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The Politics of Survey Cinema History Textbooks


Ruth M. Gregory

The boundaries that have separated film from other forms of moving images are blurring as new media technologies continue to evolve. The first year a movie shot in a digital format took the top spot at the box office was 2002 (Follows 2016). In 2011, three of the largest film camera manufacturers, Aaton, ARRI, and Panavision, announced that they would no longer produce celluloid cameras and would instead focus solely on digital formats (Koo 2011). Even with several notable films from 2020 shooting on celluloid, including Tenet, directed by Christopher Nolan, and Wonder Woman 1984, directed by Patty Jenkins, most movies are now shot in a digital format (Follows 2016). With news like this transforming the contemporary film industry, it is curious that survey cinema studies textbooks contextualize this moment of radical change as an endnote rather than a call for canonical reexamination. Instead of looking back at outliers in cinema history who also worked in different but related formats, like video and television, cinema history textbooks are doubling down on framing film history as an artistic endeavor involving feature-length films produced in Global North countries by white cisgender men. This raises questions about the selection of who and what to put in the cinema history canon and about how it was, and is, a political process. Historically, the politics of cinema history canon formation have been hidden by the ability of scholars to discriminate based on the technical differences between moving image formats. However, just as there is room today for works shot in a digital format to be called “films,” there has always been space for other media and makers in the historical record of cinema.


This essay concerns what has been excluded, minimalized, or hidden in the cinema history canon present in survey cinema history textbooks. My analysis focuses on books that have been released between 2009 and 2018 and examines the historiography of film through an ideological lens. It considers the eleventh edition of A Short History of the Movies (2010) by Gerald Mast and Bruce Kawin, the sixth edition of Flashback: A Brief History of Film (2009) by Louis Giannetti and Scott Eyman, the second edition of Douglas Gomery and Clara Pafort-Overduin’s Movie History: A Survey (2011), and the most popular contemporary survey cinema history textbook according to, the fourth edition of Film History: An Introduction (2018) by Kristin Thompson and David Bordwell.[1]  All the books were chosen because they did not explicitly state they had narrowed their focus by distinguishing one specific type of film to discuss, such as David Cook’s A History of Narrative Film (2016), nor did they specify an obvious methodological approach, such as Henry M. Benshoff and Sean Griffin’s America on Film: Representing Race, Class, Gender, and Sexuality at the Movies (2021). Therefore, the inference is that the authors were writing about major moments and makers in cinema history without regard to the genre or geographic location of the filmmakers.


I employed a textual analysis of each book using an ideological framework derived from cultural studies scholarship and work that is already being done in education regarding textbooks, subject canons, and cultural politics. I looked at whether the writers’ methodology shifted between chapters. If references were used, I examined the kind of sources included in them. I analyzed what was included, as well as what was absent, considering ways that women, people of color, and Global South filmmaking traditions were framed. I also paid attention to the ways non-feature length narrative films were discussed, if at all. This project sought to uncover the politics of cinema history textbooks that have long been buried within their pages.



An evolution of thought

A close examination of cinema history textbooks may be novel for cinema studies, but education theorists have long looked at textbooks used in primary and secondary education to critique what they include and exclude. Critical pedagogists Michael W. Apple and Linda K. Christian-Smith state in the introduction to the 1991 anthology The Politics of the Textbook that “it is naïve to think of the school curriculum as neutral knowledge” (2). They reference Raymond Williams’s discussion of the selective tradition and apply it to textbook creation, noting that the books signify interpretations of reality, “someone’s vision of legitimate knowledge and culture, one that in the process of enfranchising one groups’ cultural capital disenfranchises another’s” (Apple and Christian-Smith 1991, 4). They also point out that, while scholarship and methodology may change over time, few things tend to be dropped from textbooks between editions, things are only added. However, the things that are added are rarely given the same space and attention as topics included in the original edition. As Apple and Christian-Smith explain, “Dominance is partly maintained here through compromise and the process of ‘mentioning’” (1991, 10). Their point is that textbooks are political endeavors masquerading as factual inquiries into a given subject. This is the position I will use to explore common cinema history textbooks.


In “Problems of Film History,” James Card writes, “The student turns to the film histories and there finds confusion, gossip, and the wildest sort of speculation. He quickly sees that scholarship is no prerequisite to the writing of motion picture history” (1950, 279). In fact, each volume of the original print run of one of the first cinema history textbooks, A Million and One Nights: A History of the Motion Picture Through 1925 (1926) by Terry Ramsaye, was signed by Thomas Edison himself. There is also a full-page picture of Thomas Edison before the title page of the book with the caption, “Thomas A. Edison, inventor of the motion picture film, the camera and the Kinetoscope – the technological foundation of the art of the motion picture.” But Edison’s contributions may not have ended there. In Film History: Theory and Practice, Robert C. Allen and Douglas Gomery note that Edison was also rumored to have co-authored A Million and One Nights (1985, 58). While Edison did have a hand in the early development of motion pictures, it is disputed as to whether his invention, the Kinetoscope, was truly cinema’s genesis. Undoubtedly, because Ramsaye worked closely and possibly collaborated with Edison on A Million and One Nights, it allowed Edison an opportunity to solidify his own reputation as the pioneer of the medium, even though there were similar inventions leading to the origin of motion pictures that came out before Edison’s Kinetoscope was patented in 1897.[2]


