“I’ll admit, I’ve got prejudices. And it’s a real strain trying to handle a situation impartially when you feel one side or the other is 100 [per cent] wrong.”
This policeman’s words resound today as much as they did in 1964, when George S. Stoney produced the training film Under Pressure – focusing on the ‘pressures’ of police work. The current Black Lives Matter movement has demonstrated the lack of progress in the treatment of minorities at the hands of the police in the US (and many other countries) for decades, and prompts closer reflections not only of society but its media too.
Stephen Charbonneau’s book Projecting Race: Postwar America, Civil Rights and Documentary Film explores the overlooked history of post-war educational documentaries in light of race relations and the fight for civil rights. Studying state-sponsored works and training films, Charbonneau highlights the ways in which they were used as a means of knowledge formation on behalf of liberal institutions, and why. Films covered include works by Sidney Meyers, George Stoney, the Drew Associates, the National Film Board of Canada and the Office of Economic Opportunity.
Police training films aside, Projecting Race covers many other topics – such as that of Southern African American midwifery in the 1950s – and provides a thoroughly researched guide to viewing films such as Stoney’s All My Babies in terms of the tensions between the (white) medical establishment and that of traditional birthing practice.
Charbonneau admits in the book that “the scepticism and indifference that can greet such research is understandable given the extraordinarily narrow audience reach of these films as well as their failure to fit into more familiar generic categories.” While this is true, there has been no better time for this kind of research to surface. Since the internet is now not only providing opportunity for increased audience reach for some of the films studied (through their uploads on YouTube, file-sharing sites and the Internet Archive), but is also hosting unprecedented levels of online public engagement on civil rights and police brutality, the book’s window into racial representation by the state is a useful tool to widen the scope of current debate.
The renewed interest in racial representations on screen has prompted a recent wave of scholarly interest, and is currently the focus of a call for article abstracts for Alphaville: Journal of Film and Screen Media‘s 13th issue “Screening Race: Constructions and Reconstructions in Twenty-first Century Media”. Charbonneau’s book fits in well with the interests expressed by the academic community. The call for papers states:
“Media representations of race and identity have changed and shaped how we perceive the world around us. The construction and performance of identity on screen influences our individual identity performance as well as societal opinion on particular identities. However, these constructions are not without complications, notably in terms of what tropes are used to represent specific national, racial or ethnic identities, as well as the balancing act of composite identities and hyphenated subjects.”
Projecting Race is a product of intensive archival research and textual analysis which explores exactly the aforementioned constructions and their complications through tropes and documentary methodologies used by the filmmakers. As Charbonneau says, film history is never completely closed and is continuously being redefined. In the post-war America that the book explores, “the politics of visibility were changing and called for an embrace of greater expressivity, to unsettle the authority of a voice outside and above the subjective experiences conveyed.” Yet while these film-makers experimented with different documentary modes and methods, the cameras were still “by and large – directed at people of colour rather than by [people of colour].” We are now at the stage where the interaction between the public and the state can be scrutinised through dashcam videos, body cameras worn by police and mobile phone footage shot by members of the public. Now that we can witness events through all kinds of subjectivities, whether they are recorded for evidence or even as a simple survival tool, the authority of a voice outside and above the subjective experiences conveyed has certainly been unsettled. It is important to look back and consider the histories that unfold throughout Projecting Race, when cameras (or funding) still belonged to the establishment.
Projecting Race: Postwar America, Civil Rights and Documentary Film
Wallflower Press, New York / Chichester
Publication date: June 2016