The Movies. We’ve all sat entranced by them throughout the 20th century and into the new millennium, engrossed in those flicking images, dazzled by the glittering parade of great stars and filmmakers that transported us to other places, to other historical periods, to other cultures. And today when we cannot journey to our favorite theater, we sit just as entranced in front of our flat-screen TV sets, absorbed in the films that we watch streamed for us whenever we choose. But much as the movies and later TV have been potent cultural signs and symbols, for African Americans and other minority groups, the movies have always been a tricky business. On the one hand, we’ve enjoyed the entertainment. But on the other hand, we’ve always known that the movies often distorted history and cultures; that the movies have frequently reduced African-American characters and situations to base stereotypes and distorted, demeaning portrayals.
Black images in American movies stretch back to the earliest years of the 20th century. Short crude films like “Rastus and Chicken,” “Ten Pickaninnies” and “The Wooing and Wedding of a Coon” say it all — with their titles alone. A series of cartoonish characters stumbled and bumbled their way across screen. Even in those early years when director Edwin S. Porter’s 12-minute 1903 version of “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” attempted to show some semblance of the cruelty of slavery, Uncle Tom was turned into a simplified, self-sacrificial mawkish dolt, devoted to one of his slave masters, and played by a white actor (the director of the film) in blackface.
The movies did not create the stereotypes that proliferated in early American cinema. These images had been in American popular culture — in popular songs, popular theater, popular literature — long before the movies were even thought of, dating back to the 19th century minstrel shows when white males went in blackface and parodied the language, the movements, the humor, the music, the attitudes of African Americans. But the movies were able to reach larger audiences and bring the stereotypes to startling life.
That was clearly the case when the portrayal of African Americans veered in a shocking new direction with the release in 1915 of D.W. Griffith’s “The Birth of a Nation.” Born in Kentucky and raised on stories of the Old South, Griffith set out to show — in an epic that ran nearly three hours — the “terrors” of the Civil War and the Reconstruction era from a Southerner’s point of view. He depicted an idealized vision of the slave era as master and the enslaved are content with their designated racial places in society; then followed through with the invasion of ruthless Union troops in the South during the war; and then the supposed chaos of the Reconstruction era as Blacks overtake a small Southern community. The renegade Black men stop the whites from voting. When Black men set up their own congressional legislature, they are shown to be unprepared to govern. One man removes his shoes. Another sips from a bottle of alcohol. Another eats chicken. In the mainstream imagination, the worst actions occurred when Black men set off in lascivious pursuit of white women. One young white woman throws herself off a cliff rather than be defiled by a would-be Black rapist. Another fragile young white woman finds herself almost forced into a marriage with a Black man. Finally, order is restored to the community by a group of stalwart, “noble” white men who wear robes and hoods as they defeat the renegade Blacks. It is the “triumphant” ride of the Ku Klux Klan.
D.W. Griffith tapped into white American fears of Black male power as the film uncovered the ties between sex and racism. At the same time, the film fully articulated the pervasive Black stereotypes that were to run throughout American films in much of the 20th century: the docile faithful servants; the powerful loyal mammy; the clownish coons; the tormented mulatto; the terrifying Black brutes and bucks. Black actors were cast in small roles, but the major Black characters were again played by whites in blackface, leading to characterizations all the more grotesque.
“The Birth of a Nation” was praised as a technical masterpiece. Griffith introduced or mastered the language of cinema: the imaginative use of the close-up and the iris; expressive lighting and editing; the dazzling display of exciting cross-cutting. A huge moneymaker, it was the first of the movie blockbusters. But “The Birth of a Nation” also was said to have led to new memberships in the Ku Klux Klan. Aware of the power of the filmic image and the power of film as propaganda, the NAACP and liberal groups protested against the film. Those protests continued in the years ahead when “The Birth of a Nation” was re-released. No film in cinema history has been as blatantly racist.
