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Sporting Bodies, Displaying History: Black Embodiment and Performance in Contemporary Sports Films


In this dissertation I analyze Black embodiment and performance in contemporary sports films, particularly through their documentary impulse, the gestures and markers through which these films establish their reference to real sporting and non-sporting bodies and histories. I argue that through this impulse, sports films make claims to an historical real, and they can therefore be explored for how they represent the Black sporting body. Though my project focuses primarily on fiction films, I begin by analyzing this impulse in a sports documentary for how it represents the performance and embodiment of the Black sporting body as an historical contestant. I then trace these strategies as they appear in and shape sports in fiction films, specifically through narratives of triumph and defeat, dissent, and gendered visibility. Throughout, I focus on and read the Black sporting body as a an individuated multiplicity which, through performance and embodiment, represents, references, and relates to Black sporting and non-sporting embodied histories and experiences.

Sports films offer a privileged viewpoint on Black embodiment because of their high concentration of Black actors, one that mirrors representation in contemporary athletics. In sport films, sporting history is literally and figuratively choreographed. On the literal level, sports films' formal elements (cinematography, editing conventions), actor training (making them into credible athletes), and overall studio production infrastructure (contracting sport consultants) work together to make the sporting elements plausible and real. On the figurative level, sports films implicitly reference, at the level of embodied performance, historical narratives concerning the social, cultural, and political conditions of Black people. Using textual analysis with attention to historical context, I argue that sports films contain embodied histories, mythologized through filmic and generic conventions, of competing Black bodies in both film and American history. To read these texts and bodies for their historical and bodily memory, I mobilize sports, dance, and performance studies methods as well as gender and critical race theories on embodiment.

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