Racial Representation in Film

Subject: Sociology
Type: Analytical Essay
Pages: 20
Word count: 5071
Topics: Racism, Film Analysis, Race
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There are many instances where the rights of some races have gravelly been infringed by the races that feel superior. The era of slavery was no different for the African Americans living in the United States of America. Racial slavery had become a common case in the United States of America by the 1700 century.  However, when people take to the film production and theaters, they give trivialized representation of races during the early years. Several cases exist regarding the actual representation of race as it is in the history. Most of the films depicting the representation of race fail to address the gaps by focusing their films primarily on the commercial side rather than exposing the true historical facts (Seixas 261). The fight for democracy and freedom of some racial groups was fought hard.

Failing to capture the real issues in films depict the lack of respect for people whose rights were gravely emasculated. Other than films, the historical books, and curriculum in the US has also failed to give a true and in-depth representation of race in America. What the students learned in school does not cover the real situations on historical racial representation. Marginalization and underrepresentation of some of the races indicate how some people view the world. The battle for freedom is a hard one hence the need to represent historical events in their real form. In this paper, I will explore underrepresentation and the misery that the African Americans went through during the slavery era in the United States of America. I will use existing facts to depict how the African Americans were mistreated during the slavery by the white Americans. I will explore some of the facts that have not been brought to light in most of the preserved materials highlighting the slavery experience.

To put the matter into a better perspective, I will use the following three films:

Director: Steven Spielberg, Film title: Amistad, produced in the US in 1997. Director: Guy Deslauriers The Film title: Middle Passage, produced in the US in 2000 and Director: Quentin Tarantino film title: Django Unchained, produced in the US in 2012. In the film, I will explore how African slaves are stereotyped, underrepresented and degraded in the film. I will also explore the gaps that are present in the film regard historical racial representation. I will address the importance of having a factual historical representation of different races in films and books to honor the efforts made by each race.

It is important for every group in the society to be represented in a film or any other media in the way deemed fit to the group’s point of view, historical background and traditions. Some of the films are created to appeal certainly to appeal a predetermined audience at the expense of others. Moreover, the representation of certain groups in the film creates an impression that shape people’s ideas and beliefs. However, the desire for films to remain profitable prompt them to veer off the line of actual representation for commercial reasons.

Amistad involves a group of slaves who were aboard the Amistad ship trying to return to Africa after they had run away from slavery. However, the captain of the ship misdirected the ship and sailed them to Connecticut where they are charged with the murder of the ship’s crew. The film is reminiscent to Africans who were captured in Africa and taken to Cuba aboard the ship La Amistad. The primary purpose of the movie was to represent the impression of the abolitionist movement during the slavery era. However, there is a lot of insufficiencies in the movie where the Africans are portrayed in a misinformed way. The characters in the film Amistad are altered to achieve the intended humor in the movie. The in the real historical events, there was no humor among the Africans aboard the ship. Undeniably, the film makers alter the historical aspects of the movie to achieve a dramatic effect. The effect is geared towards achieving a larger audience. The audience is mainly the whites who are the majority in the United States. The film also perpetuates an old stereotype about the African Americans. The African American actors are mostly used in movies as comic servants.  The film had to serve the interests of the audience for commercial reasons. Moreover, the drama effect in the film is intended to mean that the Africans did not play a big role in the abolitionist movement. The representation of Africans slaves by Adams in the court of appeal creates an impression that the whites who were disgruntled with slavery, played a pertinent role in the abolition of slavery. Therefore, the film fails to recognize the struggle made by the African Americans in their fight for freedom.

The film creates an impression that the protection against slavery was mainly instigated by the role played by some of the whites. However, the whites were the biggest tormentors of the African slaves, and they perceived Africans as their property since they had bought them through the slave trade. The whipping, cruelty, and anguish that the African Americans went through in their fight for freedom are trivialized. The intention of the Africans was to sail back home and run away from the yoke of the slavery.

