Masaryk university faculty of education

Stereotypical Film Portrayals of African Americans and the Arrival of the Talking Era

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Stereotypical Film Portrayals of African Americans and the Arrival of the Talking Era

African American actors were presented with more roles during the talking era4 of the film industry than in the silent era. The talking era brought “music, rhythm […] singing, dancing, [and] clowning” into movies and the increase of parts for African Americans in the era of sound is based, according to Bogle, on the popular “American myth” which suggests that African Americans are very “rhythmic” and “musical” (26).

However, although the number of parts was increasing, the quality of the representation was not as African American actors were casted only into certain roles and under the supervision of the dominant society members. These representations of African American culture could in no way be considered valid representations (Bogle 27). During 1930’s African Americans were presented mainly as domestic servants (35).

The reinforcement of the Production Code5 in 1934 led to fewer African Americans being casted in Hollywood films (Benshoff, and Griffin 82). The Motion Picture Production Code, also known as the Hays Code, was adopted in 1930; it was believed that it is vital to supervise the content of movies which were made because the entertainment industry has a great influence on the nation’s life. One of the general principles of the Code was that: “No picture shall be produced that will lower the moral standards of those who see it. Hence the sympathy of the audience should never be thrown to the side of crime, wrongdoing, evil or sin.” Amongst particular applications belonged that: “miscegenation (sex relationships between the white and black races) is forbidden” (qtd. in Bynum). Hollywood producer tried “to get past the Code’s miscegenation taboo;” therefore, a Caucasian actress, Jeanne Crain, was casted to play a light-skinned African American woman who is in a relationship with a Caucasian man in Pinky (1949) (Benshoff, and Griffin 86). Several other films casted Caucasian actors and actresses with dark make-up on to play African American roles, this practice can also be observed in The Imitation of Life (1959) for instance.

American cinema and television helped maintain dominant cultural attitudes since it “for the most functions under the dominant ideology of white patriarchal capitalism” (Benshoff, and Griffin 78). Early movies did not reinforce critical commentary on race and most films produced with all African American casts during the classical period in Hollywood (1930-1945) “were produced, written, and also directed by white men” who tended to present a “romanticized” vision of African American lives and culture, these films were filled with the stereotyped characters “now commonly viewed as derogatory” (84).

Throughout the 1940s the NAACP (National Association for the Advancement of Colored People) “and other concerned groups petitioned Hollywood […] to make more diverse, less stereotypical representations of African Americans” which did not prove to come on solid ground because films which portrayed African Americans as happy and docile servants continued to be made (Benshoff, and Griffin 85).

    1. Television Portrayals of African Americans

Television as a new communication medium won over the USA in the 1950s (Benshoff, and Griffin 90). In the early part of the decade African American actors and actresses were casted in supporting roles in several shows and again “played only certain roles, genres, and stories” (Larson 24).

First television sets were available in department stores in the United States in 1938 (Black, and Jennings 320). At its beginnings, the medium of television was seen as an educational and informational device and was supposed to make it possible for its audiences to see all the true diversity that exists in the United States through the images which appear on the television screen (Johnson 166-7). The Communication Act of 19346, which was signed by President Franklin D. Roosevelt and which created the Federal Communications Commission (FCC)7, was supposed to ensure that broadcast television stations would be “licensed based on their service in the best interests of the public that each served” (Johnson 166-8). Nevertheless, television grew “faster than the FCC could regulate it” (Black, and Jennings 322). Television became a market-driven medium and it “often appears to value only the audiences and interests that are the most profitable— generally representing a narrower audience of middle-class and upper middle-class urban professionals who are predominantly white” (Johnson 168).

African American “characters who populated the television world of the early 1950s were happy-go-lucky social incompetents who knew their place and whose antics served to amuse and comfort culturally sanctioned notions of whiteness, especially white superiority and paternalism” (Gray 75). The most popular show with all-African American cast in the 1950s was Amos ‘n’ Andy (CBS, 1951-3). The show was an adaptation of a popular radio show which was created by two Caucasian comedians Freeman Gosden and Charles Correll who imitated African Americans on their show (Benshoff, and Griffin 90). When the show moved from radio to television, African American actors were hired and Amos ‘n’ Andy became the first prime-time program with all-African American cast (Johnson 177). The African American actors hired for the parts on the show “had to be coached to act stereotypically and to speak with heavy dialects like the whites who had mocked them on radio” (Larson 24). The show showcased negative stereotypes about African Americans but was “hugely popular among both white and black audiences of the early 1950s” (Benshoff, and Griffin 90). The critics of the Amos ‘n’ Andy show also claimed that it “misrepresented the lives of African Americans by portraying the central characters as buffoons” (Johnson 177-8). Victoria Johnson further asserts that the characters on the show “were disempowered in relation to dominant cultural ideology. Seen as incapable of attaining the American Dream, African American characters in early television comedy stood as symbols of what not to do and be” (172).

