The race with class: towards a materialist methodology for race in film studies



Document Type


Date of Degree

Summer 2007

Access Restrictions

Access restricted to UI faculty, staff and students.

Degree Name

PhD (Doctor of Philosophy)

Degree In

Film Studies

First Advisor

Schwartz, Louis

Second Advisor

Yoshimoto, Mitsuhiro


This is a critical history of how film criticism and theory have engaged with the issue of race and ethnicity, carried out from a historical materialist position – adopting the Neo-Marxian orthodoxy of Theodor Adorno and Fredric Jameson, and a concern with class politics. Those theories are used to question the postmodern and poststructuralist assumptions that connect race-related film criticism, racial discourse and racial politics, with a view to better serve the field’s political objectives. Criticism promises to deliver – via the intermediate desire for cultural democracy in the mass media – on the ultimate promise of social justice. How well is that battle being fought?

Tracking the development of the field’s different theoretical models, this project examines how each of them defines the ideological function of films. Racerelated film criticism can be divided into First and Second generations, distinct in how each understands cinematic racism to operate through different theories of textual operations. First Generation theory consists of positive image analyses and stereotype studies, but Second Generation scholarship eschews its empiricism, incorporating paradigms of discourse analysis, psychoanalysis and deconstruction.

Within the field’s progression, theoretical contradictions exist which induce a move towards historical materialism and class-based analysis. Among them is the continued assumption of an autonomous subject in the tradition of Western humanism, which runs counter to the social constructivism and notion of split subjectivities inherent in postmodern theory. By connecting that subject to the authentic, critical and unified subject posited in Adorno and Jameson’s writings about cinema, I argue for historical materialism and considerations of the Culture Industry as the means to study mass media and racial ideology. The final theory section proffers a re-reading of Edward Said’s Orientalism, and demonstrates how film and media studies have misappropriated it as a poststructuralist theory, when he is actually more in line with the Frankfurt School.

The case study examines how the star discourse of actor Keanu Reeves, whose ethnic ambiguity is often attributed to his inscrutable persona and a diagnosis of postmodern symptoms. That view overlooks a unified, modernist subjectivity on Reeves’s part.


viii, 267 pages


Includes bibliographical references (pages 255-267).


Copyright 2007 Gerald Sianghwa Sim