This course will investigate the conceptualization and perpetuation of race and racism in popular American culture by examining representations of African Americans in Hollywood films from the birth of film to the present day. Many of America’s most enduring antiblack stereotypes have their origin in blackface minstrelsy—stage-based racial caricatures which in the antebellum years became America’s first form of mass entertainment. At the turn of the twentieth century, blackface minstrelsy still retained its hold on American popular culture, and early American films drew heavily on the racist stereotypes and conventions of blackface. Although blackface performances began to fade from the screen in the late 1940s, many representations of African Americans in Hollywood films both before and after that point also had their origin in the stock characters of blackface minstrelsy. This class will begin by examining the relationship between blackface minstrelsy and some of the most prominent early American films, including Birth of a Nation, The Jazz Singer, and Gone with the Wind. We will then examine a series of enduring Hollywood paradigms by comparing Civil Rights era films such as The Defiant Ones, Imitation of Life, and To Kill a Mockingbird to more recent films such as Lethal Weapon, Driving Miss Daisy, and The Help. We will ask how these paradigms have transformed, how they have remained the same, how they may challenge racist ideology, and how they may perpetuate the very racism they claim to challenge. Finally, we will compare recent Hollywood films such asCrash and Precious to independent films such as Do the Right Thing and Pariah, to see how mainstream and marginal filmic discourses speak differently about race, racism, and representational politics.
Back to Courses