Keywords: african american stereotypes in media, blaxploitation
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.
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 maintai