While Studying Blackness, Racquel Gates Takes Pop Culture, and Reality TV, Seriously

The film and media studies professor opens up new lines of inquiry for Black cultural studies through her research.

Eve Glasberg
June 13, 2022

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 TimesThe Los Angeles Review of Books, and Film Quarterly, as well as podcasts, and on film and television programs.

Gates discusses her varied research projects with Columbia News, along 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 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.

Foxy Brown movie poster

How does your guest curatorship of the Icons exhibition at the Museum of the Moving Image fit into your body of research? 

One of the things that was so nice for me about being asked to curate that exhibition is that it allowed me to think in a visual language as opposed to exclusively in a written one. Also, as someone who gets really excited by material film culture, the opportunity to focus on posters and lobby cards in addition to the films themselves was particularly inspiring. I got to ponder what story I wanted to convey to museum visitors, what message they would take away after looking at the posters that I selected.

I wanted to show a range of images of Black women, from the glamorous to the abstract to the representational. I included some greatest hits like the poster from Foxy Brown, an independent film like The Watermelon Woman, and Catwoman—a film that was a commercial and critical failure, but a huge success in terms of a big budget genre film led by a Black actress. It was important for me to show the diversity within Black womanhood and films centered on Black women, rather than just celebrate the fact that Black women starred in them (though the exhibit certainly does that, too). Like all of my research, I tried to invite people to focus on this seemingly unimportant or dismissed thing (movie posters, in this case), and make the case for its significance, as well as its ability to tell us a new story about blackness and film.

Advice for anyone going into the film industry?

As a professor of critical studies rather than production, I try to stay in my lane, which means not giving advice about the film industry, a space in which I have no direct professional experience. I do, however, encourage my students to be active fans of film and media culture. I emphasize that they should be full participants in the subjects that they love, which means reading books and articles about their chosen focus areas, and watching lots of things.

I try to discourage them from taking an overly confident or condescending attitude towards media that they view as “bad,” “dumb,” or “unoriginal.” Rather, I stress that they understand themselves and their work—whether it’s research or creative projects—as part of a larger conversation that has been going on for over 100 years.

What are you working on now?

I recently drafted a short piece for CNN.com about Kim Kardashian wearing Marilyn Monroe’s dress at the Metropolitan Museum of Art fashion gala in early May, and all of the intense reactions that the dress prompted. I’m going to expand that into a book chapter for Hollywood Style and the Invention of Blackness. I had already planned to have a chapter in the book on Monroe, and I wrapped my Reality Television course not long ago, so this is one of those nice times when a few different threads came together organically.

Any exciting summer plans?

Besides sleeping and not teaching? Haha. I always spend the first few weeks of the summer getting my life in order: Cleaning my apartment, decluttering, getting back into the habit of regular physical movement, and catching up on movies and tv shows that I never got around to watching during the semester. Then I’ll mostly spend the summer working on a chapter or two for the new book, and doing some preliminary research and brainstorming on a new project that I’m just starting to formulate.

I also try to be much more deliberate about spending quality time with my family during the summer. I especially like to watch movies and tv shows with my six-year-old twin boys. A few of my biggest research lightbulb moments—like the stuff that I’m writing about Dumbo—are the direct result of watching things with them.

What's the best part of teaching at the School of the Arts?

The students are so incredibly passionate, both about their own work as well as the things that we study together in class. They bring such a high level of enthusiasm into the classroom that—for me—it feels less like me up there lecturing, and more like an enjoyable conversation. I genuinely feel like I learn so much from them, sometimes in ways that they may not even realize.