Methodologies of Race and Space

Mediated cityscapes often reinforce the stigma associated with devalued areas and the underprivileged, yet can also undermine dominant perceptions and counter misrepresentations of place. In this Polished Panel, the participants map that tension that emerges between real and represented places, using a spatial approach to race to trace formal and industrial practices that create meaningful linkages among spaces, places, and bodies.

The mediation of place often parallels urban (and suburban) economic developments including gentrification, ghettoization, and white flight, reinforcing the stigma associated with devalued areas and the underprivileged, and the desire for spaces associated with affluence and whiteness. At the same time, visual media also has the potential to undermine dominant perceptions and counter misrepresentations of place. Thus, there is a tension that emerges at the intersection of real and represented place and space because this point of articulation can become a site of empowerment or erasure.

This panel utilizes a spatial approach to race, in addition to the more common application of Marxist theory to urban studies, to understand how access is distributed in mediated spaces and in the sites of media production. Liz Patton and Lauren Cramer will consider the boundaries between public and private space, in post-WWII television and hip-hop visual culture respectively, that both reflect and reproduce existing racial and economic relations. In both papers, representations of space make these relations visible, perhaps more than traditional identity markers. Noelle Griffis and Nathan Koob will then turn to industrial practices, examining the ethical implications of location shooting through archival research and oral histories. For Griffis and Koob, rendering lived space on screen can be an act of regional and racial mythologizing that transforms profilmic and cinematic space into sites where bodies struggle for recognition and make claims to authenticity. In all of these papers, visualizations of space and place are understood as formal and industrial practices that create meaningful linkages among spaces, places, and bodies.

This panel offers a range of theoretical and historical tools, including archival and ethnographic research, and formal and industrial analysis, to develop and encourage this area of inquiry. In addition to varying methodologies, these papers consider the potential for media to shape perceptions of space and place through analysis of a range of formats, including network television, independent features, activist documentary, and experimental video. Collectively, these papers demonstrate the value of spatial methodologies as an interdisciplinary mode that offers new insights into the theorization of race and establishes valuable connections across Film and Media studies.


Elizabeth Patton – We All Have Our Jobs to Do!: Maintaining Labor Relations in the Private Sphere on Postwar Television

The private sphere has always been a part of what Roger Silverstone, Eric Hirsch, and David Morley refer to as the “moral economy,” where households act as economic units that take part in the transactional and social systems of the public economy. However, the perceived clear boundaries between the private and public spheres have eroded because the private sphere has become commoditized itself, part of the expanding reach of the capitalist market. Consequently, the current economy is defined by the increasing interdependence of a two-tier system: the service class and the new middle-class.

To examine the social and cultural impact of this transformation in popular culture, this paper examines representations of labor practices within the private sphere on postwar television using class, race and spatial methodologies. Television of the 1950s positioned the middle class as the social strata to be envied in placing the middle-class family at the forefront and the rich and working class at the flanks as a means of comparison. The middle class is regarded as carefree, ethical and happy compared to the stuffy, formal and materialistic rich and the content but struggling laborers of the lower class.

Instead of focusing on the ubiquitous representations of the middle class, I examine the spaces that marginalized people inhabited on the screen and the subsequent relation to current labor practices, such as in The Munsters (1964-1966), The Beulah Show (1950-1953), and The Bill Dana Show (1963-1965). This paper examines the politics of space and media representations of race and class within the private sphere to understand the influence of long-term social processes on the present and to determine the connections between media, space, and the reorganization of economic relations.

Lauren M. Cramer – It’s a Trap! Race & Space in Atlanta’s Hip-Hop Visual Culture  

Trap music is the hip-hop subgenre of ‘the Trap,’ the business of selling drugs and the ‘Trap House,’ where drugs are sold. Trap music and its visual culture exhibit a specificity of space and place that is now rendered visible for a broad audience. The term originated in Atlanta, which has self-identified as “The City Too Busy to Hate” since the 1960s, and is a product of the city’s entangled history of race and space—specifically, its notorious dead end streets. Atlanta uses a street hierarchy, a typology that resulted in disconnected streets leading to dead ends, which become literal traps for the black urban poor and prime locations for illicit exchanges. Ironically, as a tool of modern urban planning, the cul-de-sac is intended to protect children walking and be an archetype of idealized domestic life. How can the delineation between public/private space and the unlivable experience of urban poverty be reconciled into a kind of black stronghold? In both suburban and hip-hop iconography, the shape of the cul-de-sac necessitates this double move. Traveling in and out are the same, yet different. This paper asks how trap images can use these literal and figurative dead ends to visualize black space.

