African Americans in Film Over the Last 70 Years

blacks in film

When we look back at the images of African Americans over the last 70 years in film and television, one would hope that much has changed. The question is, what has changed, and how much? African Americans still encounter common negative stereotypes throughout the media despite countless efforts to debunk those stereotypes. These stereotypes strongly influence the way in which people perceive race. However, if popular culture changed the way that it depicted race and instead showed blacks in more well rounded roles, perhaps an opportunity would arise for these perceptions to change.

Over the last 70 years the representation of African Americans in film and media has not appeared to have changed much. A man by the name of Stepin Fetchit is a good example of how representation of African Americans in media and popular culture began and how it has not changed. Fetchit rose to popularity with his senselessness, and idleness. He was successful in maintaining the American idea of the darkie (someone who is black or brown). Despite being very talented, this talent was taken advantage of by the majority to highlight the stereotype of black people being lazy, stupid and good for nothing. This unfortunately caused blacks all over the country to be assumed to fit Stepin Fetchits’ character as lazy, stupid and foolish.

stephin fetchit.jpg
Stephin Fetchit (left)

This also had an effect on how non blacks came to view African Americans specifically white people. Due to Fetchits’ routines, people were left with a perverted and twisted view of blacks. Although the Stepin Fetchit characters stopped being cast by 1952 because Hollywood did not want to risk offending black people, for years following, the stereotypes of African Americans that Fetchit was responsible for continued to be present in Hollywood. For example, in the film Nothing to Lose, starring Tim Robbins and Martin Lawrence, it is very clear that Hollywood has not yet abandoned the negative stereotypes of blacks. In the film, Tim Robbins (the white guy), lectures the Martin Lawrence (the black guy), about why it is wrong to participate in armed robbery. Throughout the entire movie, Martin Lawrence plays the part of subordinate to Robbins’ who is a long-limbed member of the aristocracy. Lawrence in essence is playing the part of a present day Stepin Fetchit. In one scene, Lawrence jumps from the car and dances around comically screaming “My a** done fall asleep I dint know an a** could fall asleep!” Lawrence’s character perpetuates the existent negative stereotypes of blacks as buffoons and yet no one seems to notice or mind.

What are the most common representations of African Americans on both the big and small screens? Are there any images that challenge these stereotypical depictions?

In the previous paragraph we addressed how television hasn’t changed so much over the past 70 years in terms of the representation of African Americans and we touched on how some stereotypes of African Americans have prevailed. However, there are even more specific stereotypes that are common in the representations of both the big and small screens. Some of these common stereotypes include: the magical Negro, the black best friend, thugs, brash women, and domestics or the mammy. The magical Negro is commonly depicted as an African American man with special powers whose purpose is exclusively to help out white characters while being carefree or unworried when it pertains to their own lives. They often have no personal lives or desires of their own. The fact that the magic Negro solely exists to support the white characters in their crisis’ supports the notion that African Americans are not as important as their white counterparts. Someone who has played multiple magical negro roles is the well known actor, Morgan Freeman. Similar to the magical Negro, the black best friend also exists to help the white character out of a crisis. However, unlike the magical Negro, they don’t possess any super powers and are usually portrayed by women. Also similar to the magical negro, they lack their own story lines because their lives don’t matter as much as their white counterparts life. Parallel to the black best friend stereotype that females usually play is the white/ black buddy male bonding theme. “The big screen’s own perpetuation of racial ignorance surpasses television’s provincialism. Consistent is the white/Black “buddy” male-bonding theme, where the white character is always smarter, more romantic and in charge.[1]” Throughout history African Americans have had to play the caretakers for the white leading roles and unfortunately it doesn’t seem like Hollywood is willing to reverse those roles.

