A History of THE REPRESENTATION OF BLACKNESS, RACE AND ETHNICITY IN AMERICAN FILM Who Was Jim Crow?
1830 Theatre Origins In early 1830s theatre Thomas Dartmouth Rice created the antebellum (pre American Civil War) character Jim Crow. "Daddy Rice" was a white actor who performed, in blackface, a song-and-dance whose exaggerations popularized racially demeaning minstrel shows. The name "Jim Crow" came to denote segregation in the 19th century when Southern and Border states passed "Jim Crow laws," legitimizing a racial caste system.
Performing in blackface was a theatrical convention used by many entertainers at the beginning of the 20th century, having its origin in the minstrel show. Al Jolson was the most famous performer to use blackface and thus is sometimes used as an example of whites propagating racial stereotypes in film. However, Jolson's blackface characters were always the star performers, as opposed to simple minstrel singers.
For a long time in theatrical history, black people were represented by white people in make up (this was called Blackface).
Early Black Film History: The Early Years: Film 1890 When Thomas Edison was shooting his actualities in the 1890’s (footage of unedited real events) little did he know that his film of black women bathing their kids in Jamaica or the return of the African American cavalry division from the Spanish American War, would be the first and last for a long time on film of the nonstereotyped black image. During the early 1900’s when editing was introduced, the black image became what white directors wanted it to be. In most cases, whites’ played black folks in blackface. The first black film company was formed by William Foster out of Chicago. From 1909 – 1913 William Foster produced the first all black cast film shorts, i.e. The Pullman Porter 1910 & The Railroad Porter 1912. But, because of distribution problems he eventually folded the operation. In 1915, D.W. Griffith's, "Birth of a Nation" was produced. Even though, there were no black stars in the film, it can be considered to have been the kick that started Black film again in America. The Birth of a Nation took stereotypes to a new level; it would show the world ‘what coloureds were really like’. It showed crazed, ex-slaves running wild, raping and killing their good masters, the coloured government leaders in session with their bare feet in chairs, eating chicken and acting like buffoons. The entire movie was an advertisement for the Klu Klux Klan, especially when they rode in and saved the whites from the brutal coloureds at the end.
Still from Birth of a Nation D.W.Griffiths 1915
The first American feature was Oliver Twist (1912)
The Teens - 1916 In response to Birth of a Nation, the Black community was up in arms and decided to counteract this horrid film by producing an all-coloured cast, or Race film, (films especially made for the black audience) to show the world the real truth. In 1916 The Lincoln Motion Picture Company, produced one of the first positive images of black race in a feature film entitled, "The Realization of a Negro's Ambition."
The Boom Years - Twenties The boom years of the twenties saw scores of Black-owned and operated film studios operating out of Philadelphia , New York, Chicago, Los Angeles and Kansas City. They were producing screen versions of Black novels, parodies of Hollywood movies, and melodramas
with a positive, uplifting theme or the tragic consequences of passing for white. These films were shown in black owned theatres, schools, churches and at special midnight shows in white theatres. During the 20’s over 30% of the film companies and movie theatres making and showing race films were black owned. This is the greatest percentage ever for blacks in film. These boom years were short lived. With the advent of the Great Depression and the new expensive film technology of sound, many of the Black independent film companies went bankrupt and disappeared.
The Thirties After 1930 black revues waned in popularity, but Bill Robinson (Bojangles) remained in vogue with white audiences for more than a decade in some fourteen motion pictures produced by such companies as RKO, 20th Century Fox and Paramount Pictures. Most of them had musical settings, in which he played old-fashioned roles in nostalgic romances. His most frequent role was that of an antebellum butler. Rarely did he depart from the stereotype imposed by Hollywood writers.
Willie Best was praised for his acting ability and comedic timing and regulalrly played a half witted butler. (1930s-40s) There was a time when black actors in Hollywood actually had names like G. Howe Black and Stephin Fectchit. Especially prior to the 1960’s it would hard to point to a black actor who ever had a significant role in any motion picture. Among the actors who possessed genuine talent but never had the chance to show was Willie Best, who was billed under one of the most denigrating of all names in movie history. As unbelievable as it may sound he was cast for many years simply as Sleep ‘n Eat.
