Race and Place: Hollywood’s Vision of Urban Youth in Los Angeles Film


Accounts of films for youth or films about youth—though these are not necessarily the same—are usually and quite properly structured historically to propose a series of periodizations.1 A typical version would begin in the silent era with depictions of child-like and innocent girls played by Mary Pickford in the teens and twenties, followed by Shirley Temple and Judy Garland through the thirties, with a parallel series of not-dissimilar boys in the Our Gang (The Little Rascals) comedies and the Andy Hardy films. Such idealized views were interrupted by the appearance of children and youth who had been hardened by the economic and social privations of the depression, and forced at least to the edge of delinquency: Dead End (1937, directed by William Wyler) and subsequent Dead End Kids films from United Artists, for example, and the Bowery Boys in Monogram comedies from the mid 1940s to mid-1950s. Substantially more severe intimations of delinquency, also often associated with big-city slums, appeared in a spate of late forties films including City Across the River (1949, directed by Maxwell Shane), Knock on Any Door (1949, directed by Nicholas Ray), and Bad Boy (1949, directed by Kurt Neumann); the protagonist of the last one popularized the injunction: “Live fast, die young, and leave a good-looking corpse.” These disenfranchised youth were in turn displaced by the modern misfit: two seminal, films, The Wild One (1953, directed by Laslo Benedek) and Rebel Without a Cause (1955, directed by Nicholas Ray), starring Marlon Brando and James Dean respectively, established a prototype that still has real cultural currency: the psychologically-troubled delinquent teenager. Despite the persistence of teenage delinquency in post-war cinema, different periods offered diverse articulations of this rebellion.

Periodizations of this kind allow for the analysis of some degree of correlation between cinematic motifs and themes and real world social and economic conditions. The emergence during the 1950s of teenagers as a distinct and newly problematic demographic, occurred when the maturity of post-war economic boom gave them unprecedented disposable income that allowed access to motorcycles and automobiles, and at the same time made youth-oriented film, popular music, and other forms of industrial cultural production financially viable. These general conditions have remained since the mid-1950s; but within them a revival of youth-oriented films in the 1990s (which will be the subject of the present discussion) may be correlated with several developments: macro-social, such as the emergence of specifically teenage cultural activity that itself reflected the decay of heavy industry in postmodernism and the corresponding enlargement of the proportion of industrial cultural production in general; micro-social, such as the emergence of the shopping-mall as a the prime location where socializing, movie-going, and commodity consumption are all intertwined; and ideological, such as hegemony of the new right and the evaporation of the politicized youth countercultures of the 1960s.

While acknowledging the importance of historicizing the genre, this article frames films about youth from the late 1980s and 1990s in Los Angeles in spatial—and consequently racial—terms. Historically, Los Angeles grew with successive waves of different ethnic immigration: Anglos from the mid-west and south, blacks and Mexicans, and most recently East Asians. These created distinct enclaves, many of them internally homogenous in terms of race and class, and the agglomeration of them formed, not the radial, homogenous modern city, but a polynucleated and decentered megalopolis. Over the past forty years, rapidly escalating demographic transformations have further consolidated this segregation. In 1970, the almost five million non-Latino whites in Los Angeles still comprised 70.9 % of the city; blacks at 10.8 % numbered 747. 000, a ten-fold increase over the 75.000 who lived here in 1940. The 1.024.000 Latinos made up 14.9% of the whole; and the 234.000 Asians, 3.4%. Thirty years later at the turn of the millennium a demographic metamorphosis had all but inverted the proportion of whites to minorities: Anglos were down to 31.0%—the percentage of all minorities combined in 1970—and blacks to 9.8%, while over 4.8 million Latinos comprised 44.0% of the total and 1.7 million Asians, 15.2%, the last two groups having increased by factors of almost three and five respectively.2

