Ethnic representation and film
Canvassing the field

by Karla Fuller

from Jump Cut, no. 41, May 1997, pp. 77-84, 76
copyright Jump Cut: A Review of Contemporary Media, 1997, 2006

Many changes have taken place in the field of writing about ethnic representation in film over the last twenty odd years. We've come a long way since Donald Bogle's signature work Toms, Coons, Mulattoes, Mammies and Bucks, which nearly dominated the field until recently. As a graduate student at Northwestern University in the midst of conducting my own dissertation research, I have noticed in the last year a proliferation of new works which have made their way onto the bookshelves. Authors such as Mark Reid and Ed Guerrero alone have added significant contributions to the study of African-American cinematic images.

Because of this increase in the number of books in this area, a general guide through this rich literary terrain seems very necessary. In this article, I will review and examine several books which take as their focus the subject of ethnic representation in film. The ethnic groups included in this limited survey of literature are: African American, Asian and Asian American, Chicano/ Hispanic/ Latino, and Jewish, especially American Jewish. This categorization is by no means comprehensive; many significant ethnic groups and subgroups (such as Native Americans, women, gays and lesbians) are not included.

I have included American Jewish ethnic identity as a category because of that group's unique influence in Hollywood and unusual positioning in the hierarchy of the film industry power structure. The case of U.S. Jews stands as an example of having much more creative input and decision-making power as compared to other completely disenfranchised racial/ethnic minorities. And yet, as a group, they did not possess ultimate financial control, which was held by bankers on Wall Street. I believe a significant part of the story of cinematic ethnic representation would be missed without examining a Jewish perspective.

My analysis even though confined to only four distinct groups will reveal some general tendencies and trends common to many studies of ethnic representation in film. I have grouped the selected works on cinematic ethnic representation into three main categories. The first type of book would best be described as a work that attempts primarily to provide a historical chronicle or overview (with lesser or greater detail) of the evolution of one particular ethnic group's representation in mainstream/Hollywood cinematic practices. These books are oriented toward a commercial market and general audience rather than academic. However, even within this framework, these books list minor actors whose contributions are usually long forgotten.

The analysis inherent in these books' premise most often involves contrasting stereotypically "negative" roles to more "positive" ones as vehicles for actors of the particular ethnic group. The implication in this approach is that more "positive," "diverse," and "realistic" characters and roles in front of the camera would not only correct historically distorted and inaccurate representations but also serve to empower and help correct racial/ethnic inequities in the society at large. The title of Donald Bogle's book Toms, Coons, Mulattoes, Mammies and Bucks provides the clearest example of a "positive" and "negative" context for the analysis of ethnic screen images. In short, B ogle shows how the roles played by black film performers are either closely or less closely aligned to one of the five stereotypes (most clearly established in the film THE BIRTH OF A NATION) named in the title.

A second category include books that try to create and explicate a critical theory of a particular group's ethnic representation. These projects tend to be less comprehensive and more selective in the films analyzed. The level of analysis in these books is often but not always aimed at a more scholarly audience. These works also tend to concentrate more on ethnic filmmakers from within and outside the dominant filmmaking system than does the first, less intellectually targeted category. Typically these publications tend to confront not only the historical legacy of representations from the cinematic past but also make a prescriptive call for "different" ethnic images from future filmmakers. In this sense, though the works in this category stand on stronger theoretical ground and are more rigorously argued and researched, their examinations are also inclined to separate ethnic representations into classifications of "good" and "bad" images like the first group of less scholarly "overview" books. However, the criteria for evaluating "right" and "wrong" ethnic images shifts significantly in these works.

For example, in Ed Guerrero' s Framing Blackness, the author takes an unusual stand on a film such as MANDINGO (1975), widely considered commercial exploitation at its most shameless:

"Beyond MANDINGO's exploitation of Hollywood's commercial strategies of interracial sex and violence, the film is worthwhile for its reversed point of view on slavery, as well as for scenes and details that unmask or counter the ideological stance taken in such films as THE BIRTH OF A NATION..." (31-32)

Guerrero analyzes "right" and "wrong" elements working within a film text rather than categorizing an entire text or character portrayal as patently "good" or "bad."

Finally, the last category I have elected to delineate is the anthology format for writings on ethnic representation in film. Though usually one ethnic group is targeted as a focus for a collection of essays, this is not always the case. A least two anthologies take up the representation of various ethnic groups along with other subgroups (particularly gays and lesbians) as their unifying theme. Most of these anthologies contain a wide variety of approaches to cinematic ethnic images. Some are authored by independent filmmakers who are themselves fighting to create "new" images of their ethnic group. Others are written by professionals within the dominant Hollywood system. Film critics, popular culture theorists, actors, and political activists all have a place in these collections which present discussions about the impact of receiving, creating and disseminating filmic representations of a given ethnic group from a myriad of perspectives.


