African-Americanshavealways had a bit of a love-hate relationship with the movies. While black artists in front of and behinds the cameras have created indelible performances, stories and images that audiences of all backgrounds cherish—there has been an ugly side to black representation in Hollywood that is unavoidable and continues to this day.
From the very beginning of movies, with D.W. Griffith’s racist propaganda film The Birth of a Nationthere have been racist themes and images in mainstream movies. For much of the 20th century black audiences endured blackface, coons and with the exception of a few dignified Sidney Poitier roles in the 50s and 60s — barely any representation at all. When the blaxploitation genre broke through in the 1970s it did give more African-American talent a chance to shine but these films largely glorified violence and crime, as well as brutality towards women.
In recent years, blacks have seen offensive stereotypes passed off as comedy in movies like Soul Plane and Bebe’s Kids. These films remind us that we still have a long way to go when it comes to portraying our culture and lifestyle accurately and respectfully on the big screen.
1. The Birth of a Nation (1915)
The movie that is often credited with creating modern narrative filmmaking is also responsible for recruiting Klu Klux Klansman all over the country and for cementing hateful perceptions of African-Americans that persist to this day.
(AP Photo/Harris Lewine Collection)
2. Stepin Fetchit in Hearts of Dixie (1927)
During Hollywood’s golden era the only roles mainstream black actors were given the opportunity to play were humiliating and usually racist. Few were as successful as Stepin Fetchit. Billed as “the Laziest Man in the World”, Fetchit was the first black actor to make millions in the film industry. He starred in dozens of offensive films and his name is synonymous with an era Hollywood loves to forget.
3. Gone with the Wind (1939)
This film is uniquely responsible for perpetuating racist romanticized mythsabout slavery and the Civil War. Although Hattie McDaniel won a historic Oscar for her role as Mammy, the role is undeniably demeaning and the ‘Prissy’ role played by Butterfly McQueen (pictured) is cringe-worthy.
(AP Photo/New Line Cinema)
4. Song of the South (1947)
Disney has long kept this film hidden in their vaults and with good reason. Aimed at children, with animation and catchy songs (“Zip-a-Dee-Doo-Dah”) this film features the infamous and inflammatory Uncle Remus character. A product of post-reconstruction literature, Remus perpetuates the idea of blacks as docile and content to serve white masters.
(Image courtesy of Walt Disney Pictures)
5. Cleopatra (1963)
When producers originally conceived this big budget epic about the Egyptian ruler, they considered casting African-American actress Dorothy Dandridge. Presuming white audiences would stay away they cast Elizabeth Taylor in the title role instead. The result was one of the costliest flops in movie history. During the 50s and 60s, with the exception of Sidney Poitier and a few others, black performers were largely relegated to the sidelines or not seen at all. In film after film, parts that should go to actors of color were played by whites.