Stereotypical Depictions of African Americans in Films

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The Emergence of Colour

In today’s culturally diverse, politically correct society, it is hard to believe that at one time racism was not only accepted as the norm, but enjoyed for its entertainment value. Individuals of African descent in North America today take the large, diverse pool of opportunities offered by the film industry for granted. Much like Canadian theatre however, there was a time when a black man in any role, be it servant or slave, was virtually unheard of. It took the blaxpliotation films of the early nineteen seventies to change the stereotypical depiction of Black people in American Cinema, as it took The Farm Story, performed by a small troop of Canadian actors, to create a Canadian theatre industry. To be more specific, it took the release of Melvin Van Peebles, Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song, in 1971, to change the tradition view of Black people in American film.
“Porter’s tom was the first in a long line of socially acceptable Good Negro characters. Always as toms are chased, harassed, hounded, flogged, enslaved, and insulted, they keep the faith, n’er turn against their massas, and remain hearty, submissive, stoic, generous, selfless, and oh-so-very kind.”(Bogle,4)

The early silent period of cinema introduced five basic archetypes for Black characters: the Tom, the Coon, the Tragic Mulatto, the Mammy, and finally, the Brutal Black Buck. America’s first Black character found manifestation as the aforementioned Uncle Tom in Edwin S. Porter’s, Uncle Tom’s Cabin, which was released in 1903. “The paradox was that in actuality Tom wasn’t Black at all. Instead he was portrayed by a nameless, slightly overweight actor made up in blackface.”(Boggle, 4) This was a common practice developed by the theater, and carried over, as were many of the acting techniques, to silent film. Tom’s presence, and the appearance of the four negro archetypes which were to follow, served the same purpose: “to entertain by stressing negro inferiority.”(Boggle, 4)
Although having no positive effect on the status of Black people in America socially, the tom character opened the door for Black actors in cinema. Sam Lucas became the first black man to be cast in a leading role as a tom, and in 1927, Universal Pictures signed James B. Lowe, a handsome black actor, for the lead role in the Universal Pictures production of Uncle Tom’s Cabin. Lowe was chosen to play the part because film director Harry Pollard, a former blackface actor, believed he “fit in with the realistic demands of the times”(Bogle, 6)

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