10 African Americans in Cinema
Representation in the fictional world signifies social existence.
Absence means symbolic annihilation.
Think about those two lines for a moment. They were written by George Gerbner, a professor of communication, in 1976, around the same time Laura Mulvey was writing about the Male Gaze. Nearly 50 years later, we still hear a lot about “representation” in the media, especially film and television. But what does that really mean? And why are we still talking about it?
At the most basic level, it’s a call for greater ethnic and gender diversity in the characters we see in cinema. Seems reasonable. But does it really matter who we see up on the screen?
If you’ve read this far, then you know that last bit is a trick question. Of course it matters. But let’s discuss why it matters. And it starts with Gerbner’s assertion that “representation in the fictional world signifies social existence.” That’s a bold claim. It also happens to be true. And for many of you, that truth has been verified over and over since you first laid eyes on moving pictures.
The idea here is that when you see yourself in cinema, that is, when you see characters in film and television that look like you, talk like you, live like you, it affirms your place in the world. It assures you that you do, in fact, exist and have a role to play in society. And that starts at a very young age, often before you’ve formed clear ideas about the world outside your own home and family. Seeing yourself represented in the fictional world of cinema points to (signifies) your social existence long before you have the opportunity to put that knowledge into practice. Once you do, it will continue to shape that knowledge and that practice (see the previous chapter on how hegemony works).
Now imagine you never see anyone on screen in film or television that looks like you, talks like you or lives like you. Or if you do, those characters are relegated to minor, negatively stereotyped roles. For some of you, that won’t be hard to imagine. Maybe you’re a woman (again, see previous chapter), or maybe you’re a person of color, or maybe both. For the rest of you, maybe this will help. Remember E.T. the Extraterrestrial (1982)? It was a big hit in the 80s. Here’s a version that’s been edited down to show every single word spoken by a person of color in the film:
Whew. That didn’t take long.
How about JAWS (1975):
Okay, so that wasn’t fair, there were no people of color in JAWS.
How about something a little more modern? Here’s a version of Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets (2002) also edited down to just the words spoken by a person of color:
At least they did better than E.T. I could do this all day long. (But I won’t, because Dylan Marron already has). The point is, if you’re not white (and not male) you likely spent those same formative years with very little evidence on screen that you exist at all. It can begin to feel as though you’ve been erased. That you have no place in society. Annihilated. Symbolically, at least. Which is why Gerbner also argues that “absence means symbolic annihilation.”
So. Yeah. Representation matters.
And not just for any given individual who might benefit from seeing themselves on screen. If we learned anything from the previous chapter, it’s that cinema is a powerful tool of hegemony. From the early days of moving pictures to the modern entertainment ecosystem of streaming content, film and television, mass media has colluded in a hegemonic, patriarchal manipulation of meaning such that one half the population came to see their own subjugation by the other half as the “natural order of things.” And if it was powerful enough to establish and maintain generations of gender inequality, what do you think it did for racial and ethnic inequality?
THE CULTURAL HISTORY OF RACE IN AMERICA
Before we get into the representation of people of color in cinema, more specifically, African Americans in American cinema, we need to take a slight detour through the cultural history of race in America. Anyone who has taken middle school biology and/or social science in the last decade should know that “race” is not a biological category. There is no biological distinction that correlates with our collective understanding of racial difference. There are phenotypical differences across the global human population, eye color, height, hair texture, skin color, etc. But those are physical expressions of allelic differences in our shared, identical DNA. The concept of race is a product of history, culturally constructed and institutionally affirmed as part of a much larger hegemonic system. A hegemonic system that mirrored hegemonic patriarchy, only in this system it wasn’t men manipulating meaning and values to subjugate and control women, it was Anglo-European whites manipulating meaning to subjugate and control people of color, and Black people in particular (but not exclusively), to further their own economic and political goals.
Now, all of that goes way back and is well documented, if somewhat variable, around the world. In fact, it’s the variability of how race as a concept is defined and implemented across space and through time that is one of the hallmarks of race as a cultural construct. People “do” race differently in different cultural contexts. In Brazil, for example, race is tied to social status. Your phenotype doesn’t change, but the terminology used to describe your racial category can change depending on your economic, social or political success (or failure).
