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.
|Semester 2 2024-25
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.
On successful completion of the module students should be able to:
|% of module mark
4,500 word essay
|% of module mark
4,500 word essay
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.
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.