African Americans on film

The Preservation Hall Jazz Band with Del McCoury.

The Preservation Hall Jazz Band with Del McCoury.

If it’s a film class, why is there a picture of a bunch of musicians? Well, this week we’re talking about race in Hollywood and focusing specifically on African Americans in film. This week, the students in the class read a chapter about how the Civil Rights Movement impacted American society and popular culture in the 1960s.

The representations of blacks in Hollywood films was historically full of stereotypes (the domestic, the fool, the threat) or, just as troubling, notable for a complete absence from the screen. We’ll get to those ideas in a few minutes.

Now about that photo. It’s not the one I would like to have at the top of this post. The one I would like to have hasn’t been taken. See the man with the clarinet and the man with the guitar in the center of the photo? They are Charlie Gabriel and Del McCoury. Gabriel is one of the members of the Preservation Hall Jazz Band and McCoury leads the bluegrass ensemble that bears his name. The two bands recorded an album, American Legacies, in 2011 and occasionally do performances together.

The two bands recently did a concert at the university and there was a moment before the show started that I would have captured had I been able to photograph the performance: before the stage lights went up, Charlie and Del walked out on stage together holding hands. Two men so full of talent and love for their music supporting each other as they took the stage–the gesture was a small, human, and completely beautiful moment. With Charlie being 80 and Del in his 70s, I kept thinking about how unlikely that gesture would have been at the start of their careers–even if they had no personal qualms about race, the society around them and the audiences in the 50s and 60s would have.

A sampling of how the two groups’ styles blend well together, bringing together two uniquely American sounds:

Now, let’s look at the movies.

African Americans & the Film Industry

The early American film industry operated similarly to the music and theater fields—often, there were separate productions for black and white audiences. From about 1915-1950, more than 500 race films were produced for black audiences. While most of these films were financed and scripted by whites, a handful were made by black filmmakers. Unfortunately, many of the films have been lost and only about 100 remain.

Filmmaking pioneer and author Oscar Micheaux

Filmmaking pioneer and author Oscar Micheaux

An early pioneer of cinema, Oscar Micheaux, worked for Lincoln Motion Picture Company and advertised that the company’s films were scripted and produced entirely by African Americans. The 1920 film Within Our Gates, written and directed by Micheaux is the oldest surviving film made by an African American director. The film tells the story of a black woman who travels north to raise funds for a school in the South. Along the way, she discovers secrets about her family history, which sets the stage for racial violence that culminates with the lynching of a black man. Micheaux’s films and books often depicted the accomplishments of blacks in the face of adversity. Some critics complain about the overwrought acting and limited production values in Micheaux’s work, but his films were often more concern about the message than the delivery, and are worth viewing to see his ideas about politics and societal roles.

After Micheaux, there were very few black filmmakers in America until the late 20th century and the rise of the Blaxploitation movies. From the 1930s to the late 1950s, the African American presence in Hollywood films is limited to secondary roles. One thing I ask students to consider when they’re thinking about this era is how it would feel to never see reflections of your “self” on screen. What message would it send to continually see only white people in leading roles and portrayed as successful? For nearly 40 years, black audiences did not see their lives reflected back through popular movies. (Other minority groups have a similar treatment in Hollywood films; often those representations don’t show up on screen until an independent filmmaker has success with a film that shows the world his or her community; once larger studios see that there is an audience for the material, more films with a bigger budget follow.)

Sidney Poitier helped both black and white audiences envision African Americans in dignified positions.

Sidney Poitier helped both black and white audiences envision African Americans in dignified positions.

In the late 1950s and into the 1960s, Sidney Poitier broke through the American color barrier and delivered performances that helped Americans begin to envision blacks and whites as equals. The Defiant Ones, A Raisin in the Sun, Blackboard Jungle, Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner, In the Heat of the Night, and A Patch of Blue allowed Poitier to play a wide range of roles from the comedic to the romantic and the dramatic. At the height of his career Poitier placed an emphasis on dignity, delivering his performances with measured emotion that emphasized wit and intellect. He gave white audiences a different vision of African Americans and their potential.

