In our so-called postracial culture of ever-new media forms and accelerated change in production, distribution technology, and viewing experiences, what is the role of black film criticism? Are its politics obsolete and its hundred-plus years of analog analysis now anachronistic? The recent relative profusion of black images on screen and across the internet (new media has been disproportionally good to aspiring black artists) suggests otherwise: that, rather, black moving images and black film criticism remain, as they have been since the turn of the last century, vital forums for critique of white hegemony and violence. Films like Selma (2014), 12 Years A Slave (2013), Red Tails (2012) and Fruitvale Station (2012)shows from Scandal (2012-) and How to Get Away with Murder (2014-) to Netflix production Orange Is the New Black (2013-) and webseries The Mis-Adventures of An Awkward Black Girl (2011-), and even networks like OWN, cater to ever-growing audiences interested in consuming black-character-centered entertainment, often with explicit and politicized references to contemporary U.S. race relations. With the advent of digital cinema and media, these shows have been delivering new kinds of imagery and engaging new methods of reception—but nonetheless remain, along with the literary and social publics they produce, part of an old and still-relevant black cultural tradition.

 Black film criticism is integral to this tradition; it is at once as old as black cinema and, along with ever-changing black moving images, persistently new. And its defining feature continues to be its relationship to the social—and society’s whitewashing of racial violence. As Anna Everett’s seminal study, Returning the Gaze, reminds us, even the earliest black film critics regularly tasked themselves with going beyond generic reviews of cinematic content, aesthetics and reception; they also offered pointed, frequently prescriptive assessments of films’ socio-political import.[1] For instance, in the 1910s and 20s, along with shaping an increasingly worldly black public sphere, black film criticism was instrumental in organizing nationwide protests against The Birth of a Nation (1915). In the 30s, critics like Camera Eye and Platt used their columns in The Liberator to educate black publics in politicized viewing strategies, ones they hoped would help inculcate viewers against Hollywood mythology and bias. And in the 40s, amidst wartime pressures and propaganda, black film critics like Rayford Logan, Lawrence Reddick and Melvin B. Tolson worked alongside the NAACP in waging an effective campaign for new kinds of racial representation on the silver screen. To a large extent, neither the role nor the goals of black film criticism have changed over time, though with the precipitous decline of the black presses in the 60s, critics have found themselves with smaller (and more academic) spheres of influence.

 That said, in the last couple of decades, black film critics have largely focused their attention on three fundamental concerns: 1) drawing attention to the persistence of racism and racial violence in society and the media; 2) reconsidering, particularly in light of the rise (and, perhaps, fall) of identity politics, what, in Stuart Hall’s famous words, “is this black in black popular culture;”[2] and 3) rethinking the significance and effects of media aesthetics, distribution and reception on black cinema, given the shifts from film to digital media and online formats. 

The first of these—raising awareness of racism—has been an ongoing struggle for critics, one most evident across the broader world of black cultural studies (in debates about Obama’s race relations, for instance), but also in moving-image-focused blogs like “Shadow and Act,” “Black Box Office” and Ingrid LaFleur’s “Afrotopia” project.

The second—Hall’s question—has been famously addressed in three seminal anthologies, Gladstone Yearwood’s Black Cinema Aesthetics, Manthia Diawara’s Black American Cinema, and Michael Martin’s Cinemas of the Black Diaspora.[3] Though still crucial texts for film studies today, each of these collections performs a (then) timely anxiety about how to define black cinema as a category of meaning without essentializing blackness. Diawara’s volume, in particular, also endeavors to redress canonical film theory and its white-centered readings of representation and reception. The most recent assessment of black film studies, a special issue of Cinema Journal (Volume 53, No. 4, Summer 2014), engages in debates quite similar to those of the 1980s and 90s, suggesting that though the answers may have changed with time, the guiding questions of black film criticism have remained the same.