While a talented actor and comedian, as well as musician and song writer, Best is sadly remembered for his myriad portrayals as lazy, simple minded and cowardly porters, servants and janitors. The lazily drawled line “yussuh”, expressed with drooped mouth and half-awake eyes, can be traced back to many of Best’s characters. They are not necessarily by any stretch the roles Best would have wanted to portray, but as he stoically confessed in a 1934 interview, “I often think about these roles I have to play. Most of them are pretty broad. Sometimes I tell the director and he cuts out the real bad parts… But what’s an actor going to do? Either you do it or get out.”
The Mid-Thirties began another boom in the Race film era. This time 99% of the film companies that produced Race films were white owned. The focus of Race films changed. They were now mainly parodies of Hollywood movies (gangsters, westerns, love, science fiction, comedies, etc.) unlike the early period where they focused on themes relative to the Black community. They were still low budget, but now the plots were "if blacks lived in a black world". Black gangsters ran Black cities, Black cowboys tamed a Black West, it was an escape to fantasy world.
The Stars Many Black Hollywood stars got their start in race films, Mantan Moreland starred in over 20 race films such as the first all black cast western Harlem on the Prairie. Many stars due to the lack of work in Hollywood counted on race films for a living. In the early Forties, Hollywood tried its hand again at race films, by producing Cabin In the Sky and Stormy Weather, but the characters were still stereotypical.
Forties - WWII â€“ & late 40s
World War II was the beginning of the end for race films. The government, on one hand, in an effort to recruit more Blacks for the service, produced several all-black-cast propaganda films. One film, the Negro Soldier showed the army to be perfect, with ideal conditions for the black recruits. On the other hand, the government took control of all film stock (one reason being the importance of the chemicals used to make film) and rationed it out to only Hollywood, thus giving the independent filmmaker another nail for its coffin. By this time filmmaking had become very expensive and race films fell the victim. After the war, race films changed again. The focus shifted to almost all musicals. Most films became one musical act after another, like Cab Calloway's, Hi-De-Ho or Louis Jordan's Look Out, Sister, and Caldonia. As the Fifties approached and because of outside pressures and changed attitudes after WW II, Hollywood decided to start making films with Blacks, not as servants or slaves but as the protagonist, as in the problem films of 1949 like Lost Boundaries, Intruder in the Dust, Home of the Brave and Pinky.
The - The End
During the Fifties, Hollywood produced the all-coloured-cast films , Carmen Jones, Porgy and Bess, Anna Lucasta, and St. Louis Blues. Some films came directly from the stage of the Apollo Theatre in New York, like "Rock and Roll Review" and "Rhythm and Blues Review". The race films of the 20's, 30's and 40's played an essential role in the Black Community, serving as a source of pride, entertainment, and employment. Race films ended when Hollywood finally began to put blacks in movies in a more positive and true light. Blacks just wanted to see sensible blacks on the big screen. The need for race films diminished when blacks began going to the Hollywood produced movies to see other African Americans on the screen
Mammy is the most well known and enduring racial caricature of African American
From slavery through the Jim Crow era, the mammy image served the political, social, and economic interests of mainstream white America. During slavery, the mammy caricature was posited as proof that blacks -- in this case, black women -- were contented, even happy, as slaves. Her wide grin, hearty laugher, and loyal servitude were offered as evidence of the supposed humanity of the institution of slavery. This was the mammy caricature, and, like all caricatures, it contained a little truth surrounded by a larger lie. The caricature portrayed an obese, coarse, maternal figure. She had great love for her white "family," but often treated her own family with disdain. Although she had children, sometimes many, she was completely desexualized. She "belonged" to the white family, though it was rarely stated. She was a faithful worker. She had no black friends; the white family was her entire world. Obviously, the mammy caricature was more myth than accurate portrayal. Catherine Clinton, a historian, claimed that real antebellum mammies were rare: The Mammy was created by white Southerners to redeem the relationship between black women and white men within slave society in response to the antislavery attack from the North during the ante-bellum period. In the primary records from before the Civil War, hard evidence for its existence simply does not appear.1
According to Patricia Turner, Professor of African American and African Studies, before the Civil War only very wealthy whites could afford the luxury of "utilizing the (black) women as house servants rather than as field hands." 2 Moreover, Turner claims that house servants were usually mixed raced, skinny (blacks were not given much food), and young (fewer than 10 percent of black women lived beyond fifty years). 3 Why were the fictional mammies so different from their real-life counterparts? The answer lies squarely within the complex sexual relations between blacks and whites. One of the many brutal aspects of slavery was that slave owners sexually exploited their female slaves, especially light-skinned ones who approximated the mainstream definition of female sexual attractiveness. The mammy caricature was deliberately constructed to suggest ugliness. Mammy was portrayed as dark-skinned, often pitch black, in a society that regarded black skin as ugly, tainted. She was obese, sometimes morbidly overweight. Moreover, she was often portrayed as old, or at least middle-aged. The attempt was to desexualize mammy. The implicit assumption was this: No reasonable white man would choose a fat, elderly black woman instead of the idealized white woman. The black mammy was portrayed as lacking all sexual and sensual qualities. The de-eroticism of mammy meant that the white wife -- and by extension, the white family was safe. The sexual exploitation of black women by white men was unfortunately common during the antebellum period, and this was true irrespective of the economic relationship involved; in other words, black women were sexually exploited by rich whites, middle class whites, and poor whites. Sexual relations between blacks and whites -- whether consensual or rapes -- were taboo; yet they occurred often. All black women and girls, regardless of their physical appearances, were vulnerable to being sexually assaulted by white men. The mammy caricature tells many lies; in this case, the lie is that white men did not find black women sexually desirable.
