The black American actors have come along away within the movie industry in a myriad of perspectives. This is exemplified by the present huge number of black actors in Hollywood, the contemporary influential roles they play and even more essential; the modern view they present in relation to the stereotypical roles of the past century. A far cry from what it used to be in the early and mid 20th century with all film roles assigned to this group having attached racial prejudice. During the periods between the 1900 and 1970, many blacks were given subordinate and subservient roles. The theatrical image, “Black face” continued to be the conventional depiction of black actors within the film industry, with many of them such as Dewey Markham – adopting the image as integral to their act (Padgett, 2011). Actors of this era were given roles of servants, often of the lowest levels, such as janitors, house helps, porters, cooks, gardeners and cleaners among others. Such roles could not be compared to the more privileged roles assigned to their white counterparts, mainly depicted as their employers and bosses; a sort of carried forward perception of the slave and master in a newer dimension. Roles of servitude clearly brought out the perception of the black community and further aided its projection within the American society through the movie industry and TV programs (Bogle, 2001). The scenario gradually took a turn towards a rather positive outlook towards the late 1970s into the 21st century. Much of the strength in these early racial stereotypes has dissipated, but their still exist vestiges of these within the movie industry, perpetuating incorrect attributes about the African Americans.
Treatment of the African American actors between 1900 and 1970
Early era: 1900 to 1950s
Actors and actresses from the black American community within this period faced many challenges within the movie industry. In the early part of the century, role depicting black people were played, not by black actors but rather by nameless white actors after painting their faces dark black (Bogle, 2001). This tradition, commonly referred to as “black face”, was carried over to the silent films from the stage shows and theatrical plays of the preceding century. Together with this theatrical image came the racial stereotypical of the African Americans as perceived within the American society; a white dominated society whose views were the ones making all the influence in the films. Racial discrimination and how it was deeply engrossed within the fabrics of the American society at the time, is seen as the major cause of their plights. Black actors were treated with low regard and given roles that had little impact on the main plots at many times. Many of the talented black actors were ignored, vilified or even utterly dismissed from movie production houses at the start of the 20th century (Higginbotham, 2001). The few who joined the industry had little chance of making any great impact as their white colleagues. Such roles were assigned only to serve the purpose of depicting the black race within the society. Comedians and jesters especially in the 1920s to the 1940s were roles allocated to black funny men such as Bert Williams, Willie Best and Billie Robinson “Bonjangles” , albeit with a touch of docility or meekness. Taking a critical look at all roles, gives a portrayal of their community with a racial perspective.
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Turner classic movies produced mainly between the 1920s and the 1950s illustrate the stereotypical black roles of domestic workers and servants working for their white employers. Some of the roles portrayed images of ridicule and shameful aspects viewed as part of the black culture and general personalities. a negative attitude towards work is one perception about black people projected by some roles, notably by the roles played by Stepin Fetchit. Although the actor grew wealthy with his roles describing him as the “laziest being on earth,” they further advanced these indolent and lethargic attributes to the African Americans (Padgett, 2011). Combining the negative attitudes towards work and the white community, in addition to their problematic environment and personalities, are clear racial stereotypes borrowed from the blackface image (Padgett, 2011). Being given supporting roles of lesser impact on the films was also reflected by the lack of awards won by these actors. Consideration for awarding nominations to excellent black actors was subject to racial prejudice and attitudes. Some really deserving cases were not chosen for the same reasons. The reality of their situation was compounded by the fact that all movie productions were dominated and managed by the white, forcing any talented black performer to conform to the directions of the movies and the script. Without the presence of the changes that took place in the 1960s, after the rise of black civil rights movements, independent black owned production houses and companies were not feasible and as result, it meant a “a take it or leave it” situation for these actors. Having to make a leaving forced them to accept these roles, in spite the wrong generalizations they portrayed. The late Bill “Bojangles” is one actor, who was called “the quintessential Tom”, with his many roles mirroring the servile and submissive black janitor or porter in many of his roles (Padgett, 2011). In real life, the actor “the sort of man” who could demand to be served (at times exposing his pearl handled revolver) when refused any service at all white luncheons. Many of the actors accepted roles that did not portray their real personalities as individuals or the black people as a whole.
