It seems that almost every big-budget movie that comes out of Hollywood, one can expect that the lead role is almost always played by a white man. It is rare to see a big budget film where the lead role is played by an African-American man or woman. Although there are many reasons for this, the stereotyping of African-Americans undeniably plays an important part. Black stereotypes are persistent in American society and this is evident in the way they are being portrayed on film. Although roles may have expanded for African Americans, they are still being cast into characters which fit into society’s stereotypes of the black man or woman. With few exceptions, it can be argued that they are portrayed as athletic, violent, sex driven and uneducated in American films (Wallace, 2004, p.132).
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The issue of race is still a controversial topic inside the United States. This is true even after Americans elected the first black president in their history. This may be hard to understand for those who live outside the borders of the United States. From the outside-looking-in, America is the land of freedom and opportunity. Some believe that in a land full of liberal ideas people would not be as narrow-minded about the issue of race. Francis Fearn pointed out that the problem of racism is still very obvious in the United States. This is understandable because the history of racism spans hundreds of years (Fearn, 2007, p.240). Racism has played an important part in the economy, law and society and its influence continues today (Feagin, 2001, p. 32).
There are those who may argue that African-Americans are creating a mountain out of a molehill and ask: “What is the big deal?” They will point out that there are many groups all over the world that were oppressed in the past but were able to overcome the obstacles that came their way. They were able to work together to build societies that are now a significant part of the world economy. A case in point is Singapore where citizens are enjoying quality education, so much so that it is being recognized worldwide (Quacquarelli Symonds Limited, 2008, par. 2). Many people from Asian countries had suffered in the hands of European colonizers. The natives were treated like slaves – forced to work and forced to pay exorbitant taxes. But there is one major difference : these people were subjugated in their own country and when they succeeded in gaining independence they were able to take back control of their land and their identity as a nation.
The same could not be said of African-Americans because they were forcibly taken from their homeland and then forced to live in a foreign land. They left everything behind: their culture, identity and other social structures that could have brought them together, making it more difficult to band together to overcome the racist system that oppressed them. African-Americans did not have the resources for an armed opposition against whites to eradicate poverty and gain access to education and health care. Blacks had to co-exist with whites and play by white rules.
The members of the Negro race were simply the victims of their past and their current status was a consequence of slavery. The solution was not a question of simply letting them go free. They were unprepared to go into the outside world because they had lived and labored only as slaves. In addition, Blacks’ progress was blocked by a series of laws and actions by law enforcement authorities.
There are a significant number of African-Americans behind bars as compared to Caucasians descended from the English stock. According to Darling-Hammond in 1993, there were more African Americans that were behind bars, on probation or on parole than there were in college. There were 1,985,000 who were either in jail, prison, or on parole, while there were only 1,412,000 who were in college (Hammond, 2000, p.6). The high number of African-Americans could not hold on to stable jobs and as a result continually experienced great difficulty in the areas of employment, in raising a family and improving their overall welfare. Due to the fact that there are absentee fathers there was only one parent guiding the children while they were growing up. Moreover, the lack of fathers means the lack of financial support for the kids creating more problems. The vicious cycle goes on and on. The chain reaction of these events makes it difficult for many African-American teenagers, young men and women belonging to the Negro race to change their lives.
It can be argued that the root cause of all these is the lack of education. After the Emancipation Proclamation of 1863, slaves were legally free and could never again be identified as the property of another human being. They were free but they paid a steep price because from that day forward they were left to fend for themselves. There was no white master taking care of their basic needs such as food, clothing and shelter and the racist system in power did everything it could to keep them down. They had to start from scratch having no investments, no property, and no savings in their name. This also meant that they did not have the means and access to good quality education Therefore many of them remained at the farm to work as maids.
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Aside from crime, poverty, unemployment, and lack of education there is still another factor that continually hampers the growth and development of young African-Americans and it is their perception that says there are only a few paths leading to success and it is either through the entertainment industry or sports. Successful African-Americans are almost always associated with music, movies, and sports. They were among the few fields where African Americans were able to overcome their obstacles.
