Studies of Ethnicity in Film

ENGL 347 is designed to enhance your understanding of the relationships between the Black American experience and American film. Films by, about and featuring Black Americans have played a central role in the development of America as a democratic nation founded on the principles of freedom and inalienable human rights. The course surveys Black American Films produced (largely) in the 20th century, but the films that form the core “texts” of this course cover a wide range of historical, regional, and cultural issues. The course will critically engage representations of African Americans in film, especially as these representations re-inscribe, challenge or revise historically racist representations of Black people in America.

Two students in the class, Stephanie Wenger and Sean “Blue” Guckert, wrote about how ENGL 347 is impacting their learning experiences after a month in the course:

Studies of Ethnicity in Film (ENGL 347) is an interesting class to take. I was apprehensive about taking this course due to the tough content, but I am glad I did. It has given a whole new way of viewing ethnicity in film and a classroom setting in which to discuss with others about the subject. This film course has been one of my favorites and I definitely recommend this class to other students. This class has shown me some of the ways that characters from some of the TV shows and films I had seen over the years held stereotypes that have been handed down from generations before.

I would definitely recommend this class to others.

-Stephanie Wenger

English 347, African Americans in Film, is a discussion-based forum that meets once a week for 3 hours. Our professor, Dr. James Peterson, puts the onus on each student to watch an assigned film and read an accompanying article (or two or three) every week. The ensuing Wednesday evening discussion often relies on challenging questions to spark a lively momentum of participation. Dr. Peterson’s facilitating questions have ranged from straightforward icebreakers such as, “what was the first movie that made you think about race?” to the existential and philosophical, and sometimes unanswerable, examinations about infanticide, suicide, mob-rule, lynching, and the psychological effects of slavery on both the oppressors and the oppressed and their ancestors. Dr. Peterson uses Black Film in America as a catalyst to look at Black filmmakers on their own terms as artists and what they have produced, and as a sociological and philosophical investigation. 

Energy is contagious in the classroom, and Dr. Peterson provides enough to evoke honest and earnest response that spreads throughout the class democratically. He cares deeply about the material and shares his knowledge in a digestible way that invites feedback versus lecture-rule, and his methods are antithetical to rote-learning, and memory processing for mid-term and finals regurgitation. The material matters, and reflection-in-action is key to our learning in this course. Once the energy starts flowing, the hands start raising, and the 3 hours flashes by and, invariably, the discussion is halted because time is up. A tell-tale sign of an invested class are the collective eyes of the student body aimed towards the professor and not the clock.  

The films we have discussed so far are: “Ethnic Notions,” “Rosewood,” “Daughters of the Dust” and “The Color Purple”. We also screened episode one of the television series “Underground” during class. Each film was assigned with an article (or two or three) exploring themes of race, gender, slavery, reparations, representation, and much more. 

 Perhaps the most important assignment was our first one, which was to read “The 1619 Project”.  

“The 1619 Project” was a collection of essays that explored myriad facets concerning the historical gravity of slavery, and some of the impacts of slavery from broad perspectives and from detailed, personal, and wellresearched accounts. “The 1619 Project” was/is a New York Times initiative that was/is an anti-celebrative commemoration  of the 400th year anniversary of the first slaves arriving in North America. Reading “The 1619 Project” served as a great foundation for this class and (in my humble opinion) should be required reading.  

-Sean “Blue” Guckert