The 1960s to late 1970s
The scenario gradually took another turn for the better towards the late 1950s and 1960s. Changes were brought about by with the introduction of gifted and influential actresses and actors particularly Dorothy Dandridge and Sidney Poitier. Production of films like “a member of the weeding” , where Ethel Waters played a crucial role of alleviating the black image, and ” Raisin in the sun”, greatly enhanced a growing positive view of the black performers in Hollywood in general and their community in particular. The legendary Sidney Poitier is much credited for his roles in Patch of blue, Guess who’s coming to dinner, Lilies of the filed, and Slender thread that advanced a more dynamic and handsome picture of the black actor. His strong and huge presence within the films embodied the ideal perfect actor unequaled by none across the racial divides in his time; a feat that can be understated. Transformations were positively impacted on by new breed of actors including Harley Berry and Denzel Washington with increased opportunities being extended to black movie artists especially towards the 21st century.
Roles and their actors and actresses
A majority of the roles extended to black performers were by nature subservient and subordinate to their white counterparts (Zeisler, 2008). These actors had to play roles portraying submission to their bosses and employers. Main roles as pointed out by Bogle included the mammies, mulattoes, toms, coons and bucks (Bogle, 2001). All these negative roles grew out of the background of racial prejudice with the intention of “stressing negro inferiority” (Bogle, 2001). As a matter of fact, these roles were not directed at creating any harm to the black people. They only reproduced and reflected “black stereotypes that had existed since the days of slavery”, and which had been subsequently made popular by other forms of art including literature, music and theater (Bogle, 2001).
Black roles referred to as Tom, derived from the 1903 motion picture “uncle Tom’s cabin”, depicted the black actor as the submissive servant obedient to his master. They painted a stereotype of the black character as subjective to his white employer from an avuncular disposition. These roles extended perceptions of the relationship between the slave and his master, from an era preceding the movie industry. Labeling of the black community from the “tom” roles reflects the contemporary racial view prevalent particularly in the years between the 1900 to the 1920s. The toms were “socially accepted good negro characters”, as pointed out by Donald Bogle, who are always harassed, hounded, flogged, insulted, enslaved or chased. In spite of the ill treatment, the toms keep their faith and do not turn “against their white massas” (Bogle, 2001). They instead remain hearty, stoic, selfless and submissive to their white boss. Bert Williams is among the first black actors who played these roles, as the use of blackface diminished, with actor James Lowe typifying the role in the “1927’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin (Bogle, 2001). Movie plot depicted the toms as generous, kindhearted and loving towards their masters, even in times and situations that presented them with freedom from servitude. For example, in the 1911 film, For massa’s sake, a “former slave is so attached to his erstwhile master” even to the point of selling himself back into the atrocious state of slavery, in order to help his master through a difficult period of financial problems. Obedience to the domineering authority presented through the white employers, as was seen in the slavery era, was the type casted solution to the black problems. Rather than rebel or demand a greater range of rights, they were admonished to accept their lower position in the society with love and a sense of responsibility to their masters and mistresses as long as they lived.
The coons were presented as simpletons and foolish by nature with an exaggerated sense of self but innately coward. Presenting the Negro as some form of amusement objects, with a buffoonish attitude, these roles according to Bogle came in two variations or types; “the uncle Remus” and the “pickaninny” (Bogle, 2001). The pickaninny portrayed the black child as harmless, with funny antics of eyes almost popping and the hair standing on end with a little bit of excitement. Diverting attention and creating some pleasant comical effects was the main purpose of this particular role, albeit with a lot of exaggerations and amplification of their naivety. Children actors such as Allen Clayton Hoskins popularly known as “Farina” playing a character from Uncle Tom’s Cabin, and Billie Thomas as “Buckwheat” in the “Our Gang; little rascals,” typified this coon roles in the 1920s and 1930s. From these little coons, developed the most outright and blatantly demeaning of all the black stereotypes; the unreliable and extremely lazy and good for nothing people who took no responsibility with their actions. These black roles gave the impression that the African Americans were an indolent race who would rather steal form their white masters, especially food items from the farm, rather than work for anything in their lives. sitting down and idling time away, chatting in a distorted form of English as they wait for opportunities to steal from others, especially the hapless toms, was a typical portrayal of these characters in the movies of the early 20th century. The “Rastus series” are an exemplary in representing the black Negro males as a basic thief when given the chance without any regard to moral reflection. Black actor, Stepin Fetchit (1902- 1985), carried out this role to greater heights, in movie characters that showcased the African American as very lazy with intense averseness towards any form of work. These were really degrading racial stereotypes.
Uncle Remus, related to the tom as a first cousin, is revealed as congenial and harmless, with the tendency to comically philosophize about everything around him, with particular reference to the general position and plight of the Negro community. With his immense mirth, this coon character role, show cases a predisposition of the African American towards accepting the situation of servitude he finds himself in.
