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Book review by Stephanie Partridge (student on MA2076 Transational Cinemas, 2011-12)

There is a clear emphasis and purpose for this book which is indicated in the first instance in the title and continues right through until the end of the book. This is the issue of ‘Bidding for the Mainstream’ for which the authors continually refer back to throughout the book. A range of issues are addressed and discussed in this book as the authors explore them thoroughly, offering context and examples to suitably compliment their argument. A book useful for many purposes, it could be used by media students, or culturally studies students as well as people simply interested in the discussion.

In Bidding for the Mainstream?, Barbara Korte and Claudia Sternberg offer more than enough content in order for the reader to fully grasp the subject at hand. As authors, they guide the readers through making the text easy to digest. What is good about this book is that it provides a clear and strong focus of black and Asian British film and television, specifically looking at such content from the 1900s and the early 2000s. 

It places considerable emphasis on the context, with references to a little further back in the 1980s, at a time when these types of films began to reach a wider audience. Therefore it is clear for the reader to notice any changes within the films from a few decades ago to the more contemporary ones of the 2000s. It is also good because it focuses on both black and Asian British cinema, rather than just one or the other. This provides two different types of film for discussion, in terms of cultural identity and the ideas and values portrayed which is useful for comparing and contrasting the different films, and also the changes that have occurred over time.  

The best feature of this book is its cohesiveness, the chapters are laid out in an organised manner which makes it easy for the reader, as it lays out the different discussions and arguments which are then synthesised in the conclusion. It is an extremely useful resource for anyone studying issues of race within the media, and is especially useful for university students interested in this particular subject. It is full of theory with numerous amounts of information on the films mentioned, offering some background and a synopsis for each film. The book also goes further to place the films and their content into a social context to fully understand any underlying issues.   

Anyone who is studying Asian British film in particular or even just interested in it would pick this book up straight away after seeing the front cover. It features a still taken from the immensely popular film Bend it Like Beckham (2002), which is known worldwide. This demonstrates that the book takes note of more contemporary film and media, as well as addressing slightly older films and the history surrounding them. It works as an aide to anyone who wants to study how film and media has changed, concerning the issues around black and Asian British film from the 1950s and 1960s, until now.   

A clear accompaniment for this book would be Paul Gilroy’s There Ain’t No Black in the Union Jack. The translucent title of Gilroy’s book makes it clear the kind of discussions that he intends to explore. As I have already noted, this is also the case with Bidding for the Mainstream?  as both titles sum up the purpose of each book perfectly. In his book, Gilroy makes use of a number of quotes and has a great quantity of theory behind his argument, just like Korte and Sternberg do. Gilroy concentrates on an exploration of anti-black racism in Britain, offering similar ideas as this book. Both books focus on Britain in particular, both look at the issue concerning the idea of ‘black’ not being the norm, or mainstream, but both do so in different ways. Gilroy examines Britain on a multicultural society, whereas Korte and Sternberg focus on film in its socio-historical and industrial context.     

Bidding for the Mainstream? is split into six chapters, each highlighting slightly different areas and issues concerning black and Asian film and television. The titles of the chapters give the audience a very clear insight into what they should expect to be reading about. Hence, if the reader was studying just Asian or just black film then it is simple to be selective with the chapters that you choose to look at. Chapters 1 and 2 serve as an introduction to the issues that are explored throughout the book, with a considerable amount of theory based text. Following on from this, chapters 3 through to 6 go into more detail, making note of certain films in particular and looking at the more practical side of the argument. The book comes to an end featuring a selection of statements by black and Asian media practitioners, to get a sense of their perspective from within.    

Chapter 1 introduces the main focus, black and Asian Britain in relation to the cultural mainstream. This first chapter is a great starting point as it provides the audience with an overview of Britain in the 1990s, applying this social context that I have mentioned before. Korte and Sternberg make it clear that their aim is to define the term ‘mainstream’, for which they state a straightforward answer is impossible (7). This chapter also goes wider than just film and television as it considers theatre too, with references being made to Andrew Lloyd Webber’s musical, Bombay Dreams (10). Furthermore, the success of some black and Asian novels are considered in this chapter also, so it incorporates a wide range of media forms, and not just on screen entertainment.    

