There has been a shift away from formal and textual analysis in the field of film and media studies. These methodologies are seen as passé, “old school,” or even overly simplistic (and no doubt some of this work may warrant these critiques). Yet, I suspect that, as with the celebration of style in Moonlight (Barry Jenkins, 2016), here, too, other politics are at play. In some ways, to reject formal analysis is to subconsciously reject the earlier era of film studies that treated the study of black film (and eventually television) as marginal or inconsequential. In other ways, this move away from formal analysis is also an acknowledgement of the incredibly rich and multifaceted terrain that black representations cover: the critical study of industrial practices, labor, and global strategies—to list some of the most popular topics in the field right now—are all essential to any understanding of the complicated subject of black film and media.
Questions of style, though, cannot be separated from questions of politics. Aesthetics bear the indelible imprint of racial ideologies. This is tricky territory, then, and requires scholars to tread carefully. The celebration of certain “beautiful” aesthetics can serve to reinforce an established taste politics that has traditionally dictated an aesthetic marginalization and degradation for people of color throughout the history of the medium. I intend these questions as provocations rather than condemnations. I am not suggesting that high-quality images are simply indicators of whiteness or that low-quality ones are inherently more authentic for representing blackness. On the contrary, I am fascinated by the power that style holds, especially as it pertains to the black image, and how the implementation of that style can form a powerful critique of the film and television industries' longtime racism. At the same time, I want a more rigorous, thoughtful, critical interrogation of how these images come to be, what they signify, and how they train viewers to read race in ways that extend beyond narrative. In proposing an emphasis on aesthetic and formal analysis, I am suggesting, not a “return” to traditional film studies approaches, but instead, a study of black images that was never “there” in the first place.