In the United States, in contrast to Brazil, race is ascribed at birth and does not change, based on a complex pseudo-biological rubric known colloquially as the “one drop rule.” According to this so-called rule, one distant ancestor with ties to Africa can “disqualify” an individual from whiteness. In that way, race in America is not even really tied to phenotype, but to a hegemonic idea of “purity.” Hegemonic in that it is presented as the “natural order of things,” and an idea in that it is not rooted in any biological reality. There’s no such thing as racial purity. We, collectively, made it up. And then hung onto it for dear life. Which is why Barack Obama was our first Black president, despite his many white ancestors.
The result is a society in which “whiteness” is normative, that is, it is the default category against which every other identity is judged. It is the standard, culturally and even aesthetically. Just look at so-called standards of beauty in advertising over the years which lean heavily toward lighter skin (though in some places that is, thankfully, changing). Or note how often African Americans, for example, are referred to as “non-white,” but those we identify as white are almost never referred to as “non-Black.”
But here’s the thing. Whiteness? That, too, is culturally constructed. It’s also just an idea. A fabrication, wrought by history, that must be continually shored up and maintained. And we know this because it has changed over time. For example, in the aftermath of widespread famine in Ireland in the mid 19th century, hundreds of thousands of Irish men and women immigrated to the United States where they were met with suspicion, prejudice and discrimination… racial discrimination. They were considered “Other” from native born whites, including pseudo-scientific claims about evolutionary inferiority. In other words, those first few generations of Irish immigrants were not white. It took time for the concept of whiteness to incorporate this new immigrant group. And that went double for Italians and European Jews who would follow at the turn of the century. Each wave of newcomers forced the concept of whiteness to flex and conform to new demographic realities without losing its normative status, its hegemonic power.
And this, finally, is where cinema comes in.
EARLY CINEMA AND REPRESENTATIONS OF BLACKNESS
It’s a curious thing. We can’t really talk about the history of cinema in America without talking about the history of race and the representation of African Americans. They are deeply intertwined, co-expressive in a way. And that’s because race as an American concept is the product of a hegemonic system, and as we learned from the last chapter, cinema is an incredibly powerful tool of hegemony.
For example, film scholars point to D. W. Griffith’s Birth of a Nation (1915) as one of the first full-length feature films ever made, an epic drama lasting more than three hours. It was and is a landmark achievement in cinema, employing formal techniques that were years ahead of their time, and playing across the country to sold out, enraptured crowds. In fact, it was the first film ever screened at the White House for then president Woodrow Wilson.
We simply cannot recount the history of cinema in the United States without some mention of Birth of a Nation.
There’s just one, glaring problem…
It is racist AF.
The film is set during and after the Civil War and, essentially, depicts the “horrific” results of giving freed slaves and African Americans the right to vote and hold political office. Black men, played by white actors in blackface, are portrayed as power-hungry rapists and murderers, unfit for freedom. And when it seems all hope is lost for the white Southerners suffering under the “savagery” of reconstruction, who rides to the rescue? That’s right: The Ku Klux Klan. They are the hooded heroes who save the day, protecting whites from the menace of African Americans who have the audacity to want to… vote. The original title of the film? The Clansman. Sheesh.
But almost worse than the film itself, is the fact that it was so hugely popular. There were some critics, thankfully, but most theatergoers, that is, most white theatergoers, at the time ate it up. They loved it. Because it reaffirmed the contemporary, hegemonic idea of race in America. It presented the subjugation of Black people to white people as the “natural order of things” by showing audiences the danger of upending that order. And by fabricating a narrative of the KKK as the (white) saviors of democracy in the south, it wrapped a lie in the persuasive power of mass media. It made it feel true. And that was good enough. President Wilson himself reportedly said of the film, “It’s like writing history with lightning!”
This is where I would normally include a clip from Griffith’s film. But I’m not going to do that (because, frankly, f%@k that guy). But I will show you this:
Birth of a Nation remains an important film in the history of American cinema because, in a way, Woodrow Wilson was right, just not in the way he intended. The film is like writing history with lightning, the cultural history of race in America and the role of cinema in perpetuating the hegemonic idea of racial inequality.