One of the inventions that predated the Kinetoscope was the camera/projector combination created by Louis Le Prince. On October 14, 1888, Le Prince filmed several people walking in a garden in the short Roundhay Garden Scene. Le Prince’s apparatus used silver nitrate on paper to record and project short clips (Youngs 2015). The difference between the use of paper and the plastic celluloid from which “film” derives its name is one way that Le Prince’s machine has sometimes been categorized as a pre-cinematic device. There is also the “Birthday of Cinema,” when the Lumiérè Brothers showcased their invention, the Cinematographé, to the public at the Grand Café in Paris on December 28, 1895. The key difference between Edison’s Kinetoscope and the Lumiérè Brothers’ Cinematographé was that the latter both recorded images on film and projected them. Even if one accepts the idea that the Kinetoscope was the beginning of the film medium, Thomas Edison did not invent it. William Kennedy-Laurie Dickson was the inventor of the Kinetoscope. Dickson worked for Edison, and when the invention seemed like it could be profitable, Edison patented the Kinetoscope under his name. In The History of the Kinetograph, Kinetoscope, and Kineto-phonograph, Dickson even describes (allegedly) perfecting synchronized sound in 1889, thirty-eight years before The Jazz Singer graced the screen and thirty-seven years before the lesser-known talkie Don Juan premiered in 1926. Dickson states that when Thomas Edison returned from the Paris Exposition of 1889, Dickson “stepped out onto the screen, raised his hat and smiled, while uttering the words of greeting ‘Good morning, Mr. Edison. Glad to see you back. I hope you are satisfied with the Kineto-phonograph’” (1970, 19). Of interest here is not the synchronized sound system that predated other attempts to marry film with audio by decades, but rather that Edison was away during its perfection, which calls into question his place in any history that notes he was the inventor of the medium. Card’s critique of early film history documentation as a place of “gossip” was, undoubtedly, the most truthful description of the burgeoning field of cinema studies in the early part of the 1900s.


It was not until the 1950s that academia started taking cinema studies seriously as universities expanded in the United States of America. In his 2001 essay, “Intellectualism and Art World Development: Film in the U.S.,” sociologist Shyon Baumann notes, “Television and the expansion of higher education in the 1950s allowed the space for film studies being considered art and culturally significant” (407). In the popular thought in the 1950s, television was mass entertainment, not art. This separation was aided by theoretical arguments that connected film to other art forms like poetry, sculpture, and theater, and thus deemed it worthy of serious study. The artistic importance of film was solidified through the introduction of the auteur theory by French New Wave artists and critics like François Truffaut and André Bazin. Truffaut first published his thoughts regarding the importance of the auteur in French cinema in the journal Cahier du Cinema in a 1954 essay entitled “Une certaine tendance du cinéma français.” In it Truffaut criticizes cinematic realism and the French cinema’s adoration of screenwriters. He argues, “That school of film-making, which aims for realism, always destroys it at the very moment when it finally captures it, because it is more interested in imprisoning human beings in a closed world hemmed in by formulas, puns and maxims than in allowing them to reveal themselves as they are, before our eyes” (1). To Truffaut, the auteur theory was the idea that the director is the most important person on a film and that true auteurs leave an indelible mark on each film they create. Thus, it is possible to find common threads among a director’s body of work.


Auteurism made its transatlantic journey via American film critic Andrew Sarris, who published an influential book used in early film studies classrooms, The American Cinema: Directors and Directions 1929-1968 (1968). As Janet Staiger points out in her essay “The Politics of Film Canons”:

When Andrew Sarris published The American Cinema in 1968, he explicitly appealed to the rationale of evaluative standards
for cultural good: 'Film history devoid of value judgments would degenerate into a hobby like revelatory. Or, as has been more
the fashion, the collectivity of movies would be clustered around an idea, usually a sociological idea befitting the mindlessness
of a mass medium.' His decision to rank directors (and, hence, films) was to 'establish a system of priorities for the film student'; Sarris was disturbed by 'the absence of the most elementary academic tradition within cinema.' (1985, 11)

However, auteurism did not just clarify the academic field for scholars, it changed the way that cinema history and players within it were popularly viewed. For instance, Robert E. Kapis pointed out that, before the auteur theory began to take film scholarship by storm, director Alfred Hitchcock was popularly considered a director who made enjoyable thrillers. However, in moving to legitimize the French New Wave’s claim that auteurism was the theory that should define cinema as an art form, Truffaut raised Hitchcock to the level of transcendent auteur and canonized him. As Kapis notes, “The transformation of Hitchcock’s reputation is an intriguing case study of how an ‘artist’ or ‘auteur’ is socially constructed and the force of which influence reassessments and cultural meaning” (1989, 15).


This does not mean that everyone in cinema studies was on board with the near-ubiquitous singularity of the auteur theory. In 1972, the first edition of Women and Film was published. Founding editors Siew-Hwa Beh and Saunie Salyer denounced the auteur theory as one of the top six threats to feminist cinematic scholarship and practice. They write, “Even if the auteur theory should include an equal number of women directors, it is still an oppressive theory making the director a superstar as if filmmaking were a one-man show” (5-6). Women and Film was not the only publication that argued against the limitations of the auteur theory. In 1977, Charles F. Altman wrote about a multifaceted, pluralistic framework of 13 ways to approach film history in his essay “Towards a Historiography of American Film.” They include the following:  technology, technique, personality, film and the other arts, chronicle, social, studio, auteur, genre, ritual, legal, industrial, and sociological  (4-21). The expanded ways of exploring film were and are a breath of fresh air. Yet despite the options, the popular stronghold of the auter theory and the notion that film is an art has consistently pushed against those who want to discuss film in any other way.


