An old saying in Hollywood is ‘The only colour Hollywood sees is green,’ suggesting that the US film industry overlooked colour in favour of what generates the most income and revenue. Yet this assumption becomes dangerous as it removed Hollywood, and the US film industry, from the responsibility of the way it enforces stereotypes and lack of positive representation via its roles.
From the start of films portraying black actors via white actors in offensive blackface costumes, to more relevant films either using white actors for incorrect race roles or black actors always being in the supporting cast.
While some may not see it as causing an issue, it is key to remember that the film industry, and media in general, sets the tone for morals and an image of our culture and its value. Now when looking back as US history it is key to remember the plight of the black male and the history of slavery throughout the USA. Since the slave trade, both black women and males have rarely been treated as equals to their white counterparts, with the stereotypes of them being stupid, lazy and violent being rampant both then and now. Sadly, these degrading stereotypes are fortified by the negative portrayal of blacks in the media since they first appeared in American films starting in 1888. However back then white actors and actresses were hired to portray black characters using the highly offensive ‘blackface’. The refusal to hire black actors to play their own roles meant that stereotypes were being further presented and pushed to the forefront of American filmmaking. Furthermore, should there have been a black actor cast, he was mainly implemented to intensify the white supremacists’ ideology.
The US film industry has always largely replied upon the perpetuation of the original stereotypes in order to ‘entertain’ audiences. While there have been a multitude of film releases since the 1900’s the diversity of African-American characters is rather lacking. Whilst a growing number of films have increasingly used deviant behaviours in urban communities to present this narrative and entertainment. However a lot of these films are viewed as factual, despite their fictional tales, due to the black actors and film makers that have been involved In the creation of the story. The increasing number of films which show criminality and a ‘pimp’ and sex culture, continue to reinforce the false narrative of black male Americans being both sexually and criminally atypical. These perceptions have resulted in what is considered a rationalisation of Black American exclusion, with the lack of African-American presence supporting the belief that they are incapable of success.
Whilst the portrayal of black characters and the use of black actors isn’t as vulgar as it once was, it is often the roles they are cast in and the refusal to use racially authentic actors in lead roles that still causes an issue and divide in todays film world.
A 2011 study by The Opportunity Agenda, titled, ‘Media Representations and Impact on the Lives of Black Men and Boys,’ found that destructive mass media portrayals, such as films, were linked strongly to lower life expectations among black men. These portrayals reinforced in film and further media resulted in the shaping of public views and attitudes towards men of colour which resulted in both aiding the advancement in barriers to slow progression within US society but to also, and perhaps more damagingly, ‘make these positions seem natural and inevitable.’
Although the number of black characters has increased substantially in recent years, it raises the question of the quality of these representations and whether they have even attempted to break away from past racial stereotypes (Eschholz, Bufkin, & Long, 2002).
While there have been mixed results regarding the impact of increased film viewership on the self-esteem of young Black viewers, there seems to be some support for the idea that increased film consumption correlates to a drop in self-esteem, depending on the genre of film (Ward, 2004). Additionally, when compared with White viewers, Black viewer’s decrease in self-esteem is statistically significant (Martins & Harrison, 2012).
According to MediaScope, a column that monitors diversity in television:
Considerable public concern has arisen over the issue of media diversity, as it is generally accepted that mass media has strong social and psychological effects on viewers. Film and television, for example, provide many children with their first exposure to people of other races, ethnicities, religions and cultures. What they see onscreen, therefore, can impact their attitudes about the treatment of others. One study found, for instance, that two years of viewing Sesame Street by European-American pre-schoolers was associated with more positive attitudes toward African and Latino Americans. Another study found that white children exposed to a negative television portrayal of African-Americans had a negative change in attitude toward blacks. (Diversity in film and television: MediaScope)
The above quote just further illustrates the importance of the social responsibility American film makers have to create positive and authentic roles for black actors in order to promote a positive change within the wider community.
Aside from focusing soley on the psychological aspects and look more into films as examples, If we look to the beginning of the 1990’s onwards, there seemingly was an emergence of films that supposedly authenticated the African American experience; its in this time period that numerous movies were shown to the public which told stories on what was assumed to be reflections on ‘blackness.’
If we look to films like Boyz in the Hood (1991) and Players Club (1998) they told tales focused on what could be viewed as prominent themes from a black perspective, with topics such as gangs, sex and violence being shown as somewhat authentic representations of the black American male. Instead of being seen as progressive due to their black casting and black lead roles, films like the examples given did more to make white viewers readily accept and give validation to their stereotypes due to being created, endorsed and performed by black film makers and actors. Despite this for the black American community, these stories were considered unique and addressed problems that were exclusive to the black community. For example, in Boyz in the Hood
Aside from films where black culture seems to breed exclusivity within the community as well as create a barrier with other cultures, the other main issue with films comes from that of the ‘White Saviour’ or the ‘Magical Negro.’
