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Crime films defy precise definition. This category includes traditional courtroom films like Witness for the Prosecution (1957), detective films like Gone Girl (2014), prison films like The Shawshank Redemption (1994), comedies like My Cousin Vinny (1992) or Find Me Guilty (2006), gangster films like The Godfather series (1972, 1974, 1990), and even musicals like Chicago (2002). Thus crime films provide an almost limitless variety of plots, characters, and settings. Adopting a very broad definition of what constitutes a “crime film”, the representation of race in crime films throughout the 20th and early 21st centuries is examined. During much of the early and mid-20th century, crime on American Main Street silver screens was largely a white phenomenon. The absence of people considered nonwhite from early crime films is unsurprising because “whiteness is positioned as the default category, the center or the assumed norm on which everything else in American society is based. Under this conception, white is often defined more through what it is not than what it is.” Racial outsiders like African and Asian Americans, Native Americans, Latinos, and other persons considered nonwhite were not featured on America’s movie screens. If they appeared at all in early crime films it was as marginal stereotypical characters. Stereotyping, when used in film, is designed “to quickly convey information about characters and to instill in audiences expectations about characters’ actions.” During the early days of American films nonwhites were encoded with negative, often criminal, stereotypes. In silent films like Birth of a Nation (1915), for example, African American men were depicted as rapists and violent brutes. Mexicans in The Greaser’s Gauntlet (1908) and Guns and Greasers (1918) were depicted as criminals. Silent films like The Massacre (1912) and The Battle of Elderbush Gulch (1913) portrayed Native Americans as lawless savages, an image reinforced throughout the 20th century by western films. In The Cheat (1915) Japanese male immigrants were depicted as wily sexual predictors. The stereotypes attributed to ethnic Chinese were slightly different and more exaggerated. Films like The Heathen Chinese and the Sunday School Teacher (1904) and The Yellow Peril (1908) demonized Chinese immigrants as villainous predictors. In episode 13 of the film serial The Exploits of Elaine (1914) the protagonist, Pearl, “[t]rapped in a lair of Chinese devil worshipers . . . is spared rape, a fate worse than death, in favor of ritual sacrifice to an Oriental demon who demands a bride ‘blond, beautiful and not of our race’.” Although nonwhites’ conduct was criminalized in these films, the films themselves were not crime films.

Article

Rachel Austin and Amy Farrell

Although the exploitation of people for profit is not a new phenomenon, in the late 1990s and early 2000s international leaders, advocates, and the public became increasingly concerned about the risks of exploitation inherent in labor migration and commercial sex work. In 2000, the U.S. government passed the Victims of Trafficking and Violence Protection Act (TVPA), which defined a new crime of human trafficking and directed law enforcement agencies to begin identifying and responding to this form of victimization. Following passage of the TVPA, U.S. media interest in human trafficking as a crime increased steadily, though the framing of the problem, its causes, and its solutions has changed over time. Media coverage of human trafficking spiked around 2005 and has risen steadily since that time. Human trafficking has become a “hot topic”—the subject of investigative journalism and a sexy plot line for films and television shows. Yet, the media often misrepresent human trafficking or focus exclusively on certain aspects of the problem. Research on human trafficking frames in print media revealed that portrayals of human trafficking were for the most part oversimplified and inaccurate in terms of human trafficking being portrayed as innocent white female victims needing to be rescued from nefarious traffickers. Depictions of human trafficking in movies, documentaries, and television episodes in the United States have followed a rescue narrative, where innocent victims are saved from harmful predators. Additionally, traffickers are commonly portrayed in the media as part of larger organized crime rings, despite empirical evidence to the contrary. Incorrect framing of human trafficking in the popular media may lead policymakers and legislators to adopt less helpful antitrafficking responses, particularly responses focused on criminal justice system solutions.