Representation of the minority group in the Film and Media industry has been a big challenge in the United States. Despite the huge strides made in trying to incorporate the minority groups in all the affairs of the nation, the infiltration of the minority groups in the media and film has not succeeded. According to Horton et al. (1999), the supremacist ideologies and retrogressive racial beliefs have been ingrained in the American mindset and reserved. Consequently, the minority groups are discriminated not in blatant practices but through subtle actions in the media and film industry. Regarding the Amistad film, certain scenes in the film create an impression discrimination against the people of color.

According to Stoddard and Marcus, the film Amistad creates an impression that the conflict between the abolitionist and Southerners led to the civil war that followed later (30). Subsequently, the role of culture, social and economic factors between the southerners and the northerners are overlooked. Moreover, the role of the Africans in the cause of the civil war is also overlooked leading to an impression that the white abolitionists who were anti- slavery played the pertinent role in the cause of the war. According to Horton et al. (1), the portrayal of minorities in film and television is the ideal. The African American in the film are victims of an industry that relies on old ideas to appeal the majority at the expense of the historical facts.

Additionally, the Africans in the film Amistad are only capable of communicating in Mende, a language in West Africa. There are several tribes in Africa thus it was wrong to create an impression that all Africans communicate using a common language. The film fails to capture the historical fact that the African American slaves come from various parts of the African continent. Moreover, the film trivializes the ability of the Africans to communicate in the language of their masters. The African slaves had acquired significant knowledge of the language, and they could effectively communicate with the masters. The film perpetuated the stereotype that the African is primitive and they were slow in learning. The power of film prompt people to view and believe that what they see in the film is factual and true. Therefore, the move by film makers to alter and represent African slaves differently makes the public’s  believe what they see in the film as true about Africans.

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The film Amistad mostly focuses on a case and the charges leveled against the slaves. The film failed to take into account the contemporary life of the slaves who were experiencing a myriad of challenges in reality. The harassment, anguish, discrimination, and struggle that the Africans went through is not adequately depicted in the film. No scenes are portraying how the slaves were treated in the plantations where they were mostly working. For instance, the African slaves are only depicted revolting in the Amistad ship rather than in plantations. The film fails to showcase the kind of life that the slaves went through when working for the whites.  Additionally, the film focuses mostly on the white characters who on the side of the slaves and those leveling charges against the slaves. The setting is also in the town further ignoring the role of the Africans slaves in plantations. The film is giving too much attention on the tussle between the whites rather than the African slaves who are at the center of the story. The film also insinuates that the Africans could not represent themselves adequately in the court. Cinque who is the representative of the slaves is only highlighted as a leader in Africa and had no capacity to lead fellow slaves in front of their masters. It demonstrates that the Africans could not speak for themselves a thing that was stereotyped during that time.

The most prominent highlight of the Amistad Film is passing the case in favor of the African slaves. The film tries to create an impression that the American courts were just when it comes to slavery matters. However, the African slaves had nothing to claim in the corridors of justice when it comes to matters to do with slavery. In the history, it is undeniably true that the African American slaves were discriminated in all aspects be it social, political, and economic. Therefore, it is a big lie that a case pitting slaves and whites would be determined in favor of the slaves both in the District Court and the Court of Appeal. Moreover, it was unheard of that the African slaves would get a representative in a court of law. Most of the whites had a common belief that the African American slaves had no right in the eyes of the whites. Consequently, it would be hard for an African slave to acquire the assistance of a willing representative. The film wants to create an impression that slaves would easily obtain the assistance of an advocate easily. However, it is evident in the history that slaves had no right to an attorney when arraigned in a court of law for breach of the laws regulating the slaves. The film also wants to create an impression that the American court played a pertinent role in the freedom of Africans slaves. The end of the slave trade is, therefore, credited to the American court rather than the slaves who went through untold sufferings at the hands of the slaves.