The mammy caricature implied that black women were only fit to be domestic workers; thus, the stereotype became a rationalization for economic discrimination. During the Jim Crow period, approximately 1877 to 1966, America's race-based, race-segregated job economy limited most blacks to menial, low paying, low status jobs. Black women found themselves forced into one job category, house servant. Jo Ann Gibson Robinson, a biographer of the Civil Rights Movement, described the limited opportunities for black women in the 1950s: Jobs for clerks in dimestores, cashiers in markets, and telephone operators were numerous, but were not open to black women. A fifty-dollar-a-week worker could employ a black domestic to clean her home, cook the food, wash and iron clothes, and nurse the baby for as little as twenty dollars per week. During slavery only the very wealthy could afford to hire black women as "house servants," but during Jim Crow even middle class white women could hire black domestic workers. These black women were not mammies. Mammy was "black, fat with huge breasts, and head covered with a kerchief to hide her nappy hair, strong, kind, loyal, sexless, religious and superstitious."5 She spoke bastardized English; she did not care about her appearance. She was politically safe. She was culturally safe. She was, of course, a figment of a white imagination, a nostalgic yearning for a reality that never had been. The real-life black domestics of the Jim Crow era were poor women denied other opportunities. They performed many of the duties of the fictional mammies, but, unlike the caricature, they were dedicated to their own families, and often resentful of their lowly societal status. Fictional Mammies The slavery-era mammy did not want to be free. She was too busy serving as surrogate mother/grandmother to white families. Mammy was so loyal to her white family that she was often willing to risk her life to defend them. In D. W. Griffith's movie "The Birth of a Nation" (1915) -- based on Thomas Dixon's racist novel The Clansman -- the mammy defends her white master's home against black and white Union soldiers. The message was clear: Mammy would rather fight than be free. In the famous movie "Gone With The Wind" (1939), the black mammy also fights black soldiers whom she believes to be a threat to the white mistress of the house. The standard for mammy depictions was offered by Harriet Beecher Stowe's 1852 book, Uncle Tom's Cabin. The book's mammy, Aunt Chloe, is described in this way:
A round, black, shiny face is hers, so glossy as to suggest the idea that she might have been washed over with the whites of eggs, like one of her own tea rusks. Her whole plump countenance beams with satisfaction and contentment.
During the first half of the 1900s, while black Americans were demanding political, social, and economic advancement, Mammy was increasingly popular in the field of entertainment. The first talking movie was 1927's "The Jazz Singer" with Al Jolson in blackface singing, "Mammy." In 1934 the movie "Imitation of Life" told the story of a black maid, Aunt Delilah (played by Louise Beavers) who inherited a pancake recipe. Aunt Chloe was nurturing and protective of "her" white family, but less caring toward her own children. She is the prototypical fictional mammy: self-sacrificing, white-identified, fat, asexual, good-humoured, a loyal cook, housekeeper and quasi-family member. This movie mammy gave the valuable "You'll have your own car. Your own house," Miss Beaher tells AuntMiss Delilah. recipe to Miss Bea, boss. Bea Mammy is frightened. "My own house? You gonna send me away, Miss successfully marketed the recipe. She Bea? I can't live with you? Oh, offered Honey Aunt Chile, please don't percent send me Delilah a twenty away." Aunt Delilah, though she had lived her entire life in poverty, interest in the pancake company. does not want her own house. "How I gonna take care of you and Miss Jessie (Miss Bea's daughter) if I ain't here... I'se your cook. And I want to stay your cook." Regarding the pancake recipe, Aunt Delilah said, "I gives it to you, Honey. I makes you a present of it." 7 Aunt Delilah worked to keep the white family stable, but her own family disintegrated -- her self-hating daughter rejected her, then ran away from home to "pass for white." Near the movie's conclusion, Aunt Delilah dies "of a broken heart."
