Social Inequality and Film

Sociology 350-010-06F

Mondays 2:30-5:30 and Wednesdays 2:30-3:20 in Gore Hall, Room 116

Professor Elizabeth Higginbotham
Department of Sociology, Smith Room 316
Office Hours: Monday and Wednesday from 1:00 to 2:00 and by appointment

Heather Zaykowski, Graduate Teaching Assistant
Graduate Student Offices, 25 Amstel Avenue, Cubicle Two
Office Hours: Monday 10-11, Tuesday 11-12 and by appointment
Office Phone: 831-4420


Course Description

We watch movies all the time.  Today’s technology enables some people to enjoy the products of major motion picture studios and independent film makers in their homes and vehicles whenever they desire.  These films are important because they shape our understanding of history and contemporary social issues, including the nature of social inequality.  This course offers an opportunity to learn a sociological framework to analyze significant dimensions of social inequality.  We will examine films to understand them as an art form and a medium that shapes our understanding of people and their environment.  We will explore several key issues and themes explored in films such as family, education, youth, work and social mobility.  In addition, we will contrast representations in film by using empirical research and autobiographical treatment of the same issue to see the way that ideologies are represented in films.  Special attention is given to exploring film genre, so we can understand how types of films are used to explore similar issues.  There are sociological understandings of race, but films can be more powerful in structuring our thinking about racial groups and the meaning of group membership.  Films also offer representations about social class divisions, gender, sexuality, mobility, and other issues in social stratification.  We will analyze the depiction of these issues and reflect on how they affect our own thinking about our social location and expectations.

To review films as an art form, we will look at the history of film making, and how directors and those in film production work within the restrictions of the medium to make movies, as well as the impact of technological advances. Films have been a window into our culture because they address social issues and offer representations that support dominant ideologies. They are simultaneously shaped by the audience’s expectations. By viewing both independent and Hollywood films, we hope to develop an appreciation for this art form, and how film production is shaped by market forces.

A goal of the course is to help you develop an understanding and a language for the dimensions of social stratification.  In the end, you will be more aware of the role of these dimensions in your own life and how they might be depicted in the popular culture.  We can learn to think more critically about popular culture.

  Course Policies

All students are expected to attend classes.  We will watch a film every Monday, so viewing it is considered essential to follow the discussion.  Students should complete the assigned reading and be ready to discuss the material in class.  I often pose topics for discussion on the syllabus, but you are also free to bring up other matters that the readings and films suggest for you.  Assignments should be turned in on time.  Attendance will be taken and unexcused absences will result in a lower grade.

Required Readings

Robert Bulman, Hollywood Goes to High School (2005) Worth
bell hooks, Where We Stand: Class Matters, (2000) Routledge.
Walter Mosley, Devil in a Blue Dress, (1990) Pocket Books.
Hernan Vera and Andrew Gordon, Screen Saviors: Hollywood Fictions of Whiteness, (2003) Rowman and Littlefield.
Lynn Weber, Understanding Race, Class, Gender, and Sexuality, (2000), McGraw Hill.

The instructor will communicate with the class via e-mail, so if you do not use the udel system, please make sure you forward your udel messages to your server.

Ground Rules for Participation


Your learning will be evaluated in different ways. There are two examinations; a mid-term, and a final given during finals week.  In addition there are writing assignments designed to help you integrate what you learn about inequality into a framework to analyze films. Analytic papers on films that we view in class will help you develop a lens to examine themes and representations.  The final project is a report on a genre or sub-genre to see how it explores social inequalities.  These reports must address at least two dimensions of inequality.  You will also be assessed for your class participation.

Evaluation Summary

Paper #1 October 4 th  
Paper #2 October 25 th  
Paper #3 November 15 th  
Paper #4 December 4 th  
Paper #5 December 6 th 25%
Mid-term Examination October 18 th 20%
Genre Report November 27 th 25%
Final Examination TBA   20%
Class Participation   10%

Film Analysis Papers

During the course of the semester you have to write five papers where you analysis a film (or a set of films) that we viewed in class.  This paper is not a summary of the film, but a commentary on issues and cultural representations in the film.  What type of film is this movie?  How does the director use the genre to tell a story?  How does the narrative shape themes and issues?  How does the director develop the characters?  Which characters are multi-dimensional and which are flat?  Why these choices?  Are these choices related to the point of view the director wants to communicate?  Write about what is happening in the film’s narrative structure. How is conflict produced, developed and resolved?  What is the film saying about social life?  The goal here is for you to think about the nature of representations, the messages in the film, and the way this film is commenting on important events or relationships.  You can also explore the film production and how it relates to how the story or stories are told in the film.  For example, some films can address social mobility as hopeful, while others might depict obstacles and despair for those in the working class.  How does this filmmaker use various tools to depict issues and what is the impact?