The American judicial system had failed to release millions of slaves who had been captured and left to suffer in various farms across the US. Therefore, the film fails to represent the truth about true racial representation. The judicial system was itself racist against the Africa slaves since the courts upheld laws that were discriminatory against the Africans. Moreover, the judicial system provided a medium for playing politics with the lives of the slaves. The slave captors would argue in a way that they had the right to own slaves in their premises. The whole impression created is that the whites are the savior in the slave’s journey to freedom. However, the whites were the dominant tormentors who played a significant role in the oppression of the slaves. Precisely in the film, there is no one point where the whites condemned the slave trade or the atrocities meted on the slaves by the whites.

The base of the argument was whether the slaves were born in Cuba who they had been smuggled from Africa to be sold to Cuba as slaves. Therefore, those African slaves born in America had no right since the law allowed them to work as slaves if they have been staying in America for long. Undeniably, the court wanted to abolish the slave trade, but it was not ready to abolish the servitude in the American plantations. If the whites were realistic about their desire to see the freedom of the slaves, it was essential for them to castigate the whole servitude culture and the existence of the slaves in the America. Additionally, the approach of the film to narrate the story of the African Americans using the white characters fail to capture the reality of the experience that the slaves went through in America.

Undeniably, the African Americans were discriminated in many aspects. The slaves were rarely compensated, they had no right to humane living conditions and quality health services.  Therefore, the real experience of the slaves and racial representation of the races is skewed in the film Amistad.  The desire of the film to tell the historical events is eclipsed by the desire to maintain the profitability of the production. The needs of the audience are given precedence of the desire to capture the historical reality.  Most of the scenes of the film cover white characters telling the story of the Africans slaves in the United States. Therefore, the appeal of the film by the historical representation of races is skewed.

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Django Unchained

The film explores what the African slave was experiencing in the United States of America. Unlike the Amistad, the film uses the African characters to showcase the reality at the ground. The slavery experience was a horror, and the movie can illustrate the grave sufferings that the slaves were put through. The Django Unchained film depicts how the Africans slaves were treated. The slaves were raped, maimed, beaten, murdered and buried alive. Africans are used to tell the story as it happened during the slavery era. The whites, meted the slaves with all forms of atrocities to force them to work on their plantations. Some whites dragged cut claws on the necks of the Africans to punish them for failing to work as per the instructions. Despite the film being bloody and horrifying, the film can illustrate the way the Africans were oppressed. The film also captures the amusement that the whites had when they saw the slaves suffering. For instance, part of the movie depicts the owner of the plantation enjoying instances when the Africans are fighting and killing each other. Moreover, the whites are amused when the dogs are released to maul the revolting slaves.

There is a similarity between the Amistad and Django Unchained, in both films, the African slave requires a white hand to gain their freedom. In the Django Unchained, Django is assisted by Dr. Schultz to find his wife, Broomhilda. The film draws a parallel with the Amistad film where African slaves must be supported by the white to achieve their freedom. However, the freedom comes at the cost of the Africans who stage revolts against the whites. Django embarks on a killing spree when he is a captured in Calvin’s plantation trying to rescue his wife. This after his wife is held hostages Calvin’s soldiers. The revolt depicts the path that the slaves in the fight for their freedom from the hands of the whites. The freedom is not won through the assistance of the whites but by the willingness of the slaves to become free. The film Django Unchained represents the African slaves in a positive way. The positivity of the approach begins with the demystification of challenges that the slaves go without concealing the reality. The slaves are viewed as people who can fight for their rights in the face of increased atrocities meted to them by the whites. However, despite having the ability and the willingness to fight for their freedom, the slaves are not empowered. They do not know how to read and write. However, Django can spell his name and mumble some English words. Unlike other Africans he able to communicate with the whites in English. Therefore, he creates the impression that Africans are not primitive and they can change significantly if supported by the whites. His ability to communicate helps Django to train and work efficiently with Dr. Schultz.

