Sophomore Seminars

Black and White Relations in American Fiction and Film


In this course we will look at landmark, often controversial, 20th-century American films and the works of fiction that inspired them.  We will concern ourselves not only with the translation of fiction into film—acting, directing, editing, and casting—but also the power dynamics behind the production of movies in this country, the self-censoring of the motion picture code, the McCarthy Hearings, and marketing strategies. In discussion we will consider the historical events, artistic vision, didacticism, politics, and particularly the racial stereotypes at play in these films and the books that inspire them. 

What images of “black” and “white” relations does Hollywood produce in its imperative to forge a collective national identity? What is at stake in capturing “American-ness” in “black” and “white” relations on film?  In what ways do the films promote equality between the races?  How do we learn to “read” race?  Who is telling these stories and why?  What do we lose in film adaptation of books; and what do we gain?

Much of our class time will be spent in collaborative study of key scenes—both written and filmedso steady attendance and participation in discussion is critical. Each student will be responsible for presenting one key film and the associated novel. Weekly class notes + questions are required for three units. A 10-page research paper or project is required for five units. In class students will watch films, discuss the books from which they are derived, and learn the history and social context of each film that we view. We will study substantial excerpts and clips from films and novels such as:

Books / Films                                                                          

Excerpt from Thomas Dixon / Birth of a Nation (1915)

Uncle Tom’s Cabin,Harriet Beecher Stowe / Uncle Tom’s Cabin (1927)

Show Boat, Edna Ferber / Show Boat (1936, 1951)

Porgy and Bess, Dubose Heyward / Porgy and Bess (1959)

Imitation of Life, Fannie Hurst / Imitation of Life (1934, 1959)

Gone with the Wind, Margaret Mitchell / Gone with the Wind (1939)

Intruder in the Dust, William Faulkner / Intruder in the Dust (1949)

Huck Finn, Mark Twain / Defiant Ones (1957)

To Kill a Mocking Bird, Harper Lee / To Kill a Mockingbird (1962)

Lilies of the Field, William E. Barrett / Lilies of the Field (1963)

Shaft, Ernest Tidyman / Shaft (1970)

The Color Purple, Alice Walker / The Color Purple (1985) 

Devil in a Blue Dress, Walter Mosley / Devil in a Blue Dress (1995)

Meet the Instructor(s)

Christina Mesa

"I am fascinated by notions of American purity, modernity, mobility, and vehicles of change. The representation of black and white relations in American fiction piqued my interest before I could read. The illustration of Eliza in a Classic Comics version of Uncle Tom's Cabin prompted questions about race and its constructionall the same questions I still ask today. Film depictions of race relations captivated my curiosity in a class called Cinema and Literature, and led to the creation of this seminar, Black and White Relations in American Fiction and Film. An American History of Black and White Race Relations in Film, with Eric Roth, Routledge, is forthcoming in 2020. Other projects include: Fugitive Flâneur: A Walking History of William Wells Brown in England and France, with Cairn Macfarland-Whistler, a series of essays called Moving Modernisms, and Nella's Solo (a black and white film)."