In your papers you need to strive for a detailed analysis of the treatment of class, race, gender and/or sexuality in the film/films under consideration.  Use some of the conventions and themes identified by Hernan Vera and Andrew Gordon, Robert Bulman or what discussed in class.  You can focus on a single film, or you can compare and contrast more than one film. For example you might want to contrast “In This Our Life” and “Devil in a Blue Dress,” because they are both films about the era prior to the Civil Rights movement, but they are made at different historical moments.  How does a filmmaker in the 1990s look back on the 1940s? How does he tell a common story from a different point of view?  How do these films differ in character development, plot development, and/or treatment of race, social class, gender and/or sexuality?

There are suggestions for questions to help guide your assignments in the syllabus, but you can also introduce new themes.  Each paper should be 3-4 pages.  You will be graded on the depth of discussion and observations.  These papers will help you think about your final genre report as well as think about issues for the examinations.  Each paper will be graded and as a package will be 25% of our final grade.   You can turn in paper as you write them, but your work will be graded down if you do not meet the deadlines.

Genre/Theme Report

Films take many forms, but we can often separate them by theme, movie type or genre.  Early in the course we will look at films that focus on union organizing. Bulman’s book on high school films can be used as a model for you to explore other genres or subgenres. Look at three or four films of the same genre. These films must be by different directors, because you are to focus on the type of film and issues of representation, rather than explore a body of work by one director. For example, you can select political or social message films, romantic comedies, family comedies or dramas, action adventure films, films depicting social mobility, alien or horror films, police or crime films, mob or gangster films, war films, court room dramas, sports films, or among the many other types of films. There are even subsets, as family dramas might look at middle class life or working class life, they might feature White families, Black, Asian or Latino families. Look at Vera and Gordon for suggestions, but we will also talk about the range of films in class.

In this report you will explore how films in this genre address matters of social inequality.  You can look at a wide spectrum or focus on race, class, gender or sexuality.  In your paper you need to discuss them all, but you can focus on two dimensions of inequality.  You can talk about how different subjects are treated over time, such as comparing films from the 1980s, 1990s and 2000s. Major themes are often repeated, but newer films can have a different focus regarding racial or gender groups, as well as communicate different sentiment. You are to explore the ideologies presented in the films similar to Bulman’s analysis. Some directors will follow an established pattern of representations, but some will use a genre to challenge mainstream ideas.

You will need to decide on the films you want to use by October 25 and get your selection approved. You should be able to generate key questions about your topic. For example, are mobility films in the 1970s and 1980s different from those in the 1990s and 2000s?  How might these films reflect a different political and economic climate?  What is the director's attitude toward the characters?  Does the mobility experience differ by race or gender?  Are White, Black, Asian, Native American or Latino individuals represented differently?  Are the paths to social mobility the same for males and females?  If messages vary by gender, what do these films communicate as the appropriate paths for men and women?

War and combat films will vary depending upon the time they are made, the director’s message and point of view in the story.  “In Country” (1995) is very different from “The Best Years of Our Lives” (1946). What does a director use in a sports film as a vehicle to communicate?  How is “Hoosiers” (1986) different from “Remember the Titans” (2001)?  Does a political or social message movie aim to reassure you about the political process or motivate you to question the political scene? What is the director's view of societal values?  How might these films inform your sense of inequality in the USA and the issues behind it?

This assignment will be organized by your own themes. There will be times in class to discuss the direction you are taking. You can share your ideas with others working on related papers. Talking with others can help you to further explore your own social location and how it shapes your views of the media and your environment. If you want, you can also use this assignment as an opportunity to glance at the scholarship on film.  Your report should be 10-12 pages, with references when appropriate.