Want another example? Me neither. But I’ll give you one anyway. The next big milestone in cinema history was the introduction of synchronized sound in 1927. You remember. That landmark film, The Jazz Singer, that set the world on fire, proved Sam Warner right, and revolutionized how movies were made. Here’s a clip:
Yes… he’s singing in blackface. That’s Al Jolson playing the son of Jewish immigrants performing in blackface in front of a sold-out crowd of white people. In fact, he spends a solid 1/3 of the film in blackface. White performers wearing blackface was a common form of popular entertainment at the time, a caricature of African Americans satirizing African American culture. A not-so-subtle way to remind everyone, white and Black, who had the power to mock and satirize and who didn’t (which is why whiteface never really became a thing). The fact that Jolson’s use of blackface is never once mentioned in the movie is evidence enough that the politics of racial inequality were so deeply rooted in the culture that no one (at least no white person) thought twice about it.
Interestingly, by the 1930s, blackface began to fall out of favor, partly because enough African Americans protested its use in popular entertainment. And partly because even reasonable white people began to see it as offensive and racist. But the damage was done. Synchronized sound, the most revolutionary technological advance in cinema history after the camera itself, is forever linked to the image of Al Jolson in blackface singing “Mammy.”
So, we can’t talk about American cinema history without talking about race in America. Alright then, let’s go there. Aside from these two glaring examples, how else did early cinema represent African Americans? If cinema, as a tool of hegemonic patriarchy, represented women as either Madonnas or whores, did it also employ specific stereotypes of African Americans that shaped the way audiences perceived racial difference?
Okay, that’s another trick question. Of course it did.
In fact, film scholars have identified five broad categories of Black stereotypes in early American cinema (even if these characters were not always played by Black actors). One of the most prevalent of these stereotypes was of the Black man colluding with white hegemony. And the corollary role for Black women. Colloquially known as the Uncle Tom and Mammy roles, respectively. These were characters who upheld and even celebrated the idea of white superiority, the slave who seemed to actually enjoy life on the plantation. Actor Hattie McDaniel played the most famous version of the Mammy character. She played Scarlet O’Hara’s loyal slave in Gone with the Wind (1939), for which she won the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress. The first African American to win an Oscar (It was well-deserved as she did a tremendous job as an actor, but It would also appear that the Academy was eager to celebrate the portrayal of an enduring stereotype). The most infamous example of the Uncle Tom stereotype would have to be James Baskett’s performance as Uncle Remus in Walt Disney’s Song of the South (1946). A film so blatantly offensive in its portrayal of happy and devoted slaves that the studio locked it away in a vault and tried to forget it was ever made. Which is why you’ll never see it on Disney+:
Another common stereotype was the ineffectual and lazy simpleton. Slow-witted and easily fooled, this role was often used as comic relief, a foil for white protagonists to ridicule. Lincoln Perry played the most famous version of this stereotype as the recurring character, Stepin Fetchit. A dim-witted fool who was often billed as “The Laziest Man in the World,” Stepin Fetchit appeared as comic relief in dozens of films. His popularity would earn Perry the distinction of being the first African American actor to earn a million dollars. But Perry would eventually step away from acting, frustrated that he could not get equal billing and pay as his white co-stars. Some have argued that the Stepin Fetchit character was actually a crafty trickster figure, subtly subverting white power in his films. But it’s a hard argument to sustain when you place it in the larger context how that stereotype framed all African Americans as lazy and unintelligent.
Here’s a cringe-inducing clip from Judge Priest (1934) with the aforementioned Hattie McDaniel in a classic Mammy role and Lincoln Perry playing the slow-witted Stepin Fetchit:
A fourth stereotype of African Americans prevalent in early cinema (and literature) was the “tragic mulatto”, that is, a character of mixed-race ancestry who was inevitably doomed. Not quite as prevalent as the others, the tragic mulatto would appear now and again, almost always as a female character. That includes Birth of a Nation where Lydia, a mixed-race housekeeper, becomes the object of her white employer’s desire. Griffith’s even gives us a title card describing her as the “weakness that is to blight the nation.” There’s an echo of the “whore” side of the Madonna-Whore Complex here in that the mixed-race character represented a direct challenge to the myth of racial purity and therefore must be destroyed.
But the most enduring of the five stereotypes, the one that seems to have never quite disappeared entirely, is the Black male as hypermasculine and dangerous. You see it throughout Birth of a Nation, not surprisingly, but also in just about every film in the classical era depicting Black men as violent, unpredictable and overtly sexualized. It was a thinly veiled projection of white fear, a subconscious awareness of their own vulnerability. An awareness, on some level, that the only thing keeping them in power was the idea of power itself, the hegemony of ideas. Maybe that’s why this stereotype has taken the longest to die. White fear seems to be as durable as white hegemony. Freud would have had a field day with this one.
