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Ethnicity, Race and Cinema: Blackness and Film

In her seminal essay “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema,” Laura Mulvey analyzed mainstream cinema as a patriarchal technology of looking, catering to heterosexual male scopophilic desires. Her uncompromising “destruction” (1975, p. 7–8) of Hollywood’s visual pleasures was aimed at dissecting the symbolic (patriarchal) order of cinematic visuality. Reformulating this critique of cinema’s politics of representation, Black feminist thinkers addressed the visual practices of reproducing racial ideologies on film. As American film scholar Terri Francis explains, the emergence of cinema as mass cultural visual entertainment is intricately connected to colonialism, policies of racial segregation, and racist doctrines: “Motion pictures as a multifaceted cultural institution were […] instrumental in generating, disseminating and romanticising the ideological aspects of European imperialism as well as America’s expansionist projects and racial conflicts” (Francis, 2012, p. 330).

For Black feminist film studies Kimberlé Crenshaw’s (1989) concept of “intersectionality” was key. In her inquiries into discrimination against Black women in the workplace Crenshaw considers the multiple categories that define our social location in hierarchies of power and privilege. To think through cinema’s representations in terms of intersectionality means to analyze the interdependence between systems of subordination (e.g., sexism and racism). In film history the mastering ‘male gaze’ is by and large a ‘white gaze’—and often a colonial and racist gaze.

Since the early 1990s Black feminist film studies and critical race theory have addressed racist stereotypes in mainstream cinema and analyzed the hegemony of ‘whiteness’ in film and visual culture (cf. hooks, 1992; Diawara, 1993; Guerrero, 1993; Dyer, 1997; Smith, 1997). On the one hand, research on the visual and narrative representation of race and ethnicities has profoundly enriched the methodologies of film analysis. On the other, archival research and publications have recovered the history and wide range of African American film productions: from early pioneers to the ‘race’ films, to Blaxploitation, to the New Black Cinema of the 1970s and 1980s, to commercially successful hood films and to contemporary independent or artists’ films (cf. Stewart, 2005; Bowser, Gaines& Musser, 2001; Massood, 2003, 2007; Field, Horak & Stewart, 2015; Ramanathan, 2020). In recent years, insightful projects probed into the relationships between films of the African diaspora and the traffic of ideas between Europe, Africa, and the Americas or tackled questions of Black expressive performances in popular culture and the dynamics of cultural appropriation (Boyd, 1994; hooks, 1996). In Europe, scholarly debates on race, ethnicity, and film often focus on image archives of migration, colonial histories of early film production, or contemporary decolonizing documentary practices (cf. Nwonka & Saha, 2021; Eshun & Sagar, 2007; Ba & Higbee, 2012).

The following three recommended texts address images, expressive performances, and ideas of Blackness in the history of American cinema.

1. “The Oppositional Gaze: Black Female Spectators” is a chapter from bell hooks’ book Black Looks: Race and Representation (1992). At once criticizing the absence of Black women in film, in movie theater audiences, and in white feminists’ scholarly debates, hooks interrogates the linkages between Blackness and cinema with regard to representation, spectatorship, and filmmaking practices. Drawing on her personal memories of moviegoing, hooks describes the manifold articulations of white supremacy in mainstream cinema. hooks shows that Black women are underrepresented in American cinema, negated as independent active characters, and often portrayed in an outright repulsive way. Referring to the history of slavery, hooks explains the close connection between power relations and looking relations. She states that white slave-owners disapproved and repressed the looks of their slaves. hooks introduces the notion of the ‘oppositional gaze’ for looking relations, which resist and disrupt given structures of subjugation and vigorously claim a Black person’s right to look. For hooks the oppositional gaze is a model of how to overcome mainstream cinema’s long-standing habitual racism and create innovative multifaceted representations of Black lives. In her discussion of films by Julie Dash and by the British Sankofa collective hooks envisions a new critical practice of filmmaking, which might support the development of an aesthetically and politically visionary, independent Black cinema. For hooks these films “employ a deconstructive filmic practice to undermine existing grand cinematic narratives even as they retheorize subjectivity in the realm of the visual. Without providing ‘realistic’ positive representations that emerge only as a response to the totalizing nature of existing narratives, they offer points of radical departure. Opening up a space for the assertion of a critical black female spectatorship, they do not simply offer diverse representations, they imagine new transgressive possibilities for the formulation of identity” (hooks, 1992, p. 31).

2. In her article “Whose ‘Black Film’ Is This?: The Pragmatics and Pathos of Black Film Scholarship,” Terry Francis (2014) outlines some of the challenges for black film scholarship with regard to film studies’ research methodologies and teaching practices. Francis stresses on the theoretical and ethical significance of courses on Black cinema in the curriculum. She writes, “The idea of black film provides a space, maybe the only space in a department, where students take up matters of race, racism, and other prejudices within Hollywood’s economic and aesthetic structures—where they broach the idea that films are not only ‘art’ and entertainment but also commodities that carry with them ideas about who we are and how we live” (Francis, 2014, p. 147). Francis reflects on film studies’ traditional categories of author, genre, or national cinema, which cannot be applied to African American cinema, because it is part of a global black diasporic cinema. In addition, she sees the necessity to move away from mainstream media and industrialist film production and to advocate new, and maybe demanding viewing experiences, instead. Francis refers to her own experiences as a student and as a university teacher and states that discussions of avant-gardes in African American art, literature, music, and theater might help students to better understand radical aesthetic forms and to relate to contemporary independent and experimental films.

