African-American representation in Hollywood

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The presence of African Americans in major motion picture roles has stirred controversy 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."[1] The roles the African-American community were generally offered usually fell 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". Producing films in the way is what leads to a singular perspective and opinion (in this case white peoples) to dominate mainstream media.[2]

Even in today’s movies the roles for an African-American performer often 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 20-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.

Writing 8 years ago, the NY Times said:

  • Race in American cinema has rarely been a matter of simple step-by-step progress. It has more often proceeded in fits and starts, with backlashes coming on the heels of breakthroughs, and periods of intense argument followed by uncomfortable silence. [1]

Old Hollywood[edit]

Due to the racial discrimination 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.[3] In 1930, the craze of blackface died out because of its connotations with bigotry and racism.[4]

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.'"[5] He then "self-published a pamphlet entitled 'The Dilemma of the Negro Actor.' In it, he made the incisive 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.'"[5]

The roles given to African American actors followed old stereotypes. There was the Tom who was someone who served white people, the Coon who acted goofy (like a clown or naive), then there was the "Tragic Mulatto" who was someone who tried to "pass for being white", the Mammy who was seen as asexual, helped to raise the young, and helped families, and the Buck who was often a male who was hypersexualized and seen as a threat.[6]

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.

New Hollywood[edit]

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".[7]

The then and now 2014 Academy Awards were a turning point for African-American films, with the film 12 Years a Slave taking home the Oscar for Best Picture.[8] In 2013, five African-American films were released (12 Years a Slave, Fruitvale Station, Lee Daniels' The Butler, Best Man Holiday and Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom). The release of such films had a broader impact on the film industry with movie attendance by African Americans growing by 13% compared to 2012.[9]

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".[7] 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.”[10]

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."[10]

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]

In a 2016 article[11] entitled "How racially skewed are the Oscars?", The Economist had a look at the issue as of the 21. century and found that as far as actors are concerned, "...the number of black actors winning Oscars in this century has been pretty much in line with the size of America's overall black population. But this does not mean Hollywood has no problems of prejudice. As the data show, it clearly does." The article points to low African American membership numbers in the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences and underrepresentation at lower levels: "the whitewashing occurs not behind the closed doors of the Academy, but in drama schools (shown in the SAG membership) and casting offices". The article also highlights on a related problem: that while black actors may have gained more acknowledgment in the Oscars as of the 2000s, other minorities are still underrepresented.

Black Academy Awards Winners[edit]

Since the first awards ceremony in 1929 and after more than 3,000 awards given, 36 African Americans have won Oscars:

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Staples, Brent (11 February 2012). "Black Characters in Search of Reality". The New York Times. Retrieved 25 April 2012.
  2. ^ Bristor, Julie; Lee (1995). "Renee". Public Policy & Marketing. 1. 14: 48–59. JSTOR 30000378.
  3. ^ Guerrero, Ed (2012-06-20). Framing Blackness: The African American Image. ISBN 9781439904138. Retrieved 29 March 2012.
  4. ^ "Blackface: The History of Racist Blackface Stereotypes". Retrieved 29 March 2012.
  5. ^ a b Stevens, Dana (27 November 2005). "Caricature Acting". The New York Times.
  6. ^ Shohat, Ella and Robert Stam. Unthinking Eurocentrism: Multiculturalism and the Media, 2nd ed. London and New York: Routledge, 2014.
  7. ^ a b Barnes, Brooks (19 October 2008). "Race and the safe Hollywood Bet". The New York Times. Retrieved 25 April 2012.
  8. ^ "The Oscars: Winners". Oscar. Archived from the original on 19 February 2017. Retrieved 29 May 2014.
  9. ^ "Moviegoer Demographics: Who rules the movie audience statistic?". Demographic Partitions. Retrieved 29 May 2014.
  10. ^ a b Dargis, Manohla (11 February 2011). "Hollywood Whiteout". The New York Times. Retrieved 25 April 2012.
  11. ^ Prospero (21 January 2016). "How racially skewed are the Oscars?". The Economist. Retrieved 31 July 2017.