Article

Anita Lam

While there are multiple possible definitions of what makes a gangster film, ranging from the simple inclusion of a villainous gangster in a film to those that follow outlaws on the run, the classic definition of a gangster film has revolved around the rise and inevitable fall of an immigrant gangster protagonist, a career criminal with whom audiences are expected to identify. Yet this classic definition has been expanded by evolving theoretical and methodological considerations of film genre. From the outset, gangster films were one of the first film genres to be considered by early genre criticism. Based on structural and formal analyses of the so-called Big Three Hollywood gangster films from the 1930s—namely, Little Caesar, The Public Enemy, and Scarface—early scholars argued that the gangster genre reflected the ideological tensions that underlay the American Dream of material success. Interpreted as modern tragic figures, gun-toting gangsters in these films were trapped in dangerous cities characterized by anonymity, violence, and death. More recently, genre criticism of gangster films has not only shifted emphasis away from the classic gangster narrative, but also paid far greater attention to institutional intertexts that have highly influenced the production and historical reception of these films. By highlighting variability, contingency, mutability, and flexibility, scholars now speak of genre in terms of specific cycles of production, where each cycle produces different gangster figures to mediate changing societal concerns and public discourses around issues of criminality, class, gender, and race. More contemporary and culturally-specific extensions, adaptations, or articulations of the gangster genre can also be read as thematic explorations of blackness in the following two ways. First, the cycle of ghetto-centric American “hood” films in the 1990s, a cycle that helped to launch hip-hop cinema, points to a continuity between the mythic figure of the gangster and African-American self-representations as “gangsta.” Secondly, while the gangster genre has been defined as a distinctly and explicitly American genre, owing much to critics’ primary emphasis on examining Hollywood films, the genre has also played a significant role in revitalizing and popularizing Hong Kong cinema in the late 1980s and 1990s. Referred to as hak bong dianying (“black gang films”), Cantonese-language Hong Kong gangster films are part of the fabric of local Hong Kong culture, revealing the moral implications of joining “black society” (the Cantonese-language concept for triad) and the “black paths” that members take.

Article

Stephen Tomsen and Dick Hobbs

A focus on masculinity and crime has been an ongoing feature of popular culture, ranging from early pulp fiction, cartoons, popular music, commercial film and television, and contemporary forms of gaming and online media. In sociology and cultural studies, the search for unequivocal examples of ideological repression has been thrown into doubt by accounts that seek out nuanced readings of cultural depictions and that have reworked evidence from audience research to question ideology as an uncontested absorption of ruling ideas. The creative relationship between producer and audience, with shifting meanings for consumers of culture, means a hesitation about whether cultural items can be read as holding a single inner meaning. A consideration of these cultural forms shows that simpler depictions of crime and criminal justice as a terrain of symbolic struggle between rival masculinities contrast morally repellent offenders from law enforcement heroes who enact justice and guard society. Yet cultural accounts of crime often offer more ambiguous scenarios that are difficult for viewers to judge, and opportunities for viewers to identify with acts of violence and lawbreaking that play on the wider tensions between official state-based and outlaw “protest” masculinities in the criminal justice system.

Article

Jeremy Lipschultz

The discussion of crime news on television must begin with a basic cultural understanding that journalism is facing a time of dramatic change. Mitchell Stephens argued in his 2014 book Beyond News: The Future of Journalism that the news process remains challenging to define: “Journalism is the activity of collecting, presenting, interpreting, or commenting upon the news for some portion of the public” (p. xiii). In the case of crime news, a variety of historical developments changed the nature of newsgathering and presentation. Sociological and cultural theories help us understand the process, the content, and the effects. An examination of the various approaches to the study of crime news will extend cultural understanding to entertainment media and long-term societal implications of new technologies, such as social media.

Article

In examining Aboriginal riots, the conditions of political antagonism and the distinct ways these relations of antagonism are played out take precedence. Ethnographic approaches that analyze the substance of situated cultural meanings are central to understanding these relations. Drawing upon Allen Feldman’s ethnographic account of the “Troubles” in Northern Ireland for some of its interpretive framework, this article surveys the methodological value and importance the Manchester School of Anthropology placed on “atypical events,” moments when irresolvable tensions boil to the surface. For anthropologists, what is important in understanding riots is the manner in which participants themselves extract meanings in violence. What do they say about the violence? How is it culturally situated in particular social and political contexts? Different antagonists create their own moral economy that then legitimates their repertoires of violence.

Article

Walter S. DeKeseredy

There is no single critical criminology. Rather, there are critical criminologies with different histories, methods, theories, and political perspectives. However, critical criminology is often defined as a perspective that views the major sources of crime as the unequal class, race/ethnic, and gender relations that control our society. Critical criminologists oppose prisons and other draconian means of social control. Their main goal is major radical and cultural change, but they recognize that these transitions will not occur in the current neoliberal era. Hence, most critical criminologists propose short-term anticrime policies and practices and fundamental social, economic, and political transformations, such as a change from a capitalist economy to one based on more socialist principles.