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Cinema Sins: The Misrepresentation of African Americans in Film


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A young African American boy is going to see a new movie. In the movie, the only black people in the movie are depicted as gangsters or drug dealers. The boy takes it all in without the ability to process it intellectually and separate truth from fiction. What does that imagery do to him as a person? What does it do to his idea of how he should act as a black person in America and what he should grow up to be? What does it do to his perception of his own race of people? How would it make YOU feel?

The Problem with Creative Freedom

Throughout history, people have created many forms of media, from music to stories, newspapers and magazines to plays and movies. Using media sources such as these, the creator can depict their characters however they choose. Because of this, the creator can construct narratives about the people seen in their media to make them appear however they’d like – positively or negatively – to their audience. There is no clearer example of this than how African Americans have been and continue to be portrayed in the media. The ways African Americans are portrayed in media has impacted the way they are treated and perceived in the real world. This negative imagery of African Americans started in the in the days of slavery and continues today.

Black memorabilia, early 20th century

The misrepresentation of African Americans in film has been a problem  since the beginning of the entertainment film industry and continues to be a major problem today. With the addition of social media and the general explosion of media touchpoints for consumers like Netflix and Hulu, the way African Americans are portrayed is as important as ever. As it becomes easier to access digital imagery, it is even more important to represent African Americans in an accurate way. For this reason, it is all the more damaging to the African American community to be represented poorly now because imagery is everywhere. As trivial as the perception of a group of people in the media seems, a 2011 study conducted by The Opportunity Agenda shows that the media perception of African Americans affects the life expectancy of black men and boys. (Donaldson) These negative views of African Americans “shape public views of and attitudes toward men of color.” while also showing African American youth where they are supposed to be in life and how they are should to act, creating a societal “barrier to advancement” (Donaldson), putting African Americans into boxes of what they must be. This idea shows itself throughout pop culture, which effectively tells African American boys that they can either rap or play basketball and if they choose neither, they are “not black”. Rarely do we ever see African American scientists, doctors, teachers or people in other professions in pop culture

This is what my friend, Jalen, thinks about this issue

My interest

The main reason that I want to focus on how racist steroetypes are perpetuated by films  is because as a African American male in America I think that it is important to acknowledge how these seemingly harmless depictions of African Americans in film have had real life negative consequences which have caused innocent African Americans to be discriminated against, thrown in jail or even killed. Discrimination against African Americans is such a pervasive issue in this country that it has almost been normalized. Through this project, I want to understand the mindset behind these racist portrayals we see in films, the history surrounding them and the negative impact they have had on real people’s lives.

Shirley Temple, Stand Up and Cheer, 1934

The History of Misrepresentations of African Americans         

The distortion of the imagery of African Americans dates back to Africans’ arrival on American soil, through slavery until the 1800’s, racism in the 1900’s, and continues today. The exaggerated negative perception of Africans in America started when the they were first brought to North America in 1619. Throughout the time in which Africans were enslaved, stereotypes were created about them regarding their behavior and appearance. Stereotypes such as being uneducated, disruptive or unruly originated during times of slavery and have perpetuated since then. The context of my research is the depiction of African Americans of film which means that this story will start in the twentieth century. The first and possibly most famous example is D.W. Griffith’s 1915 film, Birth of a Nation, which to some is considered one of if not the most influential movies ever made.  Birth of a Nation follows the story of Southern White people who form the Klu Klux Klan in order to protect White women from the wrath of the predatorial Black men. The Klu Klux Klan is portrayed as a group of heroes while the Black people are portrayed as sub-human.  Birth of a Nation showed African Americans as “good for little but subservient labor” and monsters who solely want to “coerce white women into sexual relations.” (Brody).

This movie is extremely racist and dehumanizing to African Americans, but ironically it was a beautifully produced movie for its time. Even with such detestable subject matter, Birth of a Nation presents the viewer with, as stated by Richard Brody of The New York Times, “-humanly profound moments, whether graceful and delicate or grand and rhetorical, that detach themselves from their context to probe nearly universal circumstances”.

Image from Birth of a Nation, 1915

The fact that Birth of a Nation is so well produced made it practically impossible to ignore even if you are against its themes. If you did not see it, you were simply missing out on the innovative and revolutionary cinematographic achievement it represented for its time. The film sparked violence against African Americans by White people in many cities and was protested against by Black civil rights groups.  

Another early film that is considered to be a classic, but racist film is the 1940 film Gone with the Wind, which won the Academy Award for Best Picture. This film introduced one of the biggest African American stereotypes in existence: Mammy, or in other words, the sassy Black woman. Hattie McDaniel, who plays the house slave, Mammy, also represents something else that isn’t as much of a stereotype but more of a misrepresentation.

