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In her entertaining and thoroughly engaging whistle-stop tour through 20th century popular film and TV narratives, film critic and journalist Ellen E. Jones convincingly makes the case for the potential of film and TV to disseminate and influence the way we, as individuals and societies, understand and interact with race. Through an upbeat and optimistic examination of popular culture, Jones uses hope as a tool for activism (much like that which Rebecca Solnit speaks of in her book Hope in the Dark: Untold Histories, Wild Possibilities, 2004). Through that hope, Jones develops her thesis that racial consciousness should be our collective first step towards using the power of moving image pop culture for good. 

Identifying each link in the film value chain – from industry production and distribution all the way to theatrical exhibition, home entertainment and even social media platform engagement – Jones makes the case for recentring and championing racially conscious work. Her mission is simple insofar as there is focus and clarity on what she is arguing for: dismantling white supremacy through racially conscious popular culture and the platforming of diverse storytelling. It’s not complicated, so why then is it a topic deserving of an entire book and not just an online think-piece that would, arguably, reach a wider audience?

For Jones, and for anyone interested in the history of moving image or indeed the construction and interpolation of ideology, agenda and ethics in popular culture, chronicling how we got to where we are is crucial in understanding and undertaking what’s next. Her passion for the moving image jumps off the page as she enthusiastically regales the reader with movie memories, amusing anecdotes and embedded interviews with filmmakers she admires. Jones dissects and discusses the medium in her own form of popcorn entertainment, itself a classical Hollywood paradigm of sorts: linear narrative, clear causal progression, and a satisfyingly simple moral message to take home. The only sticking point is that conflict resolution is perhaps a little too easily bowed. 

That’s not to say that Jones is in any way wrong or misguided in laying out the pop cultural answer to hundreds of years of structural race inequality and oppression. Her aims are bare minimum fair, it’s just that the bar is so abysmally low. There comes with that, an intentional discomfort for white readers (of which I am one): this shit is so obvious, and yet we really do need this book. Worse still, we’ve once again had to rely on the people who do not benefit from the structural inequality to tell us. Well done white people, our collective awkwardness around acknowledging our whiteness, its privilege and power has yet again meant that someone else has had to do the work to tell us what we should already know and, moreover, be actively working to change. 

In her introduction, Jones situates whiteness and its construction of non-white racial others as a binary power problem, and she is quick to dismiss criticisms of this pervasive imperative. Race theory is the motor that drives what Jones is arguing for, but she draws a clear boundary at the outset over what she is and is not willing to service:

There are, of course, those who disagree with the above summaries and definitions, who fear that something nefarious called “critical race theory” (CRT, for short) is encroaching upon our schools and universities; that acknowledging the existence of racism is divisive “race-baiting”; and that the diversity drive is ruining all their favourite movie franchises and TV shows. But that belongs to the category of “debates I make it my habit to avoid.” This book is concerned not with the demonstrable fact of race as a construct, but with two of the most important tools used in its construction: cinema and television (pp.4-5).

This is a fair line to draw, in terms of the very real threat that writing about this issue poses for Jones’ DMs on social media, but it’s also slightly disingenuous in that the arguments she wishes to avoid are inherently baked into her inquiry and are certain to rise up, regardless. Frameworks and methodologies are absent because the book is not intended for the academic echo chamber, but racism and popular culture don’t exist in a philosophical, ethical or theoretical vacuum, either. Subsequently, thorny ideas and debates sit like an awkward elephant in the room over the 330-plus pages that follow.

Other lines drawn include her focus on English-language work, and a purview that excludes documentary, news and reality television which she says, “is to avoid straying into the important but distinct area of news media, where race and racism is usually treated as a topic for debate, rather than a subject for stories” (p. 8). She goes on to clarify her terms, which include the contentious acronym BAME (Black Asian and Minority Ethnic) and white supremacy which she uses, “to refer to any hierarchal ideology or system of organisation that positions whiteness at its apex… the concept of race is itself rooted in white supremacy” (p.13). 

Thus, her definitions and context are sound if brief, suggesting that there is a background bibliography, we’re just not party to it, because the moral project of this book is accessibility and reach, an imperative borne of Jones’ own background as a journalist. What it lacks in conceptual frameworks, though, Jones makes up for with extensive textual examples and an assured writing style. The quantity of film and TV examples given does, at times, come at the cost of deeper textual analysis. There are, for example, only passing mentions of the most cutting recent examples of the impact of white supremacy on education, labour politics and, most pointedly, cinema history; Dear White People (2017-2021), Sorry to Bother You (Boots Riley, 2018) and Nope (Jordan Peele, 2022) barely get a look-in. This was my biggest frustration with Screen Deep: the whip-fast pace through which Jones speeds is akin to the frenetic edits of clip-driven video essays/documentaries like Beyond Clueless (Charlie Shackleton, 2014), Romantic Comedy (Elizabeth Sankey, 2019) and So Unreal (Amanda Kramer, 2023) which, while wonderfully entertaining, deliberately leave you wanting more.

