In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Postcolonial Theory in Film

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews/Foundational Texts
  • Companions, Anthologies, Handbooks, and Readers
  • Postcolonial Cinema Studies
  • Cinema and Race
  • World Cinema
  • Cinema, Migration, and Diaspora
  • Individual Postcolonial Films
  • Postcolonial Films and Gender

Cinema and Media Studies Postcolonial Theory in Film
Sandra Ponzanesi
  • LAST REVIEWED: 22 February 2018
  • LAST MODIFIED: 22 February 2018
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199791286-0284


Postcolonial theory has hardly been a defining paradigm in the field of film studies. Postcolonial theory originally emerged from comparative literature departments and film from film and media studies departments, and despite the many intersections postcolonial theory has not been explicitly foregrounded. However, there are more similarities and natural points of intersections between the two areas than it would at first appear. For example, both postcolonial theory and film studies emerged at the end of the 1970s with the development of semiotic theory and poststructuralist thought. Both areas engage intensively with the field of representation, implying the ways in which a language, be it cinematic or otherwise, manages to convey reality as “mediated” and “discursive,” and therefore influenced by power relations. An example could be the notion of the gendered gaze by Laura Mulvey and her concept of looked-at-ness and how it also applies to the screening and representation of black and colonized bodies in films, which bell hooks later theorized as black looks, to which she proposed the response of an oppositional gaze. Despite their different genealogies, it is therefore not only very natural but also necessary to combine postcolonial theory and film in order to unearth how the visual field is inherently hegemonizing and hierarchical and therefore in need of critical appraisal and a deconstructive take, such as postcolonial theory. Postcolonial theory has critically contributed to revisiting the representation of the Other, addressing long-standing tropes and stereotypes about cultural difference and racial otherness. This implies new interventions on how visual representations are implicated in the policing of boundaries between East and West, between Europe and the Rest, the self and the other, undoing or rethinking the ways in which the visual field conveys operation of a mastery that needs to be undone and decoded. For example, empire cinema contributed to specific ways of seeing, making films that legitimated the domination of colonies by the colonial powers. Colonial images of gender, race, and class carried ideological connotations that confirmed imperial epistemologies and racial taxonomies, depicting natives, in documentary or fictional films, as savages, primitive, and outside modernity. More recent cinema genres such as border cinema, transnational cinema, accented cinema, haptic cinema, migrant cinema, diasporic cinema, and world cinema can be considered affiliated with the postcolonial paradigm as they all embrace ethnic, immigrant, hyphenated counter-narratives. Yet the field of postcolonial cinema studies, which relates postcolonial theory to film, is a false friend to all these categories as it connects with but also departs from the projects they name in order to pursue the tense power asymmetries generated by the legacies of conquest and colonialism.

General Overviews/Foundational Texts

Postcolonial theory focuses on the critique of empire and its aftermath. As such, it draws from different disciplinary fields such as literature, media, anthropology, politics, philosophy, gender, and sociology, among other more recent approaches such as science and technology studies as in Harding 2011 and ecocriticism as discussed in Nixon 2013. There are topics and key concepts that are at the forefront of postcolonial theory and have been much debated from different viewpoints. Examples are notions such as orientalism proposed by Said 1978, hybridity and mimicry elaborated by Bhabha 1994 and subalternity explored by Spivak 1985, along with cosmopolitanism rethought by Gilroy 2004, and representation by Hall, et al. 1997. Though there is no clear agreement on whether postcolonialism should be considered as a historical marker (the end of colonialism and the birth of independent postcolonial nations) or an epistemological standpoint (a critique of how knowledge is produced from a universalistic and Western perspective), there is consensus on the text that inaugurated postcolonial theory as a subject in its own right, causing the field to blossom and spread from its original habitat of comparative literature into many other realms due to its intrinsic interdisciplinary nature. That text is Orientalism by Edward Said (Said 1978). In Orientalism, Said developed a sophisticated discursive approach that linked Foucault’s notion of knowledge and power to Gramsci’s concept of hegemony, by combining the analysis of political colonial dynamics with representational issues that unearthed an ossified representation of the Other as external to the project of modernity, and often depicted as exotic, irrational, and feminized. This understanding has been highly influential for the understanding of representations in literature, painting, photography, and films as often biased and curated to reinforce the Western point of view as inherently structured around a position of superiority and domination. It is therefore important to challenge the intrinsic Eurocentrism of much media representation and film theory as analyzed by Shohat and Stam 1994 with the aid of postcolonial theory. Eurocentrism emerged as a discursive justification for European colonial expansions, making the colonizers, and their civilizational ideology, the lens through which the world is seen, valued, and judged, and to which objectivity is attributed (Shohat and Stam 1994, pp. 2–3). It justifies imperial practices under the motto of the white man’s burden and the need to bring civilization and progress to the rest of the world. Other more specialized interventions are those offered by Huggan 2001, which focus more on the implications of postcolonial literature as object of exchange in the marketplace based on the fetishization of the other, or the volume Lewis 2003, which focuses on the gender implications of postcolonial theory around debated issues such as whiteness, sexuality, and the veil.