Vivian Leigh and Hattie McDaniel in Gone with the Wind, 1934

Mammy is subservient to Scarlett and does what she is told. Even after the South loses the Civil War, Mammy does not look for a life outside of working for her owners. Instead, she continues to stay with the people who enslaved her. As Thompson states, “To many people today, this puts slavery in far too positive of a light for comfort …”  (Thompson). This representation of African Americans in movies isn’t necessarily stereotypical, it simply paints African Americans as mindless objects ready to serve their masters unquestionably no matter the circumstances.

Throughout the early days of African Americans in film, caricatures of male and female personalities that were demeaning became popularized. During the 1940’s, Stepin Fetchit, the stage name of Black actor Lincoln Perry, became very popular portraying “the laziest human being in the world”, embodying the stereotypical African American male who was illiterate, stupid and unproductive. Because of Stepin Fetchit’s popularity, White Americans believed that he represented the typical African American male.

Stepin Fectchit and Will Rodgers, date unknown

Physical stereotypes also became normalized such as African Americans having overly big lips and big noses. For examples, racist images of “Mammy Two Shoes” with big lips and hips were frequently seen in the popular cartoon Tom and Jerry in the 1950’s. There were many more cartoons that perpetuated these racist images and fed the stereotypes to White children. Much time has passed since these stereotypes orginated. Some have faded, but new ones have grown in their places, modernized but still negative, like today’s hip-hop loving criminal. If you want to read about this topic more in detail click here

Present Day Perceptions

The representations of African Americans in film has improved dramatically over the last century and especially in the last decade. While we should appreciate the improvement in the number of positive representation of African Americans in film, the industry’s depictions leave much to be desired. It is easy to understand why this problem is so hard to eradicate, as racial bias is ingrained in our culture. Negative perceptions of African Americans in film have continued into the 21st century. Action-adventure films such as Training Day (2001) in which Denzel Washington plays a power-hungry corrupt cop, or Superfly (2018) which is about a cocaine kingpin and even comedies such as the Madea series (2005-2019) which characterizes African Americans as “dumb” and “loud” continue to attract millions of patrons at the box office. While these are seemingly harmless films made for entertainment, they do have real world repercussions.

Tyler Perry as himself and as Madea and Madea film summary

From Entertainment to Injury

How do these seemingly innocent portrayals in film translate into real-life damage to African Americans? One example of how negative media portrayals of African Americans can impact real life is how some teachers have been observed to interact in a biased way with African American students in the K-12 system`. A U.S. Department of Education study concluded that “African American students were disciplined more harshly and more frequently because of their race than similarly situated white students.”  Department of Education said in a 2014 “Dear Colleague” letter) Often teachers in inner city schools, who sometimes are not as familiar with the challenges of African American students in underserved neighborhoods, are confronted with students that fit a certain stereotype from films they’ve seen. They immediately assume the worst of the student.

Washington Post article “Racial disparities in school discipline are growing, federal data show”

Negative perceptions of Africans Americans don’t stop in the classrooms; they also impact the lives at risk in the U.S. criminal justice system. Looking at some facts, one could conclude that white jurors sometimes base their decisions on cases involving African Americans partially based on the negative stereotypes they see in the media. This conclusion is supported by research done by Cornell law professor Sheri Lynn Johnson, in which she simulated the same court case with 12 different jurors. From these simulations, she concluded that “the race of the defendant significantly and directly affects the determination of guilt”. Professor Johnson also concluded that “white jurors are more likely to find a black defendant guilty than a white defendant even though the trials were based on the same crime and same evidence.” (Constitutional Rights Foundation.) If you want to learn more about the problems that this misrepresentation of African Americans create, click here

Since 2015, there has been a growing movement to get more high quality films made by black directors and producers and supported by major studios that will change the perception of African Americans for the better. This movement started with #Oscarssowhite. The movement began in reaction to the 2015 Oscar nominations in which African American films were nowhere to be found. This movement was launched by April Reign, the managing editor of Broadwayblack.com but quickly gained traction with the support of A-list celebrities such as, Spike Lee, Will Smith, George Clooney and even President Barack Obama. Since 2015, positive representation of African Americans has grown tremendously, culminating in 2019 with major nominations for films by African American directors such as Black Panther, BlacKKKlansman and If Beale Street Could Talk.  

Stephan James and Teyonah Parris, If Beale Street Could Talk, 2018

The chart below shows the remarkable increase in the number of black directors with films in the top 100 – sixteen!

Despite the large number of films depicting African Americans by black directors that were nominated for Oscars in 2019, by the end of the evening it was clear not all of the “African American stereotype” problems have been solved. This is because the movie that the Academy selected as Best Picture did the worst job of accurately depicting it’s African American character. This movie is Green Book, in which a white chauffeur drives an African American pianist from New York to Alabama and along the way, they become friends, which was very rare in the 1960’s. Meanwhile the historical context is that in 1962, when the movie took place, the Civil Rights movement was emerging. Conversely, this movie blatantly flies past current events and has a fairytale ending to the story of race relations, when in reality, this takes place in middle of the ugly fight over civil rights. While the characters are discussing how to eat fried chicken, riots were erupting in Mississippi over an African American student’s enrollment into Ole’ Miss (Thoughtco.com). This proves that even in 2019, honored mainstream films still don’t always depict African Americans in a realistic light.

