Scripted Curriculum: What Movies Teach About Dis/ability and Black Males

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Background/Context: Tropes of dis/ability in the movies and master-narratives of Black males in education and society are typically treated in isolation. Furthermore, education research on Hollywood movies has typically focused on portrayals of schools, principals, and teachers even though education professionals are exposed to a broader range of movies. Analyses of dis/ability tropes in the media also tend to ignore how they work in multiples and intersect with narratives of other social identities such as race and gender.

Focus of Study: This article examines the complexity of portrayals of Black (dis/abled) males that are scripted through dis/ability tropes and master-narratives of race and gender. Trends in these portrayals are juxtaposed with literature on how Black, (dis/abled) male students are treated in schools and society.

Research Design: Critical media analysis is combined with the social model perspective of dis/ability to explore the lessons that movies provide audiences about Black (dis/abled) males. This analysis of several movies produced from 1990 to 2012 is informed by critical perspectives from critical dis/ability studies (CDS), critical race studies in education (CRSE), and curriculum studies and scholarship on education, social science, and popular culture.

Data Collection and Analysis: Data are drawn from major motion pictures produced and distributed nationally in the U.S. (1990-2012) that feature Black male actors in leading or major supporting roles characterized as having a physical dis/ability, impairment (restricted use of major limb or sensory organ), or a debilitating condition according to the Internet Movie Database. Data from media outlets and documents (movie scripts) support the analysis. CDS and CRSE, namely critical race theory (CRT), provide the theoretical framework.

Findings/Results: The narratives of Black (dis/abled) males in movies are more complex than typically described. Rather than operating singularly, dis/ability tropes interpenetrate and intersect with master-narratives of race and gender to portray Black (dis/abled) males through a narrative of intersectional threat coded in themes of marginalization, dysfunction, and miscegenation. The findings are further nuanced through a discussion of the constructs of presence through absence, embodied patriotism, and racialized space in order to illustrate how Black (dis/abled) males’ treatment in the movies echoes in how they are treated in schools and society.

Conclusions/Recommendations: Through an intersectional lens of critique directed toward all forms of cultural texts, educators can resist the normative conceptions that can orient their praxis in schools and society. Attention to how stereotypical narratives in film and education leave out a range of experience among Black (dis/abled) males can generate counter-spaces for a broader range of narratives.

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Citation / Publisher Attribution

Teachers College Record, v. 116, issue 4