The film Django, the whites are represented a race that is cruel and does not give any attention to the rights of the blacks. Moreover, the whites are also represented as stupid people who are drawn in the racism blindness. The whites believe that the African slaves are inferior and they can’t plan or fight successfully for their rights and freedom. However, Django extricates himself from most of the plans hatched by the whites to kill him. For instance, the Ku Klux Klan had hatched a plan to capture and kill Django together with his acquaintance Dr. Schultz. However, Django easily evades the plan indicating how unintelligent the whites. The Ku Klux Klan spend much of their time arguing on the ineffectiveness of the masks they had worn when pursuing Django. They blamed the masks of having tiny holes thus they could spot Django well.

In the real sense, the whites were intelligent and educated people who had tricks and ability to, manipulate the slaves. The whites were not only resourceful intellectually, but they also owned big plantations and a hoard of slaves. They also gained a lot of wealth from trading slaves. Therefore, the attempt by the Django Unchained film to paint the whites in an unintelligent manner is skewed. The comedy added on the white characters in the film tries to dispel the notion that the whites were not cruel as most of the people thought. In reality, the whites were cruel and oppressive against the African slaves.

The film is also successful in depicting the varying levels of racism against the black slaves across America. Unlike the Amistad, the Django Unchained successfully demonstrates racial representation in the plantations, in the homes of the whites and among the Africans who controlled some slaves. The various levels of slaves illustrate the kind of hostility that the slaves underwent. A viewer can see what a plantation slave experiences and how the experience is different from that of a slave working in White’s house.

The Mandigo fighting in the film is might not be a true representation of what happened during the slavery era. Therefore, the film indicates that the African slaves were unintelligent because they could fight and kill each other to entertain the whites. The stupid nature of the black slaves indicates their willingness to continue being misused by the whites. It is also a false representation of the historical racial representation.  History shows that there was nothing like the Mandigo fights among the slaves. It indicates that the slaves were violent and intolerant of one another.  According to Brount, Brown, and Selvey, use of extra violence in the film is used for cinematic value and the audience purposes (10). However, according to Brount, Brown, and Selvey, the film Django Unchained was successful in representing the reality of the slavery experience. The inaccuracies in the historical events do not mean that the film failed to demonstrate something close to the reality.

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The use of blood and comedy in the movie is intended to serve the storytelling theme of the film and the needs of the audience. The comedy in the film is expected to attract the audience and dispel fear exhibited in most of the bloody scenes. When comparing Django Unchained to the Amistad, it successfully represents the oppression and sufferings that the slaves went through. Django Unchained portrays the misery of the slaves through the bloody scenes. It is important to represent the sufferings of the slaves through the bloody scenes since that was the historical reality. The Amistad film failed to depict the anguish of the slaves according to historical reality. The Django Unchained also reveals that not all the whites are racists. Dr. Schultz decides to support to train Django to become the bounty hunter (“Ebiri”). Moreover, the DR. supports Django in his mission to search his wife. The situation is Akin to when Adam decides to support the Africans who had been arraigned in court on murder charges. Despite the notion and discrimination raised against the African slaves, Adam defends the slaves tirelessly until they are released. Moreover, the judge also decided to release the slaves in spite of slavery being rife in the American society. That indicates that not all the whites were racists and supporters of slavery.

Amistad partially depicts the middle passage (“Cesca”). However, the film Middle Passage portrayed the experience of the slaves in their journey from the West Africa to the Europe. The African slaves went through massive atrocities. The slaves were captured in African countries and sold the whites. During the journey, the Africans are put through inhumane living conditions. The space of the ship is too small to contain a large number of slaves captured from various places in West Africa. The slaves are packed being naked, and they rarely shower during the whole voyage. The slaves who are frail or dead are thrown overboard. The little food offered to the slaves makes them weak and unhealthy. The congested space makes some of the slaves to suffocates to death. The situation was worsened by the fact that the Africans were carried cargo ships and they were just packed as goods without caring about their welfare. There was no breathing space for wash rooms.