Chapter 2 goes a little deeper than chapter 1, introducing the pondering question “Be ourselves and be mainstream?” with a focus on black British film. A quote that Korte and Sternberg use as a motto for this chapter is “Can we not be ourselves and be mainstream?” (Danny Thompson, 1995) which they say raises numerous issues and addresses the familiar problem of how to maintain a distinct (ethnic/‘racial’) identity (29). There is a lot of theory in this chapter, perhaps because Korte and Sternberg are building up their argument, with references to Stuart Hall, Paul Gilroy and others. The quote that they use here from Danny Thompson helps the authors, but also works on another level to stimulate the audience to consider and think about this question themselves as they continue reading.    

Chapter 3 winds back in time to the 1960s through to the 1980s to focus specifically on the Evolution of black and Asian Narrative film in Britain. Iconic films are revisited in this chapter, such as Horace Ové’s Pressure(1975) and Franco Rosso’s Babylon (1980). Ové is introduced in this chapter with some information about his background and his filmmaking, focusing on Pressure as it was the breakthrough film, historically known as the first feature-length film made by a black British filmmaker. This chapter is the first chapter that talks about the history of film in depth, it serves as an interesting chapter to find out about social context. Not only this, it makes several links applying this context to the films being made at the time.      

Chapter 4 looks at a social group and a type of film in particular, focusing on black youth films in the 1990s. This chapter is great when looking how well it is contextually based, talking about the decline of cinema in the 1950s, with low attendance in the 1980s too but an increase again in the 1990s, when the films in question were produced (95). This chapter goes into a lot more depth as it takes each film, provides a quick synopsis and gives information on the filmmaker and an idea of who contributed to the funding. An example of how this chapter is hugely contextually based is where reference is made to Young Soul Rebels (1991) which is set in 1977, while final preparations were being made for the Queen’s Silver Jubilee (103). This film along with another, Looking for Langston (1989) are significant as they were films made under mainstream conditions, by black filmmakers.              

Chapter 5 then takes a look at Asian British film since the 1990s. It follows the format of chapter 4, but the focus is on Asian films such as the two hugely popular films, East is East (1999) and Bend It Like Beckham(2002). These films are more contemporary than any of the other films looked at in the preceeding chapters. This book is cohesive in that it offers the readers the films in a chronological order, aiding the understanding of representations and issues of race and how they have altered over time.  

Chapter 6 moves away from film and looks at Television drama from the 1990s with the cleverly named title ‘Mainscreening Black and Asian British History’. The pun here between the words ‘mainstreaming’ and ‘screening’ demonstrates exactly what Korte and Sternberg have been focusing on throughout their journey of this book. Near the end of this book it is obvious that black and Asian media has prevailed and is most certainly becoming more mainstream, or at least making a definite impression. Television and the emergence of Channel 4 in the 1980s, whose aim was to serve minority groups, seems to have boosted the reputation and presence of black and Asian media.  

An obvious theme, and in fact, the key theme for this book is the issue of ‘mainstream’. There are many varying definitions of mainstream but one is people, activities, or ideas that are part of this ‘mainstream’ are regarded as the most typical, normal and conventional because they belong to the same group or system as most others of their kind. 

Here the authors use the example of East is East (1999), an Asian British film which turned out to be a big success at the box office, and gained international recognition. As the chapters progress, they turn their focus to the more practical side of film, looking at changing modes of production, distribution and reception (1). Straight away Korte and Sternberg identity the problems in defining ‘mainstream’ and say that introducing the notion of mainstream further complicates the discussion of how to define the ‘blackness’, ‘Asianness’ and ‘Britishness’ of certain media products (2).  

This book has been an eye opener for me, in the sense that I have been made more aware of certain issues about which I knew very little before. The focus on the films and television that I have been exposed to over the course of my life raised new issues and provided me with information that I have not before found elsewhere. Previously, I have passively sat and watched a number of the films mentioned here without taking into consideration wider issues entangled with the films.  

This book leaves the pondering question in the readers’ mind of what actually is ‘mainstream’. A term so hard to define, I do not think we will ever know what exactly is mainstream and what is not. The films in question help to progress the argument of the book as it is evident that in the 1990s and 2000s black and Asian films in particular have gained much more critical acclaim and seem to be almost accepted to be part of this ‘mainstream’ in Britain. The challenge of defining ‘mainstream’ as a term continues, but Bidding for the Mainstream? offers a great argument and huge amounts of content to supplement the debate.    

Stephanie Partridge
3rd year student, Department of Media Arts
Royal Holloway, University of London

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