Following “The Birth of a Nation,” the Hollywood studios grew in power and influence. They created a vast distribution system, and in time, the studios owned the theaters where their films could be exhibited. A star system soon flourished whereby magnetic talents like Charlie Chaplin, Mary Pickford, Douglas Fairbanks, Greta Garbo and Rudolph Valentino had films created for them with top production values and promotion. Black characters appeared in some films, usually doing comic grinning, bug-eyed bits, then disappearing from the action. Yet though a few African-American actors like Noble Johnson, Madame Sul-Te-Wan and the child star “Sunshine Sammy” Morrison appeared in movies, whites in blackface still played Black roles.
But surprisingly, away from mainstream Hollywood, African-American filmmakers arrived on the scene. Around 1912, Black filmmaker William Foster crafted Black comedy shorts. By 1916, Black actor Noble Johnson became one of the founders of the Lincoln Motion Picture Company — whose films “The Realization of a Negro’s Ambition” and “The Trooper of Company K” saluted Black achievement and adventure.
By 1919, another Black filmmaker appeared, the indefatigable Oscar Micheaux. His first film, “The Homesteader,” was followed in 1920 by “Within Our Gates,” a searing drama that told the story “The Birth of a Nation” had suppressed. Micheaux’s complex film tackled an array of themes, including tensions and conflicts within the Black community and the heroic struggle for education and advancement. But mostly it focused on the racism that destroyed African-American lives. In one startling sequence, a Black family was pursued by a white Southern mob and ultimately lynched. In another sequence, an older white man sets out to rape a young Black woman. At one point when he rips open her blouse, he is stunned to see a birthmark on her chest, which identifies her as his own daughter from a union he had years before with a Black woman. Powerful and illuminating, “Within Our Gates” was struck by problems with censors in Chicago — and ultimately vanished from sight for decades until it was rediscovered in the 1970s. But Micheaux went on the make 41 films into the late 1940s.
Other production companies turned out Black-cast films — which came to be known as race movies — geared specifically to African-American audiences. Some of the companies were white-owned; others Black-run. But the problems for the early independent filmmakers were the same as those confronting independents today: financing the films, publicizing and distributing the films, and finding theaters where they could be exhibited.
Though Black moviegoers saw some of the race movies that often were promoted in the Black press, Hollywood films — and their Black images — dominated the entertainment scene. There didn’t seem to be much of a place for real African-American performers in Hollywood — not until, that is, the arrival of a technological development that marked a new period of movie making. In 1927, Warner Bros released “The Jazz Singer,” in which popular vaudeville entertainer Al Jolson at one point darkened himself by smearing burnt cork onto his face and appeared on stage singing “Mammy.” Movie audiences went wild as they actually could hear Jolson’s voice. Now sound had come to the movies, ironically by way of an ersatz Black man.
The sound era — which demanded a new kind of energy, a new brand of pizzazz, a new style of acting,; a new level of realism — opened the door for real African-American performers. In 1929, two Hollywood studios released two major Black-cast movies: Paul Sloane’s “Hearts in Dixie” and King Vidor’s “Hallelujah.” “Voices can be found which will register perfectly,” said critic Robert Benchley, who indicated that the Negro voice recorded better than the white voice. “It may be that talking-movies must be participated in exclusively by Negroes but if so, then so be it. In the Negro the sound-picture has found its ideal protagonist.”
In the next decade — the age of the nation’s economically devastated Great Depression — a lineup of African-American performers found work in mainstream movies and became household names: Stepin Fetchit, Bill “Bojangles” Robinson, Hattie McDaniel, Paul Robeson, Butterfly McQueen, Willie Best, Louise Beavers and Eddie “Rochester” Anderson. But the actors found themselves straddled with rigidly stereotyped roles that demeaned and distorted African-American life and culture. Cast usually as servants, their dialogue was often an embarrassing dim-witted illiterate dialect. Their antics and shenanigans were used for comic relief. The actors themselves, however, were often supremely talented, making the most of their material, and sometimes sending out covert messages of anger and self-assertion. But for many it was a losing battle. And Black America was primarily portrayed as Laughing America without a care in the world.
