The Evolution of Black Cinematography

In the words of the famous singer Sam Cooke, “It’s been a long, a long time coming
But I know a change gon’ come, oh yes it will”.  African American actors and films directors have come a long way from playing stereotypical roles of maids and cooks to giving speeches at the Academy Awards.   African American men and women were confined to demeaning roles and films but this is after the 1

920’s before that blacks were portrayed by whites covered in black make- up and  red lipstick where in most films they performed racist and demeaning stereotypes that depicted us as being lazy, stupid, foolish, childish so on and so forth.  But despite of all of the adversity and racism that existed then African Americans were able to move away from

oscar_micheaux

Oscar Micheaux “First Black Film Maker”

those stereotypical roles and take leading roles of protagonists in Hollywood’s blockbuster films.

Early films degrading African Americans

Some but not all African take the movie The Help as a step back to another demeaning role that takes us back to the stereotypical roles of cooks and maids.  The Help is a story of a group of black maids in the 60s from the state of Mississippi who agreed to share their stories of mistreatment from their bosses and reveal them in a book written by a young, white aspiring actress who liberates them because they can’t help themselves thus the title “The Help”.  There are also other films like Gone With the Wind, Casablanca and Driving Miss Daisy where African Americans played demeaning roles that degrade blacks because the films convey the idea that blacks are subordinate, unable to guide, direct or give meaning to their lives without the leadership of whites.

The movies from the 60s and 80s were not as demeaning and racist compared to a the ones from the early 1900s the 3 hour film Birth of a Nation for example which was a movie based on the Thomas Dixon’s novel the Clansman, depicts a story of US history in the 1860s .  In the film African Americans are portrayed as brutish, lazy, morally degenerated and dangerous and where the Ku Klux Klan is the hero who rises to save the South from the Reconstruction Era-prominence of African Americans in Southern public life.  The film premiered in Los Angeles and became one of the highest grossing and controversial films in U.S history.

There are also the films like the Ten Pickaninnies and Wooing and Wedding of a Coon that introduced another degrading and demeaning black screen caricature the coon which evolved into one of the most blatantly degrading stereotypes, there were more black caricatures both in films and cartoons and even though many black leaders from the NAACP protesting against it they had no power to stop this trend.

The Hollywood then was different from the Hollywood from today, back then Hollywood was notorious for producing movies of different genres that promoted racist, classist, sexist, and homophobic attitudes to different minority groups.

During this time, the roles of African Americans were confined to loyal servants, mammies and butlers, reinforcing the social status of blacks which was that of servants who was devoted to his or her white masters this went on from the 1910’s till the 1930s .

 

The Rise of Black Film Makers

After the Civil War many African American Americans migrated to the North from the rural South for a better future abandoning the Jim Crow laws of the South to the better living standards of the North.  The U.S between the 1910’s and 1940s saw a shift in the racial landscape and mainstream Hollywood started to reflect that change in their films.  From the 1910s to the 1930s a few black owned film companies were establishing that had “colored cast” and productions that had positive and diverse roles for actresses and actors.

From this era we have the rise of the first African American director Oscar Micheaux who was never bought or ever influenced by white Hollywood.  He was the Bill Cosby of the 1920’s, Micheaux rejected stereotypical roles of blacks.  He showed blacks in positions of power, authority, and respectability.  He offered the opposite of what Hollywood depicted with their cruel simplistic stereotypical films.  He loved to portray controversial subjects to its audience like lynching segregation and racism.  Another great black film maker was Noble Johnson he was both actor and director an ambitious man who created his own movie company and became president of the Lincoln Motion Picture company.  This was the first movie company organized by black filmmakers.  Lincoln Motion Picture was the first company to produce films that portrayed blacks as real people who lived real lives.

In the words of the famous singer Sam Cooke, “It’s been a long, a long time coming
But I know a change gon’ come, oh yes it will”.  African American actors and films directors have come a long way from playing stereotypical roles of maids and cooks to giving speeches at the Academy Awards.   African American men and women were confined to demeaning roles and films but this is after the 1

920’s before that blacks were portrayed by whites covered in black make- up and  red lipstick where in most films they performed racist and demeaning stereotypes that depicted us as being lazy, stupid, foolish, childish so on and so forth.  But despite of all of the adversity and racism that existed then African Americans were able to move away from those stereotypical roles and take leading roles of protagonists in Hollywood’s blockbuster films.

Early films degrading African Americans

Some but not all African take the movie The Help as a step back to another demeaning role that takes us back to the stereotypical roles of cooks and maids.  The Help is a story of a group of black maids in the 60s from the state of Mississippi who agreed to share their stories of mistreatment from their bosses and reveal them in a book written by a young, white aspiring actress who liberates them because they can’t help themselves thus the title “The Help”.  There are also other films like Gone With the Wind, Casablanca and Driving Miss Daisy where African Americans played demeaning roles that degrade blacks because the films convey the idea that blacks are subordinate, unable to guide, direct or give meaning to their lives without the leadership of whites.