To consider youth films set in any specific place presupposes that different environments allow this most transitional stage in life to be lived differently: a cosmopolitan industrial city and a rural community inevitably shape the maturation process differently. However, Los Angeles engenders specific types of experiences for its urban youth in two ways: first, Angeleno youth have a unique relationship with cinema and constantly encounter the fictionalization of their experiences through a media mirror; and second, the spatiality3 of the city is insistently refracted in ethnic distinctions. That is to say, life in Los Angeles is lived alongside its cinematic reproduction, and also the city has become the prototype of a segregated urban structure in which spatial formations correspond unusually precisely to racial divisions. With ninety one languages spoken in the Unified School District, Los Angeles is the most diverse city in the US, with a critical mass of each of the main ethnic groups: white, African American, Asian American, and Latino. But these live in visibly and spatially differentiated areas of the city. For most of its history, Hollywood youth films were concerned with whites, and non-white youth were generally ignored or portrayed within restricted stereotypes. But since the early 1970s a spectrum of civil rights and other initiatives has brought to prominence other ethnicities and hence the parts of the city they inhabit. Now many previously ignored groups are represented; but they are not represented equally.


The dominant form of films about white teen males has been the comic “buddy” film, but because in U.S. culture, whiteness is the normative standard, white protagonists in both comedies and dramas can have a range of character traits—the popular jock, the tortured artist, the alienated loner, and so on—much wider than that allowed to non-white males, whose characterizations stem directly from deeply entrenched ethnic generalizations, cultural stereotypes, and cinematic conventions. Nevertheless, white boys are almost universally, if paradoxically, infantilized: though their horizons are bounded by videogames, skateboards, going to the arcade, and similar trappings of their recent childhood, they are usually portrayed as sex-obsessed, and often large components of the narratives revolve around their attempts to seduce girls. Porky’s (1982, directed by Bob Clark), Losin’ It (1983, directed by Curtis Hanson), The Sure Thing (1985, directed by Rob Reiner) are among the prototypes of the sub-genre, with Fast Times at Ridgemont High (1982, directed by Amy Heckerling) and Valley Girl (1983, directed by Martha Coolidge) instances set in Los Angeles. Alcohol and marijuana feature prominently in story conceits, with the latter the intoxicant of choice in comedies, while cocaine and other harder drugs usually signal a dramatic story. (The distinct subgenre, the “stoner” film, usually involves older youth.)

White girls are typically either relegated to side characters or appear as the object of the male lead’s desire. Though they may be interested in sex, rather than being myopically fixated on losing their virginity, they usually equate sexual feelings with nascent love, generating storylines of frustrated romantic devotion. Like women in general in Los Angeles, white girls are associated with a consumer lifestyle, and their usual domain, especially in the films of the 1980s and early 1990s, is the mall, with scenes of exposition and dialogue often taking place while they are shopping: Valley Girl, Can’t Buy Me Love (1987, directed by Steve Rash), and Clueless (1995, directed by Amy Heckerling) are exemplary.

Adults in white teen films are either serious obstacles or distant figures of nominal, but largely ignored, authority. Parents are often absent or oblivious in both drama and comedy; they exist in a separate sphere and often go out of town to allow the house-party plots that many comedies feature. School administrators, such as the principal, truant officer, and the generic strict teacher are more threatening figures, as are police, who actually wield power and can engender serious conflicts.

As a prototypical instance, we may consider the film that established many of these conventions, Fast Times at Ridgemont High .4 Following half a dozen teenagers over a year, the film is essentially a series of comic incidents revolving around high school and work in the mall or in fast-food outlets. Theirs is a virtually autonomous world and, with the exception of one severe teacher, parents and other adults are absent. Both boys and girls are obsessed with sex, and the presentation of the girls as actively, even aggressively, sexual was innovative for a comedy of this period. Its exploitation of conspicuous female nudity is especially troublesome given the supposed youth of girls, and though aspects of it are perhaps progressive, it prepared the way for even more exploitative films. The girls’ explorations of their sexuality are placed in the context of the consumerism, epitomized by the mall that is finally more important than the school in shaping their characters. Two scenes are exemplary, the opening and a scene in the middle that has become notorious.