Black Hollywood by Gary Null (New York: Citadel, 1975):

The major studios have rarely done more than reflect and reinforce 'safe' popular attitudes. This is nowhere more apparent than in the treatment of race. In particular, the depiction of black people on the screen has not only reinforced and sharpened some of the prejudices of the white majority, but it has also to a great extent shaped the often negative image blacks have had of themselves. (7)

Null has a clear agenda, to redress the influence of "negative" Hollywood stereotypes of African Americans predominant in popular movies. He organizes the book's contents in seven chapters by decade. The author concentrates on Hollywood films which generated substantial controversy and protests, particularly in the black press. While a product of Citadel Press, well known for having stars/actors as a central focus, Black Hollywood goes beyond a sole emphasis on black screen performers. Null foregrounds a host of previously overlooked supporting players, championing their struggles for larger and more "positive" parts.

However, the limitations of this approach becomes especially evident when the author broaches the subject of black independent film of the 1930s, as produced by AfricanAmerican entrepreneur Oscar Micheaux. Null spends only a paragraph describing the 1932 film THE BLACK KING, but he also does not include information on Micheaux. Instead, his coverage of this subject consists mainly of a display of movie memorabilia (posters, production stills and promotional material) which indirectly indicates Micheaux as an independent producer. The author's emphasis on racist dynamics strictly within a performative framework and the Hollywood studio system is common to more popularly oriented works on ethnic cinematic images of the 1970s (i.e. From Sambo to Superspade, Slow Fade to Black, Toms, Coons, Mulattoes, Mammies and Bucks).

Hispanic Hollywood by George Hadley-Garcia (Citadel Press, 1990): Here is another example of the publisher's commercially oriented focus on stars/actors and their performances. The lives and careers of Latino actor and actresses are exclusively highlighted. Characteristic of the critical approach of this work, the Foreword was composed in 1979 by silent film star Delores Del Rio while the actual publication date of this book eleven years later (1990).

The central theme of this book is the nature of the Hollywood star system and its impact on the careers of Hispanic actors and actresses from the silent era to the 1980s. An attempt here is also made to structure and organize the material in decades. Every chapter constitutes a decade in Hollywood history. Yet the careers of different Hispanic actors often spill over into time frames other than the designated decade. Hadley-Garcia attempts a history of Hispanic involvement in the Hollywood picture industry using conventional benchmarks of the filmic "master narrative" — for example, the advent of sound in motion pictures as embodied by the film THE JAZZ SINGER.

Issues of racism are often elaborated by interview material from several Latin stars of yesteryear. Many production stills are used as well as Hollywood posters that show Hispanic actors in different roles and well known Caucasian stars (Paul Muni, Bette Davis, Tyrone Power, et al.) portraying Latin roles. The book's narrative revolves around the fluctuating careers of several Hispanic actors who started during the silent era. Performers such as these provide the context for the author's discussion of issues related to racial discrimination, stereotyping and larger career limitations. Though the author designates the "greaser" as a recurrent stereotypical category throughout the text, he does not generate an extensive list of Latin stereotypes that actors were limited to. However, issues of skin color, Anglicizing of names, heavy Spanish accents, playing European or Latin as well as interethnic (ex. the Latin actor as Native American, Italian or Asian) portrayals are noted in the book. This study is of limited, yet significant, usefulness. It provides a historical overview that is, at once, loosely constructed, and yet, in some ways illuminating. Mainly, this study's contribution lies in its general rendering of the significant Hispanic addition to the Hollywood scene and also in its specific positioning of this ethnic group in the Hollywood of the silent era and in the so called "golden age" of filmmaking. This work is particularly compelling when discussing periods of greater or lesser interest in Hispanic actors, characters and themes in Hollywood. The author indicates an important dimension to ethnic characterizations in film that they are clearly connected to a larger socio-political history and that they are anything but static.

The Jew in American Cinema by Patricia Erens (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1984): Erens suggests a link between Jewish stereotypes in what she terms "Anglo-American" literature and those that have found their way to the Hollywood screen:

"..the stories and images which have appeared in twentieth-century drama and literature, as well as those which date back to biblical times. These myths, created by Jews and non-Jews alike, provide source material from which screen images were later molded. Few character types are purely filmic creations." (11)

This book identifies several Jewish archetypes already existing in literature, such as the "Jew-Villain," "Beautiful Jewess," "Good Jew," "Wandering Jew," from the outset, but Erens subsequently, compiles her own more extensive list of ethnic types which, she argues, make their way into film:

