Being a Black woman in the film industry has been a challenge since the beginning. Not only have Black women been belittled with the roles they’ve been given to play, but the recognition they receive for these menial roles is hardly conceivable. With barriers such as culture, gender, and the stereotypes that have followed, Black women have found it hard to find their place in the spotlight without being criticized and remarked at. The stereotypes that were established during the Jim Crow era have yet to cease and are holding back the talents Black female actresses posses. Even though recently Black women have become more present in the film industry, it’s hard to say if what we’ve done for Black female actresses is enough. There aren’t enough women of color in the film industry who are behind the camera and are producing and writing the stories for their confidants.
I wanted to get into the topic of Black women in the film industry because growing up I felt like there weren’t enough women who looked like me playing roles that would inspire and empower me. If they were on the big screen, the roles they played only depicted the life that was expected by a Black woman during the time and it wasn’t right. Black women are so much more than the ‘loud woman with baby daddies’ people think they are based off of what they have seen on television. Black women are hardworking individuals who play the successful lawyers or doctors that are portrayed by other women in movies. In one of my favorite childhood films, The Princess and the Frog, one of the supporting characters, Mama Odie, was actually subjected to discrimination. While growing up and watching the movie, Mama Odie was primarily ignored, except for quirky yet catchy song she sings to guide Tiana and Naveen through the scene. Looking back on this film, Disney chose to portray Mama Odie as a “Mammy” figure for her screen time in the film. A mammy is “ a Black woman serving as a nurse to white children especially formerly in the southern U.S.’’ (Mammy). Now I understand the Hollywood’s issue of not only underrepresentation but misrepresentation.
The History of the Problem:
Though Black actresses are highlighted in some movies and films, the stereotypical portrayal they convey as servants, criminals, or sidekicks is demeaning. Being a female in the film industry during the 1900’s was hard, but being a Black woman was harder. Not only did they have to struggle with being a female in a period when the film industry was predominantly dominated by men, but they had to carry the burdens that come with being a Black woman during the time.
A common stereotype associated with Black actresses in the early 1900’s was the mammy stereotype. A “mammy” figure was someone, usually seen as unattractive because of their plump stature, who devoted all of her time to her master’s family instead of her own (Francois). The “mammy” stereotype was adopted by Black women as a way to make themselves look less desirable to avoid slave masters from raping and sexually harassing female slaves in their plantations (Francois). Gone with the Wind was a film made in 1939 that focuses on the lives of two romantics during the time of the Civil War (Bauer). In Gone with the Wind, the role Black actress Hattie McDaniel played was humiliating. McDaniels played “Mammy” in Gone with the Wind. Though praised by the general public, the movie received a lot of backlash due to their representation of Hattie McDaniel. Additionally, because negative Black stereotypes were so normalized during that time.
What You Need To Know:
In recent years, Hollywood has improved greatly with the quantity of Black women in film, but now a bigger issue lies ahead and that is recognition and the current misrepresentation. The types of films that Black actresses are being recognized for is questionable to some degree and it needs to be looked into.
An Oscar is the highest Academy Award an actor or actress can obtain. In 2015, the hashtag, #OscarsSoWhite was created. This resulted from diversity activist, April Reign, watching that year’s Oscar nominations being announced without a single person of color in any of the lead or supporting-actor categories. From the year 1980 to 2015, white actresses have won 89% of the awards while Black actresses have only won 9% (Woo). Although 9% may look like a beneficial number to some, the films the women were nominated for say otherwise. In 2012, Octavia Spencer won an Oscar for her performance in The Help, in 2013 Lupita Nyong’o won for her performance in 12 Years a Slave, and in 2017 Viola Davis received an Oscar for her role in Fences (Sangweni). These actresses undeniably deserved awards for the work of the roles they were given, but there’s a pattern to what the Oscars deem as award-winning for Black actresses. The members of the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences, also known as the Academy, only credit Black actresses for their acting when they play negative stereotypical roles. For example, Octavia Spencer played a ‘mammy’ in The Help and Lupita Nyong’o played a slave in 12 Years a Slave. In the past, the only roles for Black women to partake in were those of servants or entertainers. They were always portrayed as being happy and content even in the worst of situations, and never had their own opinions. Not only the film industry has a long way to go with how they portray Black women, but they have a way to go with how they ‘honor’ them as well.