The opening titles begin accompanied by the song “We Got the Beat,” a big hit for the Los Angeles all-girl New Wave band, The Go-Go’s. Their celebration of teenage culture supplies the rhythm of the camera’s voyage through what purports to be a San Fernando Valley shopping mall. The main characters are introduced in this environment, one where work and recreation, the consumption of commodities and the visual consumption of potential lovers, are seamlessly interwoven, mutually sustaining aspects of life colonized by consumer culture. Scanning the girls’ butts clad in tight Jordache jeans, the “it” brand of the year, or tracking a good-looking boy, the film reproduces the web of self-spectacularization and sexually-charged scopophilia in which the teenagers are caught, but giving the girls as much agency and sexual proactiveness as the boys.

This procativeness is dramatized in a later scene in which Stacy Hamilton and Linda Barrett (Phoebe Cates), the two main female protagonists are sunbathing poolside at Stacy’s house, itself a prototypical Southern California suburban ranch house; like the mall, the environment is essentially circumscribed and insular, its high walls and enclosed yard providing an escape from the public world. Stacy is giving the more experienced Linda a magazine quiz about orgasms, when they are interrupted by two of their less desirable male classmates. While they are frolicking in the pool, Stacy’s brother Brad returns, dressed in the ridiculous pirate uniform of the fast-food outlet where he works. On seeing Linda, he goes to the pool-house and while watching her through the window, begins to masturbate. Using slow motion and other special effects films, the film cuts to his fantasy: emerging from the pool, she unfastens her bikini top and walks towards him, her breasts bared—an image that became unforgettable for a generation of boys.

Though only moderately successful on its initial release, Fast Times at Ridgemont High became a cult classic, known especially for launching the careers of several subsequently-important actors, including Jennifer Jason Leigh, Sean Penn, Judge Reinhold, Forest Whitaker, and Phoebe Cates herself. Along with other pop cultural items—most notably Moon Unit Zappa’s performance of the song, “Valley Girl,” released the same year on her father, Frank Zappa’s album, Ship Arriving Too Late to Save a Drowning Witch—it established the vocabulary for the highly colorful San Fernando Valley subculture, celebrated for appearance, consumption, and vapidity.

African Americans

The representation of African Americans is framed by their unique social history: the only immigrant group brought forcibly, involuntarily and in chains, they endured more than two centuries of slavery and are still the most disadvantaged social group in the U.S. This social exploitation has been reciprocated culturally, especially cinematically, in a virtually unalloyed history of degrading misrepresentation. Depictions of black youth in Los Angeles since the 1980s were inflected by two cinematic developments in the previous decade: Blaxploitation which made heroes of pimps and drug dealers, and the Los Angeles School of black filmmakers at UCLA who emphasized more positive values in the community: the strength of the extended family, a sustaining humor, the musical heritage, and in several cases, a politically-informed militancy. Charles Burnett’s Killer of Sheep (1977) is the most celebrated instance of the latter group. Oscillating between these repressive and emancipatory projects, a series of films about the black community known as “hood films” emerged in the 1990s parallel to white teen films. Like many other aspects of African American culture, they were influenced by music, specifically by “gangsta rap,” a form of hip-hop developed in Los Angeles that celebrated gang violence, drug dealing, promiscuity, and hatred of the police and of women. Especially important were the group, NWA; they became infamous when their song “Fuck Tha Police” from their first album, Straight Outta Compton (1988) was severely criticized by FBI Assistant Director, Milt Ahlerich. Band member Eazy E’s first single “Boyz N The Hood” was released in 1987 and the film, Boyz n the Hood (1991, directed by John Singleton), stars former N.W.A member, Ice Cube.

