The fact that cinema was invented during the height of Western imperialist expansion and developed most aggressively in those countries with the greatest political reach, such as France, Britain, and Germany, makes it impossible to discuss the development of the medium without taking into account its ties to the age of empire. Thus a number of film historians and film theorists have dedicated themselves to exploring several key issues: on the one hand, how film has functioned in the past as a forum for colonial propaganda and continues to be both symptom and agent of the West's continued economic and cultural hegemony and, on the other, how it has also emerged as a site of resistance throughout its history, with filmmakers from various national and transnational contexts using it to lay bare the instabilities of colonial discourse and/or to articulate a powerful anti-imperialist vision. Before exploring the fruits of such labor, however, and thereby tracing the historically dynamic relationship between cinema and imperialism, it is necessary to take stock of one of the most salient terms to emerge from such lines of inquiry: postcolonialism.
While "colonialism" can be defined in a fairly straight-forward manner—that is, as a political, economic, and social formation involving the conquest and control of foreign territories by various European powers from the mid-eighteenth through the mid-twentieth century—"postcolonialism" is another matter. In some ways "postcolonialism" is as simple as it sounds; it is a term coined to describe that which follows colonialism. Thus it has come to denote the historical era characterized by the dissolution of European empires, which occurred in a piecemeal fashion beginning in 1947 when colonized populations, either through armed struggle (for example, Algeria, Angola) or diplomatic means (for example, Cameroon, Sri Lanka), won for themselves the status of self-governing nation-states. At the same time, because the term "postcolonialism" has proven to be a lightning rod for rigorous and ongoing debate, it, unlike colonialism, cannot be divorced from the context of its coinage. Thus it has come to refer as much to the largely academic discourse from whence it emerged as to the historical era it purportedly describes.
With the publication of his landmark text Orientalism in 1978, Edward W. Said set the stage both thematically and methodologically for the critical and theoretical corpus that would subsequently take shape under the rubric of postcolonial studies. In this foundational work, Said, inspired by the writings of the French philosopher Michel Foucault (1926–1984), examined the means by which "the West," principally Britain, France, and North America, produces knowledge about and thereby exerts power over "the East." The resulting mode of discourse, which Said dubbed Orientalism, locks East and West into a mutually exclusive and oppositional relationship by producing "the Orient" as the sensual, emotional, inscrutable, and fundamentalist Other to "the Occident," defined by comparison as cerebral, rational, transparent, and secular. Since the late 1970s, a vast array of scholars have built upon Said's interest in the protean form and enduring legacy of colonial relations, thereby expanding the boundaries of his seminal project considerably. The first wave of such scholars, who gained prominence in the 1980s, were typically either literary critics with an interest in work produced during the age of empire or by postindependence Third World writers (such as Homi Bhabha); politically engaged in tracing the emergence of the nation as a distinctly modern formation (such as Benedict Anderson); or members of the Subaltern Studies Group, which took as its charge the rewriting of India's history so as to account for the political agency of the socially disadvantaged (such as Gayatri Spivak). Beginning in the last decade of the twentieth century, the field became even more multidisciplinary, inciting interest from and exerting influence on academics across the humanities and social sciences, including a good many devoted to the study of visual culture in general and cinema more specifically.
Despite the fact that postcolonial studies is characterized by a diversity of perspectives and plurality of approaches, certain generalizations about it can be made. What unifies the field first and foremost is its object of study, which includes both the colonial and postcolonial periods, with an emphasis on the various ways power is exercised, resistance is mounted, and identity is constructed therein. Second, insofar as postcolonial theory has been profoundly influenced by poststructuralist thought, with its deconstructionist methodologies and anti-essentialist premises, it tends to regard its favored subject matter—power, resistance, and identity—as necessarily contingent, unstable, contradictory, and/or in process. Finally, postcolonial studies tends to be highly self-critical and thus continually engaged in an active questioning of its own assumptions and assertions, even problematizing its very name.
While the term "postcolonialism" has proven to be troubling to theorists for a number of reasons, the most noteworthy of these is the fact that the prefix "post" posits a relationship of succession and thus a definitive break with that which it precedes syntactically. Yet there is, in fact, a great deal of continuity between those eras designated as colonial on the one hand and postcolonial on the other due to the effects of a neocolonialism wherein power is consolidated not through conquest and annexation, but through control of the international marketplace and culture industries. Thus, as problematic as the terms "First World" and "Third World" are due to their purchase on Eurocentric notions of progress, they capture a differential that is as relevant today as it was when they were first coined in the 1950s; that is, many formerly colonized nations, despite their political independence, remain economically dependent on Western superpowers due to the international division of labor and circulation of goods that has emerged in the era of globalization. Moreover, for settler societies like the United States, Canada, Australia, and New Zealand, the label "postcolonial" is an outright misnomer. While all of these countries have been self-governing for at least a century, they nonetheless continue to assert sovereignty over those aboriginal populations whose ancestors were regularly rounded up, shuttled about, or killed off by European settlers pursuing a policy of manifest destiny. In order to draw attention to such populations and foreground the specificity of their situation, the World Council of Indigenous People, under the leadership of George Manuel in the 1970s, popularized the notion of a "Fourth World" and thereby staked out the conceptual, if not geographical, territory for a nascent pan-indigenous movement.