Cinema studies saw a proliferation of questions, many ideologically based, raised by film scholars in the 1980s regarding the framing of cinema scholarship, but the focus on aesthetics never really faltered. In “The Politics of Film Canons,” Janet Staiger criticizes film scholars’ tendencies to talk about film as if there were no political implications at stake. She points out, “many auteurist critics tended to suppress historical, class, and social issues” (1985, 12). Staiger wanted to see film scholarship move away from the auteur theory as the dominating framework. One of the scholars she criticized was Mast, writing:

Gerald Mast is even more explicit: ‘The best American films of the present (and of the future), like those of the past, can and
will succeed in transcending their immediate temporal, commercial, technological, and cultural limitations…’  For a Romantic auteurist, the value of a work is claimed to be in its cross-cultural, cross-temporal benefits. (1985, 12)

Staiger was critical of those, including Mast, who declared that artistic merit was timeless and universal. She called for a reformation of the canon. Staiger did not believe that it was possible to eliminate the process of canon formation but that other considerations, outside of the auteur theory, needed to go into which films, filmmakers, and movements cinema scholars deemed important.


Many agreed with Staiger, but not all scholars were swayed to investigate or privilege non-aesthetic approaches. One of the loudest opponents to ideology in cinema studies has been David Bordwell. He states in his 2005 essay, “Film and the Historical Return,” published on his blog, “When someone suggests that we must go beyond aesthetics, I want to reply: Please show me that you’ve gotten to aesthetics in the first place.”  He criticizes ideologues:

Ignoring the art-centered research programs isn’t a new habit. As late as 1985, Gomery and Allen, in their Film History:
Theory and Practice
treated the aesthetic history of film as a relic, disparaging it as “the masterpieces tradition.” Allen and Gomery’s worry seemed to be that one couldn’t study film as art without injecting evaluations about the great works. (2005, 5)

His textbook co-author and frequent collaborator, Kristin Thompson, agrees with his concerns about the encroachment of ideology into cinema studies and its lack of empirical data, stating:

Arguing that all representations are ideologically determined, some theorists questioned the idea that historical research could ever reveal anything true about the past and an “anti-historicism” arose. Historical studies based on the gathering of statistics
and other kinds of data were blanketly denounced as “empiricist.” (1993, 360)


Bordwell states in an essay on his blog that all good research comes from a program with a certain framework and that a researcher must ask questions, provide evidence, and create an argument. He also notes that Bordwell and Thompson’s work, in general, strives for objectivity and empiricism and they stand in contrast to the qualitative nature of most cinema studies scholars (“Doing Film History,” 2008). This is curious, because even David Bordwell acknowledges a pluralistic way of looking at cinema history, although not in the latest edition of his co-authored cinema history textbook, Film History. In the essay “Doing Film History” on his online blog, Bordwell notes that there are five general catagories a historian can use to investigate cinema history:

Biographical history: focusing on an individual’s life history

Industrial or economic history: focusing on business practices

Aesthetic history: focusing on film art (form, style, genre)

Technological history: focusing on the materials and machines of film

Social/cultural/political history: focusing on the role of cinema in the larger society. (2008)

This essay was actually part of the first edition of Film History that was released in 1994, but it has been removed over the years and does not appear in the fourth edition. Even as Thompson, Bordwell’s collaborator, revisted aesthetics in her writings about neo-formalism in the early 2000s and expanded her approach to cinema, their collaborative textbooks appear to grow narrower in their focus with each edition.


The commitment of Thompson and Bordwell to the artistic tradition of film history is evident in a comparison between the differences (or lack thereof) between the first edition (1994) and fourth edition (2018) of Film History. The first chapter is entitled “The Invention and Early Years of the Cinema 1880s-1904.” In a side-by-side comparison, it is apparent that the chapters contain identical text between the first and fourth editions. Despite new discoveries of important contributors to the birth of cinema, like prolific film pioneer Alice Guy-Blaché, nothing has been added, updated, or changed in the opening chapter of Film History between the first edition (1994) and fourth edition (2018).


This lack of updates reinforces the assertion from Apple and Christian-Smith that virtually nothing is taken out of textbooks and that, when things are added, they are not afforded the same attention. The absence of updates is radical, as the field of cinema studies has changed dramatically in the 27 years since the first edition of Film History. This transformation can be traced through the evolution of the Society of Cinema Studies (SCS) to the Society for Cinema and Media Studies (SCMS). The official change occurred in 2002 after years of discussion amongst the SCS/SCMS membership. SCMS notes on their web page regarding their organizational history, “By the mid-1980s television studies had been incorporated into the organization’s mandate, after some controversy, along with considerations of such ancillary areas as sound and non-theatrical film. The late 1990s saw the debut of digital media as a growing field of study.” The narrow focus on cinema studies as an artistic medium separated from other motion picture mediums was formally denounced by one of the major academic organizations in the field. It is curious, then, that work actively updated after this transitional period, like Film History, is not subjected to a more in-depth edit that better aligns with contemporary scholarship.


Thompson and Bordwell’s position as popular scholars in cinema studies reflects contemporary tensions between academics who consider film an art form first and those who prefer ideological, economic, or technological approaches. The power and longevity of the auteur theory is one example. The auteur theory has transcended academic scholarship and been absorbed into popular culture and continues to be used nearly 70 years after its initial inception.[3]


No matter what framework a scholar uses, the inclusion or exclusion of each person or film in a textbook is still a political act. Everything in a subject canon has been chosen by a person with human fallibilities. In addition, all scholars have frameworks and biases, whether they are articulated or not. My argument is not that we should work to eliminate bias but that the complexity of chronicling the history of cinema should be centered. Students who read these books should not just be able to recite names, dates, and films, but also be able to engage critically with the politics of canon formation and historiography.



