Race and Ethnicity in U.S. Film

Date: Mon, 7 Aug 1995 05:09:56 -0500

From: IN%"maria_p@unity.ncsu.edu" 6-AUG-1995 19:55:28.74

I am interested in the discussion just that has begun on film and African American experiences partly because I am teaching a graduate seminar this fall entitled "Race and Ethnicity in US Film."

Needless to say, it is much too overwhelming a topic: I am trying to approach it from the standpoint of theories of race and ethnicity that do not define "race" only in relation to African America. The challenge, of course is to avoid "if this is Tuesday, we must be on Italian-Americans" and to attempt to encompass how race and ethnicity have shaped film production and industry concerns as well as particular narrative and experimental cinematic forms.

I am interested in suggestions...let me say that I am using the following books (not all in their entirety):

James Snead, *White Screens/Black Images:Hollywood From the Dark Side*

(Routledge, 1994).

Manthia Diawara *Black American Cinema* (Routledge, 1993).

Rosa Linda Fregoso *The Bronze Screen: Chicana and Chicano Film Culture*

(U Minnesota, 1993).

Ella Shohat and Robert Stam *Unthinking Eurocentrism: Multiculturalism

and the Media* (Routledge, 1994)

Werner Sollors *Beyond Ethnicity: Consent and Descent in American

Culture* (Oxford UP, 1986).

Randall Miller, ed. *Ethnic Images in American Film and Television* (The

Balch Institute, 1978).

Ed Guerrero *Framing Blackness: The African American Image in Film*

(Temple UP, 1993).

Thomas Cripps *Making Movies Black: The Hollywood message Movie from WWII

to the Civil Rights Era* (Oxford UP, 1993).

__________ *Slow Fade to Black: The Negro in American Film, 1900-42

(Oxford UP, 1993). bell hooks *Black Looks: Race and Representation* (South End Press, 1992)

K Sue Jewell *From Mammy to miss America and Beyond: Cultural Images and

the Shaping of US Social Policy* (Routledge, 1993).

Donald Bogle *Toms, Coons, Mulattoes, Mammies and Bucks: An Interpretive

History of Blacks in American Films* (Continuum, 1992).

Michael Rogin *Ronald Reagan The Movie, and Other Episodes in Political

Demonology* (U California, 1987).

Lee Lourdeaux *Italian and Irish Filmmakers in America: Ford, Capra,

Coppola and Scorsese* (Temple UP, 1990).

Eugene Wong *On Visual Media Racism: Asians in the American Motion

Pictures* ((Dissertation) Univ. of Denver, 1977)

Russell Leong, ed. *Moving the Image: Independent Asian Pacific American

Media Arts* (UCLA Asian American Studies Center and Visual Communications, Southern California Asian American Studies Central, 1991)

Marianna Torgovnick, *Crossing Ocean Parkway: Readings of an Italian

American Daughter* (U Chicago, 1994)

Mark Reid, *Redefining Black Film* (U California, 1993)

Gina Dent, ed.* Black Popular Culture*

Lester Friedman, ed. Unspeakable Images: Ethnicity in the American Cinema*

(U of Illinois).

Possible films include:

*Birth of a Nation*; *Within Our Gates* *The Jazz

Singer* * King Kong* *Gentleman's Agreement* *Pinky* *The

Searchers* *The Godfather* El Norte* *Sweet Sweetback's Baadasss Song* *A

Patch of Blue**To Sleep With Anger* *Daughters of the Dust* *Just Another

Girl on the IRT* *Powwow Highway* *Jungle Fever*

Sorry this is so partial...and so long!

I welcome any suggestions, and I concur with list members who have already warned of the implicit dangers of assuming that "a" racial or ethnic group's expeience is what we are necessarily discussing when we look at these or other films.

Hope this may be helpful and hope to hear more on this topic.

Maria Pramaggiore


| |

| Maria Pramaggiore maria_p@unity.ncsu.edu|

| Department of English (919) 515-4138 |

| North Carolina State University |


Date: Mon, 7 Aug 1995 11:42:15 -0500

From: IN%"nance@hawaii.edu" "Sue Nance" 7-AUG-1995 11:15:23.27

I, too, am teaching a course this summer called Ethnicity in American Film. Quite a few texts...very impressive list. You might also look at Neal Gabler's book (for your own interest), An Empire of Their Own: How the Jews Invented Hollywood, which creates a base on which much early film was built. The question it really addresses: the dynamic of Eastern European immigrants teaching other immigrants and rural people (by way of nickelodeons) what Americans are, how they behave, dress, what the values are, etc. The great cultural educator...