Covering the intersections between screen culture and IRL activism, Jones paints a depressing picture that starts with the inimitable Paul Robeson, “it is impossible to be both a responsible civil rights activist and a successful movie star” (p. 43). She continues the study of key figures, which focuses on iconic Black men in Hollywood who have come to represent more than just themselves, from the revered (Sidney Poitier) to the fallen (Bill Cosby). Jones weaves the legacy of the Civil Rights’ Movement into her argument, extending to the parallel role of Ronald Reagan’s so-called “colour blindness” with the wider problem of centring stories of 1960s Black liberation as white narratives: Mississippi Burning (Alan Parker, 1988), Ghosts of Mississippi (Rob Reiner, 1996), The Chamber (James Foley, 1996). But her focus is always, as stated in her introduction, on the films and TV, signposting but not analysing the relationship between screen media and historical, political events. 

Jones also makes motions towards a wider criticism of industry and advertising in moving image culture, in both the UK and the US, through anecdotal footnotes and asides. For UK readers, the 2020 Sainsbury’s Christmas advert, “Gravy Song” is well-known, but it’s worth explaining for an international readership that depicting a Black family in a Christmas advertisement, the same year that George Floyd had made headlines, unleashed a litany of racist backlash online. Jones includes a couple of the most astonishing comments, “‘You’ve managed to completely alienate the few remaining white customers you still had’ and ‘You may as well rename yourself Blackberry’s’” (p. 56). Another astonishing example is that Ava Duvernay had to write original content that conveyed the gist of Martin Luther King Jr.’s big speeches for Selma (2014) because Steven Spielberg had already, in 2009, acquired the movie rights to all of his most famous speeches (p. 49-50).

Jones has a wonderful skill for navigating tone, shifting from witty to serious seamlessly to make her points. TV’s Bridgerton gets a look-in but Jones’ tone in discussing it mirrors its own laissez-faire attitude towards race:

It was intended as an escape and the cast had to be racially diverse, not because it was making a comment about societal racism, but because it absolutely wasn’t. The period drama genre – in all its delightful confection – can survive no amount of engagement with the brutal truth of the slavery-based economy that sustained these upper class lifestyles of endless leisure. A Bridgerton that really grappled with race in seventeenth- and eighteenth-century Britain would be the kind of scratchy jumper of a “Christmas treat” that you take back to exchange in the Boxing Day sales (p. 66).

Bridgerton

Her persuasive arguments, when wrapped up in slights like these, hit with a light-hearted touch – almost like a parent or school teacher affectionately scolding a good-hearted child who has mis-stepped. This feels like the influence of many years as a journalist for popular film magazines (Empire, NME, The Radio Times) and newspapers (The Guardian, The Times, Sunday Times), where readers are most-often educated with a dose of good-will intended to encourage return purchase or in-cite clicks. But Jones is also very capable of laying out her argument without jest, and her clearest and most eloquent example of which is in addressing the issue of placing a white supremacist perspective on the history of racism. Her explanation of why Blackface is not and never has been acceptable is exemplary. In a 1997 stage production of Othello, Sir Patrick Stewart invented “race-reversed” casting so that he could play the titular role in a time when “it no longer became acceptable for a white actor to put on blackface and pretend to be African” (p. 67). Here, Jones writes with absolute clarity:

I bring this up not to pick on Sir Patrick – a lot of us expressed opinions in 1997 that we wouldn’t repeat today – but because of how neatly his words illustrate the importance of rooting our ideas about on-screen racial representation in something more substantial than industry trends. In the wake of the post-Black Lives Matter reckoning, Sir Patrick probably now understands that there was no presumed “before” time when blackface was acceptable. Blackface was never acceptable because it was created by and can only exist within a society, in which Black people are not only excluded from representing themselves in public life, but further demeaned and dehumanised by the propagation of racist stereotypes (pp. 67-68). 

