Talking at the Movies

Curator's Note

In my essay for In Focus, I talked about the particular set of issues that I experience as an African American scholar whose research focuses on racial representation in the media. I talked about the problem of negotiating between my personal and professional identities, particularly when confronted with films that were both cinematically brilliant and ideologically problematic, such as Birth of a Nation (D.W. Griffith, 1915). I wrote that while I initially viewed this as a problem, I eventually realized that these moments of disconnect could be used to enrich the field. Other scholars might not identify with that specific conundrum, but may indeed experience other kinds of “identity crises” stemming from a variety of factors such as age, gender, class, shifts in research topics, a concentration in “trashy” media, etc.

This skit on Comedy Central’s sketch comedy show Key & Peele gets at my understanding of “identity crisis.” The initial twist relies on a specific stereotype of African American viewers – that they talk back to the movies and thus disrupt the proper movie-going experience. But what I find so enjoyable in the sketch is not just that the “hecklers” reveal an impressive grasp of cinematic history and theory, but that they offer their well-informed critique using identifiably black vernacular speech patterns. Thus, their comments do not “sound” like critical analysis, in spite of the terms and concepts that they so expertly employ.

Keeping that in mind, I want to suggest that we think about the ways that the field might more productively reconcile the different ways of engaging with the media. While the Key & Peele sketch is played for comedy, the academy contains norms that define which research “reads” as scholarly. These norms reveal themselves in seemingly innocuous ways, such as when an article reviewer asks for a lengthy footnote to explain a reference that he/she deems too “culturally specific” for the target readership, or when new media and traditional cinema studies are treated as separate entities as opposed to interrelated and mutually constitutive.

In my essay, I viewed the increasing diversity of bodies, identities, teaching approaches, and research methods as an exciting development in the field of media studies. I look forward to the identity crises that they inspire. Moreover, I’m excited to hear all of the ways that these scholars choose to talk to the screen.


To engage the multiple identities in your scholarship is treason. It seems in many ways the expectation of the scholar is to cite the right sources, parrot the flavor of the month methodology and essentially say nothing through the skillful use of academic linguistic gymnastics. As a cultural studies scholar who works through media, music and culture I am more interested in using the tools of the trade to disrupt the status quo and invite ambiguity that challenges us to think in diverse ways about how we talk with each other and" to the screen".

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