On May 25th in Minneapolis, an event took place that started such a large wave of fervent protests in the United States that it reached international headlines. We are talking about the death of George Floyd, an American musician who was accused of making a purchase with a fake $ 20 bill and died under the arrest of several police officers.
“Race hate isn’t human nature; race hate is the abandonment of human nature.” – Orson Welles (American director, screenwriter and filmmaker)
With this article we want to give a voice to the history and representation of the African American community in film and show all that they have achieved thanks to the fight for equal rights over the years. We must all know this story.
Contextualization of the African American community in the United States
The U.S. is known as a country where segregation between people based on their origin or color of skin shapes its history. Slavery and segregation persisted for years until the occurrence of one event that began to change everything.
This event was the American Civil War (1861-1865). Led by Abraham Lincoln, the American Union caused the collapse of the Confederacy – which was never recognized by the government and made up entirely of slave states – and led to the abolishment of black slavery and freed more than four million slaves. Later, the Fourteenth Amendment granted citizenship to all individuals – including former slaves – born or naturalized in the United States and guaranteed all U.S. citizens “equal protection of the laws.” But, the reality in the South was different: violent white supremacy groups emerged, like the Ku Klux Klan, that began viciously segregating the population based on their skin color.
Abraham Lincoln, 16th President of the United States of America, politician and lawyer.
Source: the History Channel
This conflict was very present in society. Hence there emerged significant acts of resistance by the African American community – one of the most memorable being that of Rosa Parks, an important figure in U.S. the civil rights movement, who, in a symbolic and world-famous act of struggle for equality was arrested and fined for refusing to give up her seat on the bus to a white person.
The resistance was organized as such until Martin Luther King assumed leadership of the pacifist fight in defense of African-American civil rights. Years later, he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for achieving, as he said, his dream: “a future in which people with black and white complexions could coexist harmoniously as equals.”
Martin Luther King waving to the masses after his “I have a dream” speech.
Source: La Vanguardia
It’s because of so many years of injustice towards the African American community that we need to recognize their struggle – one that has led to such milestone achievements like the election of Barack Obama as first black president of the United States in 2008, opening a new chapter for the country’s history and that of the entire world.
How the African American community was influenced by history in the film industry
The inequality the African American community was subjected to for so many years spilled over into cinema, which presented stereotypical representations of people of color from the very beginning. We see proof of this primarily in films made prior to the 1920s in which people of color were shown as subordinate characters that were clearly inferior to the W.A.S.P. (White, Anglo Saxon and Protestant) characters. Furthermore, the former were portrayed as hopeless, uneducated and people who could not be trusted. Some of the roles they typically played were: “the comic black guy”, “the young black thief”, “the black mammy”, “the faithful servant”, among others.
To change this belittled image that had been tethered to the people of color, some African American investors decided to create movies for black people. This began the making of films featuring black protagonists, directed and filmed exclusively in African American neighborhoods.
Meanwhile, in movies directed exclusively by white people, black roles were played by non-African American actors. Instead, they transformed white actors to portray a crude caricature of people of color using “Blackface” – where dark theatrical make-up was used on white actors to change their skin tone. This practice was especially used in comic situations that satirized and negatively stereotyped people of color – in addition to trying to hide the real situation they lived in – showing them as dandy and happy people. AI Jolson was best known for practicing the above technique in “The Jazz Singer”, the first feature film presented as a talkie in the history of film.
AI Jolson, singer, actor and screenwriter in his role in the movie, “The Jazz Singer”.
As previously mentioned, there were African-American films created by its community and, at the same time, cinema created by external parties. But it wasn’t until World War II that the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People negotiated conditions with Hollywood studios for how African Americans could be represented on screen. These conditions included putting a stop to derogatory social roles and the inclusion of proper representation by the members of the African American community itself in audiovisual products.
From here, people of color starting claiming their place in the industry. The change was like a before and after of its former image, which had been anchored to prejudices and stereotypes of a former slave society.
