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By Phil Hall | July 18, 2008

Rhonda Fabian’s documentary on the history of racial stereotyping in 20th century mass media (identified as motion pictures, advertising and broadcast television news) attempts to cram a great deal of information into a relatively scant 42 minutes. The result, not surprisingly, is a surplus of brief observations (delivered in a monotonous narration by Suzanne Weintraub) that ultimately leads to nowhere.

Much of the information here is not new: the American mass media in the years before the 1960s civil rights legislation was created by and targeted at the white middle class. Non-whites were mostly figures of derision, either as exaggerated exotics or as clumsy buffoons (and there are plenty of clips to prove that sad point). Even in today’s supposedly enlightened environment, biases and stereotypes can still be confirmed: against African Americans in local television news programs (particularly crime reporting), against Asians in films (asexual men and unscrupulous women) and, increasingly, Muslims and Arab Americans following 9/11.

The film also notes the proliferation of cable television networks aimed at particular demographics only serves to segregate communities further, rather than encourage multiculturalism. But the film fails to acknowledge media figures who’ve enjoyed crossover racial and ethnic appeal (Oprah Winfrey, Tyra Banks, Jennifer Lopez, for starters), and it pays relatively little attention to the demographics behind the camera.

With its limited length, the film ultimately becomes a laundry list of problems without any hint of solutions

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