Representations of Black People in Film

One day in 1967, Audre Lorde, a Black woman who was a noted poet, writer and activist, was out shopping at the supermarket.  Her two-year old daughter was along for the ride in the shopping cart, like many other children with their parents.  A young White girl in her mother’s shopping cart passed Lorde and her daughter and when she saw Lorde’s daughter, she called out, “Oh look, Mommy, a baby maid!” [1]
The idea that Black women are maids was so strong that even for this very young child, that is the first thought she has about a Black girl.  Because this incident took place in 1967, it is easy to think that those kinds of ideas were common then, but wouldn’t be heard today.  In fact, portrayals of Black women as servants and maids continue to be widespread, particularly in film and television. 
Octavia Spencer at the 84th Academy Awards
When Octavia Spencer won the Academy Award for Best Actress in a Supporting Role in 2011 for her portrayal of Minny Jackson in The Help, she became the sixth African-American woman to win an Oscar.  While Spencer’s acting may have been excellent, the troubling fact remains that of all the roles Black women have played, in many movies, for many decades,this is the role that the Academy Award decided to reward with an Oscar. A role where Spencer plays a maid.  The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, which is responsible for deciding who will win the awards, is mostly men, and 90% White. [2]  Patricia Hill Collins argues that “because the authority to define societal values is a major instrument of power, elite groups, in exercising power, manipulate ideas about Black womanhood. They do so by exploiting already existing symbols, or creating new ones.“ [1]  The idea about Black womanhood that is exploited here is the notion of Black women being servants or mammies. 
More than 350 Whites have been nominated for Best Actor and Actress compared to just 21 of Blacks.  Even Babe the Pig was nominated before Denzel Washington, demonstrating that the achievements of Black actors largely remain invisible within the academy and are often not taken seriously. [3]  Even fewer Black actors have actually won awards.  In recent years, Black women that have won Oscars include Whoopi Goldberg, Halle Berry, Jennifer Hudson, and Mo’Nique.
Whoppi Goldberg as Oda Mae Brown in Ghost (1990)
Halle Berry as Leticia Musgrove in Monster’s Ball (2001)
Jennifer Hudson as Effie White in Dreamgirls (2006)
Mo'Nique as Mary Lee Johnston in Precious: Based on the Novel "Push” by Sapphire (2009)
As shown in the table below, only six Black women have received Oscars for acting. 

