African-American representation in Hollywood
||It has been suggested that this article be merged into Stereotypes of African Americans in the United States. (Discuss) Proposed since March 2013.|
'The presence of African Americans in major motion picture roles has been a conversation since Hattie McDaniel played Mammy, the house servant, in Gone with the Wind. "Through most of the 20th century, images of African-Americans in advertising were mainly limited to servants like the pancake-mammy Aunt Jemima and Rastus, the chef on the Cream of Wheat box." The roles the African-American community are generally offered usually fall into three themes; a tale of rags to riches, thug life, or segregation. "Many researchers argue that media portrayals of minorities tend to reflect whites' attitudes toward minorities and, therefore, reveal more about whites themselves than about the varied and lived experiences of minorities", and though these are one groups (white peoples) opinions it still seems to dominate mainstream media.
Even in today’s movies the roles for an African-American performer fall under similar typecast roles, the biggest movie with African-American leads in 2011 was The Help. In the 2012 Academy Awards The Help was nominated for several categories: Best Performance by an Actress in a Supporting Role Octavia Spencer also nominated for the same category was Jessica Chastain, Best Performance by an Actress in a Leading Role Viola Davis, and Best Motion Picture of the Year. The movie walked away with one win for Best Supporting Actress Octavia Spencer, leaving Viola Davis to lose to Meryl Streep, a 14-time nominee and three-time winner. Octavia Spencer was the only African American to win an award that night, which for the Academy Awards is not a rare occasion.
Neglect from the Academy Awards
2012 marked the Academy Awards' 84th anniversary, and through 84 years, only a handful of African Americans have been nominated and fewer have walked away with the golden statue. Other than Octavia Spencer's most recent win, it has been three years since another African American has graced the Oscar stage. Some[who?] speculate that the lack of ethnic wins at Hollywood's most prestigious awards is because most of the voters are older white men. It seems as though[according to whom?] unless the African American actors and actresses are willing to bend to Hollywood pressures they will not be acknowledged by the Academy. "Sidney Poitier originally turned down the role of Porgy in the 1959 film (calling it 'not material complimentary to black people')", but eventually succumbed to Hollywood pressure. Years later, Poitier received an honorary 2010 Academy Award for helping to "dismantle the color line in film."
In 1988 during Eddie Murphy's (who was nominated in 2007) presentation of the Best Picture category, Murphy gave an impromptu speech on how he felt that the Academy Awards were racist, stating only three black people had won the award. There are many speculations on why Eddie Murphy lost the award in 2007 to Alan Arkin, one being that Murphy made the blockbuster bust Norbit. Others[who?] speculate that it is due to Murphy's comments from 1988. "The troubling thing is that the only two black actors in this year’s Oscar competition are cast as domestics, and would probably not have found meaty, starring roles in other films had they passed on “The Help.” This brings to mind the first black Oscar winner, Hattie McDaniel, who received the award in 1940 for her portrayal of the loyal maid in “Gone With the Wind.” "When criticized for often playing a mammy on film, Ms. McDaniel famously said she would rather play a maid in the movies than be one."[attribution needed]
Due to the racial tension in the 19th and early 20th centuries, Hollywood tended to avoid using African-American actors/actress. In the 19th century, Blackface became a popular form of entertainment. Blackface let Hollywood use different characters without actually having to employ anyone with a darker skin tone. Actor Al Jolson made blackface popular with characters such as Amos 'n' Andy and Jakie Rabinowitz. In 1930, the craze of blackface died out because of its connotations with bigotry and racism.
In 1951 when Amos 'n' Andy was brought to television, Clarence Muse "championed the popular comedy. Despite its demeaning caricatures, he argued, the program at least moved African-American performers to center stage.'" He then "self-published a pamphlet entitled 'The Dilemma of the Negro Actor.' In it, he made the incisive (and, to this day, depressingly accurate) observation that African-American performers were caught in a trap. 'There are two audiences in America to confront,' he wrote, 'the white audience with a definite desire for buffoonery and song, and the Negro audience with a desire to see the real elements of Negro life portrayed.'" "Despite its demeaning caricatures, he argued, the program at least moved African-American performers to center stage.'"
