From Blackface to Blaxploitation: Representations of African Americans in Film


Hearts and Flags, 1911

Hearts and Flags, 1911

African Americans have had a long and rather complex history in the American motion picture industry. Early depictions of African American men and women were confined to demeaning stereotypical images of people of color. During the first decades of the 20th century, many films depicted a nostalgic and idealized vision of life in the antebellum South. Memories of the Civil War were still fresh, and these films served as a means for creating some measure of reconciliation between the North and South by glorifying the image of the Old South and its “Lost Cause.” African American characters, in keeping with the dominant stereotypes, were portrayed as incompetent, child-like, hyper-sexualized, and criminal.  

Even the roles for African Americans that might be seen as more positive--such as loyal servants, mammies, and butlers--reinforced a belief that the proper social position for Blacks was that of a servant who was unswervingly devoted to his/her White masters and to upholding the current social order. From the mid-1910s to the 1930s a few film companies (some of them Black-owned) were established with the sole intention of putting on “all-colored cast” productions that included positive and diverse roles for the actors and actresses.

The migration of large numbers of African Americans from the rural South to urban areas across the U.S. between the 1910s and 1940s shifted the racial landscape, and mainstream Hollywood began to reflect this demographic change in its films. The growing momentum of the Civil Rights Movement brought more changes in Hollywood as the 1950s saw the advent of large productions featuring all-Black casts and the beginnings of a shift in the ways in which Black and White actors shared screen time.  Various films in the 1960s saw a continuation of the work that was accomplished in the late 1950s, with greater push back against the racial status quo, greater cast integration, and greater encouragement to better understand the meanings of race in the U.S.

In the 1970s the variety of opportunities open to African American actors, directors, writers, and producers continued to expand. The films from this decade, whether they were action, comedy, drama, documentary, horror or romance, presented Black audiences with new and multifaceted depictions of the Black community.  In all, the ways in which the motion picture industry has portrayed African Americans over the vast majority of the 20th century have evolved in a more positive direction; nevertheless, these portrayals have continued to be frought with controversial images and stereotypical messages.

This exhibit features selected items from the African Americans in Film Collection and the Thomas Cripps Film Collection that trace the complex and contested history of African Americans in the motion picture industry. 

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