The first was Hattie McDaniel.
Hattie McDaniel (1941)
She was not only the first Black woman, but the first African American ever, to win an Academy Award.  In 1939, she won for playing the character “Mammy”, in the pre-Civil War movie Gone With the Wind. The film, and the book upon which it is based, unapologetically evoke nostalgia for the “Old South”.  Celebrated are Black people as slaves, and White landowners enjoying an affluent and cultured lifestyle from the riches provided by slave labor. In the film, Mammy is an enslaved woman who works in the O’Hara family’s house.  One of her primary responsibilities is taking care of the O’Hara girls, especially Scarlett.  In the book, the first time Mammy is introduced, the text reads:  “Scarlett heard Mammy’s lumbering tread shaking the floor of the hall…Mammy felt that she owned the O’Haras, body and soul, and their secrets were her secrets…Mammy emerged from the hall, a huge old woman with the small shrewd eyes of an elephant.  She was shining black, pure African, devoted to her last drop of blood to the O’Haras…"  [4]  This imagery of black women as mammies—overweight, obedient servants who love, nurture, and are loyal to White superiors—is common in American society.  It is one of the controlling images that shapes the public face that Whites expect from Black women today. [1]  Between 1890 and 1920, mammies appeared in books, magazines, and films, on restaurant menus and cookbooks, and as the shape for a variety of products like salt shakers and cookie jars. [5]  Stories of mammies as loyal protectors of White children were important in Southern childhood, and a lot of attention was paid to their bodies, such as descriptions of large breasts and fat bodies being a source of comfort and support. [5]
Again, these kinds of ideas are not just relics from the past.  It is important that McDaniel won an Oscar for playing Mammy in 1939, and 73 years later, Spencer won for playing Minny.  Not much has changed.  Hollywood is still happiest to see Black women as servants.  As Ralph Ellison once noted, “Movies are not about Blacks but what Whites think about Blacks.“ [6]  It is also important that the context for Black women’s roles as domestic workers is never discussed; Black women simply appear on the big screen as servants, suggesting that is their natural station in life.  The Help takes place in the 1960s, when occupations were segregated along race and gender lines, making domestic work one of the few wage-earning positions that Black women had available to them.  Black women in both the North and the South worked in the homes of Whites, often enduring sexual harassment, disrespect, exploitation and many affronts to their dignity—just to earn a living and support their families.   Although the film purports to tell the stories of resistance amongst a group of maids protesting their poor social and working conditions, this is only possible through the hands of a White, college-educated woman.  In this way, The Help undermines the agency of Black women to affect positive change within their own lives.  And, the book on which the movie is based, was written by Kathryn Stockett, who is a White woman.  Some have questioned whether she is capable of accurately portraying the experiences of Black domestic workers and African-Americans in general.  The Association of Black Women Historians have pointed to the use of exaggerated Black southern dialect (“You is smat, you is kind, you is important”) and depictions of Black men as drunks, domestic abusers, or all together absent. [7]  They argue that this is evidence that White writers often rely upon stereotypes when creating Black characters. [8]  Other stereotypes are evident in the film’s dialogue.  At one point, as Minny instructs a White woman in cooking, she states, “Frying chicken just…tend to make you feel better ‘bout life.  Hm, I love me some fried chicken.”
Black actors face a difficult quandary in the face of such stereotypical portrayals.  Either they can work in roles that demean Black people, or they may not work at all.  Also, they often do not benefit when they take these difficult roles.  In the special feature “Gone With the Wind:  The Legend Lives On” (available on the special features disc for the movie DVD), Butterfly McQueen, one of the Black women who acted in the film, hated her role.  She did not think that in 1938 she would be playing a slave, and she stated that it was a difficult part for an intelligent person to play.  But, she “did everything they asked me to.  But I wouldn’t let them slap me and I wouldn’t eat the watermelon.”  Apparently, Hattie McDaniel was more cautious, and warned McQueen that she would not enjoy future roles in Hollywood if she “complained too much”.  And yet, McDaniel was not able to “cash in” on her role as Mammy.  First, MGM stipulated that she would be released from her contract if she lost weight.  Second, despite the prestige associated with winning an Oscar and the greater prospects in terms of the number and types of roles offered to actors, McDaniel was unable to benefit from this accolade.  Her roles became less challenging and the amount of films she appeared in declined compared to other White Academy Award winners. Third, her status as a star was not enough to shield her from experiencing racism when White property owners attempted to evict her from her mansion in the West Adams Country Club neighborhood using then legal restrictive covenants that prevented Blacks from living in White neighborhoods. [6] 
Although space does not permit a full discussion of the many other stereotypes of Black women, it is worth briefly noting just a few here.  While the mammy is a non-sexual, non-threatening Black woman, the Jezebel is the exact opposite.  This stereotype depicts Black women as promiscuous, over-sexualized temptresses.  They are also threats to White women and White women’s relationships.  Halle Berry’s role in Monster’s Ball, for which she won the Academy Award for Best Actress, is a manifestation of the Jezebel stereotype. Further, hyper-sexualized images of Black women appear frequently in music videos, where their bodies appear as mere accessories in a landscape that is dominated by masculinity.  The Jezebel stereotype imagines Black women as naturally sexually promiscuous and makes Black women’s sexuality deviant.  Another stereotype is the Sapphire, or more widely known today as "the Angry Black Woman”.  The name comes from a character on the radio minstrel show Amos ‘n Andy. Sapphire Stevens constantly berated her husband, George “Kingfish” Stevens. Women in these roles are “sassy”, rude and insulting, arrogant, and denigrating to Black men. These characters are “tart-tongued and emasculating, one hand on a hip and the other pointing and jabbing (or arms akimbo), violently and rhythmically rocking her head.“ [9]  Characters in past television shows that employ these types of behaviors range from Aunt Esther on Sanford and Son, Pam and Sheneneh on Martin, Florence on The Jeffersons, and Maxine on Living Single.  More recent examples are evident on shows such asBasketball Wives and Flavor of Love

