Representation in Cinema

I’ve spent the last several chapters discussing in great detail how cinema communicates, how it uses its own unique and evolving cinematic language to connect with and engage its audience. Namely, you. With a firm grasp on the tools and techniques employed by filmmakers, we can break the medium down to its constituent parts, analyze how mise-en-scene, narrative structure, framing, composition, camera movement, lighting, sound design, editing, performance and a thousand other components add up to an affecting cinematic experience. Or how they add up to a deeply disappointing one. But at least we’ll know why.

Most introductory textbooks stop there. And with good reason. That’s plenty of information to absorb, much less master, for one semester. But it stands to reason that if we spent all this time understanding how cinema communicates, we should probably also spend some time thinking about what, exactly, it is trying to say.

Way back in Chapter Two, I brought up the idea that the cultural norms that shape cinematic content, much like cinematic language, are largely invisible or unconscious. Cinema, like any other art form, is created by artists who are themselves bound up in a given historical and cultural context. And no matter how enlightened and advanced they may be, they cannot possibly grasp every aspect of how that historical and cultural context shapes their view of the world. Inevitably, the unexamined norms and values that makes us who we are filter into the cinematic stories we tell.

The result is a kind of cultural feedback loop where cinema both influences and is influenced by the context in which it is created.

Because that process is largely invisible and unconscious, cinema remains more effective at re-affirming a particular view of the world than challenging or changing it. That is to say, it is an inherently conservative medium. Not in the partisan sense, but in the sense of maintaining or “conserving” the status quo. Part of the problem (if you accept that this is a problem) is the economic reality that cinema must appeal to the masses to survive. It costs a LOT of money to make a feature film or tv series. So, filmmakers and their financiers tend to avoid offending our collective sensibilities. They want us to buy more tickets and pay more streaming fees, so they’re going to err on the side of making us feel better about who we already think we are.

But there’s another really important reason why cinema does not tend to challenge the status quo. The reality is that the people who have historically had access to the capital required to produce this very expensive medium… well, they tend to all look alike. That is, mostly white, and mostly men. And as I mentioned back in Chapter Two, when the same kind of people with the same kind of experiences tend to have the most consistent access to the medium, we tend to get the same kinds of stories, reproducing the same, often unexamined, norms, values and ideas.

This cultural and economic dynamic has shaped cinematic content from the beginning. And by pulling our focus from form to content, from cinema as a technical medium to cinema as a cultural document, we can better understand what cinema has to say about who we think we are.

This emphasis on how culture shapes content (and vice versa) inevitably leads to the issue of representation. Not only in the sense of who is on screen and how we see them, but perhaps even more importantly, who is behind the camera. After all, whoever controls the means of communication controls the message.

Obviously, a deep dive into the issue of representation in cinema could easily fill its own, stand-alone introductory text.[1] Which is probably why most textbooks on formal film analysis avoid the topic altogether. But hey, we’ve come this far, why not put all of that newfound knowledge about how cinema communicates to at least a couple of examples of what it’s trying to say.

To that end, I’m going to focus on two specific case studies in cinematic representation. Now, the options are endless. I could have easily written chapters on gender and sexuality or race and ethnicity or even issues of inequality and class as general topics of representation in cinema. But I think there is power in specificity. The more focused we can be in our analysis, the more fruitful the exploration. So, I’m going to zero in on the role of women in cinema and the role of African Americans in cinema; both in terms of how they are portrayed on screen, and the ways women and Black filmmakers specifically have fought for control of their own cinematic narratives.

This emphasis is due in part to the historical moment. The #MeToo Movement has led to the beginnings of real systemic change in the entertainment industry for women, and placing that cultural shift in cinematic context seems particularly important. The same could be said for the recent #OscarsSoWhite campaign, and cinematic representations of African Americans. But even more recently, the murder of George Floyd and Black Lives Matter movement has forced a deep and hopefully lasting examination of who we think we are as a society. And I would argue cinema has an important role to play in that process, both historically and moving forward.

But I encourage you not to stop here. Use this as an opportunity to explore issues of representation for Native Americans, Asian Americans and the Latinx community. How does cinema influence our understanding of masculinity? Immigration? Mental health?

The list is as long as our collective experience.


  1. In fact, it has. Harry Bernshoff and Sean Griffin’s America on Film: Representing Race, Class, Gender, and Sexuality at the Movies is a stunningly thorough treatment of the topic from multiple angles. You should check it out.

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