The Tragic Mulatto
The female black roles were no different in illustrating the underlying racial stereotypes adopted as the main view points towards the African American at the time. The mulatto roles depicted tragic lives of the bi-racial women, ruined and disadvantaged by their possession of the black blood. They were not given strong sexual or feminine attributes (Zeisler, 2008). In their futile attempts to be regarded as white rather than colored, this group faces prejudice from both sides of the racial line. Black males also existed but their tendency to stick more to their black community diminishes their significance, leaving the female characters in illustrating the plight of the mixed individuals. The lives of these females are shown to the audience in sympathetic light, hampered and derailed as a result of their “divided racial inheritance” (Bogle, 2001).
The mammy is another of the female black stereotypes related to the coon characters and degraded to their level by association. Distinguished by her gender, the mammy is described to the viewer usually as big and fat, with an argumentative and difficult nature. She displays the black family matriarch as bad tempered and fiercely independent. Some of the Tom and Jerry cartoon episodes depict the cat’s owner as a black mammy who does not tolerate the cat’s antics throwing him out after provocation. Hattie McDaniel played the mammy role in the movie Gone with the wind, eventually landing her an academy award; the first for an African American. Despite their tough stand, mammies are also depicted as soft hearted, sweet, jolly and kind to others (Zeisler, 2008).
The “Brutal Black Buck”
The last of the male roles is described by the irrational and rather shortsighted buck, who in many instances showcases hypersexual tendencies. The “brutal black buck” is clearly depicted by D. W. Griffith’s “the birth of a nation” released in 1915 (Bogle, 2001). It brought out a depiction of the Negroes as being lustful and arrogant in an idiotic way. Exposed as savages and brutes without much regard to rational approach to issues, with all actions revealing more uncivilized attributes, this role mostly came up against a white hero who emerges triumphant in the conflicts. Painting the black Negroes as psychopaths, with strong tendencies of revealing beastly characteristics, through these characters, exemplifies the wrong racial stereotypical views attached to the black individuals and community as a whole.
Impact of the black stereotypes
All these racially projected stereotypes were not representative of the Negroes; separately as individuals or collectively as a community. Black actors basically took these roles within the movies but did not ascribe to them as part of the black behavior, attitudes or nature. Many of these black actors openly rebelled against these stereotypes painted by their roles in popular movie and TV programs (Bogle, 2001). Black attributes alluded to only served to degrade the Negro image to a point of humiliation, pointing out to their presumed lower capability and intelligence which in turn justified their lower position within the American society. Impact of these stereotypes painted a social divide along racial lines with implications of huge differences between the white and black races. Admired black performers of the 1980s, including comedians Eddie Murphy and Richard Pryor, found it hard to shake away these lingering stereotypes in their roles. Having majorly created such images within its audience and the industry at large, meant some vestiges of these characters continued on, especially the glamorized coon roles (Bogle, 2001). Most comic roles were assigned to black actors in this era, albeit with sharp street wise skills and intelligent demeanors, far from the nitwit coons depicted in the 1940s movies. Female roles slowly adopted significant positions in movie plotlines with a modern depiction of sexual appeal glaringly missing from early movies.
Criticism from own culture
During the late 18th century, white had immersed themselves into blackness depicting violence and men conceptualized African men as having a vigorous sexuality. By then, blackness was the way to go which brought rise to blackface. Even whites started wearing black masks to depict their blackness. Unfortunately, this was not the true representation of the black culture. It is therefore justified that the black community of the African Americans taking issues with their fellows who made their way into the movie industry and took roles which showed negatively the black culture. Apparently, it was quite difficult for black actors and actresses to refuse a role offered to them since they were still struggling for recognition in the movie industry. This means that they were always at loggerheads with people from their African American communities for lowering their standards.
As early as 1906, George Walker of the Williams and Walker Minstrel duo had criticized black actors in an essay where he commented that they wrongly portrayed the black community in their roles by using makeup that exaggerated their darkness, usually by painting their lips luminous red. He comments in the essay, “Negroes on the American stage” that nothing is more absurd than to see a colored man making himself look ridiculous in order to portray himself (Crum, 2010).
The argument is that the caricatures in which the black actors played on the screens asserted the superiority of whiteness and were therefore responsible for escalating the discrimination of the black Americans. Some actors like Williams and walker, enlightened at how the caricature presented their race, moved out of blackface to begin their own minstrel where they distanced themselves from the caricatures. Unfortunately, most of the black actors, due to the financial gains they got from the roles they played, failed to notice this and thus maintained the status of the white seniority (Crum, 2010).