Blaxploitation Film In 1965 the young black actor Sidney Poitier starred alongside Anne Bancroft in a thriller called 'The Slender Thread'. Poitier went on to star in the racially-charged 'Guess who's coming to dinner?' in which he played white middle-class Katherine Houghton's boyfriend to the mixed reactions of her friends and relatives. 'In the heat of the night' saw Poitier playing a cop coping with Rod Steiger's racist redneck sheriff. These films showed Poitier in a presentable, middle-class light, tolerated rather than accepted by the white society in which he found himself. Although Poitier's films, mainstream Hollywood creations at best, suggested
BLACK PANTHER PARTY FOR SELF-DEFENSE, American black revolutionary party founded in 1966, California. The party's original purpose was to patrol black ghettoes to protect residents from acts of police brutality. The Panthers eventually developed into a Marxist revolutionary group that called for the arming of all blacks, the exemption of blacks from the draft and from all sanctions of so-called white America, the release of all blacks from jail, and the payment of compensation to blacks for centuries of exploitation by white Americans. At its peak in the late 1960s, Panther membership exceeded 2,000 and the organization operated chapters in several major cities.
that it was possible for blacks to be accepted into white American society, the reality for many was harshly different. Race riots had broken out in cities across the US. The Black Panthers, with a large following in deprived areas of the big cities, were advocating militant action. Regardless of Poitier's positive influence on society through his films, they simply did not reflect life for the black majority at that time. As the 1970's began, following Poitier's lead, Bill Cosby, Flip Wilson and later Richard Pryor started their careers in a mix of comedy and serious drama which happened to include black lead roles. The subject matter reflected the big studios' unease with handling the pressing social issues of the time, but there was a change around the corner. Melvin Van Peebles began to produce a film written for the black audience and quickly discovered that the major studios wouldn't touch it. Called 'Sweet Sweetback's Badaaass Song', it was vicious and uncompromising and deemed inaccessible to whites. Peebles went ahead and produced it anyway, financing it largely himself. Unable to show the film in many cinemas, he persuaded a few black cinemas in Detroit, San Francisco and New York to show it. The response was incredible. People queued in their hundreds to see what was essentially the tale of a promiscuous black antihero as he makes his way towards Mexico to evade the white police. Peebles wrote his own score and enlisted the assistance of a newlyformed group called Earth, Wind and Fire who happened to be friends with one of his production crew. This was the start of a new genre. Now known as 'blaxploitation' films, these films satisfied the demand from inner-city audiences for movies made by, and for, blacks. It should be noted that the term 'blaxploitation' refers to the films' continuation of the trashy 'exploitation' films of the 1960's rather than the film studios 'using' black actors. Almost simultaneously, MGM Studios were shooting the first big-budget Hollywood blaxploitation film, 'Shaft'. The studio had been struggling and badly needed a hit movie to revive its flagging fortunes. In the film, according to MGM's synopsis, a 'black, muscular, fine-looking' private detective called John Shaft (played by Richard Roundtree) comes up against a variety of mobsters, hustlers and kidnappers, proving himself handy both in bed and with a gun. White critics proclaimed that it was a true reflection of life on the streets when it was really nothing more than a slick thriller that just happened to feature black actors. MGM were delighted when 'Shaft' (director, Gordon Parks) went on to win an Oscar. The statuette was awarded to long-time Stax records artist and arranger Isaac Hayes for his 'Theme from Shaft'.