The film depicts the Africans who trade fellow Africans as unintelligent and stupid. The Africans expose their fellow African to ineffable suffering at the hands of the whites. The film expresses the reality of the situation of the African slaves. Unlike the Amistad, the approach of The Middle Passage expresses the real problems that African Slaves went. The slaves were owned like property and not human beings. There were no rights for the slaves, and their health condition determined their worth. The slaves who could not get a buyer during auction would be left to die at the coast. Just like the in the Django Unchained, the Middle Passage use the violence approach to communicate the problems that the slaves went through. Food and water were rare commodities, and most of the slaves died out of the hunger and malnutrition. The frail people were thrown overboard to save on food and water. The slaves were chained hence could not fight or organize a mutiny against the whites traders. Moreover, no medical attention was paid to the slaves. The contagious disease killed most of the slaves leaving them with no help. The film can depict what the European whites and the American whites put the slaves through. The film depicts the Africans as healthy people who could endure devastating conditions (Paxton 67).  The whites are depicted as inhumane people who do not care about the lives of the blacks. It is only the blacks who predominantly targeted by the whites meaning that the whites were racists. The blacks are depicted as primitive thus denied any right. Moreover, they are primitive in the sense that they are selling their fellow Africans to the whites for throw away prices, gifts, and valuables.

The audience of the film is predominantly whites. Therefore, the film uses white characters meeting their atrocities on the Africans. The Africans sparingly speak in the film depicting their inability to speak for themselves. Additionally, it depicts that the Africans were incapable of representing themselves and their savior could only be white. Just like in the Amistad and Django Unchained, lack of a person who could effectively represent the slaves in “The Middle Passage” meant that the savior would only be white. Refusal to eat and suicide were the only weapons that the blacks used when onboard the ship to express their resistance. However, the slaves were forced to eat through torture. Communication among the slaves was through songs, body movements, and voices. The slaves come from diverse ethnic communities, and their communication was a big challenge. Instruments were also used to communicate with the slaves, and they had developed rhythms to communicate about their feelings. A common form of communication could create a synergy for revolt among the slaves. The film depicts the slaves as using a crude form of communication due to their backwardness. Their primitive nature made them find it hard to develop a context of communication that would aid in bargaining for their freedom.

The representation of the races depicts the reality of the historical events hence represented in a better perspective. When the slaves staged an uprising in the ships, they could sacrifice their lives and blow the whole ship. The Africans are represented as selfless people who could give away their lives to escape the servitude life. Unlike in the film Amistad where rebels were charged in a court of law, those who survived such uprising in the “The Middle Passage” would be executed to serve as a lesson to the other slaves. The arrogance of the white is also depicted in the film. Their tendencies of torturing, executing and disrespecting the Africans indicate that the whites are arrogant. However, it is not that all the whites were arrogant since it a few of the whites who had made human trafficking a source of livelihood. Conversely, the demand for the slaves was high, and those who bought the slaves mistreated them. Therefore, the trend of arrogance was extended beyond the human traffickers.

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According to Sampson, use of bloody scenes in the film Django depict the old stereotype held against the Africans that they are violent, subhuman, animal-like, irresponsible and stupid (1). The film uses degrading stereotypes to represent Africans in the film. The film Django also depicts Africans and their experience in slavery. However, the film fails to use an African as the lead character and instead uses a white character. Despite the theme of the film rotating around slavery, the African Americans are underrepresented in the film. According to Smith et al., most of the Hollywood films under-represent the minority groups due to perceived industry risks (6). There is a perceived notion that films involving minority groups result in reduced financial gains. Consequently, the roles that should be played by a member of the minority group are left to the white characters.

