Syllabus: The “Inner City” in American Film

In this On Teaching feature, Amy Corbin explains the conceptual process, materials gathering, and schedule structuring that went into the creation of her undergraduate course on "the inner city," focusing especially on how she encouraged to grapple with and unpack the assumptions behind the course's central term.
[Ed. note: In our Syllabus series, we invite professors who have taught courses that engage with issues related to cities and culture to contribute their syllabi to the site, and to share with our readers some reflections on how the course went.]

I taught “The ‘Inner City’ in American Film” as a film elective, open to all students at the college regardless of major. It was conceived of as a hybrid Film Studies and American Studies course. My idea was to narrow the topic of film and the city by focusing on representations of the low-income city, which I termed the “inner city,” consciously using the quotation marks to denote that this course was largely about cinematic imaginings of low income urban neighborhoods rather than their sociological realities. I planned the course chronologically from the silent era until the 1990s, with a focus on African American narratives but with some attention to Chicano, Irish, and Italian-American narratives.

I hoped students would find both similarities and differences in the films’ themes (such as the aestheticization of poverty and the gangster as the dark side of the American dream), and in the general portrayal of ethnic/ racial groups that have traditionally been “othered.” The readings were a mix of scholarship about the specific films, some urban history, and some critical geography theory that shed light on the way the screen spaces were constructed (ie., pairing Edward Relph’s phenomenological theory of inside-ness and outside-ness with Charles Burnett’s Killer of Sheep). Finally, my consideration of which films to show was also determined by the desire to show how “mainstream” (Hollywood, white, middle-class, etc.) culture has imagined the inner city, mixed with films by directors of color working both in and outside of Hollywood.

Corbin – Inner City syllabus
Photo by Scoboco

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