So real was the change that in 1940, Hattie McDaniel became the first African American to be awarded an Oscar. The closing words to her emotional acceptance speech were “I sincerely hope I will always be a credit to my race and to the motion picture industry. God bless you.”
Hattie McDaniel in a scene of the movie “Gone with the Wind”.
Source: La Vanguardia
Between the 50s and 60s, the African American community established its presence even more, as actresses and actors of color starred in roles of greater consideration such as those played by Dorothy Dandridge and Harry Belafonte, among others; films of great importance were produced like “Stormy Weather” (1943), “St. Louis Blues” (1958) and “Porgy & Bess” (1959).
Later, in 1962, “To Kill a Mockingbird” was filmed, a movie dominated by racial prejudice, in which the main character wasn’t the African American man accused of an alleged rape, but rather the white lawyer who defended a person of color. It’s said that the moral of this was to impart non-discriminatory values to new generations.
Scene of the movie, “Kill a Mockingbird”, in which the main plot is a non-African American lawyer who defends a person of color.
Source: World Socialist Web Site
At the end of the 60s, “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner?” was filmed, a movie about an interracial couple in which the protagonist is a young black man who falls in love with a young Caucasian woman and is meeting her parents for the first time. Despite their very conservative ways, the parents end up approving their relationship after meeting their daughter’s charming suitor. It should be added that, in 2005, the movie was remade with “Guess Who” in which the roles were reversed: a young white man falls in love with young black woman.
Scene from the 1967 movie, “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner” and the 2005 remake, “Guess Who”.
Source: ABC.es | FilaSiete
Moving farther along the historical timeline, we reach the 70s and Blaxploitation – a film movement in which the members of African American community played the main characters in films with soundtracks by well-known artists of the time. It was like the golden age of this style of cinema.
From there, Hollywood’s doors opened completely to the African American community. Actors of color like Denzel Washington, Whoopi Goldberg, Morgan Freeman, Octavia Spencer, Will Smith… entered mainstream Hollywood, playing huge starring roles. Among the wide range of movies starring or written by people of color that have great significance in the history of the film, here are just a few:
- “The Color Purple” (1985). Starring Whoopi Goldberg. A story about a black teenager who gets impregnated by her father, filling her life with pain and suffering. The film received the Best Actress nomination for the Oscars and the Golden Globe Awards.
- “The Help” (2011). Featuring Octavia Spencer. The film is based on a southern girl who decides to interview many women of color who have spent their lives serving wealthy families and suffering racial discrimination – Spencer being one of them. She was nominated for the Oscars, the Golden Globes and the BAFTA Awards for Best Actress.
- “12 Years a Slave” (2013). Based on a true story in 1850. A story about Solomon Northup, a musician of color who, after having a drink with two men, was drugged, kidnapped and sold into slavery to work on a Louisiana plantation. Solomon never gives up and fights for his freedom. It was nominated for the Oscars, the Golden Globes and the BAFTA Awards for Best Picture.
- “Selma” (2014). Directed by Ava Duvernay, the first African American director to be nominated for an Oscar for Best Picture. It’s a chronicle of the struggle of Martin Luther King, politician and activist.
- “Moonlight” (2016). Based on the life of a young gay African American man and the racism and abuse he endures growing up. The film was nominated for Best Picture for the Oscars, the Golden Globes and the BAFTA Awards. It’s also considered one of the TOP10 by the American Film Institute and the National Board of Review.
- “Let Me Out” (2017). Directed by Jordan Peele, nominated for Best Director by the Independent Spirit Awards. The film is about a young African American man who goes on a weekend getaway to meets his white girlfriend’s parents and makes a series of disturbing discoveries along the way.
Denzel Washington and Halle Berry, two Oscar Award-winning black actors.
Source: Marie Claire
“It’s not where you start but how high you aim that matters for success.” – Nelson Mandela