RACIAL STEREOTYPES IN FILMS
Racial biases aren’t innate thoughts instilled in us at birth. They have learned through the people who raise us and the images that mass media decides to expose us to. Which raises the question: are movies and TV shows catalysts for hate? And if so, can they really be catalysts for change? It’s no secret that Hollywood has a deep history of racist ideals and practices. Their upbringing is marred with the exclusion of Black talent and exploitation of Black characteristics. Nevertheless, Black filmmakers of the past have ignited a powerful legacy and rich tradition for undeniably identifiable pieces of art. In order to recognize the influence, Black film has had on modern filmmakers and the future of the industry, it’s rich history must be respected. That’s why a deep dive into the past will be a fascinating tool for recognizing both problematic and positive portrayals in film.
Prior to television and film, entertainers performed in “minstrel shows” in the early 19th century, which set the tone for racial biases in the media that can still be recognized in today’s prejudices. White actors would paint their faces with burnt cork or shoe polish and put on ragged clothes and woolly hair to portray Black characters as dim-witted, lazy, and happy-go-lucky caricatures. Slapstick comedy was placed under the backdrop of slave-run plantations. This gave birth to common racial tropes such as the “mammy” character and other supporting roles. Black people were immediately pigeonholed and condescended in popular culture, since it was obviously difficult to take such characters as these seriously. As reprehensible as the utilization of blackface is now seen to be, it used to hold weight for actors as an honor or rite of passage in the performing community.
This was especially true for Black performers who would entertain the exploitative over-the-top characteristics of Blackness, because it was their only way of being able to practice their craft and perform for audiences. While the notable abolitionist Frederick Douglass openly condemned this practice, he also acknowledged that “It is something to be gained when the colored man in any form can appear before a white audience.”
Decades later, the creation of silent cinema brought The Birth of a Nation, the unbelievably problematic 1915 film which featured White actors in blackface, as well as racist imagery portraying Black people as monsters disrupting the sacred innocence of confederate life. Luckily, later backlash to the blatant racism in this film, cemented the beginning of public abhorrence toward blackface. Nevertheless, it’s undeniable that they set a precedent for racial parodies and stereotypes that are still recognizable centuries later.
With a new generation of young performers and a relatively new outlook on racially biased exploitation, the early 1970s birthed an era of blaxploitation films. Blaxploitation refers to an ethnic subgenre of films that featured a variety of racial stereotypes. Hollywood quickly saw an advantage to these films with primarily Black talent because they became popularized with diverse audiences, and the value of Black voices finally began to be recognized as commercially viable. If you’re not sure you’ve ever seen a blaxploitation film, here’s a few criteria to look out for. You’ll probably hear some funk or soul music, like a theme song—cue…“SHAFT.” I’m willing to bet you just sang that word in your head. The film might also take place in Harlem and have a few easily identifiable characters, like pimps, private eyes, badass ‘foxy’ women, and black protagonists facing “The Man,” or some other oppressive White figure. They also typically reclaimed the pejorative terms used against Black people and invented those like “cracker” and “honky” for White people.
Films are often representative of the current state of the society in which they were created. It would be a disservice not to recognize the influence that the Black Power movement had on these films.
The 1971 film Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song is widely credited as the debut for the genre. It allowed Black actors to create their own characters separate from the classical tropes given to them by White storytellers.
Fast forward to the 1980s and 1990s where Black filmmakers shed light on Black people in urban communities. The negative imagery of gang life was coupled with heart-wrenching situations that inspired ambivalence toward law enforcement and awareness for biases and prejudices that the Black community faces. Gang violence on national news is its own media portrayal, and while some argue that the fictionalized versions are more problematic, others may consider that its nothing but an anecdotal type of story that tells of real life woes that accurately portray real experiences.
Prominent Black directors like Spike Lee (Malcolm X) and John Singleton (Boyz N The Hood) gave a sympathetic voice and unfiltered look into the trials of urban Black people in the midst of yet another wave of racial discrimination. The mainstream world was already exposed to gang violence in the news which colored their perceptions of the inner cities. These directors capitalized on the glorification of “the thug life,” and turned their films into frank criticisms of the one-sided judgments placed on the visibly frightening way of life.
