Thoughts on Theses: Diego Duckenfield-Lopez

Diego Duckenfield-Lopez ’24 is a senior double majoring in Black studies and film and media studies. Their thesis explores how seventies media, such as Blaxploitation films, influenced later constructions of Black identity.

Thoughts on Theses: Diego Duckenfield-Lopez
Investigating Black identity in film and media,Duckenfield-Lopez’s thesis meets at the crossroads of their two majors — Black studies and film and media studies. Photo courtesy of Diego Duckenfield-Lopez ’24.

Q: What is your thesis about?

A: It’s about the Black construction of identities through film and media. Specifically, I’m looking at film and music from the ’70s and its influence on rappers in the ’90s and how they co-opted all the images that came with that [media]. [Then,] looking at how that became this preeminent image of a Black identity that has been adopted by large swaths of the Black community.

Q: And how did you pick this topic specifically?

A: I feel like it’s somewhat personal … I am writing it technically under the film and media studies major, but it obviously incorporates a lot of what I’ve been able to learn in the Black studies major, as well. And it just comes from … going to predominantly white schools, and these weird expectations people would put on me in terms of, like, what it meant to be Black. People would be like, ‘Oh, like you don’t really act Black.’ It’s very much rooted in these ideas of the rappers and the people they saw that were Black … this very specific image that was almost like a criminal image. I looked to that music and to a lot of films that sort of fit in that [idea of Black culture] to try to find a sense of identity … But at the same time, there’s definitely a part of me that didn't feel comfortable, taking [on] all this other stuff, just like, ‘This is not me.’ And then I was like, ‘Okay, why is it that I feel this pressure [to take this on]?’ From there, I started questioning a little more and sort of realizing, ‘Oh, this is mostly things that are constructed.’ It’s what’s popular, but it also has a lot of really deep political roots. And that’s a lot of what I'm looking at, realizing that a lot of what has become this definition of Black identity comes from this post-Civil Rights Era pessimism that comes … when the promise of integration doesn’t really [come to be] for most people. Obviously, you have some Black elites who are able to benefit from it and still subscribe to respectability politics, but then you have the larger part of the Black community that's like, ‘Wait, like, we didn’t really get anything out of this. We still live in ghettos. And … instead of trying to appeal to this white gaze, to this white idea of what it means to be successful, we’re going to go completely against that [and] purposely present ourselves as criminals.’ So that’s where you get the drug dealers and in the glorification of that is this ability to achieve the American dream, outside of traditional avenues. Even with Black people who are able to enter certain spaces, [they] are never actually given full control of it. So that's the dialogue that's going on. … All this confusion that I had: ‘Why doesn’t it feel like this doesn’t fit my idea of my identity even though I am categorized as Black?’ Because it has very specific roots that are constructed.

Q: You said that you didn’t feel like you fit the projected Black identity your white peers were giving you.

A: Yes.

Q: How did you find your own Black identity?

A: That’s a tough question. I think it’s also complicated by the fact that my mom is Colombian and not Black. I was very aware of the way people, when they see me with my mom, [would] be confused: ‘How did that come from that?’ Also [what people] see is a Black person, like a light-skinned Black person. It sort of erases that other part of my identity. I am very connected to my Colombian identity. I was lucky enough to spend a lot of summers in Colombia with my family, and I speak Spanish fluently and all that so it’s a big part of my identity. So seeing that these people categorize me in this one box and having an understanding from pretty early on that, obviously, I don’t fit just within that box. In a lot of ways, I probably wouldn’t have become as aware of it if I had two Black parents, and I would just be like, ‘Oh, I’m just Black, so I guess, that’s that. It makes sense that they’re categorizing me as that.’ But they’re putting something on me that wasn’t my entire self. So, I don’t know if I ever come to a specific idea of my Black identity. But I guess a lot of what I’m working on is [about how] it can be very harmful to have very specific ideas of what it means to be Black and it’s important to understand how Blackness affects your position in the world, how people interact with you, and to have very specific ideas of what it means to be Black. Even if it’s more on the respectability side of things, like, ‘Oh, we should play into the status quo.’ Like what Obama did, of, ‘Okay, we can work within this.’ But … that also doesn't really encompass everyone because it really only helps out people who have the money and the means to enter the spaces, and you’re leaving out a huge section in the Black community as a result. So it’s a lot about understanding diversity within the Black community, and that my specific intersectional identities, like Blackness, is just one of them and it doesn’t necessarily have to dominate over all these other ones. It just plays a role in how I navigate the world, how I navigate politics. That’s basically the root of what I’m getting at: Identity is not really something inherent or innate that you’re just born with … It’s just a way of navigating political landscapes.

Q: What do you hope you accomplish with your thesis?

A: The reason I wanted to do this thesis in the first place [is to] look at the way identity is constructed. Deconstructing identity is very important, so people can understand … where their identities come from and that they aren’t these things that existed forever. You are born to a world and everything’s presented to you as just the truth and what has always been, [but] these things have shifted in the near past … People, continuously, are debating what it means to be Black and what is authentically Black. [People are] trying to adopt very stereotypical ideas as part of their identity to prove their worth or to prove their authenticity as a Black person. And I feel like that has pretty significant political ramifications. That’s a lot of what I’m looking at as well … The way people frame identity is very political, and it can get lost a lot of times because it just seems natural and something anyone can talk about, and it’s not always framed as political. But the more I read, the more I realize it is. Looking at it through film and music and art helps give a lens to see how it’s constructed. When it’s in a film that is going to oversimplify things. I’m looking at a lot of Blaxploitation films, which are very popular films in the ’70s that shaped how a lot of ’90s gangster rappers presented. [It] was a very specific type of Black identity, but they just decided like, ‘Oh, this is the Black identity we want.’ You can see very clearly through the art how people are adopting that and adapting the identity to fit their ideas, or what they want to see in the world.