Black teenage males are extremely restrictively and rigidly stereotyped in Hollywood films. They are typically portrayed as coming from a single-parent home, where they are raised amidst poverty, drug and alcohol abuse, crime, and general hopelessness, which leads them to gang membership and a criminal future. Sometimes this stereotype is juxtaposed with its inverse reflection, the earnest kid trying to transcend his neighborhood and make good via education, but who is atavistically entrapped by the delinquency that surrounds him. Sexuality is foregrounded, but differently from in films about whites: where white teens are sexually awkward and virgin, black youth are typically presented as sexually experienced, often cynical and already parents, leading to “baby-mama” and “baby-daddy” storylines. Since ‘hood films usually remain within the subjectivity of the male experience, black teen females rarely have an autonomous existence; rather they are side characters who complicate the lives of males. Often they are portrayed as miniature versions of adult women, either shrill, sexually voracious as “hood rat” types, or calm, nurturing maternal figures who serve as ballasts for the destabilized young men. Drinking is ubiquitous, and drug use is often prominent; but there is less emphasis on showing the boys getting playfully high; rather they casually smoke “chronic” (marijuana), and are often involved in dealing hard drugs.

Usually credited with beginning the cycle of ‘hood films, Boyz n the Hood contains all these stereotypes, but it is unusual in its unrelenting depiction of the decay of African American community life. Many of the people who worked on this film, including Ice Cube and John Singleton, grew up in South Central, so the film is also an attempt at self-representation, or a foregrounding of this community for the mainstream. Tre (Ice Cube), the main protagonist, is a somewhat troublesome schoolboy, who is taken by his mother to live with his father, a strict disciplinarian who keeps him out of trouble, while constantly articulating a nationalist politics that sees black poverty and self-destructiveness as socially constructed by the white hegemony. Tre is paired with, on the one hand, two neighborhood brothers, one of whom is already a recidivist and the other a promising football player being recruited by USC, but who already has a child, and on the other hand with Brandi, his girlfriend who, unlike all the other neighborhood girls is determined to remain a virgin until she is married. By the end of the film these two appear to have escaped the ghetto by getting into college, but Tre’s friends are killed in gang violence.

The film presents an entirely different geography—establishing and tracking shots capture the architecture of the South Central Los Angeles ghetto: the stucco tract homes, the identical weed-filled front lawns, the decrepit or barricaded businesses, and the trash-ridden streets. The first scene in the film illustrates many of these motifs. Behind the black screen are heard the sounds of gunshots, screams, and a police helicopter, followed by title-cards indicating that one in twenty-one black American males will be murdered, most of them by other black men. The first image is a steady zoom onto a STOP sign, with high above a plane taking off in the background, crossing the screen and exiting the frame. The antinomy is a clear metaphor that contrasts mobility and escape symbolized by the plane, which is not available to ghetto denizens, with the dead-end neighborhood in which they are trapped. As packs of dogs sniff through the trash-filled streets, a group of young children walk to school, discussing the last night’s shooting and reminiscing about family members who have been shot. Walking past bullet-ridden posters of the Reagan/Bush 1984 election campaign, they come to a trash-filled alley, littered with the blood-soaked evidence of a murder.


Coming from many countries of origin, Latinos or Hispanic Americans comprise the largest non-white population in Los Angeles. Since the 1980s, massive economic and social dislocation throughout Mesoamerica and especially Mexico resulted in enormous numbers of immigrants, more than half of them illegal. Mexican Americans or Chicanos and other Latinos are forced into low paying, exploitative jobs, mostly in service industries, and they are one of the few ethnic groups who have experienced increased poverty since 1980. This has increased the criminalization of all Latinos and the erosion of civil rights that is reflected in media in emphases on their delinquency, leading analysts to declare that it seems as if “the only Latino stories worth telling are about troubled youths or the people who strive to steer them straight.”5 Along with African Americans, they occupy the bottom of the social and economic ladder, and there is substantial violence between the two groups in the form of prison gangs and hate killings, especially by Latinos on blacks, in addition to the gang and police violence from which they suffer inside their own communities.

