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Reality has always been interpreted through the report given by images. Susan Sontag, On Photography


Reality has always been interpreted through the report given by images. Susan Sontag, On Photography


Reality has always been interpreted through the report given by images. Susan Sontag, On Photography


Reality has always been interpreted through the report given by images. Susan Sontag, On Photography


i. Look around, and you’ll see how African Americans have emerged as some of the big screen’s most reliable stars. Will Smith is the one demonstrable megastar. Morgan Freeman’s quiet dignity gets him designated as the face of God and the soul of humanity. And the achievements of blacks are now regularly honored by Hollywood. In the past seven years, blacks have won Academy Awards in every acting category. Halle Berry took Best Actress for Monster’s Ball, Freeman Best Supporting Actor for Million Dollar Baby, Jennifer Hudson Best Supporting Actress for Dreamgirls. In Best Actor, three of the last six Oscars have gone to African Americans: Denzel Washington for Training Day, Jamie Foxx for Ray and Forest Whitaker for The Last King of Scotland. In these glamorous categories, blacks have achieved a kind of parity. Hmmm, that didn’t take long—only 100 years. The history of blacks in film spans nine decades and reveals a legacy that was tragic before it was triumphant. At first, blacks were invisible; when they were allowed to be seen, it was mostly as derisive comic relief. The 1950s ushered in the age of the noble Negro, in the imposing person of Sidney Poitier—the Jackie Robinson of movies. Only when Hollywood realized that a sizable black audience would pay to see films more reflective of their lives, whether funny, poignant or violent, were they given control of the means of production. Sometimes. The fact remains that of the various films discussed here, chosen to cover the widest range of black films, fewer than half were directed by blacks. We need to examine the history of blacks in film to appreciate their deep roots. Poitier, Smith and Denzel Washington, all radiating a manly cine-magnetism, are the sons of Paul Robeson, who was the first great black movie star—or would have been, if Hollywood and America hadn’t been steeped in racism. Richard Pryor and Eddie Murphy, the top comedy stars of the 80s, have a strange, subversive ancestor in Stepin Fetchit, America’s first black millionaire actor. Prime African-American actresses of the 20s and 30s like Nina Mae McKinney, Fredi Washington and Hattie McDaniel waged valiant battles in a hostile industry, first to get movie roles, then to bring fiery life to them. Spike Lee’s stated aim as a director is to “uplift the race” —a motto used 60 years earlier by Oscar Micheaux, whose will to make socially pertinent movies for black audiences was as steely as the ambitions of his leading characters. As Harriet Tubman led to Oprah Winfrey, and Martin Luther King Jr., to Barack Obama, so the stars of early black cinema are the mothers and fathers of the stars who entertain and edify us. To study the work of Robeson, McKinney, McDaniel and their kin is to recognize the hardships they endured, the heroism they displayed, in making their impossible dream today’s movie reality.


ii. The practice of racial stereotyping through the use of media has been used throughout contemporary history by various factions in American society to attain various goals. The practice is used most by the dominant culture in this society as a way of suppressing its minority population. The Republican Party’s use of the Willie Horton image in the 1988 Presidential campaign is a small example of how majority groups have used racial stereotyping in the media as a justifiable means to an end. The book Unthinking Eurocentrism by Stam and Shohat supports this notion when they write, “the functionality of stereotyping used in film demonstrates that they (stereotypes) are not an error in perception but rather a form of social control intended as Alice Walker calls “prisons of image.” American journalist Walter Lippman in his book Public Opinion first introduced the modern usage of the word stereotype in 1922. The major thesis of this book is that in modern democracy political leaders and ordinary citizens are required to make decisions about a variety of complicated matters that they do not understand. “People believe that their conceptions of German soldiers, Belgian priests, or American Ku Klux Klansman for example are accurate representations of the real members of those classes . . . the conception in most cases is actually a stereotype acquired by the individual from a source other than his direct experience.” Historically the “other source” people developed racial stereotypes were from literature and then radio. In 1933 Sterling Brown, the great black poet and critic, divided the full range of black characters in American literature into seven categories; the contented slave; the wretched freemen: the comic Negro; the tragic mulatto; the local color Negro; and the exotic primitive. Dr. Henry Louis Gates, Jr. speaks of Dr. Brown’s work in the article TV’s Black World Turns but Stays Unreal. “It was only one small step to associate our public negative image in the American mind with the public negative social roles that we were assigned to and to which we were largely confined.” In contemporary American society the most affective way in which stereotypes are perpetuated is through the media of film and television. Images from these media constantly bombard us with negative and unrealistic portrayals of African-American life or deny the existence of African-Americans in a “true” American society at all. The use of racial stereotyping is destructive to American society on two fronts. First it connotes to the majority population of America that the negative actions of a few minorities sum up the collective values of the whole minority community. For example, in urban America to be a mugger is synonymous with being African American or Hispanic. As a result of media images, the immediate image we accept, as norm is that of whites being mugged by blacks and Hispanics. While of course, black and Hispanic men have mugged whites, to have this be a dominant image goes against many national and local crime statistics. Discussing racial imaging in the book Questioning the Media, Ash Corea explains “stereotypes seek to portray African-Americans as a “problem” in an otherwise harmonious country.” Stam and Shohat explain “the mark of the plural” in Unthinking Eurocentrism. They explain how “the mark of the plural” projects colonized people as all the same, any negative behavior by any member of the oppressed community is instantly generalized as typical, as pointing to a perpetual backsliding toward some negative essence. Representations thus become allegorical.” They further explain how stereotyping “of other communities participate in a continuum of prejudicial social policy and actual violence against disempowered people placing the very body of the accused in jeopardy.” The nationwide manhunt for the fictitious black killer of Susan