The concentration of African Americans in few fields provides fodder for the many Americans who have already made up their mind that the Negroes are not going to become successful leaders, businessmen, government servants and will always be associated with the bad elements of society. The reason for this view is not difficult to understand. The popular culture dictates that African-Americans, especially the males are bad examples to the young. According to Hrabowski et al (1998, p.4):
Almost everything we read and hear about young Black males focuses on the problems of crime, violence, drugs, teenage pregnancy, and poor academic achievement […] Millions of Americans daily see the faces of these young men on television and in newspapers, and to many these faces look angry or hopeless, communicating danger and intimidation.
Kevin Roberts discusses in his book major issues facing African-Americans (2006, p. 20):
- The image of an imprisoned African American male is one that most Americans have no trouble creating in their minds. The reason is that it takes such little creativeness: African Americans, particularly males, are incarcerated at disproportionately high rates.
Critics of Black’s low academic performance ignore the difficulties that even highly achieving Black students face. An African American math major shared his experience as a student and then as a teacher. He wrote (Martin, 2000: p. 34):
- The reality of African-American under-representation in mathematics would become even more apparent in high school, were I was one of just three Black students enrolled in the accelerated math courses. This pattern continued through my years as an undergraduate student in mathematics and physics […] the more advanced the course, the smaller the proportion of African-American students.
Martin also added that, “…many African-American students are enrolled in remedial or lower-level mathematics courses and few go on to take Precalculus, Calculus, or higher-level courses” (2000, p. 35). This is just an example of how black students struggle in school. This is just the symptom of an underlying problem; it is not the root cause as to why black children perform poorly in class. If American society will simply focus on school performance without dealing with other social factors, then there is no hope for African American children.
It is possible to argue that African Americans, as a group, have made significant progress in the area of freedom and civil rights. This is particularly pronounced from the time of slavery up until the 21st century. Many of the battles have been hard won and too many have involved bloodshed. While the road has never been easy for African-Americans in America, this minority group has overcome great odds and contributed in varying degrees to American education, science, music, arts, culture, and politics. But the struggle for equality continues and many obstacles still stand in the way.
To fully understand the history of the struggle for freedom and equality, it is necessary to view the timeline of African-American history in the United States from 1857 until the modern times. By doing so, one can see the major accomplishments, struggles, and setbacks that have been endured by the African American people in this country. Much has been accomplished since the Civil War has ended but there is still much work that needs to be done.
- In 1857 the Dread Scott Decision by the United States Supreme Court states that African Americans are not citizens of the United States and that Congress has no power to restrict slavery.
- In 1861 the Civil War begins with the primary focus of the war being the issue of slavery.
- In 1863 President Abraham Lincoln delivers the Emancipation Proclamation which frees all slaves in America.
- In 1865 Congress passes the Thirteenth Amendment which formally outlaws slavery and establishes the Freeman’s Bureau.
- In response to the Thirteenth Amendment, former Confederate states pass Black Codes in 1866, which severely limit African Americans’ freedoms in the south.
- In 1866 Congress passes the Civil Rights Act which grants citizens to African Americans and gives them equal rights.
- Tennessee passes the first Jim Crow segregation law in 1881, which opens the door for other states to promote legal segregation.
- In 1890, Timothy Thomas Fortune, a freed slave and journalist, founds the National Afro-American League, considered a forerunner of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP).
- In 1896 the U.S. Supreme Court upholds segregation laws in Plessy v. Ferguson.
- In 1909 the NAACP was officially founded.
- In 1947 Jackie Robinson officially breaks the color barrier in professional sports.
- In 1948 President Harry Truman issues an executive order that finally desegregates the U.S. military.
- In 1954 in Brown v. Board of Education, the Supreme Court rules against segregation by reversing their 1896 ruling.
- In 1956 the Supreme Court rules that segregation of buses is unconstitutional, thanks in major part to Rosa Parks.
- In 1963 Martin Luther King Jr. gives his “I Have a Dream” speech in a peaceful march in Washington, DC.
