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 preschoolers 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.
Throughout the 20th Century, minorities have made significant strides towards autonomy and equality in American society. From the right to own land to the right to vote, and further still, the squelching of Jim Crow era segregation in the South. These advances are part of who we are as Americans, yet it seems they have not fully infiltrated the collective whole of American society. Despite the political rights and power that minorities have obtained, the supremacist ideologies and racist beliefs that were indoctrinated into the American psyche are just recently being reversed. However, these ideas that were ingrained in the mindset of Americans for so long have given way to a less conscious variant of segregation. No longer is it the blatant practice upheld by the law and celebrated with hangings and beatings, but instead it is a subtle practice that is the “crown jewel” of the entertainment, media and film industries. We might not see confederate flags flying in parks or signs relegating colored people to separate facilities, but we do see minorities cast as criminals and leeches to “white upper-class” America. It is the Paramount Pictures, NBC’s, ABC’s and Universal Studio’s of the world that are the propagators of the negative stereotypes and inescapable stigmas that many thought were left behind once the shackles of segregation were broken. Unfortunately, they are resurfacing in our sitcoms, newscasts and big screen movies. Historically, the portrayal of minorities in movies and television is less than ideal. Whether its appearing in disparaging roles or not appearing at all, minorities are the victim of an industry that relies on old ideas to appeal to the “majority” at the expense of the insignificant minority.” All blame, however, cannot be placed on the white males who run the industry, for a small number of black entertainers perpetuate these stereotypes as well. Even though they defend their actions as an “insiders look” into the life of a certain minority group, they are guilty of the same offenses that opponents have indicted the media, film and entertainment industries of. We cannot contribute to the viscous cycle that is the unconscious racism of the media, film and entertainment industries; instead we need to break the cycle and formulate a new industry that is more representative of the reality that is American society today.
-Edith J. R. Isaachs in “TheaterArts, “August, 1942
Blacks have been treated as second-class citizens since the inception of this country. Forcibly brought here as slaves to the white man, blacks have never been treated as completely equal to whites. Stereotypes of blacks as lazy, stupid, foolish, cowardly, submissive, irresponsible, childish, violent, sub-human, and animal-like, are rampant in today’s society. These degrading stereotypes are reinforced and enhanced by the negative portrayal of blacks in the media. Black characters have appeared in American films since the beginning of the industry in 1 888. But blacks weren’t even hired to portray blacks in early works. Instead, white actors and actresses were hired to portray the characters while in “blackface.” (http:/www.moderntimes.com/palace/black/open.htm). By refusing to hire black actors to portray black characters, demeaning stereotypes were being created as blacks were presented in an unfavorable light. In addition, blacks were purposely portrayed in films with negative stereotypes that reinforced white supremacy over blacks. This has had a tremendous effect on our society’s view of blacks since motion pictures have had more of an impact on the public mind than any other entertainment medium in the last ninety years. (Sampson 1977; 1)
The media sets the tone for the morals, values, and images of our culture. Many people in this country, some of whom have never encountered black people, believe that the degrading stereotypes of blacks are based on reality and not fiction. Everything they believe about blacks is determined by what they see on television. After over a century of movie making, these horrible stereotypes continue to plague us today, and until negative images of blacks are extinguished from the media, blacks will be regarded as second-class citizens.
We have come a long way since 1914, when Sam Lucas was the first black actor to have a lead role in a movie for his performance in Uncle Tom’s Cabin. 1915 is a significant date in motion picture history because D.W. Griffith released The Birth of a Nation, which supported the Ku Klux Klan, a white supremacist group based predominately in the southern United States, and is possibly the most anti-black film ever made. The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) worked very hard to try to ban the film due to its vicious portrayal of blacks as subhuman compared to the glorified Ku Klux Klan. The Birth of a Nation was important because it led to the creation of a new industry that produced “race films” for African-Americans. (http://www.moderntimes.com/palace/black/introduction.htm) These portrayed blacks in a positive light and 4’ddressed some social concerns of the community. Before “race films,” blacks were nothing more than “shufflin, shiny-faced, head-scratchin’ simpletons with bugged out eyes who leaned on brooms and spoke bad English”, but after the introduction of “race films,” blacks were depicted with more dignity and respect. (http://www.ardmoreite.com/stories/070798/ent_blacks.shtml) In order for blacks to ensure that they would have positive roles and stop reinforcing negative stereotypes through film, they had to make their own movies.
