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African American Film Stereotypes

Keywords: black stereotypes in media, blaxploitation

The black American actors attended along away within the movie industry in an array of perspectives. This is exemplified by the present large numbers of black actors in Hollywood, the modern influential roles they play and even more essential; the modern view they within regards to the stereotypical roles of the past century. A far cry from what it used to maintain the first and mid 20th century with all film roles assigned to this group having attached racial prejudice. During the periods between your 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 most of them such as Dewey Markham - adopting the image as integral with their act (Padgett, 2011). Actors of the era received roles of servants, often of the cheapest levels, such as janitors, house helps, porters, cooks, gardeners and cleaners among others. Such roles cannot be set alongside the more privileged roles assigned with their white counterparts, mainly depicted as their employers and bosses; a sort of carried forward perception of the slave and master in a more recent dimension. Roles of servitude evidently presented 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 fairly positive outlook into the late 1970s into the 21st century. Much of the strength in these early racial stereotypes has dissipated, but their still exist vestiges of the within the movie industry, perpetuating incorrect attributes about the African Americans.

Treatment of the BLACK actors between 1900 and 1970

Early era: 1900 to 1950s

Actors and actresses from the black American community within this era faced many challenges within the movie industry. In the first area of the century, role depicting black individuals were played, not by black actors but instead by nameless white actors after painting their faces dark black (Bogle, 2001). This tradition, commonly known as "black face", was carried over to the silent films from the stage shows and theatrical plays of the preceding century. As well as this theatrical image came the racial stereotypical of the African Americans as perceived within the American society; a white dominated society whose views were those making all the influence in the films. Racial discrimination and exactly how it was deeply engrossed within the fabrics of the American society at that time, sometimes appears as the major cause of their plights. Black actors were treated with low regard and given roles that had little effect on the main plots at often. Lots 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 potential for making any great impact as their white colleagues. Such roles were assigned and then 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 take a look at all roles, provides portrayal of their community with a racial perspective.

Turner classic movies produced mainly between your 1920s and the 1950s illustrate the stereotypical black roles of domestic workers and servants doing work for their white employers. A number of the roles portrayed images of ridicule and shameful aspects viewed as area 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. However 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 with their problematic environment and personalities, are obvious racial stereotypes borrowed from the blackface image (Padgett, 2011). Being given supporting roles of lesser effect 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 truth of the situation was compounded by the fact that all movie productions were dominated and managed by the white, forcing any talented black performer to comply with the directions of the films and the script. Minus the occurrence 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 since result, it meant a "a take it or leave it" situation for these actors. Having to make a leaving forced them to simply accept these roles, in spite the incorrect 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 true to life, the actor "the sort of man" who could demand to be served (at times exposing his pearl handled revolver) when refused any service in any way white luncheons. Lots of the actors accepted roles that did not portray their real personalities as individuals or the black people all together.

The 1960s to late 1970s

The scenario slowly but surely 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 "an associate of the weeding", where Ethel Waters played an essential role of alleviating the black image, and " Raisin in the sun", greatly enhanced an evergrowing positive view of the black performers in Hollywood in general and their community specifically. 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 far 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 may 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 into the 21st century.

Roles and their actors and actresses

A most the roles extended to black performers were by nature subservient and subordinate to their white counterparts (Zeisler, 2008). These actors needed 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). Each one of these negative roles grew from the background of racial prejudice with the intention of "stressing negro inferiority" (Bogle, 2001). As a matter of fact, these roles weren't directed at creating any injury to the black people. They only reproduced and reflected "black stereotypes that had existed since the days of slavery", and which have been subsequently made popular by other varieties of art including literature, music and theater (Bogle, 2001).

The Toms

Black roles referred to as Tom, produced from the 1903 film "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 your slave and his master, from a time preceding the movie industry. Labeling of the black community from the "tom" roles reflects the modern-day racial view prevalent particularly in the years between your 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. Regardless 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 with their white boss. Bert Williams is among the first black actors who played these roles, as the utilization 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 instance, in the 1911 film, For massa's sake, a "former slave is so mounted on his erstwhile master" even to the idea of selling himself back to 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 sort casted solution to the black problems. Rather than rebel or demand a greater range of rights, they were admonished to simply accept their lower position in the society with love and a feeling of responsibility with their masters and mistresses so long as they lived.

