The Revolt of the Cinematic Black Athlete
231 Gregory Hall
This talk examines an experimentalist interrogation of sports films’ raced tropes and representational codes of cinematic sporting blackness in Haile Gerima’s 1971 avant-garde sports film Hour Glass. I begin by invoking a mediatic moment of world-historical import, a scene which serves as an epistemic break in Black sporting iconicity. It is the Summer Olympics. It is Mexico City. It is 1968. And there are two Black men, Olympic champions who have raised their gloved hands during the playing of “The Star-Spangled Banner” in what would come to be known as the Black Power fist and salute. Prior to that moment, Harry Edward’s proposed a boycott of the 1968 Olympics to highlight the gross racial and economic inequities in the United States. While some Black athletes did stay home in protest, sprinters Tommie Smith and John Carlos devised the layered symbolic stance and gestural act, changing for all time the easy containment of rebellion in Black athletes. This dramatic scene and televised spectacle contour the imagery and discourse of revolt in my analysis of Hour Glass. The dialogue-less film coils its soundscape, emplotment, and dense symbolic and sonic registers around the nascent revolutionary consciousness of its central subject, a UCLA basketball player. The revolt of the Black cinematic athlete in Hour Glass is first signaled by his refusal to play, which is conceptually linked to Gerima’s refusal of sports film contrivances and graduate school requirements that would have undone the film’s avowed radical politics. Drawing on George Lipsitz’s work on race as disruptive of genre categories such that racial discourses erupt on screen, I use the film’s strategic redoubling and intertwining of Africanist philosophy and an individual act of Black refusal to “play the game” to think through the formal capacities and limited utility of sporting blackness to undo ideological structures contained within sports films and film criticism.
Presented by Samantha Sheppard, the Mary Armstrong Meduski ’80 Assistant Professor of Cinema and Media Studies in the Department of Performing and Media Arts at Cornell University. She writes extensively on issues of race, gender, and representation in cinema and media. She is the author of the forthcoming book Sporting Blackness: Race, Embodiment, and Critical Muscle Memory on Screen (University of California Press, 2020). She is coeditor of the anthologies From Madea to Media Mogul: Theorizing Tyler Perry (University Press of Mississippi, 2016) and Sporting Realities: Critical Readings on the Sports Documentary (University of Nebraska Press, forthcoming 2020). Her work has appeared in Film Quarterly, Cinema Journal, Journal of Sport History, Journal of Sport and Social Issues, and Black Camera: An International Journal, Docalogue, L.A. Rebellion: Creating a New Black Cinema, and Race and the Revolutionary Impulse in The Spook Who Sat by the Door. She has also written for The Atlantic and Los Angeles Review of Books.
Sheppard is also a panelist on the Diversity in Film Panel at the Chaz and Roger Ebert Symposium on Friday, September 27.