Noble Johnson, born April 18, 1881, in Marshall, MO, died January 9, 1978, in Tucaipa (San Bernadino), CA, was an actor and a producer, appearing in numerous films starting in 1916. On May 24, 1916, Johnson was ambitious enough to create his own movie company and became the president of Lincoln Motion Picture Company. This was the first movie company organized by black filmmakers. The first movie produced by Lincoln Motion Picture Company was The Realization of a Negro ‘5 Ambition and was released in mid 1916. It was the first film produced in America that featured blacks in dramatic non-stereotyped roles. (Sampson 1977; 2) It portrayed a Tuskegee graduate leaving the South and getting an admirable position from a white racist businessman for saving the man’s daughter. The second production was titled A Trooper of Troop K and was released in January of 1917. It attempted to build race pride by “showing that Afro-Americans were allied militarily with Anglo-Americans.” (Rhines 1996; 21) Lincoln Motion Picture Company was an all-black company and was the first company to produce films portraying blacks as real people with real lives. In the past, Blacks had been relegated to roles of slaves, rapists, and stupid buffoons.
Noble Johnson’s brother, George, was responsible for the marketing of Lincoln. The Johnson brothers wanted the films to cater to a wider audience, but they were primarily booked to play in schools, special venues at churches, and the few “colored only” theaters that existed. By 1920, Lincoln had finished five films. Noble Johnson was split between his acting and producing career and was forced to give up the presidency of the company to pursue a career at Universal. Lincoln productions became so popular and had such high demand that Lincoln management decided not to wait for the returns from the films already produced to make additional films, but accepted an offer for financial backing by a white financier, P.H. Updike. Lincoln attempted to target as wide an audience as possible with their brochure, which read, “The Company will not only produce pictures entertaining to Negroes, but to all races. Our market is as large as we make it; the world is our field…” (http://www.mdle.com/ClassicFilms/Guest/lincoln.htm) Although the ambitious company was very talented, white audiences were simply uninterested at the time and the company was doomed to failure.
Another black-owned independent film company that produced “race movies” was the Micheaux Film Corporation. It was founded in 1918 by Oscar Micheaux, in Chicago, as the “Micheaux Film and Book Company Corporation. Oscar Micheaux was born January 2, 1884, in Metropolis, Illinois. In 1908, at the age of 24, Micheaux began writing novels about his life experiences as a homesteader and the few people that he knew. His first book was The Homesteader, and proved to be immensely popular. Noble and George Johnson approached Mieheaux to purchase the film rights to The Homesteader. Micheaux despised films that portrayed blacks negatively and stereotypically. Micheaux offered to direct his adaptation, but the Johnson brothers refused so Micheaux decided to produce the film himself. His first film, The Homesteader was produced in 1919 and was financed by fellow farmers, who were both black and white. Between 1919 and 1940, Micheaux produced over 35 films covering a wide variety of subjects, including the racism of Jim Crow laws, racial solidarity, assimilation, and the politics of skin color. He offered a wide-ranging look at black life in early ~ America by portraying blacks in melodramas, gangster stories, musicals, and dramas about social problems without resorting to stereotypes. (http://www.mdle.com/ClassieFilms/SpecialFeature/feb597.htm)
Micheaux rejected typical Hollywood roles for blacks. He frequently showed blacks in positions of power, authority, and respectability. He offered fully developed black characters as opposed to the simplistic, cruel stereotypes of mainstream film. On many occasions, he presented controversial subjects, such as lynching, in his films. Much like the Johnson brothers’ films, blacks would only see Micheaux’s films when they were originally released, not society at large. His films were shown in big-city ghetto houses in the North and at segregated theaters in the South as well as black churches, schools, and social organizations. In 1929, “race movies” made by black producers started to die out and Hollywood saw an opportunity. The mainstream movie industry began producing films with black casts for black audiences. The Micheaux Film Corporation ceased operations in the late 1940s, but Micheaux left a legacy – all of his films were independently made and inspired other blacks to be independent. (http://www.mdle.com/ClassicFilms/SpecialFeature/feb597.htm)
The first Hollywood film to feature an all-black cast was Hearts in Dixie, which was produced in 1929 and directed by Paul Sloane for Fox. “This film introduced to wider audiences, one of the film industry’s most polemic figures ever -Stepin Fetchit.” (http://www.moderntimes.comlpalace/black/introduction.htm) In the film, the audience is introduced to the faithful black plantation workers, toiling hard in the fields all day and relaxing at night by singing and dancing. Stepin Fetchit typifies the lazy, but goodnatured slave, unwilling to work, but forgiven for his errant ways. When the white boss playfully” kicks Fetchit in the rear-end, Fetchit grins broadly and winks slyly at the audience. This is an example of the typical screen ‘darkie.” Fetchit, a ‘black clown,” is a ‘good nigger,” lazy and shiftless, yet “all right at heart. Most importantly, he “knows his place. (Noble 1969 ; 50) Fetchit’s depiction of blacks is extremely degrading and demeaning. Blacks across the country were presumed to fit Fetchit’s stereotype of being lazy, stupid, foolish, and yet well intentioned. For those who had never encountered black people before, but had seen a Stepin Fetchit film, they were left with a warped, skewed view of blacks by Fetchit’s performance.
