Portrayal of Black People in Movies

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The films like ‘12 Years a slave’, ‘Rebirth of a Nation, ‘Within Our Gates’, ‘Daughters of the Dust’, ‘Malcolm X’, ‘Selma’ and ‘I Am Not Your Negro’ serve as instruments for the makers to employ the history of the Black people and also to provide people with knowledge about the developments that had taken place in the history of the Blacks. The films illustrate upon the journey of the Black Americans which they had taken in the American history. The Blacks have played vital roles in enhancing African-American cultures which is actually portrayed in the films. These films tend to explain a few events or people who have managed to shape the Black history in America since time immemorial. The movie ‘Within our Gates’ shows the time when people had already started to get over their fear for the Whites and talked about their cruel nature on public as shown by the makers, in ‘12 Years a Slave’, however, the time shown was the peak time when the Blacks were dumped into slavery irrespective of their societal status or gender and were just treated as very low creatures because of their color.

Interactions between the White and the Black body have dominantly been shown as that of a superior-inferior relationship. Most of these movies are actually realistic portrayals of the past and the traditional societal norms that existed among the people and therefore, a realistic portrayal would fall short if the slavery conditions of the Blacks are not portrayed. Because this factor had been inscribed in the history of the Blacks as a result of oppression and prejudices towards them. In the movie ‘Rebirth of a Nation’, this factor was not employed by the author/maker since the plot differs. In this movie, the Stoneman family are actually friends with the Camerons and this friendship that they shared got affected by the Civil War since they both had to fight in opposite armies supporting their own. This approach is quite a unique one that had been undertaken by the author in order to employ something new to the Black history in books or movies. Another interaction between the Whites and the Blacks is shown in ‘Malcolm X’ where the protagonist Malcolm’s father is murdered by the Whites and the mother is sent to a mental hospital. This is actually the author/maker’s way of portraying how cruel the practices of the Whites were towards the Blacks and how they had managed to exert oppression in every minute situation.

Both the movies ‘12 Years a Slave’ and ‘I Am Not Your Negro’ showcase White supremacy as attributes which support oppression exerted against the Black community. In the former movie, the main protagonist is shown as someone who belongs to a well-to-do family and is very happy but his life turns upside down when he falls prey to slavery because of his color and his high societal status did not hold any value to the White oppressors. However, from these social unjust treatments of the Blacks, we move on to the unfair portrayal of the Blacks in different movies in ‘I Am Not Your Negro’ where Baldwin has claimed that White American narratives dominantly exists where the hero of the movie, television series or media is always a White male while the Blacks are often offered the roles of antagonists. The writer states that even when the world has come so far from the traditional unjust treatments of the Blacks, traces of the same are still visible in the movie industry where the characters are formed based on stereotypes revolving around the Blacks. Baldwin in his own work articulates the suffering of the Blacks.

Nikole Hannah Jones had stated in the 1619 magazine that Black Americans are the true founding fathers of American nation. She had chronicled a history of policies which were enacted in order to profit from the Black Americans and also to disenfranchise them. This very point of view has been shared in the movies mentioned above to portray how the Blacks had been affected by White supremacy. The filmmakers have attempted to make this factor visible in their own works, as done in ‘12 Years a Slave’ where the White supremacy was portrayed by the way the Whites had forcibly held the Black protagonist in prison and treated him as a slave. In ‘I Am Not Your Negro’, however, the Whites have always been portrayed as the protagonists in movies traditionally. They were offered better roles as compared to that of the Blacks who were traditionally provided the role of the antagonist or characters which are almost negligible. Images of utopia and dystopia which are represented in ‘Boyz n the Hood’ showcase the invisibility that African-Americans are subjected to in societies and among people (IMDb). The Blacks are commonly subject to surveillance by the police forces whereby they have only been entitled to live within the geographic boundaries of their own hood. The Black people often face the suspicious glares of people and even the cops in real life and this very factor has been considered by the makers for a portrayal. In the plot of the movie, three Black characters have been deployed portraying them with three different plans for the future. Cuba aspires to become a college person, Ricky aspires to become a football player in the same school while Doughboy is a college dropout and therefore, becomes a crack dealing gangster. The movie maker attempts to portray the severity of drug use, gang violence, racial inequality, etc., through the movie’s plot. This realistic portrayal shows how the Blacks are moved aside into different isolated societies of their own as a result of not polluting the White societies, but this might be the main reason why most Blacks like Doughboy fall prey to such illegal practices as they have grown up in a similar place.