"…the other types which appear in American literature (especially those of Jewish authors) do emerge on the screen. Included here are the Peddler, the Virginal Jewess, the Stern Patriarch (more often the Pathetic Patriarch in film), the Long-Suffering Mother, the Prodigal Son, The Rose of the Ghetto, the Jewish Arriviste, the Jewish Soldier, the Sabra Heroine, the Hebrew Warrior, the Holocaust Survivor, the Jewish-American Princess, the Manipulating Mother (later the Suffocating Mother), the Benevolent Physician, the Neurotic Son, the Jewish Ugly Duckling, and the Shlemiel. The above terms are mine." (20)

The author admits to fashioning her study after "the historical image studies of Blacks and women" and creating a typology which, she suggests, is not merely critical, but can also illuminate "how types function in art." She also notes and addresses, to a limited extent throughout the book, how Jews have had a stronger influence behind the camera, in the production of their screen images, than other ethnic minority groups:

"I have attempted...to analyze the ways these types function in individual films as expressions of latent attitudes in society. This is limited in part by the fact that unlike Blacks, women, and most ethnic groups, Jews have had control of the means of production and thus have enjoyed a protected image despite their minority status in society. What emerges, then, is a fascinating but unique situation..." (28)

This book attempts to address and reconcile the idea of the performer as the primary defining agent in ethnic representation with the significant (and often definitive) influence of the creative/production personnel involved in mainstream moviemaking. This is what distinguishes Erens' work from the others in this category. It is not strictly concerned with the relationship of ethnic performers to their audiences, but also addresses the behind-the-scenes dynamics in the creation of ethnic stereotypes and characters. This approach necessarily complicates the idea of creating either wholly "positive" or "negative" images.


Toms, Coons, Mulattoes, Mammies, & Bucks by Donald Bogle (New York: Continuum, 1973): One of the earliest attempts to create a critical theory of ethnic representation, this book until recently was one of the few attempts to not onlywrite a comprehensive history of African American representation in Hollywood cinema but to also provide a critical framework for the interpretation of these images over time. As the title indicates, Bogle tries to fit all Black representation in the dominant Hollywood cinema into one of the five aforementioned categories. He defines a character or role as being either more "negative" or "positive" depending on how easily it conforms to his strictly delineated typology.

Though his thesis is argued consistently from decade to decade, Bogle's emphasis is solely on the screen performer and the "quality" of his or her role. He seems most interested in the personal impact of certain "star" performers on the audience and in assessing their performances in terms of how limiting they were. Specifically, he engages in discussions of how these African American actors and actresses negotiated the limitations of his typology.

Hollywood's Image of the Jew by Lester D. Friedman (New York: Frederick Ungar, 1982): Friedman provides an illuminating look at a subset of Hollywood product — the Jewish-themed feature film. Hollywood's Image of the Jew spans filmmaking practice from the silent era to the early 1980s which coincides with the book's publication date. Friedman organizes his research in decades characterized in distinct, yet generalized, phrases: "The Silent Stereotypes," "The Timid Thirties," "The Fashionable Forties," "The Frightened Fifties," "The Self-Conscious Sixties," "The Self-Centered Seventies," and "The Emerging Eighties." The author is careful to contextualize his detailed textual analyses of the films not only in terms of general Jewish social history, but also in terms of film industrial history. This is a valuable asset to anyone wishing to best utilize what is admittedly a very specialized cinematic history:

"The rapid growth and immense popularity of movie industry coincided with the influx of East-European Jews whose values, talents, and achievements permanently altered American society. Clearly both Jews and film production existed in America before the early twentieth century, but nothing even hinted at the media revolution that was to result from the combination of Jews and films." (9)

Blacks in Films by Jim Pines (London: Studio Vista, 1975): This is another work which analyzes a specialized cinematic span, beginning with the silent era and ending with blaxploitation films of the mid-1970s. Pines' textual analyses are particularly lucid and incisive. He provides some historical context in instances where it impacts film content (i.e., NAACP protests surrounding BIRTH OF A NATION and GONE WITH THE WIND). The author's arguments address rigid stereotypical depictions and their permutations. This book takes on some of the most extreme examples of racist stereotypes and reactions against them. Note the following excerpt, which addresses the advent of sound technology within the context of "negative" black filmic content:

"Hence, when the motion picture industry finally decided to revolutionize the whole framework of film in the late twenties through the mass-application of sound technology, the form and content of black racial characters and images was at its lowest, most derogatory level, although as such, fantastically popular." (14)

Pines also contextualizes black film images within the larger Hollywood framework of screen content. An example of this is Pine's description of blaxploitation films in terms of their uneasy relationship to the conventional Hollywood gangster film:

"More 'exciting' pictures…are variants of the gangster idiom which derive their impact from their distinct pseudo-ethnic flavour, which is often uncompromising as far as white audiences are concerned. These films especially have contributed to the new racial hero-types, i.e. gangster/underworld types as modern heroes, including women gang-smashers, black 'dicks' and Kung-Fu/ Karate types, pimps, slick male whores and so on. Despite their variety of characters and situations, however, the main ingredients that make up these portrayals remain fairly uniform throughout." (123-4)

Here, the author analyzes a historically degraded genre in terms of the elements working within it in order to better comprehend its distinct popularity and appeal.

