Happy Klansman Era:
In 1886, Nathan Bedford Forrest joined a fledgling group of confederate soldiers who called themselves “White Knights.” Previously a millionaire, slave owner and Confederate Army officer, Forrest used the one thing he had left, his influence in the media, to give rise to the Ku Klux Klan. Forrest used willing newspaper editors, and he staged live plays, to spread Klan propaganda and recruit new members; he made sure the news and plays showed blacks as uneducated thugs and gangsters, or otherwise shiftless and inferior criminals.
Over time though, the KKK movement lost steam. That is, until 1915, when Hollywood supported D.W. Griffith in the production and release of his film, Birth of a Nation. This film is about a black man who violently rapes a southern white woman; the film’s climax features a heroic and triumphant procession of the KKK. Birth of a Nation earned Griffith the title “Father of Film” and even today it is hailed as a landmark in the film industry.
Happy Klansman Error:
Instead of using black actors (which were pretty much nonexistent at the time because of segregation and other constraints), Griffith used Caucasian actors covered in black shoe polish (blackface). This is a minor offense, however, compared to the film’s effect of igniting a whole new era for the Ku Klux Klan. Within months of the Birth of the Nation release, Klan membership skyrocketed from 5,000 to 100,000. And this film is still used to recruit new members. Needless to say, the success of this film encouraged the Klan to continue to use the media to further its twisted purposes. Who could have predicted that-even to this day-the KKK would be using advertising agencies and publicists to promote their organization?
The ’30s: Maids, Toms, and Servants Era:
Hattie McDaniel, Eddie “Rochester” Anderson, Bill “Bojangles” Robinson, Stephin Flechit — what do they all have in common? They were all hard-working, intelligent, and gifted performers. In the true sense of the word, they were artists-artists forced into supporting roles of maids, toms, and servants to appease America’s false sense of superiority.
The Maids, Toms, and Servants Error:
Though they brought new dignity and spirit to everything they did, and opened doors for a new generation of African-American artists, these actors played submissive roles that fostered and perpetuated stereotypes that would take years to overcome.
The ’40s: They Ain’t Civilized Yet Era:
Hollywood takes its cameras deep into the Motherland. Tarzan movies and African jungle movies such as Drums of the Congo and The Road to Zanzibar, starring prominent white actors such as Bob Hope and Bing Crosby. The African Queen, starring Katharine Hepburn and Humphrey Bogart began filming in the late 40’s these films were the order of the day.
The sad thing about this era is that segregation ran deep in America. The whites and blacks were so separated from each other, that they had neither the opportunity nor desire to interact with each other. Consequently, the only time many whites saw black men was in popular films where they played tribesman, jungle chieftains, and medicine men. And black women were seen as only concubines, or as topless slave girls with babies strapped to their backs, working in straw-thatched villages. Many whites thought of blacks as uncivilized, just because that’s what they had seen in the movies.
They Ain’t Civilized Yet Error:
Civilization began in Africa. While Europeans were still nomads and scavengers of the land, Africans developed tribes, social systems, and cities. Yet even to this day, Hollywood only shows Africa as an untamed jungle, inhabited by savages that need a Tarzan to save and protect them.
If this weren’t so pathetic, it would be comical to think people actually believe this tripe. But Africa is full of many modernized places. Even back in the ’40s, most parts of Africa were not as they appeared in the movies. Does this subconscious or intentional portrayal of Africa as a jungle continent reflect a deep-down belief that blacks are savages?
The ’50s: Almost-Black is Beautiful Era:
Hallelujah! Films were featuring blacks in leading roles-well, black women actually. This was progress, right? Of course it was because our little girls could see women who looked like them on screen. Ok, at least some of our little girls could see women like themselves; those girls with similar “light-skinned” complexions like the black stars of the day, Lena Horne, Dorathy Dandridge, Diahann Caroll, and Ruby Dee.
Yes, these black actresses were all beautiful women indeed. The black actresses with light skin, straightened hair, and Caucasian features tended to have the leading and romantic roles. Yet most of the darker-skinned women with more “African” features were confined to comic, parental, or clean-up (maid or nanny) no-name inconsequential roles.
Almost-Black is Beautiful Error:
This bias in casting roles occurred regardless of whether the films’ writers, producers, and directors were white or black. In essence, everyone was fostering a caste system based on color, and even shades of that color. Senseless, don’t you think?