Traditionally denied access to the medium in film, Black women throughout the industry have been taking more control of the camera and the cinematic apparatus in recent years (Ukadike). Women such as Ava DuVernay and Tina Gordon are paving the way for other Black female directors by making award-winning movies such as A Wrinkle in Time and Little. Though the Academy doesn’t want to appreciate the efforts of Black women in the industry, there are other awards tailored for Black female actresses. The NAACP Image Awards celebrate outstanding achievement of people of color in the arts- television, music, literature, and film (NAACP). Black women who have been awarded include Tracee Ellis Ross for Outstanding Actress in a Comedy Series, Marsai Martin for Outstanding Supporting Actress in a Comedy Series, and Taraji P. Henson for Outstanding Actress in a Drama Series (Staff). Instead of giving light to an award ceremony that belittles them, Black women should give more precedence to the NAACP Images Awards for giving the recognition they deserve.
This graph shows the percentage of Oscar winners from 1980 to 2015. There’s an obvious disproportion between the amount of Black female actresses to white female actresses.
When a social justice issue becomes more prominent, all those who aren’t directly affected by it tend to ignore the problem. Although a large majority of people may feel like misrepresentation in the film industry may not be something the average person can help with but here’s what can be done:
1.) Understanding. There is racism in the film industry. When you take a step back and look at the roles you’ve seen Black actresses being put in, there’s the angry Black woman or the ‘Sapphire”, there’s the sidekick or best friend, there’s the ‘mammy’, and many more. Shows like Empire depict the lead Black actress as the ‘Sapphire’, Clueless had Dionne as the sidekick and The Help has Octavia Spencer as a ‘mammy’. Unless you know why those stereotypes are considered ignorant you can’t be a factor in changing them. Even those in power in the film industry understand that there is a lack of understanding behind closed doors. Cheryl Boon Issac, the former Academy president explained, “That was the industry: You’d scan around the room, and everyone looked the same. But people didn’t get what was going on” (Ugwu). Understanding that though Black women are being a tiny bit of recognition, its overshadowed by the humiliating roles Black women have been given .
2.) Education. Hundreds of years of racism and discrimination against women of color can’t be solved overnight, but educating yourself is one of the best ways to help make a difference. It’s sad to read about how Black women are being treated to create the movies we love so much. Reading articles about the wage gap and how Black actresses are being treated on set not only by directors, but by other actresses as well is inconceivable at times. By understanding what makes the way Black women are portrayed in films disrespectful, you’ll have an idea of what types of movies to stay away from because they exploit Black women in a harmful manner. In Los Angeles Times article, Kimberlé Crenshaw, a law professor at UCLA and Columbia University, moderated a feminist initiative panel.
3.) Consumerism. Whether we want to believe it or not, we are consumers. Though the idea of consumerism may seem like a problem in most cases, the case of helping tarnish the record of Hollywood discrimination is a pass. By purchasing tickets to films made by Black female producers and directors, you’d be showing Hollywood that these films are what the public want to see. The goal of the film industry is to make money and when consumers buy into their ways, they continue to produce what makes them the most money. This also means buying tickets on opening nights. The number of other theaters that will receive the movie to screen the following week is dependent on how many sales the movie makes opening night. There are some precautions that must be taken as well. Making sure to avoid movies that can be seen as offensive to the Black community due to harmful stereotypes is important.
1.) Who is Behind the Camera: The film industry’s goal is to tailor to what they think people want to see. For them, this means tailoring to a predominantly white audience. There doesn’t need to an increase in white producers and casting directors hiring Black women. There needs to be an increase in Black women hiring Black women. Black women need to own their own production companies and hire who they see fit. This means not relying on white producers and white owned film companies, but Black men and women coming together and creating their own companies. If Black people created their own film companies, we wouldn’t have to rely on others to bring us to the top. If Black female casting directors were in charge they would not only hire more Black female actresses but more females of color. Here are some statistics for the amount of Black women who were seen as directors, producers, or screenwriters. https://womenandhollywood.com/resources/statistics/2018-statistics/.
2.) Diversity:The mass of award winning films that star Black actresses are all set in the time of slavery. I understand that the period of slavery was very important time in America not only for the country itself but for the African American population but it gives light to the mammy stereotype and it’s not all Black actresses are good for. By casting Black women in roles that would normally be given to white women, the film industry would be helping dismantle a stereotype that has obsessed its way in the Black allocation of film for too long. This doesn’t only pertain to movies that cast Black women as mammy roles. This also regards movies that cast Black women as the white main leads ‘sidekick’, the prostitute, or even the ‘entertainer’ in some films. Every year, UCLA social scientists take a close look at Hollywood and ask the question: Are women and minorities getting key jobs in front and behind the camera( Wolf )? Their website shows the statistics of the amount of minorities compared to whites in films on and off camera. (https://newsroom.ucla.edu/releases/2020-hollywood-diversity-report)
Thank you for taking the time to read my research, now I’d like to know what actions you think we can take to not only help improve the images of Black women in films but also helping them get the recognition they deserve.