3. In Film Blackness: American Cinema and the Idea of Black Film, Michael B. Gillespie (2016) develops a unique understanding of cinema’s role in creating aesthetic concepts and speculative thoughts on the meanings of Blackness. Rather than collapsing the distinctions between the arts and the social category of race, Gillespie is interested in the contested and ambivalent relationships between cinema and the black experience. He thoroughgoingly questions traditional understandings of film as inherently mimetic or realistic artistic practice. Gillespie claims that “Film blackness demands more ambition for the idea of black film as a critical capacity and not agential authority. What if black film could be something other than embodied? What if black film was immaterial and bodiless? What if black film could be speculative or just ambivalent? What if film is ultimately the worst window imaginable and an even poorer mirror? What if black film is art or creative interpretation and not merely the visual transcription of the black lifeworld?“ (Gillespie, 2016, p. 5).

In the chapter “Black Maybe: Medicine for Melancholy, Place, and Quiet Becoming” Gillespie examines the relationship between Black film and urban discourse, showing how the shooting locations and renderings of San Francisco’s urban environment become an expressive compositional element in Barry Jenkins’ film Medicine for Melancholy (2008). Illuminating the intersections of cinema, social history, and the cultural reverberations of urban development, Gillespie analyses the ways in which the protagonists’ movements through San Francisco render the built material milieus as sites of affect, memory, and change for the film viewers.


Ba, S. M. & Higbee, W. (2012). De-Westernizing Film Studies. Routledge.

Bowser, P., Gaines, J. & Musser, C. (2001). Oscar Micheaux and His Circle: African-American Filmmaking and Race Cinema of the Silent Era. Indiana University Press.

Boyd, T. (1994, November 6). “Tarantino’s Mantra?,” Chicago Tribune.

Crenshaw, K. (1991) “Mapping the Margins: Intersectionality, Identity Politics, and Violence against Women of Color.” Stanford Law Review, 43(6), 1241–1299.

Diawara, M. (1993). Black American Cinema. Routledge.

Dyer, R. (1997) White. Routledge.

Eshun, K. & Sagar, A. (2007). The Ghosts of Songs: The Film Art of the Black Audio Film Collective. Liverpool University Press.

Field, A., Horak, J-C. & Stewart, J. N. (2015). L.A. Rebellion Creating a New Black Cinema. University of California Press.

Francis, T. (2012). “Spectacle, Stereotypes and Films of the African Diaspora,” In J. Nelmes (Ed.) Introduction to Film Studies (pp. 329–357). Routledge.

Francis, T. (2014). “Whose ‘Black Film’ Is This?: The Pragmatics and Pathos of Black Film Scholarship,” Cinema Journal, 53(4), 146–150.

Gillespie, M. B. (2016). Film Blackness: American Cinema and the Idea of Black Film. Duke University Press.

Guerrero, E. (1993). Framing Blackness: The African American Image in Film. Temple University Press.

hooks, b. (1992). “The Oppositional Gaze: Black Female Spectators.” In b. hooks (Ed.) Black Looks: Race and Representation (pp. 115–131). South End Press.

hooks, b. (1996). Real to Reel: Race, Class, and Sex at the Movies. Routledge.

Mask, M. (2012). Contemporary Black American Cinema: Race, Gender and Sexuality at the Movies. Routledge.

Massood, P. J. (2003) Black City Cinema: African American Urban Experiences in Film. Temple University Press.

Massood, P. J. (2007). The Spike Lee Reader. Temple University Press.

Mulvey, L. (1975). “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema.” Screen, 16(3), 6–18.

Nwonka, C. & Saha, A. (2021). Black Film British Cinema II. MIT Press.

Ramanathan, G. (2020). Kathleen Collins: The Black Essai Film. Edinburgh University Press.

Smith, V. (1997). Representing Blackness: Issues in Film and Video. Rutgers University Press.

Stewart, J. N. (2005). Migrating to the Movies: Cinema and Black Urban Modernity. University of California Press.

Ulrike Hanstein

Professor of Film Studies

Ulrike Hanstein is Professor of Film Studies and dedicated to diversity and equality work at the ifs internationale filmschule köln. For her research on film, video art, and visual cultures she has been awarded grants from DFG, Volkswagen Stiftung, DAAD, Fritz Thyssen Stiftung, and the Getty Research Institute in Los Angeles. Her research interests include experimental film and video practices, feminist art and collaborative artistic strategies, performance art, feminist pedagogies, queer theory, minor cinemas, and the materials and methods of media historiography.