LaWanda Page as "Aunt Esther” in Sanford and Son

Martin Lawrence as Sheneneh Jenkins

And, although we focus our discussion on Black women, Black men have also been stereotyped as servants in film, television and radio.  Donald Bogle argues that “No other period in motion-picture history could boast of more black faces carrying mops and pails or lifting pots and pans than the Depression years.“ [10]  These faces included characters/actors such as Stepin Fetchit, Sleep n’Eat, Mantan, and Bill “Bonjangles” Robinson.  Black men are also perniciously stereotyped as clowns and buffoons, brutes, criminals, and violent animals.  In Hollywood Shuffle, Robert Townsend parodies this treatment by the film establishment:

Taken together, what is the impact of these kinds of images and portrayals in film, TV, and other media?  Stereotypes in film demonstrate how forms of systemic racism permeate our society.  Today, American popular culture continues to reduce Black people and culture to a singular stereotype of deficiency and deviance.  Common imagery projects Black people as contentedly subservient at best, or “loathsome and ridiculous” at worst. [11] In 1999, sociologist Darnell Hunt wrote The African American Television Report (sponsored by the Screen Actors Guild). [12,13,14]  The study examined 384 episodes of 87 primetime series on ABC, CBS, NBC, FOX, UPN and WB (now defunct).  The study found major disparities based on type of show, network, and day of airing.  More than half of all African-American characters appeared on situation comedies (compared to less than a third of all White characters); were heavily concentrated on UPN and WB; and appeared mostly on two nights of the week (Monday and Friday). Further, most of the Black characters who appear only have minor roles that are usually irrelevant to the plot. [14]  Overall, Hollywood fails to portray the richness, diversity and complexity of African American lives, sticking to a very narrow and stereotypical set of images.  As Cornell West admonishes: “With all the richness in black life right now the only thing Hollywood gives us is black pathology”. [15]

Stereotypes are problematic not simply because they are false, but because they often stand in for real knowledge and actual life experience.  When stereotypes are highly visible and persistently exposed in the media, they tend to be adopted by individuals who do not come into contact with African Americans frequently.  High levels of residential segregation in the United States means that many Whites and others do not have day to day contact with Black people.  As a result, negative images in the media become associated with Black folks, regardless of evidence to the contrary.  Further, as Professor Mark Anthony Neal from Duke University states, stereotypes are used to “keep black people in their place by reinforcing the notion of their inferiority”. [16]