Smith’s children supports their assertion. The second effect of stereotyping is that the group being stereotyped begins to internalize the negative images and actually mimic some of the behavior and attitudes portrayed in the negative imagery. One of the most famous examples of internalization of stereotypes is the experiment first used in the case of Brown vs. the Board of Education. In this experiment black children were shown almost identical dolls, the only difference being skin color (one black, one white). When the children were asked which dolls were pretty, nice, smart, clean, etc. child after child pointed to the white doll. However, when asked which doll was ugly, dumb, dirty or evil the black doll was almost always selected. As a result of close interaction with and observation of my students I have become painfully aware of how negative stereotypical images from television, movies and to a lesser extent literature affect young black children. All to often, children imitate negative stereotypical behaviors exhibited in these media. For example, many children now imitate the dress, dialect and violence associated with the “gangsta” lifestyle portrayed in the currently popular, “in the hood” movie genre. In these films, violence is used as a means of solving problems, sometimes without repercussions and is often glorified. Mothers are on welfare, fathers are unemployed, drunkards, or absent altogether. If taken individually, some elements may be present “in the hood” but are no means the norm. It would be foolish to suggest that viewing images is the major cause of negative behaviors present in some of today’s school aged children. Unemployment, poor housing, and lack of education are some of the ills, which heavily shape negative behavior patterns. However, it would be absurd to assert that these portrayals have no effect at all. Many studies have documented the time children spend in front of the television. The Washington Post of June 23,1996 reports, “In a 1994 survey, nearly one of two black fourth graders said they watched six hours or more of television daily, according to the National Center of Education Statistics, the research arm of the U.S. Department of Education. That’s more than three times the rate at which their white classmates reported spending that many hours in front of the television. It is nearly double the 27 percent of Hispanic forth-graders who said they watch at least six hours a day . . .


iii. Poll: Racial views steer some white Democrats away from Obama WASHINGTON (AP) — Deep-seated racial misgivings could cost Barack Obama the White House if the election is close, according to an AP-Yahoo News poll that found one-third of white Democrats harbor negative views toward blacks—many calling them “lazy,” “violent,” responsible for their own troubles. The poll, conducted with Stanford University, suggests that the percentage of voters who may turn away from Obama because of his race could easily be larger than the final difference between the candidates in 2004—about two and one-half percentage points. Certainly, Republican John McCain has his own obstacles: He’s an ally of an unpopular president and would be the nation’s oldest first-term president. But Obama faces this: 40 percent of all white Americans hold at least a partly negative view toward blacks, and that includes many Democrats and independents. More than a third of all white Democrats and independents—voters Obama can’t win the White House without—agreed with at least one negative adjective about blacks, according to the survey, and they are significantly less likely to vote for Obama than those who don’t have such views. Such numbers are a harsh dose of reality in a campaign for the history books. Obama, the first black candidate with a serious shot at the presidency, accepted the Democratic nomination on the 45th anniversary of Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech, a seminal moment for a nation that enshrined slavery in its Constitution. “There are a lot fewer bigots than there were 50 years ago, but that doesn’t mean there’s only a few bigots,” said Stanford political scientist Paul Sniderman who helped analyze the exhaustive survey. The pollsters set out to determine why Obama is locked in a close race with McCain even as the political landscape seems to favor Democrats. President Bush’s unpopularity, the Iraq war and a national sense of economic hard times cut against GOP candidates, as does that fact that Democratic voters outnumber Republicans. The findings suggest that Obama’s problem is close to home—among his fellow Democrats, particularly non-Hispanic white voters. Just seven in 10 people who call themselves Democrats support Obama, compared to the 85 percent of self-identified Republicans who back McCain. The survey also focused on the racial attitudes of independent voters because they are likely to decide the election. Lots of Republicans harbor prejudices, too, but the survey found they weren’t voting against Obama because of his race. Most Republicans wouldn’t vote for any Democrat for president—white, black or brown. Not all whites are prejudiced. Indeed, more whites say good things about blacks than say bad things, the poll shows. And many whites who see blacks in a negative light are still willing or even eager to vote for Obama. On the other side of the racial question, the Illinois Democrat is drawing almost unanimous support from blacks, the poll shows, though that probably wouldn’t be enough to counter the negative effect of some whites’ views. Race is not the biggest factor driving Democrats and independents away from Obama. Doubts about his competency loom even larger, the poll indicates. More than a quarter of all Democrats expressed doubt that Obama can bring


