The research of Professor Racquel Gates, who teaches in the Film and Media Studies Program at the School of the Arts, focuses on blackness and popular culture, with special attention given to taste and quality. She is the author of the 2018 book, Double Negative: The Black Image and Popular Culture, in which she pushes back against claims that negative portrayals of Black characters hinder Black progress. Such television shows as Basketball Wives and movies like Coming to America, says Gates, play on supposedly negative images to ask questions about assimilation and upward mobility. Gates opens up new lines of inquiry for Black cultural studies by showing how such portrayals provide a respite from the demands of respectability, and explore subversive ideas.
In 2020, Gates was named an Academy Film Scholar by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. She used the grant to support work on her next book, Hollywood Style and the Invention of Blackness.
Committed to bringing together film studies in an academic context and film appreciation in more popular settings, Gates maintains a robust public engagement. Her work appears in both scholarly and popular publications, including The New York Times, The Los Angeles Review of Booksand Film Quarterlyas well as podcasts, and on film and television programs.
Gates discusses her varied research projects with Columbia Newsalong with her summer plans and the enthusiasm of her School of the Arts students.
How did your research on blackness and popular culture develop?
It’s hard to be Black and live in this country and not have an interest in blackness and popular culture. If you’re watching movies with your parents as a kid—which is always the memory that I go back to—the conversation is inevitably going to touch on matters of representation and the politics of stereotype, performance, etc. That’s not necessarily the extent of what my parents talked about with movies, of course, but it was always present as at least part of the conversation.
In my own educational background, I began to focus intently on popular culture when I spent a junior year abroad in France and noticed that—in a country that was so adamant that race didn’t matter—French rappers and pop culture artists were talking quite explicitly about race and racism. It was a lightbulb moment for me, because I made a mental shift from seeing the popular culture as entertainment to understanding it as both entertainment and political critique.
In your first book, Double Negative: The Black Image and Popular Culture, you argue that some of the most disreputable representations in Black popular culture can strategically pose questions about blackness, Black culture, and American society. Can you provide an example?
In the introduction of my book, I focus a lot on comedian Katt Williams, and specifically how he often isn’t recognized for making insightful ideological critiques in his comedy, partly because he doesn’t announce himself as a social commentary comedian. And because he delivers his message with a tone of irreverence—he curses a lot, dresses in a flashy way, uses brilliant and sometimes absurdist extended metaphors—I think that many people don’t associate that mode with hard-hitting social critique. But I argue that all of those things essentially enable an even more radical commentary on everything from Barack Obama’s image to Flavor Flav.
How will you explore this thread in your next book, Hollywood Style and the Invention of Blackness?
My first book was about contemporary popular culture, and the new one is about classic Hollywood and aesthetics. Those seem like quite different topics, but at my core, I’m always interested in taking a thing that people think that they already know and presenting it in a new light, with a new interpretation. So, in Double Negative, that meant taking disreputable objects and making the case for their value—a chapter on reality television that talked about it as a site for radical queer and feminist intervention.
In Hollywood Style, that means taking a look at some things that people take as gospel—like the idea that Dumbo is a racist film because it traffics in minstrel traditions—and asking what other ways we might look at things if we shift our interpretive framework a bit. To be clear, I don’t negate the problematic stuff, but ask what new insights we might gain about the foundations of American film and media if we consider things in a new light.
Why is ‘Reality Television’ one of your favorite courses to teach?
It’s the one course I teach that is constantly changing depending on what’s going on the semester that I teach it, and on the composition of the class participants. This makes it the most dynamic and “of the moment” of my courses. At the start of each session, I ask the students what happened in the world of reality television that week, and I frame our discussion around their answers. Even though the course is very much about television network history—and there are some aspects that are foundational when I teach it—Reality Television has been a radically different course each time. Some semesters, we end up focusing more on the idea of geographic location, and emphasize how reality tv promotes a skewed vision of specific cities or neighborhoods.
In 2016, the entire course was grounded by the idea that Donald Trump and Cardi B were arguably the most influential human beings in our country and we explored what their reality television backgrounds could tell us about why that was the case. This spring semester, there was so much Kim Kardashian and Kanye West news happening each week that the course inevitably became more Kardashian-centric than it ever had been before, with a strong emphasis on notions of womanhood and domesticity.