Cinema Journal’s “In Focus: African American Caucus” asks: What is “Black Film”?

53-4coverStuart Hall’s 1992 essay “What Is This ‘Black’ in Black Popular Culture?” raised a fundamental question that continues to spark debate over 20 years later. The provocation lies at the heart of a series of essays that appear in the Summer 2014 edition of Cinema Journal , featured in the special section “In Focus: African American Caucus.” Members of the caucus, including Indiana University Professor Terri Francis, investigate the relationship between identity politics and media scholarship. The six contributing scholars and filmmakers—Anna Everett, Mark D. Cunningham, Allyson Nadia Field, Nina Cartier, Zeinabu irene Davis, and Francis—consider film-making, pedagogy, and scholarship in relation to individual and often intensely personal interpretations of the meaning of the “Black” in Black film and media.

Despite the diverse perspectives offered (which are not always in agreement), a consensus emerges regarding the need to recognize rigorous media scholarship and experience as not only compatible, but essential to the study of Black popular culture (126). In “Who’s ‘We,’ White Man?” Scholarship, Teaching and Identity Politics in African American Media Studies,” Allyson Nadia Field writes, “While attentive to questions of identity politics, privilege, subject position, and representation, these concerns should not obfuscate other approaches, such as formal analysis, historical contextualization, and industrial situation” (136). Terri Francis takes this notion a step further in her essay, “Whose ‘Black Film’ Is This? The Pragmatics and Pathos of Black Film Scholarship,” explaining that the conventional methodological approaches cannot simply be mapped on to Black film; instead, considering Black film in relation to concepts of genre, industry economics, narrative, and style, should productively disrupt and challenge cinema studies frameworks because Black film-making “bends and resists these very categories” (147). Both Field and Francis are centrally concerned with avoiding the pitfalls of teaching Black film—either as a marginalized week on racial representation, or as a discrete category of film-making (i.e. the films by Black filmmakers approach) that falls short of dealing with the position of Black media in relation to the industry at large.

Other highlights include Anna Everett’s consideration of the role that digital technologies have played in the establishment of the first Black American media moguls, following the lead of Oprah.com in 1998. Everett has a decidedly positive view of participatory media culture, offering Issa Rae’s success with the web series, Misadventures of Awkward Black Girl, as evidence that social media outlets such as YouTube may open the door for a new wave of Black media innovators. Independent filmmaker and University of California, San Diego Professor Zeinabu irene Davis provides an artist’s perspective on the need for the recognition of “Black film” as a distinct category. As a member of the L.A. Rebellion—the first group of African American filmmakers to graduate from UCLA’s film school—Davis states candidly that she sees it as her responsibility to create films featuring Black subjects for a Black audience, due to the failure of most mainstream media to provide a range of identifiable representations.

Do-The-Right-Thing-25

Samuel L. Jackson appears on the cover of the CJ issue as “Senor Love Daddy,” whose direct address confronts the reader as it did the viewer in Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing (1989). Through this icon of Black popular culture, series editors Beretta E. Smith-Shomade, Racquel Gates, and Miriam J. Petty recall the significance of the “roll call,” as performed by Love Daddy in the film, within Black culture: “Naming oneself, naming pioneers, naming the dead and the living, provides a way to establish a sense of lineage and communal bonds” (123). Noting that the roll call has roots in African American tradition, the authors explain that in African American culture, it has also served as a way of making a space for oneself at the exclusionary table of American society. While the “In Focus” section features complex debates surrounding the very meaning of “Black” and the responsibilities of all media scholars to teach Black cinema without marginalizing it as a side note in film history, the invocation of the roll call serves as a reminder that the recognition and celebration of Black films and filmmakers always provides an excellent starting place. As Francis states so eloquently at the conclusion of her essay: “In the end, simply introducing students to Charles Burnett, Julie Dash, and outstanding works like Chameleon Street (Wendell B. Harris, Jr., 1989) and Losing Ground (Kathleen Collins, 1982) generates new, enthusiastic, and better-informed audiences—you can’t unsee those films” (150).

~Noelle Griffis

About BFC/A

The Black Film Center/Archive at Indiana University was established in 1981 as the first archival repository dedicated to collecting, preserving, and making available historically and culturally significant films by and about black people. The BFC/A's primary objectives are to promote scholarship on black film and to serve as an open resource for scholars, researchers, students, and the general public; to encourage creative film activity by independent black filmmakers; and to undertake and support research on the history, impact, theory, and aesthetics of black film traditions. View all posts by BFC/A

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