The original depiction of black people in the media, and specifically films, held negative connotations due to the way the general public (in other words, the white minority) socially and politically regarded the black minority. Early films “depict blacks as the objects of ridicule not to be taken seriously unless they are sacrificing unless they are sacrificing themselves for their white masters” . Some examples of early movies that illustrate negative depictions of black people include “Pickaninnies Doing a Dance (1894), Dancing Dark Boy (1895), A Nigger in the Woodpile (1904), The Wooing and the Wedding of a Coon (1905), and For Massa’s Sake (1911)” .
From the titles of these films alone, it’s clear to see that the public’s image of black people was generally negative. The titles use of slurs perpetuates an image of black people as inferior in many aspects, specifically intellectually as they are often portrayed as small minded in early films.
The term blaxploitation combines the words “black” and “exploitation” to form one word that criticizes the exploitation of black people and their narratives for story and shock value, usually in a demeaning fashion. The term was originally coined by Junius Griffin in 1972, who was a black activist and the “former leader of the Hollywood branch of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP),” specifically in response to the 1972 film Super Fly.
What qualified movies as blaxploitation films were:
Blaxploitation films gained much popularity in the 1970s, but eventually phased out as black people began producing their own movies, and advocating for more positive and realistic portrayals of their stories on screens.
Compared to the past, the film industry today has made a lot of progress. Although there is still a lot of work to be done, the modern screen has been displaying black excellence in what has been dubbed as the Black Renaissance. Originally, the Black Renaissance referred to the Harlem Renaissance of the early 20th century, in which black people flocked to Harlem and it became a centre for the development of distinctly black art and creativity, to contribute to black culture. Similarly, the 1990s brought a new wave of black creativity to the forefront with shows being broadcast that better captured black families and portrayed them in a positive light. Shows such as The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, Family Matters, Martin, The Wayans Bros, and The Jamie Foxx Show, saw black people getting long-awaited representation on their screens. Commentating on the resurgence of black artists, actors/actresses, and creatives, Kay Wicker states that “black-centred projects--which is to say an entertainment or creative project that is either produced by a predominantly black team or that centres around black narratives and black culture--are no longer being relegated to the margins”. With the grand success seen in TV shows and movies such as Scandal, Black Panther, and Black-ish, it is apparent that the Black Renaissance seems to be making a comeback. On top of this, black artists have been consistently charting in the music industry, as seen with Drake, Lizzo, Travis Scott, and SZA, just to name a few.
The names of the following character tropes, centred around the black race specifically, were found on TVTropes.org.
|Angry Black Man/Woman||This stereotype perpetuates the idea that black men and women are unjustifiably angry, and portrays them as irrational. This diminishes the many reasons black people may have for being angry at political and social culture, and the ways it affects them.|
|Black Best Friend||Some TV shows and films include a black person simply to use them as a best friend character, solely for the purpose of filling a diversity quota. This character often is not given much characterization, but instead their life seems to revolve around the main character counterpart.|
|Black Boss Lady||This character trope focuses on black women specifically, often portraying them as bossy, loud, lazy, and not good at their job. This depiction discredits the many black women working hard in their careers.|
|Black Dude Dies First||This specific trope is often seen in horror movies, with the black character, who was added to fill a diversity quota, is immediately killed off and forgotten about for the rest of the movie, resulting in very little representation for black people in horror movies.|
|Black is Bigger in Bed||This stereotype perpetuates the sexualization of black men, viewing them as overly sexual beings. Although this is often used in comedic instances, the stereotype contributes to the fetishization of black males, viewing them as overtly sexual beings.|
|But Not Too Black||This refers to characters that are black but of lighter skin tones, and refrains from using ebonics. The use of the “But Not Too Black” character stems from colorism, and leans into the idea that the film industry generally prefers black actors/actresses when they have Eurocentric features or mannerisms.|
|Mammy||This role refers to black women whose role are as maids or babysitters for a white family. Often the woman is depicted as uneducated and overweight, but provides sage advice that benefits the lives of the family they work for. This is usually seen in movies dealing with slavery, but in modern TV shows and films too.|
|Uncle Tomfoolery||his is the act of including a heavily stereotyped black man solely for comedic purposes. The stereotyping typically borders, or simply enters, the realm of being offensive.|
In an essay on Gender, Race, and Media Representation, Dwight E. Brooks and Lisa P. Hébert, note that “much of what audiences know and care about is based on the images, symbols, and narratives in radio, television, film, music, and other media”. This statement clearly encapsulates the ways in which stereotypes can negatively impact people. If negative stereotypes are the only form of black representation seen in the media, it will perpetuate a negative image of self for black people, as well as a negative image to the public. It is for this reason that black people, as well as many other minorities, have been pressing for more positive representation of minorities in the media.
Started by April Reign in 2015, the hashtag, #OscarsSoWhite, gained a lot of traction across social media. The original hashtag read:
“#OscarsSoWhite they asked to touch my hair.”
The reference to hair stands as a criticism towards white people for their fascination with African-American hair, and likewise the tweet also deliberately mocks the abundance of white people praised at the awards show, The Oscars, despite the excellence found in works involving people of colour.
In a Huffington Post article, speaking about the hashtag itself, April Reign claimed she “initially created the hashtag to mock the lack of diversity at the award show. But almost immediately, users adopted it to call out the show in their own way and highlight the need for more inclusion of stars of colour". With the hashtag gaining popularity, it wasn’t long before the hashtag caught the attention of many celebrities who also showed their support, such as Chris Rock, Jada Pinkett Smith, Will Smith, Spike Lee, Lupita Nyong’o, Viola Davis, David Oelowo, Snoop Dogg and Ava DuVernay. Some celebrities, and viewers at home, even went so far as to boycott the award show altogether, to show solidarity in the message. By boycotting, the goal was to show that they would not support a show that refuses to acknowledge them.
Although many showed their support of the #OscarsSoWhite hashtag, and its impact in drawing the public’s attention to the lack of representation for people of colour in awards shows, there still remained plenty of people who did not share the same view and felt boycotting the Oscars was futile. One such example is Clint Eastwood, who in a TMZ interview, stated that there are “thousands of members in the Academy who haven’t won awards [and that] a lot of people are crying,” diminishing the issue.
In an almost identical manner, the Grammys faced similar backlash from black artists for failing to properly acknowledge their influence in music, and more specifically the rap community.
When the 1989 Grammy Awards Show made the decision to not televise the segment which held the presentation of the rap award, hip hop celebrities DJ Jazzy Jeff (Jeff Townes) and The Fresh Prince (Will Smith) chose to boycott the award show and instead held a boycott the Grammys party.
While commenting on the situation, Will Smith compared it to school, saying it’s like “you go to school for 12 years, they give you your diploma and they deny you that walk down the aisle”.
The action of boycotting served as an act of defiance; black artists gathered together as a sign that they would not entertain shows that refused to acknowledge their accomplishments publicly, and show to the world their talent. By refusing to show the world black excellence in the media, all that was left as a point of reference was the stereotypes shown in TV shows such as the ones mentioned in Black Character Tropes.