THE RISE (AND FALL) OF EARLY BLACK CINEMA
If Gerbner was right and representation in the fiction world signifies social existence, then the representation of African Americans in early cinema signified a meager existence indeed. The narrative manufactured by white hegemony through mainstream Hollywood cinema framed African Americans as either passive collaborators or dangerous threats to the racial status quo. But unlike the history of women in cinema, where gender inequality ensured women rarely had the opportunity to make their own films and thus counter the dominant narrative, there was an important counternarrative produced within the African American community at this time. A few enterprising African American artists (and yes, they were mostly men) understood there were plenty of African American theatergoers who didn’t want to pay their hard-earned nickels to see themselves denigrated and mocked in Birth of a Nation or The Jazz Singer. But they still wanted to go to the movies. And they still had those nickels.
And here’s where things get really interesting.
Starting roughly around the same time as the birth of Hollywood cinema, there was an alternate film industry, a Black Cinema produced by African American filmmakers for African American audiences. Known as “race films”, they had their own movie stars, their own luminary directors, and their own movie houses scattered throughout the United States. And as more and more African Americans left the south for the industrialized north in the Great Migration, creating centers of Black culture in New York City, Detroit and Chicago, the demand for content that rejected the offensive stereotypes of Hollywood only grew. By the 1940s, there were 100s of theaters in cities from New York to Los Angeles screening films with Black characters portrayed by Black actors (what a concept!) that were nuanced, heroic, tragic, comic and human.
One of the most famous and most successful filmmakers in early Black Cinema was Oscar Micheaux. Micheaux would produce more than 40 films over his career, spanning the transition to sound, and challenging the prevailing stereotypes with every one of them. His first film, The Homesteader (1918) directly confronts the tragic mulatto stereotype by having the protagonist, an African American, fall in love and marry a woman who “passes” as white but is discovered to be of mixed race. A storyline that actually celebrates rather than denigrates the revelation of African heritage in someone presumed to be white. He formed his own production company in 1919 and produced Within Our Gates (1920) as a direct response to D. W. Griffith’s Birth of a Nation. In that film, a white landowner attempts to rape a Black tenant until he realizes she is his own biological daughter. The revelation actually causes him to repent and turn away from his racist ideas!
Unfortunately, Micheaux was as bound up in the white hegemony as everyone else at the time, internalizing some of the very inequalities he resisted in his work. For example, many of his films depicted lighter-skinned African Americans as more heroic, enlightened and intelligent than darker-skinned characters. Despite that glaring example of the hegemonic power of whiteness as a normative ideal, Micheaux wrote, directed and produced dozens of films that explored issues of inequality, race relations, social justice and contemporary Black life and culture.
Have 80 minutes to kill? You can check out Micheaux’s Within Our Gates here:
The success of early Black Cinema made Micheaux and filmmakers like him influential figures in a cinematic counternarrative to Hollywood’s grotesque stereotypes. It also made them a lot of money. So much, in fact, that Hollywood eventually took note. And after World War II, when African American involvement in the war effort began to turn public opinion against the enduring racism of the Jim Crow Era, Hollywood studios began incorporating more Black characters played by actual Black actors in an attempt to share in the profits of this untapped market.
Okay, maybe not “share,” more like… steal.
MGM produced Cabin in the Sky in 1943, the first musical with an all-Black cast by a major studio (still an all-white crew), and other studios followed suit, casting actors such as Sidney Poitier and Dorothy Dandridge who were popular with both Black and white audiences. The characters themselves relied less and less on the tired, old stereotypes, but they were replaced by a new narrative that emphasized a passive acceptance of the status quo. Rarely were any of these roles centered around political engagement nor did they touch on the issues that were most important to the African American community. But they sure looked good, and audiences ate them up.
Soon those niche movie-houses showing lower-budget “race films” in African American communities could not compete with the grand studio-owned movie palaces screening big-budget spectacles featuring at least a few true-to-life African American characters. Sure, there were still some of the familiar stereotypes, and maybe the characters were less than inspiring as the country moved toward a full-fledged Civil Rights Movement, but the damage was done to the razor thin profit margin of Black Cinema. Many of the movie-houses closed, and with nowhere to show their films, many of the filmmakers were forced out of the business.