- In 1964 President Lyndon Johnson signs the Civil Rights Act, which allows for prosecution of those who discriminate. In the same year Martin Luther King Jr wins the Nobel Peace Prize.
- The Voting Rights Act is passed in 1965.
- In 1968 Martin Luther King, Jr., is assassinated in Memphis, Tennessee. His murder sparks a week of rioting across the country.
- In 1972 The Equal Employment Opportunity Act is passed, prohibiting job discrimination on the basis of, among other things, race, and laying the groundwork for affirmative action.
- The Civil Rights Act of 1991 allows employees to sue for discrimination.
- In 2008, Barack Obama becomes the first African American elected President of the United States.
African-Americans in Film
A casual review of big-budgeted films and box-office hits will reveal that members of the minority are almost always forced into Hollywood’s stereotypes and continue for the most part to find work doing only these types of roles. These stereotypes are also true for Latinos, Asians, Middle-Easterners and especially with African-Americans. According to one author, “The most aggravating thing about wide releases has been that the better the film is, the more likely there is to be a total absence of black actors in significant roles…” (Wallace, 2004, p. 32). When they do however land a role in a big-budget movie, then more often than not moviegoers will see blacks playing the role of a drug dependent, convict, ex-convict, a poor person, an uneducated person, a person living in the ghetto, unemployed, an athlete, a gangster or member of a criminal syndicate.
It is important to examine the African-American stereotypes in films because American made movies works as some sort of a mirror, reflecting what American society perceives this minority group Todd Smith states (2008, p. 17):
- For decades, Hollywood has portrayed African American men in a negative light. From pimps, and drug dealers to thugs and womanizers, the portrayal of black men in the media have led to numerous stereotypes that have ultimately determined how many view an entire group of people.
Thus, even if there are many successful Negroes American society will continue associate blackness with crime and mediocrity simply because of the images that they see onscreen.
In the previously mentioned protracted struggle in the area of Civil Rights, black actors faced the same challenge in the movie making industry. Their success can be best described as slow, yet steady. In 1939 Hattie McDaniel became the First African American to win an Academy Award (Oscar) for her role in Gone With the Wind (Young, 1999, p. 7). But then it would take another 24 years before another African American would achieve such a prestigious honor when Sidney Poitier won the Best Actor Award for Lilies of the Field, in 1963 (Balio, 1987, p. 37). Many decades will pass before another African American will be honored by the same body.
It would seem that after Denzel Washington clinched the Best Actor Award in Training Day (Silver & Fuqua, 2001, par.1) that African-Americans began to receive nominations and awards on a regular basis. Still there is much to be done. Although roles have progressed for African Americans in cinema, they are still being cast into roles which fit into society’s stereotype of African Americans. According to Harris, “In the Hollywood tradition of ‘mainstream film,’ the visual codes surrounding blacks on the screen have been stereotypical images, more contemporarily drug dealers, prostitutes, single mothers and complacent drag queens” (Harris, 2008, p. 24). This remark, in conjunction with others, led to the generalization that African Americans, with few exceptions, are portrayed as athletic, violent, and uneducated in films.
Birth of a Nation
In the early days of cinema the African-Americans were treated as inferior to humans, something that was common practices in America during that time. For such a long time they had been treated as second class citizens. The most important evidence that will support this assertion is none other than the cinematic masterpiece, D.W. Griffith’s The Birth of a Nation. When the film was first released in 1915, many years after the abolishment of slavery, it pretentiously exemplified the prejudices of the American society
It is interesting to note that blacks were depicted in a disgraceful way. The Negroes were being blamed because the South was in the brink of economic collapse. This is due to the fact that the movie was based on the racist novel entitled The Clansman by Thomas Dixon. In The Clansman, the black man is portrayed as the villain and the hooded white men of the Klu Klux Klan are the heroes who tried to save the South from sliding further into anarchy and economic depression.
