthetic intention, and to the historical moment” (p. 191). Hamilton and Block 2003 explores the history of racial representation in American cinema, while Davies and Smith 2000 considers contemporary issues.

  • Aleiss, Angela. Making the White Man’s Indian: Native Americans and Hollywood Movies. Westport, CT: Praeger, 2009.

    Aleiss examines the history of Native American representation onscreen, examining the positive and negative stereotypes that have emerged across a range of films. She finds that Native Americans have been positioned as sympathetic more than savage/tragic and explores the contradictions of race onscreen with reference to primary sources.

  • Bernardi, Daniel, ed. The Persistence of Whiteness: Race and Contemporary Hollywood Cinema. London: Routledge, 2007.

    In this collection, scholars explore the role that narratives of race and ethnicity have played in Hollywood representations, also considering the role of class, gender, and sexuality. Scholars explore these discourses across a range of genres, styles, and stars of American filmmaking.

  • Courtney, Susan. Hollywood Fantasies of Miscegenation: Spectacular Narratives of Gender and Race. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2005.

    Courtney’s comprehensive analysis of interracial relationships onscreen unpacks ideas of whiteness in order to establish how historical visualizations of blackness manifested insecurity and undermined narratives of equality. She notes a continuing degree of resistance to change; many films appear to renounce the miscegenation taboo yet reassert it and other classical Hollywood stereotypes (e.g., Guess Who, a 2005 remake of miscegenation classic Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner).

  • Davies, Jude, and Carol R. Smith. Gender, Ethnicity and Sexuality in Contemporary American Film. Chicago: Fitzroy Dearborn, 2000.

    Considering how screen representations of race are reflective of political and cultural attitudes toward multiculturalism, this work on identity politics explores contemporary representations of race and ethnicity in American cinema.

  • Hamilton, Marsha J., and Eleanor S. Block. Projecting Ethnicity and Race: An Annotated Bibliography of Studies on Imagery in American Film. Westport, CT: Praeger, 2003.

    In this bibliography, Hamilton and Block review nearly five hundred books, essays, reference works, and book chapters on American cinema published between 1915 and 2001 that focus on racial, ethnic, and national representations on film.

  • Miller, Randall M., ed. The Kaleidoscopic Lens: How Hollywood Views Ethnic Groups. Englewood, NJ: Jerome S. Ozer, 1980.

    In this collection a range of scholars examine Hollywood as ethnographer of various racial and ethnic groups exploring Irish, Jewish, Hispanic, Italian, Slavic, Asian, German, Indian, and black representations in American film.

  • Robinson, Russell Hollywood’s Race/Ethnicity and Gender-Based Casting: Prospects for a Title VII Lawsuit. Latino Policy and Issues Brief 14. UCLA Chicano Studies Research Center, 2006.

    The study finds that the absence of a balanced casting system denies minority groups a substantial voice in the cinematic sphere and leads to distorted representations onscreen.

  • Scherr, Rebecca. “(Not) Queering White Vision.” Jump Cut 50 (2008): 1–19.

    In this analysis of racial, sexual, and gender representation, Scherr challenges what she calls the “implicit [heterosexual] whiteness” of American cinematic vision, showing how it structures both the study and production of film and representations of identity politics.

  • Shohat, Ella, and Robert Stam. Unthinking Eurocentrism: Multiculturalism and the Media. New York: Routledge, 1994.

    This theoretical analysis of multiculturalism and the media explores all aspects of racial imaging and colonial discourse from an historical and contemporary context. Taking a post-structuralist approach, Shohat and Stam explore the possibilities of polycentrism, new forms of representation, and new esthetic and identity politics coming from the cinemas of the developing world.

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