BLAXPLOITATION AND THE POST-CIVIL RIGHTS ERA
The shift in cultural attitudes toward race that began in the wake of World War II would take another 20 years to come to fruition in the Civil Rights Movement and, eventually, the Civil Rights Act of 1964. And even that was only possible because of the direct social and political action of African American leaders like Rosa Parks, Martin Luther King, Jr. and Malcolm X. African Americans may have lost their own Black Cinema, but at least they gained legal protection against discrimination.
Unfortunately, that’s all it was. Legal protection. Not unlike First Wave Feminism which ensured the legal right to vote for women but did nothing to change the culture of gender inequality, the Civil Rights Act did nothing to change the pervasive culture of racial inequality in America. In other words, you can legislate against discrimination, but you can’t erase prejudice. That requires deep cultural transformation, a dismantling of hegemony. Or at the very least, a new counternarrative to compete with the manipulation of meaning in the mainstream mass media.
And that’s exactly what happened in the 1970s.
By that time, many African Americans were frustrated by the lack of real change in the wake of the Civil Rights Movement and by the persistent image of African Americans as passive, often secondary characters in Hollywood cinema. Films like Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner (1967) about an older white couple coming to terms with their daughter’s African American boyfriend. Considered ground-breaking at the time, it exposed the tacit racism (and eventual repentance) of “well-meaning” liberal whites. But it was told almost entirely through the white characters’ point of view. And the boyfriend, played by Sidney Poitier, was a young, accomplished African American doctor, the least threatening version of “Black boyfriend” imaginable.
So, African American filmmakers like Melvin Van Peebles and Gordon Parks started making their own, often independently financed films that reclaimed an image of Black culture, and Black masculinity in particular, as powerful, pro-active, anti-establishment, and yes, even dangerous. It was, in a way, a re-appropriation of the Hollywood stereotype of the aggressive, violent Black man, meant as a provocation to the cultural complacency of the post-Civil Rights era.
It all started with Melvin Van Peebles’s 1971 Sweet, Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song (yes, it has all of those S’s). The film stars Van Peebles as a successful gigolo in Los Angeles who finds himself on the wrong side of the law after stopping two white police officers from beating a defenseless young activist. On the run, he finds protection and support within the Black community as the (mostly white) authorities terrorize the city looking for him. It was low-budget and rough around the edges, but it depicted a strong Black male lead struggling against the forces of white power. It was, literally and metaphorically, revolutionary:
Other films in this same spirit would follow, including Shaft (1971) directed by Gordon Parks and Super Fly (1972) directed by his son, Gordon Parks Jr., along with dozens of others in the first half of the 1970s. They were hugely popular, both inside and outside of African American communities. But not everyone was pleased. In fact, it was the NAACP that coined the term “blaxploitation” as a criticism of the genre. They felt the depiction of African Americans in these films, particularly the hyper-masculine Black men, was simply reproducing old Hollywood stereotypes and, in turn, exploiting African American audiences. For the filmmakers, that was missing the point. Their goal was to reclaim that image and turn it loose on white hegemony.
But as the popularity of the films grew, so did their profits, and with those profits, came increasing interest from white producers and Hollywood itself. Sound familiar? By the late 1970s, the films had become a parody of themselves, often backed by white producers and directed by white directors. Suddenly, “blaxploitation” took on a new meaning, with white filmmakers reducing the characters intended to resist hegemony to the same tired, old stereotypes. By the end of the 70s, the short-lived resurrection of Black Cinema in the form of blaxploitation was over.
MODERN HOLLYWOOD CINEMA AND REPRESENTATIONS OF BLACKNESS
So, the Hollywood entertainment industry co-opted blaxploitation the same way it co-opted early Black Cinema, subsuming it under the dominant cultural hegemony and robbing it of its power as a counternarrative. And as the 70s became the 80s, the same cultural machine that resisted Second Wave Feminism with cinematic images of hypermasculine action heroes, gender role reversal comedies, and slasher movies, produced cinema that resisted real cultural change in terms of racial equality by emphasizing an anti-reactionary, assimilationist narrative. This narrative shows up in buddy comedies like Silver Streak (1976) and Stir Crazy (1980), action comedies like 48 Hrs (1982) and the Lethal Weapon franchise which began in 1992. In each of those films, two characters, one Black and one white, must overcome their differences and work together. An admirable message, surely. But one that often ignored the deep disparities in power and opportunity between the two characters. Or if they paid any attention to such issues, played them as a joke.
