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CMS 3340/MALS 5800: National Cinemas
African American Cinema


Instructor:   Dr. Virginia Bonner
Messages:   vbonner@clayton.edu :-)
678-466-4713 :-(
Spring 2017 CRN 20201 & 21155
3-0-3 credit hours
ENGL 1102 & CMS 2100 with min grade of C
Lectures:      TR 12:45-2:00pm in UC 272
Screenings:    On your own via DVD or streaming
Office hours:    via AdvisorTrac, by email, & by appt.
in Room 105, Music Building
or via Skype: virginia.bonner (use direct-dial Skype button on my homepage link below)
Web Address:  http://www.virginiabonner.com

Course Objectives

This is a revolving topics National Cinemas course, meaning that we study different cinemas as they relate to national identities.

This semester, we will study how selected African American films reflect and shape American identities. Although we will consider some Hollywood representations of African Americans, our task is not to simply list the stereotypes that abound in mainstream films. Instead, our primary texts will be Independent films written and/or directed by African American filmmakers, and we will analyze how ideologies of race, gender, class, sexuality, capitalism, and nation intersect in all of our films.

Our studies will move relatively chronologically, beginning with early films like D. W. Griffith's Birth of a Nation (1915) and Oscar Micheaux's Within Our Gates (1920), as well as Blaxploitation films like Melvin Van Peebles's Sweet Sweetback's Baadasssss Song (1971) and LA Rebellion films like Charles Burnett’s Killer of Sheep (1977), Haile Gerima's Sankofa (1993), and Julie Dash’s Daughters of the Dust (1991). We will spend the remainder of the semester studying contemporary African American films like Spike Lee’s She's Gotta Have It (1986), F. Gary Gray's Set It Off (1992), John Singleton’s Boyz n the Hood  (1991), Marlon Riggs's Tongues Untied (1989), Dee Rees's Pariah (2011), Tanya Hamilton's Night Catches Us (2010) and a film or two selected by the class.

Course Format

Our analysis of these amazing films will not be writing intensive, but it will be screening intensive—meaning that we will watch at least one film each week outside of class (on your own). Often we will watch two films per week, so that we can see and discuss as many of these great films as possible. To allow us the most time to watch and talk about these films, course readings will be fairly light and exams will be take-home instead of in-class. Undergraduates do not have a formal term paper assigned, but graduate students must complete a formal term paper in addition to all other assignments.

It is very important to complete all film viewings and reading assignments before our Tuesday class. You will be responsible for a daily quiz on our films and readings and for lively class discussions on our assigned material. If you do not plan to watch the films and read our assignments, you should drop the course.

Always arrive five minutes early to class lectures, not only because we will start promptly and you'll miss our daily quiz, but also because late arrivals are extremely disruptive. If you must arrive late, always use the back door to enter the room quietly and then sit quietly on the aisle; do not step over people to get to a favorite seat, since this blocks the view of the screen for others. Do not text, eat loud foods, sleep, answer cell phones, operate computers, check email, work on other projects, talk with classmates or talk back to the screen loudly, or leave the room for food or other non-emergencies during class lectures; these are a time for serious study of our film texts so you should be taking copious notes during each film to prepare for your quizzes, class discussions, and exams. You may wish to bring a penlight to classes to help you take notes in the dark. Anyone behaving disruptively during a screening or class will be asked to leave.

Film Screenings

Please note that the films are mandatory. These films will be the primary subject matter of our exams, so high quality screenings viewed each week are important; do not rely on having seen these films when they were first released or even last month, since we will be approaching them from very different perspectives now than we did then. If you do not plan to watch the films on DVD or streaming on your own, you should drop the course. We will view additional excerpts from selected films during class lectures, and this material will be on exams as well.

When available, you will be able to view assigned films easily on your own before class via streaming hyperlinks, secured from contracted distribution companies.

Unfortunately, some African American films can be difficult to access streaming or even via rental. This is a problem with distribution, and it is too often the case with artwork created by oppressed groups and voices—e.g., Black filmmakers, female filmmakers, LGBTQ filmmakers, and other marginalized groups. The majority of our selected films do enjoy wide distribution and are therefore easily available streaming. But a handful of our titles do not benefit from such privileged distribution and accessibility, so they must be watched on DVD reserve in the library. Precisely because of the rarity and suppression of their voices, it is all the more important to witness what these African American filmmakers have created and hear their artworks speak!

A Caution About Our Film Content

Many of the films in this course contain adult content including violence, profanity, drug usage, and/or frank sex and sexualities. These films are intended for mature audiences and are not suitable for children under 17 who are unaccompanied by an adult. If you are disturbed by R-rated or unrated film content, you should consult the instructor.

Required Textbook

African American Cinema (2017) collected essays, edited by Virginia Bonner. Available in the campus bookstore (if using finacial aid) or directly from Cognella University Readers (purchase directly to avoid bookstore markup) at https://students.universityreaders.com/store/

You must annotate each reading as you read, and bring it to class with you each week. It is mandatory to bring the printed reading to class. We will use this textbook in its entirety.


Note: If you have added this course during the schedule change period and/or were not present for the syllabus review the first day of class, you are required to meet with me the following week to review course requirements and policies.