How have men in minorities been portrayed in film and how it has changed positively over time?
by Alexyss Johnson
Ever since I could remember, movies have been a part of my life and they have become a bigger part of my life ever since i started art school. The question does art imitate life or does life imitate art, is in the back of mind every time i watch a film.
Over my entire movie watching career, i have picked up on negative trends within film. The main one being the image of African American men. I know from being brought up in the African American community, the images being shown on screen clearly conflicted with what i saw within my community. Darron T. Smith PhD, talks about the limited roles that are available to African American men; some include, “…the token black person, the comedic belief…the absentee father, or most damaging, the violent black man as drug-dealing criminal and gangster thug”. These stereotypes have been used to justify the enslavement of African Americans, segregation and denial of economic advancement. (Lester and Ross 87) Going as far back as 1915 with D.W Griffith’s The Birth of a Nation. Griffith’s film was one of many firsts. It’s the first feature length film ever made and was dripping with racism. The film showed African Americans as only being suited for subservient labor. “It also shows the Ku Klux Klan save Miriam Cooper from attempted rape by a band of marauding blacks…it is one of the most repelling sequences in the history of motion picture” (Dixon and Foster 24). Not only did this film bring the KKK back out into the public eye, it was a recruiting tool. Before this film, the KKK didn’t light crosses on fire, but after Birth of a Nation they did. The thing about this film that is so troubling is that the KKK were the good guys and that African American men are dangerous, primitive beings. This film sparked violence in between the African American and White communities. It is safe to say that this film being the first of its kind is one of the reasons why African American men are still seen as dangerous beings to this day. Since Birth of a Nation, there has been progress towards inclusion of African Americans in film and that leads into “token black characters” in films. Some examples of the “token black person” in films are Parker in Alien (1979) who’s played by Yaphet Kotto. Parker is the only black person aboard the ship the Nostromo, he is the only one who thinks that going out into space to explore the radio signals isn’t a good idea. At certain times he does say vulgar things and always complains about how underpaid he is. The purpose of the “token black character” is to revolve around the main white character. However, the token character doesn’t bring any substance to the film as a whole and is there primarily to make the film look inclusive.
Next there is the violent black man stereotype. This type of character can be found in the “ghettocentric action-crime-adventure” films of the 90’s (Lester and Ross 88). These films are chock full of images of drugs, crime, wasted lives, and gang violence. Juice (1992) is a film that comes to mind when i think of a “ghettocentric” film. Juice centers around a group of African American male teenagers growing up in Harlem who get involved in petty crime and blow off school. The leader Bishop, played by Tupac Shakur, has a gun and he decides that the four should rob a convenience store, however Q has a DJ gig that night. Bishop, decides that it’s unacceptable for Q to bail on the robbery and from that point their lives change forever.
For the majority of my life these are the images of African American men that have perpetuated my mind and my community. The men in my family aren’t violent men, they aren’t lazy nor are they unintelligent. They are providers for their families and caretakers as well. As a young filmmaker, it is refreshing to see the transition from films like Birth of a Nation to the films we have today like Creed(2015), and Moonlight (2016) that portray African American men as three dimensional people. It is a fact that these images of African American men as aggressors and as unintelligent people inhibit their chances for gaining employment. As Leigh Donaldson’s article, “When the Media Misrepresents Black Men, the Effects Are Felt in the Real World” states,
“Not only does the media’s reluctance to provide more balanced perspectives of our African-American male population worsen cultural division among all people, it enables judges to hand out harsher sentences, companies to deny jobs, banks to decline loans and the police to shoot indiscriminately.”
With all the power that mass media and the Cinema possesses, it should use its power to promote positive images of African American men. Although we have come this far, there is still more work to be done to combat these negative images to improve the overall image of African American men in film. As Donaldson states, “ People of color are individuals, not types”.
Alien. Dir. Ridley Scott and Jean-Pierre Jeunet. Perf. Sigourney Weaver and John Skerritt and John Hurt. Twentieth Century Fox Home Entertainment, 1979. Film.
Donaldson, Leigh. “When the Media Misrepresents Black Men, the Effects Are Felt in the Real World.” The Guardian. Guardian News and Media, 12 Aug. 2015. Web. 13 Mar. 2017.
Dixon, Wheeler W., and Gwendolyn Audrey Foster. “The Birth of an American Industry.” A Short History of Film. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers UP, 2013. 22-26. Print.
Juice. Dir. Ernest R. Dickerson. By Ernest R. Dickerson. Perf. Omar Epps and Jermaine Hopkins and Tupac Shakur. Paramount Pictures, 1992. Netflix.
Ross, Susan Dente, and Paul Martin Lester. “Media Stereotypes of African Americans.”Images That Injure: Pictorial Stereotypes in the Media. 2nd ed. West Port, CT: Praeger, 2003. 87-92. Print.
Smith, Ph.D. Darron T. “Images of Black Males in Popular Media.” The Huffington Post. TheHuffingtonPost.com, 14 Mar. 2013. Web. 9 Mar. 2017.