Only one Hollywood film of the Depression era presented compelling Black dramatic characters and touched on the theme of American racism: the 1934 version of “Imitation of Life.” Here was the story of two single mothers — one Black (Louise Beavers), the other white (Claudette Colbert) — each with a young daughter, who meet by chance. In the midst of hard financial times, the women decide to live together; the white woman will go out each day and work; the Black woman will remain at home and tend to the children. Their lives are transformed by a pancake recipe passed down to the Black woman in her family. Eventually, the white woman markets a pancake mix based on the recipe. It becomes a national success, reaping in a fortune. At one point, the white woman offers the Black woman a 20% interest in the company. Of course, this seems very kind of the white woman, especially because without the Black woman there would have been no company. But the script — ignoring the exploitation of the Black woman — has the Black character say that she doesn’t want any money, nor a home of her own. What she wants most is to remain in the white woman’s home and take care of the family.
Heartache comes to the Black woman, however, when her light-skinned daughter Peola (played by Black actress Fredi Washington) rejects her mother — and her mother’s submissiveness — and asserts herself by crossing the color line and passing for white in order to have opportunities that otherwise will be denied her. In some respects, the Black characters were traditional movie stereotypes — the large fulsome mother depicted as a nurturing mammy; the daughter as a tragic mulatto. But actresses Beavers and Washington brought another dimension to their characters and the film. Without fully examining the subject matter, “Imitation of Life” indicated that indeed a race problem existed in America and among other things it was tearing the Black family apart. A subtext of “Imitation of Life” also suggested that in a decadent racist capitalistic system, a price tag was placed on everything, including skin color. The movie climaxed with the return of the tearful repentant daughter for the funeral of the heart-broken Black mother.
“Imitation of Life” drew throngs of Black and white patrons into movie theaters. It struck a nerve cord in the African-American community. Discussions and debates flared up about the film’s significance — in churches, in beauty salons, in gatherings, according to actress Fredi Washington, and certainly in the Negro press. The Philadelphia Tribune’s publisher, E. Washington Rhodes, wrote that “Imitation of Life” had failed “to make it clear that the colored girl’s anguish of spirit was not due to any desire to be white and associated with white people because she was ashamed of her race, but rather because she observed from her earliest youth that white folk had most of the opportunity to get ahead.” Twenty-five years later, “Imitation of Life” was remade. But the light-skinned daughter was not played by a Black actress, and the pancake recipe was dropped.
Despite the success of “Imitation of Life,” Hollywood soon reverted to familiar depictions. In the Civil War drama “The Littlest Rebel,” Bill “Bojangles” Robinson could be seen happily tap dancing with Shirley Temple, who seems to have more sense than he does. When asked by little Shirley about the war, Bojangles’ character doesn’t seem to understand what the Civil War is all about — and that his very fate is at stake.
Much of the same point of view enveloped the most popular film in Hollywood history, David O. Selnick’s “Gone with the Wind” in 1939. In this Civil War epic, audiences followed the exploits of Southern belle Scarlett O’Hara and the dashing Rhett Butler. The movie prided itself on presenting an antebellum culture of beauty and grace. Yet at every turn, it denied the fact that Southern wealth and culture were built on the backs of enslaved people’s labor. Throughout the Black characters were made docile and supportive of the system that enslaved them. The one Black character of any force and agency was Mammy (yes, that’s the character’s name; she’s identified in no other way), played by Hattie McDaniel. Though Mammy supports the values of the Confederacy, McDaniel herself is a force to reckon with. She has a hostile edge, often angry and boldly speaking her mind. So strong a screen presence was McDaniel that one asks questions about Mammy: Where does she go when she leaves Miz Scarlett’s side? Does she retire at day’s end to slave quarters? Does Mammy have a family of her own? The movie, of course, can never answer or even posit such questions. If there was a saving grace for “Gone with the Wind,” it was mostly Hattie McDaniel. Her scenes with Vivien Leigh’s Scarlett are engrossing — and say something about such actual relationships of that era. McDaniel’s Mammy sees through Scarlett, and Scarlett knows it. McDaniel became the first African American to receive the film industry’s golden prize, the Academy Award as Best Supporting Actress of 1939. It was an award well-deserved.
