This post was written by Winona Caesar for this month’s series “Comin Straight Outta Your Monolith”. Normal Black Witch postings resume in April.

The recent controversy of The Hunger Games(2012) casting of black characters in roles of sympathy and importance, reminds everyone how much representations of African Americans have been questioned due to narrow outlooks from select audience members/readers. (Here is the original article about Hunger Games controversy) These questions have prevented positive representations of African Americans. Yes, African Americans have been seen in small numbers, as a token characters. However, most have not been a lead character in big box-office successes that crosses all demographics. When they do break out, it is considered a fluke or better yet, expected, as in the case of Will Smith. Overall, Hollywood and popular media see no lasting potential to provide powerful roles to actors that are considered threatening. And this threatening behavior is mostly fabricated through various stereotypes projected on a whole group of people. Nowadays, African American actors are usually relegated to “Black Films” that star all black casts. These films are profitable as in the case of Tyler Perry films, but usually do not have vast crossover appeal and are relegated to the comedy and drama genre. On top of that, they are pushed into independent productions.

The portrayals of African Americans have been lacking truth since the beginning of film. Although film is a fictional medium, the distinction between fiction and reality is often blurred. The representations of African Americans in the early years of film were of white men in black face, in mostly degrading situations. The pinnacle of this negative portrayal was in epic three hour film, The Birth of a Nation (1915). Directed by D. W. Griffith the film blighted African American identity for years afterward. Even with some positive images from various directors including Oscar Michaeux, Hollywood still relegated the few African American actors and actresses to maids, musical numbers, and comedic foils.  Blackface (or Yellowface, Brownface, etc) is still practiced today, although there are various explanations on why the actor had to. The obvious one that pops into my mind is the parody film Tropic Thunder (2008). I was not offended that Robert Downey Jr. did that, because it was actually addressing something that Hollywood does on a regular basis, which is cast white actors as characters who are white “with a tan” such as in The Last Airbender  (2010) and The Hunger Games (2012). Spike Lee tried to point this attraction to minstrel shows in his satirical film, Bamboozled (2000). The film addresses a modern day minstrel show with black actors in blackface, and the militant actions that occurred after it became successful. Like most Spike Lee films, the box office numbers was extremely low. Maybe that’s saying something, but it is not anything new.

Moreover, Blaxploitation started as a positive filmic movement of black empowerment in the early 1970s that quickly became corrupted when Hollywood found that there could be profits made. According to Susan Hayward from the book Cinema Studies: The Key Concepts, Blaxploitation films were “Hollywood films during 1971-6 that sought to capitalize on the initial success of Shaft and Superfly. These films starring Black actors—but produced by whites and mostly directed by whites—deliberately targeted Black audiences” (Hayward 52). As the studios pumped out numerous films during the five years, they basically ran the movement into the ground, maybe consciously trying to discredit African American films. Even today with breakout African American actors who can crossover, they usually have to leave something behind. So many times the characters are de-sexualized. As in the case of Whoopi Goldberg, her talent is comedy, that even when she is in a relationship with a character, she normally would not be seen in any sexualized way.

On top of just being an African American, or better yet, Black, skin color and black coding plays a huge role within film, and within the African American community. The lighter the skin color dictates the roles that are given, and those of fairer skin are able to be more welcoming to the audience. However, there are times when the rule is broken, and stereotypes crosses over any character type. Skin color doesn’t even need to be involved as in the case of the Michael Bay directed Transformers (2007). “Black” coding as a culture practice, can also spread to voice acting. Having an African American actor voice the character and give him exaggerated hip-hop speak plays into the codes and signals of ‘what is black’ in society. It goes into what is White (good, pure etc) to what is Black (bad, dirty) and when I am accused of being “White” why should I take offense? Is that a good thing? This is the same with film as the coding of films dictate what people’s perception will be. Because “Blackness” is coded with all sorts of negatives.

Right now, I am writing my thesis on Tyler Perry’s representation of African American women within his use of comedy in four of his films. “Blackness” is complicated, as different perspectives changes the meanings.

Some suggested reading:

Tom, Coons, Mulattoes, Mammies, and Bucks: An Interpretive History of Blacks in American Films by Donald Bogle
Framing Blackness: The African American Image in Film by Ed Guerrero