It was only during the 1960s and 1970s when television shows began to integrate African American characters into their casts and “television became more aware of race and racial issues” (Benshoff, and Griffin 90). New images of African Americans began to appear on television. The so-called “black and white buddy”8 shows also started to appear on television screens, I Spy (1965-8)9 introduced Bill Cosby and Robert Culp as international street agents (90). Another new image of African Americans can be observed in modern situational comedy Julia (1968-71) which introduced the first central African American female character. This show “entered into a dialogue with a larger social and cultural struggle over ‘what it meant to be black’ and ‘what it meant to be white’ at the end of 1960s in America” and the social and cultural issues which Julia dealt with created a great tension in the USA (Johnson, 174).

A wider range of African American characters on television came with Norman Lear’s shows, such as Good Times (1974-9), or The Jeffersons (1975-85). These shows “dealt with topical issues” (Benshoff, and Griffin 90). The premiere of the television mini-series Roots in 1977 is considered “by far the most important television event of the 1970s centering on America’s understanding of race” (90). The broadcast of Roots became a “national event watched by millions of Americans. The compelling drama put a human face on the tragedy of slavery, and afforded Americans the chance to contemplate the terrible institution” (90-91).

However, after Roots, the images of African Americans are said to have dropped and seemed to be of a much lower quality again. Many shows with African American casts were canceled on television or were scheduled at wrong viewing times. There was a great demand for programmes which would offer characters to which African Americans could relate (qtd. in Beacham). The change came in the 1980s when The Cosby Show (1984-92) was created by Bill Cosby who expressed his disappointment with the former representations of African Americans on television:

Run down what you saw of black people on TV before the Huxtables. You had Amos ‘n’ Andy, one of the funniest shows ever, people say. But who ever went to college? Who tried for better things? In Good Times, J.J. Walker played a definite underachiever. In Stanford & Son, you have a junk dealer living a few thousand dollars above the welfare level. The Jeffersons move uptown. He owns a dry-cleaning store, lives in an integrated neighborhood. Where are the social writings about this? (qtd. in Gray 80).

The Cosby Show presented new images of African Americans as it centers on a modern upper-middle-class professional family. Herman Gray claims that “Under Bill Cosby’s careful guidance the show quite intentionally presented itself as a corrective to previous generations of television representations of black life” (80).

      1. The Increasing Importance of African American Viewers

In the late 1980s, a change in demographics occurred when the Fox Network was launched by Rupert Murdoch’s News Corporation. This resulted in “The Big Three” television networks, ABC, CBS, and NBC10 experiencing a decline in viewership (Johnson 176). The reason why “The Big Three” networks experienced a decline in viewership is that “the Fox Network built up its audience by targeting typically underserved viewers—particularly, youth and urban African American audiences” (176). This change meant that the “Commercial television network executives, program makers, and advertisers were forced to define their audiences ever more precisely in terms of demographic characteristics such as income, class, race, gender, and age” (Gray 58).

The television networks and advertisers are deeply interested in obtaining the information about “who is watching” the show, whether the people watching the show also “watch the commercials” and whether they are willing to actually buy “the products which are being advertised” (Black, and Jennings 332). TV ratings represent a vital part of the making of television shows because larger audiences guarantee larger amounts of money from the advertisers. Ratings represent a kind of feedback for television networks as well as for the advertisers because they measure “the effectiveness of product consumption” (329). Ratings originated already in the early days of radio when there was a demand for measuring audience acceptance. The firm which dominates television ratings research nowadays is the A.C. Nielson Media Research Group. It is important to note that “Nielsen research is not perfect; for example, the Rocky Mountain states have long been underrepresented, out-of-home viewing is weakly represented, and a lower frequency of compliance by minority viewers typically requires tenuous statistical adjustments” (329). Nielson’s ratings use different methods of collecting data, they are audiometer, diary and People Meters. All of these methods have their restrictions too (330). Nevertheless, there are billions of dollars invested in advertising time and the amounts money spent on advertising time are based on the Nielsen ratings and Nielsen’s “measurements are accepted as valid by the networks” (329). When, for example, “Market surveys revealed that black people buy more Pepsi than other soft drinks […] suddenly we see more Pepsi commercials with black people in them” (Black Looks: Race and Representation 28).