Movin’ on up

In order to reverse the problem of African American negative portrayals in film and the unfair consequences, I think it is important to document progress that has been made so far in the fight for positive images of African Americans in film. The National Museum of African American History and Culture does a spectacular job of showing the history of Blacks in film, starting with Birth of a Nation, through the 20th century, extending through Spike Lee and present day films like “12 Years a Slave.” This museum gives visitors full perspective on the stereotypes and misinformation and how it was used to oppress African Americans over time. With this awareness, visitors leave less likely to be blindly impacted by negative stereotypes.

The National Museum of African American History and Culture

Documentary films, such as “I Am Not Your Negro”, about James Baldwin’s life and perspectives on the media, also educated people about the negative stereotypes used over time to discredit African Americans and in that way shed light on the problem and made people more aware of how their thoughts were being manipulated by filmmakers.

In this past five or so years, we have seen more and more business and talent representation of African Americans in Hollywood. One of the biggest examples of this was Black Panther, which had an almost completely African American cast and was directed by Ryan Coogler, an African American director from Oakland. Black Panther was not only a “black film” (Smith) but it is also the second highest grossing superhero movie of all time making $1,346,913,161. (Armitage) Another standout black film that made a statement in pop culture was Jordan Peele’s horror film Get Out. The film grossed $255 million and was dubbed by critics “the most successful film last year.”(Reign) Both of these films are great examples of one way that the past practice of misrepresentation of African Americans can be reversed. In order to help increase the amount of positive images of African Americans in films, the amount of African American actors and directors must increase so that they are able to have a direct impact on the characters themselves. It’s happening: see below that 16 of the top 100 films in 2018 were directed by black directors.

One way that the general public can help the movement towards better representation of African Americans in film is to simply patronize films by black directors so that more films will be greenlighted (funded). If the ticket-buying public continues to support black films, studios will begin to realize that “inclusion truly does sell” (Reign) If you want to read about this topic more about what we can do as a society, click here

Works Cited

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COMMENTS: 6
  1. April 25, 2019 by R Davis

    I enjoyed reading your thoughts – well researched and thought-provoking examples. I wonder how much more important this will be when 360VR experiences become more mainstream as entertainment? The immersive VR can be so viscerally moving that I think we will need to be even more careful about what is portrayed. If you haven’t seen it, maybe check out Derek Ham’s work at http://iamamanvr.logicgrip.com/ – thanks for sharing your work.

  2. April 26, 2019 by Maya Shrestha

    I loved this page! I thought the graphs used were very interesting and informative, for example, the graphic about the 16 movies directed by Black directors. I also particularly enjoyed the images taken from movies in which African Americans are portrayed (either negatively or positively). I was wondering how any of those movies you have personally seen. I thought your excerpt about Green Book was very interesting, and I agree that it idealized the white character. It made him seem like the pro, and although the story was centered around Mahershala Ali’s character’s music tour, he was considered the supporting actor. He ended top winning an Oscar for that role, but I disagree with the fact that he was called the supporting actor. Overall, I really enjoyed reading this page, and I am going to continue reading about this topic.

  3. April 26, 2019 by Claudia.Russell

    This project was super interesting to read, Brandon. I was always aware about the racism and stereotyping that existed in Hollywood, but I never really thought about what impact that had presently. I also thought it was super interesting how you wrote about countering the negative portrayals of African American people by white directors to the positive portrayal by black directors. However, you also give the example of the Madea series, which you said “characterizes African Americans as ‘dumb’ and ‘loud'”. Since these movies are directed by an African American man rather than a non-black director, how do you think instances like these can be avoided? What impact do you think the negative portrayal of African American people by an African American actor and director has on the public?

  4. April 29, 2019 by Gail Moody-Byrd

    I really liked reading this page, Brandon. It’s so important for people to know that the damages go beyond “seeing a bad movie” to real impact with students being disrespected by teachers and people ending up incarcerated – or dead, like Travyon Martin.
    My question is about the importance of learning this history in an era where young people might take for granted the positive images from films like Black Panther – is it useful to learn about the past, and if so, why? How will knowing this history change the way you perceive present day movies? Secondly, I wonder what you think of the National Museum of African American History as a way to educate people and what could be done to reach more people, as the museum only admits a limited number of people each day?

  5. April 29, 2019 by Amaya.Weekes

    I love this! I thought the quiz was a great way to get everyone thinking about how people are portrayed in the media.

  6. April 30, 2019 by Kyong Pak

    Great work, Brandon! You have really come far from your initial personal interest essay. I enjoyed your delineation of the history of African American portrayal in film, supplemented with such compelling visual imagery. Including the real world implications of such stereotyping was a powerful reminder that this is a serious, life or death issue. You end with a note of hope in highlighting films like Black Panther and Get Out, but emphasize that there is still A LOT of growth needed in Hollywood.

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