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If the racist slur was not enough to humiliate African-Americans, the former president Woodrow Wilson praised the movie to high heavens and he remarked, “It is like writing history with lightning and my only regret is that it is all so terribly true” (Rogin, 1994, p. 26). Based on the remarks of the highest elected official of the land it is safe to assume that Wilson’s view was popular during that time. The popular sentiment was that the freed Negro slaves did not contribute anything of significance and according to one report:
…some stayed very quietly by their old masters and gave no trouble; but most yielded, as was to have been expected, to the novel impulse and excitement of freedom … The country was filled with vagrants looking for pleasure and gratuitous fortune … The tasks of ordinary life stood untouched; the idlers grew insolent, dangerous; nights went anxiously by, for fear of riot and incendiary fire (Rogin, 1994, p. 28).
Furthermore when the slaves were freed from slavery two groups antebellum Black men were classified into two major groups: sambo and the savage. Sambos were considered as lazy, indolent, carefree, optimistic and intellectually limited (Abraham, 2003, p. 24). Savages on the other hand were dangerous and impulsive (Abraham, 2003, p. 28). It was this derogatory view of the Negro people that prompted the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) and humanitarian social reformers started a campaign to have Birth of a Nation banned while Dixon used the endorsement of former President Wilson to promote the film for months (Rogin, 1994, p.29). It was not until mounting political pressure forced the president to distance himself from the movie (Rogin, 1994, p. 29). But it already made an impact on the viewers.
Gone with the Wind
Gone With the Wind (1939) avoids the overt inflammatory propaganda contained in the classic, The Birth of a Nation. This is indicative of how much Hollywood had refined the art of suggestion without deleting the stereotypes of Blacks (Guerrero, 1993, p.395). The mammy character was portrayed as a strong-willed, yet uneducated person who spoke in the stereotypical language of Black slaves (Vera & Gordon, 2003). The slaves were portrayed as happy and in need of nothing. Actress Hattie McDaniel is portrayed as the typical mammy figure in Gone With the Wind She won an Oscar for her performance (Vera & Gordon, 2003, p. 26) but in a stereotypical role.
They seemed to be in high spirits while serving their white masters. They were portrayed as naïve and unable to picture themselves in a world without their masters. In the movie the mammy ignores the needs of her own family to serve the white masters (Bogle, 2002, par. 3). Birth of a Nation and Gone with the Wind both depict the pervasiveness of black stereotypes in Hollywood.
Stereotyped as Athletes
In Mandingo (1975) Ken Norton, a renowned heavyweight boxer played the role of a slave who chose to fight for profit for his slave master. This is a good example of a film where blacks are portrayed as strong and athletic. It also contains a strong storyline which involves “buck” being shown as animalistic in his pursuit and conquering of the white slave master’s wife. The character was caught and boiled alive for his actions (Guerrero, 1993, p. 395). In 1976’s Rocky the marquee fight is between the underdog Rocky and the much superior Black athlete named Apollo Creed. Rocky was a washed up fighter given very little time to prepare and yet on the night of the fight he was able to punish the more superiorly gifted Apollo Creed (Guerrero, 1993, p. 395). Even in their own domain African-Americans can be defeated by whites.
Stereotyped as Uneducated and Mentally Slow
In Rocky, Stallone was able to beat the black man because he was supposed to be more passionate and focused than Apollo Creed. This is simply another expression of a stereotype for a black man, that he is weak-minded and when the going gets tough had no willpower to slug it out until victory is at hand. There are many critically acclaimed movies where African-Americans are not only seen as mentally weak but also slow to comprehend. This leads to the creation of movies where African-Americans are seen as incapable of leading others and performing complicated tasks that require a higher IQ.
The best example is the movie Glory where an all black regiment was led by a white commissioned officer. In the movie one of the African-Americans is a highly educated person but is not given the chance to lead his own command. In fact the African-Americans in the movie were only part of the backdrop because the focus of the film was directed towards the actions of the white commander played by Matthew Broderick (Wallace, 2004, 35). Therefore, even if a black man went to college, he could never become a leader.