Stepin Fetchit was born Lincoln Theodore Monroe Perry in Key West, Florida, in 1902. He studied for the priesthood before turning to show business. He acquired his name from a racehorse that he won money on, Step and Fetch it.” The first film he appeared in was Show Boat for Universal. Fetchit rocketed to fame with ‘his wide-grinned inanity, shuffling and dawdling,” eternalizing the American concept of the “darkie.” Hearts in Dixie was Fetchit’s first starring role. His immense talent was generally used by the majority to reinforce the stereotype of the lazy, stupid, good-for-nothing Negro. (http://www.moderntimes.com/palace/black/introduction.htm) Most black Americans had a love/hate relationship with Stepin Fetchit. While he was an extremely talented entertainer and a pioneer in the film industry for blacks, at the same time, he reinforced horrible stereotypes of blacks as buffoons. In 1952, the Hollywood movie studios announced that they would stop the casting of Stepin Fetchit characters in future films because they did not want to risk offending blacks. (Sampson 1977; 248-250) Although Hollywood stated that they would not cast Stepin Fetchit characters any longer, this was not entirely true. The stereotype of blacks perpetuated by Fetchit would be present in Hollywood in one form or another for many many years to come.
Even the roles that blacks have in films produced today are sometimes reminiscent of those degrading “darkie” roles that Stepin Fetchit played so well. In the recent comedy, Nothing to Lose, starring Tim Robbins and Martin Lawrence, it is abundantly clear that Hollywood has yet to abandon those negative stereotypes of blacks first created in the early 20th century. Robbins plays Nick Beam, a nice ad-executive, who loves his wife dearly. He is “the quintessential white guy, a square straight and narrow, while Lawrence plays the “wise-ass, street-smart black guy.” One day, Nick comes home from work to find his wife in bed with another man. Distraught, he drives the streets of LA aimlessly until he finds himself the victim of an attempted carjacking by Lawrence. (http://www.salonmagazine.som/july97/entertainment/nothing970718.html)
In the film, the white guy lectures the black guy about the immorality of armed robbery (“You are a bad person”) and the black guy ridicules the white guy for his wimpiness (“You don’t have the respect of your woman”). The Hollywood tradeoff is evident. The “white guy gets to be virtuous and the black guy gets to be cool.” Throughout the whole movie, Lawrence plays the part of the court jester sidekick to “Robbins’ lanky aristocrat, trading full humanity and dignity for sassing rights.” Lawrence essentially plays the part of a modern day Stepin Fetchit. In one scene, Lawrence jumps from the car and dances around comically screaming “My ass done fall asleep I dint know an ass could fall asleep!” (http://www.salonmagazine.som/july97/entertainment/nothing970718.html) Lawrence’s character perpetuates the existent negative stereotypes of blacks as buffoons and yet no one seems to notice or mind.
Negative stereotypes of minorities in film can be found in Hollywood as recently as May 19, 1999, with the release of “Star Wars: Episode I – The Phantom Menace.” Many of the extraterrestrial creatures have ethnically tinged caricatures. One character, Jar Jar Binks, has created quite a conflict. An amphibious creature with floppy ears surprisingly similar to Rastafarian dreadlocks, he has a wide nose, bulging eyes, and fat lips, speaks in a Caribbean-style pidgin English and acts as the stupid, bumbling, good-for-nothing sidekick to the Jedi Knights. “Wall Street film critic Joe Morgenstern called Jar Jar ‘a Rastafarian Stepin Fetchit on platform hoofs, crossed annoyingly with Butterfly Mequcen,”‘ a reference to a slave servant in “Gone with the Wind.” Additionally, “Los Angeles Times critic Eric Harrison said the primitive tribe that Jar Jar belongs to – the Gungan – is ruled by a fat, buffoonish character, seemingly a caricature of a stereotypical African chieftain.”‘ Media arts professor Daniel Bernadi from the University of Arizona is troubled by the role that Jar Jar plays in the movie. “‘He really is sort of your ‘Amos ‘n’ Andy,’ Stepin Fetehit, loyal, bumbling colored other???. Even when he saves the day, he does it by accident, so his heroism is sort of a joke, and what makes it more problematic is he does it in the service of ‘whiteness.”‘ ( The legacy left by Stepin Fetchit is still evident in movies today. Hollywood loves to employ the stereotype of the lazy, loyal, stupid, bumbling, black buffoon. Sub-consciously obsessed with the reinforcement of negative stereotypes of blacks and positive stereotypes of whites, Hollywood may never abandon the “nigger” role in its films.
This entry was posted in Uncategorized and tagged African and Latino Americans, America, black history, changed lives, Culture, disenfranchisement, ethnicities, film and entertainment industries, Hollywood, human rights, humanity, humility, Lincoln Theodore Monroe Perry, Martin Lawrence, Media, Movies, negative stereotypes, Noble Johnson's, Oscar Micheaux, races, religions and cultures, social issues, social justice, Stepin Fetchit, Struggles, suffering, Updike. Lincoln.