In ‘Within Our Gates’ the cast showcases anxiety that is associated with the rural influences of the Blacks. The Blacks are seen as people who usually have a tendency to indulge themselves in illegal works and corruptions. And in order to avoid such corrupt traces, they are forced to live in rural settings and not bring their own dirt to an urban place. The story is about a negro woman named Sylvia who visits the north to avoid all the dominant racial prejudices of her hometown in the south. She works at a school for young negroes and decides to raise money to save the school. However, as the story progresses, the maker has shown that both White and Black people had helped her in solving her problems in one way or another and she feels grateful towards everyone. She then manages to fulfil her job after returning to Piney Wood. This shows how there is not mandatorily ‘bad’ among the Blacks and nothing mandatorily ‘good’ among the Whites. Both the races hold good and bad factors and no color of the body can change or affect that.

In ‘12 Years a Slave’, the makers have employed the theme of surveillance in order to show how the Whites kept an eye on the ‘free’ Black people to involve them in slavery and sell them in markets for their own profit. The Whites had surveilled over the protagonist who was actually a well-to-do person and this had affected them so much to the extent that they felt the need to disrupt his comfort and make him their slave. They could not bear a Black person being in a similar platform as them. In ‘Malcolm X’, surveillance was employed during the part where Malcolm’s father was murdered. He was actually under the eyeing of the Whites who were in search for an opportunity to put an end to his life. In ‘Selma’, policing themes have been employed by the makers to show the demands Dr. King had made to President Johnson in order to act on Black people’s rights to vote. This is an attempt of the maker to portray how the Blacks were deprived of even the basic human rights and never given an equal status in society during the past. In ‘Lift’, the theme of surveillance has been shown as a way of intensifying the thrill engaged in the plot. The characters get stuck in an elevator which is surveilled, and this very factor adds some advantage to the thrill.

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These acts of surveillance and policing against Black Americans shows how the Black people living in the nation stay under constant bounds which reminds them of the prejudices that people form towards them. They are not able to move freely and live peacefully because they feel the fear of them being watched. Such experiences had made an impact on the characters to act as instruments who portray the realistic picture of a Black person’s life and how they live on a daily basis with a reminder of injustice hovering over. This is visible in ‘12 Years a Slave’ where the main protagonist Solomon is sold as a slave and he had no other option but to accept his fate until he meets a Canadian abolitionist who changes his life forever. It is also evident in ‘Boyz n the Hood’, where Cuba, Ricky and Doughboy stay among their own community bounds even when they are aware that surveillance have been put around them. This is also a realistic picture of the contemporary treatment of the Blacks.

Employing personal worlds actually assist writers in creating a swiftly moving plot. In order to give a realistic touch to movie plots, they connect the plotline to reality in possible ways. Examining the treatments of a community in society also facilitates this ‘real’ factor which is why the writers deploy characters who exhibit real-life characteristics. In the movie ‘Within Our Gates’, Micheaux had made use of an interracial cast because he did not want to build a world which had no White people in it, he wanted to build a natural and realistic world. This movie has treated being ‘American’ as a matter of self-conception which has been represented by Micheaux through the portrayal of the Black masculinity. Black masculinity includes drugs, gambling, conspiring with White men, for selfish needs, passing for White, and criminality. The filmmaker had not idealized the community like most others and in fact called upon different Black people to question their own doings and morals.

In ‘Daughters of the Dust’, Dash has made use of numerous identity fragments for illustrating the component of American identity. These fragments include location, character and legacy. The author has made use of different locations like the island where the Ibo landing resided, Philadelphia, Nova Scotia, and a few others. These locations portray the American richness in beautiful locations mostly islands. The movie also employs varied characters like Nana Peazant, Yellow Mary, Viola Peazant, Eli, Eula and a few other minor characters. The diversity in characters are actually the makers’ attempts on assigning different cultural beliefs and practices to every single one. This propagates different cultural practices that America is rich in like Nana who practices old traditions of the Peazant family, some Caribbean and African rituals; Viola practices Christianism, Haagar who does not believe in these and considers them to be very backwards and superstitious.

