• Malachi Moore

Black Representation in Film

Part I


Whether we actively recognize the notion or not, there are certain exterior elements from our encompassing realities that help serve as the foundation for not only how we view ourselves, but also how we view those around us. We are all born afraid of the unknown, our minds an empty vessel, starving for understanding and clarification of the world and all of those who inhabit it.


From the very early stages of human development, our perspectives on such are highly influenced by what we are told, what we are shown, and what is given to us as the ‘truth’. And no matter who you are or what your social circumstance is, whatever societal convention being fed at the early stages of our identity diffusion, we are subsequently inclined to believe any perpetuated stance of another being as the norm.


This is not to say that individuals are destined to have the same outlook as everyone else, but of the many perspectives one can have, the most just frame of reference will typically be the easiest to accept....which is usually whatever has been spoon fed to us. And after this has been established, after all is said and done, our own pragmatic approach to distinctive recognition is not a concern, but whatever justifies the realities in which we live. 


As a child growing up in the 90’s, I can recall having a lot of identity issues very early in my childhood. There is a small pleasantry I and my family share with one another, rather a vague memory of a time in which I was surprised by my own Blackness and (this is the hazy part) even went so far as to interrogate my father on the fact. I laugh now, as I was nothing but a passenger of my own life during my time in the Midwest suburbs, but my sense of humor on the matter mostly comes from embarrassment and shame of not having any further explanation. Because at the time of watching the popular reserve of films in the 90’s, there was no indication--from any movie-- a Black archetype in which I felt inclined to see myself in.


I can tell you confidently now, that in addition to being the only little Black boy on Milkweed Drive, there was nothing shown within the mainstream media, film or television, that would reinforce my own personal ethnic comprehension; I could only discern the overwhelmingly and disproportionately predominant white faces I saw on screen and to the heightened superiority of every white male protagonist stated as the standard.


My choices in self-recognition fell either to the Black docile character, or some other token subordinate-- clearly written from the perspective of someone who has never lived a day in their life Black in the US. Perhaps the price of not associating with either/or perpetuated this sense of isolation and self discrepancy that--to this day, still remains. But it was a price that I was willing to make--I suppose--whether I knew of the consequences or not. 

I should not go any further without clarifying both what I inherently carry with me, and am also most proud of being: a Black man. I am a son, a grandson, a brother, student, mentor, tall, dark, handsome, educated and the most naturally, sensitive empath I’ve had the pleasure of getting to know for twenty-six years. If however I were to rely solely on the proclaimed psyche of the Black archetype in film--with its main attributes centering around a problematic narrative structure of ethnic representation, ideologies, stereotypes, racism *takes breath*, oppression, and reclaiming of the Black body-- I would not be as close as I am now in becoming the fully-dimensional individual I so desperately seek to become.


Even today, as certain western doctrines are now finally being exposed for their racist context, the emergence of these Black roles in cinema and their historical backgrounds seem to either be overlooked or simply forgotten...and so they hide there in plain sight. What follows is a lasting impression that allows you to see nothing wrong with a dark-skinned lion being the flamboyant villain in a children’s movie, the bizarre, transphobic perpetuated trope of a man dressing as a Black woman for comedic effect, the subservient “sidekick” to a White male protagonist, or even something as slight and cunningly designed as the buffoonish, lazy, superstitious, cowardly, and lascivious character of Jar Jar Binks.


So before I dive in to...whatever this ends up being, I’d like to reiterate that I am not the one-dimensional, docile archetype from your favorite movie, my heroes are not your heroes, and whatever you’ve gathered so far of the Black experience in America--by Hollywood’s terms--is only one side of a multifaceted conglomerate of history.  


The 90’s was a time period that witnessed a historic number of Black films made by African American directors who forever altered what was thought of as “black aesthetics”. Auteurs such as Cheryl Dunye, Kasi Lemmons, Julie Dash, John Singleton, Spike Lee and countless more created touchstone works that continue to inspire writers and filmmakers today such as myself. What made this time so special were the distinct improvements in an authentic voice for different experiences within the same culture.


Not only that, but a handful of these films influenced Hollywood entirely, simply because--regardless of who made them or what color of skin the protagonist had--they were really good films. But if you have only heard of one or two of these names before reading this, if I’m giving you the benefit of the doubt by presuming you’ve heard of any at all, there is a reason for that: they were not being shown. I did not see Dash’s mesmerizing, lush film that portrayed Black women in a comforting, powerful and authentic perspective; who knows how much more comfortable I’d be and accepting of my emotions had I seen Tre’s character break down and cry into the arms of NIA. LONG.


Instead, the top 50-highest grossing films of the decade, and accordingly most seen, were reduced to just two Black protagonists and portrayed the Black experience in an entirely different light, one that has been passed down and perpetuated since the beginning of filmmaking in the United States.