By the 1970s, though, the reserved performances of Poitier gave way to films that bubbled with anger and frustration at unjust situations and a racist society. In 1971, Melvin Van Peebles hit big with his independent film Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song as did Gordon Parks with Shaft (Note: These trailers are graphic and contain adult language). These films, with an emphasis on the gritty urban scenes, the drug trade, violence, revenge, and stylistic editing and funky soundtracks opened the doors to a new generations of black filmmakers as well as opportunistic low-budget imitations by studios trying to cash in.

Charles Burnett’s films of the 1970s and 1980s were often attempts to show realistic images of black life in America; his films do not rely on the flashy color and creative editing of the Blaxploitation era movies. Instead, they have a stark, quiet realism Killer of Sheep, My Brother’s Wedding, and To Sleep With Anger are some of his best known films.

From the 1980s to now, filmmakers like Spike Lee, Robert Townsend, John Singleton, Allen and Albert Hughes, and Julie Dash, etc., have been directing movies that depict black life in contemporary America. Critics and the film industry started noticing Spike Lee with his short films and the 1986 feature She’s Gotta Have It, but his 1989 film Do The Right Thing caught all of  America’s attention for its fresh camera work, inventive dialogue, and the mix of humor, anger, and sadness that show the events that unfold in a racially mixed neighborhood on the hottest day of the year.

This week, the class watched Something New, which focuses on an interracial relationship. Kenya (Sanaa Lathan) is a successful business woman who finds herself set up on a blind date with Brian (Simon Baker). As the film opens, the audience sees she is under pressure at work to prove herself and in her personal life to find a mate. Her girlfriends try to get her to lower her high expectations—she wants a man who is educated, has a job, has good teeth, and “isn’t crazy,” which seems reasonable, but then she keeps listing requirements further narrowing the possibile candidates. When a friend sets her up on a blind date with a single landscape architect, it sounds like an good match until she sees he is white.

The film offers a glimpse into the life of an upper-class black woman; even with her accomplishments and background (coming from a family of “academics” and graduating from top schools), Kenya still has to work harder than her white colleagues to prove her worth to the firm where she is employed. The film does a frank exploration of race in America and shows both black and white views with honest, if not very subtle, scenes where Kenya and Brian explore their own expectations and values while also dealing with the opinions of family and friends.

An interesting thing about film is that it can be reflective of current societal attitudes or it can project an ideal for people to strive for. For example, many of the War films during World War II show a racially integrated military while the armed forces were still segregated in real life—desegregation of the armed forces took place in 1948. Showing a fictional unity on screen reinforced the idea of all Americans working together for the cause.

American films and TV shows featuring black characters often make a point of explaining the difference between black culture and the rest of America. On the TV show House, Dr. House (Hugh Laurie) often makes exaggerated comments about Dr. Foreman’s (Omar Epps) experiences with crime and life in a ghetto. An interesting contrast can be seen in British television shows where multiracial casts often do not discuss their backgrounds. In the crime drama Luther, lead detective John Luther’s (Idris Elba) experiences as a black man in England are not mentioned by him or other characters. Racism exists in the UK, but it is focused differently than it is the U.S. The history of slavery in the U.S. and legislative language that ignored the basic human rights of significant portions of the population still reverberate today; other issues such as economic anxieties and fears over security impact how immigrants and people of other religions are treated.

NPR did a piece on African American stereotypes in the movies that is worth listening to. Click here to listen. Professor Anna Everett makes the observation that many of the stereotypical black characters in films are not “contextualized” within a family or community; they come out of nowhere and are attached to nothing. The white characters around them impart significance and meaning to their existence within the world of the film. Actor/director Bill Duke talks about the limited roles for African Americans in Hollywood and the dilemma many face as they are torn between paying the bills and holding out for roles that go beyond stereotypical representations.

Advertisements