In some ways this is not so different from the image of Blackness presented in early cinema. Those tired, old stereotypes were grotesque, but ultimately, they were intended to promote assimilation (which is really just another way of saying submission). The Uncle Tom and Mammy roles, along the Stepin Fetchit character, were held up as positive images, appropriate behavior for African Americans. The tragic mulatto and dangerous Black male were the cautionary tales. But all of it was part of a narrative of assimilation, of submission to white hegemony. And as we move into the modern era, we can identify a few new stereotypes designed to promote a similar agenda.
One of the most commented upon new stereotypes is the so-called Magical Negro. This is a recurring character, usually male, often with mysterious, supernatural powers whose only role is help the white protagonist achieve their goal and/or avoid some terrible predicament. There’s a long list of these characters in popular movies: Michael Clarke Duncan in The Green Mile (1999); Will Smith in The Legend of Bagger Vance (2000); Djimon Hounsou in In America (2002); Morgan Freeman in Bruce Almighty (2003); Samuel L. Jackson in The Unicorn Store (2019). These characters rarely have any inner life of their own, no motivations aside from helping the white characters. I could go into the psychology behind this trope, discuss how it’s a projection of white fear of the mysterious “Other” and an appropriation of their perceived power. But instead, I’ll just let Key and Peele demonstrate:
Another prominent modern stereotype is the “Thug” character, which, of course, is really just an updated version of the old “dangerous Black male” stereotype of early cinema. The Thug stereotype is arguably the most common of the new/old stereotypes, appearing in more films and tv series than is worth mentioning here. And there are others. The Angry Black Woman, defined by her unmotivated aggression and little else, the Domestic, essentially the Mammy role for the modern era, and, of course the Sassy Best Friend:
And of course, there’s also the corollary stereotype for white protagonists thrust into situations where they alone can save the [insert poor, disadvantaged, wrongly accused, non-white student, domestic laborer, convict, etc. here), known, appropriately enough, as the White Savior. Sandra Bullock in The Blind Side (2009) is a prime example. But you can find examples in The Help (2011), Freedom Writers (2007), Dangerous Minds (1995), and the list goes on (and on):
What all of these modern stereotypes have in common is their role in shaping a shared cultural narrative about race in America. A narrative that constantly reaffirms whiteness as normative, and the implied value in any non-white “Other” submitting (or “assimilating”) to that norm. And while we have seen an increase in African American representation in mainstream cinema, quantity does not always equal quality if that representation is reduced to a new set of stereotypes.
Which is one reason we’ve seen an increasingly vocal critique of the Academy Awards and their persistent exclusion of African American actors from nominations and awards. Beginning in 2015, the #OscarsSoWhite campaign called on the Motion Picture Academy to redress this disparity after all 20 acting nominations went to white actors that year (and the year after that). And when African American actors have won major awards, it is often for playing the very roles that affirm white hegemony. Denzel Washington was only the second African American to win a Best Actor Oscar in 2002. He did not win it for playing the political activist Malcolm X in Malcolm X (1992), or boxing phenomenon Rubin Carter in Hurricane (1999), but for playing the corrupt, “Thug” cop in Training Day (2001). Halle Berry was the first African American in Oscar history to win Best Actress in that same year. It was for Monster’s Ball (2001) in which she played the widow of a death row inmate who has a torrid affair with her late husband’s white prison guard.
MODERN BLACK CINEMA AND THE POLITICS OF REPRESENTATION
Fortunately, the story of African American representation in cinema does not end there. Just as the “race films” of early Black Cinema offered a counternarrative to the offensive stereotypes of Hollywood’s Golden Age, and the blaxploitation movement offered a counternarrative to the passive, assimilationist message of Hollywood in the 60s and 70s, a new counternarrative has emerged in a new modern Black Cinema. Or maybe it’s the same Black Cinema that’s always been there, fading to the background for a while, then roaring back when we need it most.
This latest iteration begins with the independent film movement of the 1980s, when more and more filmmakers had access to cheaper and cheaper equipment and were able to take control over the creative process outside of the Hollywood system. Filmmakers like Spike Lee, whose first feature film She’s Gotta Have it (1986) was shot in 12 days for just $175,000. Or Robert Townsend, whose Hollywood Shuffle (1987) was financed by maxing out his own credit cards. Or Julie Dash, who made Daughters of the Dust (1991) with financing from PBS after struggling more than 15 years to get it made.