American-Jewish Filmmakers: Traditions and Trends by David Desser and Lester Friedman (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1993): These authors take as their focus the Jewish image in mainstream/Hollywood film. The films of four filmmakers (Woody Allen, Mel Brooks, Sidney Lumet and Paul Mazursky) are positioned as representative of issues and concerns which typify a generation of U.S. Jews:

"We can conceptualize, indeed define, the cultural life shared by these directors by recourse to a linked set of issues. No single issue sufficiently defines American Jews, but taken together they constitute a magnificent mosaic of American-Jewish life over the last four decades. Enough commonalities, clear experiences, and tendencies exist to characterize this variegated life. Highlighting the parameters of this shared experience thus provides a perspective from which to view the films of these directors and appreciate how they integrate their Jewishness, their experiences as Jews in America, into their films...Such a view should not diminish individual artistry...Yet these important films clearly and significantly speak to the situation of contemporary Jews." (22)

Through a thematic examination of each director's films, Desser and Friedman attempt to present a "range of shared experiences" inherent in American-Jewish life. The authors contextualize the films of Allen, Brooks, Lumet and Mazursky in terms of similar generational influences and backgrounds. They also assert that because these filmmakers often work with the same cast and production crews and generally oversee most aspects of the productions, therefore, they qualify as "true auteurs" — suggesting a particular unity to their bodies of work. Not only do the authors make the argument that this grouping of filmmakers are auteurs, but auteurs with a particularly Jewish sensibility or consciousness drawn to specific issues and themes:

"…because the Jewish experience in America encompasses unique qualities, we should expect these directors to manifest something that can be accurately described as a Jewish sensibility, a particular bent of mind that attracts them to certain issues and themes and a perspective that invigorates their films with a sensitivity that grows out of their Jewishness." (32)

This book works best when discussing ethnically Jewish readings of individual films. In the context of the internal coherence of particular films, the authors are adept at making a convincing argument of a specifically American-Jewish ethnic sensibility and/or convergence of themes. However, the book is less persuasive when attempting to establish a strong connection between four very different artistic sensibilities regardless of the presence of some similar themes and motifs. The very last section of the book briefly discusses the careers of several other influential American-Jewish filmmakers who don't fit quite so easily with the four filmmakers comprising this study. Though several of Elaine May's films are discussed, issues of gender as influences on her work and career are not substantively addressed. Additionally, other factors such as differentials in class and region among the filmmakers (like the West Coast's Steven Spielberg) are somewhat minimized in service of presenting a cohesive and ethnically unified narrative.

This particular study exemplifies a potentially empowering shift in the process of addressing ethnic representation by members of one's own ethnic group. Rather than concentrating on how outsiders portray a given ethnic group, one can focus on the dynamics within the group where change and dialogue can be more easily facilitated. Clearly, this approach is ideally suited for American-Jewish filmmakers, who admittedly, have had a longer history (than other ethnic groups) of involvement in the production of Hollywood as well as independent motion pictures.

Redefining Black Film by Mark Reid (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1993): Instead of highlighting the careers of individual filmmakers as a way of discussing ethnic representation, Reid seeks to address black independent film production as well as "three different genres of black-oriented films controlled by whites" — the "African-American comedy film," "Family film," and "Black action film." Reid's organizes much of his critical methodology around the concepts originating from traditional venues of American race humor-namely, the minstrel show. He introduces the terms "blackface minstrelsy," "hybrid minstrelsy," and "satiric hybrid minstrelsy" in his discussion of the African-American comedy film. The author takes great care to note historical transitions among these subtypes within larger generic categories as well as to consider both the sites of production and reception of the motion pictures under discussion.