During the years of World War II, pressure was exerted on Hollywood. With the call of the Negro Press for Victory abroad and Victory at home, Walter White — the executive secretary of the NAACP — went to Hollywood in the early 1940s in an effort to persuade movie executives to alter images of African Americans. White took special interest in the career of a new star, singer Lena Horne, who signed a contract with MGM, the most powerful of the movie studios. White did not want to see Horne turned into a giggling movie maid. MGM devised a unique way of handling Horne. Usually, Horne performed in musical numbers of films that starred whites. She’d sing a song or two, then disappear. Horne’s scenes could be cut if white audiences objected to seeing her. The exceptions came in 1943 when Horne appeared in two all-star, all-Black musicals, “Cabin in the Sky” and “Stormy Weather,” with such legendary entertainers as Ethel Waters, Eddie “Rochester” Anderson, Duke Ellington, Fats Waller, Bill “Bojangles” Robinson, Cab Calloway, Katherine Dunham and her dance company, and most spectacularly the Nicholas Brothers. Vastly entertaining, the films are now classic cultural documents. But they hardly offered new adult portrayals of African Americans.
A significant change occurred after the war when Black G.I.s — after having fought for the freedom of others abroad — returned home aware that they were denied basic rights in their own country. In 1949, Hollywood tapped into the idea of Black dissent within a racist system with four Problem Pictures that put the race theme front and center: “Home of the Brave” (examining racism in the American military); “Lost Boundaries” (racism in a small New England community); “Pinky” and “Intruder in the Dust” (both of which examined racism in the South). Though the films were not free of compromises, “they are all worth seeing, and if seen, capable of involving us emotionally. That they do is testimony to the deep centers of American emotion that they touch,” wrote Ralph Ellison in his essay “The Shadow and the Act.”
Each spoke in a new way to audiences and led the way in the Eisenhower ‘50s during the rise of the Civil Rights Movement to bolder characterizations with the emergence of such stars as Dorothy Dandridge and Sidney Poitier. Dandridge had a historic Oscar nomination as Best Actress of 1954 for her performance in “Carmen Jones.” Supported by Black media, her face graced the covers of such publications as Ebony, Jet, Sepia, Our World, Hue and Tan — and eventually Life magazine. But Hollywood still had no place for a Black goddess. Ultimately, a frustrated and emotionally frayed Dandridge was found dead in 1965 from an overdose of medication prescribed by her doctor.
Faring better was Sidney Poitier — one of American cinema’s most powerful actors — who ushered in strong, confident Black characters in such movies as “Blackboard Jungle,” “Edge of the City,” “The Defiant Ones” and “In the Heat of the Night.” But while Poitier broke the mold of one stereotype — the familiar lazy, bumbling, inarticulate Black man — he may have given birth to another: the Good Negro who often comes to the aid of white characters in distress. In “The Defiant Ones,” Poitier’s hero sacrifices his freedom — by jumping off a train — to help a white friend played by Tony Curtis. In “A Patch of Blue,” he leads a young confused blind white woman to maturity. In his Oscar performance in “Lilies of the Field” in 1963 — the first winner of the Best Actor Academy Award — he helps build a chapel for a group of displaced white nuns in Arizona. In all his films, Poitier’s dramatic talent was on full display and a wonder to behold. But Black moviegoers often yearned to see him in films in which he was part of an African-American community as in “A Raisin in the Sun.” Sometimes it looked as if his movies feared Black male assertion and sexuality. In “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner” — that soppy tale of supposed interracial love — Poitier’s character didn’t even have a full-fledged passionate romantic scene with the young white woman he wants to marry.
