African-Americans in the Film Industry: Then and Now

African American stereotypes have been present in the American movie industry since its inception. According to Berry (1-2), the cultural norms that were present in the 1900s influenced the representation of African Americans in film. Additionally, Guerrero (3) notes that very few films incorporated African American cast between 1910 and 1930. Even the roles that were given to this racial group were seen to portray their social positions as servants. The Civil Rights Movement is believed to have changed the representation and stereotyping of the black race in the film industry (5).

During this period, black and white casts were able to share the same stage while acting. There was also a greater push for the positive representation of black Americans in films. In the 1970s, there were many African American directors, writers, and producers that were represented in the industry. However, Cutler and Klotman (9-11) indicate that the portrayal of this race has continued to be characterized by controversial images despite the Civil Rights Movement. The aim of the current research is to determine whether the earlier black stereotypes are still present in the film industry today.

Representation of African Americans in the film industry

The initial movies produced in the American film industry were characterized by racism and stereotyping of African Americans. According to Cutler and Klotman (15-18), the black race appeared to be the most discriminated group in the history of the movie industry. In this regard, movies that were produced before the 1930s portrayed blacks as slaves who had no place in American society. An example is the film Birth of a Nation produced in 1915 by D.W Griffith. The film presented uncivilized images of African Americans. As a result, it provoked massive protests throughout the country (Bogle 10-18).

Although the demonstrations were disregarded by the government, they enabled the society to understand how the African Americans felt about their portrayal in films. Martin (405-410) states that the movie displayed the African American man as barbarian and obsessed with animalistic desire. He was often seen attacking white women. In the movie Birth of a Nation, these black men were punished through castration. Additionally, it tended to depict the white person as the victim and offered solutions to deport all black Americans back to Africa.

Another scene from the film portrayed black men as thieves as they were seen stealing whiskey during a meeting in South Carolina. Despite the demonstrations in various parts of America, the film continued to be popular among the whites and in turn, made enormous profits. It was also re-released in the following decade and continued to be popular among the movie lovers. Based on this movie, African Americans were associated with negative personalities and were viewed as inferior to the white race. Furthermore, the laws present during that period offered no solution with regard to the prevention of negative stereotypes.

Although progress has been made in the film industry with respect to the representation of African Americans, more efforts need to be made to eliminate the racial gap (Guerrero 15). Racial stereotyping still continues to characterize some of the films being produced today. The film 12 years a slave was produced in 2013, and it featured the lives of African Americans during the slavery period. Although the movie was based on a true story, it was seen to favor the narratives regarding the domination of the white race in the film industry.

According to Berry (19), the Civil Rights Movement was aimed at promoting a positive portrayal of blacks in the film industry. In the subsequent years, many directors and producers seemed to support the movement by promoting the positive display of blacks in most of their films. However, the movie 12 years a slave appeared to take the industry back to the pre-Civil Rights Movement era. It featured an African American actor who was sold to slavery and suffered in the hands of his white master.

The black cast in the movie was seen struggling to stay alive and fighting to reclaim their dignity. Patsy, a black woman in the movie, was sexually assaulted by her master. According to Goodchild (15-16), this movie does not predict any positive outcome for the black woman. It seems to be biased as it does not tell any positive story about the black person during the slavery period. In this regard, the movie appears to tolerate the African American race in the state of slavery and victimization.

Although this movie was produced recently, it appears to display African Americans as second-class citizens. Generally, this film is an indication that the portrayal of African Americans in this industry is the same as it was in the early 1900s. It is also contrary to the mandates of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), which was formed to look into the plight of the African Americans (Berry 16). Guerrero supports the NACCP by saying:

“For the racial ideology and stereotypes that are but part of the dominant cinema’s work is not fixed or static. Instead, they are a set of dynamic, lived relations and social transactions; the filmic conventions and codes of racial subordination are continually reworked, shifting under the pressure of the material, aesthetic, and social conditions.” (113).

Guerrero (21-23) also acknowledges that the industry still has a long way to go with regard to the elimination of black stereotypes in film. Tyler Perry is one of the most famous movies directors and producers in the industry (McKoy 138). The Madea movie project earned him a title as one of the best African American movie producers. As described by Bogle (9), the mammy stereotype is fat, independent, and irritable. Madea seems to possess all these qualities. She seems to have some form of financial independence in most of the movies as she owns a house and tends to help her family whenever they are in trouble (Fontaine 10-13).

In the film Diary of a Mad Black Woman, she supports her niece financially after going through a divorce. Her depiction as a mammy is similar to the show Good times, which was produced in 1975. The ‘mammy’ stereotype was developed by the white masters to justify sexual harassment, and she was portrayed as old, loyal to the master, and tough (Bogle 9-11). This represented the ugliness of the African American woman in the eyes of the white master. Madea seems to be portrayed as a coon despite the name being used to describe a black man.