To combat these negative images the media placed on Black families—portraying them as broke criminals with a tendency to resort to violence, Black sitcoms became light rivals for their white counterparts. Black families were shown in middle-class suburban households, and young Black men were looking for white-collar jobs in the big city rather than scrambling for drug money in the streets. It’s not groundbreaking or shocking that Black people are no different from other races when it comes to the search for a good life.
Given this, why was it that Living Single was considered to be the Black version of the hit comedy Friends? Why are we so quick to make such comparisons? The show contributed to putting young Black men and women in a non-stereotypical light to more accurately illustrate the general woes of 20-somethings in the big city. It gave a voice to the demographic which was lacking in shows like Friends.
In Living Color is usually described as Saturday Night Live with primarily black comedians. The jokes were sometimes far more controversial than its White counterpart, but it can be argued that it needed to be. It was groundbreaking in the sense that it dealt with racial issues under the umbrella of humor. It did so successfully, and the show launched the careers of current icons like Jim Carrey, Jamie Foxx, and Jennifer Lopez.
Family Matters had the quintessential Full House-Esque family with the annoying Gibbler-style character in the form of the infamous Urkel. The character became an icon for all audiences, no matter the race.
The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air featured a normal and wealthy Black family who have their own encounters with racism. Despite these incidents, they still maintain composure and morality—traits which I, unfortunately, have to point out are not exclusively reserved for White people. All of these sitcoms tackled deep racial issues veiled with humor; and in the midst of problematic images everywhere regarding their race, it’s always refreshing to have these positive comedies to refer to. Black comedians and actors have capitalized in their own popularity and public personas more so than any other race, to have their own television shows. Look at Martin, My Wife and Kids with Damon Wayans, The Jamie Foxx Show, Everybody Hates Chris, The Wayans Bros., The Steve Harvey Show, That’s So Raven, The Cosby Show, The Bernie Mac Show, and much more. While positive storylines such as these are accurate representations for the race as a whole, and any race for that matter, what made them so refreshing?
Today, the world is still continuing to find true equality when it comes to Black representation in Hollywood. It’s an ongoing battle that mirrors the real life tragedies that America has seen. People are more woke than ever when it comes to appreciating and expecting a positive representation of marginalized groups. Note Ryan Coogler (Fruitvale Station, Black Panther), Ava DuVernay (Selma, 13th), Jordan Peele (Get Out, Us), and Tyler Perry (The Madea franchise).
These films represent the Black experience in different ways. They either poke fun at their own stereotypes and reclaim them by welcoming laughter, shed light on dramatized versions of real acts of racism and oppression, or bring Black voices to primarily White franchises and inspire children everywhere of all colors to live up to their potential and grow up knowing that they are important and deserve to be recognized as such. Modern pop culture has even parodied the blaxploitation genre in examples such as Austin Powers in Goldmember and Django Unchained, among others.
This all sounds great, right? Does Hollywood finally have it right? It’s hard to say. Maybe no one can definitively answer that question. While these films, and many more that I didn’t mention, are definitely steps in the right direction, time and time again the racial inequalities are still evident (i.e. the #OscarsSoWhite scandal of 2015). Centuries of racial discrimination can’t be fixed by more representation and positive portrayals in popular culture. They do, however, make it more accessible for people of all races to share in the particular and foreign experience and inspire empathy with those that differ from ours. These images shape our conceptions nearly as much as our personal upbringings do, and the more diversity we as a society are exposed to, the more normalized they’ll be.
Unfortunately, even innocent theme park rides from the mega-conglomerate and beloved Disney franchise have been susceptible to the backlash of a racist past. For decades, the Disneyland theme park has featured many iconic attractions, such as the Splash Mountain ride.
Everyone associates this thrilling log ride with its steep and wet 52-foot drop, but not many people know of its history. It’s worth pointing out that the popular log flume was based on the 1946 Disney film Song of the South, which has been deemed too racist for release on their streaming platform Disney+. It paints an inaccurate and falsely idyllic picture of the master-slave relationship. Following the George Floyd protests that have taken place this year, Disney announced that it would give the ride a complete makeover and make it more representative of the beloved 2009 film, The Princess and the Frog.