The Coons

The coons were presented as simpletons and foolish naturally with an exaggerated sense of self but innately coward. Presenting the Negro as some type 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 small amount of excitement. Diverting attention and creating some nice comical effects was the main purpose of this particular role, albeit with a lot of exaggerations and amplification of these 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 intensely lazy and best for nothing people who took no responsibility using 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 with anything in their lives. seated and idling time away, chatting in a distorted form of English as they await opportunities to steal from others, especially the hapless toms, was a typical portrayal of these characters in the films of the first 20th century. The "Rastus series" are an exemplary in representing the black Negro males as a simple thief when given the chance without any regard to moral reflection. Black actor, Stepin Fetchit (1902- 1985), completed this role to greater heights, in movie characters that showcased the African American as very lazy with strong averseness towards any form of work. We were holding really degrading racial stereotypes.

Uncle Remus, related to the tom as an initial cousin, is revealed as congenial and harmless, with the tendency to comically philosophize about everything around him, with particular mention of the general position and plight of the Negro community. Along with his immense mirth, this coon character role, show cases a predisposition of the BLACK 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 on 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. These were not given strong sexual or feminine attributes (Zeisler, 2008). Within 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 with their black community diminishes their significance, leaving the feminine 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 because of this of the "divided racial inheritance" (Bogle, 2001).

The Mammy

The mammy is another of the feminine black stereotypes related to the coon characters and degraded with 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. A number 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 evidently depicted by D. W. Griffith's "the birth of a nation" released in 1915 (Bogle, 2001). It presented a depiction of the Negroes as being lustful and arrogant within 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 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 all together.

Impact of the black stereotypes

All these racially projected stereotypes weren't representative of the Negroes; separately as individuals or collectively as a community. Black actors basically took these roles within the films 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 spot of humiliation, pointing out with their presumed lower capability and intelligence which justified their lower position within the American society. Impact of these stereotypes painted a social divide along racial lines with implications of huge dissimilarities 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 most importantly, 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, definately not the nitwit coons depicted in the 1940s movies. Female roles slowly adopted significant positions in movie plotlines with today's depiction of sexual appeal glaringly missing from early movies.

Glamorized Characters

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. At that time, blackness was the way to go which brought rise to blackface. Even whites started wearing black masks to depict their blackness. Unfortunately, this is not the real representation of the black culture. It is therefore justified that the black community of the African Americans taking problems with their fellows who made their way in to the movie industry and took roles which showed negatively the black culture. Apparently, it was very difficult for black actors and actresses to refuse a role offered to them since they were still struggling for recognition in the movie industry. Which means that these were always at loggerheads with folks from their DARK-COLORED communities for lowering their standards.

As early as 1906, George Walker of the Williams and Walker Minstrel duo had criticized black actors within an essay where he commented that they wrongly portrayed the black community in their roles by using cosmetic that exaggerated their darkness, usually by painting their lips luminous red. He comments in the essay, "Negroes on the American stage" that there is nothing 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 where the black actors played on the screens asserted the superiority of whiteness and were therefore accountable 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 get started 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, didn't notice this and so maintained the status of the white seniority (Crum, 2010).

Sydney Portier

The movie industry by them was selective of the roles to get to black actors up to it was hard for any black actor to gain acceptance to the theatres. One black actor who had to struggle this much was the one and only Sydney Portier, who went ahead to be the first African American to win the Grammys in 1963. It's understandable that this did not come easily to Portier. The roles assigned to him were usually demeaning when compared with white actors. Although he received the innovative roles for a black actor at the time, he was criticized by his fellow African Americans that his roles didn't display the causes of the real problems affecting the black community. Note that in his films, he previously roles that were of upper class and professional status that have been only held by white. It therefore was viewed by the black community as unacceptable as the roles were so far removed from a lot of the blacks. They argued that, "Portier is equal, if not superior to some of his white antagonists, who are forced to recognize his abilities and purge themselves of their own racism. " It had been seen as a misrepresentation of individuals and their plight (Ricrob, 2009).

Dorothy Dandridge

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 a great deal to the white community and was therefore wii representation of the black community. This fact rose because she doubled up as a musician who constantly entertained at exclusively whites clubs (Mills, 1999).