She is seen acting like a clown to gain power and respect within her family. Specifically, she obtains the power through threats and intimidation. Although the Madea films are interesting, they send the message that the Civil Rights Movement was worth nothing. The stereotyping and creation of one-dimensional characters contradicts the true experience of the black people. As a result, the negative images on film influence people’s opinions about African Americans. This is true because film reinforces the ideas of the directors and producers to the audience.

The film Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner was produced in 1967 and it became a favorite among the African Americans since it portrayed them positively on the screen. It was a story about the relationship between a white woman and a black man and the tensions that characterized such a union (Berry 22-24). The film was a positive step toward solving issues relating to racial inequality at that time. However, it did not seem to make an effort to dig deep into the real problems that affected African Americans. During this time, films tended to over-sexualize the African American man. He was also portrayed as a servant of the white man. According to Guerrero, the black person was:

“Almost always at the service or under the control of white institutional power and authority.” (79)

Although the film Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner was flawed in its representation of African Americans, it enabled the society to start talking about racial inequality and discrimination. Its portrayal of the black man as intelligent was also a huge shift from the film Birth of a nation. Although there was an increase in the number of African American cast, their influence behind the cameras as producers and directors was still absent. It is important to acknowledge that there have been positive developments in the film today with regard to inter-racial relationships between whites and African Americans.

In the modern-day film industry, representation of inter-racial relations seems to be acceptable. In 2005, the film Guess who was produced and it was a re-make of Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner (Berry 28-31). Although the film did not receive hostile reviews like its predecessor, an element of suspicion regarding inter-racial dating was still evident. In the movie Best Man Holiday, the representation of inter-racial relationships seems to be more acceptable than films aired in the 1960’s.

As aforementioned, the black man was initially depicted as a criminal and this was evident in the film Birth of a Nation. One would expect such stereotyping to be absent in the film industry today. The media plays a critical role in informing the society about the true nature of African American Men. Whether their portrayal in the film is real or imagined, it affects the perceptions of the audience. According to Martin (15-18) black men are still depicted as the ‘bad guys’ in the modern day film industry. In Tyler Perry’s For Colored Girls, the black man is seen to be unfaithful, angry, and a rapist (McKoy 144-145).

Such negative portrayal can also be seen in the movie Training Day which was produced in 2001. In this film, Denzel Washington (Alonzo Harris) is depicted as a violent criminal while his white partner is seen to be morally upright. Film is very influential, and the images portrayed tend to live in the minds of the audience for a long time.

This could explain why the portrayal of the African American in the early 1900’s was well accepted by the white people. The fact that such negative representation continues to be present in the modern film means that the industry is yet to change its perception of the African Americans. What is more worrying is the fact that some of the movies with African American stereotypes are produced by black people (McKoy 137-140). Although racial inequality is not displayed openly in the movies today, it is still present.

Conclusion

Stereotyping of the African American race in film has been in existence since the early 1900’s. During this period, the black people worked as slaves and had no rights over the white race. In the years between 1910 and 1930, majority of the films produced seemed to portray the black person as a servant whose rights were determined by his white master. The release of the film Birth of a Nation in 1915 caused a lot of uproar among the African Americans as it depicted them as useless and worthless. Despite the demonstrations, the film became a favorite among the white race and it was even re-released later.

The Civil Rights Movement started in the 1960’s and it was aimed at creating awareness and eliminating black stereotypes within the society. In the following years, more blacks were casted in various movies. Shows such as the Good times became popular in the 1970’s. However, this research provides evidence that stereotyping of the African Americans is still in existence in some of the films aired today.

Tyler Perry’s Madea is one of the movies that seem to take the film industry back to the pre-civil rights movement period. However, other movies such as Guess Who seem to have changed the stereotyping of the black race. While some modern day films seem to portray the African American citizen positively, others still continue to promote black stereotypes. This is an indication that the film industry has a long way to go with regard to changing the audience’s perception of the African Americans.

Works Cited

Berry, Erica. A Comparative Study of African American Representations in Film from Original to Re-make as Influenced by the Civil Rights Movement, Orono: University of Maine, 2009. Print.

Bogle, Donald. Toms, Coons, Mulattoes, Mammies, and Bucks: An Interpretive History of Blacks in American Films, New York: Continuum International Publishing Group, 2011. Print.

Cutler, Janet, and Phyllis Klotman. Struggles for Representation: African American Film and Video, Bloomington, Indiana: Indiana University Press, 1999. Print.

Fontaine, Nargis. From Mammy to Madea, and Examination of the Behaviors of Tyler Perry Relation to the Mammy, Jezebel, and Sapphire Stereotypes, Georgia: Georgia State University, 2011. Print.

Goodchild, Joel. Django Unchained and 12 Years a Slave: Discourses on the transatlantic slave trade and the implications of British colonialism. 2014. Web.

Guerrero, Ed. Framing blackness: The African American Image in Film, Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1993. Print.

Martin, Michael. Cinemas of the Black Diaspora: Diversity, Dependence and Oppositionality, Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 1995. Print.

McKoy, Briana. “Tyler Perry and the weight of misrepresentation.” McNair Scholars Research Journal 5.1 (2012): 127-146. Print.