This interview was originally published in Film Quarterly.
Sam Sheppard is the author of Sporting Blackness: Race, Embodiment, and Critical Muscle Memory on Screen. Sheppard is the Mary Armstrong Meduski ’80 Assistant Professor of Cinema and Media Studies in the Department of Performing and Media Arts at Cornell University.
Sporting Blackness examines issues of race and representation in sports films, exploring what it means to embody, perform, play out, and contest blackness by representations of Black athletes on screen. By presenting new critical terms, Sheppard analyzes not only “skin in the game,” or how racial representation shapes the genre’s imagery, but also “skin in the genre,” or the formal consequences of blackness on the sport film genre’s modes, codes, and conventions. Through a rich interdisciplinary approach, Sheppard argues that representations of Black sporting bodies contain “critical muscle memories”: embodied, kinesthetic, and cinematic histories that go beyond a film’s plot to index, circulate, and reproduce broader narratives about Black sporting and non-sporting experiences in American society.
Bruno Guaraná: I’d like to explore the genesis of this book project, which started with your dissertation. What was your personal investment in the topic?
Samantha Sheppard: Yes, this project comes out of my doctoral research, which focused on embodiment and performativity in contemporary sports films. In the dissertation’s conclusion, I noted that the project’s future would include thinking through the idea of critical muscle memory. At the time, I had a sense of the concept but had not quite fleshed out what it meant and could mean in terms of race and embodiment in the genre. But I knew that it would be an integral part of my attempt to think more critically about sports films and black representation. So, this project really grew from trying to examine the Black sporting body’s representations, resonance, and repetitions.
Looking even further back, I would say that this book’s idea had its initial wellspring in my deep personal affection for and ambivalence about sports, largely based on my own experience as an athlete. While I am critical of sports culture, I am also completely fascinated by the sports-film genre. I can quote my fair share of scenes from sports films and have been known to recite random lines from Remember the Titans (Boaz Yakin, 2000) and Cool Runnings (Jon Turteltaub, 1993) unprompted. I appreciate a good slow clap and training montage. In short, I am a fan of the genre. What I love most about sports films is their fraught and sometimes fabulous depictions of the Black sporting body as virtuosic in its athleticism. As a result, Sporting Blackness is attuned to the pleasures and perils of black athleticism on-screen.
As a researcher, I was struck by how undertheorized the genre was in terms of race and representation. This lack of criticism has occurred, in part, because sports films are often and incorrectly perceived as apolitical or innocuous due to their utopian, melodramatic, and idealized narratives. And yet, the gap in black film criticism specifically felt glaring because of the genre’s vaulted if underappreciated viewpoint of the Black body. With this book, I wanted to fill the gap in sports and black film and media criticism and bring interdisciplinary methods to bear on the genre’s representational and formal practices and possibilities.
Guaraná: Could you talk about how you selected the corpus of films you analyze and your considerations for organizing them for the book?
Sheppard: One of the best things I did for myself early in the writing process was to reject the idea that this book needed to be either a genealogy or a complete survey of black representation in sports films. I was therefore able to free myself from that kind of specific narrative/historical structure and attend more acutely to distinct representational tropes and their formal consequences within and beyond sport cinema’s regimes of representation.
In the introduction’s explanation of key terms, I discuss conceptual artist Hank Willis Thomas’s video Overtime (2011). Exhibition curator Richard Klein explains that Overtime stages the question “What happens when the visual legacy of American lynching collides with the visual legacy of the slam dunk?”2 I explore a similarly provocative question throughout the chapters of my book: What happens when the visual legacy of blackness in American cinema collides with the visual legacies of Black sporting bodies? Therefore, I organized the book into four chapters that engage Black sporting bodies as historical contestants, racial icons, athletic genders, and rebellious athletes. The arc of the book constructs and deconstructs the modes, codes, and conventions of the genre, keeping in mind how Black bodies shape and reshape meaning on-screen and beyond. In the end, Sporting Blackness theorizes race and embodiment in terms of the sports-film genre but provides a way to understand blackness both in motion and in contest that has applicability outside the sports film’s categorical boundaries and generic restrictions.
Guaraná: Throughout the book, you deftly reveal the connective tissues between particular moments in film (and other media) and black history, sports, and culture. But the term “critical muscle memory” also describes a spectatorial affect. To what would you attribute the potential for these affects on any spectator?
Sheppard: A lot of the theorists I was drawing from, including C. L. R. James, Elizabeth Alexander, Harvey Young, Frantz Fanon, and Grant Farred, are thinking about shared, black embodied experiences affectively. In a similar manner, I offer an athletically and culturally specific use of the term “critical muscle memory”—one that engages human kinetics and black memory in terms of Black communities. And this racial specificity matters in terms of the images and the spectators I am engaged with in the book. But I do think the term is capacious enough to be modified and deployed to engage other images and experiences.