Such other African-American actors as Ruby Dee, Harry Belafonte, Eartha Kitt, Pearl Bailey, Sammy Davis Jr., Juanita Moore and Ossie Davis worked in Hollywood, all in attempts to delineate more complicated characters, not only on the big screen but the small screen as well. By the 1950s, television sets were sitting in American homes. From the start when such series as “Beulah” (the story of a Black maid working contentedly for a white family) and the raucous “Amos ‘n’ Andy,” television faced the same dilemma as the movies. Though once again Black audiences were eager for some form of representation on the home screen, and as before, fiercely talented actors such as Ethel Waters, Dooley Wilson, Tim Moore, Spencer Williams and Alvin Childress turned in very funny performances — the new medium still was dominated by non-threatening stereotypes which would proliferate into the 1970s and afterward.
In the 1970s, after the racial turmoil and political unrest of the 1960s, a new genre emerged: Blaxploitation films with tough, forceful, often hyper-sexual, hyper-violent heroes — “Shaft,” “Sweetback,” “Super Fly” — out to right past wrongs. Appealing to the young (primarily young Black males), the films celebrated Black resistance, dissent and self-empowerment but also marginalized and objectified their female characters and employed stereotypes once again, notably the familiar buck heroes but with a significant alteration: such heroes were now politicized. Some memorable films — and performances — reached audiences, however: the Black family drama “Sounder,” starring Cicely Tyson, Paul Winfield and Kevin Hooks with a script co-written by Lonne Elder III; the enduringly romantic “Lady Sings the Blues,” starring Diana Ross, Billy Dee Williams and Richard Pryor; the affecting “Claudine,” starring Diahann Carroll as a single working-class mother; and “Sparkle,” about a trio of singers off on the bumpy and disillusioning road to success and tragedy, featuring Lonette McKee, Irene Cara, Mary Alice and Dorian Harewood. African-American filmmakers such as Melvin Van Peebles, Gordon Parks Sr., Gordon Parks Jr., Stan Lathan, Michael Schultz, Ivan Dixon and Hugh Robertson also came to the fore.
If the 1970s (into the 1980s) tell us anything, it is of the effort of African-American filmmakers and new era stars to overturn past movie history and to make themselves heard with narratives and characters that Hollywood chose to ignore. The films also took to the streets, revealing urban communities in distress and injecting American cinema with a significant new-style social realism. Those films led the way for the arrival of such independent filmmakers as Charles Burnett with “Killer of Sheep” and in the 1980s the young Spike Lee with “She’s Gotta Have It” and “Do the Right Thing.” By the 1990s, John Singleton’s powerful “Boyz N the Hood” made the film industry take note in a new way: Singleton became the first African-American (and the youngest candidate) to be Oscar-nominated for direction and screenplay. And stars such as Denzel Washington, Eddie Murphy, Angela Bassett, Laurence Fishburne, Whoopi Goldberg, Samuel L. Jackson, Halle Berry and Will Smith proved to be extremely popular with audiences Black and white.
But despite such advances, Hollywood remained a white-male dominated system during the new millennium, and mainstream movies often continued to distort Black experiences, all the more so in “entertaining” movies such as “The Blind Side,” “The Help” and the Oscar-winning “Green Book.” Still, during the Obama years, significant signs appeared of an emerging new order in Hollywood in battle with the old concepts and the old images. Black filmmakers Steve McQueen, Barry Jenkins, Jordan Peele, Ava DuVernay and Kasi Lemmons won critical acclaim and commercial success for such films as “12 Years A Slave,” “Moonlight,” “Get Out,” “Selma” and “Harriet”; Tyler Perry created the largest movie studio in the country; and Ryan Coogler altered world cinema with “Black Panther” starring Chadwick Boseman. In the best sense, “Black Panther” was old-style rousing pop entertainment but also a brand of Afro-futuristic revolutionary cinema that shattered a longstanding myth that Black films and a genuine Black hero did not appeal to audiences outside the United States. Instead, “Black Panther” was a worldwide box-office sensation, earning unprecedented profits (as of now) of some $1.23 billion. Today it remains hard to understand if the current phase of Black moviemaking is a trend. But filmmakers are battling against the traditional odds, and Black audiences are eager for the new day to take full bloom.