To map this “hip-hop cartography,” I rely on black visual culture and space as theoretical tools in a close reading of the experimental short Harbinger by Derek “The Devil” Schklar, an Atlanta Trap music producer and filmmaker. The film is a nightmarish montage of black and white footage culled from diverse and often idyllic sources including a Shirley Temple movie, a suburban backyard party, and a political rally—all intercut with footage of Atlanta streets and rap performances. Like the linking of Atlanta city streets, the film’s assembly reproduces the distinct visual conditions of segregation. Paradoxically, the isolation of the Trap makes black space and bodies vulnerable, and therefore, denied the distinction and privilege of privacy.

This paper argues Harbinger inserts the perspective of the locally disenfranchised within a global exchange of image types to construct the visuality of blackness on screen. Instead of sequestering surreptitious black spaces, Schklar’s film reveals them and uses the violent juxtaposition of recycled footage to insist the images that produce mainstream popular culture and politics are black Traps. In true hip-hop form, Harbinger and the Trap use pre-existing forms as both a tools of critique and promotion.

Noelle Griffis – The Godfather Comes to Sixth Street: The Ethics of the Urban Location Shoot

During the fall of 1972, a small, working class community on Manhattan’s Lower East Side played a starring role in one of Hollywood’s biggest productions of the year, The Godfather II. Lined with pre-war tenements, Sixth Street required little dressing for the film’s 1915 storyline, making it a cost-efficient location. New York University student and area resident Mark Kitchell illegally filmed the shoot, documenting the growing friction between the production crew and the locals after many residents, especially African Americans and Puerto Ricans, were turned down as extras. Their inability to pass for cinematically authentic turn-of-the century Italians lead producers to recruit from nearby Little Italy instead, casting doubts on the social and economic benefits that the production had promised the block. Kitchell’s fascinating alternative to studio-produced “behind-the-scenes” accounts interrogates the politics, power dynamics, and ethics of commercial filmmaking in public places. The production histories of the two films—Kitchell’s The Godfather Comes to Sixth Street and Francis Ford Coppola’s feature—offer a compelling juxtaposition of “on location” versus “local” filmmaking through their radically different visions of the same street. Drawing from cultural geography, oral histories, and archival research on the city’s filmmaking policy, I will address critical questions raised by the interactions of these two productions, including: who really has access to filming the city, and who benefits? What are the legal, geographic, and sociopolitical limitations and boundaries?

In the 1970s, the media characterized New York by the fiscal crisis and the related racial and ethnic clashes. While countless filmmakers in the era of Blaxploitation and “Hollywood’s Renaissance” came to New York to make films about these topical issues, Paramount’s version of authenticity depended on an erasure of the contemporary landscape and its changing demographics to recreate its no longer existent urban setting. In addition, while exclusionary hiring practices had always plagued the industry, the location shoot made the disparity visible to outsiders. I propose that this case study gives insight into the ways that a production’s use of real people and places for their sense of cinematic authenticity becomes entangled in the social life of its setting, revealing and at times exacerbating the disparities of access and use of public space across lines of race and class.

