A history of Black representation in Hollywood: progress of appropriate portrayal

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Graphic by Virginia Suardi

Ke’Asia Morton

Today, African Americans are appearing more frequently in film. However it hasn’t always been this way. When the film industry was first conceived, it was rare to see a Black person on screen. In instances when there were Black characters, they were either portrayed negatively or as small-minded individuals next to their white counterparts. As the film industry progressed, more Black faces appeared, but with more representation came harmful stereotypes and caricatures. Although presently we are beginning to see more Black representation in film, the amount of roles are still disproportionate. According to a study done by UCLA, white actors and actresses played 67.3% of major film roles in 2019. This is two times greater than the number of people of color as a whole, who made up only 32.7%. Specifically, African Americans came in at 15.7%, demonstrating just how direly the film industry needs to be improved with regards to diversity. 

Before film had even existed, Black people were already being depicted demeaningly in the entertainment business. Starting in the 1830s, white performers painted their faces, wore torn clothes, and imitated enslaved people. Black people were portrayed only in offensive caricatures: lazy, dumb, hypersexual, and criminal. These early performances in minstrel shows would prove to have a lasting effect on later films and stereotypes we still carry today. In one of America’s earliest popular films, “Birth of a Nation,” white actors in blackface portrayed emancipated slaves, presenting African Americans as uncivilized brutes who preyed on white women. During the time of its release, in 1915, the movie was a big hit, so big that it was the first movie ever shown at the white house by yours truly, President Woodrow Wilson, who called it “history written in lightning.” Though the film was loved by mainstream audiences, many Black people carried out demonstrations in opposition to the film’s depiction of African Americans, notably the NAACP’s campaign to ban the film. Despite some criticism of the movie’s misleading interpretation of Black people, similar stereotypes continued to appear in entertainment from the early twentieth century to now. 

Stepin Fetchit is considered one of the first Black actors to have a successful film career. However, his roles were degrading to the Black community. On screen, he played comic relief roles with an illiterate buffoonish persona. Commonly referred to as a “Sambo” caricature, these characters depicted Black people as lazy, slow-witted, and content with being enslaved. Many people in the Black community detested his portrayals. However, some argued that although his characters were inaccurate, he was a pioneer for Black folks in the entertainment industry. Another successful performer by the name of Hattie McDaniel would go on to popularize another well known Black caricature. In 1940, McDaniel became the first Black woman to receive an Oscar for her role as “Mammy” in the film “Gone with the Wind.” The Mammy is characterized as being asexual, hardworking, and a deeply devoted servant to her white family. The Mammy is completely okay with being an indentured servant and doesn’t portray any complex emotions. Though some Black actors like Sidney Poitier gained success without portraying “Uncle Tom” roles, for a long time that’s all Black actors were demoted to. Stereotypical, mindless side characters.  

Throughout the years, these unfavorable caricatures didn’t disappear. Rather, they evolved and continued to perpetrate the idea that African Americans weren’t civilly behaved or important enough to be protagonists. The “Coon” emerged as a stereotype to describe someone who had unintelligent characteristics similar to that of a Sambo, but who also thought of themselves as being too good for Black people, and would rather assimilate into white society. These characters were made to poke fun at African Americans, as a reminder from White people that they’ll never fit into “civilized” society. In the 1980s, the Coon caricature developed into a similar stereotype targeted at Black women, called the “Welfare Queen” who was considered lazy and would rather live off state money than work. Another stereotype geared towards Black women is known as the “Sapphire” or the “Angry Black Woman” which is derived from the “Sassy Mammy.” A great example of this is Rochelle from “Everybody Hates Chris”, a character associated with being unrealistically sassy, overbearing, and a nag. Additionally, developing from earlier perceptions of African Americans being hypersexual, another stereotype was born—the “Animalistic Creature,” characterizing Black people as sexually untamed. The “Jezebel” character is another subcategory in which Black women are portrayed as oversexualized, insatiable sex objects. 