The ’60s: They Don’t Need to be in the Movies Era:
The 1960s were the western years, when a plethora of western films was made. Stars like John Wayne were featured in movies like The Alamo, How the West Was Won, and El Dorado. Never any black stars though.
They Don’t Need to be in the Movies Error:
Historically, many cowboys were African-American. Many black free men and women moved west, settled land, and became ranch owners, business people, and politicians. Hollywood forgot the other part of the story.
The ’70s: The Blaxploitation Era:
Films of the ’70s showed us all kinds of black folks: rich ones, poor ones, honest ones, strong ones, light ones, dark ones, funny ones, funny-looking ones. Remember The Mack, Super-fly, and Dolamite? All of these movies were about pimping, drug dealing and other crimes.
The Blaxploitation Error:
Not being prescient, we had no idea these ’70 movies would be favorites of young black men even today. These films imply that a black can only be respected by being a hardened criminal, or at least, by being tough and just slightly bending the law. And to be all-powerful, according to these films, the black has to be a pimp. Even today, our youths can be heard calling each other “nigga” and “pimp”-using either derogatory term as a compliment. “Big Pimping.”
The Vigilantploitation Era:
In vigilante films like Clint Eastwood’s Dirty Harry and Charles Bronson’s Death Wish, the first black character you saw was typically a criminal; the white hero usually shot the criminal first and asked questions later. These movies were popular entertainment for the white suburban market.
The Vigilantploitation Error:
Who knew that many of these suburban viewers would grow up to be some of today’s cops?
The ’80s: One Black Star is Enough Era:
In the ’80s, Hollywood didn’t invest much in black films. For example, Spike Lee himself financed his Do the Right Thing and She’s Got to Have It films. Eddie Murphy was the exception; Murphy did star in big budget films. But his roles were typically anything but exemplary: In 48 hours, he was a convict; in 1983’s Trading Places, he was a homeless con man; and in 1984’s Beverly Hills Cop, he was a cop who didn’t follow the rules and on occasion, even infracted the law.
Only Murphy’s Coming to America role was worthy of emulating. In this film, he played an intelligent, ethical, and powerful future king who was willing to question the lifetime role (or royal mandate) handed to him, and to do so without hurting anyone or demeaning himself or the image of the black man. Murphy’s character went so far as to endure a menial job, just to learn about real life and eventually win over an independent, smart woman. Yes, it was far-fetched, but a refreshing role for a black man.
One Black Star is Enough Error: While Eddie is a talented entertainer, he was not the only African-American man in the movie business. But they thought he’d be enough to satisfy the 35% African-American movie audience.
The early ’90s brought the public many black films, including Colors, Menace to Society, Boys in the Hood, Juice, New Jack City, Dead Presidents, and South Central.
In the early ’90s, we supported all these movies. In the late ’90s, we decided to ask for better movies. Alas, too late: the gang mentality had surfaced everywhere, even in places that had never seen gangs before.
The No Black Dramas on TV Era:
Despite there being over 100 black TV shows in Hollywood, less than five of them were dramas. Instead, the majority of them were comedies, like The Jeffersons, Sandford and Son, Goodtimes, and Martin. Even though many blacks liked (and some still enjoy) these sitcoms, they may not know that most of the shows’ writers were white. This begs the question: Is that why the funniest parts of the show occurred when a black woman and a black man were disrespecting each other? Look at The Jefferson’s, George and his maid; or Sanford and Son, Fred and Aunt Easter; or Goodtimes, J.J. and his sister Thelma; or Martin, Pam and Martin. We all laugh because it’s all in fun, but those great actors and actresses could have made anything funny.
No Black Dramas on T.V. Error:
Still don’t have all Black Dramas because many African-Americans and others enjoy seeing African-Americans having a good ol’ time.
The Nothing but Black Dramas on TV Era:
In today’s court shows, game shows, cop shows, talk shows, even America’s Most Wanted, blacks continue to be portrayed negatively.
The Nothing but Black Dramas on tv Error:
When whites are on these shows acting crazy. Many think of them as acting black.
Summary of Hollywood Eras and Errors
All the shows or movies discussed above were ones that either Hollywood put money into, or were huge successes at the box office, or both. Our point is, Hollywood has never shown much respect to blacks and when it has, it’s because we pressured the industry and complained enough to cause some change.
Yes, we’ve seen improvements in Hollywood, but much of the damage has already been done. That is why we have to keep the pressure on Hollywood-before another negative stereotypical era is born.