Stereotyped as Criminals
American Gangster (2007) follows the rise and fall of Frank Lucas, an African American drug kingpin, as he rises through the ranks of the drug cartel through the use of violence, extortion, and murder. The movie portrays Lucas as a powerful man that uses his own people, the poor Blacks, to build his empire through violence against his own and through the poisoning of the poor Black communities by flooding it with illegal drugs. Almost all the criminals seen onscreen were African-Americans. And naturally the law enforcers pursuing them were white men like Richie Roberts, the character played by Russell Crowe.
Stereotyped as Comedians and Entertainers
But make no mistake, Hollywood executives knew are well aware that hiring minorities to appear in films makes good business sense. This is because they will be able to attract members of their ethnic background to come and watch the upcoming movie (Harris, 2008, p.29). Indeed it is truly a brilliant marketing ploy to cast African-Americans, Middle-Eastern men, Asians, Native Americans and Hispanics. The only problem is that these actors are limited by Hollywood’s stereotypes and as a result creates a distorted perception of minorities living and working in America.
This is the reason why actors like Eddie Murphy, Jamie Foxx, Denzel Washington, and Will Smith continue to bag lead roles in big-budget films yet relatively speaking they can only play certain types of roles. Eddie Murphy could not play the leading man in a serious love story. His most recent films are limited to the comedy genre. The same can be said of Jamie Foxx. Most of his memorable roles typecast him as an ex-convict, a musician, a coach, a taxi driver and an officer of the law. Although it can be argued that some of these are not negative roles, like a coach or law enforcer, both demonstrate characters who have power and leadership, it would still be nice to see Jamie Foxx in the role of a lawyer, a doctor or as an astronomer but again stereotyping would not allow that to happen.
The last two men – Eddie Murphy and Jamie Foxx – in the aforementioned list can be likened to Sidney Poitier. This means that they are so talented that they are now considered in the company of great actors in leading men roles. Will Smith paid his dues and played stereotypical roles such as a cop, a boxer, an unemployed man etc. But at the same time Will Smith was able to break into roles that are not expected for a black man. He played the role of a stock broker in the movie The Pursuit of Happyness although for the most part of the film he was an unemployed man.
When it comes to Denzel Washington it is an entirely new ballgame. He was able to get leading man roles, a feat that is difficult to duplicate for a black man. His success opened the gates for future black stars and encouraged movie studios to take a risk with new actors such as Foxx, Smith, and even Forest Whitaker. Washington played the role of a psychiatrist in Finding Antwone Fisher. He played the role of a lawyer in Pelican Brief opposite Julia Roberts. Yet on the other hand his most memorable roles are those where he played the role of a slave, a boxer, and a rogue cop. It is a well-known fact that if moviemakers will seriously pursue a different path and disregard stereotypes then there is great possibility that the movie will fail at the box office (Harris, 2008, p. 30). This is the most challenging aspect in the struggle to change the mindset of the American people when it comes to African-American stereotypes in films
Surely, much progress has been made since The Birth of a Nation was played in the White House. For instance in the cream of the crop among black actors there were only four listed: Murphy, Foxx, Smith and Washington. And there were only two African-American men who can command lead roles in multi-million dollar movies. This is just the tip of the iceberg because the discussion was only limited to the black men and their ability to get leading roles. There should be another discussion regarding the examination of the plight of African-American women and the kind of roles that they can get in Hollywood.
Stemming the Tide
There are also moviemakers who are interested in changing the mindset of both blacks and whites by making films with a positive message. The movie Boyz N the Hood, may come across as another stereotypical movie because of the presence of black men as gangsters and the numerous scenes where there was shootings and use of illegal drugs. But the movie’s director, John Singleton underlines the main message of the film:
My film has a lot of messages in it … but my main message is that African American men has to take responsibility for raising their children, especially their boys. Fathers have to teach their boys to be men. The audience will be able to see the direction that the characters take when there is an absence or a presence of fathers in their lives (Harris, 2008, p. 34).
There is no use to deny the fact that a significant number of African-Americans are involved in crime and that there are many who are unemployed and lack the necessary education to improve their lives. It is much better to fight the war from two fronts; first, influential producers have the power to make the kind of movies that will portray African-Americans in a positive light. Second, there is a need to challenge African-Americans in the same way that John Singleton’s Boys N the Hood was able to accomplish, which is to stress the need for good role models in the African-American community.