Contemporary Survey Cinema History Textbooks

Thompson and Bordwell state in the preface to the fourth edition of Film History that there is no one definitive film history, but rather “histories” (2018, xiv). Gomery and Pafort-Overduin, as well as Mast and Kawin, agree with this pluralistic stance. In contrast, Giannetti and Eyman state they “set out to write a really brief book. Just the basics, no frills” (2009, xxi). The preface to their book, stating their condensed approach, reflects this brevity – it is less than one page. With brevity comes a lack of pronounced engagement, as the complicated history of any discipline cannot be covered in a condensed manner without leaving out quite a bit. Despite some differences, there are concerning trends throughout all the texts:

  1. A methodological preference that focuses on film as art.

  2. An overemphasis on American feature narratives and the impact of work from the Hollywood studios.

  3. A tendency to obscure the contributions of women and people of color in film history.

  4. A lack of references.

  5. A simplification of film history that ignores the complexity of the past.


Film as Art

Each textbook critiqued in this essay clings to the idea that film is an art form, first and foremost. The slant towards an artistic take on cinema history is most blatant in the way that Mast and Kawin continually compare film to the high arts in A Short History of the Movies. This phenomenon begins at the outset: “The history of the movies is, first of all, the history of a new art. Though it has affinities with fiction, poetry, drama, dance, painting, photography, and music, like each of these kindred arts it has a ‘poetics’ of its own” (2010, 1). The connections between film and high art become dismissive when contrasted with the discussion of television, which is only framed in terms of how film has influenced television. For example, the book notes that the film sequel influenced the television serial (2010, 262) and that Citizen Kane cinematographer Gregg Toland developed the three-camera system used on the television show I Love Lucy (1951–1957) (2010, 187).[4] When the reverse is mentioned – the influence of television on film – it is framed negatively, as an impediment to the progression of the cinematic medium, because it kept audiences from going to the movies (2010, 319).


Giannetti and Eyman convey a sense of political neutrality in their extremely brief preface to the sixth edition of Flashback, stating, “Eclectic in our methodology, we have adhered to a broad consensus tradition of film history and criticism; except for a humanist bias, we have no theoretical axes to grind” (2009, xxi). This leads the reader to believe that the authors have no political or methodological slant. However, this statement is quickly followed by: “Our main concern has been with film as art, but when appropriate we also discuss film as industry and as a reflection of popular audience values, social ideologies, and historical epochs” (2009, xxi). Thus, they reveal that they do indeed have a methodological focus. The prioritization of film as an art proves true throughout their book. However, film as a representation of popular values, ideologies, and moments in history proves less integral to the authors’ foci. For example, while they discuss the political ideology behind films produced in the U.S.S.R. (2009, 52-63), they do not always discuss the political leanings of filmmaking in the United States. In fact, the authors spend just one paragraph discussing the connection between ideology and cinema in one of the most obvious points in American film history where politics and cinema history met up, the House Un-American Activities Committee hearings of the late 1940s and 1950s, (2009, 136). They continuously minimize the intersection of politics and film to forefront artistic considerations.


Even the most methodologically broad textbook, Movie History by Gomery and Pafort-Overduin, devotes a sizable number of pages to the artistic paradigm of the Classic Hollywood Narrative Style employed in the Hollywood studio system. In fact, Chapter 3 is the only section that breaks the historical continuum of the narrative, and it is devoted to the establishment of Classical Hollywood Narrative Style. The authors repeatedly mention that, in history, those who elected to challenge Classical Hollywood Narrative Style were ostracized from the film industry, noting: “Griffith’s contributions to the Classical Hollywood Narrative Style were limited. Directors were inspired by Griffith, yet so as not to lose their jobs they did not follow his inability to adapt to the Classical Hollywood Narrative Style” (2011, 70). Even the final chapter of the book, which primarily focuses on the major Hollywood conglomerates, refers to this aesthetic model in a frank way: “The Classic Hollywood Narrative Style will remain dominant” (2011, 411). But why the authors believe the Classical Hollywood Narrative Style will continue to dominate is never unpacked. They merely state that, since 1921, Hollywood has been the economically dominant film force in the world and that “the story-driven use of cinematic technology will persist” (2011, 411).


Overemphasis on American Feature Narratives

In the first chapter of Mast and Kawin’s text, they outline their focus by stating that “the history of the American film is most relevant to American readers” and therefore “this short history allots more space to a discussion of American movie practices” (2010, 7). While no survey textbook in any discipline can completely introduce every important work due to the general limitations of books, the length to which American and European filmmaking traditions are discussed in this text gives readers a false sense of complete historical dominance of the industry by white American and Western European male filmmakers, when the history of film is much more international, complex, and dynamic.[5]


Thompson and Bordwell are more inclusive in their scope, touching on a wide range of national cinema traditions that the other three texts ignore. However, the style in which the authors discuss non-Hollywood and non-Western European feature narratives tends to undermine the films’ importance to cinema history, especially as one gets closer to contemporary times. In a chapter titled “A Developing World: Continental and Subcontinental Cinemas since 1970,” the authors emphasize the lack of financial impact of these works: “Most films produced in the continents of Africa and Latin America and the subcontinents of the Middle East and India seemed marginal to international film commerce. That was defined by Hollywood, which commanded over half of the world’s theatrical revenues” (2018, 619). Box office gross is not as important a factor in their discussion of what they feel are important American films. When discussing Orson Welles’ Citizen Kane (1941), they do not talk about the dismal initial box office take, but rather call it “one of the most admired of all films” (2018, 203).[6] The same treatment is applied to Fight Club (1999), directed by David Fincher. Thompson and Bordwell call it a “daring film” (2018, 683) and do not mention its poor box office performance.[7] These examples highlight the political nature of the choices of what to include and how to frame films and filmmakers. The section on Blade Runner (1982), directed by Ridley Scott, breaks this trend. It discusses the film as a “box-office failure, [which nevertheless] proved to be one of the most influential films of its period” (2018, 665). The pluralistic stance that brings into question two seemingly contradictory statements encourages further rumination and reveals what is needed in textbooks.


