African-Americans on Screen, 1903 to Present: TCM Film Festival Hosts a History of African Americans in Cinema

Turner Classic MoviesThis year’s TCM Film Festival 2012, which ran April 12-15, screened classic movies at the Chinese Theater,Hollywood, and the legendary Hollywood Roosevelt Hotel. Both venues continue to uphold their traditions, showcasing films, celebrity events and presentations in relation to film.

The Hollywood Roosevelt Hotel, which is renowned for hosting a celebrity or two, also was the original venue where the first Oscar ceremonies were held on May 16, 1929. The décor for this year’s festival had portraits from Audrey Hepburn to Steve McQueen to Marilyn Monroe, with a large screen which daily showed clips of movies from the era gone by.

The Club TCM lounge at the Hollywood Roosevelt Hotel hosted Film Historian Donald Bogle, who presented a lively, entertaining and rather revealing presentation which examined the different stereotypes of African-Americans actors, highlighting historical aspects of the talented black performers that transcended or transformed their roles to suit to put out a particular image or message, relevant to the history and economy of America’s changing environment at that time.

It was clear that Hollywood always and still has a direct influence on cinema around the world through the eyes of the movies, whether it be via truth, myths or misconceptions, and sometimes these would be interpreted as a genuine statement of the actual experiences of African-Americans here in the U.S. Stereotypes and fixed images of the African-American were present up to 1949 and for some time afterward.

The black performers were able to take control of their ‘stereotypical’ roles and turn them around.

There were five basic classifications of the African-American actor – The Tom, the coon, the mulatto, the mammy and the buck.

The ‘Tom’ figure, prominently used in early Hollywood films, was portrayed as the good negro, whose characteristics would be passive, well behaved and loyal, and certainly would not do anything to contradict his white master- as in “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” (1903) – where the black character dies content knowing that he has been faithful to his master. However at this time, for the first few decades of the 20th century, white actors with painted faces would portray black characters, as black actors were considered at that time to be unqualified to take on a role. One of the first black actors in this category was James B Lowe who acted in the 1927 screen version of “Uncle Tom’s Cabin.”

From the 1930s onwards, America was undergoing many changes and a different sort of performer was needed that would cheer up movie goers, and their hopes would be that they could relate to an issue seen on screen, during this period of great depression, social and political turmoil. Audiences were also seeking for inspirational qualities in the movies that they saw. The definitive ‘Tom’ character was seen in an actor known as Bill ‘Bo Jangles’ Robinson, and he worked with Shirley Temple in four movies, and they were known as a great team. Robinson’s work is on display in “The Littlest Rebel” (1935, with Temple) and “Stormy Weather” (1943, co-starring Lena Horne). He was an extraordinary dancer and had a great screen presence that audiences were able to connect to.

After World War II ended and into the 1950s, mainstream movie audiences looked to a dependable black male actor to characterize the burgeoning discussion of civil rights (but while remaining non-threatening to social mores and expectations) in the form of Sidney Poiter. One of his first movies was “Edge of the City” (1957), co-starring John Cassavetes and directed by Martin Ritt.

Poitier’s character, Tommy, is considered faithful and bends over backwards to prove his friendship to co-workers. One day Tommy defends his white co-star and dies in the arms of Axel, played by Cassavetes. Tommy is contented that he has been true to his white friend. Poitier is articulate but often during these times he is labeled as a character of ‘black self sacrifice’ and this proves true in the 1958 film, “The Defiant Ones,” in which he co-stars with Tony Curtis; they famously play prison convicts chained together in more ways than one. However it was clear at this time that Poitier had no control over his screen image.

One of Poiter’s best works was considered to be “A Raisin in the Sun (1961),” however he was not even nominated for an Oscar. He was the first black actor to win an Academy Award for a more ‘acceptable’ movie, that being “Lilies of the Field (1963).” Poitier had a strong output throughout the 1960s, including “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner” (1967) and “In the Heat of the Night” (1967) which co-starred Rod Steiger.

