Race, Ethnicity, & Literature

“[C]inema is not a neutral medium but a system that implicates maker and audience in a network of power…” Peter X Feng


“The American cinema constantly shoots and re-shoots a single fundamental film, which is the birth of a nation-civilization…” Gilles Deleuze


This course focuses on race and ethnicity in American cinema from the silent era to the present. Week by week, we will engage with a range of critical approaches used to study race and American cinema including modes like Afropessimism and psychoanalysis, as well as methods like star studies and feminist analysis. Along the way, we will encounter film genres such as the Western, musical, horror film, gangster film, documentary, and social problem film. The main question underlying the course is: How has the cinematic apparatus mobilized race and ethnicity in American culture?

In our engagement with this central question, we will focus on key moments in American film history from the rise of the feature film to the “threat” of television, as well as critical moments in U.S. racial history that are mediated by American cinema, from chattel slavery and Native genocide to yellow peril anxiety, ethnic ghettoization, and the social movements for racial justice of the 1960s. Throughout the course, we will work to understand how we as audiences are implicated in cinema’s network of power, and we will research and write about American cinema’s obsession with shooting and re-shooting the “birth of a nation-civilization.” Assignments include freewrites, genre analysis, an oral presentation, and a final research project on a film of the student’s choosing.

The class requires students to do a substantial amount of writing, and written assignments contribute significantly to each student’s course grade. By the end of the term you will have produced a minimum of 4,000 words, or about 16 pages, split between analytical and creative production.

Course Format: This course has a hybrid format. We will meet in-person on Tuesdays, and asynchronously the rest of the week. All film screenings will happen asynchronously.

Required Course Materials:

All readings and films will be made available for free on Laulima.

Tentative film list:

The Cheat (1915)

Salt of the Earth (1954)

Imitation of Life (1959)

Blackboard Jungle (1955)

Flower Drum Song (1959)

Rebel Without a Cause (1955)

West Side Story (1961)

The Godfather (1972)

Bush Mama (1979)

Prophecy (1979)

The Watermelon Woman (1997)

Smoke Signals (1998)

Meek’s Cutoff (2010)

I Am Not Your Negro (2017)

Waikīkī (2020)