Reflecting both the recency and numbers of Mexican immigrants and their social jeopardy, teenagers are typically represented as the first U.S.-born generation in multi-generational homes, the U.S.-born teenagers being the only, more or less fluent, English speakers. Since such teenagers are also the first generation to be socialized into U.S. customs and culture and peer pressure within them is so strong, generational tensions pit old against young. The latter are circumscribed by gang subcultures, and delinquency is often foregrounded and gang culture glorified. Visual cultural traditions are highly marked, with boys dressed in “wife-beater” tank tops, cut-off khaki shorts, knee-high white socks, and sneakers: metonymic for Latino gang bangers, this uniform can be used as an accurate, if overused, shorthand representation of character.

As with black girls, there are two main stereotypes of latinas: the “chola,” the heavily-made up sometimes tattooed girl who dates the gang banger or is herself a gang member, frequently becoming pregnant while still a teenager; and the earnest, hard-working and wholesome girl, who attempts to maintain the more positive elements in the community, while surviving outside gang culture. The former are much more common, with Mi Vida Loca (1993, directed by Allison Anders) developing the conventions of the tough girls, while an outstanding example of the latter is Real Women Have Curves (2002, directed by Patricia Cardoso), about a Chicana who gains a scholarship to a Beverly Hills high school where, encouraged by a socially-committed teacher, she gains another scholarship to Columbia University, all the while struggling with her parents and discovering her sexuality.

When these cinematic Chicanos do not fall victim to criminality, the unusualness of their escape from their inherited environment and its constraints is emphasized. Exemplaryis Stand and Deliver (1988, directed by Ramón Menéndez), based on the true story of Jaime Escalante, who quit his job in order to teach computer science at James Garfield High, a storied East LA high school. Since the school has no computers, he is assigned to teach math and, inspired by his sense of his students’ potential, he decides to teach them Advanced Placement (AP) calculus. In spite of resistance from the school officials, the students’ parents, and their own diminished expectations, his extraordinary demands on them defeat the odds and they are so successful that the testing service accuses them of cheating, charges that they can rebut only by successfully retaking the test.

Unlike the fictional and often fantasized high schools of most teen films, Garfield High is a real school that featured prominently in Chicano culture in the early 1970s, when it was the location for the “walk outs” and other protests that marked and important stage of the “Brown Power” nationalist resistance movements.6 But by the late 1980s, when the film was made and set, the memory of that ethnic pride and ambition had evaporated. Escalante’s task is to restore the pride but also to direct it towards educational achievement rather than confrontational politics. He has to teach the students calculus, but also that calculus is not incompatible with their cultural values, family obligations, career expectations, and—for girls—the possibility of marriage. Consequently the classical narrative arc of his success, the sudden interruption caused by the accusations of cheating, and the third act vindication is punctuated by incidents that elaborate these themes: the revelation that the Maya employed the concept of zero that was unknown to the Greeks and Romans; and a dinner in a restaurant owned by the best student’s father who nevertheless wants to take her out of school to work for him and who fears that if she were to go to college, she would merely become pregnant.

Escalante’s most powerful resource in this is himself and the way in which in his own persona and actions (even though he is in fact of Bolivian birth) he manifests mathematical and pedagogic skills along with chicanismo and a degree of, if not machismo, then a street-savvy wit and physicality that allows him to deal with the more hostile males. He crosses the divide that separates them from success by being able to talk in the several forms of both languages: English and Spanish; math and Chicano culture; academy and barrio. In this, Edward James Olmos, the actor playing Escalante, draws on El Pachuco, an allegorical figure for Chicano brotherhood that he developed for Luis Valdez’s Zoot Suit (1981), the crucial and signal achievement of Chicano play-writing and feature filmmaking.7 Conversely, Lou Diamond Phillips, the actor who plays Angel Guzman, one of Escalante’s biggest challenges and also successes, draws on the persona and star-power of his role as the break-through Chicano rock singer, Ritchie Valens in La Bamba (1987), also written and directed by Valdez.

