20th Century African American Cinema Stereotypes & Donald Bogle: A Series

Part One:  20th Century Cinema

With the recent motion pictures of ’12 Years A Slave’, and ‘Django Unchained’ Hollywood has offered a new sense of the history of African American’s in the United States not too distant past.  The slave trade hasn’t featured too much as a subject in it’s own right in Hollywood over the years, and much talk has been stirred amongst the political and educational arenas.  With this in mind I take a look not at the slave trade in particular, but with African American stereotypes and their potrayal on the silver screen throughout the 20th and 21st centuries.

It’s not just what we inherit from our mothers and fathers that haunts us. It’s all kinds of old defunct theories, all sorts of old defunct beliefs, and things like that. It’s not that they actually live on in us; they are simply lodged there, and we cannot get rid of them. I’ve only to pick up a newspaper and I seem to see ghosts gliding between the lines.
Henrik Ibsen

There is a shared assumption amongst the audience about the ‘essence’ of African Caribbean people, Indian people, Irish people and so on. Knowledge about those who are different from ‘us ‘is often gained vicariously through various media forms. However this way of learning about other cultures is rapidly changing due to the fact that western society, like many across our planet, are fast becoming multi-cultural. These articles are going to concentrate on the way the media has been used to portray African Americans in 20th and 21st century Hollywood.

Media is and has been a powerful tool throughout history; it has been used to persecute many social groups within society. The repetitive framing of certain images in certain ways eventually leads to those images being seen as a definitive statement on those people and the groups to which ‘they’ belong. Images thus become transformed over time, from being merely symbolic to connoting reality. The Media’s tendency, in any case, towards simplification means that sophisticated discussions which contextualize complicated ideas, histories and events are routinely ignored in favour of reductionist explanations which the imagined mass audience will more easily understand.

Stereotyping can be associated with what media dictates to a society, whether this is through propaganda or beauty magazines. Contained within the stereotyping is the structuring of implicit power relations where the gaze is from the dominant, looking at the subordinate: how they are different from us rather than how we are different from them. The gaze has traditionally been white, where whiteness is taken as the profoundly unproblematic norm against which all ‘others;’ are measured. The powerful have no need to justify themselves to the powerless.

Indeed African Americans have long been a race that suffered under the dominion of white supremacy, and the media in all it forms has played a major role in the continuance of this oppression. Has the media always sought to represent this demographic negatively and does it continue to do so today? In particular we will focus on the mediums of television and film, although of course it is important not to discount other media that have a relevant bearing. In order to comprehend African American representation in the Hollywood, it is important to gain an understanding of its past.

Slavery has existed as far back as records can be traced, but it is the 18th and 19th centuries we are most concerned with as this is a time when American slave trade was prevelant. In the 18th century a trans-Atlantic slave trade soon developed. There was an insatiable demand for slaves in the Carribean and the southern portion of what is today the United States. A decline in population in the Carribean and a request for increased manpower in the plantations meant that huge numbers of slaves were required. Some 12 million slaves have been estimated to have left Africa to the Americas of which approx 10 million made the harsh journey alive. These areas all developed an insatiable demand for slaves. This was then the largest migration of people in history, although the precise numbers are still an issue of hot debate amongst scholars.

The importation of slaves from other countries was banned in 1808 and the slave trade in that respect came to a close. The Southern states of America however continued to practise slave labour. North America however was largely against the owning of slaves and it was this disparity that led to open war between the Union and the Confederates. The American civil war (1861-1865) was a battle based on ethics and morality, with the union taking the moral high ground. Abraham Lincoln made a brave political move and in 1863 and in the Emancipation proclaimation he stated that all slaves in those states still in rebellion against the United States would be declared free .

This was a crucial step in the progression of African American rights, but not the end of racism itself. African Americans would continue to be exploited and in the 20th century it was time for a more evolved media to play its part. With the introduction of motion pictures and the advent of Hollywood, African Americans would again find themselves on the receiving end of oppression from whites.

The development of film was based on the assumption that the actors in front of the camera (and of course behind) would be white, and celluloid was originally developed for the white body (Dyer, 1993), this of course sticking to the “Society Norm” that had been created by media at that time. For contrast and variety in early film enterprises, problems were encountered, particular when lighting African American artistes.

Thus the technology itself was culturally normative around whiteness and with the introduction of black characters . The limited range of perceptions about black people from the view of the white film industry meant that difficulties in lighting were neatly turned to advantage by routinely placing black people in shadow to suggest evil or darkness.

The representation of race in the media continues to be a topic of much importance, and hence much debate. This series of articles are concerned with the complex issues of African American representation in twentieth and twenty-first century Hollywood. In particular, this study aims to chart the evolution of African American iconography and representation by Hollywood, through what can be perceived as the ‘key phases’ in the development of the Hollywood film industry. It acknowledges the complexity of representational issues, and seeks to identify the provenance of particular ‘types’ of characterisation which have traditionally been allocated to African American actors during these key phases.

Donald Bogle is an author and scholar who in his first book,’ Toms, Coons, Mulattoes, Mammies and Bucks: An Interpretative History of Blacks in Films’, he identified five basic stereotypical film roles available to African-American actors and actresses: the servile, avuncular “tom”; the simple-minded and cowardly “coon”; the tragic, and usually female, mulatto; the fat, dark-skinned “mammy“; and the irrational, hypersexual male “buck”.  In the second edition of the book, Bogle identified a sixth stereotype: the sidekick, who is usually asexual. 

I will be asking; are Donald Bogle’s stereotypes relevant beyond the silent era and to the present day? Have the stereotypes evolved over time? Have established stereotypes survived, and have new stereotypes emerged?

Part Two.

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One response to “20th Century African American Cinema Stereotypes & Donald Bogle: A Series

  1. Pingback: 20th Century African American Cinema Stereotypes & Donald Bogle: A Series | TheZenith·

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