The movies from the 60s and 80s were not as demeaning and racist compared to a the ones from the early 1900s the 3 hour film Birth of a Nation for example which was a movie based on the Thomas Dixon’s novel the Clansman, depicts a story of US history in the 1860s .  In the film African Americans are portrayed as brutish, lazy, morally degenerated and dangerous and where the Ku Klux Klan is the hero who rises to save the South from the Reconstruction Era-prominence of African Americans in Southern public life.  The film premiered in Los Angeles and became one of the highest grossing and controversial films in U.S history.

There are also the films like the Ten Pickaninnies and Wooing and Wedding of a Coon that introduced another degrading and demeaning black screen caricature the coon which evolved into one of the most blatantly degrading stereotypes, there were more black caricatures both in films and cartoons and even though many black leaders from the NAACP protesting against it they had no power to stop this trend.

The Hollywood then was different from the Hollywood from today, back then Hollywood was notorious for producing movies of different genres that promoted racist, classist, sexist, and homophobic attitudes to different minority groups.

During this time, the roles of African Americans were confined to loyal servants, mammies and butlers, reinforcing the social status of blacks which was that of servants who was devoted to his or her white masters this went on from the 1910’s till the 1930s .

 

The Rise of Black Film Makers

After the Civil War many African American Americans migrated to the North from the rural South for a better future abandoning the Jim Crow laws of the South to the better living standards of the North.  The U.S between the 1910’s and 1940s saw a shift in the racial landscape and mainstream Hollywood started to reflect that change in their films.  From the 1910s to the 1930s a few black owned film companies were establishing that had “colored cast” and productions that had positive and diverse roles for actresses and actors.

From this era we have the rise of the first African American director Oscar Micheaux who was never bought or ever influenced by white Hollywood.  He was the Bill Cosby of the 1920’s, Micheaux rejected stereotypical roles of blacks.  He showed blacks in positions of power, authority, and respectability.  He offered the opposite of what Hollywood depicted with their cruel simplistic stereotypical films.  He loved to portray controversial subjects to its audience like lynching segregation and racism.  Another great black film maker was Noble Johnson he was both actor and director an ambitious man who created his own movie company and became president of the Lincoln Motion Picture company.  This was the first movie company organized by black filmmakers.  Lincoln Motion Picture was the first company to produce films that portrayed blacks as real people who lived real lives.

 

Just like Noble Johnson, Oscar Micheaux his films were shown in big city ghetto houses in the North and in segregated theaters in the South as well as in black churches, schools and social organizations.  By the late 1940s the black movie industry was fading but nevertheless both Micheaux and Noble Johnson left a legacy for generations to come they inspired other blacks to be independent.

 

The Breakthrough Era

Before the Civil Rights movement something unprecedented took place and this was the celebration for the first African American actor to win the Academy Award.  According to the Hollywood Reporter on the month of February in a segregated “ No Blacks” hotel in Los Angeles in 1940 Hattie McDaniel became the first African American to receive the Oscar for her role of Mammy in the film Gone with the Wind.  “Hattie McDaniel, then one of the biggest African-American movie stars in the world — marched into the Culver City offices of producer David O. Selznick and placed a stack of Gone With the Wind reviews on his desk. The Civil War epic, released two months earlier, had become an instant cultural sensation, and McDaniel’s portrayal of Mammy — the head slave at Tara, the film’s fictional Southern plantation”

(Abramovich, 2015).   Though she was criticized by the African Americans for her demeaning and stereotypical house maid she inspired many young African American actors.  It would take another 23 years for the African American to receive an Oscar.

With the growing momentum of the Civil Rights Movement, more changes to Hollywood were taking place there was a larger presence of blacks sharing screen time with whites which was unprecedented at that time.  There was greater cast integration, and greater encouragement from the Civil Rights movement.

During this era, leading actor Sidney Poitier became the first African-American to win an Academy Award for best actor,

“He won for his role in Lilies of the Field (he had also been nominated for best actor for The Defiant Ones five years earlier), and though it was a tremendous breakthrough in terms of diversity, it’s also worth noting that when Ann Bancroft gave him a kiss on the cheek when presenting him with the Oscar, some people were offended” (Goodykoontz, 2014).  But that was the world back in 1964, the accomplishment Poitier received though made an impact to many African American lives, it did not erase the sick reality that we were still living in a segregated world. The various films in the 1960s saw a continuation of the work that was accomplished in the late 1950s, with greater push back against the racial status quo, greater cast integration, and greater encouragement to better understand the meanings of race in the U.S.

