The film industry’s failure to represent people of colour dates all the way to the early 1910’s. An era where the systematic exclusion of black people from production, distribution and exhibition is evident. But many critics and activists have argued that the release of films such as Hidden Figures and Black Panther show we’ve reached a time of change. A time where black culture and people are being celebrated.
Historically, how has Hollywood represented black people?
The history of African Americans in the American motion picture industry is both long and complex. In films from the 1910s and 1920s, such as Hearts and Flags (1911) and Birth of a Nation (1915), African American characters were played by white actors in blackface, as whites and blacks were not to share screen time.
Early depictions of black men and women were confined to demeaning stereotypes, portrayed as either incompetent, criminal, child-like or the Jezebel.
In the 1929 all-black cast musical Hallelujah, a southern black family is depicted as illiterate, singing and dancing gamblers. Reinforcing racist and prevalent stereotypes of the time, the film presents African American’s as sinful, hyper-sexual and incompetent.
And, if African Americans were shown as ‘good‘, they were loyal servants, butlers and mammies. Hattie McDaniel was the first African American entertainer to win an Academy Award for her performance as “Mammy”, a house servant in the 1939 film Gone with the Wind.
From the mid-1910s to 30’s, a black cast or the use of a white actor in blackface reinforced the belief that the ‘proper’ social position of a black man or women was that of a servant, who was devoted to his/her white master and upheld the social order.
But things soon began to shift, in the 1940’s and 50’s the way black characters were written and portrayed in mainstream Hollywood films changed. Due to meetings and actions taken by the National Association for the Advancements of Colored People (NAACP), an agreement to improve the depictions of African Americans was made, and the opportunity for African Americans to work throughout the film industry.
While large productions featuring all-black casts continued, such as Carmen Jones (1954) and St. Louis Blues (1958), there was an increase in films that challenged social segregation norms and values, as seen in The Defiant Ones (1958).
And in the 1960’s, Sidney Portier became one of the best-known and loved utilised black actors in the industry. His level of stardom was unmatched by any other black actor before or during his time.
Portier played complex characters who weren’t just criminals, they were intelligent (In the Heat of the Night 1967), strong, helpful, sensitive and caring (Lilies of the Field (1963), and Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner (1967).
The depiction of a black man in the 60’s and 70’s was very different from the 20’s and 30’s. While African American’s are no longer just seen as illiterate, criminal, child-like or the servant/Mammy, those stereotypes have still carried on to the 21st century.
Films like Boyz n the Hood (1991), Precious (2009), Diary of a Mad Black Woman (2005), The Help (2011), and Think Like a Man (2012), are focused on and reinforce negative stereotypes, such as being hyper-sexual, criminals, aggressive, unintelligent, the ‘Mammy’ and as having dysfunctional family dynamics.
But, is this more than just a black character issue? According to a report issued by Ralph J. Bunche Center for African American Studies at UCLA, minorities remain underrepresented in film leads (13.9%), film directors (12.6%), film writers (8.1%), broadcast scripted leads (18.7%), cable scripted leads (20.2%), broadcast reality and other leads (26.6%) and leads for cable reality and other leads (20.9%).
This lack of representation explains why critics argue the film industry presents narratives that don’t reflect black lives and experiences entirely and reinforce negative stereotypes.
As author, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie said in her TED Talk: “if all I knew about Africa were from popular images, I too would think that Africa was a place of beautiful landscapes, beautiful animals and incomprehensible people, fighting senseless wars, dying of poverty and Aids, unable to speak for themselves and waiting to be saved by a kind, white foreigner.”
These are the images that have been created from films such as Hotel Rwanda, Blood Diamond and others.
So, why is the success of Black Panther so important?
Writer, Michelle Yaa told us: “Brothers and sisters were shedding tears for seeing what was being described as ‘an experience’ rather than a film. You have to remember we’ve never seen a predominantly African cast in such a positive way.
Hollywood has given us slavery, but nothing before or progressive and positive, as a part of our history and experience on film.”
Despite being a fictional comic story, on a part of Africa that doesn’t exist, Yaa told us that Black Panther gave black people, the representation “they needed”.
And if it wasn’t clear, the shared images of movie-goers attending cinemas across the world in their African dress, is a clear sign of that, according to the writer.
The film industry often depicts the relationship between a black man and woman as unhealthy and somewhat toxic, such as Why Did I Get Married? (2007) and Two Can Play That Game (2001).
But in the Marvel film, the relationship between men and women was both positive and respectful. Yaa agreed with fellow panellist Dr Lez Henry that Marvel film should be “an important cultural document that can be used as an educational resource.”
How have people on social media responded to Black Panther?
What does the future hold for black actors/directors/writers?
Yaa says: “Realistically until Africans own some aspects of this industry it will eventually be business as usual from Hollywood capitalist and propaganda perspective. We might see ourselves differently as a consequence of the film, but the dominant narrative will still be pushed for a long, long time.
We have to invest in our own propaganda instruments to flip this script. Power and representation are what upholds the White Western industries. They will give us little concessions but no more. We have to develop our own economic bases around representation and propaganda.
Creatively, however, there has been a surge in Afro futuristic writings and expressions. These were always there, but the film has made awareness greater. Sadly, we can easily forget and return to what we know. This is why Hollywood pounds us with their narratives; the media generally.”
Building on it’s reported Black Panther’s box office success of $1.28 billion worldwide, you can still watch the film in cinemas across the UK.