African-American representation in Hollywood

The presence of African Americans in major motion picture roles has stirred controversy dating back decades before 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 that the African-American community were generally offered, usually fell into one or more of 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 this way is what leads to a singular perspective and opinion to dominate mainstream media.[2]

In Richard Dyer's White: Essays on Race and Culture, he states that “research repeatedly shows that in western representation white overwhelmingly and disproportionately predominant, have the central and elaborated roles, and above all are placed as the norm, the ordinary, the standard.”[3] This representation has become a norm in regards to Hollywood film, which in turn has created problematic issues creating narrative ideas of representation of race in ideologies, stereotypes, racism, oppression, representation and ideas of the Other. Dyer also states that “race is not only attributable to people who are not white, nor is the imagery of non-white people the only racial imagery.”[4]

Elements of film such as narrative structure, camera angles and dialogue can portray racism as a core theme, especially within the proclamation of power and authority enlisted by white people. Its place within Hollywood cinema orchestrates its lack of awareness especially when the Hollywood film industry is continuously dominated by figures of immense control that are usually white as suggested above. “National self-consciousness, generally seen as a precondition for nationhood – that is, the shared belief of desperate individuals that they share common origins, status, location, and aspirations – became broadly linked to cinematic fictions.”[5]

With full consciousness nonetheless of a lack of representation recognised, it highlights the battle among unsurprising ideals that don’t equate to any ethnic exactitudes. “The sensitivity around stereotypes and distortions largely arises then, from the powerlessness of historically marginalised groups to control their own representation.”[6] The absence of controlling the depiction of cultures, particularly people of colour, therefore, warrants need for more ethnic voices within Hollywood to speak on behalf of their culture. “Furthermore, in that the Hollywood system favours big-budget blockbusters, it is not only classist but also Eurocentric, in effect if not in explicit intention; to be a player in this game one needs to have economic power.”[7]

The perspectives, or perhaps lack thereof, throughout Hollywood and black representation links back to dated times of colonialism and post-colonial perspectives within cinema. Europeans created a gathering of colonialism and its culture which generally imposed an awareness of privilege and ascendency to “lesser breeds without the law”,[8] so much so that a stigmatism of us-versus-them was created through European reasoning. Shohat and Stam explore ideas of racism in Unthinking Eurocentrism and state that racism doesn’t trek effortlessly and indifferently throughout the course of time as history references racism as “positional, relational and means that diverse groups have occupied the functional slot of the oppressed.”[9] This continues to be the reality in Hollywood as “racism is above all a social relation – systematized hierarchization implacably pursued… anchored in material structures and embedded in historical configurations of power.”[10] Historically, as mentioned by Shohat and Stam, they link the correlation between racism and that it is the consequence of colonialism. However, although it’s not definitively connected, due to the colonial past it is a durable attribute to racism.

Even in today’s movies, the roles for an African-American performer often fall under similar typecast roles. The most famous film with an African-American lead in 2011 for example, 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.

The New York Times wrote: "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 HollywoodEdit

Due to the racial discrimination in the 19th and early 20th centuries, Hollywood tended to avoid using African-American actors/actresses. 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 and singer, Al Jolson, made blackface popular with characters such as Amos 'n' Andy and Jakie Rabinowitz.[11] In 1930, the craze of blackface died out because of its connotations with bigotry and racism.[12]

In 1951, when Amos 'n' Andy was brought to television, Clarence Muse "championed the popular comedy. He "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.'"[13]

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.[14]

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.[citation needed]

New HollywoodEdit

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 an interest 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".[15]

The 2014 Academy Awards were arguably a turning point for African-American films, with the film 12 Years a Slave taking home the Oscar for Best Picture.[16] 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.[17]

Some truly believe that Hollywood has changed for the better with directors such as Spike Lee and Tyler Perry who cast all or mostly African-American actors in their films, and who have become household-names thus helping pave 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".[15] 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.”[18]

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[19] titled "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 under-representation 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 under-represented.

African-American Academy Awards WinnersEdit

Since the first awards ceremony in 1929 and after more than 3,000 awards given, 43 African Americans have won Oscars:

See alsoEdit


  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. doi:10.1177/074391569501400105. JSTOR 30000378. S2CID 159373453.
  3. ^ Dyer, Richard. White: Essays on Race and Culture. London and New York: Routledge, 1997.
  4. ^ Dyer, Richard. White: Essays on Race and Culture. London and New York: Routledge, 1997.
  5. ^ Shohat, Ella and Robert Stam. Unthinking Eurocentrism: Multiculturalism and the Media London: Routledge, 1994.
  6. ^ Shohat, Ella and Robert Stam. Unthinking Eurocentrism: Multiculturalism and the Media London: Routledge, 1994.
  7. ^ Shohat, Ella and Robert Stam. Unthinking Eurocentrism: Multiculturalism and the Media London: Routledge, 1994.
  8. ^ Shohat, Ella and Robert Stam. Unthinking Eurocentrism: Multiculturalism and the Media London: Routledge, 1994.
  9. ^ Shohat, Ella and Robert Stam. Unthinking Eurocentrism: Multiculturalism and the Media London: Routledge, 1994.
  10. ^ Shohat, Ella and Robert Stam. Unthinking Eurocentrism: Multiculturalism and the Media London: Routledge, 1994.
  11. ^ Guerrero, Ed (2012-06-20). Framing Blackness: The African American Image. ISBN 9781439904138. Retrieved 29 March 2012.
  12. ^ "Blackface: The History of Racist Blackface Stereotypes". Retrieved 29 March 2012.
  13. ^ Stevens, Dana (27 November 2005). "Caricature Acting". The New York Times.
  14. ^ Shohat, Ella and Robert Stam. Unthinking Eurocentrism: Multiculturalism and the Media, 2nd ed. London and New York: Routledge, 2014.
  15. ^ a b Barnes, Brooks (19 October 2008). "Race and the safe Hollywood Bet". The New York Times. Retrieved 25 April 2012.
  16. ^ "The Oscars: Winners". Oscar. Archived from the original on 19 February 2017. Retrieved 29 May 2014.
  17. ^ "Moviegoer Demographics: Who rules the movie audience statistic?". Demographic Partitions. Archived from the original on 16 November 2019. Retrieved 29 May 2014.
  18. ^ Dargis, Manohla (11 February 2011). "Hollywood Whiteout". The New York Times. Retrieved 25 April 2012.
  19. ^ Prospero (21 January 2016). "How racially skewed are the Oscars?". The Economist. Retrieved 31 July 2017.