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  • The Cinema and Its Shadow: Race and Technology in Early Cinema by Alice Maurice
  • Nicholas Forster
Alice Maurice, The Cinema and Its Shadow: Race and Technology in Early Cinema Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2013

Over the last decade black film studies has been in a precarious place. While the groundbreaking work of scholars such as Michael Rogin, Anna Everett, Manthia Diawara, and Jane Gaines still reverberates throughout the discipline, until recently the field has been in need of exciting scholarship. This is not to say there have not been significant books published in recent years. Jacqueline Stewart’s immediately canonical text Migrating to the Movies shifted the landscape and forever reconfigured the history of the turn of century, just as the work of Kara Keeling and Frank B. Wilderson III have reintroduced [End Page 244] Fanon to cinema studies. Black film as a descriptor, genre, or mode, like cinema itself, may forever be impossible to define, and yet perhaps now more than ever the discipline needs new scholarship. Holes remain and histories quiver, eager to be excavated.

Tracing the developments in cinematic technology from early trick films and motion pictures through the advent of sound, Alice Maurice’s first book, The Cinema and Its Shadow fills in some of those holes. Refusing any singular methodology Maurice covers a broad scope and adopts a variety of practices, laying the foundation for a new field of study: the connection between race and technology throughout cinema’s history. Like Cedric Robinson’s Forgeries of Memory, Maurice’s book immediately forces us to rethink established moments in the history of moving images, from the cinematic experiments and attractions at the turn of the century through the 1920s and the coming of sound. Looking at stars, audiences, and apparatuses, Maurice presents a vivid picture of early cinema that does not shy away from formalist analysis. But it is formalism for a purpose—the kind that, as Roland Barthes wrote, “brings one back” to history.1 Rejecting an overly simplified ideological critique of industry, Maurice’s book illuminates the various ways that technological developments in cinema relied on raced bodies to construct and verify their importance and the validity of cinema itself.

Key to such analysis is a dexterous hand and an adroit balance of historiography with theories (and theorists) of the medium. One of the author’s great achievements is her ability to direct her analysis to the specific medium of moving pictures; this is a book engaged with cinema as cinema. There is a reason that cinema is the object of analysis, and it is not only because of what it represents but how it represents.

If, as Ralph Ellison claimed, “whatever else the true American is, he is also somehow black,” Maurice shows that whatever else early American cinema was, it was also always raced.2 What is at the heart of Maurice’s book is not any simple claim, nor any series of close readings, but instead an investigation of the relationship between the “figure and [the] frame—that is, how narrative meaning is produced via the relation between what the figure in the frame is doing and what the film frame itself is doing” (9). This simple yet powerful formulation is itself a frame into Maurice’s text, which attempts not only to address questions surrounding the history of moving pictures, but also to probe the medium’s very identity.

Beginning with the 2007 Academy Awards and the shadow performance by the Pilobolus Dance Troupe and ending with a fascinating discussion of Avatar (dir. James Cameron, 2009) and Tattoo (2011), the promotional film that accompanied the release the of the RED Epic 5K camera, Maurice’s scope is both temporally broad and theoretically dense, constantly pushing forward as she proposes new ways of reading early cinema and new ways [End Page 245] of understanding the filmic screen. More than offering variations on a singular thesis, Maurice continually introduces original arguments. While this can occasionally become unwieldy, Maurice’s ambition is to be applauded as she refuses to make easy argumentative moves or pivot to simple rhetorical claims. Like nodes in a larger network, each of the...