I think that the primary approach should be (sorry, hate that word "should") understanding the differences between representation and self-portrayal. It worked very well in my class. I showed clips of mainstream films which included or depicted a particular ethnicity, and then showed a full-length film made by people of that ethnicity. The issue of self-portrayal must be, it seems to me, central to any discussion of ethnicity in film, far more than representation, which tends to have only a few purposes, largely the implementation of institutionalized racism and the perpetuation of white patriarchy.

I would enjoy participating in any discussion of this subject, especially from those who have had success with other strategies within the classroom.

Aloha, Sue Nance

Date: Mon, 7 Aug 1995 13:02:08 -0500

From: IN%"ckw8z@fermi.clas.virginia.edu" "Christina K. Wilson" 7-AUG-1995

12: 13:20.78

Thanks to Sue Nance who did such an excellent job of clarifying the issue of representation and self-portrayal in ethnic films. I am the one who started this discussion; let me clarify my question: I have been asked to teach a class for school teachers called "The African American Experience in Film" and am just beginning to get a sense of the topic. Yes, "African American experience" IS huge, vague, and may seem questionable to some, but this was the starting point I was given. My immediate thought was to survey films that represent how African Americans have been viewed by filmmakers throughout film history. Birth of a Nation, likely the first film I will show, falls into Sue Nance's category of representation: blacks (mostly played by whites in blackface) are represented in an extremely racist and insensitive manner (to say the least!). But it is an important film because it does reflect the tendencies of film in these years to stereotype and demean African Americans.

More recent films, including those by Spike Lee, fall into Nance's self-portrayal category: Spike Lee is a black filmmaker who addresses various aspects of black cultural life in his films.

The school system that has requested this course wants to promote cultural and ethnic understanding amongst all races through education: that is what this course is all about. Exactly HOW to frame the course is still taking shape in my mind-that is why I put up this posting.

The way I have always taught my film classes is to 1. lecture and introduce the film, giving detailed into on the film's production, the director, historical and cultural context. 2. Show the film in its entirety. 3. Lead a lengthy discussion afterwards. This has been a great success, particularly with adult students (ie out of college, taking courses on top of their full time jobs) for they like to TALK about what they see. I would do this course the same way, and present the films chronologically, beginning with Birth of a Nation, and ending with Hoop Dreams or a recent Spike Lee Film.

I would be grateful to hear more from Sue Nance or anyone else who has thoughts or ideas on this subject. Thanks!

C.K. Wilson

Date: Mon, 7 Aug 1995 13:24:11 -0500

From: IN%"nestrick@garnet.berkeley.edu" 7-AUG-1995 13:18:54.84

Thanks to C.K. Wilson for clarifying the audience and intent of the course. I've been teaching a course on ethnic representation and films of the Thirties and Forties, and Wilson is surely right on the importance of contextualization. My personal sense is that Ethnicity and FIlm courses such as (I guess) the one described by Sue Nance might have easier going using only contemporary films. Films like THE NEGRO SOLDIER and BROKEN STRINGS are important for a history of ethnic representation in film, but the amount of contextualization necessary may be extremely difficult for courses that have a wide historical range. (P.S. I would suggest using LOST BOUNDARIES with/instead of PINKY for central ethnic issue.)

Date: Mon, 7 Aug 1995 15:13:20 -0500

From: IN%"shybels@eagle.lhup.edu" "Saundra Hybels" 7-AUG-1995 14:03:40.34

I just came back from the UFVA conference where I saw Louis deRochemont's "Lost Boundaries" for the first time. I was not even aware that this film existed and was delighted to "discover" it. For anyone who had not seen it, you will probably not find a better film to illustrate that race in America is a social construction.

Saundra Hybels


Lock Haven University

Lock Haven, PA 17745

(717) 893-2092

Date: Mon, 7 Aug 1995 15:12:23 -0500

From: IN%"TAVES@MAIL.LOC.GOV" 7-AUG-1995 14:00:08.81

Moderator's note: For the past two weeks, I participated in a seminar on "The Nature and Origins of New World Slavery." Before the seminar began, I asked Brian Taves of the Motion Picture Division of the Library of Congress if he might suggest early African American films that I might show in conjunction with the seminar. Let me express my thanks for this list, which I believe H-Film participants will find exceptionally useful. Let me note that I needed suggestions quickly, and did not give Brian Taves the opportunity to put together a formal, considered list of recommendations. Still, I think you will agree that it is a remarkably helpful guide.

