Race and the Cinematic “Machine”

Authored by: Gerald Sim

The Routledge Companion to Media and Race

Print publication date:  December  2016
Online publication date:  November  2016

Print ISBN: 9781138020726
eBook ISBN: 9781315778228
Adobe ISBN: 9781317695837


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As summer began in 2015, the American news media were abuzz, deconstructing Rachel Dolezal. NBC’s The Today Show scored a scoop by landing the first interview with the former president of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) chapter in Spokane, Washington. It followed a week of bemusement, trips through the political press’s partisan spin cycle, and reflection by prominent black voices. The controversy ignited when Dolezal was outed as a white woman passing as African American with the aid of dark foundation make-up and creative hairstyling. The utter originality of this affair confounded many, and yet no more than a fortnight earlier, the movies were the setting for an analogous brouhaha. Film director Cameron Crowe struggled to answer questions about his choice to cast the phenotypically unambiguous white actress Emma Stone for the romantic comedy, Aloha (2015), in the lead role of “Allison Ng,” a character who is quarter Hawaiian and quarter Chinese (Jung 2015; Lee 2015). These two news items force us to address some crucial issues of racial epistemology related to essentialism, representation, and history. Is race biologically defined or socially constructed? Rejecting biological essentialism on political and intellectual grounds is strategically understandable, but defining race in purely discursive terms renders Dolezal and Crowe’s decisions unproblematic, when according to many, they are plainly not. More importantly, these cases demonstrate how uncannily and often cinema, of all the arts, presents us with a parallel cultural realm to work through social and political dilemmas.

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