Though the roles were demeaning for the communities with darker skin tones, some actors and actresses were so desperate to represent their communities or to change the ways of Hollywood they knew that any part is a part. Performers such as Sidney Poitier and Hattie McDaniel would do whatever they would have to in order to pave the way for other African-American actors and actresses.
African-American actresses and actors are more common on the big screen, but they are still scarce in bigger blockbuster movies, "with the stakes high, many studio executives worry that films that focus on African-American themes risk being too narrow in their appeal to justify the investment. Hollywood has nonetheless shown a willingness in recent years to bank more heavily on African-American actors and themes." Studio executives explain the lack of presence of the African Americans in supporting or starring roles by stating “only 4 out of 10 movies turn a profit, according to the Association of Motion Picture and Television Producers. But because pictures with nearly all-black casts come along more infrequently, they tend to stand out more when they fail".
Some truly believe that Hollywood has changed with directors such as Spike Lee and Tyler Perry who cast all African-American films, and who have become such household names paving the way further for the rest of the African-American community. Though both directors have significantly different ways of portraying the African American community, the popularity of both directors seems to signify to some that the racial tension in Hollywood has ended. Adding to the movement, Disney introduced the first African-American princess, Tiana, in 2009. People felt that "the color barrier is breaking down in Hollywood". A majority of people may still see the thin line between Hollywood's "new" attitude toward race and their "old" attitude toward race. “The consolidation of a black presence in the movies and television did not signal the arrival of a postracial Hollywood any more than the election of Barack Obama in 2008 spelled the end of America’s 400-year-old racial drama.”
The Washington, Jackson, Smith Effect
At least three men have built their careers in roles where race was unimportant to the story: Denzel Washington’s detective in The Pelican Brief, Will Smith's alien fighter in Independence Day, and Samuel L Jackson's Jedi in Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace. "But when Mr. Washington, for instance, moonlights in smaller genre films like The Great Debaters — which he starred in and directed — much of his selling power tends to evaporate".>
All three men are known for their versatility and are popular for multiple roles, and all three men are some of the highest paid African-American actors in the business to date. The success is no secret, though all have performed in roles where race is an important story line: Smith as Muhammad Ali, Jackson in Do the Right Thing, and Washington as Malcolm X; these roles did not define or begin their careers. It seems as though the three men have cheated the Hollywood system and against all odds made successful and long standing careers in the film industry. "It ultimately may not matter what American moviegoers think. In an increasingly global business, international markets — where modern movies typically make about 60 percent of their theatrical revenue — usually rebuff movies, especially comedies, with nearly all-black casts. The 2005 movie “Diary of a Mad Black Woman” sold $51 million in tickets in the United States. Overseas, ticket sales totaled $19,104. International audiences are hostile because they don’t understand the humor that is often present in the work of black performers,” said James Ulmer, whose Ulmer Scale rates the global 'bankability' of actors. The NAACP says it does not buy that argument. 'If that explanation is true then America is doing business with racist regimes and it should be addressed at the United Nations,' said Vic Bulluck, executive director of the organization’s Hollywood Bureau."
Not all actors and actresses can be as fortunate and the racial tension in Hollywood does not help performers who are from a different race. These men are a select few who have been able to surpass Hollywoods opinion and make it to the top. Other films, such as Welcome Home Roscoe Jenkins, a 2008 comedy starring Martin Lawrence that sold $41.2 million in tickets, have been successful, but studio research indicated that its audience was about 70 percent black. Like the success of Tyler Perry's Diary of a Mad Black Woman, according to the Hollywood executives, a "black comedy" can only reach certain audiences, limiting the amount of profit the studios can make on such movies. The popularity of these three actors seems to be the roles they choose, they can be played by people of any race, and that to studios is easier to market, unlike a movie with a cast made up of non-white people all from the same race.
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