The movie industry by them was selective of the roles to be given to black actors as much as it was hard for any black actor to gain acceptance to the theatres. One black actor who had to struggle this much was none other than Sydney Portier, who went ahead to become the first African American to win the Grammys in 1963. It goes without saying that this did not come easily to Portier. The roles allocated to him were usually demeaning as compared to white actors. Although he received the most advanced roles for a black actor at the time, he was criticized by his fellow African Americans that his roles did not display the causes of the real problems affecting the black community. Note that in his films, he had roles that were of upper class and professional status which were only held by white. It therefore was viewed by the black community as unacceptable as the roles were so far removed from the majority of the blacks. They argued that, “Portier is equal, if not superior to any of his white antagonists, who are forced to recognize his abilities and to purge themselves of their own racism.” It was viewed as a misrepresentation of the people and their plight (Ricrob, 2009).
Another rising star in the black community was Dorothy Dandridge who was also a musician and therefore played more in musicals. The roles she had on the screen were viewed to be stereotypic by the black community who thought that she had aligned herself too much to the white community and was therefore not a good representation of the black community. This fact rose because she doubled up as a musician who constantly entertained at exclusively whites clubs (Mills, 1999).
Tragic mulattos were the leading roles for black female actresses. These were the roles in which many African Americans were afforded which afforded them the status of sex objects. This was not a true representation of the African Americans and therefore they usually took to tasks the females like Dorothy Dandridge who played these roles that were demeaning to the culture. It is also important to know that African Americans also prided in having women like Dandridge because they addressed the plight of the blacks. Contradicting? Well, the movies production rights belonged to the whites and the blacks only played the roles offered to them (Pilgrim, 2000).
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The mulattos were women born of white fathers and black slaves and therefore were beautiful. Although all black women slaves were vulnerable to rape, the black mulattos were more susceptible because of their radiant beauty and white skin which was appealing. Apparently, the white men viewed the black skin as insult. Such roles played by black actresses depicted mulattos as seductive and were therefore viewed by whites as party to concubinage and other sexual abuse, putting women in the black community at harms way. However, it was in some way responsible for bridging the gap which existed that denied legitimate sexual relationship between men and women of different races (Pilgrim, 2000).
Dorothy was the most successful tragic mulatto in the theatres being the first ever black woman to be held romantically in a movie by a white man in the film Carmen Jones (Pilgrim, 2000). Dorothy Dandridge suffered nervous breakdown since just like in her movies on the tragic mulatto, she was like one in real life with a life of broken marriages. In this context, according to Spike Lee, was a failure of understanding exactly the grounds they stood on. When Spike, who introduced romantic ebony movies, released a romantic movie, he gave a leading role to a black girl which was criticized greatly by other black Americans who argued that the sexual expressions that were displayed by Nola in the movie “Shes gotta have it” was unbecoming and unrepresentative of the African American culture as it presented black women as being natural sexually promiscuous (Abrams, 2008).
Blaxploitation and womanism
Blaxploitation began as a result of the black power movement of the 1960s which was expected to depict a community that had illuminated with civil rights and wanted to free African Americans from political and social exploitation. It accredited to the movie song sweetback by Melvin Van Peebles. What the movie writer and director did not know is that his movie, instead of showing African Americans as free and liberated had opened a new way in which they would be exploited. There was great success in the movie and therefore other movie directors and producers, seeing that the black community would support anything that had a black cast, rushed to cash in on this. Soon many movie productions like shaft were released. This movie mostly focused on sex and violence (Lawrence, 2008). Note that this films showed black heroes working in white dominated localities and was therefore popular to black audience since it helped them escape from reality.
Additionally, there was a need for desegregation in the United States after the cold war and therefore filmmakers were focusing on hiring black actors to feature in anti racism movies which were to be good for both white and black audience. Note that most of the blaxploitation movies depicted blacks as sexually promiscuous and generally irresponsible, showing the daily life in the ghettos where most blacks lived. And although they were produced with black cast, advertised as black, with both script and concept, they were white dominated with the writers, directors and producers all being white and there were not producing the movies for the message they wished to deliver but to cash in on the audience. This and the fact that they only portrayed the blacks with violence, drugs and sex, were some of the contributors of the decline of the blaxploitation movies (Bigley, 2003).
Womanism also started at the same time that blaxploitation started and was to show the womanhood of the African American movies. With roles in movies like Cleopatra Jones, women were now playing heroine movies. The most important aspects of womanism was to portray a bond of love, whether physically or sexually, between black women. Apparently, the black women had been oppressed by sexism and racism and this is what womanism was yearning to address. Development of womanism further escalated blaxploitation where the theme was used in the movies to use the sexuality of a liberated black woman. It is important, however, to note that there is a great difference between feminism and womanism. Although they are related, womanism is rooted to the time of slavery and tragic mulattos while feminism is based on sexism and feminism. These were used as themes in the womanist movies like in the character of mammy (Pattilo, 2009).