Specifically, "blackface minstrelsy" involves the perpetration of racial stereotypes mainly by whites:

"The minstrel comics objectified African-American oral traditions, physiognomy, dress, dance, and song. By masquerading in blackface, whites objectified African-American life experiences. From the viewpoint of an assimilative gaze, black-face minstrelsy allows whites to take pleasure in the 'hostile or sexual aggressiveness' of blacks while the white race escapes the harm that such dramas assign to the African-American community." (19-20)

In contrast, "hybrid minstrelsy" and "satiric hybrid minstrelsy" are performed exclusively by blacks:

"The term hybrid minstrelsy describes a second style of black-oriented humor.This comic type borrows some of its aura and visual qualities — such as burnt-cork makeup, malapropisms, shabby dress, and coon and mammy caricatures — from white-oriented minstrel humor…This hybrid humor resulted from the fact that black and white writers as well as black performers concentrated on satisfying the expectations of white audiences, which demanded a non-threatening African-American humor." (23)

"Satiric hybrid minstrelsy," in the author's words, "is a negotiated form of hybrid minstrelsy and shares the racially tendentious structure of the blackface and hybrid minstrel forms":

"…satiric hybrid minstrelsy, was popularized during the civil rights movement by such African-American comedians as Jackie "Moms" Mabley, Dick Gregory, Godfrey Cambridge, and Flip Wilson…unlike hybrid minstrelsy, satiric hybrid minstrelsy also appealed to a black audience who negotiated the contents and laughed with, and sometimes at, themselves as well as white Americans. Both whites and blacks tended to be entertained by the same jokes, which ridiculed contemporary racial and social inequities." (34)

Though this subtype allows black and white audiences to attain a kind of unity in reception, Reid finds it suspect:

"In the satiric hybrid minstrel film, the process of unification produces an uninventive rebellion, because the racial dualism that structures blackface and hybrid comedy equally determines the structure of satiric hybrid minstrelsy." (35)

While limiting himself to three classifications (vaguely reminiscent of Donald Bogle's strict list of character subtypes) and a set number of generic categories, Reid manages not only to contextualize black films (independent and Hollywood) within their historical periods but also to create a continuity and specifically African-American context for the analysis of the films. He positions filmic black representation as an outgrowth of early minstrel shows and contextualizes his generic choices (comedy, family, action films) around the tendencies of early black independent films. This represents a subtle but significant shift in writing about ethnic representation; here, in some sense the ethnic group's filmmaking activity sets the agenda and parameters of the discussion. Indeed, Reid's characterization of the 1970s black independent filmmaking movement as renewing the tradition of black independent film production suggests a historical continuity which implies the nascent but ever-present power of African Americans to produce images alternative to mainstream ones.

This book also takes on the perpetuation of racist and sexist images in black independent film. It is notable that Reid devotes separate chapters to "Black Feminism and the Independent Film" and "Male-Directed New Black Independent Cinema" as well as taking critical stands against the homophobia and sexism in the films of successful black male directors like Spike Lee. Reid doesn't resist the multiplicity of forces at work in the "modes of film production and of black spectatorship," but instead he encourages a more acute awareness of the dynamics of these forces:

"This study has shown when, how, and why certain black films imitate or resist dominant representations of race and gender. It also describes the agential processes by which black films and their audiences resist, appropriate, or assimilate racist and misogynist ideas that surround and, at times, consume them." (136)

Framing Blackness by Ed Guerrero (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1993): Guerrero structures his arguments around potent, often painful, historical themes in the African-American experience which serve as dominant motifs in black filmic representation. Further, Guerrero limits his study to a select number of popular Hollywood films in order to address their significant ideological and aesthetic influences on other films as well as larger societal racial perceptions:

"Framing Blackness is not intended to be a complete or linear history of the black presence in the American commercial narrative cinema. Moreover, this discourse tends to focus on the construction of blackness in the most popular, 'hit' vehicles of commercial cinema for two reasons. First, Hollywood has played a significant, if colonizing, role in shaping all other narrative cinema languages and formal conventions, and its most successful features are arguably its most influential in this regard. Second, in these films we can most readily see both the industry's ideological power to shape the audience's conceptions of race and its mediation of the audience's racial and social attitudes." (4-5)

Guerrero states his "interpretative strategy" as drawing on several "schools of thought" such as "Althusserian readings of culture, Freudian psychoanalysis, narratology, and semiotics." Indeed, his readings of individual films and thematic connections between films not often coupled (such as BIRTH OF A NATION and MANDINGO) as well as reflections on box office hits that comment on African-American representation tangentially or by omission (such as ROCKY and STAR WARS) are both unique and persuasive. The book discusses the depiction of slavery and the slave in Chapter 1 and "contemporary sedimentations of slavery motif' as well as depictions of "blackness and racial otherness" in Chapter 2. Chapter 3 addresses the impact of the civil rights movement on films of the 1960s and also Blaxploitation films of the 1970s. The fourth chapter covers films of the 1980s from a recuperative and defensive (against a Hollywood backlash) perspective, while the final chapter heralds recent films of the 1990s as potentially invigorating and new.

