- The Subject of Film and Race: Retheorizing Politics, Ideology, and Cinema by Gerald Sim
Gerald Sim’s The Subject of Film and Race: Retheorizing Politics, Ideology, and Cinema provides an excellent examination of modern film in the wake of contemporary scholarship on critical race theory. Sim uses an amalgamation of post-structural, postcolonial, and cyborg theories to situate his work within the larger context of critical race film studies, but adds to this paradigm a neo-Marxist perspective as a productive analytic framework for understanding issues of race, sex, and gender. Sim argues for a neo-Marxist approach due to its ability to provide an “intellectual orientation” that can assess the material conditions of the body (6). Doing so avoids the “strengthening of existing power structures” through the “elision of materialism” that “limits critical race film studies’ potential to produce historical and political change” (ibid.). While under the purview of film studies, The Subject of Film and Race has worth across disciplines as it carefully analyzes issues of critical race theory in both classic and contemporary Hollywood films, providing a breath of new life conducive for film scholars’ ability to understand race and the racialization of bodies in new ways.
Readers can expect heavy doses of postcolonial theorists, such as Edward Said, whose canonical work, Orientalism, influences much of Sim’s examination throughout The Subject of Film and Race. Sim also utilizes cyborg theory, such as Donna Harraway’s Cyborg Manifesto, to illuminate how film and race function within digitally literate societies. Sim pushes for further examination of the racialization and androgynization of Hollywood actors such as Mookie, played by Spike Lee in his influential film Do the Right Thing (dir. Spike Lee, 1989), Jamie Foxx as the title character in Django Unchained (dir. [End Page 270] Quentin Tarantino, 2012), and Keanu Reeves’s, whose complex ethnicity has provided him with a somewhat mysterious identity throughout the oeuvre of his work. In examining these works, Sim reveals that it is no longer sufficient to ask, “Is this film racist?” Instead, Sim posits a new theoretical framework useful for assessing the material conditions of the film and its narrative. Such analysis allows film critics, and especially critical race theorists, to develop a deeper understanding of the (post)colonized bodies that exist within these texts.
The largest fruit from Sim’s labor stems from two of his case studies. The first is the analysis of John Wayne’s film The Searchers (dir. John Ford,1956), and the second from Sim’s long gaze into Keanu Reeves’s body of work, spanning River’s Edge (dir. Tim Hunter, 1986) through his most popular roles in Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure (dir. Stephen Herek, 1989) and The Matrix (dir. Andy and Lana Wachowski, 1999). Sim sets forth a simple suggestion that critical race theorists in the film and film studies field are asking the wrong questions. In order to problematize and answer concerns of race, sex, gender, Sim argues that a material approach is necessary to combat antihumanist tendencies (4) within critical race film theory by bringing back into the fray concerns of economy and class struggle displayed in the material conditions of the characters portrayed in film.
Ethan Edwards, played by John Wayne, in The Searchers is an (apparently) racist civil war veteran who returns home just in time for most of his family to be slaughtered and his young nieces, Lucy and Debbie, to be kidnapped by Comanche raiders. Ethan sets off with his one-eighth Comanche nephew, Martin, and Lucy’s fiancé, Brad, to retrieve his nieces and to kill the Comanche tribe that abducted them. Ethan’s racism boils over throughout this journey and he even threatens to kill his niece, Debbie, because she has assimilated into the Comanche tribe in the five years it took Ethan and his crew to find her. Wayne’s character here provides simple cannon fodder for the traditional question “Is it racist?” Of course, it is racist, but Sim pushes the question further to argue that critical race...