A division of humankind into groups of people with similar (physical) characteristics. A sister concept to race is ethnicity, a division of humankind into groups of people with shared cultures or customs, including nationality, religion, language, and so on. In practice, the two are used somewhat interchangeably. The physical characteristics via which racial classifications have been made have no basis in science and are superficial: any given racially classified group is broadly similar in biological terms to any other. However, although race is constructed by and through culture, designated or adopted racial distinctions are a social and institutional fact, underpinning legislation, shaping common sense, bolstering prejudice, and informing cultural production.
In film studies, early film theory, including Screen theory, was relatively mute on questions of race. Work in this area began in earnest in the late 1970s when scholars began to examine how US cinema, and especially films of the silent cinema era and those produced within the Hollywood studio system, played a role in cultivating a deep-seated racism, founded on colonial conquest and slavery. Celebrated canonical films, such as The Birth of a Nation (D.W. Griffith, 1915), were re-evaluated and critiqued for their dissemination of negative stereotypes of African-Americans, including stock characters such as the Uncle Tom, the Lazy Coon, the Mammy, the Tragic Mulatto, and the Black Buck. The western genre was also re-examined in relation to its depiction of Native Americans, and further work described Hollywood’s representation of Irish-, Italian-, Latino-, Jewish-, Asian-, and Arab-Americans (see also stereotype).
The image or idea of a thing. In film studies, representation is an overdetermined term with various meanings.
1. In a common use, representation is a synonym for film in general, inasmuch as all films constitute an image or idea of the thing they depict. In relation to this, it is necessary to note that what we actually see is a re-presentation (i.e. the screening) of a representation (the film).
2. In debates about film and realism, the specific qualities of photography have led to claims that the film image transcribes, or indexes, reality rather than represents it; in this formulation the film is the thing (see index). A counterclaim has it that all representation is governed by a framework of codes and conventions specific to a particular time and place (see poststructuralism; semiotics) and also that the thing represented is often just another representation (see intertextuality): in this formulation the once-removed nature, and perhaps even the untrustworthiness, of representation is emphasized.
3. Representation is also a key term for scholars who work on questions of identity and on the ways in which films may construct or deploy negative stereotypes of marginalized or oppressed groups (see disability; gender; race; religion; sexuality; social class). In this context, the term can also mean to advocate on behalf of an individual or a group, as with an elected politician or legal representation. Used thus, filmmakers from marginalized or oppressed groups are sometimes said to bear the burden of representation inasmuch as their work is asked to speak on behalf of, or represent, the group to which they belong or are presumed by others to belong (see cultural studies and film).
4. The use of the term to denote the process of mental representation is less common, though it is integral to some theories of perception and psychology that are occasionally addressed within film studies (see cognitivism; phenomenology and film).
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