In ‘Malcolm X’, the filmmakers have shown the American diversity in location as the plot includes different places like Boston, Omaha, Massachusetts, Nebraska, Detroit, etc. The makers have used these places to show the diversity that instils in the nation of America. The identity of Blacks has been lower and they have been underrepresented, this very factor also serves as a portrayal of American identity. In ‘Selma’, DuVernay has also used the same tactic of showing the American diversity by showcasing different locations like Birmingham, Alabama, Edmund Pettus Bridge, etc. The film has also shown different protests and protesters which also gives away the idea that Americans do not stand injustice, rather they fight back. In ‘12 Years a Slave’, McQueen has made use of the variedness in the North and the south of the nation and the people who dwell there. The filmmaker has made attempts of sketching a realistic picture of the societies in America and how they actually function or react when drugs is at concern. According to the filmmaker, the American identity depends on the relationship that is shared between the history, memory and slavery. He says that Black people consider their own societal role based on how they were treated in the past and comparing it with the present.

According to Dubois, the problem of the twentieth century is the relationship between the darker and the lighter races of men (Everett, 14). Racial inequality still exists in various platforms and discrimination based on this has always victimized the Black people. A similar perspective can be seen in the film ‘12 Years a Slave’, evidently the Black identity of Solomon is treated differently from the general American identity. In spite of him being an American himself, their histories make them slightly fall back. Solomon’s story shows that only well-to-do does not provide a lavish lifestyle, being both well-to-do and White does the charm.

Majority of the assimilation had not conformed with the richness of the Black worlds, and these Blacks have been forced to adopt a culture which did not even seem to support them but they are more inclined towards the White cultures. These Blacks have become alienated from the attributes of political and social cultural representation because they follow the practice of the Whites. They are expected to live in different communities and not to pollute the White communities with their crude habits just how the three brothers Doughboy, Cuba and Ricky (‘Boyz n the Hood’) were living in their own community bounds even when they had the idea that they were surveilled. Moreover, the Black people had not been given the basic rights during the past, and sadly yet this problem has still not been fully solved. Donald Bogle had suggested that there exist five stereotypes for every African American character in a movie. These stereotypes include the Coon, the Mammy, the Uncle Tom, the Buck and the Tragic Mulatto. The Coon refers to the negative characteristics which are traditionally used to dehumanize the Blacks. These words like ‘slave’ in ‘12 Years a Slave’, ‘negro’ in ‘I Am not Your Negro’, etc., have been used by the filmmakers to picture how inhumanly the Whites had treated the Blacks (Ciraulo, 88). The second stereotype is of the Mammy which refers to stereotypes that are associated with female Black maids, housekeepers, nanny, etc., and who are very loud and sassy (NMAAHC). I had come across this stereotypical character in the movie ‘Ghostbusters’ where the Black character Patty who has been portrayed as a sassy and a very loud talker, however, she has not been portrayed as bold whatsoever. The third stereotype is of a Black person who obeys White figures and is shown as an oppression to his own race. I came across this stereotypical figure while watching the movie Django Unchained where Samuel Jackson plays the character of Stephen who holds the traits of Uncle Tom. The Buck is the fourth stereotypical character who is shown as violent and brutish and sexually charged. These characters are popularly evident in hip-hop culture of the 90s and still prevail so. The last stereotype is of Tragic Mulatto who is a mixed-race character struggling to fit into Black or White groups. This is evident in Beyonce’s music videos where she is seen as of a lighter complexion at times while comparatively darker in some other covers.

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Portrayal of Black People in Movies. (2022, December 15). Edubirdie. Retrieved April 20, 2024, from https://edubirdie.com/examples/portrayal-of-black-people-in-movies/
“Portrayal of Black People in Movies.” Edubirdie, 15 Dec. 2022, edubirdie.com/examples/portrayal-of-black-people-in-movies/
Portrayal of Black People in Movies. [online]. Available at: <https://edubirdie.com/examples/portrayal-of-black-people-in-movies/> [Accessed 20 Apr. 2024].
Portrayal of Black People in Movies [Internet]. Edubirdie. 2022 Dec 15 [cited 2024 Apr 20]. Available from: https://edubirdie.com/examples/portrayal-of-black-people-in-movies/
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