The introductory scenes show Escalante driving to East Los Angeles across the river that marks the western boundary of the barrio. Marking him as an idiosyncratic outsider in Los Angeles, his modest Volkswagen Beetle contrasts vividly with the highly-stylized renovations of U.S. cars and trucks that are one of the most conspicuous and highly prized elements in Chicano culture. He passes the murals and the graffiti, a convenience store adorned with colorful piñatas and a muffler-shop decorated with pre-Columbian insignias, itinerant mariachi musicians and casual laborers, all of which sustain a vibrant working-class street life, that contrasts equally as powerfully with the defensively isolated suburban homes or commodity-saturated the mall in Fast Times at Ridgemont High and the desolation and danger of streets in Boyz n the Hood. But when he arrives at the school, all that vitality evaporates: burglars have defecated in the office, there are no computers, and in his classroom that students regard him as an antagonist to be vanquished. That in this case he is so successful in teaching them, not only calculus, but more importantly that they can escape falling into criminality, be successful in calculus, and achieve social mobility, all without abandoning their cultural identity is testament to his unusual vision and social commitment and to similar qualities in the filmmakers. His final reward brings the cultural project full circle. Just before the end of the film he finds that his car has apparently been stolen. Dejected he walks home, feeling that all his efforts have been thrown back in his face. But even as his wife attempts to reassure him, he hears the sound of a car horn outside: his students have merely borrowed his car in order to renovate and restore it according to their Chicano aesthetic.

Asian Americans

Of the four main ethnic groups, Asian Americans are represented the least and the least satisfactorily, and in recent youth films they appear almost entirely in gross stereotypes and/or as extremely marginal, ancillary characters. Nicole Bilderback, for example, has made an entire career playing bit parts in teen films including Clueless, Can’t Hardly Wait (1998, directed by Harry Elfont and Deborah Kaplan), and Bring It On (2000, directed by Peyton Reed), and many television shows. A combination of historical social and cultural reasons lie behind this neglect. Though Asian immigration to the U.S. began in the mid-nineteenth century, the 1924 Asian Exclusion Act and other judicial measures, resulted in their less visible role in subsequent social and cultural history. And, apart from the anti-Japanese fervor that resulted in their Internment during World War II (an event that proved extremely important in the origins of independent Asian American cinemas), their lower social profile has saved them from being scapegoated as delinquents. Additional cultural factors include their generally light complexion, the perception of Asian males as possessing unthreatening physicality (excepting their associations with martial arts), the supposed sexual pliancy of females, and—especially in the case of post-1960s immigrants—their academic success. Together these have generated a different kind of stereotype, that of a “model minority,” a designation that, it has been generally argued, is ultimately no less repressive than more obviously negative equivalents.

Along with the fact that until recently, Asian Americans have not—again with the conspicuous exception of martial arts—prominently figured in U.S. popular culture, the prevalence of the model minority poses a challenge to the teen film’s motif of transgression. The only recent feature with Asian American protagonists set in Los Angeles is Better Luck Tomorrow (2002, directed by Justin Lin), which resolves the tension between received social images of Asians and generic norms by superimposing the two, one atop the other. That is, it presents them simultaneously in an extreme version of both model minority and delinquent and, as if to pay the price for the contradiction, the delinquency is especially heinous. Loosely based on a real-life murder of one wealthy Asian American youth by another, it concerns half a dozen Asian Americans high-schoolers, not from the city’s long-standing, predominantly working-class Asian American communities, but from very affluent and otherwise largely white suburban families in Orange County.8 The recent demographic changes and the extreme wealth of some of the new Asian immigrants is evidenced in their occupation of luxurious but sterile homes in gated communities, an architectural space that until recently was the reserve of affluent whites.

