Race and Gender in American Film Course Syllabus

Instructor: Professor Belinda Edmondson

The focus of this course will be to analyze the ways in which ethnic identity is represented in American film over the past 70 years, and to what particular effect. Although this course will focus particularly on the traditional interlocked representations of African-Americans and European-Americans in classic American films, we will also analyze the representation of other ethnic groups so that we may construct an American filmic narrative of race gleaned from a variety of perspectives, ranging from images of blacks in the white imagination to images of whites in the black imagination.

Course Requirements:

  • You shall be required to write to take three in-class examinations. The first will cover Part One of the course, the second Part Two, and the third Part Three. There will be no final comprehensive examination. The exam format will be the same in all three cases: roughly five-to-seven questions requiring detailed and concise answers on a specific reading or film. The questions will usually involve comparative analysis of two or more films as well as the application of literary or film theory (from the readings) to specific scenes in the films. Your responses must be in full sentences and grammatically correct; points will be taken off for poor grammar. In the case of exceptionally poor grammar, you will receive no points at all. Exams are marked on a scale of 100 points: under 40 is a Fail. 40-49 is a D. 50-59 is a C. 60 to 62 is a C+. 63 to 74 is a B. 75 to 79 is a B+. 80 and over is A.
  •  You shall give a written five-minute presentation (a page or two in length) to the class on some aspect of the course materials, some of which may require outside research. (A sign-up sheet will be available the first and second days of class.) The presentation must be handed in after it has been presented. The presentation will not be graded, but rather assessed with an “average” or “superior” rating. When I tally your final grade for the course your presentation shall be considered as a tipping point if your grade teeters between grades: for example, you are averaging a high C+ and you give a superior presentation, your final grade will be a B. No marks are taken off for a bad presentation, but you will fail the course if you fail to give one.
  •  Proper note-taking is a critical component in writing a good exam; therefore, we will periodically review our notes for the course and discuss ways in which to take better notes. Students will be asked at various points during the class to read out their notes on a preceding lecture. If you are absent for a class, you are still responsible for the notes on that class. Remember: The purpose of note-taking is not merely so that you can recall information, but, more importantly, so that you can recall key points of analysis on that information. Therefore, your notes may record not only my ideas, but also the conflicting opinions within the class on that subject.


PLEASE NOTE: If you fail to give a presentation, or fail to take any one of the three examinations, YOU WILL FAIL THE COURSE. Therefore you cannot, for instance, complete 3 of the required 4 items and hope to pass by averaging out your grade. I do NOT give temporary incomplete grades unless there are extremely good reasons to do so, such as a documentable illness or other such contingencies. In the case of medical or family emergencies, I will need to receive documentation of an official nature that contains the signature of someone who is not related to you: a signed doctor's note, for example. (Please note: a prescription order is not sufficient.) If you foresee problems in completing the course let me know in advance. For those who have documentable reasons for missing any of the exams or the presentation, I will be happy to schedule make-up exams and presentations.

POLICY ON ATTENDANCE: I do not have an attendance policy, save for exams and presentation schedules. You are free to attend, or not, as you choose. I do, however, have a late policy; if you are more than 15 minutes late without a documentable excuse you may not attend class. Late-comers inevitably disrupt the class discussion.  Either way, whether or not you attend class, you are responsible for any information that is transmitted during class time, whether that be a change of exam time, a cancellation of a presentation, and so forth. My advice is to partner with another student whose notes you can borrow in case you must be absent. Do not expect me to reproduce an entire lecture during office hours. I simply cannot, and will not.

Finally: Since I have a joint appointment in English, you can apply to receive credit for this course in that department, provided that you have taken and passed English 101 and 102, or the equivalents, and provided that I am the instructor for the course. You may not receive credit in English for this course under any other instructor.


Films:  Gone with the Wind, Imitation of Life (1934 & 1959 versions), Ethnic Notions, Guess Who's Coming to Dinner?, Claudine, Mississippi Masala, West Side Story. You must screen films either at the library or at home at least once, since we will not have time to screen films in their entirety during class.

Required Articles (posted online on Blackboard):

1.  "Race, Class and Gender: Film Melodramas of the late 1950s” (section on Imitation of Life, pp. 238-258), Jackie Byars, in All That Hollywood Allows: Re-Reading Gender in 1950s Melodrama (Chapel Hill: Univ. of North Carolina Press, 1991).