Cover of DVD for the first season of The Cosby Show

Apart from the ground-breaking program The Cosby Show, according to Dr. Vishette Merritt, chair of the Radio, Television, and Film Department at Howard University’s School of Communications, “the mindset in Hollywood is that positive images of blacks on the big screen don’t sell”. [3]  Thomas Carter, a television and film director remarks: “What we don’t see is black working people.  Most black people go to work every day.  Most black people are not on welfare.  Where are those people?  Most black people are trying to keep their families together.  Where are those people?” [17]  And of course, for those African American individuals or families who are struggling to make ends meet with public assistance, are out of work, or dealing with prison and the criminal justice system, television and film does not address why this is so.  Discrimination in hiring, law enforcement and criminal justice, education, and housing plays a major role in poverty, unemployment and other outcomes. [18,19,20,21]  Broad changes in the country’s economy and labor structure are also critical.  But images of both fictional and real African-Americans contribute to widespread belief in the “culture of poverty” argument that explains life circumstances on individual characteristics such as laziness (another common Black stereotype).
Racism in the industry has led to very few African Americans off-screen in both elite and creative positions.  Black directors only make up four percent of the Directors Guild of America [22] and of the 839 writers employed on prime-time television dramas and comedies, only 6.6% were black, with 44 out of the 55 employed at UPN or WB. [23]  As a result, it is quite common for Whites in creative departments to work on shows targeted to African-Americans.  Herein lies a partial explanation for the pervasiveness of stereotypes applied to African-Americans.  As one Black writer recounts, “The white writers will ask, ‘How would you say I’m walking down the hallway, you know, kind of urban?’  Now I’m put on the spot to make this show hip, and happening, and black, when what I would say is, ‘I’m walking down the hallway.’" [23]  And, the absence of Blacks employed in top-level positions means they are not at the table when negative portrayals of African-Americans are arguably green-lighted. [24]  These executives are more concerned with the bottom line rather than achieving equity (Black life on TV realism or stereotypes). [17].  In the words of Oscar Micheaux, the first African-American to make his own full-length feature film in 1919, “Unless we tell our own stories, we will never win.“ [3]
[1] Hill Collins, P.  (2000).  Black Feminist Thought:  Knowledge, Consciousness, and the Politics of Empowerment.  (2nd Ed.).  NY: Routledge.
[2] Grosz, C.  (2012, May 21).  Diversity can drive biz.  Variety427(2), pp. 1, 10.
[3] Bennefield, R.M.  (1998, January).  1998 Image Awards: NAACP celebrates the positive as blacks seek power in Hollywood.  The New Crisis,104(3), 31-33.  
[4] Mitchell, M.  (1936, 2011).  Gone With the Wind.  NY:  Scribner.
[5] Hale, G.E.  (1998).  Making Whiteness:  The Culture of Segregation in the South, 1890-1940.  NY:  Random House.
[6] Simmonds, Y.J.  (2012, March 1).  Black women and the Academy Awards winners and nominees.  Sentinel78(9), p. A8. 
[7] Association of Black Women Historians.  (n.d.).  An open statement to the fans of The Help
[8] Turner, P.A.  (2011, August 29).  Dangerous White stereotypes.  New York Times, p. A23. 
[9] Jim Crow Museum of Racist Memorabilia.  (n.d.).  Sapphire caricature. Retrieved from:
[10] Bogle, D. (2000). Toms, Coons, Mulattoes, Mammies & Bucks: An Interpretive History of Blacks in American films. (3rd ed.). New York: Continuum.
[11] Means Coleman, R. (1998). African American Viewers and the Black Situation Comedy: Situating racial humor. New York: Garland.
[12] (2000, March 3).  SAG Study: Blacks segregated on TV.  Back Stage, pp. 4, 6. 
[13] (2000, July).  Blacks ‘ghettoized’ on TV says SAG report.  Jet98(5), 48. 
[14] (2002, June).  Black TV characters more likely to appear on sitcoms and comedies study finds.  Jet102(1), 12. 
[15] Dargis, M. & Scott, A.O.  (2011, February 13).  Hollywood’s whiteout year: few Blacks on silver screen.  New York Times, p. AR1. 
[16] Lee, F.R.  (2009, November 21).  ‘Precious’ spawns racial debate: she’s ‘demeaned’ or ‘angelic’.  New York Times, p. C1. 
[17] Wilkerson, I.  (1993, August 15).  Black life on TV: realism or stereotypes?  New York Times, p. H1.
[18] Bertrand M, & Mullainathan S. (2004). Are Emily and Greg more employable than Lakisha and Jamal?  A field experiment on labor market discrimination. American Economic Review, 94(4), 991-1012.
[19] Pager, D. (2003). The mark of a criminal record. American Journal of Sociology, 5, 937-975.
[20] Massey, D. S., & Denton, N. A. (1993). American Apartheid: Segregation and the Making of the Underclass. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.
[21] Alexander, M. (2009). The New Jim Crow:  Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness. New York: The New Press.
[22] McClintock, P. & Appelo, T.  (2011, March 11).  Where are all the Black actors?  Hollywood Reporter417, 62-65. 
[23] Frutkin, A.J.  (1999, November 15).  Uphill battle.  Adweek40(46), 50-51. 
[24] Hughes, Z.  (2000, October).  The new TV season: what’s new what’s black, what’s back.  Ebony55(12), 138-141, 144-146. 

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