Recommended films:

THE GUERILLA (1908) LC Paper Print collection; black servant helps save woman from advances of Confederate HIS TRUST and HIS TRUST FULFILLED (1911) LC Paper Print of DWG film in two parts; faithful servant entrusted with caring for wife and daughter of former master after he is killed in battle UNCLE TOM'S CABIN 1914 and 1927 first to use black as Tom; see also versions of 1903, 1910 (three UTC that year) and 1918. BIRTH OF A RACE (1918) official response to BOAN; almost unwatchably bad; ten minute excerpt on Criterion (I believe) laser disc version of BOAN A RECKLESS ROVER, THE COMEBACK OF BARNACLE BILL, A BLACK SHERLOCK HOLMES, MERCY THE MUMMY MUMBLED, SPYING THE SPY (1918) earliest surviving films by a black-owned concern, Ebony of Chicago; dismal comedies not much better than blackface; THE VERY LAST LAUGH (1970) documentary about Ebony Motion Picture Co. WITHIN OUR GATES (1919) Micheaux's second film, a response to BOAN, and remains controversial but essential (LC Smithsonian video)

THE SCAR OF SHAME (1926) white made black cast film of tragedy of black caste system (LC Smithsonian video)

THE FLYING ACE (1928)shows black cast use of standard Hollywood formula, mostly a detective film BLACK AND TAN and THE ST. LOUIS BLUES (1929) early black cast musical shorts by major studio HEARTS IN DIXIE and HALLELUJAH (both 1929) first Hollywood black cast features, regarded as liberal but seem retrograde today. THE EXILE (1931) Micheaux's first all-talking; apparently inter-racial marriage can take place when the girl is found to be part black MURDER IN HARLEM (1935) white tries to make black employee take rap for a killing; on SMU Tyler TX series THE BLACK KING (1932) very critical satire of Marcus Garvey, from stage THE EMPEROR JONES (1933)

SYMPHONY IN BLACK (1935) best of later studio produced black cast shorts THE DUKE IS TOPS aka BRONZE VENUS (1937) typical black Hollywood-style genre film pioneered by Ralph Cooper, star writer (this one also has Lena Horne)

BROKEN STRINGS (1940) soaper with Clarence Muse, SMU series; also

BROKEN EARTH, same star and source

TWO GUN MAN FROM HARLEM (1940) best of the series of black cast

westerns with Herb Jeffrey, which all suffered from poor

production values




GREEN PASTURES (1936) spiritual play



BEWARE (1946) charismatic Louis Jordan black musical

SEPIA CINDERELLA (1947) pinnacle of black cast filmmaking, now

with white guest star and high production values

Most of these are on home video, as far as the independent black films are concerned, although the transfer quality is usually dreadful.

Also check my section on Ethnic films in the B chapter in Balio's Grand Design.

Brian Taves

Motion Picture-Broadcasting-Recorded Sound Div.

Library of Congress


Date: Tue, 8 Aug 1995 05:38:15 -0500

From: IN%"ckw8z@fermi.clas.virginia.edu" "Christina K. Wilson" 7-AUG-1995


Another issue that is important to note in this ethnicity

discussion: the interrelationship/interaction of different

races. One of the best recent films on this to my mind is Spike Lee's Do the Right Thing (1989), in which an Italian (white) family runs a pizzeria in an African American neighborhood across from a Korean grocer. The film takes place in one 24 hour period in the hot summer, and tensions flair in an interesting but not-too-stereotypical way.

A "classic" film that explores this question is the 1967 Guess Who's Coming To Dinner, in which a white woman brings home her black fiance and announces they will only get married if the family decides to support them THAT NIGHT. This is a very interesting film in part because of its solid script and fine acting (Spencer Tracy, K. Hepburn, and Sidney Poitier at their best). I taught this film to undergraduates this spring and they LOVED it-most had never seen it before. How is this film received these days? A classic or a cliche? Please comment.

The discussion on this topic has been insightful and helpful.

Please let us hear from more of you.