Old Hollywood



Since as early as the late 1800s, the responsibility of Black representation in film, including roles of the LGBTQ+ were not left up to its own members, but to instead the small percentage of those privileged, left in charge and in a position of power; naturally the white, cisgender male. Due to the racial discrimination in the 19th/early 20th centuries, Hollywood tended to use Black artists as seldom as possible. What resulted in the mass media’s portrayal of minority groups was a one-sided reflection of attitude towards these groups, rather than their varied and lived experiences.


For those who do not understand the historical context behind ‘Blackface’, this was the time period when it became popular to apply theatrical makeup (instead of hiring real Black actors) in order to represent a horribly offensive caricature of a (ready?) buffoonish, lazy, superstitious, cowardly, and lascivious Black person who stole, lied pathologically, and mangled the English language.

Now let's return to the present where this archetype is still very much in affect. At the risk of sounding biased, Black men should never be forced to remember their history of emasculation through modern day cinema, halloween costumes, and your favorite Disney World ride; my very own experiences with such fail to strengthen my trust in this country’s perspective of me as an individual.


Considering all of the racial baggage and connotations Blackface brings, I would think we would stray from affiliating ourselves with the image, especially because of how socially damaging the result of perpetuating such brings. The only consensus on the fact that makes sense to me, is we either do not care enough or we truly believe in the message sent behind it. And I’m curious, with those whose skin color is not of my own, what the appeal actually is...why is it still around?


Though the “craze” of ‘Blackface’ died off pretty quickly in1930, it wouldn't be right on my part to not at least mention America's most famous and highest-paid entertainers of the time-- who made entire careers off of Blackface just a decade earlier; go ahead and Google Al Jolson, Stephen Fetchit and Bert William. Read about them. See what the latter two had to experience in order for me to have an opportunity to right the wrongs of Hollywood's troubled past.


It was now during this time that Black artists were beginning to being casted in Hollywood films, and since I know nothing of what we were paid, the availability of diverse roles, or the amount of integrity swallowed by these starving actors (though, I can probably guess), I can only comment on the derogatory stereotypes these roles perpetuated. And this was only the beginning. Here are a list of just a few stereotypical archetypes these roles personified:



Men:


Tom/Uncle Tom: An exceedingly subservient and docile African American, particularly one aware of their own lower-class racial status. Sambo: “Happy Slave”/Comedic Relief. Will be boastful out of danger, but a cringing wreck in the face of it; goofy, loud, annoying, and ultimately incompetent.  Savage/Buck: Often a male who was hyper-sexualized and seen as a threatening “beast”. Justified and encouraged racial violence, such as lynching.  Women:


Tragic Mulatta: A woman of mixed-race who is assumed to be sad  or suicidal because they fail to completely fit in the "white world" or the "black world".  Mammy: Seen as asexual; helped raise the children of her White masters, but a tyrant in her own family.  Jezebel: Depicted as a Black woman with an insatiable appetite for sex. Used to absolve White males of the responsibility in the sexual abuse and rape of African American Women. 


Ask yourself this: As a child, if these roles were played by the only faces that resembled your own, would you feel invisible too? Or just fall in line?


My only regret for including these descriptions would be out of fear-- and therefore--not a good enough reason to abstain. I’m afraid that by summarizing a time in which every Black artist had to relinquish their own integrity for work will make it seem as though I’m faulting them for doing so. I’m fearful this article alone could perpetuate the stereotypes I aim to diminish or make it seem as though I am putting myself, as well as the rest of my own community, in the state of victimhood. All of these statements could be further from the truth.


The only way I know of celebrating Black artistry during this time is by being honest about our circumstances and remembering the powerful, integral performances of the roles available. I don’t believe you can move away from the past until it is acknowledged and made peace with.


People need to know the sequence of events, from the very beginning, that have greatly hindered and tarnished the perception of Black women, men and the LGBTQ+ community. Maybe then my nonexistent child will be less confused of their own identity and more aware of the many tropes in Hollywood that continue to persist; maybe then artists within our own community, tasked with the arduous process of reclaiming Black identity in film, will recognize these roles for what they are and no longer encourage them.


I speak from the perspective of the Black man who understands both the good and harm that has been done from reclaiming our identity through cinema. The era of filmography that followed after this time became a means for Black artists--in every capacity-- to finally be seen. Like any genre however, these films are of good and bad qualities, celebratory of and problematic towards Black women, LGBTQ+ and Black culture entirely. In my next post, I hope to further delve into the era of Blaxploitation. Until then, I encourage you all to discern your outward impressions of people different from you. Can you trace it back to an example perpetuated in film? Try to consider the context of the time, and whether or not that impression is as fully-dimensional as you'd like yourself being portrayed. I can tell you right now that for most minorities or anyone who is not a white, cisgender male, that portrayal of us on screen does not even come close.


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