ASU center examines humanity through entertainment

Group focuses on how film and media shape society's ideas about human values

Man next to film poster


For nearly a dozen years, ASU’s Center for Film, Media and Popular Culture has prompted scholarly discussions on the role of cinema, media and music in society and has paid tribute to some of the 20th century’s most enduring entertainment icons. Faculty and students have performed countless hours of community outreach.

The center focuses on the roles film and media play in shaping popular culture, including ideas about race, gender, sexuality, human values and other social issues embedded in entertainment.

“It’s not our job to say if something’s good or bad, but it is important for people to be aware of the full context and complexity of what they see and hear,” said Peter Lehman (pictured above), founding director of the Center for Film, Media and Popular CultureThe Center for Film, Media and Popular Culture resides within the Department of English in the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences.. “With good critical analysis, we can challenge misconceptions, help make distinctions and contribute to the evaluation and re-evaluation of popular entertainment as serious art.”

Since its inception in 2005, the center has brought together a team of ASU faculty and experts to build partnerships with the Phoenix-metro community and the entertainment industry. The center sponsors community film screenings, lectures and special events; supports students through scholarships and internships; pursues research grants and entrepreneurial industry partnerships; and hosts faculty fellows from around the world.

This month the center will screen a new documentary called “TRANS*CEND: A Journey from Gender to Self,” about transgender or nonbinary people struggling for authenticity, acceptance and equality in Memphis, Tennessee.

The free Sept. 15 screening at Sun Studios in Tempe will be the fifth time the documentary has been screened publicly, according to Shelby Elwood, the director of the film.

“Filmmakers are just as thoughtful, innovative and socially conscious as novelists or poets and have helped erase the distinction between so-called ‘fine art’ and popular entertainment,” Lehman said. “It’s a superficial distinction that doesn’t do film, television and popular music justice."

The center mixes scholarly pursuits and has fun at the same time. Last year it co-hosted with Arizona HumanitiesArizona Humanities is a non-profit organization that fosters discussions on books, films and poetry; provides grants to humanities education; and promotes literacy through reading events for children and families, according to its website. the U.S. premiere of “Roy Orbison: One of the Lonely Ones” at a nearby movie theater, followed by a discussion with British documentary filmmaker Jeremy Marre. 

“Peter has such a wonderful way about himself where he can use conversation and engage people in a non-threatening way where it has the potential to open up safe questioning and dialogue,” said Ellie Hutchinson, program manager for Arizona Humanities, who has partnered with the center since 2015.

Hutchinson said working with the center offers Arizona Humanities' audience more well-rounded programming.

A few years before, they honored filmmaker Blake Edwards with a tribute concert in collaboration with the ASU symphony, which played music selections from his films at ASU Gammage. During the concert, ASU President Michael Crow awarded Edwards an honorary degree. His wife, actress Julie Andrews, was on hand to enjoy the festivities.

The center became part of a major ASU initiative in the Western film genre in 2016. Lehman, a Western film scholar, was invited to join a group of ASU faculty and administrators to create a partnership between the university and Western Spirit: Scottsdale’s Museum of the West to acquire a 5,000-piece Western film memorabilia collection valued at $6 million. The purchase puts ASU in position to boost research from several fields and help dispel stereotypes and misconceptions of American Indians.

Museum CEO and Director Mike Fox called the center “an excellent collaborative partner” and says the Rennard Strickland Collection of Western Film history is a good starting point. 

“We want the collection to serve as a catalyst for conversation and reflection that deepens people’s understanding of the West and themselves,” Fox said.

The center and museum will team up again in a few months to co-host a Nov. 2 screening of “Redskin,” a historically important 1929 Western film about Native Americans.

Lehman emphasizes that building relationships between the center, the Phoenix metro arts and museum community, its advisory board and industry partners is a key part of who they are.

“We’ve laid the foundation for expanding to the next level, including attracting business and corporate sponsors and donors both within the local community and in Hollywood,” Lehman said.

Trans*cend: a Journey from Gender to Self

What: The Southwest premiere of the documentary, followed by a discussion.

When: 7-9 p.m. Friday, Sept. 15.

Where: Sun Studios of Arizona, 1425 W. 14th St., Tempe.

Admission: Free.


Top photo: Peter Lehman, founding director for the Center for Film, Media and Popular Culture, stands with pieces from the Rennard Strickland Collection of Western Film inside the Scottsdale Museum of the West on Aug. 10. Photo by Deanna Dent/ASU Now

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