Ben, the main protagonist, and his three friends are all over-achievers bound for Ivy League universities; excellent students, their academic efforts and high SAT tests are matched by success in sports, volunteer work in hospitals and other forms of civic involvement designed to impress college entrance examiners. Since all their parents are absent, peers provide the only form of socialization; for thrills rather than for money, they begin to shoplift, enjoying especially its alterity to their academic career goals: “It felt so good to do things that I couldn’t put on my college application,” Ben observes. Their crimes escalate and, believing that their academic success allows them exception from playing by the rules, they form a syndicate to sell, first cheat sheets for school exams, and then, drugs, with their fame as a Chinese Mafia gaining them respect and popularity among the other students.

Woven through this is another plot-line concerning an older boy, Steve, even more disaffected, cynical, and neglected. A generic bad boy with a motorcycle, he mistreats his girl friend, Stephanie, an adoptee, a class-mate of Ben’s whom he grows to love. The crisis comes when Steve hires the group to ransack his parents house to teach them a lesson; instead, infuriated by his arrogance, they decide to teach him a lesson by beating him. But Ben, thinking of Stephanie, loses his self-control and beats him to death with a baseball bat.

The tension between their stereotypical model minority status and the delinquency of the generic teen film, here at least as brutal as that of the most cynical exploitation film, recurs in several forms: as a contradiction within Ben between his everyday ingénue, almost nerdy and bland banality and the savagery that erupts from him, for example, or in the extremes of the spectrum of the commercially successful Asian films that frame it, on the one hand the sentimental melodrama of The Joy Luck Club (1993, directed by Wayne Wang), and on the other, the stylish amorality of A Better Tomorrow (1986, directed by John Woo) and similar John Woo films.

Though it appears to be a small-budget studio feature, Better Luck Tomorrow was in fact made independently for $250.000. The controversy over its alleged misrepresentation of Asian Americans when it was shown at the Sundance Film Festival led to its being championed by Roger Ebert, probably the best-known film critic in the U.S. and also to its being picked up for distribution by MTV films. The combination of its underdog indie production and its refusal of positive images of Asian Americans makes it an especially innovative contribution to the Asian American youth film, but also to the genre as a whole.


The authors thank Alison Kozberg for invaluable editorial assistance and other contributions.1   Thus, for example, “This book provides a linear and concise history of the American teen film, beginning in the silent era […].” Timothy Shary, Teen Movies: American Youth on Screen (London:Wallflower Press, 2005), 3. See also Stephen Tropiano, Rebels and Chicks: A History of the Hollywood Teen Movie (New York: Back Stage Books, 2005). Shary’s Generation Multiplex: Images of Youth in Contemporary American Cinema (Austin: University of Texas Press, 2002) concentrates on recent developments in the genre. All these books have been used in the preparation of this essay. A brief overview of youth films is James A Clapp’s “Growing Up Urban: The City, the Cinema, and American Youth.” Journal of Popular Culture 40:4 (2007): 601–29.

2   Figures from Paul Ong and Evelyn Blumberg, “Income and Racial Inequality in Los Angeles,” in The City: Los Angeles and Urban Theory at the End of the Twentieth Century, ed. Allen J. Scott and Edward W. Soja (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1996), 323f; and Edward W. Soja, Thirdspace: Journeys to Los Angeles and Other Real-and-Imagined Places (Oxford: Blackwell, 1996), 226. Figures for Los Angeles County are essentially the same: in 2000, Hispanics comprised 46%, Anglos 32%, Blacks 9%, and Asians 13%; see William B. Fulton and others, eds., Sprawl Hits the Wall: Confronting the Realities of Metropolitan Los Angeles (Los Angeles: Southern California Studies Center, University of Southern California, 2001), 7. For further discussion of the cinematic implications of these demographics, see David E. James, The Most Typical Avant-Garde: History and Geography of Minor Cinemas in Los Angeles (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2005), 294–351.