All of these debut films offered a startling alternative to the stereotypes favored by Hollywood (or in the case of Hollywood Shuffle offered a scathing satire of them), but it was Spike Lee in particular who paved the way for other African American filmmakers. His third film, Do the Right Thing (1989), unapologetically takes on the cultural politics of race and directly comments on the issue of representation, racial inequality, gentrification and police brutality. In fact, the film’s challenge to white hegemony was so on point that critics suggested the film might actually inspire race riots, as if simply calling attention to inequality would lead to violence. Police were even dispatched to early screenings.
The riots never happened. But a lot of young African American filmmakers were inspired. John Singleton would make Boyz n the Hood in 1991, a raw, nuanced portrait of teenage life in South Central Los Angeles. The Hughes brother would make Menace II Society in 1993. F. Gary Gray would make Friday in 1995 and Set if Off in 1996. Kasi Lemmons would make Eve’s Bayou in 1997. Spike Lee would make 10 more films in the 1990s alone. And there were others. All of them creating work that echoed the counternarratives of Oscar Micheaux and Melvin Van Peebles, a new Black Cinema that let African American audiences know they too existed. They also let aspiring filmmakers know they could join the conversation. As we learned from the last chapter, representation behind the camera is as important as representation in front of the camera.
The result of this fertile decade in Black Cinema was a new generation of African American filmmakers who started outside of the Hollywood system, and then stormed the gates to helm some of most acclaimed films of the past decade and some of the largest studio productions in history. Filmmakers like Barry Jenkins whose first film Medicine for Melancholy (2008) was a small, intimate romantic drama. His second film, Moonlight (2016), won the Academy Award for Best Picture. Or Ava DuVernay whose 2012 film Middle of Nowhere dramatized the toll of unequal incarceration rates among Black men. Two years later, she made Selma (2014), a historical drama about the civil rights march from Selma to Montgomery in 1965, for Paramount Pictures. A few years later, she helmed the $200 million Disney film A Wrinkle in Time (2018). Or Ryan Coogler whose first film in 2013 was Fruitvale Station, a searing portrait of the last day in the life of Oscar Grant, the young, unarmed Black man shot dead by police in Oakland in 2009. His second film was Creed (2015) a $40 million re-boot of the Rocky franchise, this time with an African American in the lead role. His third film? Yeah. It was Black Panther (2018). Part of the Marvel series of films, Coogler oversaw a budget of more than $200 million, and the film grossed $1.3 billion worldwide (It also happened to feature a Black superhero protagonist and push a not-so-subtle critique of white hegemony).
All of these filmmakers, and many more, are not only offering an important counternarrative to modern audiences, they are affecting real change in the dominant narrative as well. And changing the narrative can mean, hopefully, a slow but steady dismantling of hegemony. Or, at the very least, remind audiences that African Americans do, in fact, exist outside of the roles that were written for them.
So. Yeah. Representation matters.
Video and Image Attributions:
Every Single Word Spoken by a Person of Color in “E T “ by Dylan Marron. Standard YouTube License.
Every Single Word Spoken by a Person of Color in “Jaws” by Dylan Marron. Standard YouTube License.
Every Single Word Spoken by a Person of Color in “Harry Potter & The Chamber of Secrets” by Dylan Marron. Standard YouTube License.
Why You Shouldn’t Watch The Birth of a Nation (and why you should) | Brows Held High by KyleKallgrenBHH. Standard YouTube License.
Mammy – Al Jolson (Jazz Singer performance) by Xanadude192. Standard YouTube License.
Song of the South’ Will Not Be One of the Available Titles on Disney+ — Here’s Why | THR News by THR News. Standard YouTube License.
Excerpt from “Judge Priest” (1934) by screeningthepast. Standard YouTube License.
Oscar Micheaux. Public domain image.
Within Our Gates by Library of Congress. Standard YouTube License.
Blaxploitation 101: How black filmmakers took on the system and got shafted by Indietrix Film Reviews. Standard YouTube License.
Key & Peele – Magical Negro Fight by Comedy Central. Standard YouTube License.
When The Sassy Black Friend Has Enough | Famalam by BBC Three. Standard YouTube License.
White Savior: The Movie Trailer by Late Night with Seth Meyers. Standard YouTube License.
The evolution of black representation in film by Newsy. Standard YouTube License.