Q: So you obviously love movies.

A: Yeah.

Q: How did you find that love? And did you have a first favorite movie?

A: Yeah, I usually say that ‘Star Wars’ was pretty big for me. That was something my dad showed me when I was pretty young. And … what was interesting was he showed me the original trilogy first. I do remember watching the prequels early on as well. But, even seeing a film from the ’70s that hasn’t aged that much, it was just so cool and to imagine you can create these worlds out of something, that was very appealing to me. At some point. I just started watching a lot of YouTube videos of film reviewers and stuff like that. So I just got really into it and [began] learning about it on my own through internet discourse. I knew from middle school this is something that I wanted to dedicate my life to some extent, which is crazy.

Q: What films do you naturally gravitate towards?

A: That’s tough. If I had to pick a genre I would probably say sci-fi … Sci-fi does a good job talking about the human condition. A lot of times you have robots and it certainly blurs the line as to what it means to be human, that’s something that I find really cool. Generally, I just really try to watch a little bit of everything. I started getting really into international and independent films when I worked at an art house theater in Miami, my hometown, and that exposes you to a lot of films from around the world, outside of the Hollywood bubble. [Now,] I do watch some Hollywood movies, but I also try to mostly watch stuff outside of it — different approaches to filmmaking. I always like to see films that take the medium in a new direction or just have a very good understanding of what works in the medium in terms of provoking emotions and stuff like that. I like melodramas a lot. It’s something that's been pretty interesting. In that sense, Hollywood does appeal to me. But, yeah, it’s a lot of things.

Q: What have been some obstacles in working on your thesis?

A: Just that there’s so much on this topic. There's been a lot of, maybe not my specific angle, but just [material] about Black culture and its influence on politics and all that. There’s been a fair amount written, [so] finding a lane that is somewhat unique has been hard. Also, I feel like I’m constantly coming across new ideas that are very exciting, but I’m going to have to narrow down. I feel like the way my mind works is I’m just jumping from point to point and going all over the place and trying to figure out how everything connects, but eventually I do have to slow myself down … I feel like that’s a somewhat good problem to have.

Q: Does this connect to what you want to do after you graduate from Amherst?

A: Yes, I feel like the more I’ve been working on this, the more I feel like I’m interested in grad school and continuing research. But also, I’ve thought of working in archives and libraries. I feel like it’s just so important how information is presented. I just realized what is sort of prioritized and what is presented has a really big influence on how people view the present. So knowing about history helps you understand what's going on now better. I do have an interest in continuing research and/or working in a space where I can [influence] what is being highlighted.

Q: If there’s one thing you wish everyone knew about Blaxploitation films, what would it be?

A: You need to judge them from a different perspective because [for] a lot of people, their understanding of movies very much comes from Hollywood … I’m looking specifically at this artist Rudy Ray Moore, who funded his own films, worked outside of Hollywood, and was an amateur in a lot of ways. But his movies rejected traditional narratives and were very much more about this performance of these characters that he had, like pimps. There’s obviously a lot that’s problematic with that. There’s a lot of misogynistic behavior that comes with this Black male empowerment. But at the same time, there’s something very radical about existing outside of Hollywood and being able to tell your own stories and imagining a different way of storytelling that clearly spoke to a lot of people in the ’70s. So approach it with an open mind and see that it’s purposeful, and just because it doesn’t fit into the Hollywood standard, it doesn’t mean it has [no] value.

Q: I did stalk your Letterboxd a little and I saw that you have watched 1,129 films since 2019, which is roughly 280 a year. How do you find the time to watch all these movies?A: That’s so funny. I don’t know. I’m just always down to watch a movie. And I just became obsessive and the more I learned about movies, the more I realized that I don’t know. I’m always feeling like I'm playing catch up to some extent. I think Letterboxd has played a big role in just how many movies I've been watching … and it was weird because I actually got it before I knew anyone else that had it in my personal life. I realized I was watching more and more movies and I was like, ‘Oh, I want a way to track what I’m watching,’ and I literally just looked up ‘How to track [movies] website’ and Letterboxd came up and I was like, ‘Perfect.’ So I was just using it for that but then, naturally, I started coming across a lot of people who review movies and I've just started following complete strangers on there who are just watching all sorts of things. I learned so much about film history through them because these are people who are kind of obsessive like I am and are older, so they’ve had a lot of time and more context for films. It’s helped me enjoy more movies because a lot of times, even if I don’t really get [a movie], I don’t know what I watched, [or] I didn’t really like it, a lot of times I can read a review. I'll be like, ‘Oh, that’s what was going on.’ Not necessarily completely chang[ing] my opinion. But next time I watch something like that I’ll get it more and I’ll enjoy it more. That’s been a big motivating factor. There’s so many more types of movies that I can enjoy now because of what I've been able to learn from Letterboxd.