Nathan Koob – The Gentrification of John Waters

While conducting fieldwork about John Waters in Baltimore, I was continually told that John Waters was the representative of the city and its culture. People in Central, Eastern and suburban Baltimore continually stated that “John Waters is Baltimore.” However, once the Baltimore riots began in 2015 suddenly Baltimore was everywhere in the media and John Waters was mysteriously absent. The riots and their news coverage revealed that John Waters is not Baltimore, as no personality could ever encompass the complexity of a city and its places. Instead, where Waters’ name did begin to surface in the coverage of the riots it was clear he really has come to stand for the gentrified areas of Baltimore—used as another tool to sweep West Baltimore under a rug of gentrified displacement. Waters’ melding with the city image, and thus strongly representing an increasingly niche part of Baltimore, has been a long process. Cultural geographer David Harvey’s work on gentrification in Baltimore outlines how such movements begin to alter, or even erase, previously prevalent local culture. Neighborhoods previously associated with Waters’ classic rebel image, from films such as Pink Flamingos, have all slowly become increasingly gentrified. The result, however, is not to erase Waters’ previous legacy which has been so defining for locals across at least the whiter Baltimore, but instead to change it and allow it to give credence to the new, gentrified Baltimore.

This paper examines the construction of Waters’ career and authorial identity through expressed relationships through the city. I look at how this relationship changes and becomes used by the city as Baltimore neighborhoods, notably many associated directly with Waters and his work, become increasingly gentrified. Similarly, Waters’ films begin to noticeably change in their form of address moving from niche shock value to a broader audience appeal. Though the gentrification starts to eliminate the Baltimore Waters heralded, he continues to be held up as representative of Baltimore to locals. Though as the recent riots revealed, the John Waters Baltimore has come to represent the gentrified Baltimore that largely ignores the existence of West Baltimore and displaced populations. This paper utilizes both personal interviews and archival research performed using the John Waters Papers at Wesleyan University.


Panel Bibliography

Forman, Murray. The ’Hood Comes First: Race, Space, and Place in Rap and Hip-Hop. Middletown, Connecticut: Wesleyan University Press, 2002.

Harvey, David. Spaces of Hope. Berkeley and Los Angeles, CA: University of California Press, 2000.

Lees, Loretta, Tom Slater and Elvin Wyly. Gentrification. NY: Routledge, 2008.

Massey, Doreen B. For Space. London: Sage, 2005.

Massood, Paula. Black City Cinema: African American Urban Experiences in Film. Philadelphia: Temple UP, 2003.

Wojcik, Pamela R. The Apartment Plot: Urban Living in American Film and Popular Culture, 1945 to 1975. Durham: Duke University Press, 2010.


Chair and Panelist Biographies

Chair: Leigh Anne Duck is Associate Professor of English at the University of Mississippi, where she edits the journal The Global South and is affiliated with the Program in Cinema and the Center for the Study of Southern Cultures. Her published work concentrates on visual and literary representations of the U.S. South, and her current book project, focused on contemporary films set and shot in Louisiana, is titled Hollywood South: State, Cinema, and Societal Change.

Elizabeth Patton is Assistant Professor in the department of Media and Communication Studies at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County. Elizabeth has a PhD from the Department of Media, Culture and Communication at New York University. She conducts research and writes about historical representations of gender, race and class in television and film, representations of urbanism and suburbanism in popular culture, and the impact of media technology on space and place.

Lauren M. Cramer is a PhD Candidate at Georgia State University in the Department of Communication’s Moving Image Studies program. Her research is focused on visual culture, popular culture, hip-hop, and the aesthetics of the racial encounter. Lauren is currently writing a dissertation entitled, “A Hip-Hop Joint: Thinking Architecturally About Blackness.” She is an Associate Editor of the collaborative online scholarship project, In Media Res.

Noelle Griffis is a Film and Media Studies PhD Candidate at Indiana University, currently residing in New York to work on her dissertation “Filmmaking to Save a City in Crisis: On Location in New York, 1966-1974.” She has worked as an organizer of the Orphan Film Symposium (Orphans Midwest) and has recently published in Black Camera. Griffis is the graduate representative for the SCMS Urban Studies SIG and serves on the editorial board of the SIG’s online journal Mediapolis.

Nathan Koob received his PhD from the University of Michigan in 2015. His dissertation Out-siders: Auteurs in Place examines filmmakers who define their authorial identity through production relationships to place, studying authorship as a process of making instead of a study of a single figure. His primary areas of interest are: media authorship; cultural geography; intersections between independent, avant-garde and mainstream production contexts; and technology studies.

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