Like Mark Reid, Ed Guerrero ends his book with a discussion of black independent filmmakers. However, his discussion of this diverse group (Spike Lee, Bill Duke, Julie Dash, Charles Burnett, et al.) uniformly valorizes them because they oppose the very system he so rigorously works to deconstruct. His analyses tend to confront issues that lead to a prescriptive call for a new African-American cinema which counters the historically denigrating and subordinating images generated from the dominant commercial filmmaking system. Yet, his perspective always includes a commercial and economic component:

"…the black filmmaker must struggle to depict the truth about black life in America while being inextricably tied to the commercialized sensibilities of a mass audience that is for the most part struggling to deny or avoid the full meaning of that truth." (168)


Chicanos and Film: Representation and Resistance edited by Chon A. Noriega (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1992): In his introduction, Noriega describes this book as

"an attempt to respond to recent developments in three related areas: the representation of Chicanos and Chicanas in Hollywood and the Mexican cinema; the continued growth and diversification of a Chicano countercinema; and the emergence of Chicano film criticism as a distinct subfield within both Chicano and film studies" (xi).

More specifically Noriega describes the organization and content of the anthology:

"Part One, 'Representation and Resistance,' examines Chicano representation in the American and Mexican cinema in terms of stereotypes, resistance, and participation, as well as historical developments in film narrative and ethnic discourse. Part Two, 'Critical Issues in Chicano Cinema,' examines Chicano-produced film and video in terms of production, distribution, signification, and reception. Part Three, 'Manifestos and Testimonials,' reprints the seminal Chicano film manifestos of the 1970s, in which Chicano cinema was envisioned as both an extension of the Chicano civil rights movement and New Latin American Cinema." (xiv)

Text-based analyses, industrial histories, genre study and issues of stereotyping (from within and outside the ethnic group) are rigorously provided from a Chicano perspective. The overall impact of these essays is to consolidate a myriad of issues in film studies under a new umbrella, that of "Chicano cinema"-a term which includes an extremely diverse group of films across an extended historical period. One looks forward not only to more films by Chicano filmmakers (independent or Hollywood-based) but also more focused studies of the Chicano presence in well-established genres (such as the Western) that would significantly inflect any contemporary readings of "classic" films.

Moving The Image: Independent Asian Pacific American Media Arts edited by Russell Leong (Los Angeles: UCLA Asian American Studies Center and Visual Communications, Southern California Asian American Studies Central, 1991): Editor Leong's introduction well outlines this collaborative work's parameters:

"Moving the Image is the first effort to define independent Asian Pacific American media arts and to describe its development from 1970 to 1990. In conceiving the book, we sought to carry into the future the momentum, the movement, and the energies unleashed at the birth of independent Asian American media. The words, essays, and statements by the fifty media and cultural workers in this book challenge, celebrate, and contradict each other. Read together, these writings convey a sense of how Asian and Pacific Americans have viewed themselves during the past twenty years, and have created film, video and radio alternatives to Hollywood portrayals and mass media images." (xi)

Taking on diverse and often conflictual issues, this volume offers a chorus of voices which are organized not according to a preordained master narrative, but rather an alternative ordering motivated by a collective (yet individually specific) ethnic field of identity of various writer/artists:

"Moving the Image is not fixed by formula, plotted to Hollywood timeframes, or arranged according to academic or Asian American Studies schemas. Instead, we developed the book as an 'open work,' which 'assumes different shapes depending on the angle from which it is viewed.' Each chapter begins with quotations, epigrams, poetry, or prose fragments by Asian and Pacific writers and visionaries. These form active responses to life as it has been seen, lived, and questioned…These fragments hint at richer and complex origins, yet freshly juxtaposed they form a 'free-floating montage' of memory." (xiii)

While not addressing issues of ethnic representation exclusively through the established theoretical and critical methodologies in contemporary film studies, socio-political contexts, individual career achievements (both independent and Hollywood based), personal testimonials, and manifestos all combine to create a rich mosiac of artistic/personal experience. Here the filmmakers/artists represent themselves along with addressing the ethnic representation of their respective groups. The foregrounding of personal philosophies intimately links issues of representation with people's lived experiences outside the world of films and filmmaking. The result is a particularly discerning, complex and often intensely emotional compilation which provides the opposite of a distant overview. Rather, it offers an examination that encompasses a vast array of historical/personal/professional experiences with penetrating insight.