The issue of racism is a matter that is very much entrenched in the history of the USA. Some of the races felt superior over others and had the audacity to misuse others due to their vulnerability. Films depict historical events differently based on the desire to achieve a certain objective. The three films depicted in this paper highlight how the desire to achieve the reality of historical events is superseded by the desire to achieve audience appeal. Most of the scenes and the characters of the films are altered to achieve audience appeal.  For instance, in the Amistad, the role of African characters is undermined by the high number of whites telling the story on behalf of the whites (Carnes 10). The whites take roles that would otherwise be left for African characters to depict the historical reality.

According to Horton et al. (2), old negative stereotypes about the African Americans prompt the film makers to use the whites in the roles that should be played by Africans. Use of the whites in the roles that should be played by Africans perpetuates the stereotype of white supremacy.   The films are torn between capturing the reality and maintain the profitability of the production. Some of the salient aspects of the films are, therefore, changed to fit the intended aspects of the producers. Despite the films playing a pertinent role in elaborate how the race was represented during the slavery era, there are many aspects of the film that do not conform to the accuracy of historical events. For instance, slavery played a huge role in the American politics, but most the issue of politics has been trivialized in the film Amistad. The release of the slaves in the Amistad film is intended to mean that despite the several challenges that the slaves in the hands of the whites, democracy would gradually take shape and slavery would be abolished at the end.

All the three films were produced based on the point of view of the producers rather than the point of view of the marginalized groups. Therefore, the approach taken in the films is skewed to meet the interests of the producers and the groups that are discussed in the film. Failure to give the marginalized groups a voice to be heard in the films discredits the films in the eyes of those who are discussed (Lee 2). The role of the slave Africans to the independence of America is also trivialized. Despite the slaves being a precursor to the emergence of the civil war, there is little link between them and the war in the films. The financials of the films influence the direction the films take to ensure that they recapture their investments. According to (Yosso 53), the Hollywood film industry has a racist approach in the way they create movies. Inability to fashion the three films in a way that depict historical reality can be said to be a racist approach.  According to Rollins (1), economic demands of producing a film influence the way the film is constructed. Moreover, films are constructed in a way that captures the changing public attitudes on social, economic and political issues.

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Preserving the history of people is essential for continuity of nation. Films have the capacity to shape opinions and perceptions that people hold. Therefore, it is essential for film makers to depict actual historical events as they are to avoid distortion of vital historical information. The representation of race was skewed in the three films discussed in this paper. The African slaves were underrepresented in the film Amistad. The underrepresentation of the African slaves in films depicts how they were also racially discriminated during the slavery era. The Amistad film also failed to capture the experience that the slaves went through in the hands of their white tormentors. However, in the film Django Unchained, the African slaves are represented positively. The anguish that the slaves went through is identified. However, the whites are represented as unintelligent in the film. Conversely, the whites are brilliant, and they use their intelligence to retain the slaves in their plantations. Misrepresentation of historical racial perceptions can change people’s attitude towards the accuracy of historical information significantly.

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  1. Brount, D., Brown, M. “Reviewing The Critical Conversion About Django Unchained.” Digital Literature Review. Vol 2. 7-14.
  2. Carnes, Mark, Ed. Past Imperfect: History According To The Movies New York: Henry Holt And Company, 1995
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  11. Solorzano, Daniel G., And Tara J. Yosso. “From Racial Stereotyping And Deficit Discourse Toward A Critical Race Theory In Teacher Education.” Multicultural Education 9.1 (2001): 2.
  12. Smith, Stacy L., Marc Choueiti, And Katherine Pieper. “Race/Ethnicity In 600 Popular Films: Examining On Screen Portrayals And Behind The Camera Diversity.” Los Angeles: USC Annenberg Media, Diversity, & Social Change Initiative.
  13. Stoddard, Jeremy D., And Alan S. Marcus. “The Burden Of Historical Representation: Race, Freedom, And” Educational” Hollywood Film.” Film & History: An Interdisciplinary Journal Of Film And Television Studies 36.1 (2006): 26-35
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