Race in Fiction

Why study race in fiction?

As fundamentally personal forms of self-expression, arts and literature are a fertile area to explore the expressions of racialized experience.

In an ideal world, racial justice should be part of fiction in film and literature. Since fiction is part of our social life, fiction does reflect societal racial prejudices. We can use an anti-racist lens to interpret fiction and open it up for socially reparative discussion of race. It may be a cliché to say that art imitates life, but life more frequently becomes fiction’s self-fulfilling prophecy. Fiction has the power to change society. Therefore, it is crucial to apply critical race theory to analyses of film and literature. 

Take, for instance, Theodore Melfi’s film Hidden Figures (2016). The biographical drama film features Katherine Johnson, a Black mathematician who played a vital role in the U.S. space program in the early 1960s. Let us analyze the composition of the following scene and consider how, before any word is uttered, the scene’s composition conveys to film audiences unspoken racial dynamics.

In this scene, the director (played by Kevin Costner) tells the NASA staff in Langley that they have to double their efforts in order to beat the Soviets in the Space Race. What do you notice here?

Katherine Johnson, a Black mathematician, in Theodore Melfi’s film Hidden Figures (2016). She played a vital role in the U.S. space program in the early 1960s.

Katherine Johnson (played by Taraji P. Henson) is front and center. How does the filmmaker signal her importance and simultaneously outcast status at NASA? To help you along, here is the frame with the red grid showing the rule of thirds.

 

Hidden Figures, directed by Theodore Melfi, with a grid applied to demonstrate the rule of thirds.

Composition

At work here is the power of composition. Composition in mise-en-scène refers to the organization of characters, objects, and the set. It involves a balanced relationship among these elements and lighting within a frame. Composition guides the film viewers’ attention.

As a general rule of thumb, the human gaze is drawn to the top area of a frame (the headroom). Filmmakers often use this space to convey the most important information, such as the face or eyes of a character. Close-up shots often feature actors’ eyes, because humans tend to be drawn to others’ eyes.

Composition can minimize or enhance the depth in a shot. As a result, how figures and objects appear on screen, however, can be very different to the arrangement on the set during shooting. Composition can also advance important plot elements. Composition not only serves film audiences. It can also serve the characters within the frame. 

Lighting

     Lighting is an important component of the aforementioned mise-en-scène. Film lighting creates both illumination and shadow. The interplay between light and shadow expresses the mood of a scene, defines a character, and shapes the cinematic space on screen.

     Racial justice should be part of lighting strategies. Lighter skin tones tend to reflect more light, while darker colors tend to absorb it. Different skin tones also create different levels of shading. Poor lighting choices in some films have made characters and actors appear, quite literally, in a different light than who they are, or flatter only certain characters. The color of costumes also affects how the scene is lighted effectively. It takes more deliberate effort to provide lighting for several characters in the same scene who have different skin tones.

  Lighting actors with darker skin tones has been a challenge, because major Hollywood studios traditionally devoted more resources to the perfection of lighting strategies to flatter lighter skin tones. Misuse of hard light had caused actors to sweat, and inappropriately distributed light prompted some actors to put vaseline on their skin in order to reflect enough light. 

Case in Point

     A game changer is Woman King, Gina Prince-Bythewood’s 2022 historical action drama film. In the following scene in the court, King Ghezo (John Boyega), his court, and General Nanisca (Viola Davis) are evenly and appropriately lit without overuse of hard light. The lighting team accomplished this despite the challenge of a back-lit set with a high dynamic range (high contrast between very bright and dark spots on the set).

Racial Minorities on Screen

Another case in point is the history of cinematic representations of East Asian American women. In her keynote lecture at the Tucker Boatwright Festival in Richmond, Virginia, Alexa Alice Joubin argued that the harmful notions of yellow peril and yellow fever converge to form techno-Orientalism in Hollywood representations of racialized others. Using the three interlocking concepts of yellow peril, yellow fever, and techno-Orientalism, the illustrated keynote lecture reveals the manifestation of “yellow fever” in the depiction of Asian American women and suggests ways to identify tacit forms of misogynistic racism as well as strategies for inclusion.

Here is the video:

Your Turn: Other Cinematic Elements

Other film techniques also affect how audiences see or not see characters’ and actors’ racial identities. Here are two elements to consider:

  • Intentioned and inclusive casting practices can contribute to films’ social justice causes. Since diverse casts disrupt the status quo, detractors of Rob Marshall’s 2023 The Little MermaidNetflix’s Queen Cleopatra, and of Amazon’s new Lord of the Rings series claim that casting Black and Asian actors undermines these stories. Casting choices involve real-life individuals in a fictional world, and (self) representation can be socially reparative. Of course, there are pitfalls. Diverse casts alone is not enough. We need inclusive filmmaking techniques (such as lighting and framing, see above). As Aja Romano writes, “diverse casting can be a shortcut to appearing progressive without actually being progressive.” Alexa Alice Joubin has researched this phenomenon, writing that “advertising trends sometimes give false impressions of the works’ inclusiveness.”
  • A combination of these and other techniques, such as a fuzzy focus and an extreme close-up with no discernible background position the characters outside the narrative time and space. Due to the ways in which audiences are invited to view them, these sexualized characters become “inconsequential” to the story. When characters are disconnected from their environments, they are disempowered. They are not able to influence their surroundings and appear more abstract and less of a real person.