August 30
Overview of course and discussion of syllabus.
A social system approach to inequality.  Why look at films?  What is popular culture?  What do we learn by studying popular culture?  The western as a film genre.
Film Clip: “The Magnificent Seven” directed by John Sturges in 1960.

September 6
Critical Dimensions of Social Inequality.
In the United States the nature and degree of social inequality is contested.  We will begin with key concepts, then build a framework for an intersectional analysis of inequality.
Reading: Lynn Weber, “Understanding Race, Class, Gender, and Sexuality,” Introduction and Chapters 1-2, pp. 1-57.

September 11
The Meaning of Film for Different Population Groups.
Hernan Vera and Andrew Gordon, “Screen Saviors: Hollywood Fictions of Whiteness,” Foreword by Joe Feagin, Introduction and Chapters 1 and 2, pp. vii-32.
Distribute Assignment # 1 Reflection on Favorite Film
Film: “The Celluloid Closet” (1995), documentary film directed by Bob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman (102 minutes). Morris Library VHS 5543.

September 13
Understanding Power Relations.
Lynn Weber, “Understanding Race, Class, Gender, and Sexuality,” Chapters 3-5, pp. 59-109.
What are the shifting sources of power?  Does Weber’s approach push you to rethink the history of the United States that you have learned before?  What questions does learning the history raise about how our history might be represented in film?
Assignment # 1:  Reflection on Favorite Film due.

September 18
Social Inequality in the United States and Its Representation in Films.
Lynn Weber, “Understanding Race, Class, Gender, and Sexuality,” Chapters 6 and 7, pp. pp. 111-131 and Hernan Vera and Andrew Gordon, “Screen Saviors,” Chapter 3, pp. 33-51.
Film: “In This Our Life” (1942), feature film directed by John Huston (97 minutes).  Morris Library VHS 3095.

September 20
The Complexities of an Intersectional Analysis.
Lynn Weber, “Understanding Race, Class, Gender, and Sexuality,” Chapters 8-9, pp. 132-174.
Issues for Class Discussion: Historical and global context of inequality and implications for different groups.  What point of view does the film represent?  How is it linked to issues of the American Dream?

September 25
Documenting Racial Border and Barriers: The Book and the Movie.
Walter Mosley, “Devil in a Blue Dress”
Film: “Devil in a Blue Dress” (1995) feature film directed by Carl Franklin (102 minutes).  Morris Library DVD 501.
Distribute Assignment # 2
Issues for Class Discussion: Following the model Weber uses to describe Margaret Welch, Theo Wilson and Lynn Johnson, describe the social location of Easy Rawlins.  How might Easy Rawlins see the world?  Does the film capture Easy’s vision of the world?

September 27
Framing Inequality.
Discussion of “In This Our Life” and “Devil in a Blue Dress” that focuses on how these films illustrate similar issues.  What are the differences in point of view, representations, genres, and ideologies?  Both of these films go against the grain of typical Hollywood treatments of race, but are still products of their historical moments.  What are the major lessons for you from these films?  In the case of “Devil in a Blue Dress,” can you identify specific strengths of the book and of the film?

October 2
History: Our Past and How We Remember It?
Lynn Weber, “Understanding Race, Class, Gender, and Sexuality,” Chapters 10, pp. 175-182 and Hernan Vera and Andrew Gordon, “Screen Saviors: Hollywood Fictions of Whiteness,” Chapter 4, pp. 52-66.
Film: “Matewan” (1987) independent feature film directed by John Sayles (132 minutes).  Morris Library DVD 2454   VHS 3188.
This film presents a conflict between a union and a coal company in a small West Virginia community in 1920.  We can examine a picture of class conflict and how people build bridges across race and ethnicity. How does the independent film contrast with Vera and Gordon’s discussion of Amistad, a Hollywood production?

October 4
The Message Movie: Film as an Agent of Social Change.
Hernan Vera and Andrew Gordon, “Screen Saviors: Hollywood Fictions of Whiteness,” Chapter 6, pp. 84-99.
Issues for Class Discussion: What questions does “Matewan” raise about economic progress and the conditions necessary for companies to make profits?  Think about major social structural factors and how different individuals shape their lives within the context of a historical moment.  How do race and gender shape experiences for members of the working class?  Does the film help you understand macro and micro social processes in the 1920s?  Do films help us understand the nature of social change or do they produce myths that make us comfortable?  Contrast how race and power are addressed in “Matewan” with “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner,” as discussed by Vera and Gordon.

