Second to political or monetary, the media has a constant and steady influence over all whom it comes in contact with. According to Walker-Smith we’ve gone from being exposed to about 500 ads a day back in the 1970’s to as many as 5000 a day today. From the time we wake up until the time we lay in our bed, were being spoon feed thousands of subliminal messages that mold us and determines our reality. That like it or not dictate how we see life, ourselves and others.
Another disturbing fact is that there’s only 6 corporations that control 90 percent of the media in America, there was over 50 in the 1980’s. So if the media is being used to influence mass society, what happens when those who own multiple media outlets all have uniform, inaccurate prejudices but no insight? Simply put, their common misconceptions are perpetuated and soon becomes not only the majority’s perspective but their truth.
Imagine the many misinformed people who haven’t encountered certain races or situations. The media becomes a primary source for them, so it’s extremely problematic when this power is used to negatively depict others. The most accurate portrayal of this today is the misrepresentation and erasure of African Americans in the media, particularly cinema.
Although 8 out 10 surveyed millennials agree that the media doesn’t accurately portray many and that “we’re still individuals”, there’s no denying the unjust ways African Americans are depicted.
Tracing back to the past 100 years ,the degradation of blacks in the media started way before they even were allowed on screen. The highly
revered and just as racist,” Birth of a Nation, an American classic” made history for its innovative techniques and story lines. The 3 hour film features White men in black face against White actors playing the Klu Klux Klan. According to a New Yorker article, the movie “proved horrifically effective at sparking violence against blacks in many cities.” The director D.W. Griffith even admits that the purpose of the film was to “teach the awful suffering of the white man-to demonstrate to the world that the white man must and shall be supreme.” And although it was later boycotted by the NAACP, the effect it produced still lives on in many other race films. The controversial and blatant bigotry set the tone for others to follow and fathered the irreverent representation of blacks in cinema.
Today we see those same cinematic features being presented in a new way. We have actors ,who don’t identify as black or even their culture, in modern-day black face, taking roles away from qualified African American actors. Zoe Saldana’s portrayal of Nina Simone has caught a lot of attention for that exact reason. Zoe identifies as Afro-Latina while Nina Simone was one of the most pro-black activist and performers of her time. In preparation for the role, make up artists in agreeance with producers, broadened Saldana’s features and applied darker make up to her entire body so that she could resemble a Black woman.
Sounds familiar? Well the topic definitely sparked colorism debates in the black community. Wilder, author of Color Stories says “The backlash is reflective of colorism, because what does it say about our society when we really don’t value enough looking at dark skin — we have to cast someone who is a brown-skin or a lighter-skinned woman in this role when clearly it should have gone, in my opinion, to someone who is a more darker-complected actress.”
One would think that it would be easy to just hire a black actress, there’s so many that are looking for work who would’ve jumped at this opportunity. Not to mention the biopic focused on Michael Jackson where, yes you guessed it, a white man is playing him. These ridiculously unnecessary trends further erases blacks from their history and offends their entire existence. It devalues them as a race and sends the same message that D.W. Griffith wanted to resonate with America, white is supreme.
Outside of black actors not being hired for black roles to properly represent their peers, there’s a trend of only allowing very specific archetypes to be present. This trend, like prior ones mentioned, dates back to a more racist America that some try to say is a “past time.”
Looking back at the infamous minstrels, a theatrical hit that appeared in the 19th century, its entire aim was to demean blacks. They did so through dim-witted, big lipped, lazy characters. This later sets the scene for other heinous acts to follow.We see more characters later that place Blacks in subservient, ignorant roles that were created to placate yet mock African Americans that are still present in cinema today.
For example, the mammy who pops up throughout pop culture, she can be seen from Gone with the Wind to Aunt Jemima Pancake box. Feminist, Barbara Christian describes her as” black in color as well as race and fat with enormous breasts that are full enough to nourish all the children in the world; her head is perpetually covered with her trademark kerchief to hide the kinky hair that marks her as ugly. Tied to her physical characteristic are her personality traits: she is strong, for she certainly has enough girth, but this strength is used in the service to her white master and as a way of keeping her male counterparts in check; she is kind and loyal, for she is a mother; she is sexless, for she is ugly; and she is religious and superstitious, for she is black”. This image and character still exist, she is now the comedy prop or the help for most movies. Others archetypes are the thug, tragic mulatta and the most common, sapphire who’s described as the angry black woman who’s only allowed that sole emotion. Poor representation like this further pigeonholes black individuals.
Sadly today its still hard for blacks to get from under roles as such. Its gotten so bad that black producers sell the same image. For example, Tyler Perry with his character Madea who handles day to day situations was sass and aggression. We encounter these false representations so much that we don’t even question its validity or the effect it has on others image. Tons of African Americans are typecast, generalized and suffer socioeconomically because of these depictions. So when they are mistreated and not given equal opportunities, it proves why this goes beyond “entertainment”.
Misrepresenting and erasing black people from film has been a ubiquitous trend in cinema. Its erases identity and revokes any right to individuality. Cinema plays a hand in creating and perpetrating harmful stereotypes when in reality aren’t we all such more dynamic and complex than what meets the eye?