By Dr. David Childs, Ph.D.
Northern Kentucky University
Because of the legacy of slavery in the United States and persistent discrimination against African Americans throughout history, popular culture and the entertainment industry has long presented Blacks in a disparaging way. African American roles in film have not been completely rooted in reality, and some critics note that they say more about White pathologies and fears than the complex lived experiences and culture of the Black community. From the inception of motion pictures and television, African Americans have often been depicted in unflattering ways; this includes portraying African Americans as being deviant, violent, dim-witted, or as comic relief for the film. This article reviews the history of African American characters in both film and television.
Historic Stereotypes in Film and Television
The film Ethnic Notions (1987) highlights several popular stereotypes of Black men that have their roots in history, including the Tom, the Sambo, the coon, the brute, the pickaninny, the minstrel, the sexualized Jezebel and the stereotype for Black women as the mammy figure. Hattie McDaniel played the character Mammy, a domestic servant, in the film Gone with the Wind (1939). McDaniel was the first African American to receive an Academy Award, for Best Supporting Actress, for her portrayal of Mammy. This role was instrumental in perpetuating the stereotype of the mammy figure, a servile and docile house slave whose sole existence is to keep her White master happy.
An early 20th-century popular radio and television show titled Amos ’n’ Andy (and later titled The Amos ’n’ Andy Show), which aired from 1925 to 1953, depicted the two main Black characters as lazy, stupid, uneducated imbeciles who unwarily find themselves in various mishaps due to their lack of intelligence, all to the delight of White audiences. The radio actors were actually White males imitating and making fun of African Americans—often deliberately using incorrect English such as the word unlax for relax. These particular portrayals reflect a long-standing history in television and film of portraying African Americans in stereotypical roles.
Contemporary Stereotypes in Film and Television
By the mid- to late-20th century, film and television still drew upon such stereotypes. African Americans continued to be depicted as buffoons, docile, deviant, criminal, dishonest, and violent. Blaxploitation films (i.e., films that exploited African Americans in terms of reinforcing stereotypes and paying low wages) such as Shaft (1971), Mandingo (1972), and Blacula (1972) would define the industry throughout the 1970s. Other films, such as In the Heat of the Night (1967), were exceptions to the racially stereotypical films during this period. In the Heat of the Night portrayed a Black police officer who was asked to investigate a suspicious murder in an extremely racist Southern town. The television show I Spy (1965-1968) offered another rare non-stereotypical portrayal of African Americans. The character Alexander Scott, played by Bill Cosby, was a Rhodes scholar who spoke several languages as a secret agent for the U.S. government. The films and television shows of the 1980s and 1990s would continue the tradition of portraying African American characters using stereotypes.
Filmmaker and producer Keenan Ivory Wayans’s television show In Living Color (1990-1994) was somewhat progressive in that it was a show created and produced by an African American that featured specific content that challenged racial stereotypes and addressed prejudice head on. Furthermore, it gave many Black actors and entertainers a platform on primetime television. However, the show also featured stereotypes, including aggressive scary Black women, African American men portrayed as violent thugs and criminals, and jokes about uneducated Blacks. The overall theme deriving comedy from the assumed backwardness and ignorance in Black culture was reminiscent of Amos ’n’ Andy.
Other shows from the 1990s, such as The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air (1990-1996), continued the tradition of drawing upon Black characters for comic relief. In The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, the lead character Will Smith (played by Will Smith) was portrayed as a class clown who did not do his school work and ladies’ man. His cousin Carlton (played by Alphonso Ribeiro), was highly intelligent and goal oriented. However, Carlton was characterized as uncool, whereas Smith was celebrated. Some television programs, however, began to counter such stereotypical portrayals. The Cosby Show (1984-1992) portrayed a middle-class Black family and its spin-off A Different World (1987-1993) highlighted African Americans in college.
Movies and mini-series of the 1980s and 1990s also continued the same trope, reinforcing negative perceptions of African Americans. A new genre of films that portrayed Black culture with a hyper and edgy realism proved to be appealing to both Black and White audiences. But some films portrayed inner-city neighborhoods unrealistically as places where violence happened nearly every minute and everyone in the neighborhood did not work because they all sold drugs. Films such as Boyz n the Hood (1991) and Menace II Society (1993), in a sort of voyeuristic portrayal of urban life, purport to offer a lesson to the armchair anthropologist (read, middle-class White society) of the inner workings of inner-city Los Angeles. In both films, young men try to escape the violent gang and drug life to no avail.
The mini-series Laurel Avenue (1993) continued the theme of Black violence, crime-infested neighborhoods, and dysfunctional Black families. The show depicts a lower class family struggling against the challenges of inner-city life. One episode highlights an unemployed single mom (a recovering addict) who is trying to stop her son from falling victim to the streets. The show also includes Black characters who do not represent these themes: the single mother’s twin sister who is a successful police officer and on her way to being a sergeant, and a teen family member who is academically successful and working a part-time job. Despite these balancing aspects, the primary plot and theme of the show centers on Black deviance and the show seems to reinforce the stereotype that most Black women are single moms and that young Black men sell drugs.
