African-Americans & the Cinema
Joanne Peterson 

INTRODUCTION 

The depiction of African-American people in forms of entertainment has left a considerable imprint on American culture, and reflects myths and opinions in retrospect. Black cinema has slowly changed its meaning over the years. Obviously, the opinions expressed in movies depicting African-Americans has changed for the better. Art imitates life, and so films reflect the society in which they are made. Therefore, society's outlook on race seems better than it did in the early days of racial awareness. 

Yet, what definition does one give to racial awareness if what people should be aware of changes so often? In the early days of film, there were a few black roles, and fewer black actors. Because so many of the roles were offensive, there emerged the notorious man in blackface. Even the authentic black actors were in roles of ignorant, and neutral people. In the first years of the Modern Age, black actors were often beaten and threatened if they assumed roles that suggested equality. 

The 1960's were a crucial decade in the African-American movement. With people such as Martin Luther King, Jr. and Malcolm X, people quickly acquired a more panoramic view of the black experience. Artists, too, were more free to express their desires for a sort of second emancipation. Here, films such as To Kill a Mockingbird, though all made by whites, made the African-American community look good. Here, we also had the first black Oscar winner: Sydney Poitier, for his role in Lilies of the Field

The 1970's were a bit ignorant, but mostly excusable. In many a person's eyes, black film plus 70's equals roughly none other than black exploitation. The success of the campy film, Shaft gave way to the stream of even more campy black films, such as Blacula, Superfly, Black Godfather, Cleopatra Jones, Black Caesar, Blackenstein, you name it, they made it. The films were fun, but a far cry from serious. What was probably the sole landmark film back then in the subject of civil rights was television's Roots, about a slave and his descendants. This film helped shed light on the evil of slavery, and the fact that African-Americans have suffered since they first met White America. 

The 1980's and 1990's are more respectful because blacks had pretty much taken over their depictions over these years. Currently, there are black men and women behind the camera, showing brilliance previously seen as nonexistent. Spike Lee is an example of the genius that can go into the finished product. Society seems much nicer, doesn't it? 

But, what about the future? Will racism ever become a thing of the past? Will we no longer hear the startling cacophony of the dreaded N-word? Will there be no more white hoods and swastikas, or even the slightest intimation of bigoted feeling? Will we all be able to see a group of young black characters on the screen and not assume a coming exposť of crime and violence? If computers are the wave of the future, you are literally looking into the wrong window for it. 

BIRTH OF A NATION (1915) 

D.W. Griffith 
Based on the novel, The Clansman 

by Rev. Thomas Dixon, Jr. 

Birth of a Nation is a masterpiece. It is a major film that ultimately revolutionized all denominations of film and technique. With its fine use of scenery, interesting characters, good acting, and ahead-of-its-time editing and camera work, it is a piece that has gone down in history as the most important movie of the twentieth century. In a word, beautiful. Its discriminating details should be an example to all filmmakers. 

Discriminating indeed. Birth of a Nation is a racist, disgusting, hate-filled pattern of lies that portrays African-Americans as subhuman, monstrous savages, and the Ku Klux Klan as heroes whose base acts are somehow justified. The portrayal of African-America in this neanderthal piece of work is inexcusable enough, but the veneration and recognition that the primitive film critics of its time have given it is unforgivable. In a word, horrible. Its story line and plot should be an example of the ignorance of 1915. 

Which viewpoint is correct? Judge for yourself: boy meets girl, boy goes to war, white people die, African-Americans are ruthless and cruel, Ku Klux Klan is formed, black people die, and there you have it. What should be known is that both of the above perspectives are quite accurate. Filmwise, it is perfection. Racially and politically, it is scum. While the film shows the positive and good work of a studio ahead of its time, it also shows the negative and excruciating pictures in the minds of the many inconsiderate racists from the first years of film. The movie romanticizes the slaveholding South and slavery itself, in a way that would be seen repeatedly in the fruits of Hollywood. In this light, the film's excellence is a tragedy, and makes its horrendous untruths seem believable. 