3   “Spatiality” is Edward W. Soja’s summary term for the socially-created space of human organization and production that mediates between space as a topographic given and the social relations constructed in it: “the structure of organized space is not a separate structure with its own autonomous laws of construction and transformation, nor is it simply an expression of the class structure emerging from social (and thus aspatial) relations of production. It represents, instead, a dialectically defined component of the general relations of production which are simultaneously social and spatial.” Edward W. Soja, Postmodern Geographies: The Reassertion of Space in Critical Social Theory (London: Verso, 1989), 78-79. Drawing on what he termed the French spatial tradition, especially the work of Henri Lefebvre and Michel Foucault, and on Fredric Jameson’s turn to space as a privileged hermeneutic category, Postmodern Geographies became a key text in critical social theory generally, and especially in the analysis of Los Angeles as the prototypical instance of postmodern urbanism, though it was appropriately criticized for its inadequate attention to popular resistance movements by ethnic people and women.

4   The screenplay was adapted from Cameron Crowe’s book, Fast Times at Ridgemont High: A True Story (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1981), based on his experience going undercover as a student in a high school in Southern California, though not Los Angeles.

5   David E. Hayes-Bautista and Gregory Rodriguez, “The Criminalization of the Latino Identity Makes Fighting Gangs That Much Harder,” Los Angeles Times, 15 September 1996, Opinion Section, 1.

6   Luis J. Rodriguez’s,Always Running: La Vida Loca: Gang Days in L.A. (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1993) is an eloquent, if somewhat fanciful, semi-fictional account of these movements from the point of view of a student-participant.

7   Zoot Suitwas based on the 1942 Sleepy Lagoon case, in which seventeen Chicanos were wrongly convicted of murder and on the 1943 Zoot Suit Riots, events that have been endowed with an almost mythic status in Chicano history. As a play, Zoot Suit ran for forty-six weeks and played to more than 40.000 people at the Mark Taper Forum in Los Angeles. Also directed by Valdez, the 1981 film was based on the play.

8   An analogous reversal of Orange County spatial and social stereotypes occurs in the film Orange County (2002, directed by Jake Kasdan), which mobilizes the motifs usually associated with underprivileged environments. It concerns Shaun, a high-schooler whose application to Stanford is ruined by an incompetent counselor who mistakenly forwards a bad student’s grades. Shaun spends most of the movie trying to get this mistake reversed, only to realize finally that his dysfunctional family and its Orange County home supply exactly the environment his writing needs.


David E. James is Professor of Critical Studies, at the School of Cinematic Arts, University of Southern California, Los Angeles. Dr. James has expanded and enriched the cultural scene in Los Angeles, curated countless film programs, worked on museum exhibitions, produced his own film work and published extensively in the arts and popular press, including his latest book The Most Typical Avant-Garde: History and Geography of Minor Cinemas in Los Angeles, Berkeley 2005. James’ awards include an NEH Fellowship for College Teachers, the Rockefeller Foundation Fellowship in the Humanities at the Whitney Museum of American Art, and the USC Associates Award for Creativity in Research. In 2007, he was named one of two Academy Film Scholars by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. He is the editor of To Free the Cinema: Jonas Mekas and the New York Underground, Princeton 1992, as well as The Hidden Foundation: Cinema and the Question of Class, Minneapolis 1996, and has served on the editorial boards of Quarterly Review of Film and Video, Now Time, and Art Week.

Suggested Citation

James, David E., and Marika Piday-Warren. “Race and Place: Hollywood’s Vision of Urban Youth in Los Angeles Film.” American Studies Journal 54 (2010). Web. 1 Mar. 2024. DOI 10.18422/54-04.


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