While films originating from America’s studio system do regularly make the most money worldwide, films originating from India tend to sell the most tickets per year internationally. India also has the highest studio output of films (Santoreneos 2019). Despite this, India’s distinctive film form only receives a five-page subsection in Mast and Kawin’s text. The treatment of Indian cinema gets worse in Giannetti and Eyman’s book; it only receives a sidebar paragraph on page 200 regarding the 1955 film Pather Panchali and director Sayajit Ray. Although Ray is briefly mentioned in other parts of the book, the sidebar is the only time that Indian cinema is given any significant space in Flashback. The Indian film industry is given more space and time in Gomery and Pafort-Overduin’s book. In fact, they devote a section to describing how films associated with the Bollywood tradition differ aesthetically from mainstream Hollywood productions (2011, 383). However, the authors do not fully embrace other non-Hollywood, non-Western traditions. In fact, they conclude one chapter, “Contemporary World Cinema History – 1977 and Beyond,” with a warning about the global dominance of Hollywood, noting, “all these nations had governmental subsidy efforts to maintain a cinematic culture in the national identity. Why? The threat of Hollywood dominating their culture remains real” (2011, 385). This continues the reductionist trend of softening the global importance of non-Hollywood film traditions by emphasizing the economic power of the American studio system.


Obscuring Women and People of Color

There are two stark differences in the way that all the textbooks approach the contributions of women and people of color: 1) Female filmmakers and filmmakers of color tend to be lumped together based on their gender and race versus aesthetic considerations, and 2) Women and filmmakers of color are not generally allowed to enter the narrative flows in the books.[8]This leads to women and people of color being isolated as anomalies and, seemingly, unimportant to the story of film.


In most of the textbooks, the discussion of women working behind the camera is generally relegated to contemporary times. Mast and Kawin approach women’s contributions to contemporary film by trying to make the case for modern equality in a passage called “Julie Taymor and Others,” where they list female directors for nearly half a page with a couple of the movies they directed after a short passage regarding feminist film theory in the academy.[9] They ignore the fact that not all female filmmakers were or are interested in feminist politics.


Gomery and Pafort-Overduin’s Movie History does not completely ignore issues of power and privilege behind the camera, but they do buck the trend of lumping female filmmakers together. Instead, director Gillian Armstrong is a part of a discussion of Australian filmmakers in a chapter titled “Alternative film industries: The Soviet Union, Eastern Europe, South America, Australia, and Japan.” They mention that Armstrong “went on to become the first woman to direct a film in Australia in 45 years” (2011, 343). However, this is the only time that inequity behind the camera is mentioned in the 481 pages of their book. This results in a disservice, because it does not encourage readers to investigate gendered power dynamics in the film industry and, again, ignores the complexity of history.


Like the fate of female filmmakers, African American filmmakers are cut off from being an integral part of the historical flow. In Mast and Kawin’s book, early African American film pioneer Oscar Micheaux is mentioned as a pioneer of race films, but when early independent filmmaking is brought up on page 587, he is decidedly absent from the discussion: “the history of independent filmmaking in America goes back before Morris Engel, Ruth Orkin, and Ray Ashley made Little Fugitive (1953) and John Cassavetes directed Shadows (1959)” (2010, 587). Before, yes, but who are they referring to is never mentioned. Micheaux’s inventive and independent business practices that predate the above examples by almost forty years are ignored because his place as a filmmaker in this history is tied to making race films.


Micheaux is completely absent from the narrative in Giannetti and Eyman’s book. The first American director of color they mention is Melvin Van Peebles, who is described as having “popularized a new genre, the so-called blaxploitation picture” (2009, 275). His work is not connected to earlier race films, because they are not mentioned in the book. Nor is his work placed in the continuum of independent filmmaking traditions, even though the authors state, “Van Peebles financed the picture himself” (2009, 275). This is odd, because financing a movie outside the studio system is a hallmark of independent film. The title of independent film maverick is reserved for white filmmakers like John Cassavetes. Van Peebles’s work and the blaxploitation genre are labeled a flash-in-the-pan moment that “died out by 1975” (2009, 276). Films that draw heavily on the genre are equally isolated or ignored, such as urban gangster pictures of the early 1990s like Boyz N the Hood (1991) directed by John Singleton, Menace II Society (1993) directed by Allen and Albert Hughes, and Juice (1992) directed by Ernest R. Dickerson.


Gomery and Pafort-Overduin obfuscate issues of racial inequality in their book by ignoring them altogether. African American filmmakers like Spike Lee, Melvin Van Peebles, and Oscar Micheaux are not even mentioned. While the goal of Movie History was to be brief but methodologically inclusive, it is revealing to see who and what goes missing from the canon as it is condensed to make room for pluralism.


Admittedly, the trend of lumping female filmmakers and directors of color together is not as consistent in the fourth edition of Thompson and Bordwell’s text. In a section devoted to Spike Lee, they quote the director as saying: “Race, Lee remarked, was ‘America’s biggest problem, always has been (since we got off the boat), always will be’” (2018, 671). While Lee has self-identified as a director who likes to tackle issues of race and racism in his work, he is not lumped with other African American filmmakers, but rather identified as a director that began making a popular impact in the 1980s alongside white filmmakers like Michael Mann and Oliver Stone (2018, 677). The incorporation of Lee into the overall history is progressive and allows the director to be included in the narrative of history instead of being siloed as a black filmmaker.


