African Americans In Film

  • Category: Music & Movies
  • Words: 927
  • Grade: 90

African Americans in Film: A Brief History

African American images have been in movies since the beginning of film history. Early African American movies fell into two different categories, both very different from each other.

Race movies, which were popular from the 1910's to the 1940's, were one type of popular movie. African American audiences were the main targets of these movies, and they were produced outside of Hollywood by independent filmmakers (both black and white).

African American actors/actresses were often depicted as heroes and heroines in these films, and there were many references to the African American culture. Among the many independent filmmakers were Noble and George Johnson, who formed the Lincoln Motion Pictures Company, and Oscar Micheaux, who was one of the most important African American filmmakers of the time. These men wanted to make movies that uplifted and inspired African American people. Many race films took a Hollywood story and gave it an African American slant. While these movies provided entertainment to the African American community and filled a void left by Hollywood, they were often a point of much criticism. The movies tended to focus on problems facing more affluent African Americans, and rarely addressed the problems faced by poor African Americans. Many of the lead actors/actresses in race movies were close to the white ideal: fair-skinned and straight haired.
By the end of the 1940's the race movie industry had basically ended, as Hollywood began to take more interest in featuring African American actors/actresses in more substantial roles.
Hollywood produced movies have always featured African American actors/actresses. However, they were only cast in stereotypical roles. African American actresses portrayed servants, lackeys and loyal mammies to the white actors, and had few if any lines. One such early film, The Birth of a Nation, showed African Americans as either gentle loyal servants, or violent and aggressive troublemakers who wanted to harm all whites. Although these stereotypes already existed, once they were put on film, they reached a broader audience and helped to perpetuate them.
During the Great Depression period (1930's), the aim of many Hollywood movies was to give hope and optimism to the American audience. The stories typically showed down and out characters persevering and reigning triumphant by the end of the film. African American actors in these movies were portrayed as clowns and provided comic relief for white audiences by acting like buffoons. A popular African American actor from that period was Stepin Fetchit. He often played a lazy, stammering, shuffling, witless man. Another popular actor from this time was Bill "Bojangles" Robinson. He was frequently seen in films with Shirley Temple, a child star whose fairytale-like movies were extremely popular. A very talented performer, Robinson often played a happy go lucky figure, dancing along side Shirley in show stopping dance routines. Hattie McDaniel was another popular actress from this period. Although, often playing mammy roles, her characters were always strong and self-assured. She became the first African American to win an Academy Award for her portrayal as a mammy in Gone with the Wind.
Beginning in the late 1940's and throughout the 1950's, Hollywood attempted to make movies about African Americans facing injustices because of their race. Many movies were made about African Americans "passing" for whites. Once such movie was Imitation of Life, which was a story about an African American woman whose daughter tried to pass for white with unfortunate results.
In the 1960's came the emergence of the first African American movie star, Sidney Poitier. He was the first African American actor to win an Academy Award for Best Actor for the film, Lilies on the Field. Poitier's characters had a common thread: they were intelligent men who were non-threatening to whites but exhibited dignity. While he did ground breaking work in Hollywood at the time, he was also criticized because his characters never lost control of their anger; they were always safe and non-menacing, which helped to further a major stereotype of black men.
In the 1970's blacksploitation films became popular. Like race movies, these films aimed at black audiences were low-budget action movies that were set in the ghetto. In movies like SuperFly, Cleopatra Jones and Shaft, the heroes/heroines fought for justice against the police, pimps, drug dealers and hustlers, usually using violence to solve their problems. Women (including the heroine of the film) were often portrayed as sexual objects in these films and used their bodies to achieve their goals. These movies were extremely popular with young African Americans because despite the negative images in these films, the heroes/heroines were strong and aggressive, which was not an image that was widely portrayed of African Americans in film before.
During the 1980's to the present, African Americans can be found in both Hollywood produced and independently produced films. While great strides have been made in the portrayal of African Americans in film since the early history of cinema, we still have a long way to go. In present day Hollywood films, many African American actors are still playing clownish roles, or are only featured as sidekicks to fellow white actors. However, there have been many independent filmmakers who have made films that tackle the injustice that we still face, embrace our rich culture, and even provide African American audiences with entertainment without compromising the dignity of the actors in their movies.

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