about the change they want, and they are likely to vote against him because of that. Three in 10 of those Democrats who don’t trust Obama’s change-making credentials say they plan to vote for McCain. Still, the effects of whites’ racial views are apparent in the polling. Statistical models derived from the poll suggest that Obama’s support would be as much as 6 percentage points higher if there were no white racial prejudice. But in an election without precedent, it’s hard to know if such models take into account all the possible factors at play. The AP-Yahoo News poll used the unique methodology of Knowledge Networks, a Menlo Park, Calif., firm that interviews people online after randomly selecting and screening them over telephone. Numerous studies have shown that people are more likely to report embarrassing behavior and unpopular opinions when answering questions on a computer rather than talking to a stranger. Other techniques used in the poll included recording people’s responses to black or white faces flashed on a computer screen, asking participants to rate how well certain adjectives apply to blacks, measuring whether people believe blacks’ troubles are their own fault, and simply asking people how much they like or dislike blacks. “We still don’t like black people,” said John Clouse, 57, reflecting the sentiments of his pals gathered at a coffee shop in Somerset, Ohio. Given a choice of several positive and negative adjectives that might describe blacks, 20 percent of all whites said the word “violent” strongly applied. Among other words, 22 percent agreed with “boastful,” 29 percent “complaining,” 13 percent “lazy” and 11 percent “irresponsible.” When asked about positive adjectives, whites were more likely to stay on the fence than give a strongly positive assessment. Among white Democrats, one third cited a negative adjective and, of those, 58 percent said they planned to back Obama. The poll sought to measure latent prejudices among whites by asking about factors contributing to the state of black America. One finding: More than a quarter of white Democrats agree, “If blacks would only try harder, they could be just as well off as whites.” Those who agreed with that statement were much less likely to back Obama than those who didn’t. Among white independents, racial stereotyping is not uncommon. For example, while about 20 percent of independent voters called blacks “intelligent” or “smart,” more than one third latched on the adjective “complaining” and 24 percent said blacks were “violent.” Nearly four in 10 white independents agreed that blacks would be better off if they “try harder.” The survey broke ground by incorporating images of black and white faces to measure implicit racial attitudes, or prejudices that are so deeply rooted that people may not realize they have them. That test suggested the incidence of racial prejudice is even higher, with more than half of whites revealing more negative feelings toward blacks than whites.


In the beginning, there was an Uncle Tom.