Perhaps the most infamous scene in Birth of a Nation is the cabin scene, in which a group of black men are about to violate a white woman. The black men in the film were actually men in blackface. Had the characters' race been authentic, the actors would not have played the part. They would know that this part of the story was historically inaccurate, and that reality was the other way around. 

The film, Birth of a Nation was based on a book, The Clansman. The Clansman was a novel by a minister, a reverend no less, and was even more explicit than the film. It was also not as good, so the novel could easily be written off as trash. But, unfortunately, the film cannot. 

 

GONE WITH THE WIND 

Victor Fleming, with Sam Wood, Cameron Menzies, George Cukor, Reeves Easton, and second unit 

Based on the novel by Margaret Mitchell 

Here is a movie everyone adores--or is at least supposed to, if everyone happens to be American. However, we Americans are inundated with the fact that America itself is composed of numerous races and colors, of people declared equal. Gone With the Wind puts different characters in roles according to class. African-Americans, "darkies" in this picture, are not exactly among those in the elite. 

Obviously, these people are looked down upon because they are slaves. What is worse is that this is seen as normal and acceptable in the movie. The "darkies" are not as degraded as they were in Birth of a Nation, but they are not respected either. In fact, the audience is presumably supposed to laugh at the slaves. For example, one scene in which a comically foolish slave is chasing a rooster with a cleaver is one of the film's most frivolous moments. A very famous line from the film by the character Miss Prissy,"Lordse, we got to have a doctor! I don't know nothin' 'bout birthin' babies!!", is an example of Gone With the Wind's infantile portrayal of the community that broke its back for a country that it came to unwillfully. 

The slaves in this film are seen as ignorant and devoid of ambition. The house servant speaks like a slow student reading a newspaper aloud. The character Mammy is shown more ambiguously; she is wise, but uneducated, and bossy, yet servile. Then, there is the Miss Prissy factor. When Melanie is going into labor, Prissy lies childishly, saying that she has delivered, "lots and lots". After the delivery, she lies again, saying she was the major contributor to the process. In the film, one may also notice that the southern caucasian whites are mostly very glamorous, while the black slaves are not. The beautiful whites are, of course, quite careless about the rights and dignity of the slaves. 

The second half of Gone With the Wind opens with this caption: To split the Confederacy, to leave it crippled and forever humbled, the Great invader marched...leaving behind him a path of destruction sixty miles wide, from Atlanta to the sea. In the film, the Confederacy is seen as the victim, in scenes such as that at the nursing station, where hundreds of soldiers lay helpless and damaged. The war is portrayed as a tragedy, because it was started by the Union. Admittedly, the Union was horribly rash and the people of the South were denied prosperity. However, prosperity, in the eyes of Gone With the Wind, is represented by slaves. The patriarchal Mr. O'Hara says he wants to "keep our slaves, even without their (Union's) approval". Even the opening credits, with happy slaves picking away at the thorny cotton fields, represents the film's philosophy that slavery is not only good, but reassuring as well. 

TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD 

Directed by Robert Mulligan

Based on the novel by Harper Lee 

Although the story was more than foreshadowed by a book, To Kill a Mockingbird has struck and awed people since its first showing. In an age where the deaf ears turned to racism slowly began to cure, this film helped accelerate this progression in Hollywood. Here, acute prejudice against the African-American community is revealed as the disturbing sickness that it is. Although the story is basically centered around the life of the tomboyish young Jean Louise "Scout" Finch, racial issues are still a very relevant component. 

1930's Alabama is not shown as a compassionate origin for those who are facing certain difficulties. The scene in which a mad dog is shot remorselessly shows the community's lack of sympathy towards the incurable. The main example of this in the film, though, is the housal incarceration of the local lunatic, "Boo" Radley. While these figures are not in the same category of difference, they are still examples of the town's fear and negligence, which hide behind pleasant rustic scenery. 

