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Laws of Race/Laws of Representation: The Construction of Race and Law in Contemporary American Film


Cynthia D. Bond


The John Marshall Law School

May 9, 2010

Texas Review of Entertainment & Sports Law, Vol. 11, p. 219, 2010

Abstract:     
Within hours of the soul-stirring and nation-lifting election of Barack Obama as president, journalists and pundits were announcing the demise of all prior notions of race in America. Even during the campaign itself, narratives of a "post-racial" America were bandied about. But the historic nature of Obama’s ascendance does not obliterate or transcend the vast history of race and racial representation in America. The representational techniques of the construction of both law and race in popular film are deeply interdependent. Both law and film are story-telling, narrative systems. Race is also a narrative system in which visual representation is key. The significance of the visual apprehension of race is deeply relevant to the legal construction of race as well. (For example, in early citizenship cases and racial “passing” cases which persisted through the latter part of the 20th century.) Since society constructs racial categories in large part by visual identification and experience, all visual media, including film, necessarily participate in the constitution of race. Thus, films do not simply depict supposedly free-standing, objective, racial categories naturalized by the dominant discourse, but instead actually participate in the creation of race. As part of standard Hollywood practice, the mainstream film audience is constructed through identification with a norm of “whiteness.” Since that audience, when viewing a law film, is actively involved in constituting the law as part of its spectatorship, it follows that mainstream films construct law from the perspective of white privilege. The consequences and effects of this cinematic construction of law are many. This article discusses three main effects: 1) the raced construction of the lawyer-hero; 2) the denial or displacement of the law’s role in constructing race and race-based discrimination; and 3) the suppression or revision of politics and political history.

Number of Pages in PDF File: 47

Keywords: law & film, cultural studies, critical race theory, law & humanities, law & literature

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Date posted: May 11, 2010 ; Last revised: June 22, 2010

Suggested Citation

Bond, Cynthia D., Laws of Race/Laws of Representation: The Construction of Race and Law in Contemporary American Film (May 9, 2010). Texas Review of Entertainment & Sports Law, Vol. 11, p. 219, 2010. Available at SSRN: http://ssrn.com/abstract=1603622

Contact Information

Cynthia D. Bond (Contact Author)
The John Marshall Law School ( email )
315 South Plymouth Court
Chicago, IL 60604
United States
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