Black Americans are generally represented as deviants to a white supremacist ideology, and as a result are in need of either saving or punishing. (Bernandi, 1996). Tropes, reoccurring cinematic themes that convey a specific meaning (Hughey 2014), tend to be the main conveyer of these messages. Films which seem to have a driving force by the two aforementioned tropes seemingly define specific genres, specifically films which focus on using its ‘White Saviour’. Herman Ver and Andrew Gordon (2003) define the ‘White Saviour’ as the ‘Great leader who saves Blacks from Slavery or oppression, rescues people of colour from poverty and disease.’ The former representation of non-whites as the oppressed ethnic group is commonly found within the ‘White Saviour’ trope. To sum up the narrative, the ‘White Saviour’ uses their superior intelligence and ingenuity to bring people of colour, traditionally black or Indian cultures, out of their failing communities in order to integrate them into a white culture, thus ‘saving’ them.
Yet alongside the ‘White Saviour’ runs the narrative of the ‘Magical Negro’. Defined as a ‘Nobles, good hearted Black man or woman’ who helps the White character get through their own crisis while serving main purposes such as to, assist the main character, make use of their spirituality or to offer ‘folk wisdom’ to resolve the main characters problem. Whilst it may seem a positive role, looking more in-depth brings up the realisation that the Black characters talents, goals and so forth are never at the forefront of the story, only the white protagonists problems. The Black character is merely a stepping stone. According to Glenn (2009):
Whoopi Goldberg’s role in Ghost (1990) the spiritual assistant with powers used to assist the lead White character, helped transcend the characterization of Blacks in popular film. The film industry views Blacks through the Magical Negro lens more often, leading to the growing popularity of these movies in recent years.
Despite African Americans roles in film changing for what appears to be for the good, playing the role of layers, doctors, Gods and so on, it seems that it can only be done on a regulator. When previously ignored groups or perspectives do gain visibility, the manner of their representation will reflect the biases and interests of those powerful people who define the public agenda (Hughey 2009).
When continuing to look into the negative side effects of these two tropes, it is important to realise the reach US films have both globally and domestically. A study by the Media Campaign (2002) found the average US citizen spends thirteen hours a year at the cinema, with half of all adults watching films one a week and sixty percent of people ages 9-17 watching at least one film a week. These statistics show the films have perhaps the largest social reach than all other forms of media and expression. So, even though audiences may go to see films purely to be entertained, the relationships presented to the viewer regarding the Black and White characters influence the way the audience perceive themselves as members of their respective race.
Aside from the way the Black character is shown in films, its also key to look at the roles available and those which are taken away by a more industry favorable white actor. There’s a plethora of films in which white actors have played different races, with the most recent ones causing the most outrages, in 2013 there were complaints of The Lone Ranger as Johnny Depp was cast as the Native American Tonto. Jake Gyllenhall also faced criticism from being cast the leade in the 2010 film Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time, despite being of Jewish and Swedish Heritage.
A 2007 study by the UCLA School of Law and UCLA Chicano Studies Research Centre found that Latino, African American, Asian American, and Native American actors have few acting opportunities available to them. It suggested that 69 percent of roles were reserved for white actors and another 8.5 percent were open to white actors as well as non-white actors. Non-white actors were limited to between 0.5 percent and about 8 percent of the roles, depending on their racial background. Carry on from this study, it came to light that for over a decade, film makers have made little to no progress in implementing more characters in their films that are non-white racial and ethnic identities.
Film studios would likely react to those findings by saying that their casting based on race and ethnicity is based off what would maximise box office potential. So what would appear to be an audience preference for a white male protagonist, is more socially constructed choices based, in part, on the industry’s complex history of stereotyping and discrimination in casting. Preferences shaped by past discrimination should not justify the continuation of it.
However, a study by the Creative Artists Agency found that films with a more diverse casting tended to perform better at th box office than those with a less diverse cast. In a study of 413 films released between January 2014 and December 2016, catalogued the ethnicity of the top 10 actors per film, highlighting that those with at east a thirty percent non-white cast tended to finically outperform those films which failed to reach that threshold.
Furthermore, it highlighted that the audience for a diverse film was eager to watch, with people of colour being nearly half of the ticket buyers who attended the screenings during the most successful films released within the time period of the Creative Artists Agency study.
To conclude, the US film industry has further itself on not being a racially diverse industry since the beginning of its time. It has gone through a multitude of changes and growth, from blatant and overt racism In the form of blackface, to an attempt to be more progressive as the viewing audience becomes more aware of the society and cultural changes which surround them.
There are a multitude of films out there which deal with race and a racial narrative, it is important in this changing cultural society to pay attention to and analyse films with scrutiny and cautionary viewing in order to understand the way racism seeps into the collective consciousness via the medium of entertainment. At this stage in the history of film making, a majority are neither harmless or innocent, but must be viewed from a critical standpoint in order to catch any potential racism via the casting or role of the Black actor. It is well established film can influence those whom view it, and change the way they view themselves and those around them. At a pivotal time in the US movie industry where the audience and actors are willing to stand up to the inequality that has been going on for years, we must all challenge racism in order to progress towards equality.