I will note that the choice not to group filmmakers together by their gender or race is new in the fourth edition Film History by Thompson and Bordwell. In the third edition, released in 2009, there are passages that put women filmmakers together (676), then African American filmmakers (676), before discussing female African American filmmakers (676-677). The revision in their approach to these directors demonstrates that it is possible to rethink approaches to writing film history as cinema studies evolves as a discipline.


Lack of References

One of the major problems in all the books is the lack and consistency of references. Three of the four textbooks only cite where their images are from, while the fourth, Thompson and Bordwell’s Film History, cites photos and direct quotes but does not reveal the sources of the many statistics used. It is not required that authors cite statistics in their work, but because Thompson and Bordwell have emphasized that their work is empirical (Bordwell 2008), the lack of citation makes it difficult to trace the origins of the data from which they draw their conclusions. This lack of consistent citation provides a poor example for students regarding the expectations of academic scholarship.


In Film History: Theory and Practice, Allen and Gomery state, “the absence of footnotes and detailed bibliographic references in survey film histories makes it impossible to trace conclusions back to their evidentiary sources” (1985, 46). However, Gomery’s textbook, Movie History, fails to live up to his own critique. In the first chapter, “The Invention and Innovation of Motion Pictures,” Gomery and Pafort-Overduin write:

Pathé-Frères boomed and in 1904 opened a second studio which a year later was producing 12,000 meters (more than
39,370 feet) of positive film stock per day – the vast majority of which were short story films. A year later film production
had tripled and the movie-making division was employing 1,200 people. (16)

In their “Reference and Further Reading” section at the end of the chapter (2011, 32), the authors indicate several works that could include the above-mentioned statistics. However, they do not identify which author(s) did the primary research to produce such numbers. It is up to the reader to sift through the sources to verify the accuracy of their statement or find further information that expands on this point. In the preface to the text, Gomery and Pafort-Overduin state: “No historian of the cinema can do all the primary research for a survey which covers millions of movies made and shown in different countries throughout the world. He or she must rely on the work of others” (2011, xxii). While relying on the work of others is understandable in a survey textbook, not explicitly citing sources makes it difficult for students using the works to go deeper with the material. The lack of references provides a poor example for introductory students about the expectation of college-level scholarship, and, as Gomery himself stated in the 1970s, this practice needs closer attention.


Not citing the source of statistical information and paraphrased material is a glaring issue in Giannetti and Eyman’s book. For example, in their chapter “American Cinema in the 1970s,” they write, “feminist film critics complain, for the most part correctly, that females in American movies were portrayed primarily as sexual playthings for the boys” (2009, 281). Offering no citation or indication of which feminist film critics they are referencing, Giannetti and Eyman leave readers questioning where this information comes from. It sounds like something gleaned from Molly Haskell’s book From Reverence to Rape: The Treatment of Women in Movies (1974) or Laura Mulvey’s essay “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema” originally published in 1975 in Screen. However, without a clear citation, students will not know where to look for further information because none of the books listed under “Further Reading” at the chapter’s conclusion have anything to do with feminist film theory.


Not citing their sources also allows authors to pass off film history myth as fact. In discussing the work of film director John Ford, Giannetti and Eyman claim that “he was initially influenced by Griffith. (Ford rode as one of the Clansmen in The Birth of a Nation)” (2009, 112). However, Ford’s work as an actor on The Birth of a Nation has never been substantiated. It is thought to be a tall tale that Ford told to enhance his own reputation in Hollywood by aligning himself with the film’s director, D.W. Griffith (Eyman 2000). In addition, Scott Eyman knows that Ford’s involvement with The Birth of a Nation has not been verified, because Eyman wrote both Flashback and an article nearly a decade earlier called “The Day They Blew Up John Ford,” in which the rumor of Ford’s ride is mentioned and correctly catagorized as gossip (Eyman 2000). This raises the question of why the standards for fact versus rumor shift so drastically between publication types. Stating that Ford was a hooded Klansman in The Birth of a Nation is an interesting anecdote. Undoubtedly, it is not as scintillating to suggest it to be mere Hollywood lore, even though that is the case. If cinema history textbooks are not accurate, they are still, as Card writes, places of “confusion, gossip, and the wildest sort of speculation” (279).


Simplifying Film History

All the issues discussed in this piece feed into the final aspect of my critique: the simplification of cinema history in survey textbooks. The texts leave little for students to question regarding the narrative of film history. This is problematic. Bordwell admits in “Doing Film History” that the percentage of early films that have survived to contemporary times is roughly 20% (2008). In addition, he states:

More recent films may be inaccessible to the researcher as well. Films made in some small countries, particularly in

Third World nations, were not made in many copies and did not circulate widely. Small archives may not have the

facilities to preserve films or show them to researchers. In some cases, political regimes may choose to suppress

certain films and promote others. Finding reliable copies to study is a major challenge for the historian whose questions

center on the films. (2008)

The irony of this passage from Bordwell’s website is that the entire “Doing Film History” essay was in the first edition of Film History but was cut in later editions, presumably to save space. Thus, Bordwell’s point about the extent to which cinema history is based on limited material is not included in the actual book that draws conclusions about film history using limited extant materials. Cinema scholars can draw conclusions from a smaller sample of films, but we need to note in our own work that the historical record is incomplete. We also need to note that history is a dynamic story that changes as social perceptions and priorities shift. Otherwise, we run the risk of eliminating the options for new conclusions to arise as more material is uncovered and methodologies evolve. Further, as I have already pointed out, new methodologies can be embraced. For example, the revisions that occurred in the third and fourth editions of Film History halted the practice of lumping directors together based on personal identifiers.


