Masaryk university faculty of education

Portrayal of African Americans in Films and on Television

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Portrayal of African Americans in Films and on Television

  1. Stereotypical Images and Their Power

Since the time of slavery in the United States, many stereotypes about African Americans’ behavior or abilities existed. According to some of the stereotypes, African Americans possess negative personality traits—including stupidity, immorality, or dishonesty, and are low achievers (qtd. in Punyanunt-Carter 242). Early portrayals of African American on television were influenced by these stereotypes and African Americans have been portrayed in stereotypical roles.

It is vital to realize that stereotypes are dangerous because they are usually oversimplified and they “seldom correspond with the objective data” (Rinehart 137). Moreover, several studies have shown that “stereotypes may arise without any basis in fact whatsoever” (138). Small children do not know the concept of stereotypes, they learn the meanings of stereotypes in interaction with others and the world around them (140). Media represent a great part of the world around us and have the power “to shape and reshape the culture” (Entman, and Rojecki 3). The images media present have a vast influence on peoples’ attitudes and their feelings towards minority groups; this claim is supported by Ford who asserts that “Television portrayals of African- Americans […] have been shown to influence whites’ perceptions of those groups” (Ford 266). When African Americans are portrayed as possessing negative qualities, it has a negative impact on the way the dominant society members see them. According to Entman and Rojecki “the mass media convey the impressions [...] that Blacks are somehow fundamentally different from Whites” (6). Entman and Rojecki further claim that “Whites expect the typical Black, if not a criminal, to be a member of the serving class” (62). These negative expectations have their basis in the stereotypical media portrayals of African Americans. The result of the negative images media present is that “African Americans […] appear more threatening, less sympathetic than Whites” (94).

    1. Basic Stereotypical Images of African Americans

A film historian David Bogle identified five basic stereotypical film roles of African Americans in his book Toms, Coons, Mulattoes, Mammies and Bucks: An Interpretative History of Blacks in Films (2001). Bogle asserts that the five stereotypical roles: the tom, “the coon, the tragic mulatto, the mammy, and the brutal black buck. All were character types used for the same effect: to entertain by stressing Negro inferiority” (Bogle 4).

The Tom characters are obedient and always do what is best for their masters, toms “keep the faith, n’er turn against their white massas, and remain hearty, submissive, stoic, generous, selfless, and oh-so-very kind. Thus they endear themselves to white audiences and emerge as heroes of sorts” (6). Toms work perfectly for the system of racial domination because they do not question their position in the society, they are aware of their “‘natural” inferiority” and are always willing to serve (qtd. in Riggs).

Another stereotypical image is the coon which presented the African Americans “as amusement object[s] and black buffoon[s]” (7). The main character traits of the pure coons were unreliability, craziness, and laziness1 (8). By portraying African Americans as lazy and unreliable, there was enough justification for the dominant society that African Americans should remain in their subordinate position because they need supervision. These images suggested that African Americans cannot make it on their own since they are good-for-nothing. According to Bogle, there are two variants of the pure coon characters, the picaninny and uncle remus (7). The picaninny are child characters, they are “harmless, little screwball creation[s]” (7). These “brute caricatures of black children […] showed them as victims. Victims who evoked- not sympathy- but the feeling that blacks were subhuman […] there was a need to imagine black children as animal-like, as savage” (qtd. in Riggs). Uncle remus characters may be characterized as “harmless and congenial” and they distinguish themselves from the tom characters “by [their] quaint, naïve, and comic philosophizing” (Bogle 8).

The tragic mulatto characters were female characters which were very likeable and popular “because of [their] white blood” (9). However, they usually ended up tragically and died because of the sin they bear with them- the mixing of races.

Different types of stereotypical female characters, according to Bogle, are the mammy characters and aunt jemina characters. A mammy is very independent and bossy and “is usually big, fat, and cantankerous” (9). Aunt jemina is “mammy’s offshoot” and she is “sweet, jolly, and good-tempered—a bit more polite than mammy and certainly never as head strong” (9).

The last of the basic characters, the brutal black buck, was introduced in The Birth of a Nation (1915). This film uses the “blackface” practice2; there are two main African American characters in the movie, Silas Lynch and Gus who are both played by Caucasian actors in blackface (Benshoff, and Griffin 80). This film was very effective “at inciting hatred for blacks” (79). This film “was denounced as the most slanderous anti-Negro movie ever released” (Bogle 10). It portrays African Americans as “lazy, vicious, and rapacious” (Benshoff, and Griffin 80). Bogle divides the brutal black buck characters in this film into two categories: the black brutes and the black bucks (13). He claims that the “differences between the two are minimal. The black brute was a barbaric black out to raise havoc. Audiences could assume that his physical violence served as an outlet for a man who was sexually repressed” and the “bucks are always big, baadddd niggers, over-sexed and savage, violent and frenzied as they lust for white flesh” (13-14).

The black brute characters portrayed in The Birth of a Nation “articulated the great white fear that every black man longs for a white woman” (Bogle 14). The film also served as a justification of slavery. As Bogle asserts The Birth of a Nation “made it appear as if slavery had elevated the Negro from his bestial instincts” (13). Slaves are portrayed as happy and contented with their position and slavery is presented as a desirable state for African Americans because a “Negro as a naïve figure [is] incapable of comprehending the social dynamic of the world in which he or she lives” (13). The Birth of a Nation was “used for decades as a recruiting tool by the Ku Klux Clan” and was “perceived by some as documentary truth and not manipulative Hollywood fiction” (Benshoff, and Griffin 79). Benshoff and Griffin further claim that “even President Woodrow Wilson, mistaking fiction for actuality, allegedly said it was ‘like writing history with lighting’” (79-80). President Wilson’s quotation is a reminder of how powerful the effect of images people watch on screen can actually be (80).

Stereotyped images of African Americans in films and on television served to ensure the maintenance of the menial position of African Americans in the American society. These controlling images of African Americans were “designed to oppress” both African American women and men (Collins 118). As Bell Hooks claims: “control over images is central to the maintenance of any system of racial domination” (Black Looks: Race and Representation 2). The stereotypical images worked well for the system of racial domination because they presented African Americans “as either a nitwit or a childlike lackey” (Bogle 4). None of these images did anything which would harm the system of racial domination because none of them seriously criticizes or tries to change the system, they work perfectly for the dominant society because these images “reinforce the status quo” in the society (Larson 29).3

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