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A Moving-Picture of Democracy: African American Film History Beyond the “Screen Mirror”

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Abstract:

The earliest attempts to write an “American” film criticism—to historically document a distinctively American cinema, or to theorize cinema as an essentially American phenomenon—were driven by a particular set of modernist preoccupations: a distrust of abstract thinking, leading, on the one hand, to a preference for “things” over “ideas,” and, on the other hand, to a desire for a universal, pictographic language; a fascination with “crowds” as a modern, industrial formation with its own ambiguous “physiognomy”; and an abiding faith in the power of visual perception. Without citing one another explicitly, the founding texts of American film criticism—from Vachel Lindsay’s The Art of the Moving Picture (1916), to Terry Ramsaye’s A Million and One Nights (1926), to Lewis Jacobs’s The Rise of the American Film (1939)—derive a shared understanding of cinematic representation from these concerns: They assert that the cinema acts as a national mirror, whose gradual “inclusion” of the nation’s constituent “crowds” reflects back to the “American people” its true image or essence. The proposed paper critiques this “Screen Mirror” (Lindsay) fantasy of representation from the perspective of African American film history. I demonstrate that the founding texts of African American film history surprisingly adopt and reinforce the idea of the “Screen Mirror,” even as they document the resolute failure of mainstream American movies to “include” African Americans as a group. A largely unexamined assumption in works like Thomas Cripps’s Slow Fade to Black (1977), the Screen Mirror theory has recently resurfaced in prominent journalistic accounts of how raced media images affected the election of Barack Obama as President of the United States. Following the typological approach of Cripps and other scholars of “black images,” these commentaries give the history of African American film characterization substantial credit for making President Obama’s election possible, thus offering an uncanny reprisal of the utopian fantasies of the scholars who first theorized film’s essential American-ness. Against such an apologetic narrative, this paper argues that the history of African American representation in the dominant U.S. cinema demonstrates not merely the earlier failure of the Screen Mirror to realize its promise but the very emptiness of that promise. Highlighting the historical connections between utopian visions of the unified national “face” and the material structures of Jim Crow, political disenfranchisement, and economic oppression, this paper argues that the project of writing black film history should depart from a rigorous theoretical critique of the Screen Mirror fantasy. An alternative theory of screen representation, one that draws on Marxist critiques of the spectacle’s false universalism and on early-twentieth-century African American critiques of nationalist rhetoric, will demonstrate that “the people” (as the collective subject of the movies) did not (and does not) exist in a way that could make its essential self-representation possible. This non-existence of “the people,” is I argue, essential to understand the particular model of social inclusion that is implicit in the earliest articulations of American film criticism, that of an apparently all-inclusive “consumer democracy.”
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Name: American Studies Association Annual Meeting
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MLA Citation:

Friedman, Ryan. "A Moving-Picture of Democracy: African American Film History Beyond the “Screen Mirror”" Paper presented at the annual meeting of the American Studies Association Annual Meeting, Renaissance Hotel, Washington D.C., Nov 05, 2009 <Not Available>. 2014-11-28 <http://citation.allacademic.com/meta/p318476_index.html>

APA Citation:

Friedman, R. J. , 2009-11-05 "A Moving-Picture of Democracy: African American Film History Beyond the “Screen Mirror”" Paper presented at the annual meeting of the American Studies Association Annual Meeting, Renaissance Hotel, Washington D.C. <Not Available>. 2014-11-28 from http://citation.allacademic.com/meta/p318476_index.html

Publication Type: Conference Paper/Unpublished Manuscript
Review Method: Peer Reviewed
Abstract: The earliest attempts to write an “American” film criticism—to historically document a distinctively American cinema, or to theorize cinema as an essentially American phenomenon—were driven by a particular set of modernist preoccupations: a distrust of abstract thinking, leading, on the one hand, to a preference for “things” over “ideas,” and, on the other hand, to a desire for a universal, pictographic language; a fascination with “crowds” as a modern, industrial formation with its own ambiguous “physiognomy”; and an abiding faith in the power of visual perception. Without citing one another explicitly, the founding texts of American film criticism—from Vachel Lindsay’s The Art of the Moving Picture (1916), to Terry Ramsaye’s A Million and One Nights (1926), to Lewis Jacobs’s The Rise of the American Film (1939)—derive a shared understanding of cinematic representation from these concerns: They assert that the cinema acts as a national mirror, whose gradual “inclusion” of the nation’s constituent “crowds” reflects back to the “American people” its true image or essence. The proposed paper critiques this “Screen Mirror” (Lindsay) fantasy of representation from the perspective of African American film history. I demonstrate that the founding texts of African American film history surprisingly adopt and reinforce the idea of the “Screen Mirror,” even as they document the resolute failure of mainstream American movies to “include” African Americans as a group. A largely unexamined assumption in works like Thomas Cripps’s Slow Fade to Black (1977), the Screen Mirror theory has recently resurfaced in prominent journalistic accounts of how raced media images affected the election of Barack Obama as President of the United States. Following the typological approach of Cripps and other scholars of “black images,” these commentaries give the history of African American film characterization substantial credit for making President Obama’s election possible, thus offering an uncanny reprisal of the utopian fantasies of the scholars who first theorized film’s essential American-ness. Against such an apologetic narrative, this paper argues that the history of African American representation in the dominant U.S. cinema demonstrates not merely the earlier failure of the Screen Mirror to realize its promise but the very emptiness of that promise. Highlighting the historical connections between utopian visions of the unified national “face” and the material structures of Jim Crow, political disenfranchisement, and economic oppression, this paper argues that the project of writing black film history should depart from a rigorous theoretical critique of the Screen Mirror fantasy. An alternative theory of screen representation, one that draws on Marxist critiques of the spectacle’s false universalism and on early-twentieth-century African American critiques of nationalist rhetoric, will demonstrate that “the people” (as the collective subject of the movies) did not (and does not) exist in a way that could make its essential self-representation possible. This non-existence of “the people,” is I argue, essential to understand the particular model of social inclusion that is implicit in the earliest articulations of American film criticism, that of an apparently all-inclusive “consumer democracy.”


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