From Blackface to Blaxploitation: Representations of African Americans in Film


Hearts and Flags, 1911

Hearts and Flags, 1911

In films from the 1910s and 1920s, many African American characters were portrayed by White actors in blackface.*  Hearts and Flags (1911) and Birth of a Nation (1915) were some of the first such films. These two films (along with many others) looked back with nostalgia to an imagined Old South and Civil War period and depicted Black characters as subservient, villainous, dangerous, dim-witted, and buffoonish.  

*Blackface was a type of stage makeup largely used in minstrel shows in the 19th century.  It consisted of actors applying burnt cork, shoe polish, or various other products to their faces, along with emphasizing and exaggerating the hair and lips in order to imitate social assumptions regarding "African" physical features (Mahar, 1999).

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