C.K. Wilson

Date: Tue, 8 Aug 1995 11:44:46 -0500

From: IN%"nestrick@garnet.berkeley.edu" 8-AUG-1995 10:53:01.74

It might be fun to pair DO THE RIGHT THING with Okazaki's LIVING ON TOKYO


Date: Wed, 9 Aug 1995 17:16:10 -0500

From: IN%"dlangsto@nasc.mass.edu" "David Langston" 9-AUG-1995 07:14:10.65

C.K. Wilson requested book titles too.

Since your audience consists of high school teachers, you might find Mark Reid's _Redefining Black Film_ useful for provoking discussion. It tries to draw a distinction between films that concern African Americans as a topic and films that try to explore the inner contours of that experience. Good luck.

David Langston

North Adams State College

North Adams, MA


Date: Wed, 9 Aug 1995 17:22:34 -0500

From: IN%"NLEIBMANDONN@SCUACC.SCU.EDU" "Nina Leibman" 9-AUG-1995 12:30:44.35

The discussion on race and ethnicity in film has been enormously helpful, particularly in a pedagogical sense. Maria Pramaggiore's list of texts is of great use especially. To her list I would add another text, David Desser and Lester Friedman's book *American Jewish Filmmakers*. This book provides a thorough analysis of four major jewish filmmakers (Allen, Brooks, Lumet, and Mazursky) based on their personal histories and their artistic works. The book is particularly useful in distinguishing between Jewish ethnicty, Judaism as a religion, its history in the formation of the film industry, the director's own acceptance of or resistance to their personal heritage,etc.

Hope this helps. Nina

Date: Thu, 10 Aug 1995 06:07:36 -0500

From: IN%"texbart@merle.acns.nwu.edu" 9-AUG-1995 13:20:00.02

[La Nina M. Clayton <clayton@METGATE.METRO.ORG> writes:]

Here are a few suggestions for the film class on race, ethnicity and America.

Nothing but a Man-A story about African-American love and life in 1960's America.

Mississippi Masala-This film about an Indian woman and a black man finding each other, love and racism in contemporary Greenwood, Mississippi. The film beckons the audience to consider how we define race. Is it skin color, place of birth, or how the majority views you?

Thunderheart-This film is about a half-white, half-Sioux FBI who is forced to confront his destiny and his place in the world.

La Nina M. Clayton clayton@metgate.metro.org

Regional Archivist

Documentary Heritage Program

Date: Thu, 10 Aug 1995 06:09:57 -0500

From: IN%"texbart@merle.acns.nwu.edu" 9-AUG-1995 13:26:38.48

[Marc S. Rodriguez <mrod@MERLE.ACNS.NWU.EDU> writes:]

A few thoughts on "Race and Ethnicity" and the American film. It seems as if the discussion (unless I have missed some significant portion) tends towards a BLACK/WHITE dichotomy, with some inclusion of the Irish and Italian experience in film and as filmakers. I think that any discussion, or course on this topic should explore the Mexican-American/Chicano film experience, most notedly films such as *American Me*, and other films by E.J. Olmos. Another issue in the production of films by directors such as OImos, and Spike Lee, is that of funding, and the fact that these films are not often considered or marketed to the general public, [Exception Olmos' recent film * La Familia*, and despite budget over-runs, and cutbacks Lee's *Malcolm X*] but as films for secondary or race-specific markets. This classification it seems leads to low budgets, and a small group of directors producing such work.

Also, Mexican-or-Mexican-American Televison has been prominent for some time in the US in major markets in Texas,California, Chicago, and even mid-sized towns. This has had an impact-although I am unsure of it's implications-on creating perhaps a pan-latin American viewing public for soap operas and films from Latin America, Spain, and Mexico. These movies have been assimilated into the Spanish speaking community in the US and should also be considered, along with other ethnic TV programing in creating a new site for the viewing of film, and also opens the door to internal cultural norms within Spanish language film.

Lastly, at this time I am unaware of any recent published work that studies "the Mexican", and Mexican-Americans, in film. Westerns seem to be a place to begin, but modern urban setting movies also have "the Mexican" portrayed as well. Is such work being done?

Marc S. Rodriguez

Department of History

Northwestern University

Date: Thu, 10 Aug 1995 06:22:27 -0500

From: IN%"ckw8z@fermi.clas.virginia.edu" "Christina K. Wilson" 9-AUG-1995


About Guess Who's Coming to Dinner: I forgot to mention that I paired it with Mississippi Masala, another racial/romantic tangle in which an African American man falls in love with a woman from India (via Africa, where she grew up). It also has weaknesses as a film, but the two made a fascinating duo and foiled nicely off each other.