Although the way women were viewed in historically has not changed much, even after the emergence of womanism, they were still viewed as sex objects and things to lust after. In the end, however, they started getting empowered roles, acting heroines and gaining lead roles (Gates & Higginbotham, 2004). In as much as this has been the development in the movie industry and the rise of “chicks with guns” like Angelina Jolly in Lara Croft, they are still viewed as sex objects even though they are currently independent. Initially, they were given the roles of damsels in distress (Starlet, 2007).
From Uncle Tom to co-starring
Initially, when the blacks came into the movie industry, their roles were actually not played by blacks. Rather they were being played by white in blackfaces. Uncle Tom’s cabin was the first movie in which a black role played in a movie. Tom was always harassed, flogged, exploited and generally made fun of in the movies. This role was almost always what African Americans received in early cinemas so that they greatly exaggerated the inferiority of the blacks and the superiority of the whites. As can be see, no leading roles were given to African Americans until the beginning of the blaxploitation (Bogle, 2001).
Due to the great criticism that the black community had for uncle tom, buffoon and mammy roles and subsequent of some split in blackface by other enlightened actors like William and walker, movie producers started giving roles for assistant starring and sometimes leading roles to black Americans but this was realized completely during blaxploitation (Bogle, 2001).
Effects of racism and stereotype to the movie industry
Stereotyping in the movie industry was experienced in the allocation of roles to actors. African Americans had roles that showed the naivety of African Americans. Furthermore, those roles depicted them as being unintelligent, lazy and violence prone. In addition to this, it portrayed all beautiful women as unintelligent and highly sexually promiscuous. In this respect, it promoted further exploitation of the black community and strengthened the negative perception of the African Americans by the whites. Although it brought a lot of resources to the movie industry, stereotyping led to the collapse of the once popular subgenres like the blaxploitation movies (Bogle, 2001).
Racism and stereotypes in the movie industry always have a direct influence on the society and these values are inscribed in the minds of many. Most of the movies in the earlier times during the time of blaxploitation portrayed blacks as the most violent people, usually had whites being the victims of some black actor. As a result, society tended to carry this image with them and usually people would be scared when there was a black man in the bus or in the vicinity because they were thought to be either robbers, murderers and even rapists (Gates & Higginbotham, 2004). On the other hand, all movies showed uncle toms personality in these movies. This made it look like all blacks are lazy and unintelligent. The reflection therefore of film is directly reverted in the community and governs how people of a certain race are to live. How can it be explained that the first person to die in a movie will most probably be a black? The villain is the criminal? When it is a leading role the case will be different. But this villain will be very intelligent as compared to the black villain (Bogle, 2001).
The life of the film industry in America has been as turbulent for African Americans like everything else. The industry which has initially been run by white Americans always wanted to show the superiority of the whites against the African Americans. Looking at the roles that were traditionally given to black actors and actresses including Uncle Tom, buffoon, mammy and Uncle Harvey, the depiction is that African Americans were highly ignorant and unintelligent. As for mammy, it depicts negatively the role of African American matriarchs. Stereotypes and racism was high in the movie industry.
The African American woman has not been spared in the stereotype and prejudice that existed in the movie industry. Roles offered to black actresses depicted the black woman as irresponsible and sexually promiscuous. In fact, this was not limited to the African American woman. Most movies during the blaxploitation were filled with sex, violence, vulgarism and most ultimately unintelligence. Apparently, the movies, those made by black directors such as Melvin Peebles were meant to expose the plight of the African Americans although they ended having negative effects on the culture of the African Americans. This led to criticism from African Americans who argued that the actors were not representing the culture of African Americans who included Dorothy Dandridge and Sidney Portier.
Ultimately, after the blaxploitation, the film industry started changing although it still was stereotypic and racist in nature. However, now black actors started getting lead and supporting roles in the films and even some professional roles that were played by Sidney which include a doctor in Guess Who Is Coming to Dinner and some detective roles. Note that these were held only by whites. It was a great move for showing the blacks as intelligent on screenplay for the first time. However, the roles of women were still stereotypes with roles such as the tragic mulatto. Sex is still a stereotype that women are still viewed with although they now have independent roles with the development of “chicks with guns”. The movie industry is one that continues to bring different feeling but although today there is not much stereotypes and racial prejudice, there is still some element.
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