Black American Cinema edited by Manthia Diawara (New York: Routledge, 1993): Diawara introduces the collection of essays as providing an examination of black American cinema divided into two broad areas-black aesthetics and black spectatorship:

"Contributors to the first part derive a Black film aesthetic by focusing on the Black artist, his or her representation of the Black imaginary, and his or her place within broader communities…The modes of existence of a Black film culture are linked to Black institutions, nationalist versus integrationist politics, Black American literature and literary criticism, and issues of realism in representation. Contributors to the second part address the thorny issue of film spectatorship. In doing so, they bring into view another dimension of the Black film experience, one encompassing a history of film reception, generic expectations, patterns of spectatorial identification, and the possibility of political resistance." (ix)

Black independent film from 1930s to the 1990s as well as Hollywood productions are analyzed in this collection. Oscar Micheaux and Spike Lee tend to be the two focal points of discussion for the contributors to the first section on black aesthetics. This tendency reveals the intense interest of black theoreticians to link the past and present with the idea of shaping a future black cinema. The book's second section connects past traditions to the present from the position of reception, leaving no site of filmmaking uncontested:

"...the topic of Black film aesthetics cannot be divorced from the productive efforts of the spectator who works with and upon the film image. Essays in the second part of the volume confront the question of Black spectatorship head on. If, as Ed Guerrero proposes, the image of Blacks on screen appears in the 'protective custody' of Hollywood, perhaps other dimensions to the representation of Black life can be reclaimed at the site of reception". (x)

This compilation offers a wide range of approaches and perspectives that, while not necessarily speaking to one another, provides a useful resource for current theoretical thought on black American film. While not sharply focused on any one issue or theoretical approach, this collection of essays displays a breadth of interests that indicate how multifaceted and complex the subject of African-American cinema can be. Clearly, this approach to ethnic film representation indicates a marked evolution from the more one-dimensional "image" studies of the 1970s. It is also notable that the anthology or compilation format easily allows a diverse group of authors (from Jane Gaines and Richard Dyer to Amiri Baraka and bell hooks) to address the specific area of cinematic ethnic representation for critical inquiry.

Unspeakable Images: Ethnicity and the American Cinema edited by Lester Friedman (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1991): In his introduction, Friedman notes the evolution of writing on ethnic representation in U.S. film:

"Writing about images was certainly a necessary and vitally important first step in sensitizing our colleagues, as well as the general public, about the pervasiveness of ethnic issues in the cinema. Yet such explorations inevitably focus on value-ladened judgments of authenticity and elusive concepts of realism." (2)

He offers these essays as an antidote to the earliest trends:

"This anthology represents the first attempt to encourage thinking and research about ethnic issues and the American cinema in...an introduction of critical theories and methodologies. It seeks to build some bridges without totally ignoring the walls. These essays, therefore, explore the concept of ethnicity not only as it narrowly relates to various nationalities, colors, and religions, but also as it intersects with different ways of perceiving the world. Such a broad conception of ethnicity rests on a belief that all categories of classification represent a cultural construction; it also recognizes that all modes of interpretation are, in and of themselves, ideological positions that seek to order our interpretations of experiences, both inside and outside the text, via a predetermined, hierarchical spectrum of responses that runs from good to bad, from higher to lower, from correct to incorrect, from acceptable to invalid." (6)

This anthology is divided into two parts. The first stresses incorporating issues of ethnic representation with more traditional discourses in cinema studies, while the second explores broader areas of critical thinking which frequently inflect works about ethnicity and ethnic representation:

"Essays in the first part examine how incorporating ethnicity into even the most traditional modes of film analysis — historical, auteurist, genre — forces us to reconsider, and ultimately to reformulate, the elements we include and those we ignore when employing these methodologies…Essays in the second part relate broad areas of critical thought — cultural studies, ethnography, postmodernism, psychoanalysis, feminism, class studies — to ethnicity, analyzing where each intersects and how each amplifies the other." (6)

One of the most obvious advantages of a collection such as this is the inclusion of essays which would have difficulty fitting into more thematically defined anthologies. The only criteria for this work is the subject of ethnicity and its representation in American film. This compilation of articles on the filmic representations of African-Americans, Hispanics! Latinos, Asians, Jews, as well as the underwritten sphere of interethnic "role-playing" is presented as a coherent and formidable area of critical inquiry. Hopefully, volumes such as Unspeakable Images will function to spark and sustain the growing interest in issues of ethnic/class/religious representation in cinema studies, rather than discourage more focused studies of greater length and complexity. This volume provides a forum for incisive, yet not easily classifiable, essays which not only stand on their own but prompt further debate and/or introduce new paths of inquiry.