Only Gomery and Pafort-Overduin indicate in A Short History of the Movies that writing history is a meaning-making process that is subjective and shifts over time. They explain: “Buster Keaton was considered a silent comic of lesser rank than Chaplin at the time his films were released. Movie historians who have closely studied the silent films of Buster Keaton have come to view him as one of the greatest stylists of the cinema” (2011, 76). However, they are still susceptible to the trap of simplifying film history. The dominant thread in their book is the framework of Classic Hollywood Narrative Style, and they use it at times in ways that are questionable. This is apparent when the authors discuss the 1922 “documentary” directed by Robert Flaherty, Nanook of the North. They write:

Who cared if… Nanook was in fact named Allakariallak, while the wife shown in the film was not really his wife? . . .

No filmmaker who wanted to reach a mass audience in the USA could do this without using the Classical Hollywood

Narrative Style – even when it was called a documentary. (2011, 81)

While they espouse in the beginning of their book that they aimed to be more methodologically inclusive in their version of film history, their reliance on film as an art form first trumps any consideration of the social (or technological or economic) factors.


The problematic coverage of Nanook of the North continues in Giannetti and Eyman’s text. They describe Robert Flaherty as a “pantheistic poet” and a “one-of-a-kind genius” (2009, 169). When covering Nanook of the North, Thompson and Bordwell state “Flaherty spent sixteen months in the region of Hudson Bay, filming Nanook and his wife and son” (2009, 164). While they later note “Every scene was planned in advance” (2009, 164), this does not adequately address the colonialist lens that was used to film Allakariallak (Nanook’s actual name).


The simplification of history also occurs when technological progression is portrayed as inevitable. An example is the simplification of the evolution of synchronized sound films. In Film History, Bordwell and Thompson introduce the progression of synchronized sound by stating, “from the cinema’s beginning, inventors attempted to join the image to mechanically reproduced sound, usually on phonograph records. These systems had little success before the mid-1920s, primarily because sound and image proved difficult to synchronize and because amplifiers and loudspeakers were inadequate for theater auditoriums” (2018, 172). Warner Brothers is widely cited as the studio that took on the project of releasing the first sync sound films, even though various artists and technicians had been tinkering with the idea for years. When Jack Warner pitched the idea of “talkies” to his brother Harold, the latter has been quoted as saying, “"Who the hell wants to hear actors talk?" ( 2019). Indeed, until sound proved to be commercial successful, many studios and filmmakers viewed it with the same skepticism allotted to less successful cinematic innovations like 3D, Smell-o-Vision, and the Tingler. Again, complexity is needed to encourage students to think critically about historical progress in any field. In this case, pluralism could have been easily achieved with a note about how the inclusion of synchronized sound advanced the film medium but simultaneously devastated smaller film theaters because the substantial cost of retrofitting their systems put many out of business (Dubitsky 2020).


Another example of this simplification of film history is in the discussion of D.W. Griffith’s The Birth of a Nation (1915). While the chapter on D.W. Griffith in Mast and Kawin’s book acknowledges the racism integral to his “masterwork,” it frames it as an issue solely concerning “liberals” past and present:

The film, which contributed significantly to the resurgence of the Klan in the 20th century, is a very difficult morsel for

today’s liberal or social activist to swallow. It was just as difficult for the liberals of 1915. The NAACP, the president of

Harvard, social activist Jane Addams, and liberal politicians all damned the work for its bigoted, racist portrayal of the

African American. (2010, 82)

However, they deflate the issue and defend Griffith’s film by stating that his “treatment of these blacks is not an isolated expression of racial prejudice; it is a part of a lifelong distrust of the ‘evils’ of social change and disruption” (2010, 83). Despite this passage of tepid criticism, they go on to state, “the key to The Birth of a Nation is that it is both strikingly complex and tightly whole. It is a film of brilliant parts carefully tied together by the driving line of the film’s narrative” (2010, 83). The Birth of a Nation is a difficult work to discuss in film history, but in the six pages they devote to the work, less than one is paid to discussing the social response and effects of the film. This is incredibly important because The Birth of a Nation sparked a revival of the Ku Klux Klan and was used for white supremacist recruitment for many years after its release (Clark 2018).


In the fourth edition of Film History, Thompson and Bordwell call The Birth of a Nation a “bigoted account of African Americans’ role in southern history” and note that it “aroused heated controversy” (2018, 62). This is different than the first edition of Film History, which described The Birth of a Nation as a “bigoted account of African Americans’ role in Southern History” that “aroused great controversy when it was released, but it was enormously successful and influential for its dynamic and original style” (1994, 74). The historical record does note the financial success of the film, but to say it was “influential” for “its dynamic and original style” softens the white supremacist message of a film in which the Ku Klux Klan ride on horseback in full hooded regalia at the end to terrorize African Americans and “save” the day for the white protagonists.[10] In the end, both editions work towards a pluralistic approach to the film but do not fully embrace the complexity of the film or its concerning message.


Gomery and Pafort-Overduin quickly mention The Birth of a Nation in their book. However, that brief statement complicates the social issues surrounding the film, past and present, in a much deeper manner than the other texts. The authors explain: “When the film opened in Boston protestors demanded it be stopped. The president of Harvard denounced it. Griffith felt it necessary to publish a booklet The Rise and Fall of Free Speech in America to defend himself” (2011, 52). Gomery and Pafort-Overduin do not segregate those who objected to the film’s original release as either “liberals” or groups primarily concerned with African American causes. Instead, they discuss the film as the first blockbuster, a film that was wildly popular, and as something that evoked strong social opposition. This does not mean the rest of their book follows suit, but this one passage is a pronounced example of the intersectional nature that can and should be incorporated into every survey textbook, especially with works as complicated as The Birth of a Nation.