'Superfly' was as violent a movie as you could find. It romanticised the antics of a drug dealer antihero, Priest, played by Ron O'Neal. The films that followed became more formulaic as the seventies progressed. Plot-wise, most of them were either 'private detective takes on the mob' or 'dealer becomes king of the pimps'. Sweet Sweetback's Baadasssss Song â€“ Dir. Melvin Van Peebles, 1971 According to Variety, it demonstrated to Hollywood that films which portrayed "militant" blacks could be highly profitable, leading to the creation of the blaxploitation genre, although the film itself is not commonly considered to be an exploitation film. Shaft - Gordon Parks, 1971 Come Back Charleston Blue - Mark Warren1972 Cool Breeze - 1972 The Harder They Come Perry Henzell - 1972 Superfly Gordon Parks Jr. - 1972 Blacula 1972 Slaughter Jack Starrett, 1972 The Legend of Nigger Charley, Martin Goldman,1972 Hell Up In Harlem Larry Cohen, 1973 Hammer 1973 The Mack 1973 Black Caesar 1973 Larry Cohen
Hell Up In Harlem 1973 Larry Cohen Cleopatra Jones, Jack Starrett 1973 Superfly T.N.T. 1973. Coffy 1973. Samson, 1974 Slaughter's Big Rip-Off 1974. a sequel, Gordon Douglas Cornbread, Earl and Me 1974 Three The Hard Way 1974 Together Brothers 1974 Lialeh - 1974 Foxy Brown 1974. Truck Turner 1974 Willie Dynamite 1974 Gilbert Moses Sheba Baby 1975 Three Tough Guys. 1975 Black Fist 1977
The cinema genre had effectively ended as a creative force in 1978 but 'Short Eyes', 'Let's Do It Again' and 'Sparkle' and 'Youngblood' are still good examples of the genre made in that year.
Did You Know... ... From around 1982 until 2007, African-American actors, directors, producers and executives held a secret ceremony on the night before Oscar night, to celebrate black performers, calling the event, the Black Oscars. Every talent, from the likes of Samuel L. Jackson to Will Smith, participated in this event, which was considered a moment for black Hollywood to honour its own. In 2007, the "Friends of the Black Oscars," the secretive group that sponsored the event, decided that the Black Oscars had finally become obsolete, thanks in large part to the recent increases in the presence of black performers in the race for Oscar
- Halle Berry, Denzel Washington, Forest Whitaker, Eddie Murphy, Jennifer Hudson, Will Smith and Djimon Hounsou, notably.
Pam Grier, a star in the genre
Lisa (Rosalind Cash) in The Omega Man and I Am Legend’s Alice Braga as Anna In 1971 when The Omega Man was released the screenwriters thought including Rosalind Cash as the last woman on earth would ‘add a bit of racial pizzazz’. Blaxploitation was popular at the time and the filmed gained from a wider audience. Lisa is a blaxploitation character crossing genres into the American sci-fi, action-adventure movie. It’s worth considering what stereotypical traits and values did Lisa bring with her from any period in black film history.
Just think Will got paid $20M for Hancock and with the deal he has of getting 20% of the gross he would have made $144M from that movie. Will Smith, is the first to have eight straight movies earn more than $100 million at the box office. What does this suggest about producers and audiences in 2007?
Is history repeating itself? Alice Braga is Hispanic, is black the new white and brown the new black in Holywood?
concept of whiteness (the characteristics that identify an individual or a group as belong to the Caucasian race)
the term WASP stands for White Anglo-Saxon Protestant
Classical Hollywood narrative - term used in film history which designates both a visual and sound style for making motion pictures and a mode of production used in the American film industry between roughly the 1910s and the 1960s. Classical style is fundamentally built on the principle of continuity editing or "invisible" style. That is, the camera and the sound recording should never call attention to themselves (as they might in a modernist or postmodernist work).
Classical Hollywood narrative Encourages all spectators, regardless of their actual colour, to identify with white protagonists.
Stereotypes – simplified set of traits ascribed to a group of people, often demeaning but sometimes based in truth
Tokenism – the inclusion of a person of ethnic origin to deflect criticisms of institutional racism
Antebellum - before or existing before the war, esp. the American Civil War
The American Civil War (1861–1865) was a civil war in the United States of America. Eleven Southern slave states declared their secession from the U.S. and formed the Confederate States of America (the Confederacy). Led by Jefferson Davis, they fought against the U.S. federal government (the Union), which was supported by all the free states and the five border slave states in the north.
Slavery in the United States began soon after English colonists first settled in Virginia in 1607 and lasted as a legal institution until the passage of the Thirteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution in 1865.
Othering refers to the way a dominant culture ascribes an undesirable trait (one shared by all humans) onto one specific group of people.
displacement, in which a person or group sees something about itself that it doesn’t like, and instead of accepting that fault or shortcoming, projects it onto another person or group.
"I don't stand for the black man's side, I don' t stand for the white man's side. I stand for God's side."
-- Bob Marley