As Black History Month is drawing to a close in the US, INDIE is dedicating the last day of February to the faces, voices, and movements pushing black culture further – in the United States and beyond.
Film, an inherent form of propaganda, has always had a race problem. It would be inequitable to discuss the modern representation of blackness in cinema without considering the way this representation has changed since the inception of film itself. Over decades, this problem has been warped in ways to make it palatable for the time’s political consensus, but only so. The last few decades have seen a renaissance of new black representation, both the product of overcoming prejudices that defined the industry beforehand and black people being finally able to tell their own stories.
In cinema’s early days, black people were made to feel like the “other”. Stereotypes soon became character tropes, the sole purpose of which was to dehumanise. Women were stripped of their femininity, and men emasculated. The “Uncle Tom” trope, most recently revived by Samuel L. Jackson in Django Unchained refers directly to the title character of abolitionist novel Uncle Tom’s Cabin. Uncle Tom is a willingly subservient black man who is deferential to his oppressors – oftentimes a foolish martyr. His female counterpart is “Mammy”, a trope first fictionalised in the 1852 novel of the same name, but most famously committed to the screen in the eponymous character played by Hattie McDaniel in Gone With The Wind (1939). In order to form a complete opposite to the ideals of 1930s femininity, Mammy is portrayed as being large, dark skinned, and wise. Through the colonised eye, she is seen as to be unfeminine, unattractive and thus lesser than the white women she serves. In creating these tropes and showing them on film, post-abolitionist America was able to maintain its racial hierarchy.
In the century since ‘the most racist movie ever made’ Birth of a Nation (1915) found its way onto screens and into the minds of Americans, attitudes towards race and casting have seen slight improvement. The days in which a white actor could ‘change their race’ with a slick of crude paint are now a distant memory, so film industry heads have been left with no other choice but to actually cast actors who already bear resemblance to the written character. But to be able to do this without alienating the inevitably majority white audience, black actors with lighter skin would be cast, oftentimes as an eager sidekick with little character development, notably Stacey Dash’s hollow Dionne Davenport against Alicia Silverstone’s (arguably) more complex Cher Horowitz in 1995 cult hit, Clueless. This subconscious casting choice developed into a trope in itself, with Spike Lee popularising “Magical Negro” as an umbrella term to file these instances under, the defining features of which involve the supporting black character serving solely as an aid to the white protagonist.
In recent years, the phrase “trauma porn” began circling the Internet; primarily in reference to popular Netflix series Orange is the New Black. These words refer to the hyper-consumption of a media format in which a minority is suffering an injustice the consumer is quite unlikely to face, and can be applied easily to the situations black characters have found themselves in over the years. Steve McQueen’s Oscar-winning epic 12 Years a Slave gave darker skinned actors the opportunity they would have otherwise been denied, to be depicted and captured amongst the aesthetic beauty of Spanish moss and verdant bayous. The visual beauty almost distracts from the fact that this film seeks to make the viewer suffer along with the unfolding drama, a norm for McQueen’s films. To see black bodies brutalised without censorship is too closely representative of the truth we’re living in today. When images of brutalised black bodies are continually circulated on the news, on social media and most importantly in cinema, it then becomes easier for the deaths of countless men and women murdered at the hands of law enforcement, particularly in the USA to be normalised and then eventually justified.
Similarly, whilst Django Unchained gave Jamie Foxx, a dark skinned black man, the opportunity to play the leading role in what went on to do an incredibly box office success, it is hard to honestly imagine if the same prosperity would have been possible if the plot line didn’t rely on the relationship between slaves and their owners, pockmarked with the incessant mangling of black bodies. The most memorable of these violent scenes are the Mandingo fight scene and the infamous dog scene. The latter of which sparked such gross fantasy, that it became the subject of a viral Internet hoax detailing that the actor involved was in fact killed on set.
The inherent racial theme of this film only complicated further when the idea of blaxploitation is introduced. This film genre, the amalgamation of the words ‘black’ and ‘exploitation’ is an ethic subgenre that emerged in 1970s America, a genre in which finally black people were the champions of their own narrative, rather than sidekicks or brutality victims. Tarantino’s confusing mixture of unrelenting violence and hypermasculine heroism interspersed with no less 113 than utterances of the word “nigger” aroused vilification from his long standing critic Spike Lee, again. In 1997, Tarantino payed respectful homage to the blaxploitation era of decades passed with Pam Grier as, Jackie Brown, a true representation of the genre’s conditions.
Luckily, the 2010s have garnered a renaissance of black representation in transatlantic cinema. We’re witnessing narratives in which black people are neither slave nor savage, and the characters are cast fairly and accordingly. As the Mammy and Uncle Tom tropes sought to strip the femininity and masculinity from black characters, reclamation of sexuality is an important step towards freedom for black cinematic representation. The Oscar winning Moonlight’s (2016) depiction of the complexity of black gay existence brought a narrative onto screens that even twenty years ago would have been unheard of, and alongside this perpetuated a secondary image of the black American male, removing all connotations pinned to him over time in other forms of media.
Hidden Figures (2016) simply presented black women as the heroes of their own story, not as aides to a white hero, but simply as pioneers in their STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Mathematics) careers. Black Panther (2018) is the latest in a string of unapologetically black films. Set in the fictional and importantly, un-colonised East African nation of Wakanda, the film is an Afrofuturist triumph and unequivocal proof that black movies can be as successful as their whitewashed counterparts. This film is hopefully the first of many that showcase blackness in a way that doesn’t seek to appease a Eurocentric eye. Clarkisha Kent of TheRoot.com put it most eloquently when she wrote “Black Panther remains socially and culturally relevant because it imagines a world where black people continually triumph over the influences of capitalism, Western imperialism and white supremacy.”
We may be seeing more black actors on the screens around us but colourism is still very much an issue in this respect, with darker skinned actors being repeatedly backbenched from the roles they best suit. Recently, Viola Davis spoke out about not being paid her worth, despite being hailed the “Black Meryl Streep”. And the cinematographer of Issa Rae’s Insecure is one of few people in media making an active effort to divert from the traditional racially exclusive methods of lighting actors, in a bid to make the black characters look their best. There is much to be done before we can say that black people are fairly represented in film, but so far, 21st century cinema is making a lot of the right moves.