20 Feet from Stardom and a Long Way from Equality

By Francesca Sobande

The critical analysis of issues related to work and labor experiences is entwined with the critical analysis of dynamics between race, gender, and media. As a result, pedagogical efforts that focus on questions concerning identity, inequality, and media are often interdisciplinary and draw on a range of scholarly tools to tackle how power relations impact the production and spectatorship of media. As course director of Cardiff University’s undergraduate program in Media, Journalism and Culture, my teaching has involved leading modules on the theme of “Representations” and “(Me)me, Myself, and I: The Power and Politics of Digital Remix Culture and Online Inequalities.” I have also contributed to other modules such as “Media and Gender.” Many media texts offer crucial entry points to classroom conversations about representation, inequality, and the creative and cultural industries, but one that stands out to me is the documentary 20 Feet from Stardom (2013).

This film follows aspects of the lives of several backing vocalists (also known as backup singers) and stars—including Darlene Love, Judith Hill, Merry Clayton, Lisa Fischer, Táta Vega, and Jo Lawry. As is clear from the start, 20 Feet from Stardom is an account of both the trailblazing talent of and disregard for Black women in the music industry. In other words, it moves beyond the glamor and gloss that the industry is often associated with by foregrounding behind-the-scenes realities.

The trailer alone raises generative questions about power, fame, celebrity, capitalism, and the societal hypersexualization of Black women. Questions implicitly posed by 20 Feet from Stardom include how the social constructs of music “icon” and “legend” are affected by the intersections of racism, sexism, and misogyny—namely, what is termed misogynoir (Bailey and Trudy 2018; Bailey 2021). Such a focus offers a snapshot of the history of structural oppression specifically faced by Black women. It also demonstrates how the creativity and vocal prowess of Black women in North America have been central to numerous iconic songs and soundtracks, only rarely resulting in sufficient industry support, remuneration, or sustained career progression for these women. Put briefly, this documentary puts the spotlight squarely on critically acclaimed singers while also illuminating the financial precarity, material conditions, and inequality that they have faced. In doing so, 20 Feet from Stardom presents prompts for classroom discussions about the spectacle that surrounds the music industry and who/what benefits from it, in contrast with who/what is treated as disposable.

In addition to explicitly addressing representations of race and gender in the music industry over the decades, 20 Feet from Stardom provokes questions about how music history is documented and archived, including who/what tends to be included and/or excluded in/from the process. The film itself is a resource that re-presents this industry, so I also invite students to research how it was made and directed as part of their ongoing consideration of the role of different gazes in media production. Moreover, because the film was released almost ten years ago, I ask students to reflect on how the music industry has (or has not) changed. This involves identifying and discussing contemporary digital developments, such as the rise of social media and its use by the music industry. Regardless of the specific focus, I encourage students to draw from Black feminist media studies, critical cultural studies, and research on the politics of pop culture when considering race, gender, representation, work, labor, and structural inequalities in their analyses.

The lesson plan below is reflective of my pedagogical philosophy because it foregrounds the development of critical and reflexive analytical skills that involve accounting for how power dynamics impact the recording of history, the production of media, and ideas about culture.

Lesson Plan

Directed by Morgan Neville and produced by Gil Friesen, Caitrin Rogers, and Michael K. Ross, 20 Feet from Stardom has been described as representing the relatively unknown lives of backup singers, but, beyond this, what does it depict and discuss that connects to critical questions about identity, inequality, and the music industry?

Questions for Discussion

  1. Who and what does the documentary film depict and discuss, and why?
  2. Whose gaze has shaped the documentary film, and in what ways is this evident?
  3. How does the documentary film represent the music industry over the years, and how would you describe the music industry today?
  4. What similarities and differences are there between the experiences of people depicted in the documentary film, and what might this reveal about matters regarding identity, inequality, and the music industry?
  5. What genre would you describe this documentary film as being part of, and why?
  6. How does the documentary film frame the history of the music industry (e.g., what visual, textual, and audio components are drawn on)?
  7. What questions were you left with by the end of the film, and/or what questions would you like to be able to ask the people depicted in the documentary film?
  8. If you were to make a film on this topic, how would you approach it, and why?

Additional Readings

20 Feet from Stardom. 2013. Directed by Morgan Neville. Los Angeles: Tremolo Productions. 90 minutes.

Bailey, Moya. 2021. Misogynoir Transformed: Black Women’s Digital Resistance. New York: New York University Press.

Bailey, Moya, and Trudy 2018. “On Misogynoir: Citation, Erasure, and Plagiarism.” Feminist Media Studies 18, no. 4 (March): 762-68.

Fleetwood, Nicole R. 2015. “Giving Face: Diana Ross and the Black Celebrity as Icon.” In her On Racial Icons: Blackness and the Public Imagination, 55-80. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press.

hooks, bell. 2009 (1996). “The Oppositional Gaze: Black Female Spectators.” In her Reel to Real: Race, Sex, and Class at the Movies, 253-74. New York: Routledge.

hooks, bell. 2009 (1996). “Introduction: Making Movie Magic.” In her Reel to Real: Race, Sex, and Class at the Movies, 1-12. New York: Routledge.

Francesca Sobande (sobandef@cardiff.ac.uk) is a senior lecturer in the School of Journalism, Media and Culture at Cardiff University. She is the author of Consuming Crisis: Commodifying Care and COVID-19 (SAGE, 2022) and The Digital Lives of Black Women in Britain (Palgrave Macmillan, 2020), coeditor with Akwugo Emejulu of To Exist is to Resist: Black Feminism in Europe (Pluto Press, 2019), and coauthor with layla-roxanne hill of Black Oot Here: Black Lives in Scotland (Bloomsbury, 2022). Francesca’s work explores the power and politics of media and the marketplace. Her research and writing focuses on digital remix culture, Black diaspora and archives, feminism, creative work, pop culture, and devolved nations. Francesca’s forthcoming work includes a book on the relationship between digital culture, consumer culture, and social justice (under contract, University of California Press). More information about her work is available at: francescasobande.com.