Although roles for Black people have progressed in their scope and accuracy over time, too often these characters fail to represent the Black experience as a whole. It seems that every time there is a film with a majority Black cast, it’s about one of three topics: Black trauma (like slavery or the Jim Crow era), the hood, or the dysfunctional Black family. How many more times will they make a coming-of-age movie about boys growing up in the hood? The 90s were filled with films like “Menace II Society,” “Boyz n the Hood,” “South Central,” and “Juice.” The same goes for slavery and Civil Rights-era films. Of course, making these types of movies are important, as they are educational, thought-provoking, and portray real trauma that Black people then and now have experienced. However, the Black experience isn’t homogenous, and it isn’t all about trauma. Black people have joyful moments and loving families, but that’s rarely portrayed on screen.

Rather repetitively, if the show or movie belongs to any other genre besides the ones described above, odds are the Black person’s role is the side character. Ah, the “Token Black Friend.” Writers can’t live with letting the TBF have an actual complex personality or more than five minutes of screen time, but writers also can’t live without them. It’s so infuriating to see Black people sprinkled into a film just for a touch of diversity and only to support the main (usually white) character. The “TBF” has no other personality trait besides being sassy and doesn’t have any troubles of their own and if they do, the issues are race related. Huh, this sounds familiar. Token Black Friend must be Mammy’s second cousin once removed. These characters are always the voice of reason, or a pawn for comic relief. Take Disney’s “High School Musical: The Musical: The Series” as an example. Nini has a token Black friend. What was her name again? Maybe the audience would remember if she had a fleshed out character arc like other characters. All she did was support Nini with her mundane problems. Disney thought they could give her one little solo and we’d all be shouting hooray for diversity. 

Black people are tired of being sidekicks. Their stories deserve to be represented wholeheartedly in every genre, with complex stories, diversified experiences, and as main characters. Black people have been waiting on the sidelines way too long.

As of the 2010s, we’ve seen a plethora of Black faces in film, in their own movies, and as their own protagonists. We’ve also seen the refreshing success of Black people portraying their own stories and exploring different genres. Jordan Peele is killing the game with horror movies featuring Black leads. His 2017 thriller “Get Out” was a big hit that also provided in-depth commentary on race in America. In 2016, “Moonlight” broke barriers by portraying the life of a gay Black male. The film was an  important installation for Black LGBTQ+ people as it represented a movie they could relate to, and it won an Academy Award for best picture. In terms of Black women paving the way in film, Issa Rae’s “Insecure” shows a group of independent, educated Black women, which is a contrast from the negative stereotypes placed upon Black women in television and film. 

This article would be incomplete without mentioning the breakout film “Black Panther.” The main character, played by the immensely talented Chadwick Boseman, was a huge inspiration to Black children and adults alike, who’d never had a superhero look like them on screen. The movie’s impact was felt around the world. Never before have Black people felt so seen or heard. Boseman and his work will never be forgotten, and his impact will live on for decades to come. 

Although Black representation in Hollywood has come a long way since its beginnings, there is still more work to be done. Filmmakers should invest more time into mindfully casting other races as “standard” roles that aren’t racially significant. Any race could play an angsty teen or a spy; roles like these aren’t exclusive to only white people. Additionally, there needs to not only be more representation of Black people on screen, but more specifically dark skinned Black women. It’s rare in American media that dark skin Black women are the main character in a film or illustrated in a realistic light. They’re always the “Sapphire” or the butt of the joke. A rule of thumb for mindfully casting Black actors should be that not all Black women are light skin with loose curly hair and not all Black men are involved with the streets. It’s no surprise that movies including and representing real Black experiences have proven to be successful. It’s extremely meaningful when Black people are depicted as beautiful, complex, human beings like in real life, as inaccurate representation can be deleterious to a community’s self-worth. Hollywood is in dire need of change so that everybody can be seen, appropriately and accurately, on the big screen.