Home Header You Are What You See: Historical Representation of Blacks in American Cinema

You Are What You See: Historical Representation of Blacks in American Cinema

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The human species cannot help but try to place themselves in everything. This is doubly true when it comes to art. If the audience can immerse themselves into a painting or suspend belief long enough to enjoy even the most outlandish film, it is satisfying every time. Except, when it isn’t. When the audience watches and wonders how this represented them. When it is acceptable to abuse, beat, and kill a Black character in a film but when the act is done to a White character then there is an uproar of sorts. The representation of one is preferable to the majority than the other? Since the inception of television and film industries, Blacks have been misrepresented and it has led to both identity distortion as well as negative public perception. Using the Social Identity Theory as a foundation, various connections can be made to Blacks and the overall negative public opinion in America. Strong views will be presented and this does take into consideration that these views do not apply to everyone but a point is being made.  

The Social Identity Theory essentially breaks down to the fact that human identification with social groups is unavoidable. Starting from the infant being able to interpret behaviors of others until (most likely) death, humans develop a sense of correlation to all kinds of ambiguous forms of identification such as: gender, race, sex, etc. The validity is there because the human species is overall social. We thrive on the group experience, for better and for worse. When it comes to racial identity, it gets complicated because your racial group is defined in the media, both positively and negatively. Though it is quite obvious the media displays some races more favorably than the others. The general breakdown seems to be this in my many years of media digestion and happens to be brilliantly worded by Christopher Beaudoin, “Blacks are generally depicted in the worst manner, as being physically threatening, lazy, poor, and prone to violence” (825). Yet Blacks, like all humans, create an identity based on the media they consume.

 

One of the more glaring pieces of evidence is D.W. Griffith’s Birth of a Nation. Eric Olund perfectly states Griffith’s intent behind the film, “Griffith was … adamant that black political exclusion was necessary for national preservation” (926). There we have it. Racism in the media in 1915. The roles of Blacks in the film, played by White men wearing black face. The freed slaves in the film, depicted as violent criminals. Simple choices such as that started a jaded view of a race of humans no different than their White counterparts. Even in today’s media this is still seen, Black roles being played by more popular White actors and many Black roles involve violent or socially unacceptable behavior. As Griffith’s film debuted it definitely caused the audience to see Blacks in a particular fashion much like today, when foreign audiences see Blacks committing crimes in the media and they react in kind as they retreat and hold scornful eyes.  

Decades later, in the 1940s-50s, Blacks do start to get more screen time in film yet, their roles are no more noteworthy than an extra walking down the street. Now in the post Birth of a Nation world, Blacks now had the chance to play a servant or nanny character in the films. Usually they were seen getting criticized for their work or seen taking orders. Some 30 years later and Blacks are still reduced to cinematic cannon fodder. Some 30 years later and new generations are learning about the roles of Blacks in the world based on the films being released during this period. In the eyes of the White counterparts at this time, Blacks are servants to their needs and still no one disputes the strangeness of the oppression of Blacks. One can now start to trace the overall negative representation of Blacks in film and how that created identity issues within society as well as Blacks themselves at the time.  

Fast forward to the 1960s-70s, one can begin to see as the times are changing, so is the media and its consumption as well as the role of Blacks in mainstream film. This time period saw the industry heading toward realism in their storytelling. The entertainment media of that time began having White cops in places such as Harlem to protect the city from Black gangsters, pimps, and prostitutes. The ascension of black roles since Birth… are seemingly more insulting that the previous time period. The ironic thing about Blacks in the 60s-70s, according to Jerry Watts, “The Black Arts Movement [of the 1960s-1970s] was a hodgepodge of black nationalist artistic sensibilities and intellectual formations…” (288). In other words, in 60s-70s reality, Black were knee deep in an artistic movement while cinematically, they are the same demons they have been portrayed as since D.W. Griffith’s slanderous depiction of Blacks. Where is the disconnect up to this point in film history? Why were Blacks depicted in negative roles when they were obviously so far from that in reality? Would the industry really turn the White world on its head for showing Blacks in other ways that did not get them ridiculed on the streets? One can only wonder how conflicting identity was for Blacks at the time due to the fact that this presents an issue concerned two sides of the same coin. On one side you have films concerned with devaluing Blacks, yet in the 60s-70s, Blacks began to find their artistic voice. It is almost an issue of whether one wants to support the old stereotypes of these prior films. However, one can see that the overwhelming (most likely) White majority chose to still believe the misnomers of Blacks in the cinematic world while Blacks turned to their now role models in the art world and began to attempt to turn the tide.

From the 1980s-1990s, Blacks have arisen from token characters, to the common foes of White heroes with badges, to sidekicks. A type of character that would aide the White lead with comic relief and support conducive to the main character’s main objective. One of the more recognizable characters in the sidekick role was Sam Jackson in Diehard: With a Vengeance. He was a supportive pillar for Bruce Willis and was an important piece for Willis’s character to get through the opposition. The reason for the introduction of the black sidekick role was for Hollywood to give the impression that there is now little to no racism in the modern cinematic world. This is beyond misleading as there still were not even a notable percentage of films with Black leading characters. In Clint Eastwood’s film, Unforgiven, Morgan Freeman also played the sidekick to the leading character and was inevitably whipped to death. No blame is being placed on Whites by this time, as stated by Laura Papish, “…this effective difference between A trend eventually developed, the Black sidekick was often times violently removed from the film” (23). A classic example of this is Terminator II: Judgement Day. Joe Morton’s character, Miles Dyson, is the sidekick to both Sarah Connor and The Terminator, arguably one of the more important sidekicks (also a favorite character of mine in film as he is both a token character AND intelligent). Nonetheless, he ends up getting shot and being the catalyst for one of the biggest explosions in the film to kill and distract the assailants long enough for the leading characters to make their escape. Is this the pinnacle? One without a doubt can see the just the blatant disrespect for black actors over the years in Hollywood. How can one expect Blacks to form an identity with other Blacks in Hollywood when they are just cinematically reduced to the lowest common denominator time and time again.

