Beyond Representation: Theorizing Cultural and Emotional Resonance in American Film
“Representation Matters.” This oft-cited phrase punctuates nearly all discourse about diverse representation, and specifically, Black representation. Whether stated outright or implicitly hovering over conversations, the idea that images “matter,” that they “do something” to the people who regard them, carries with it a semblance of objective fact that usually passes by unquestioned. Yet, to what extent are we talking about “resemblance” rather than “representation”? And in doing so, how often do these conversations and analyses (no matter how well-intentioned or thoughtfully researched) overlook the formal, emotional, and cultural components -- the actual matter -- of representation? Moreover, how do such emphases ignore the complex ways that Black viewers claim and engage with texts on their own terms?
In this talk, I introduce the term “resonance” as a shorthand for the different forms of cultural and emotional connection that Black viewers have with a diverse range of texts. Drawing on a range of examples that include classic Disney films, “bad” Hollywood features, and reality television, I offer a theoretical exploration of a type of analysis that diverges from more conventional emphases on representation.
Racquel Gates is an Associate Professor of Cinema and Media Studies at the College of Staten Island, CUNY. She is the author of Double Negative: The Black Image and Popular Culture (Duke, 2018), and her work appears in both academic and popular publications such as The New York Times, The Los Angeles Review of Books, Film Quarterly, as well as other journals and collections. In 2020, she was named an Academy Film Scholars by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. She is currently working on her next book manuscript, titled Hollywood Style and the Invention of Blackness.
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