Documenting the Black Experience

Essays on African American History, Culture and Identity in Nonfiction Films


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About the Book

History taught at the elementary, middle, high school and even college levels often excludes significant events from African American history, such as the murder of Emmett Till or the murder of four black girls by the Ku Klux Klan in the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church bombing in Birmingham. Such events are integral parts of history that continue to inform America’s racial politics. Their exclusion is a problem that this work addresses by bringing more visibility to documentary films focusing on the events.
Books treating the history of documentary films follow a similar pattern, omitting the efforts of filmmakers who have continued to focus on African American history. This book works to make documentary discourse more complete, bringing attention to films that cover the African American experience in four areas–civil rights, sports, electronic media, and the contemporary black struggle–demonstrating how the issues continue to inform America’s racial politics.

About the Author(s)

Novotny Lawrence is an associate professor of cinema and media studies at Indiana University and the editor-in-chief of The Journal of Popular Culture. His research primarily centers on African American cinematic and mediated experiences, race, and popular culture. He has authored a book and co-edited an anthology on Blaxploitation Cinema and has also has published journal articles and book chapters on Black Dynamite and parody, African American religious iconography in Good Times, C.S.A.: The Confederate States of America, and the Blaxploitation-themed film, Detroit 9000.

Bibliographic Details

Edited by Novotny Lawrence
Format: softcover (6 x 9)
Pages: 280
Bibliographic Info: notes, bibliographies, index
Copyright Date: 2014
pISBN: 978-0-7864-7267-3
eISBN: 978-1-4766-1963-7
Imprint: McFarland

Table of Contents

Acknowledgments  ix
Introduction (Novotny Lawrence)  1
Part I. Civil Rights
The Scottsboro Boys’ Experiences as Resource to Create a More Perfect Union (Joseph L. Smith)  10
The Clinton 12 and Prom Night in Mississippi: Conversations in Integration (Eric Pierson)  29
A National Concern: Remembering and Teaching the Death of Emmett Till (Kevin E. Grimm)  43
Fear Factor: When Black Equality Is Framed as Militant (Winsome ­Chunnu-Brayda and Travis D. Boyce)  57
Part II. Sports
A “perpetual threat”: Unforgivable Blackness and Jack Johnson as a Transmedia Sports Icon (Michael Graves)  74
From Compton to Center Court: Venus and Serena and the Black Female Experience in Professional Tennis (Novotny Lawrence)  92
Part III. Electronic Media
Immortalizing Dorothy Dandridge in Documentary, African American Press and Mainstream Press (Charlene Regester)  116
“Rated R because it’s real”: Discourses of Authenticity in Wattstax (Mike Phillips)  132
A Glance at Herstory: Black Female Documentarians Navigating Beyond the Normative Constraints in A Question of Color and My Mic Sounds Nice (Theresa Renée White, Sara Tekle and Melanie Shaw)  153
Documenting Grassroots History as a Means to Social Change: 778 Bullets, Community Engagement and the Legacy of Rural Civil Rights (Angela J. Aguayo)  170
Part IV. And Beyond: The Contemporary Black Struggle
Sundown Nation: Living in the Aftermath of an American Holocaust (David Rossiaky)  188
Portrait of Jason: A Reappraisal (Gerald R. Butters Jr.)  208
Dancing as Voice: Krumping and Clowning in Rize as Black Vernacular Rhetoric (Joshua Daniel Phillips)  221
Gender, the Streets and Violence: Ameena Matthews and Violence Interruptions in The Interrupters (Ashley Farmer)  238
About the Contributors  257
Index  261

Book Reviews & Awards

  • “Bridging the gap between often ignored black history and documentary film Novotny Lawrence brings together insightful articles from academics and practicing filmmakers. An overdue and much-needed anthology for the fields of documentary and black studies.”—Christine Acham, University of Southern California
  • “Lawrence presents a collection of straightforward essays on non-narrative cinema that documents pivotal moments in the African American struggle for civil rights. From its account of The Scottsboro Boys’ case to the discussion of Jack Johnson in Unforgivable Blackness, to the analysis of Shirley Clarke’s avant-garde character study, A Portrait of Jason, this volume calls attention to several important, but lesser known, films made in the documentary tradition. It will make a useful addition to classrooms and everyday conversations in which we try to reconstruct the tragedy and trials faced by historical subjects like Emmett Till and Dorothy Dandridge, or the difficulties faced by young people growing up in violent neighborhoods.”—Mia Mask, Vassar College, author of Divas on Screen: Black Women in American Film.