The television industry has become aware of the fact that African American audiences are “ready-made, already organized, and exploitable market niche” (qtd. in Gray, 67). African American audiences are becoming increasingly important for the television networks and the advertisers according to a report published by Nielsen in 2013: “With a current buying power of $1 trillion […] the importance of connecting with African-American consumers is more important than ever” (The Nielson Company). The study also claims that African Americans are “more aggressive consumers of media and they shop more frequently” (The Nielson Company). African Americans therefore represent very significant demographics and the networks as well as advertisers should take their needs and interests into consideration more than ever before.

African American culture has become appropriated by the dominant society and has become highly profitable, Scott and Shade claim that “the current absorption with black culture is most dramatically displayed in the extensive borrowing by ‘African Americanized’ white teenagers of the alternative styles of music, speech, and dress associated with the black youth street culture of rap music, graffiti, and breakdancing known as ‘hip-hop’” (12). The hip-hop culture has earned an extensive economic success in the USA and it reaches a wide spectrum of audiences. Caucasian suburban adolescents who “are known as ‘mall rats’ […] provide the largest audience for hip-hop music and economically sustain its existence” (12). The so-called “‘gangsta’ ghetto look and lyrics […] sell well among the youth of all colors when properly packaged” (12). Hip-hop has expanded into various types of media, including movies, television, video games, advertising, or merchandizing.

Even though some elements of the African American culture have had a great impact on the mainstream culture and have become highly profitable, the struggle for accurate and complex representation of African Americans in the film industry and on television continues. Many critics claim that “although the quantity of African American representations on television has increased, the quality of these images has not” (qtd in. Punyanunt Carter 241). A filmmaker Spike Lee criticizes the way African Americans are depicted in films and on television. Lee “wrote and directed Bamboozled [2000] in response to what he felt was the ongoing racial stereotyping of and institutionalized discrimination against African Americans within the US television industry” (Benshoff, and Griffin 98). According to Spike Lee, “the same old” stereotypes or caricatures portraying African Americans as the “noble savage” or the “happy slave” are still being recreated (qtd. in Gonzales). Bell Hooks is concerned about American viewers and she asserts that “Many audiences in the United States resist the idea that images have an ideological intent. This is equally true of black audiences” (Black Looks: Race and Representation 5). She further claims that most African Americans “do not want to think critically about why they can sit in the darkness of theatres and find pleasure in images that cruelly mock and ridicule blackness” and insists that African Americans “have learned to cherish hateful images of [themselves]”(6).

      1. Contemporary Images of African Americans

Herman Gray in his book Watching Race: Television and the Struggle for “Blackness” (1995) suggests that “contemporary images of African Americans are anchored by three kinds of discursive practices” (84). He calls these practices assimilationist (invisibility), pluralist (separate but equal), and multiculturalist (diversity).

The assimilationist television discourses are those which “treat the social and political issues of black presence and racism in general as individual problems,” these discourses marginalize the social and cultural difference and make it appear that everyone is universally similar. These programs, according to Gray, “erase the histories of conquest, slavery, isolation, and power inequalities, conflicts, and struggles for justice and equality” (85). They also promote color blindness and racial invisibility, the African American characters on these programs accept the dominant society’s ideals and are separated from the African American social life and culture (85-86). According to Larson, this is a very common practice since “filmmakers assume their black characters don’t need cultural background or references” (24). African American “characters are usually shown in the context of their relationship with whites rather than with each other” and the African American characters tend to “appear ‘raceless’” (25). Gray names some of the programs which belong to this discourse, they are, for example, Designing Women, L.A. Law, Night Court, or The Golden Girls (85).

The pluralist “discourses situate black characters in domestically centered black worlds and circumstances that essentially parallel those of whites.” In these programs, the African American characters find themselves in the same “situations, and conflicts as whites except for the fact that they remain separate but equal” (87). These shows “seldom, if ever, critique or engage the hegemonic character of (middle-class construction of) whiteness, or for that matter, totalizing constructions of blackness” (88). Gray put programs such as Fresh Prince of Bel Air, The Jeffersons, or What’s Happening!!, into this category (87).

The last but not least, there is the multiculturalist discourse to which belongs The Cosby Show, Franks’s Place, or South Central. According to Gray: “The Cosby Show constructed black Americans as the authors of and participants in their own notion of America and what it means to be American.” The multiculturalist shows provide more complex representations of African American life (89). These programs also “represent questions of diversity within blackness more directly, explicitly, and frequently, and as central features of these programs” and “the experience of otherness that derives from subordinate status and social inequality are recognized, critiqued, and commented on” (91). I would suggest that the television series 30 Rock, which is analyzed in this thesis, belongs to the multiculturalist discourse as well, reasons for this suggestion are discussed in more detail in the following chapter.

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