The stereotyping of African-Americans in American cinema could not be understood unless one is willing to dig up the past. First of all the ancestors of African-Americans were taken by force from their homeland in Africa and then traded like cattle in the lucrative slave trade. But that is only half the story. When America was freed from the tyranny of the British the former slaves became second class citizens. Thus, it was a double jeopardy for those Africans who were born Americans and then christened with a new label, a new social class differentiation – African -Americans.
Slavery was a time in American history where African Americans were treated unfairly, harshly, and in an inhumane way by slave masters. American laws promoted justice for slave owners and denied any rights to slaves. Things began to change significantly after the Civil War, the Emancipation Proclamation and the Thirteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution as these events brought about the legal end of slavery in America. The Fourteenth Amendment then granted all Americans equal rights under the law whether they were born in the United States or were naturalized citizens and the Fifteenth Amendment guaranteed all citizens the right to vote regardless of race, color, or previous conditions of servitude.
While these amendments guaranteed the rights of African Americans and granted all people freedom, it did nothing to stop or slow the racial prejudices or stereotyping of Blacks in America. And nowhere is this more evident than in the American cinema. The stereotyping of African-Americans evolved in three stages: 1) in colonial times; 2) after the slavery was outlawed; and 3) after the Civil Rights movement. According to Abrahams stereotypes have served various ideological functions as enumerated in the following:
- In colonial times, the stereotypes provided a rationale to perpetuate slavery;
- After the Emancipation Proclamation, the stereotypes provided a rationale for segregation; and
- In contemporary times stereotypes re-emerged to justify differential distribution of resources in a free labor market economy (Abraham, 2003, p. 28).
In the 19th century, blacks were freed from bondage. They could no longer be found working as slaves from that point onwards and yet in the minds of the white people they are still in chains and would not let them go. Still the stereotyping of African-Americans continues to abound. One way to understand how African-Americans are perceived in American society is to examine the history of cinema and how black men and women were depicted in films.
The stereotyping of African-Americans has been rooted in the minds of our society for centuries. There is a reason why the American society still perceives them as aggressive, violent, and uneducated criminals. Part of the explanation is the fact that a disproportionate number of blacks are in prison. This is also reinforced by the images seen in cinema even if in reality there are many successful African Americans who are not into sports or the entertainment industry (Cobbs & Turncock, 2003, p. 23). There is therefore a need to change the mindset of most Americans. They still believe that the Negro race will not be able to do something or create something of significance.
There is a need for an information campaign re-educating the whole American society as to the truth about race and that African Americans should not be treated as inferior. Government agencies as well as non-government groups must work hand-in-hand to promote this idea. Moreover, the campaign must also include an information dissemination that explains the real reason behind the creation of stereotypes for African-Americans.
Once this issue has been dealt with, it would be easier to understand why American society finds it hard to shake a bad habit. When it comes to the movie making business it must be pointed out that there has been great progress in terms of the types of roles played by African Americans. Today, African-Americans play more significant roles but there are still films that will not stray away from the tried and tested formula of showing blacks as criminals or prone to other behavioral problem (Harris, 2008, p. 35). These types of films will continue as long as nothing is done to improve the system.
The terms defined here are from The American Heritage® Dictionary of the English Language, Fourth Edition (2007).
- African American: A Black American of African Ancestry. While formally used to describe only those Black individuals that originated from the continent of Africa, it is now the most widely accepted term for a Black individual in the English Language, even when the individual is not from Africa.
- Black: Of or belonging to a racial group having brown to black skin, especially one of African origin: the Black population of South Africa. Of or belonging to an American ethnic group descended from African peoples having dark skin; African-American.
- Negro: A Black person; a member of the Negroid race; Relating to or characteristic of or being a member of the traditional racial division of mankind having brown to black pigmentation and tightly curled hair; this term is now widely considered a racial term or a racial slur.
- Stereotype: A conventional, formulaic, and oversimplified conception, opinion, or image. One that is regarded as embodying or conforming to a set image or type.
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