Midnight Rambles from Micheaux to Lee: An Analysis of a Century of Shaping the Black Brand Through Film
20 Pages Posted: 7 Apr 2017
Date Written: April 6, 2017
Branding is the process of creating an intentional and unique image in the public mind. #oscarssowhite. #blacklivesmatters. #marriageforall. Economic equity and social justice advocates globally recognize the value of a breakout hashtag. In light of the deeply troubled branding of persons of African descent in America as “Black” and therefore “other”, it is vital to explore the power visual images have had in cementing the “Black” image in American society. This essay examines the equally persistent yet futile efforts of the most prolific Black filmmakers at the start and close of the 20th century — Oscar Micheaux and Spike Lee, to create agency and counter narratives to reshape the Black brand. Using Critical Discourse Analysis, political economic theory and other analytic communications tools, the focus is specifically about the use of film to shape public perception of African-Americans, what is referred to as “the Black brand”. The essay highlights a particular branding challenge for today’s filmmaker, regardless of race. Be it towards one commercial brand, or an entire ethnic community, brands are shaped by public perception, and visual imagery is a powerful force for building the kind and strength of our connection with any brand. If you aspire to influence public opinion about the Black brand — what do you think of when you think of Black people? Is it laugh-out-loud funny or are your eyes starting to well with tears of a brutal and violent legacy of suffering from enslavement, rape, and lynch mob murders?
This paper analyzes the efforts and results of Oscar Micheaux and Spike Lee across 100 years of American film in their efforts to influence national perspectives on the Black brand near the start of the 20th and 21st Century respectively. Examining Micheaux’s and Lee’s texts, this paper arrives at several conclusions and highlights questions for future research. In the face of an onslaught of counter and oppositional imagery across all media forms, a conclusory point is that successful efforts to shape public perception of a particular ethnic group — in this instance, the Black “brand” — involves conscious, cross-racial and cross-platform partnerships in order to move the needle forward, a nod to the reality that Black-Americans do not control the production studios, distribution platforms (though there has been some recent growth in this area), and advertising channels critical to achieve the audience share necessary to enable film production to grow as a viable tool for reshaping racialized stereotypes.
Keywords: Micheaux, branding, Lee, film, race, critical race theory, entertainment, Hollywood, visual imagery, critical discourse analysis
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