The film Strapped (1993) has a similar theme. It depicts the underground gun trade as prevalent in the Black community. While many aspects of the film are an authentic depiction of inner-city life, one could walk away from the film with the impression that that is all that goes on in the Black community.
African American Roles in 21st Century Film and Television
Even in 21st century, television and film still portray African Americans with the same caricatures from a century ago, although there are some promising works that paint more varied and complex pictures of Black culture. In some 21st-century films, African American actors play leading roles; such films include The Great Debaters (2007), The Help (2011), Django Unchained (2012), Twelve Years A Slave (2013), and Selma (2014).
The film The Help won a Screen Actors Guild Award for Outstanding Performance by a Cast in a Motion Picture. While the film is about domestic servanthood of Black women throughout the 20th century, it can also be considered a social commentary on the legacy of racism in the United States. Octavia Spencer received the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress for her role of Minny Jackson, an outspoken domestic servant. One could argue that this fit into the role of the stereotypical domesticated, feisty Black woman who is eternally loyal to her White owners, and that African Americans are thus only rewarded for playing subservient roles. Brent Staples pointed out in a 2012 New York Times article that
The troubling thing is that the only two black actors in this year’s (2012) Oscar competition are cast as domestics, and would probably not have found meaty, starring roles in other films had they passed on The Help. This brings to mind the first black Oscar winner, Hattie McDaniel, who received the award in 1940 for her portrayal of the loyal maid in Gone With the Wind.
Shonda Rhimes is a contemporary African American producer, screenwriter, and director who has created successful television shows. Rhimes writes her leading characters as successful, intelligent African Americans, in professional occupations (e.g., doctor, law professor). One of her most successful projects is the television series Scandal (2012- ). The main character in the series is Olivia Pope (played by Kerry Washington). Pope is an intelligent, strong-willed, and powerful African American woman, a former White House staffer who has founded her own crisis management firm. Rhimes is also the creator of the hit series Grey’s Anatomy (2005- ), a show portraying the lives of doctors in Seattle, and also includes successful African Americans characters. In a more recent Rhimes’s creation, the television show How to Get Away With Murder (2014-), an African American woman plays a key role as a law professor. Rhimes’s work challenges long-standing film and television stereotypes of people of color.
Another recent television show, Black-ish (2014-), celebrates African American culture and a successful, middle-class Black family, although some may argue that it also trivializes Black culture and language. The HBO series The Wire (2002-2008) continued the Black reality street drama popularized in the 1990s with the film Boyz n the Hood (1991). Although the series has been acclaimed for being well written and artfully painting a picture of the life of inner-city Black youth and the drug trade, it features the familiar theme of the deviant, drug-dealing Black male.
Despite some recent strides that have been made the portrayals of African Americans in film and television, film and television directors still continue to draw on stereotypes. For example, Lee Daniels’s television series Empire (2015- ) tells of a successful drug dealer turned music executive who still has not given up his gangster ways. Because the show includes violence, drug dealing, and angry Black women, it could be argued that it depicts stereotypes rather than authentic Black culture. It could also be argued that Tyler Perry’s films and television shows have also drawn on stereotypes such as portraying Black families as dysfunctional and Black males as incompetent and the comic relief.
Although some contemporary films and television have drawn on long-held stereotypes, there is optimism that that the industry is beginning to move away from an overreliance on stereotypes of African Americans in order to make blockbuster movies and successful television shows. However, this requires continued attention on the part of filmmakers and show creators to depict the complexity of Black culture that goes beyond the truncated narratives that have been presented as authentic blackness.
On the Bright Side
On a more positive note films like The Black Panther (2018) and the Netflix series Black Lightning (2018) in the tradition of Afrofuturism give us much hope for the future of African Americans in film. Other portrayals of African Americans in films such as Will Smith in the Men in Black (1997) series and the show All-American (2018) also give us a ray of hope that the future for Black film looks bright. Other honorable mentions include Get Out (2017), Us (2019) and Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom (2020). They all point to a new frontier for Black film.
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Childs, D. (2014). Let’s talk about race: Exploring racial stereotypes using popular culture in social studies classrooms. Social Studies, 105(6) 291-300. https://doi.org/10.1080/00377996.2014.948607
Dargis, M., and Scott, A. O. (2011, February 11). Hollywood whiteout. The New York Times, 25.
Lemons, S. (1977). Black stereotypes as reflected in popular culture, 1889-1920. American Quarterly, 29, 1, 102–16.
Staples, B. (2012, February 11). Black characters in search of reality. The New York Times, 25.
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1. What racial stereotypes did you see on television and film while growing up?
2. What racial stereotypes do you see now in film and in the media?
3. How have things progressed in terms of racial stereotypes in film and the media?
4. What are ways teachers can integrate this material into their curriculum?