One film that has gotten away from this trend is Quentin Tarantino’s Django Unchained. Though Django… is set in the slavery era, it stars Jamie Foxx, a Black man that pushes the film forward and the enemies are White. In other words, it is one of the few films that highlights a pure reversal of fortune, in terms of race portrayal in cinema. The Black man has finally transcended into the hero role. Django… was released in 2012. That being said there were many films between 2000-2012 that had Black leading characters, this film is especially important nonetheless due to the setting of the story. Prior films concerning slavery did not have a Black lead actor since Roots and there is nothing in between Roots and Django… in terms of other slave based films, starring a Black actor. As an example for identity, Django… is definitely one of the stronger pillars for identity in Black culture. The Blacks have another example of exemplary motivational power (after Kunta Kente). This film even had a strong Black female lead, though her role was minor since Django had to find her at Candie’s plantation about halfway through the film. Django Unchained was a game changer of sorts in terms of Blacks having a modern film that they can identify with on a racial level.

 

Blacks have taken the reigns in a way when it comes to their own identity. There have been many Black filmmakers over the years that paved the way for those who want to work in the industry in the present and beyond. Spike Lee and Melvin Van Peebles, for example, made films with near all Black casts. Spike Lee especially made an effort to show other people the way Blacks viewed and digested their own White world with staggering results. Spike Lee showed that Blacks were capable of more than being in the background or used as an example of violence, just like their White counterparts. Melvin Van Peebles is essentially the godfather of modern Black cinema because his most popular film Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss, gave way to the idea of Blacks creating their own material. The irony of Van Peebles is the man had to go to Europe first because White Hollywood did not deem him credible enough to work in his own country but Hollywood eventually had to give credit where it was due. What is even more ironic about his return to America was that Hollywood producers thought him to be a French auteur. One can go on about all the ironies in Hollywood with its attitude toward Blacks. It is enlightening to see that Blacks have decided to the take the industry by storm and tell stories with the Black perspective in mind as opposed to waiting for Hollywood to get it right. Finally, Blacks have a chance to form their own identity through media that accurately reflects them. Finally, the young can watch a film where leading character is Black and they are at the top of their field. They can aspire to do something more positive than the false reality shown in the 60s and 70s. Of course, there is always room for improvement but a start is needed before modifications can begin. It definitely proves the phrase, if you want something done, you have to do it yourself.

   

One thing that is quite jarring, the casting of Blacks in comic book movies and TV. If one looks at films such as Thor, The Dark Knight Trilogy, Captain America, or even the TV shows like Arrow, they all feature White faces in leading roles with (you guessed it) a Black sidekick. If it is not one thing it is another. Heimdall, played by Idris Elba, is the only Black character in that film and in the Asgardian universe or the only Black character of note but even then it just is not a good look. Morgan Freeman’s Lucius Fox must be the only Black character doing something positive in Gotham City. Sam Jackson’s Nick Fury just drops information for Captain America then takes his leave. Though Anthony Mackie’s Falcon character was on the screen more as Cap’s right hand man, White man directs Black man, classic Hollywood model. The TV shows are not any better as John Diggle, played by David Ramsey, provides endless amounts of moral and physical support to Oliver Queen in all his endeavors. What the actual hell? Much blame cannot really be put on these studios as the are only replicating the source material. But there is something to be said for not giving these Black sidekicks more distinguishable attributes. One show that breaks the mold in a way is The Flash. In the comics, Barry Allen’s muse is Iris West. In the comics she is white but during the casting process, Candice Patton got the role for this character despite being a Black woman. In fact, Nick Fury was also white in the comics until the casting of Jackson (in ‘98 there was a Nick Fury film starring The Hoff). Overall though, comic films have always been a great example of racial representation as there is even a Black Panther film in the works (written at time of preproduction) but it can be better because a good 70-80% of the cast tends to be White with other races getting the smaller, yet somewhat important roles. In the first Thor film, there was an Asian character playing one of Thor’s sidekicks but the screen time is minimal.

Racial representation is one of the more underrated features of film and TV and yet, also, one of the most important. The great thing about America is the freedom to do just about anything. Just check all the media since its creation and one can see where the freedom part comes in. That being said, the same filmmakers should also be aware of how certain people are presented in their work and the impression it can leave on others who may not understand someone of a different look than them. D.W. Griffith did not understand this when Birth of a Nation was released. Since that film, plenty of other filmmakers, the ones who did not support that version of America, have turned the perception of White Hollywood on its head. Blacks have been shown in more positive ways throughout film and TV in recent history and it can be seen in reality. Though Blacks still end up being the butt of the joke at times, there are other ways by which they can find their own source of identity through Black cinema and programming that show Blacks in a more favorable way. No one can change a racist mind but there are ways of not planting seeds or fueling the fire.

*Stay tuned for the follow up that examines the success of Black Panther and the potential for more Black heroes in film/tv*

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Philthy
A short story writer turned nominated script writer, Phillip Boudreaux, is a winter 2015 graduate from the San Jose State University's Radio-TV- Film department with a BA in film; with a focus of writing. Since then, he has been sharpening his skills by writing relentlessly, ranging from feature and shorts to music videos, short story fiction as well as (slam) poetry and everything in between. When he's not generating content, you can catch him a local electronic event, the movie theater, or you may never see him at all as he is an avid reader of comics and philosophy.

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