“In the Heat of the Night” includes perhaps one of the most famous moments in cinema, where Poiter’s character, Detective Virgil Tibbs is insulted by Steiger’s character, a bigoted white police chief, and Tibbs slaps him back, informing Steiger’s Chief Gillespie that he is known as “Mr Tibbs.” In Poiter’s autobiography, “This Life,” he said that times were difficult, and he had to find a way to connect to the audience under the circumstances.

In the 1970s, Poitier stepped behind the camera, and he went on to direct “Buck and the Preacher” (1972), starring Harry Belafonte, “A Warm December” (1973), and “Uptown Saturday Night” (1974) with Bill Cosby and Belafonte; it was an instant hit with black and white audiences. The follow–up film from 1975, “Lets Do it Again,” also starred Cosby.

Poitier retired from the screen in 1977 but returned in 1988 with “Shoot to Kill” and “Little Nikita.” He stated in another interview that he stayed away from the screen because he could not find challenging roles.

Poitier’s influence can be seen through other black actors of today, who have taken control of the subservient images of stereotypes and supporting their white counterparts.  Louis Gossett Jr. won a Best Supporting Actor Oscar for “An Officer and a Gentleman.” His character, the tough Sgt. Foley, may support the movie’s plot, but he is an authoritative figure to Richard Gere’s Zack Mayo. He is not entirely unsympathetic to Mayo’s plight, but within the confines of the military, he cannot show weakness at any time.

Morgan Freeman’s acting career has thrived on at what first appear to be simple roles (involving dependable, self-sacrificing characters) but explore larger themes of society. Most notably, Freeman started many discussions with “Driving Miss Daisy,” (1988), as a chauffeur in the deep South. 

The ‘coon’ figures were characters which had a comedic feel, and were seen in and out of trouble, trading on ugly stereotypes such as being lazy or eating fried chicken. In the late 1920s, as the Silent Era was dying and pictures with sound were starting to become more popular, Stepin Fetchit (born Lincoln Perry) came to Hollywood, becoming a star. His characters would embody and depict the shuffling African-American stereotype, an inarticulate man who would be known as the sidekick figure, but was always a scene stealer. He disappeared from Hollywood and re-emerged in the entourage of Mohammed Ali, as opposed to continuing his acting career.

The ‘mulatta’ was an African-American woman who had straight hair and appeared ‘white’ but had genetic traces of negra blood. Within this category, actresses were known as exotic and sometimes sexual objects, often suffering racial humiliation. In the 1930s, Fredi Washington became one of the first actresses to be trapped by the duality of race (both on-screen and in real life), when she appeared in “Imitation of Life” (1934). The obsession with Washington’s race (studio heads of the time said that if she tried to “pass” for being white, she could have been a much bigger star) practically defined her short career as an actress.

Lena Horne was the first actress of mixed race to be glamorized; however, her characters would usually not be part of the plot lines of the early films she acted in, and often would have crucial scenes cut from the script. She appeared in “Stormy Weather” (1943) and “Cabin in the Sky” (1943), yearning for a part in the remake of “Showboat,” which she did not get.

The 1930s also saw the introduction of Dorothy Dandridge, considered to be one of the most beautiful women in the world at the time; she was a child actress in Hollywood, and later nominated for an Academy Award for “Carmen Jones” (1954). While often pigeon-holed because of her beauty, Dandridge was also a talented performer whose career was hindered by racial attitudes of the era.

The ‘Mammy’ type actress is probably best exemplified by the unforgettable Hattie McDaniel, who portrayed the maid in the Academy Award-winning “Gone with the Wind (1939). Her character, Mammy (serving as the name of the archetype), was assertive, outspoken, gave orders with her booming voice, and expressed herself differently and was seen as an actress ‘coming from a real place.’ This won McDaniel the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress, the first black American to win the Oscar. While African-American females would continue to play domestic servants for decades to come, the Civil Rights era would slowly shift cinematic (as well as on television, with the 1968-1971 series “Julia” starring Diahann Carroll) attitudes.

