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"They've Gotta Have Us": African American Film & Literature - ENG00124M

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  • Department: English and Related Literature
  • Module co-ordinator: Information currently unavailable
  • Credit value: 20 credits
  • Credit level: M
  • Academic year of delivery: 2022-23

Module summary

In a 1976 essay on film and racism, James Baldwin outlined the paradox of the black performer in American culture. ‘The [film] industry is compelled,’ he writes, ‘given the way it is built, to present to the American people a self-perpetuating fantasy of American life […] And the black face, truthfully reflected, is not only no part of this dream, it is antithetical to it. And this puts the black performer in a rather grim bind.’

Over forty years later Baldwin’s concerns about the ‘antithetical’ position of African Americans in American culture remains prescient, evidenced by widespread cases of fatal police shootings and the mass incarceration of black men, incidents that have sparked the Black Lives Matter movement. At the same time, however, Ryan Coogler’s Black Panther (2018) grossed $1.3 billion in the box office, making it the 10th biggest film release of all time. What are the terms of this ‘grim bind’ in 2019? How does contemporary African American art respond to, critique and rewrite the ‘self-perpetuating fantasy of American life’? How do African American artists grapple with the question of representation in their work? Where is the boundary between entertainment, art and activism?

This module will engage these questions by tracing dominant currents and concerns in the development of African American film and literature from the 1960s to the present. Bringing together work by black filmmakers, authors, poets, essayists and cultural theorists, we will explore how these texts respond to the complex political, commercial and aesthetic movements of their times. In doing so we will investigate how key political and intellectual concepts — from Black Power to intersectional feminism, Black English to the ‘post-racial’, Afro-pessimism to Afro-futurism — have influenced contemporary African American art alongside popular cultural phenomena such as Oprah’s Book Club, Obama’s summer reading list, and #OscarsSoWhite. Combining close textual analysis with broader political and cultural readings, we will consider how African American art moves between the identities of ‘antithetical’ and national, often reflecting, sampling, and ‘signifyin(g)’ its own history and aesthetics in its interrogation of American cultural forms. The module will move chronologically, beginning with the Civil Rights Movements, through literary postmodernism and the Blaxploitation film era, into the literary and political expressions of the Culture Wars in the 1980s and 1990s which brought to prominence artists such as Toni Morrison and Spike Lee, and concluding with how writers and filmmakers have responded to the complex political and cultural conditions that brought us from Obama to Trump.

Module will run

Occurrence Teaching period
A Autumn Term 2022-23

Module aims

This module aims to introduce students to the dominant currents and concerns in African American cinema and literature from the 1960s to the present day, combining close readings of written and visual texts with broader theoretical and political interpretations.

Module learning outcomes

On successful completion of the module students should be able to:

  1. Demonstrate an advanced understanding of the development of and interactions between African American film, literature, and theory;
  2. Demonstrate advanced research skills which will enable them to study these texts within its political, theoretical and cultural contexts;
  3. Apply methods and strategies for reading both film and literature;
  4. Produce independent arguments and ideas in class and in writing and carry out independent research that engages with the key themes and contexts of the module.


Task Length % of module mark
4,500 word essay
N/A 100

Special assessment rules



Task Length % of module mark
4,500 word essay
N/A 100

Module feedback

You will receive feedback on all assessed work within the University deadline, and will often receive it more quickly. The purpose of feedback is to inform your future work; it is designed to help you to improve your work, and the Department also offers you help in learning from your feedback. If you do not understand your feedback or want to talk about your ideas further you can discuss it with your module tutor, the MA Convenor or your supervisor, during their Open Office Hours.

Indicative reading

The module will features films by Melvin Van Peebles, Spike Lee, John Singleton, Julie Dash, Jordan Peele, Barry Jenkins, literary texts by Toni Morrison, Ishmael Reed, June Jordan, James Baldwin, Audre Lorde, Hilton Als, Claudia Rankine, Colson Whitehead, Roxanne Gay, and critical theory by W.E.B. DuBois, Franz Fanon, Henry Louis Gates Jr., Cornell West, Ta-Nehisi Coates, Kenneth Warren, Kwame Anthony Appiah, and bell hooks.

The information on this page is indicative of the module that is currently on offer. The University is constantly exploring ways to enhance and improve its degree programmes and therefore reserves the right to make variations to the content and method of delivery of modules, and to discontinue modules, if such action is reasonably considered to be necessary by the University. Where appropriate, the University will notify and consult with affected students in advance about any changes that are required in line with the University's policy on the Approval of Modifications to Existing Taught Programmes of Study.