  • Bhabha, K. Homi. The Location of Culture. London and New York: Routledge, 1994.

    Bhabha’s analysis focuses on colonial ambivalence and is largely based on the Lacanian conceptualization of mimicry as camouflage. Even though the rulers created a class of subjects who would act, speak, and dress like the colonizers, the operation of mimicry always created a slippage: the colonized were like the colonizers, but not quite. So the process of colonial mimicry is both a product of ambivalence and hybridity, and with that resistance.

  • Gilroy, Paul. Postcolonial Melancholia. New York: Columbia University Press, 2004.

    The book introduces Gilroy’s concept of conviviality as a different term to the overused term “multiculturalism.” The book primarily addresses Great Britain and Britain’s melancholic relationship with her former colonies. Gilroy focuses on the reasons for diagnosing why race and imperial thinking are still at the heart of postcolonial British political discourse. The alternative to postcolonial melancholia is a cosmopolitan planetary humanism, where planetary does not mean globalization but suggests both contingency and movement.

  • Hall, Stuart, Julia Evans, and Sean Nixon, eds. Representation: Cultural Representations and Signifying Practices. 2d ed. London: Open University, 1997.

    Representation embodies the notion that language, in its broadest sense, assists in the construction of meanings in the world and influences the way we look at or interpret this world. This is a textbook that has proved extremely accessible and effective in explaining how representations come about as a discursive practice embedded in power structures and ideological constructions. The book offers careful and detailed case studies drawing from theorists and media events.

  • Harding, Sandra, ed. The Postcolonial Science and Technology Studies Reader. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2011.

    In this reader, philosopher of science Sandra Harding argues that science and technology studies, postcolonial studies, and feminist critique must inform one another. She brings these different fields together in a critical conversation. The contributors assess and reevaluate conventional accounts of Western scientific knowledge and technological projects, rethinking the role and influence of non-Western societies’ knowledge traditions and assessing the legacies of colonialism and imperialism.

  • Huggan, Graham. The Postcolonial Exotic: Marketing the Margins. London: Routledge, 2001.

    DOI: 10.4324/9780203420102

    Huggan examines the cultural and economic processes through which “the postcolonial” as a field works within the field of value and exchange. Postcolonial writing becomes a commodity that trades upon the value of the exotic, the fetishization of the other, and the marketing of the margins. By distinguishing the notion of postcolonialism as a field of critique and postcoloniality as a system of exchange, Huggan offers a careful understanding of the processes of production, dissemination, and consumption.

  • Lewis, Reina, ed. Feminist Postcolonial Theory: A Reader. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2003.

    Though feminism and postcolonialism are natural allies, there are many areas of tensions and areas that require a deeper exploration of this entanglement. This volume presents an important selection of thinkers around issues of colonialism/postcolonialism, whiteness, Third World women, sexuality, the harem, and the veil. This is an ideal volume for any reader interested in the development of postcoloniality and feminist thought.

  • Nixon, Rob. Slow Violence and the Environmentalism of the Poor. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2013.

    Through the concept of “slow violence,” Rob Nixon focuses on the deep and long-term threat of many inadvertent environmental crises, in contrast with the sensational, spectacle-driven need of media interventions. Slow violence particularly affects poor, disempowered, and disenfranchised people, who are most affected by the vulnerability of fragile ecosystems. By approaching environmental justice through a postcolonial and transnational framework, the book offers an illuminating reading of writer-activists and major crises.

  • Said, Edward W. Orientalism. London and New York: Penguin, 1978.

    A founding text of postcolonial theory, it discusses “orientalism” as a powerful European ideological tool that defines, fixes, and marginalizes the Other. Said argues that the most damaging and lasting effect of colonization was not caused by Western military domination or by the violence perpetrated in the colonies but rather lay in the construction of Western scholarship on the Orient. Such scholarship constituted in truth a “Western style for dominating, restructuring, and having authority over the Other” (p. 3).

  • Shohat, Ella, and Robert Stam. Unthinking Eurocentrism. London: Routledge, 1994.

    The authors examine Hollywood movie genres, such as the musical, the western, and the historical epic, from a multicultural perspective, by showing how popular culture and mass media are still imbued with racial politics that protract Eurocentrism. The volume discusses non-Eurocentric media such as Third World cinema, rap video, and indigenous media as decolonizing global culture, proposing polycentrism as a valuable alternative to Eurocentrism.

  • Spivak, Gayatri. “Can the Subaltern Speak? Speculation on Widow Sacrifice.” Wedge (Winter/Spring 1985): 120–130.

    This seminal article is informed by feminism, psychoanalysis, Marxism, and deconstructionism. Spivak problematizes the validity of Western representations of Third World women by arguing that the category of “Third World Woman” is an effect of discourse, rather than an existent, identifiable reality. The voice and subjectivity of the female subaltern are erased as she becomes the object of dispute between tradition and emancipation. She can only be represented and spoken for by others, in a distorted or “interested” fashion.

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