Mulatto actresses

Tragic mulattos were the key 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 really a true representation of the African Americans and therefore they usually took to tasks the females like Dorothy Dandridge who played these roles which were demeaning to the culture. It is also important to learn that African Americans also prided in having women like Dandridge because they addressed the plight of the blacks. Contradicting? Well, the films production rights belonged to the whites and the blacks only played the roles wanted to them (Pilgrim, 2000).

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 for their radiant beauty and white skin that 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 ladies in the black community at harms way. However, it was in some way in charge of bridging the gap which existed that denied legitimate sexual relationship between women and men 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 the white man in the film Carmen Jones (Pilgrim, 2000). Dorothy Dandridge suffered nervous breakdown since exactly like in her movies on the tragic mulatto, she was like one in real life with a life of broken marriages. On this context, according to Spike Lee, was a failure of understanding the grounds they stood on. When Spike, who introduced romantic ebony movies, released a romantic movie, he gave a respected role to a black girl which was criticized greatly by other black Americans who argued that the sexual expressions which were displayed by Nola in the movie "Shes gotta have it" was unbecoming and unrepresentative of the DARK-COLORED culture as it presented black women to be natural sexually promiscuous (Abrams, 2008).

Blaxploitation and womanism

Blaxploitation began because of this of the black power movement of the 1960s that was likely 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. The particular movie writer and director didn't know is that his movie, rather than 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 for that reason 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 centered on sex and violence (Lawrence, 2008). Remember that this films showed black heroes employed in white dominated localities and was therefore popular to black audience since it helped them escape from reality.

Additionally, there is a dependence on desegregation in america 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 almost all 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 films for the message they wanted to deliver but to profit from the audience. This and the fact that they only portrayed the blacks with violence, drugs and sex, were a few of the contributors of the decline of the blaxploitation movies (Bigley, 2003).

Womanism also started at the same time that blaxploitation started and was showing 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 exactly what womanism was yearning to handle. Development of womanism further escalated blaxploitation where the theme was found in the movies to use the sexuality of a liberated black woman. It is important, however, to note that there surely is a great difference between feminism and womanism. Although they are related, womanism is rooted to enough time of slavery and tragic mulattos while feminism is dependant on sexism and feminism. They were used as themes in the womanist movies like in the character of mammy (Pattilo, 2009).

Although the way women were viewed in historically hasn't changed much, even following the emergence of womanism, these were still considered 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 approximately this has been the development in the movie industry and the rise of "chicks with guns" like Angelina Jolly in Lara Croft, they remain seen as sex objects even though they are currently independent. Initially, these 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 these 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 more often than not what African Americans received in early cinemas in order 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 before beginning of the blaxploitation (Bogle, 2001).

Due to the fantastic 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. Furthermore, 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 last 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 transport this image with them and usually people would be frightened when there was a black man in the bus or in the vicinity because they were regarded as either robbers, murderers and even rapists (Gates & Higginbotham, 2004). Alternatively, all movies showed uncle toms personality in these movies. This managed to get appear to be all blacks are lazy and unintelligent. The reflection therefore of film is directly reverted in the community and governs how folks of a certain race are to live. How do it be explained that the first person to die in a movie will most probably be considered a black? The villain is the criminal? When it's 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 includes initially been run by white Americans always wished to show the superiority of the whites against the African Americans. Considering the roles that were traditionally directed at black actors and actresses including Uncle Tom, buffoon, mammy and Uncle Harvey, the depiction is that African Americans were highly ignorant and unintelligent. For mammy, it depicts negatively the role of African American matriarchs. Stereotypes and racism was saturated 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 is not limited by the BLACK woman. Most movies through the blaxploitation were filled up with sex, violence, vulgarism and most in the end unintelligence. Apparently, the films, those made by black directors such as Melvin Peebles were designed 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 weren't representing the culture of African Americans who included Dorothy Dandridge and Sidney Portier.

Ultimately, following 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 such as a doctor in Guess WHO'S Arriving at Dinner and some detective roles. Remember that we were holding held only by whites. It was a great move for showing the blacks as intelligent on screenplay for the very first time. However, the roles of women were still stereotypes with roles including the tragic mulatto. Sex is still a stereotype that women are still viewed with although they now have independent roles with the introduction of "chicks with guns". The movie industry is the one which is constantly on the bring different feeling but although today there isn't much stereotypes and racial prejudice, there continues to be some element.

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