October 9
Working Class Life and Social Mobility.
bell hooks, “Where We Stand: Class Matters,” Introduction and Chapters 1-3, pp. 1-49; Hernan Vera and Andrew Gordon, “Screen Saviors: Hollywood Fictions of Whiteness,” Chapter 7, pp. 100-114 and look at Weber’s Chapter 10 again for thinking about social justice.
Film: “Norma Rae” (1979) feature film directed by Martin Ritt (113 minutes).  Morris Library VHS 7693.
Issues for Class Discussion:  bell hooks describes growing up Black in an earlier era. Think about the key issues and concepts that shape her life.  How do we learn the critical dimensions of our lives?  As you read about the experiences of a Black woman, what do you think is missing in the films where Black and White women might interact?  While we are reading about an individual mobility struggle, we will watch a film about a collective struggle.  Think about the contrast between the two strategies.

October 11
Rethinking Race and Film.
  bell hooks, “Where We Stand: Class Matters,” Chapters 4-13, pp. 50-164.
Mobility is often a theme in film.  What are the realities of the experience as we look at bell hooks’ memoir?

October 16
Unionization in the Contemporary United States.
“Bread and Roses” (2001) Independent film directed by Ken Loach Morris Library DVD 485.
Issues for Class Discussion: Who is telling the story in this third union film?  What do we learn about contemporary social class relations?  What insights can be drawn about the plight of undocumented workers?  What is the role of the union organizer?  What do gender, race, social class and citizenship status mean in this film?  What rights do most U.S. citizens take for granted?  What are some lessons about privilege we see through this film? This film’s director is British. What does it mean to have an outsider looking at the United States?  What are some differences in an outsider view of social inequality?  What can we learn from these views?

October 18
Mid-term Examination.
True/false questions, multiple choice questions, and short essays on films, readings, and lectures up to and including October 16.

October 23
Race, Sexuality and Citizenship.
Hernan Vera and Andrew Gordon, “Screen Saviors: Hollywood Fictions of Whiteness,” Chapter 8-9, pp. 115-153.
Film: “Wedding Banquet” (1993) an independent feature film directed by Ang Lee (101 minutes).  Morris Library DVD 1088.
Many of the residents in the United States are foreign born, especially after the Immigration Act of 1965.  Many of these new residents are often bi-or tri-cultural as a result of their affiliations and relationships across many communities.  What are the different meanings of family in this film?  In their chapters, Vera and Gordon discuss racial masquerades, but how is the masquerade used in this film?

October 25
Representations in Independent Films.
"Wedding Banquet" is an independent film by a Chinese born director. What makes this film different from others that explore the lifestyles of homosexuals, Asian immigrants, and the relationships between citizens and immigrants?
Time for Genre Groups.

October 30
Coming of Age in the Working Class.
“In Country” (1995) Morris Library DVD 781.  Feature film, based on Bobbie Ann Mason's novel, directed by Norman Jewison (120 minutes).
Issues for Class Discussion: One genre is the coming of age film, which is a way to explore race, gender, and social class.  This film features a young woman in a small town.  What are critical aspects of growing up?  Why are these issues paramount?  What do we learn from these stories?  Do these stories encourage us to analyze ourselves?  Race, gender and social class, and sexuality can have different meanings in urban, rural and suburban settings. How are these settings represented in films?  What might be advantages and disadvantages of these different settings?

November 1
Institutions and Ideologies: What Do We Learn from Films?
Robert Bulman, “ Hollywood Goes to High School,” Chapters 1-2, pp. 1-42. Exploring how films provide a window into our mainstream culture, but also the experiences of people on the margins.
Time for Genre Groups.

November 6
Investigating a Genre: The High School Film.
Robert Bulman, “ Hollywood Goes to High School,” Chapters 3-4, pp. 43-118.
Film: “Cheaters” (2000) Morris Library DVD 2604.  Feature film directed by John Stockwell.
Unlike many films about urban schools, the teacher is not the savior here. What does this film suggest about the problems of urban educators?

