An interview with new CSI Faculty member, Lauren Cramer

August 14, 2019 by Denise Ing

Prof. Lauren Cramer is joining the Cinema Studies Institute in September 2019, and slated to teach CIN332Y1Y - Screening Race, CIN450H1F - Framing Cultural Geographies and CIN431H1S - In the Cut: Hip-Hop Cinema & Visual Culture. We asked her to tell us a bit about herself. 

What is your background in cinema? What are your areas of specialization, and what drew you to those areas?

I took my first film class (a seminar on contemporary film theory) as an undergrad at Villanova University. I believe there was a registration error that allowed me to enroll in an advance course because I was completely unprepared. I struggled the entire semester and, being a pretty competitive person, I decided I would not be beaten by cinema studies. So I went to Emory University for my MA in Film and Media Studies and Georgia State University for my PhD in Communication/Moving Image Studies. After working with a lot of great scholars at these schools I like to think that I won.

My research is on Blackness and aesthetics in Black popular culture. I am interested in the formal junctures where race and visual culture come together because these are the points where Blackness is made (and unmade). Black visual culture, particularly Black popular culture, allows us see the ways Blackness is excluded from the world while being an essential part of how we make sense of it (i.e. how we understand the past/future, human/nonhuman, etc). As a result, these images are also the places where we may see Blackness disrupting these paradigms.

I am particularly drawn to hip-hop because it is such an incredibly vibrant creative space. Hip-hop is always pushing the limits of what we think is appropriate and even what is good (see mumble rap). Hip-hop also shares something with my favorite kind of scholarship: it draws attention to things that feel intuitive about race and culture that, maybe for that reason, are rarely stated explicitly.

What are your top three favourite films of all time? Why?

  • Last Black Man in San Francisco (Talbot, 2019)
  • Belly (Williams, 1998)
  • Cool Runnings (Turtleltaub, 1993)

This list says a lot about my taste in film. I don’t really tend to play favorites, so I am always open to adopting new films to my list of personal favorites—which is why it is not surprising that I included a film from 2019. I knew within the first 5 minutes that Last Black Man in San Francisco was going on that list. It is stunning! When I do get attached to films it is often to small moments, like the opening sequence in Belly, which is so visually and sonically exhilarating that it excuses DMX’s acting. Finally, I learned to love film from parents who intuitively knew the importance of race and representation. They required the majority of films we rented from the video store each week (yes, video store) had Black actors in the lead roles. My Jamaican father was particularly supportive of repeat viewings of Cool Runnings, which means I can perform a key monologue from the film at any time.

What films are you looking forward to seeing in the future?

Queen & Slim (Matsoukas, 2019) and Barry Jenkin’s adaptation of The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead.

Which is your favourite film festival?

I am very excited to experience TIFF this year and cannot wait to experience how the festival affects the entire city, but as a graduate student I interned for the Atlanta Jewish Film Festival and it is where I learned how film, specifically collective viewing, can bring a community together. It is such a special event with an incredibly dedicated staff and team of volunteers. It will always have a special significance to me.

Tell us about your courses in 2019/20.

I am teaching two new course this year: Framing Cultural Geographies and In the Cut: Hip-Hop Cinema & Visual Culture.

In "Framing Cultural Geographies" we’ll consider the ways film and visual culture create space/spatial relationships inside and outside of narrative space. For example, consider the ways the subterranean space in Us (Peele, 2019) functions like a sci-fi national border that separates the people who can enjoy freedom and those whose labor supports that freedom. We’ll think about the ways cultural identities are are created through spaces that are more imagined than real (i.e. the cowboy in the "wild west") and how contemporary film and media can reimagine these spaces and identities (i.e. Walter White’s complicated masculinity in the desert of "Breaking Bad").

In "In the Cut: Hip-Hop Cinema & Visual Culture" we’ll explore the staggering numbers of cultural objects associated with hip-hop. Instead of labeling “good” and “bad” hip-hop, we’ll focus on how our assumptions about the genre reveal the complex cultural formations that determine how we understand issues like race, gender, and value. We will shift the popular conversation about what hip-hop is—or what is should be— in order to address what its popularity, humor, and style does.