This week’s topic centers around how minorities are portrayed in film, and how this portrayal shapes our view of those minorities. It is an interesting question. Films themselves are a reflection of our culture, or, more accurately, a reflection of the views of those in power, which has been and continues to be primarily white people.
But cinema can also present an idea of culture as it should be. Films are hugely influential cultural texts that can inform society’s behavior: how we treat each other, our political and social awareness, who we decide to love or admire, who we decide to hate. To quote a much beloved superhero, “with great power comes great responsibility.” This responsibility is not something Hollywood should take lightly, but only recently have industry big dogs taken notice or deigned to care.
Historically, Hollywood has done a terrible job not only accurately representing members of minority groups, but including them at all.
Over time, we’ve seen quite the evolution in the portrayals of these groups, and because there is no way I can give them all the attention they deserve in one blog, I am instead going to focus on the portrayal of Black people in American cinema.
Let’s start at the very beginning: the first ever feature films started to appear in the early 20th century, including filmmaker D.W. Griffith’s ‘controversial’ film, “Birth of a Nation.” (I prefer the term racist). This early film is a perfect example of the hold cinema has over the broader public, should it choose to use it. The 1915 three-hour feature chronicles the assassination of Abraham Lincoln, the Civil War, and Reconstruction.
In this film, African Americans were portrayed as intellectually inferior and sexually aggressive toward white women and were played by white actors in blackface. The Ku Klux Klan, on the other hand, was presented as a heroic force that would save white America from Black people. The film spurred a resurgence of the KKK – the ‘second Klan’ was founded by William Simmons in 1915.
(*Side note: director and activist Ava DuVernay was just awarded the Gish Prize for her contributions to society as a filmmaker. The award is named after actress Lillian Gish, who starred in “Birth of a Nation.” I think that worked out well.)
Of course, this is but one side of the narrative. While “Birth of a Nation” is always talked about as a ‘landmark’ of film history, the 1920 film “Within Our Gates,” directed by African American filmmaker Oscar Micheaux, is rarely discussed. Sometimes considered a response to “Birth of a Nation,” the film presents Micheaux’s version of the American racial situation, and stars Black actors as Black characters.
Indeed, there were filmmakers even in the earliest days who sought to star Black actors and tell Black stories. Norman Studios was one such production company that wanted to contrast the degrading roles that African Americans were usually offered. As Richard Norman himself described it, he opted to feature Black actors in “splendidly assuming different roles.”
But let’s fast forward a bit: The 1967 film “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner” depicted interracial marriage in a positive light, and was released six months after interracial marriage was made legal in all 50 states, thanks to the Loving v. Virginia case. At this point, we had come a long way from blackface – America had seen real legal change with the Civil Rights Movement, such as the landmark Brown v. Board of Education decision, the passage of the Civil Rights Act in 1964, and the Voting Rights Act of 1965. But the hearts and minds of many Americans in terms of their views of Black people were yet to be changed. This film did have a significant cultural impact – actor Sidney Poitier was nominated for an Academy Award for his role – but at the same time, the film received some criticism for not going far enough, and catering to white American audiences.
Decades later, in 1990, a recently graduated film student named John Singleton sold his script to Columbia Pictures. “Boyz N the Hood” (1991) was revolutionary – a Black creative was able to tell a Black story honestly, from his own perspective. The film was a coming of age narrative about a young Black boy growing up in South Central Los Angeles in a projects-type neighborhood. It gave American audiences a glimpse at the police brutality and gang culture faced by many young Black people. Singleton became the youngest and first ever African American to be nominated for Best Director at the Academy Awards, with his film prompting a shift in the way Black people were portrayed on screen.
Hollywood has continued to take strides toward diversity and inclusion in recent years, albeit very slowly. Of course, it’s not as if Black filmmakers haven’t been telling Black stories for a long, long time, it’s just that the film industry at large (which is again, primarily controlled by white people) hasn’t paid attention or recognized their art. But as Hollywood becomes more forward-thinking, and more Black filmmakers have made their way to the industry frontlines, Black stories and creatives are starting to get their due diligence.
Just in the past decade, we’ve seen films such as “12 Years a Slave” (2013) and “Selma” (2014) acknowledge America’s troubled past in its treatment of Black people, as well as narratives like “Moonlight,” (2016), which follows a young Black man as he explores his identity and sexuality.
In 2018, director Ryan Coogler brought us “Black Panther,” a Marvel film based on the comics by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby. Marvel’s first Black superhero movie was a massive success, both critically and at the box office. It was the first ever superhero film to be nominated for Best Picture at the Academy Awards, and won for Best Costumes, Best Original Score, and Best Production Design.
The portrayal of Black people in film has changed dramatically over the course of film history, and for the better – from blackface to Black Panther. But as Queen Latifah said (or sang) in “Hairspray,” ‘I know that we’ve come so far, but we’ve got so far to go.’