Romance and the "Yellow Peril" by Gina Marchetti (University of California Press, 1993): This book stands as an example of writing not only on Asian representation in Hollywood films but on a particular thematic trope within these depictions — that of interracial romantic/sexual relationships. This work "dissects Hollywood's Asia" through an examination of "cinematic depictions of interracial sexuality":

"Rather than look at individual characters or survey the history of Asians in film, the focus here is on the way in which narratives featuring Asian-Caucasian sexual liasons work ideologically to uphold and sometimes subvert culturally accepted notions of nation, class, race, ethnicity, gender, and sexual orientation." (1)

Marchetti investigates specific paradigms such as "the rape fantasy," "white knights in Hong Kong," "Japanese war brides," and "the geisha masquerade" to illustrate her arguments. The author finds in the persistence of these paradigms a symptom of larger ideological power struggles:

"…these fantasies tend to link together national-cultural and personal fears, so that the rape of the white woman becomes a metaphor for the threat posed to Western culture as well as a rationalization for Euroamerican imperial ventures in Asia." (3)

The book manages convincingly to bridge films from far-separated time periods specifically in terms of their broader patterns of Eastern-Western cultural conflicts. The readings of the films are often inflected by both feminist and cultural studies perspectives. However, in one instance, Marchetti incorporates Donald Bogle's "tragic mulatto" stereotype term into Hollywood's Eurasian archetype:

"Like the Hollywood mulattoes, Eurasian characters' tragedy lies in their desire to be accepted into white society and to put aside their vilified racial heritage...However, the possibility that a mixed-race character could "pass" for white in a society that defines itself in terms of absolute boundaries between the races represents a significant threat. In Hollywood, this threat surfaces in narratives that deal with Eurasian characters' sexual involvement with Caucasian characters, who may or may not know about their lovers' racial background." (69)

Marchetti's work is particularly involving and absorbing precisely because she works from the broadest issues (East-West cultural influences and power dynamics) to the functioning of the most specific character types (the Eurasian) in Hollywood films. In this way, the Asian-Caucasian cinematic sexual motif of Hollywood is revealed to contain a great deal more than romantic/exotic escapism.

Multiple Voices in Feminist Film Criticism edited by Diane Carson, Linda Dittmars, and Janice Welch (University of Minnesota Press, 1994): Issues of ethnic cinematic representation have been addressed in feminist film writing to a certain degree. One of the most influential of such essays is included in this feminist film theory anthology: "White Privilege and Looking Relations: Race and Gender in Feminist Film Theory" by Jane Gaines analyzes feminist film theory's limitations when dealing with race and gender issues:

"I will argue, the psychoanalytic model works to block out considerations that assume a different configuration, so that, for instance, the Freudian-Lacanian scenario can eclipse the scenario of race-gender relations in African-American history, since the two accounts of sexuality are fundamentally incongruous. The danger here is that when we use a psychoanalytic model to explain black family relations we force an erroneous universalization and inadvertently reaffirm white middle-class norms."

"By taking gender as its starting point in the analysis of oppression, feminist theory helps to reinforce white middle-class values, and to the extent that it works to keep women from seeing other structures of oppression, it functions ideologically." (177)

Gaines' assertions and analysis risk criticism but provide an invaluable contribution to feminist film theory. Every theoretical approach has virtues and limitations. Only through addressing and interrogating these can a higher level of insight be achieved. Also Gaines' essay cites writings by black feminists along with other writings in the ethnic studies field, which provides a multilayered foundation on which to read classical Hollywood texts.


This survey of writing on cinematic representation of ethnic groups indicates a clear shift over the past twenty or so years. Beginning with discrete studies on specific ethnic groups which addressed "negative" Hollywood stereotypes, we have moved to the more recent production of collective volumes. These incorporate not only different authors, but often consider a diverse and growing number of groups as their subject matter. In this way, the sphere of ethnic cinematic representation itself seems to have evolved for scholars into a more inclusive, yet oddly more consistent and persistent area of inquiry and resistance.

Richard Dyer's introduction to his collection of essays, The Matter of Images (New York: Routledge, 1993) continues and elaborates on this larger question of cinematic representation by including so-called "dominant" groups: he calls attention to and critically interrogates filmic images of straight men and "whites." His work completes the circle by defining marginalized groups not only through a rigorous investigation of their peripheral space in relation to the dominant center, but by strategically deconstructing this assumed "center" or the mainstream. In this way, Dyer challenges the nature of mainstream representation and its implicit norms by studying it and placing its norms into serious question:

"The groupings that have tended not to get addressed in 'images of' work, however, are those with most access to power: men, whites, heterosexuals, the able-bodied. The problem with not addressing them as such is that they then function as simply the human norm, without specificity and thus without a specifiable relation to power…Such work, adumbrated in a couple of pieces here, seeks to make normality strange, that is, visible and specific. This must not imply, however, an equivalence between such images and those of women and other oppressed groupings. The project of making normality strange and thus ultimately decentring it must not seem to say that this has already taken place, that now masculinity, whiteness, heterosexuality and ablebodiedness are just images of identity alongside all others. That may be the point we wish to reach but we are not there yet. As in all others issues of representation, we must not leave the matter of power out of account any more than the matter of representation itself." (4)