African-Americans in Motion Pictures

African Americans became involved in the motion picture industry as early as 1899. Historically, there were a number of significant features that contributed to the black cinema experience.

A prominent Newsweek film report in 1898 showed the Black Ninth Cavalry marching, which evidently facilitated Teddy Roosevelt's famous charge up San Juan Hill. In 1910, Peter Jones and Bill Jones, two African Americans in Chicago, began making comedies.

Race movies, commencing in 1917, presented black people from a positive perspective. They were written, produced and directed by star African Americans. This was a direct response by the African-American community towards racism depicted in the film Birth of a Nation in 1915.

Film producer Lee De Forrest produced the first short subject sound film starring African Americans Noble Sissie and Enbie Blake in 1923. In 1950, Sidney Poitier began his two-decade reign in Hollywood as the prominent African-American film star. Poitier achieved great success as an actor, with significant box office appeal. His move from actor to director in the 1970s gave extra success in his directorial role.

Sweet Sweetback's Baadasssss Song and Shaft were released in 1971 as Hollywood financed black cinema. This move, taking places in the 1970s, was later referred to as "Blaxploitation." Barry Gordon of Motown Records financed and produced The Wiz in 1978. The financial failure of this feature film resulted in the discontinuation of black films produced and distributed through Hollywood. By 1986, however, there was a resurgence of black cinema, with the release of She's Gotta Have It, and 1991 saw the release of 19 films written, directed and produced by African Americans. This was a major increase since the downsurge of the 1970s.

In 1996 People magazine included an article Hollywood Blackout, which created a broad response. The article illustrated the lack of black participation backstage, highlighting the dearth of African-American producers, line-producers, directors, writers and technicians. Jesse Jackson, Whoopy Goldberg and Quincy Jones appear to have been divided regarding the Hollywood style of production; labor unions, craft guilds and a focus on employment ensued. An issue of New Yorker magazine focusing on black America boosted popular opinion.

In 2001, prominent film actor, producer and award-winner Morgan Freeman commented about "Hollywood racism" leading to a lack of opportunities for African Americans. Through his own production company, Freeman has attempted to put pressure on film studios to hire more blacks and people of color. Freeman's own nominations and awards were gained from Street Smart (1982), followed by memorable roles and awards in Shawshank Redemption and Driving Miss Daisy.

Halle Berry was the first black woman to win an Oscar for best actress. She won the Academy Award for Monster's Ball in 2001.

African-American feature films such as Boyz N the Hood, Stir Crazy, Boomerang, Sister Act III and She's Gotta Have It brought in significant gross revenue. High gross-revenue films appear to contain character development, a strong story, action and comedy rather than violence. Positive rather than negative experiences are highlighted, rather than perpetuating an image of an "inept, ghetto-ridden, down-trodden and oppressed" people (Molden, 1996).

The early African-American film experience portrayed blacks as either a "Sambo" or "Superspade" type. Historian Stanley Elkins described "Sambo" as "docile but irresponsible, loyal but lazy, humble but chronically given to lying and stealing." The stereotype is exhibited in an exaggerated form with an ignorant disposition, craving certain food types, dependent and not quite human. The "Sambo" imagery is no longer seen, with the change attributed to legal and shifting social attitudes in America. Moreover, the box office relies on the large influx of black moviegoers, and the appreciation is acknowledged.

While "Sambo" was eradicated, the caricature was replaced at the time by "Superspade." Film critics dubbed this type as an "amalgam of Aristotle, D'Artagnau, Dick Tracy, Hercules, Robin Hood, and at times a militant yet forgiving Christ." "Superspade," in contrast to "Sambo," was presented as doing no wrong, always coming out victorious. Initially, Sidney Poitier, the first black movie star, was labeled in this manner. The above stereotypes are a depiction from the past. Nevertheless, discussion still arises as to an all-encompassing inclusion of black participation in all aspects of the film world, and an overall three-dimensional view of black society within its feature films.

Selected full-text books and articles on this topic

From Sambo to Superspade: The Black Experience in Motion Pictures
Daniel J. Leab.
Secker & Warburg, 1975
Reel Racism: Confronting Hollywood's Construction of Afro-American Culture
Vincent F. Rocchio.
Westview Press, 2000
Black Space: Imagining Race in Science Fiction Film
Adilifu Nama.
University of Texas Press, 2008
American Cinema and the Southern Imaginary
Deborah E. Barker; Kathryn McKee.
University of Georgia Press, 2011
Who's Bleeding Whom? Analyzing the Cultural Flows of Blaxploitation Cinema, Then and Now
Semley, John.
CineAction, No. 80, Spring 2010
Memory and the Phantom South in African American Migration Film
King, Jeannine.
The Mississippi Quarterly, Vol. 63, No. 3-4, Summer-Fall 2010
PEER-REVIEWED PERIODICAL
Peer-reviewed publications on Questia are publications containing articles which were subject to evaluation for accuracy and substance by professional peers of the article's author(s).
Forgeries of Memory and Meaning: Blacks and the Regimes of Race in American Theater and Film before World War II
Cedric J. Robinson.
University of North Carolina Press, 2007
Contemporary American Cinema
Linda Ruth Williams; Michael Hammond.
Open University Press, 2006
Librarian’s tip: Chap. 19 "New Black Cinema"
Black Demons: The Media's Depiction of the African American Male Criminal Stereotype
Dennis Rome.
Praeger, 2004
Librarian’s tip: Chap. 5 "Bamboozled: Criminal Stereotypes of African Americans in Cinema"
Reel Black Talk: A Sourcebook of 50 American Filmmakers
Spencer Moon.
Greenwood Press, 1997
African-American Writers and Pre-1950 Cinema
Regester, Charlene.
Literature/Film Quarterly, Vol. 29, No. 3, January 1, 2001
PEER-REVIEWED PERIODICAL
Peer-reviewed publications on Questia are publications containing articles which were subject to evaluation for accuracy and substance by professional peers of the article's author(s).
Hollywood's America: Social and Political Themes in Motion Pictures
Stephen Powers; David J. Rothman; Stanley Rothman.
Westview Press, 1996
Librarian’s tip: Chap. 9 "A New Deal for Minorities?"
Achieving Authenticity in the Film Ghosts of Mississippi: Identity and Authorship in Historical Narratives
Billings, Andrew.
The Western Journal of Black Studies, Vol. 24, No. 2, Summer 2000
PEER-REVIEWED PERIODICAL
Peer-reviewed publications on Questia are publications containing articles which were subject to evaluation for accuracy and substance by professional peers of the article's author(s).
From Oscar Micheaux to Spike Lee: Black America's Rich Film History
.
Ebony, Vol. 48, No. 4, February 1993
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