African Americans in film and television

Subject: Culture
Type: Informative Essay
Pages: 4
Word count: 1117
Topics: African American Culture, Freedom of Speech, Mass Media

Table of Contents


The United States has become increasingly diverse over the years. However, television programs and Hollywood films tend to paint a different picture since the people of color remain underrepresented. The presence of African Americans in most films has always elicited controversies. The role of most African American actors both in the small and big screen revolves around three themes including thug life, rugs to riches and segregation. Most scholars researching the subject have often concluded that the depiction of African Americans in the films is a reflection of the attitudes of the white majority who have dominated the entertainment industry. Despite being the attitudes and opinions of a single group, they dominate the mainstream media thereby influencing the views of the public. The inaccuracy that characterizes the representation of blacks in the industry influence how Americans perceive and interact with each other a feature that demonstrates the detrimental effects of the stereotypes.

African Americans endure immense stereotypes in both the small and large screen. From Hollywood movies to television programs and even adverts, the depiction of African Americans has remained consistently cynical over the years. Most films portray African Americans as lazy, aggressive, loud, immoral, unintelligent, obnoxious and destructive. Film developers have consistently assigned specific roles to African American actors to help further the stereotypes. Most common roles played by black actors include thugs, brash woman, the magical Negro and house cleaners. The thug role is one of the most common and equally stereotypical. The role portrays African American males living in either worn down suburbs or in inner cities. The men dress in baggy clothing and heavy jewelry. They spend most of their time in street corners doing drug deals and with guns that they readily use. Thugs have aggressive and equally vulgar language characterized with minimal respect for authority. In fact, the black males often glorify lawlessness.

The maid and the brass woman are two equally common roles that have influenced the portrayal of African American women. While the roles are less racist, they remain demeaning. The butler or maid role is humiliating since it depicts African American women as semi-illiterate and capable of assuming any other role in the society besides the blue collar and unskilled role of a house cleaner. In most of the films, the African American woman is a house cleaner to a white family. The brass and sassy woman portray African American women as being beneath the family institutions. The women are both loud and obnoxious as they make loud proclamation of their independence. Finally, the magical Negro role provides an artificial power to the blacks, but they must use the power in helping a white protagonist. Malibu’s most wanted, a film produced in 2003 portrays the role as the young white privileged B-Rad must rely on PJ and Sean James both of whom are black to survive his acute case of “gangstaphrienia.”

However, the recent history has presented systemic improvements in the representation of African Americans as the society has strived to become increasingly cohesive. Stakeholders in the sector unanimously accepted and declared that television was influential in the adoption of beliefs in the community especially among children. First, the number of African Americans in the industry has increased over the last two decades. The era has witnessed a growing number of black characters starring in some of the bestselling blockbusters. Similarly, the number of black producers has grown with the likes of Oprah Winfrey and Tyler Perry striving to provide a neutral depiction of African Americans in their films. Most films produced in the new millennium strive to achieve neutrality in the depiction Africans irrespective of their racial and cultural background. Africans Americans have played various roles including the president of the country, lawyers, business moguls and doctors among others.

Movies produced before 1960, for example, were stereotypical with African Americans playing condescending roles. Modern day movies, on the other hand, have improved the social status of blacks by attempting to counter the stereotypes. Produced in 1915 by D. W. Griffith, The Birth of a Nation provides a stereotypical representation of African Americans. The film even glorified slavery and embodied the hatred that characterized the interracial relationship between blacks and whites. A white actor even played the role of Gus, a black character because of the low number of blacks in the industry. The film glorified and led to the resurgence of such vigilante groups like the Ku Klux Klan. The 2013 Lee Daniels’ The Butler provides a favorable representation of blacks. Interestingly, the historical drama film shows that blacks played a significant role in the history of the country. The black Eugene Allen moved from the south and found a job at a high-end hotel before moving to work in the white house where he served numerous presidents. Despite depicting the butler role, Allen is a powerful black who is equally successful in his society.

Regardless of the improvements in the depiction of African Americans in movies, the American pop culture remains skewed in its presentation of the community. News, sitcoms, talk shows, and reality televisions provide a stereotypical portrayal of blacks with aggression being an overriding theme in most of the media products. Even films developed by blacks and starring blacks like the haves and the have-nots have always presented blacks as aggressive, vulgar and alternative and a well-rounded depiction of the African American people thus exists in the education system. The country’s education system provides equal opportunity for Americans regardless of their racial and cultural backgrounds. African Americans enjoy a degree of academic success that embodies their abilities and talents in diverse fields including sports. Black students, for example, dominate basketball and football teams a feature that provides a well-rounded picture of the country’s population thus demonstrating the productivity and ingenuity of the blacks.

In retrospect, the representation of African Americans in both the big and small screens sustains some of the historical stereotypes that have characterized interracial interactions in the country. Historically, whites enjoyed an economic advantage and therefore dominated most industries including the entertainment sector. As such, they had an unparalleled opportunity to portray blacks in a manner they liked. Studies show that white attitudes and opinions against the blacks dominated the films as they designed specific roles for African Americans in the films. The roles included maids, thugs, magical negro and brass women. The roles helped perpetuate various stereotypes against blacks including aggression, unintelligent, lazy, immoral and destructive among others. While the industry has undergone substantial drastic changes including an increase in blacks, some stereotypes continue to influence the depiction of blacks. The racial discrimination that follows most of the underlying stereotypes once led to the trend #OscarsSoWhite as black actors protested systemic discrimination.

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  1. Boyd, Todd. African Americans and Popular Culture. Westport, Conn: Praeger, 2008. Print.
  2. Jackson, John L. Harlemworld: Doing Race and Class in Contemporary Black America. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2001. Print.
  3. Larson, Stephanie G. Media & Minorities: The Politics of Race in News and Entertainment. Lanham: Rowman & Littlefield, 2006. Print.
  4. Lommel, Cookie. African Americans in Film and Television. New York: Paw prints, 2008. Print.
  5. Moody, David L. The Complexity and Progression of Black Representation in Film and Television. Lanham: Lexington Books, 2016. Print.
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