So, now a black man is on trial for a criminal act. The man defending the poor soul is, fortunately, an unbiased, good, and uncorruptible attorney named Atticus Finch. He is also young Scout's father. The children in the picture have already snuck a look at the hearing ("The colored man looks to me like he's cryin'"). The plaintiff is the obviously unstable Mayella Ewell, who prevaricates as she shakes in her seat. The defendant is Tom Robinson, an attendant of yard work. The courtroom itself is ominous, with a disciplined crowd of African-Americans forced to sit in the upper balcony. In the trial, Tom Robinson is played by a man allowed to give an extraordinary, and serious, performance. It is also here that the characters are allowed to talk about rape, the offense in question. From here, Atticus Finch denounces the stereotypical fear that a typical black man persues white women. 

Outside of the courtroom, the atmosphere is more blunt on this issue. Scout fights a boy at school who says that her father "defends niggers". Finch himself is, in the most direct way possible, called a "nigger lover" by a stalker. When Tom Robinson is killed after his conviction, his family shows legitimate emotion; no "Lordy Lord, he be dead" here. The racists in this film are clearly the enemy, but seem to have won--for now. 

There are a few exceptions to the picture's established rules. The Finches have a black housemaid, Calpurnia, who seems a bit clueless. She is somewhat reminiscent of Mammy in Gone With the Wind, in a subliminal sort of way. Also, the film itself was made by whites. This shows a slight lack of boldness against the society of Hollywood, and it was not yet that authentic black stories could be put on the big screen. However, the film itself relies greatly on its messages, and one of the strongest messages lies in the children of the picture; children are the future, and the future is progressing more and more toward nonprejudice. 

MALCOLM X 

Spike Lee 

If this is not the main film that shows the furthest advancement of African-Americans in Hollywood that is possible, it is at least the best of that subgenre. Malcolm X was made predominantly and purposefully by African-Americans, as not just a racially-driven product of symbolism, but as an experiment as well. There is little equality here; whites are subhuman and ignorant, while blacks are people of brilliant speech and depth--the antithesis of the portrayals in much older classic films. What is quite odd about this, though, is that the film is wonderful to all races because of its quality. The quality proves that the experiment was a success. 

Malcolm X, unlike many other civil rights leaders, did not preach equality. His views, speeches, and even his countenance have been seen as hateful. However, his dislike of White America is shown to be provoked by different incidents in his life rather than by idle meditation. Also, he is first shown in the film to be happy as a conformist. The film even opens showing Malcolm with stereotypical black characters in a barber shop. The young Malcolm Little starts out as a Harlem gangster, committing crimes and (no!) sleeping with white women (Here, foreplay between black and white is allowed on camera). Where he is, blacks are happy, unaware of what they are as opposed to what they could be. 

When he is finally put in jail, Malcolm undergoes a phenomenal change. He is taught that his crimes symbolize the white community's expectation of blacks to stay at the bottom. The Nation of Islam teaches him that black people must live the opposite of their stereotypes. He learns the ways of the "true negro", and concludes that the slander of whites is his only option to living an unfulfilling life. He is now Malcolm X. 

Later, he changes. After attending the obligatory Muslim Hajj, Mr. X admits that he had racist words and tendencies, and that he intends to change them. Now, the Nation of Islam turns from being his savior to being his foe. They kill him. The film concludes with presumably present schoolchildren standing up from their desks, one by one, exclaiming, "I am Malcolm X!". This of course symbolizes children as the racially-aware future. 

This film spawned attention far greater than that of every kid walking down the street with a big "X" on his T-shirt or hat. Some saw the film as racist itself, noting that Spike Lee furthered his pursuit of his authentic voice by speaking only to the Afro-American media. This authentic voice was more than a gimmick, or even a historically accurate method of payback. After decades of degradation, this movie tipped the less attended side of the scale, and offered the pure and powerful black experience in cinematic form.

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Birth of a Nation Poster 

 


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Quicktime clip of Birth of a Nation
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Gone With the Wind Poster

 

 

 

 

 

Hattie McDaniels and Vivian Leigh in Gone With the Wind

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

To Kill a Mockingbird Poster

 

 

 

Atticus in the courtroom

 

 

 

Malcolm X