November 8
Hollywood and Independent Films: Contrasting Ideologies.
Robert Bulman, “ Hollywood Goes to High School,” Chapters 5-7, pp. 119-169.
What is missing in these representations of the high schools? Do such films influence the expectations young people might have about high school?
Time for Genre Groups.

November 13
Buddy Films and the Hollywood Path to Success.
Hernan Vera and Andrew Gordon, “Screen Saviors: Hollywood Fictions of Whiteness,” Chapters 10 and 11, pp. 154-184.
Film: “Finding Forrester” (2001) Feature film by Gus Van Sant (136 minutes) Morris Library DVD 443.
Issues for Class Discussion: In addition to portraying two different high schools, this film is about a relationship that crosses many barriers.  Bulman sees it as showing how integrity triumphs over privilege, following a pattern of other films about private schools.  What other issues do you see in the film?  Using the model Weber uses to describe Margaret Welch, describe the social locations of Jamal Wallace and his neighborhood friends. What does this film suggest about the American Dream?  What do we learn about friendships across race and class?

November 15
Hollywood Representations of Race and Class Inequalities.
Hernan Vera and Andrew Gordon, “Screen Saviors: Hollywood Fictions of Whiteness,” Chapter 12, pp. 185-194.
Issues for Class Discussion:  Continue discussion of “Finding Forrester,” and the readings by hooks and Bulman to look at impact of race, gender, social class, and sexuality on coming of age films in the U.S. Where do social institutions, like high schools, fit in the equation? Do Hollywood resolutions affect our thinking about social class and race?
Time for Genre Groups.

November 20
Working Class Daughters: Race and Social Class in Shaping Life Options.
How are women of color generally depicted in Hollywood films?  What are the usual representations?  What new developments have you seen?  What do we know about gender barriers for women of color?  Think about the experiences of bell hooks.  Compare her observations with representations in Hollywood films.  What is the contribution of independent films to the range of representations?
Film Clip: “Sisters in Cinema,” VHS 9017
Film: “Girl Fight” (2000) independent feature film by Karyn Kusmana (DVD 772).
Time for Genre Groups.

November 22
Gender and Social Class: Images from a Latino Community.
Following the model Weber uses to describe Margaret Welch, describe the social locations of Diana Guzman and her sometime boyfriend, Adrian? What is their vision of success?  What race and gender barriers do they face?  Who is telling the story?  How does an independent film provide a new lens for looking at gender issues?  The high school is simply background in this film. What might this mean in terms of the social spaces where young people develop an identity?  Think about how this film contributes to the discussion of the relationship of gender, race and social class.
Time for Genre Groups.

November 27
The Power of Representation.
While many racial groups were invisible in Hollywood films, Native Americans were an important presence. However, the images of Indians were controlled by others.  How does the power to represent affect the way the story is told?
Film Clip: The Searchers” (1956) John Ford western.  Morris Library VHS 648
Film: “Smoke Signals,” (1998) Independent film presentation directed by Chris Eyre (89 minutes). Morris Library VHS 8265. This was the first U.S. film developed by Native Americans. 
Issues for Class Discussion: How do Native Americans living on the reservation fit within the U.S. social class system?  What makes this coming of age film different from others you have seen?  How are these Indians different from others you have seen in major motion pictures?  How does the narrative style different from Hollywood films?

November 29
Power in the Media: Representations and Messages.
How do Native Americans speak to a general audience in “Smoke Signals?”  What messages do they send that might be different from representations in mainstream films?  What are common themes in the films about racial groups? What do “Cheaters,” “Finding Forrester,” "Smoke Signals" and “Girl Fight” have in common?  In what ways are they different?  What does each film see as the problem and the solution?  Who do you identify with in each film?  Why? What are explicit and subtle messages about mobility and social justice?  What do you think about working-class characters and risk?
Genre Report Due.

December 4
Another Nation, Another History.
How might other nations approach their histories of racial oppression? An examination of one film from Australia can be a starting point for discussion. Film: “Rabbit Proof Fence” (2003) Feature film produced in Australia and directed by Philip Noyce (94 minutes). Morris Library DVD 695.


Final Examination    



New York Times Movies:  Interesting source about film, but recent and historical, including past winner of Oscars.
Rotten Tomatoes:  Web site about films, but review and box office totals and ther infromatino.  You can also use to find out how to order DVD and VHS.