Institutional Power

Every textbook I critiqued included Thomas Edison, D.W. Griffith, the Golden Age of Hollywood, Charlie Chaplin, John Ford, Orson Welles, Alfred Hitchcock, the auteur theory, the French New Wave, the American Renaissance, Stephen Spielberg, Martin Scorsese, and contemporary American blockbusters. While there were additions that offered variety between the texts, it was nominal. This is problematic from a cultural studies standpoint, as it continues to push to the fringes those already marginalized, such as women, people of color, and those from the Global South. In Suzanne Pharr’s book Homophobia: A Weapon of Sexism, she notes that institutional power is maintained through a “defined norm” (1997, 53). The lack of variation in cinema history textbooks is one way that structural power is maintained, and other options and people are silenced. It does not fundamentally matter which survey book a professor chooses, their students will get a grasp of the French New Wave. Whether or not they learn about New Queer Cinema, Third Cinema, race films, or the work of film pioneer Alice Guy-Blaché will vary, because these movements and artists are not universally acknowledged as central to the canon of film.


The issue of a single canon can also be tied to Pharr’s concept of the myth of scarcity “which suggests that our resources are limited” (1997, 54). Scarcity is emphasized by Giannetti and Eyman through the terseness with which they approach film history. In their Preface, they state, “We set out to write a really brief book. Just the basics, no frills” (2009, xxii). However, the connotation of such a statement is that the “frills” are all those things that fall outside of the narrative films created by white Global North cisgender men. Even in the other textbooks, which pay more attention to the work of female filmmakers and directors of color, there is a lack of depth in the discussion of inequity in the entire film industry. All the authors often opt to focus on film as an art form rather than approach cinema history from a political or even sufficiently pluralistic stance. If we continue to highlight individuals and films in the great works tradition without discussing the technological, economic, and social factors involved in cinematic production, we will continue to alienate students and scholars who are not cisgender white men.


As technological shifts cause the lines between film, television, the internet, and other mass media to rapidly blur, we need to integrate the history of these technologies into the cinematic past to connect film to the future. The average American engaged with media for eleven hours every day in 2010 (Phillips 2010), and that number was up to an average twelve hours and nine minutes in 2019 (He 2019). The significance of this engagement needs to be studied and understood in an interdisciplinary context. However, without connecting cinema studies scholarship to the work of colleagues in television and media studies, cultural studies, ethnic studies, feminist studies, and queer studies, we will not be part of the conversations around what it means to be a culture engrossed with moving images. Instead, we will be stuck trying to defend the disciplinary lines in an antiquated argument about how film is primarily art, instead of looking at its intersecting political, economic, and technical implications. It is time to let the primary focus on film as art rest, not only to add complexity to the discipline’s past, but to ensure its relevance in the future of the academy.[11]



[1] accounts for roughly 50% of the physical book market in the United States and accounts for roughly 75% of the eBook market. Thus, sales on are a solid indication of any title’s popularity in the United States (Evans 2019).


[2] The Kinetoscope was patented by Thomas Edison in 1897, but Edison’s employee, William Kennedy-Laurie Dickson, alleges it to have been completed and in use by 1887 in his book History of the Kinetograph, Kinetoscope, and Kineto-phonograph (Dickson 1970, 1).


[3] While revising this essay, the author found a recent example of the use of auteur in contemporary film criticism without even looking. It popped up in her social media feed. The popular scholarship is titled “Denis Villeneuve Is the Latest Auteur Director to Critique Marvel Movies and We’re Very Tired” written by Chelsea Steiner and published on This is a demonstration of the permeation of the auteur theory into popular consciousness seven decades after its introduction.

[4] In actuality, the development of the three-camera system used in filming broadcast TV programming began with television production. It did not originate in cinema. The pioneering German Expressionist cinematographer, Karl Fruend, who also served as the director of photography on I Love Lucy, is more commonly credited with perfecting the three-camera system, though he did not invent it. It had been used as early as the 1947-1948 television season in the NBC series Public Prosecutor (see Krampner, Jon. 1991. "Myths and Mysteries Surround Pioneering of 3-Camera TV Broadcasting." Los Angeles Times, July 29, 1991.


[5] Only two chapters out of nineteen in Mast and Kawin’s book explicitly deal with non-Global North film history.

[6] Citizen Kane has made $1,585,634 domestically since its release in 1941. It cost $839,727 to produce (Box Office Mojo).


[7] Domestically, Fight Club made just over $37 million at the box office in its initial release. It cost $63 million to produce (Box Office Mojo).


[8] It is key to note that this only happens if the filmmaker is something other than male and white.


[9] “ . . . and Others” is often used in A Short History of the Movies to group filmmakers together and is not necessarily something I am taking issue with.


[10] Many of the African American characters in The Birth of a Nation were played by white actors in blackface. Actors who were in blackface included George Siegmann who played Silas Lynch, Walter Long as Gus, and Jennie Lee who played Mammy.


[11] I would like to thank my Coug family including Kathryn Manis, Brian Stack, and Kim Christen for their help refining this paper. I would also like to thank my Husky family including Ron Krabill and Geoff Collins for their unwavering support of this project. Finally, thank you to The Projector for providing me an opportunity to publish this work, especially editor Cynthia Baron who was incredibly understanding and supportive throughout the revision process.


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