Blackface is just one of the many racist practices Jones intends to breakdown for the reader. As with Reno Eddo-Lodge’s seminal Why I’m No Longer Talking to White People About Race (2017), Screen Deep lays out the issues and articulately provides the answers for those titular white people who, for reasons of enjoyed privilege in white supremacy, haven’t already done the work in analysing and understanding the racist props they stand on. Understanding the pervasive role of white supremacy in the film and TV industry involves understanding everything from the production of film stock to wider cultural politics and mainstream/audience responses to representation and, especially, representational change. Jones writes about Kodak’s racist film stock that only saw Shirley cards featuring non-white models first introduced in the mid-1990s (p. 167); the need for Black superheroes in the wake of state violence (Black Panther, Black Lightning); and on racism as a form of conservatism, citing fan outrage of the casting of Michael B. Jordan as Johnny Storm/The Human Torch in 2015’s Fantastic Four (p. 79).

While the book is in no way exhaustive (there are surely hundreds of racist film and TV stones left unturned), Jones does an admirable job of covering the key events and examples of anti-Black racism. And though the focus is predominantly on UK/US screen culture, Jones does include examples that affect Indigenous peoples from Australia, Canada and New Zealand, as well as exploring the timely issue of the deplorable depiction of both Muslims and Arabs onscreen. It’s relatively well-known but including a discussion on “the military-entertainment complex” (which Jones footnotes as coined by David L. Robb in Operation Hollywood: How the Pentagon Shapes and Censors the Movies) is crucial at a time when the legacy of Hollywood’s arrangement of favourable portrayals in exchange for expensive military resources is having devastating real life impact. Transparency around this issue is coming to the fore in niche circuits; Under a Blue Sun (Daniel Mann, 2024), which centres Rambo III (Peter MacDonald, 1988) as a case study for how the Israeli military wielded influence over depictions of the Middle East and the Arab as Other, premiered at IFFR in January, but wider than cinephile reach remains uncertain. And anyway, documentaries are not part of Jones’ purview, which uses blockbusters and mainstream films to hammer home the point. Rules of Engagement (William Friedkin, 2000), which was made in cooperation with the US Department of Defense, is Jones’ prime example of how the movies dehumanise Arabs. 

Rules of Engagement

Of particular interest to me, as a film critic, is when Jones includes examples of her own experiences in the industry – it’s important to remember that the problems that exist cut across the whole value chain, right down to and including impact on audiences and film journalists alike. Though film criticism gets less than a page of Jones’ attention, what she writes is revealing: the mostly white, middle-class men and sprinkling of white middle-class women who comprised the critical mass has only recently had an incremental increase in diversity. Jones footnotes her own acceptance into the London Critics’ Circle Film Section in 2020 as part of their diversity drive, despite her previous application in 2007 and experience as a professional film journalist since 2003 (p. 234). Writing as a critic who was also accepted into the circle (a year later, and as yet another middle-class white woman, but I suppose at least as a woman for their purposes), I find it crucial that Jones include this point. If cinephilia remains a quite literal closed circle-jerk, then progress can only go so far: wider audiences and their tastes and understanding of screen ideology is under threat if the industry is only ever an ouroboros of whiteness. 

In her aim of dismantling white supremacy, Jones is careful and considered, adopting an intersectional approach that looks at how race intersects with gender, class, sexuality, social-economic structures, ethnicity, disability, and other significant factors. It is her holistic approach that allows her to take down popular shows like Fleabag (Phoebe Waller-Bridge, 2016-2019) for its white feminism, an unpopular opinion that is nevertheless fair and true (pp. 235-237). 

In her conclusion, Jones includes other key external factors like the attention economy, expanded empathy and how the individual is constituted out of the structural. Her final thoughts, which, even after everything she has so reasonably well laid out, feels flippant, is that “film and TV can stop racism and save the world, but only if we, the audience, insist upon it” (p. 339). And while there is some truth in that final sentiment, it places the burden on the consumer, not as an individual but as a collective, something that requires a more nuanced study of the condition of our time and the period of postmodernity in which our attention economy and narrow empathies play out. How we will go about wielding our consumer power to make change is unclear. But it’s not Jones’ responsibility to change the world, it is for those of us who uphold and benefit from white supremacy to get on with. Screen Deep is funny, eloquent, and open. Jones entertains before she educates, sharing her love for film and TV, widening the lens with examples drawn from D.W. Griffiths all the way to TikTok. Most impressive, though, is that the book does so much more than just entertain, it also does the work of an earnest activist in that it speaks truth to power.

Ellen E. Jones, Screen Deep: How film and TV Can Solve Racism and Save the World (London: Faber & Faber, 2024).