Other common stereotypes that are prevalent in the depictions of black people in film and television include some of the more harsh stereotypes such as thugs and brash women. When African American men are portrayed as thugs, drug dealer, pimps, etc., on television this leave room for to confirm the stereotypes that they are dangerous criminals. Compared to Caucasian males there is a unbalanced amount of African Americans playing criminals in Hollywood. While overwhelming roles that African American men have in movies playing criminals negatively effects how society views black men, black women are similarly affected by the commonly portrayed stereotype of black women being brash. In film and television African American women tend to be portrayed as feisty, nagging and ill- tempered. Reality television has a huge role in reinforcing these stereotypes. For example, in the reality TV show “Basketball Wives,” the loudest and often most antagonistic and aggressive black women are promoted and highlighted on these shows. The unfortunate consequence of shows like this is that they negatively affect the love lives and careers of black women.

One of the more unsurprising stereotypes that blacks often portray on television is the domestic or mammy role. This mammy role has been played on television in shows such as “Beulah” and movies like “The Help.” “The ‘Black Mammy’ was a household servant who generally had specific duties to perform. These were mainly connected with the care of the children of the family, thus relieving the mistress of all the drudgery work connected with childcare… The Mammy was the expert in the home; she filled any role that they needed in the house… the Mammy served as a direct juxtaposition to her mistress. Her neutrality was dependent on her not occupying the physical characteristics of the Jezebel… the Mammy became a very non-threatening figure… the Mammy was created to justify the economic exploitation of the house slaves and sustained to explain Black women’s long-standing restriction to domestic service.[2]

Despite these stereotypes, there are images that attempt to challenge these stereotypical depictions.  In television we can see that there has been a decrease in negative stereotypes and blacks are more likely to be portrayed positively. They also engage in less violent and criminal behavior when they are depicted. Shows such as “The Cosby Show” and Fresh Prince of Bel Aire fight common stereotypes of the poor, uneducated, black family. However, it appears that for every Cosby Show or Fresh Prince, there are like Good Times which diminish or even eliminate the positive effects that these shows strive to have. the cosby vsfresh princeFor example, “Good Times” character J.J. is constantly presented in the show as a caricature of minstrel show characters and a jive talker. The problem we see here is that for every good positive show that depicts African Americans, there is also a bad, negative show. Therefore, not much progress is being made.

Jimmy Walker as “J.J” from the show, Good Times

In spite of these negative depictions and the lack of progress in representation of African Americans in film and television, there is still hope for change. If the influence of popular culture on our perceptions of race changes, then possibly we have hope for more well rounded depictions of African Americans in the future. There are obstructions that have to be conquered before anything changes. One of these barriers includes the people who determine the programming on television networks. It is also important that citizens’ of American society deem it necessary that minorities are portrayed correctly and in a positive light. However, if the people who are in charge are demanding in their campaign for change, the representations of black people in the media and entertainment could be successful   Until this changes, the progress will remain slow and at times non-existent.

The first and one of the most controversial shows that showcased African Americans on television is a show by the name of “Amos ‘n’ Andy.” amos n andy The show, which was first a radio show featuring white actors, Charles Corell and Freeman Gosman, was a definite reinforcement of the common images and stereotypes of African Americans. Even though “Amos ‘n’ Andy” portrayed blacks in all areas of life, from lazy bums to educated professionals, they were rarely depicted as being intelligent. “The Cosby Show” however, changed these views. “The Cosby Show” depicted African Americans who were educated professional and also educated unlike “Amos ‘n’ Andy.” With “The Cosby Show,” there came other black television shows like it where African Americans were depicted as well educated and well off. Black television families had become more complex. Television shows like “Black-ish” which aired in 2014, also successfully challenge the principles that have associated blackness with poverty, criminality, masculinity, and unintelligence.

In conclusion, television has taken great steps in order to change the way it portrays blacks. Despite these exceptions however, there is still an overabundance of shows that shine a negative light on African Americans in this country. These stereotypical, characters in film and television counteract the broader and deeper experience of black life. Film and television illustrates how media images provide us with a manufactured reality of misrepresentations that steers society’s opinions of black people. However, there is hope for the representation of black people on the big and small screens if the people on top campaign for change.



[1] x. Entman Robert, “African Americans according to TV news,” Media Studies Journal 8, 3. (1994): 29

[2]x. Sewell Christopher, “Mammies and Matriarchs: Tracing Images of the Black Female in Popular Culture 1950s to Present,” Journal of African American Studies 17, 3. (2013): 308-326


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