 2. "Divided Images: Black Female Spectatorship and John Stahl's `Imitation of Life'", Miriam Thaggert, African-American Review, Sept. 1 1998 (vol 32, issue 3).

3.  "Gone With The Wind and Hollywood's Racial Politics", Leonard J. Jeff, Atlantic Monthly, Dec. 1999 (vol 24, issue 6): p. 106.

4. "A Puerto Rican Reading of `America': West Side Story", Alberto Sandoval-Sanchez, Jump Cut: A Review of Contemporary Media 1994, vol. 39: 59-66.

5. “Stereotype, Realism and the Struggle over Representation”, pp. 178-204, Ella Shohat and Robert Stam, in Unthinking Eurocentrism: Multiculturalism and the Media (London, New York: Routledge, 1994).

6. “The Negro Family: The Case for National Action” (U.S. Dept. of Labor, March 1965, posted online at www.dol.gov/oasam/programs/history/webid-meynihan.htm), Chapters II and IV.

7. Selected passages from the novel, Gone With the Wind (Margaret Mitchell).

8. “The Black Romance”, Belinda Edmondson, Women’s Studies Quarterly (vol. 35, nos. 1 & 2, Spring/Summer 2007): 191-211.

9. Chapter One, “Black Beginnings: From  Uncle Tom’s Cabin to The Birth of  A Nation”, pp. 3-18, in Toms, Coons, Mulattoes, Mammies, & Bucks: An Interpretive History of Blacks in American Films, Donald Bogle (NY: Continuum, 1999).

Articles will be posted on Blackboard. Most films will be on reserve in the Audio Visual Center on the 4th floor of the Dana Library. I will try to make the other films available to you by personal loan if I cannot arrange for them to be on reserve at the library. You will need to view most films at home or in the library before coming to class.                                                                                                                            

Course Schedule:

PART ONE: American History and the Original Interracial Family Romance

9/04: Introduction. Sign up for presentations.

9/06: In-class screening and discussion of Ethnic Notions. Please view Birth of a Nation over the next week.

9/11: Discussion of Ethnic Notions cont’d. Read Toms, Coons, ch. 1.

9/13: In-class screening and discussion of selected scenes from Birth of a Nation.

9/18: In-class screening and discussion of selected scenes from Birth of a Nation, cont’d.

9/20: Read "Gone With The Wind and Hollywood's Racial Politics" and selections from Gone With the Wind. In-class screening of selected scenes from Gone With The Wind.

9/25:  Screening and discussion of Gone With The Wind, continued. Read selections from novel Gone with the Wind.

9/27: In-class screening and discussion of scenes from Imitation of Life (1934 version). Read Toms, Coons , Chapter 3, particularly pp. 57-67, and Miriam Thaggert,  "Divided Images".

10/2: In-class screening and discussion of scenes from Imitation of Life (1934 version) cont’d. Read Miriam Thaggert, "Divided Images".

10/4: In-class screening  and discussion of Imitation of Life (1959 version).

10/9: In-class screening and discussion of Imitation of Life cont’d. Read Jackie Byars, “The Melodramas of the Late 1950s.”

10/11: Comparison of both versions of Imitation of Life.



PART TWO: The American Interracial Romance, The Civil Rights Version

10/18:  Read Toms, Coons, Chapter 6. Begin screening select scenes from Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner?

10/23: In-class screening and discussion of select scenes from Guess Who's Coming to Dinner? cont’d.

10/25: Read “The Negro Family: The Case for National Action” and Bogle, pp. 252-256 (“Sisters in Distress”).  In-class screening and discussion of select scenes from Claudine.

10/30: Discussion of both Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner? and Claudine. Read “The Black Romance”



PART THREE: The Interracial Immigrant Romance

11/6: In-class screening and discussion of select scenes from West Side Story.

11/8:  NO CLASS.

11/13: In-class screening and discussion of West Side Story cont’d. Read "A Puerto Rican Reading of `America'".

11/15:  Discussion of West Side Story cont’d.

11/20: In-class screening and discussion of selected scenes from Mississippi Masala.


11/27: In-class screening and discussion of Mississippi Masala, cont’d. Read Bogle, pp. 364-66.

11/29: Discussion of both West Side Story and Mississippi Masala. Read “Stereotype, Realism and the Struggle over Representation”.



12/6: Make-up exam for in-class exam, part three.