More African American representation in Hollywood Today

Academy Award Winners Sidney Poitier and Hattie McDaniel paved the road to modern-day actors like Denzel Washington, Morgan Freeman, Whoopi Goldberg, and Halle Berry to break more barriers and to have more African Americans take more leading roles in Hollywood.  Following the success of Sidney Poitier and Hattie McDaniel more opportunities opened up to African American actors, directors, writers, and producers continued to expand.  More African Americans were seen in all genres of films from action, comedy, drama, documentary, horror and romance.  More TV shows were blossoming that were portraying more African American families as normal human beings that lived real lives just like everybody else just like the way director Micheaux and Johnson did back in the 20’s.  “The Cosby Show” was breaking new ground in the media portraying professional black families with a predominantly black cast.  We had the “Jeffersons”, “The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air,” (1990-96) “Family Matters” (1989-98) and the progressively minded campus-comedy spinoff “A Different World” (1987-93). Though some might say the show merely picked up where “The Jeffersons” (1975-85) and “Good Times” (1974-79) left off, “The Cosby Show” remains the most-watched show featuring a predominantly black cast in the history of American TV. For five of the eight years it ran, it was the most-watched show in America — period — beloved by audiences of all colors and walks of life” (Flanagan, 2014) .  These shows opened new doors to new talents and modern black family shows such as ABC’s “Black-ish” with more than 7 million viewers each week.  The show is now on its third season its ratings are higher of those from “Modern Family” and “The Goldberg’s.”

Also we are witnessing more African American films on the big screen films such as 12 a Slave, which won the Academy Award for the best picture, the industry’s highest honor.  The film was also nominated for nine Oscars and won three, including one for Lupita Nyong’o for

best supporting actress and one for John Ridley for adapted screenplay. Both are black, as is director Steve McQueen this is definitely progress.  We have more films describing the black experience in America with black writers, actors and film directors.  There is also Selma the film based on the citizen march across the Edmund Pettus Bridge and Dr, Martin Luther King’s struggles with the Civil Rights Movement.  The film received lots of Academy Award Nomination and Golden globe nominations.

 

Conclusion

 

Though there is still work to be done nevertheless African Americans have come a long way from being confined to demeaning stereotypical roles on television.  We are now seeing progress with more African American taking leading roles, breaking boundaries and stereotypes and even though that plague of old Southern Jim Crow stereotypes is still evident in Hollywood today this shall come to pass.

 

 

 

 

References

Abramovich, S. (2015, February 19). Oscar’s First Black Winner Accepted Her Honor in a Segregated ‘No Blacks’ Hotel in L.A. Retrieved from http://www.hollywoodreporter.com/features/oscars-first-black-winner-accepted-774335

 

Kang, C., Thompson, K., & Harewell, D. (2014, December 23). Hollywood’s Race Problem: An Insicular Industry Struggles to Change. Retrieved October 30, 2016, from https://www.coursehero.com/tutors-problems/Business/9343233-httpswwwwashingtonpostcombusinesseconomyhollywoods-race-proble/

Samthanam, L., & Crigger, M. (2015, September 22). Out of 30,000 Hollywood film characters, here’s how many weren’t white. Retrieved October 30, 2016, from http://www.pbs.org/newshour/rundown/30000-hollywood-film-characters-heres-many-werent-white/

Flanagin, J. (2014, September 24). Why ‘The Cosby Show’ Still Matters. Retrieved from http://op-talk.blogs.nytimes.com/2014/09/24/why-the-cosby-show-still-matters/

Goodykoontz, Gannett Chief Film Critic, B. (2015, February 20). For blacks in Hollywood, it’s the same old script. Retrieved October 30, 2016, from http://www.usatoday.com/story/life/2015/02/12/black-history-cinema/23321125/

T, J. (2016, January 21). How racially skewed are the Oscars? Retrieved October 30, 2016, from http://www.economist.com/blogs/prospero/

 

 

 

Schella, A., & Strachan, M. (2016, April 06). In The Rare Event A Hollywood Movie Features Two Black … Retrieved October 30, 2016, from http://www.huffingtonpost.com/entry/hollywood-movies-black-leads_us_56eac044e4b065e2e3d89665

Glassman, M. (2014, December 12). Chris Rock Is Right: Hollywood Isn’t Fair to Black Films. Retrieved October 30, 2016, from http://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2014-12-12/top-five-chris-rock-is-right-hollywood-isnt-fair-to-black-films

  1. (2015, August 20). Why do Hollywood studios refuse to accept that black films can rule the box office? Retrieved from https://thegrio.com/2016/10/30/a-list-actor-calls-himself-out-on-cultural-appropriation/

Goodykoontz, Gannett Chief Film Critic, B. (2014, February 25). Oscar win proved Sidney Poitier was second to none. Retrieved from http://www.usatoday.com/story/life/movies/2014/02/25/black-history-month-poitier-oscar/5817735/

 

 

 

 

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