The 1970s saw a series of liberated black actresses like Pam Grier (in Blaxploitation classics like “Black Mama, White Mama,” 1973) and Diana Ross, portraying the life of Billie Holliday in 1972’s “Lady Sings the Blues.” For her performance, Ross received Academy Award and Golden Globe nominations for best actress, winning the Golden Globe. Cicely Tyson set out a new image for the African-American actress and wore an Afro to establish her cultural identity, and was Oscar nominated for her role in “Sounder” (1972).

In 1985, “The Color Purple,” directed by Steven Speilberg, was a film that dealt with the inner conflicts of the African-American woman; it starred Oprah Winfrey and Whoopi Goldberg, and received 11 Oscar nominations.

Goldberg, who was nominated for Best Actress for “The Color Purple,” went on to receive an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress in “Ghost” (1990). Around this time, a surprise performer that everyone wanted to hire was Whitney Houston, who co-starred with Kevin Kostner in “The Bodyguard” (1992), which was immensely successful and grossed highly at the box office and of course had a hit soundtrack. Angela Bassett’s interpretation of Tina Turner in “What’s Love Got to Do with It” (1993), with Lawrence Fishburne, won her the Golden Globe for Best Performance, and an Oscar nomination.

“Bringing down the House” (2003), with Steve Martin and Queen Latifah, saw the rapper-turned-actress play a modern day character with a disregard for color or convention; the comedy was about female self empowerment and Latifah’s character bonds with Martin’s character.

Halle Berry received the Best Actress Oscar for “Monster’s Ball” (2001), a film which was criticized heavily. This followed with a surprise–not an expectation–that Beyonce would win for “Dreamgirls” (2006) which also co-starred Eddie Murphy, but a relatively unknown actress from “American Idol,” Jennifer Hudson, collected the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress.

‘The Buck’ was perhaps the ugliest stereotype; these were characters who were tough, assertive, sexual and often violent black men, which played on the deepest-seeded racial bigotry, mostly at the hands of white, male filmmakers. D.W. Griffith’s “The Birth of a Nation” (1915) remains one of the starkest examples of using this type of character. It is a portrait of master and slave, and their places in society.

Poitier was certainly one of the first black actors in Hollywood to be able to break out of stereotypical roles, especially in the 1960s, but his portrayals were often cerebral. The Blaxploitation movies of the 1970s certainly saw actors such as Richard Roundtree (“Shaft,” 1971) and Fred “The Hammer” Williamson (“Hammer,” 1972) elevated to leading man status in roles that allowed them to be assertive and aggressive, but these weren’t exactly mainstream movies.

With 1982’s “48 Hours” Murphy brought a raw edge and devastating comedic timing to his role as Reggie Hammond, ushering in a new era of action comedies. This movie, when teamed up with the original “Beverly Hills Cop,” (1984) shows Murphy at the height of his powers; either as a criminal (“48 Hours”) or a cop (“Beverly Hills Cop”), he is the one driving the action, using his acerbic wit as well as violence.

While Murphy would later soften his edges and go on to a very up and down career (from the highs of the “Shrek” franchise to the lows of “The Adventures of Pluto Nash”), it was in “48 Hours” that he wrested control of the ‘the buck’ stereotype, with one of his most famous lines being (aimed at a white redneck in a honky-tonk bar), “I’m your worst f—king nightmare, man! I’m a n—er with a badge, which means I got permission to kick your f—king ass whenever I feel like it!”

As the conversation about race has changed in the last 30 years, a multitude of black actors have moved past the stereotypes given here. Denzel Washington is a multiple time Oscar winner and Forest Whitaker won an Oscar for Best Actor for his performance in “The Last King of Scotland.” And while it is impossible to list every black actor and actress who has made significant contributions to changing racial attitudes and the use of stereotypes in cinema, and while more progress in equitable portrayal and distribution of roles is in order, there has been progress.





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