Book Reviews: What Movies Teach About Race: Exceptionalism, Erasure, and Entitlement


What Movies Teach about Race provides a comprehensive and insightful analysis of how racial stereotypes and images are conveyed in one of the most influential forces of socialization in our culture, the popular movie. Satchel’s work is significant not only for its contribution to critical scholarship, but also, for what it brings to contemporary conversations about race in America.

Gary S. Selby / Pepperdine University

In her novel approach of examining the top ten financial grossing films of all time, Dr. Roslyn Satchel invites both media producers and audiences critically to think about the intersections of film, race and history. How is race constructed; why certain images used and others are are not; and why filmmakers and audiences are seemly comfortable with these representations are questions posed by Satchel in this fascinating study. This book will soon be a must-read for those in media, rhetorical, and critical race studies.

Andre E. Johnson / University of Memphis

What Movies Teach about Race provides a piercing critique of the racial binaries at the heart of the most influential movies in history. As Satchel deftly reveals, American film industry monopolies have, for the past four decades, rhetorically assailed global audiences with films that have collaterally championed white supremacy and American exceptionalism. This very timely investigation, which is really about the relationship between the power of film and democracy, ends with a call to researchers, educators, students, activists and audiences, but most of all to the American movie industry, to break free from the divisive formulas of racialized film, and aspire to a cinematic literacy that upholds social justice as the frame through which we see ourselves in the movies we watch.

David C. Holmes / Monash University

Dr. Satchel’s text demonstrates how Hollywood film is a form of cultural pedagogy that teaches us about race and how representations of white people and people of color reproduces racism and a system of domination and inequality. In particular, Dr. Satchel shows how dominant cinematic representations of race justify the supremacy of one (white) race over people of color and how white supremacy is presented in film as “natural” and as “common sense,” thus reinforcing racism and systems of inequality, and undercutting American democracy.

Satchel’s What Movies Teach about Race argues that Hollywood film can be seen as a mode of cultural pedagogy that teaches us values, proper and improper modes of behavior, role models, and beliefs and that constructs our images of race, gender, class, sexuality, and the like. Her studies produce a unique form of counterpedagogy that critically analyzes and dissects the products of media culture to empower individuals to critically read and evaluate their culture and to engage in cultural interpretation and production to advance their own projects and ideals such as equality and justice.

The text begins by citing Black Lives Matter and OscarsSoWhite which grounds Satchel’s studies in contemporary political struggles, as well as the historical context of the present era. Dr. Satchel’s What Movies Teach about Race teaches us that Black Lives do indeed Matter, and that negative and demeaning representations of people of color misrepresent Black lives and the diversity and meaning produce within Black life and culture - positive visions portrayed in the best representations of Black life in film, books, and other cultural representations that affirm Black dignity and equality. Dr. Satchel’s book should thus be seen as part of this broader struggle against racism and to make Black Lives Matter which she does in her book making both Black lives and culture matter. Indeed, her detailed studies of race in contemporary film make us see how film is racialized and can promote racism and inequality.

Other important motifs in What Movies Teach about Race include laying out and illustrating the concepts of racialization; i.e. How groups learn their place in the social hierarchy. Dr. Satchel shows how Hollywood films position Black people in subordinate positions in relation to white people, and thus practice a form of white supremacy, even if their directors are liberal, as are, the three major Hollywood directors whose blockbuster works Dr. Satchel takes on for her critique -— James Cameron, George Lucas and Steven Spielberg. Satchel shows how their blockbuster films –some of the most popular and influential in film history -- invariably present people of color as villainous or inferior, and, often, in need of saving by white superheroes whose strength, powers, and goodness are extolled over negative features of people of color.

Dr. Satchel also advances the notion of racial ascription of how film defines people by color and ascribes certain characteristic to people of color that, again, promotes racism and oppression. This analysis is followed by analysis of racial assignation which define what social roles people of color are best suited to play which is a form of symbolic violence that places people of color in subordinate positions such as servants, sidekicks, or inferior social roles, as well as in positions of criminals, villains, and threats to the established society.

Further, there is detailed analysis of racial stereotypes and the way visual images are bound up with ideologies of racial domination and subordination. Dr. Satchel makes clear the connection between visual images and ideology as film is a visual medium and image, sound, scenes, and editing transmit
dominant ideologies of racism, sexism, homophobia, classism, and other prejudicial views.

One of the strengths of the text is how Dr. Satchel’s grounds her critique of Hollywood (mis)representations of race in the system of film production which determines who gets to make movies, who “greenlights” them, who publicizes and promotes them, and who determines what films are actually shown in theaters, television, and new digital modes of distribution, leading to analysis of the studios and the system of Hollywood production and distribution.

Dr. Satchel’s What Movies Teach about Race thus provides a critique of how Hollywood blockbusters celebrate white male American superiority over all other people of the world, especially people of color, and promote an ideology of white exceptionalism, that places people of color in subordinate positions and thus promotes inequality and injustice.

Finally, there is an important emphasis on action and politics highlighted at the end of the book with Chapter Eight containing “A Call to Action,” in which all of us can partake by choosing what films to see, to write about, and to criticize and advocate for. Further, Dr. Satchel promotes critical media literacy so we can understand how and why films are produced, what constitute the dominant codes, frames, discourses, ideologies, images and narratives which are embedded in popular film. And most importantly, Dr. Satchel enjoins and enables us to see how popular films embody racialized coding, of dominant and subordinate, and thus can promote racism. Against problematic cinematic pedagogy, Dr. Satchel urges the development of critical media literacy that can help make us conscious and critical readers and producers of cinematic culture.

In sum, combining insider knowledge of the Hollywood film industry in which she worked, with academic knowledge of issues of framing, ideology, image, and message, with critical knowledge of contemporary film, Roslyn M. Satchel’s What Movies Teach about Race provides an important intervention in contemporary discussions of film and race. The manner in which Dr. Satchel describes and employs complex concepts and theories to illuminate popular Hollywood films is highly impressive. Her cinema studies display a breadth of knowledge, as well as exhibit exceptional writing talents, that make her work of interest and accessible to students, academics, and to the general public. Thus, I am pleased to nominate Roslyn Satchel’s What Movies Teach about Race as Book of the Year for the National Communication Association's Critical/Cultural Division.

Douglas Kellner / UCLA

Graduate School of Education and Information Studies

George Kneller Chair, Philosophy of Education