C.K. Wilson

Date: Fri, 11 Aug 1995 06:38:10 -0500

From: IN%"David_E_WILT@umail.umd.edu" 10-AUG-1995 08:21:23.14

In reply to the inquiry regarding works about Mexicans/Mexican-Americans in film: although my primary focus is on MEXICAN cinema, I am aware of the following works which discuss HOLLYWOOD images of Latin Americans:

Images of the Mexican-American in fiction and film by Arthur G. Pettit (1980 but still quite interesting).

The Latin image in American Film & Ethnic and racial images in American film and television both by Allen L. Woll.

Contemporary Hollywood's negative Hispanic image & Censorship and Hollywood's Hispanic image, both by Alfred C. Richard ('90 and '93).

Hispanic Hollywood by George Hadley-Garcia ('90).

Hispanics and United States film by Gary D. Keller ('94), who also

edited (I think) Chicano Cinema ('85).

I think the point about the pan-Latinizing influence of Spanish-language broadcasting is interesting. In my research I think I have detected some changes in Mexican cinema in the past several decades which can be traced to a realization that its audience has shifted from domestic (Mexican) to a U.S. Spanish-speaking one (including many Central American immigrants). I don't know whether one can attribute the style of Telemundo's newer telenovelas (which have been produced in Colombia, Puerto Rico, even the United States) to a desire to "internationalize" its product, or whether it is simply a function of Univision's near-monopoly on Mexican product (given its close connection with Televisa, the primary producer of these shows). In the wider popular culture context, it has always been true that musicians withOUT a particular regional "sound" have been more broadly popular than those who specialize in tangos, cumbias, rancheras, and so forth (although I find the crossovers between musical styles-such as Colombia's cumbia and norteno music from Mexico) to be fascinating.

As many U.S. Hispanics have said, the term "Latino audience" (or population) is misleading, since the primary link is language, but Mexican-Americans, Cuban-Americans, South Americans, and Central Americans should not be lumped together into one big ethnic mass (well, Asian-Americans have the same problem).

David E. WILT

Email:David_E_WILT@umail.umd.edu (dw45)


Date: Fri, 11 Aug 1995 16:54:55 -0500

From: IN%"David_E_WILT@umail.umd.edu" 11-AUG-1995 14:54:25.67

>From: IN%"nance@hawaii.edu" "Sue Nance" 11-AUG-1995 13:04:34.34


>Just the briefest message...There is another, excellent text pertaining >to Chicano film, by Chon Noriega. I'm sorry, my mind just went blank on >its title....



David E. WILT

Email:David_E_WILT@umail.umd.edu (dw45)


Date: Sat, 12 Aug 1995 06:42:02 -0500

This message is cross-posted from H-Ethnic, moderated by

"Josef J. Barton" <texbart@merle.acns.nwu.edu>

[Roger Horowitz <rh@UDEL.EDU> writes:]

Grant Littke raises a legitimate question-whether the native american exprience with whites in a Canadian context is comparable to the US. I think if we move to the mid-19th century, there are complex national issues when we get into areas of state policy vis-a-vis Indians. Is there an equivalent to Andrew Jackson and Indian removal in Canada? Is treatment of native peoples intertwined with slavery and anti-black racism? Not being a historian of 19th century Canadian history, I am not sure.

But the colonial period is an era in which national boundaries are extremely fluid, and the films Ikwe and Black Robe deal not with state to state relations between Indian tribes and white governments, but with contact between market-oriented whites and interior Indian tribes. What these films bring out (I think Ikwe does a better job) is the vast difference in the cultural, social, and ideological world view of the white and Indian societies. This has little to do with particular state formations.

What seems more pertinent for a course on race and ethnicity is the extent to which fur trading is used a model for Indian-white relations before 1800, and esp. 1900. The important difference, it seems to me, is that this was a trading relationship (albeit unequal) rather than simple expropriation of land and resources as occurred in the Ohio valley and the Trans-Mississippi west, and most other places in the US part of North America. Any course which uses Ikwe and/or Black Robe hopefully will make clear that these contain but one example of white-Indian contact.

Dr. Roger Horowitz

Associate Director

Center for the History of Business, Technology, and Society

Hagley Museum and Library

PO Box 3630

Wilmington DE 19807


email: rh@strauss.udel.edu