A former mechanic photographed him in a motion picture that ran no longer than twelve minutes. And a new dimension was added to American movies. The year was 1903. The mechanic-turned-movie-director was Edwin S. Porter. The twelve-minute motion picture was Uncle Tom’s Cabin. And the new dimension was Uncle Tom Himself. He was the American movies’ first black character. The great paradox was that in actuality Tom was not black at all. Instead he was portrayed by a nameless, slightly overweight white actor made up in blackface. But the use of whites in black roles was then a common practice, a tradition carried over from the stage and maintained during the early days of silent films. Still, the first Negro character had arrived in films, and he had done so at a time when the motion-picture industry itself was virtually nonexistent. The movies were without stars or studios or sound. There were no great directors or writers and the community of Hollywood had not yet come into being. After the tom’s debut, there appeared a variety of black presences bearing the fanciful names of the coon, the tragic mulatto, the mammy, and the brutal black buck. All were character types used for the same effect: to entertain by stressing Negro inferiority. Fun was poked at the American Negro by presenting him as either a nitwit or a childlike lackey. None of the types was meant to do great harm, although at various times individual ones did. All were merely filmic reproductions of black stereotypes that had existed since the days of slavery and were already popularized in American life and arts. The movies, which catered to public tastes, borrowed profusely from all the other popular art forms. Whenever dealing with black characters, they simply adapted the old familiar stereotypes, often further distorting them. In the early days when all the black characters were still portrayed by white actors in blackface, there was nothing but the old character types. They sat like square boxes on a shelf. A white actor walked by, selected a box, and used it as a base for a very square, rigidly defined performance. Later, when real black actors played the roles and found themselves wedged into these categories, the history became one of actors battling against the types to create rich, stimulating, diverse, characters. At various points the tom, the coon, the tragic mulatto, the mammy, and the brutal black buck were brought to life respectively by Bill “Bojangles” Robinson, Stepin Fetchit, Nina Mae McKinney, Hattie McDaniel, and Walter Long (actually a white actor who portrayed a black villain in The Birth of a Nation), and later by such performers as Sidney Poitier, Sammy Davis, Jr., Dorothy Dandridge, Ethel Waters and Jim Brown. Later such performers as Eddie Murphy, Lonette McKee, Whoopi Goldberg, and Danny Glover also found themselves struggling to turn old stereotypes inside out. Often it seemed as if the mark of the actor was the manner in which he individualized the mythic type or towered above it. They types were to prove deadly for some actors and inconsequential for others. But try as any actor may to forget the typecasting, the familiar types have almost always been present in American black movies. The early silent period of motion pictures remains important, not because there were any great black performances—there weren’t—but because the five basic types—the boxes sitting on the shelf—that were to dominate black characters for the next half century were first introduced then.


The Tom Porter’s tom was the first in a long line of socially acceptable Good Negro characters. Always as toms are chased, harassed, hounded, flogged, enslaved, and insulted, they keep the faith, n’er turn against their massas, and remain hearty, submissive, stoic, generous, selfless, and oh-so-very kind. Thus they endear themselves to white audiences and emerge as heroes of sorts. The coon Although tom was to outdistance every other type and dominate American hearth and home, he had serious competition from a group of coons. They appeared in a series of black films presenting the Negro as amusement object and black buffoon. They lacked the single-mindedness of tom. There were the pure coon and two variants of his type: the pickaninny and the uncle remus. The pickaninny was the first of the coon types to make its screen debut. It gave the Negro child actor his place in the black pantheon. Generally, he was a harmless, little screwball creation whose eyes popped, whose hair stood


on end with the least excitement, and whose antics were pleasant and diverting. Thomas Alva Edison proved to be a pioneer in the exploitation and exploration of this type when he presented Ten Pickaninnies in 1904, a forerunner of the Hal Roach Our Gang series. During his camera experiments in 1893, Edison, had photographed some blacks as “interesting side effects.” In Ten Pickaninnies, the side effects moved to the forefront of the action as a group of nameless Negro children romped and ran about while being referred to as snowballs, cherubs, sounds, bad chillun, inky kids, smoky kids, black lambs, cute ebonies, and chubbie ebonies. In due time, the pickaninnies were to be called by other names. In the 1920s and the 1930s, such child actors as Sunshine Sammy, Farina, Stymie, and Buckwheat picked up the pickaninny mantle and carried it to new summits. In all the versions of Uncle Tom’s Cabin, the slave child Topsy was presented as a lively pickaninny, used solely for comic relief. When the 1927 version of Uncle Tom’s Cabin opened, the character was singled out by one critic who wrote: “Topsy is played by Mona Ray, a wonderfully bright youngster who seems to have the comedy part of her in extraordinary fashion... her eyes roll back and forth in alarm. She also evinces no liking for her plight when she is found by Miss Ophelia while dabbing powder on her ebony countenance.” In her day, the

character Topsy was clownish and droll and became such a film favorite that she starred in Topsy and Eva (1927), in which her far-fetched meanderings and her pickaninnying won mass audience approval. Shortly after Edison introduced the pickaninny in 1904, the pure coon mad its way onto the screen in Wooing and Wedding of a Coon (1905). This short depicted a honeymooning back couple as stumbling and stuttering idiots. Later the coon appeared in The Masher (1907), which was about a self-styled white ladies’ man who is rebuffed by all the women he pursues. When he meets a mysterious veiled woman who responds to his passes, the hero thinks he has arrived at his blue heaven. And so finding success, he removes the veil only to discover that his mystery lady is colored! Without much further ado, he takes off. He may have bee looking for a blue heaven, but certainly did not want a black one. Before its death, the coon developed into the most blatantly degrading of all black stereotypes. The pure coons emerged as no-account niggers, those unreliable, crazy lazy, subhuman creatures good for nothing more than eating watermelons stealing chickens, shooting


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