 The third concern—theorizing the consequences of new media—has brought us works like Beretta E. Smith-Shomade’s Watching While Black, articles and volumes on Afrofuturism (most famously, Mark Dehry’s “Black to the Future”), and many essays on webseries, gaming and online fandom.[4] Though of course their content is novel, these works’ preoccupation with emerging media is nothing new for black film studies—or film studies in general. As Anna Everett writes in her 2014 essay on what she calls BAMMs (Black American Media Moguls), “It is not say that technological innovation and social change power most of the cyclical changes in black film. We can easily trace these cultural and technological shifts back to the silent-era black independents” and in each iteration of black media following.[5] In other words, film criticism has always been chasing a moving target, and black film criticism even more so; because of their frequent exclusion from mainstream modes of production and distribution, black media artists have often been at the vanguard of emerging media creation.

 So, today, the role of black film criticism is at once the same as it was some hundred years ago—when The Chicago Defender decried the lack of black representation on the moving picture censor board—and fundamentally changed. While black film critics must continue to track the content, aesthetics and methods of new media, and contextualize, theorize, debate their impact, they now also struggle against being rendered moot by the increasingly prevalent belief that we live in a colorblind society (a Google search on the term “colorblind” brings up seven articles from the New York Times in 2014 alone). And they have to wage nearly constant warfare against the mainstream media’s appropriation and manipulation of black bodies—for instance, those of Eric Garner, Walter Scott and Freddie Grey—battling for their safety and freedom from police brutality and economic oppression.[6]

Or, put differently, the double consciousness into which black film criticism was born persists and continues to render black film criticism at once symptomatic and terribly necessary. In the early years, black film critics nurtured and developed the public sphere for its separate cinema; with integration, they policed the silver screen; and identity politics saw critics carve out—from an academic hegemony—a conversation about black viewing experience. Today, we find scholars, cultural critics and activists alike joining together in blogs (Shadow and Act), conferences (Allied Media Conference), TV talk shows (MSNBC’s “Melissa Harris-Perry”) to assert that race still matters; that our society is still shaped by structures of racial oppression; and that to use Nicole Fleetwood’s term, images of race still create “troubling vision” in our world and on our screens.[7] And so, today as before, black film criticism maintains its political mission: analyzing powerful images and images of power, both.


Author biography:

Elizabeth Reich is assistant professor of film studies at Connecticut College. Her monograph, Militant Visions: Black Soldiers, Internationalism and the Transformation of American Cinema, is forthcoming from Rutgers University Press in 2016. She is co-editor of a special issue of Film Criticism entitled, “New Approaches to Cinematic Identification.” Her work has been published in Screen, African American Review and Women and Performance.


    1. Anna Everett, "Black Film, New Media Industries, and BAMMs (Black American Media Moguls) in the Digital Media Ecology" Cinema Journal 53, 4 (2014): 128-133.return to text

    2. Stuart Hall, “What is this ‘Black’ in Black Cultural Studies?” in Stuart Hall: Critical Dialogues in Cultural Studies, eds. David Morley and Kuan-Hsing Chen (London and New York: Routledge, 1996), 468-478.return to text

    3. Gladstone L. Yearwood, ed., Black Cinema Aesthetics (Athens, OH: Ohio University Center for Afro-American Studies, 1982); Manthia Diawara, Black American Cinema (New York: Routledge, 1993); Michael T. Martin, ed., Cinemas of the Black Diaspora: Diversity, Dependence, and Oppositionality (Detroit, MI: Wayne State University Press, 1995).return to text

    4. Beretta E Smith-Shomade, ed., Watching While Black: Centering the Television of Black Audiences (New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 2013); Mark Dery, "Black to the Future: Interviews with Samuel R. Delany, Greg Tate, and Tricia Rose," in Flame Wars: The Discourse of Cyberculture, ed. Mark Dery (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 1994), 179-222.return to text

    5. Anna Everett, Returning the Gaze: A Genealogy of Black Film Criticism, 1909-1949 (Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 2001), 128.return to text

    6. See Roopali Mukherjee’s contribution to this issue.return to text

    7. Nicole R. Fleetwood, Troubling Vision: Performance, Visuality and Blackness (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2011).return to text