I will argue the systematic representation of African American has been program into the minds of viewers through film. These misrepresentations continue to be extremely harmful to those who’s only encounters with African Americans come from television and film. Since the beginning of African Americans being allowed on films, there has been a continuous lack of proper representation of the African Americans culture. From the era of Blaxploitation films to the current bombardment of Blacks needing to be saved by Whites to feel acceptance, the undertone is still the same. Blacks are either overly sexualized, overly aggressive, not as smart as the rest of society or in dire need to be accepted or entertain their white counterparts.
There are very few films that have displayed a proper portrait. Possibly zero films have been created by White writers and producers have shown Black in the correct light. This disconnect is surely part of the disconnect in society with Whites and Black. How can our stories be told through the eyes and minds of those who have never lived it? How is society molded by the representation of African Americans in film? I want to show this misrepresentation and how one particular film addressed many of the presumptuous ideas of Black culture and came out on top. That film is Get Out, the 2017 release written and directed by actor and comedian Jordan Peele. The horror inspired film focused on the infatuation of the Black Man by Whites and the organ harvesting of those men. The story is a fiction with a baseline of truth lying beneath the surface.
Nearly a century ago the first African American film star made his debut in Hollywood. Lincoln Perry a known vaudeville actor on the chitlin circuit in the 1920’s, auditioned for his first Hollywood film “In Old Kentucky”. The year was 1927 and for African Americans performer, the opportunities were few and the stakes were high. Perry, who was looking for a way to separate himself from the pack, decided to create a persona. He posed as an individual who was loopy and lost, both physically and mentally. His audition intrigued the producers and led to him being cast for the role. By the 1930’s Perry’s name was known in Hollywood. He “Perry paid a heavy price — he is best known as the character of Stepin Fetchit, a befuddled, mumbling, shiftless fool.” (Watkins) The personas Perry created helped make a name for himself while opening doors for other African Americans to gain access into the Hollywood scene.
Although Perry was a pioneer his characters created an image of African American men, to be specific, as lazy, unintelligent and shiftless, in the minds of American views. From the outside looking in one wouldn’t know that Perry was far from his known persona of Stepin Fetchit in his everyday life. ‘This is an amazingly complex man. Intelligent — and he was anything but what people take him to be.’ (Hurst) Black leaders, by the mid-1930’s wanted to put an end to the stereotypes that Perry’s characters portrayed. Perry was a star but continued to fight for equal pay and respect. There was little peace for any of the first people to do anything triumphant. Perry was in a lose-lose situation. He was putting on for the White viewers to gain noticeable fame in Hollywood. At the same time he was being condemned for portraying blacks as incompetent individuals to the world. By 1940 he’d had enough of the fight and walked away from Hollywood. Though his characters were something most blacks wanted to forget it wasn’t the last time African Americans were forced to “shuck and jive” for a chance to be in a film.
“Who cares about the truth, when the lie is more entertaining?” (Charlamagne) society determined long ago that the desire to know who African Americans really were was not prevalent. The continuous reuse of stereotypical characters has been a staple of Hollywood. Characters like J.J. Evans on know 1970’s show Good Times played by actor and comedian Jimmy Walker to roles on Blaxploitation films like Truck Turner played by Isaac Hayes were all so common in Hollywood. African American characters were either dumb, overly aggressive, oppressed, or overly sexualized.
By this era we were on the screens and making White producers and Studios millions of dollars. A study by writer and investigative reporter Reneé Ward in Chicago showed 52 African American films were shown in Chicago Theaters between January 1973 and August 1974. The 52 films grossed $8.2 million in box office receipts of the total $19.8 million earned by all films shown across eight Loop theaters. None of these films were distributed by African Americans, eleven were directed by five African Americans males, and only six were non-crime films. Two films made $1.27 million dollars on their own, one being Claudine and the other Uptown Saturday Night. It wasn’t hard for African American actors to generate revenue but it was hard for them to receive quality roles, equal pay, and respect. The fight was still an uphill battle.
By the mid-1980’s there was a new wave of African Americans actors being represented properly in films. This was led by African American film director, producer, writer and actor Spike Lee. Lee was MFA Graduate from NYU who made his directorial debut with She’s Gotta Have It in 1986. His films examined race relations, poverty, social and political issues in African American communities. Over the next five years Lee directed critically acclaimed films “Do the Right Thing” (1989), “Mo Better Blues” (1999), “Jungle Fever” (1991), and “Malcolm X” (1992). These films were released under Lee’s film company 40 Acres and a Mule, two of which were led by a young Denzel Washington. His films gave many African Americans young and old an opportunity to tell their stories. Actors like Ozzie Davis, Wesley Snipes, Ruby Dee, and Samuel L. Jackson to name a few. Many of these actors have been in multiple Spike Lee films. Often this is the only way some actors could be casted as positive characters like teachers, doctors, role models, activists, and other roles of quality representation.
Spike Lee was not the end all be all of black directors and actors telling their own stories. There were individuals like Robert Townsend who wrote, directed and produced “The Five Heartbeats”, Kennan Ivory Wayans who wrote and directed Low Down Dirty Shame and created “In Living Color”an urban competitor to “Saturday Night Live”, John Singleton who wrote and directed “Boyz n the Hood” and “Poetic Justice”, and F. Gary Gray who directed “Friday” and “Set It Off”. The opportunities to tell these stories came with a cost. That cost was lack of funding for the films and the inability to get proper placement in many theaters. During this same era there was still the individuals who took the roles that fed into the African American stereotypes that many frown upon.
- Hughey, M. (n.d.). Cinethetic Racism: White Redemption and Black Stereotypes in “Magical Negro” Films. Social Problems, 56(3), 543–577. https://doi.org/10.1525/sp.2009.56.3.543
- Williams, M. (2014). Can a White Person Understand the Black Experience?. [online] Psychology Today. Available at: https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/culturally- speaking/201408/can-white-person-understand-the-black-experience [Accessed 30 Oct. 2018].
- Ward, Reneé. “BLACK FILMS, WHITE PROFITS.” The Black Scholar, vol. 7, no. 8, 1976, pp. 13–24. JSTOR, JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/41066024
- Watkins, Mel. Stepin Fetchit: the Life and Times of Lincoln Perry. Vintage Books, 2006.
- Hurst, Roy. “Stepin Fetchit, Hollywood’s First Black Film Star.” NPR, NPR, 6 Mar. 2006, www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=5245089.
- God, Charlamagne Tha. Black Privilege: Opportunity Comes to Those Who Create It. Touchstone, 2018.
- Lee, Spike, and Kaleem Aftab. Thats My Story and Im Sticking to It as Told to Kaleem Aftab. Faber and Faber, 2005.