From Blackface to Blaxploitation: Representations of African Americans in Film

1940s

Stormy Weather, 1943

Stormy Weather, 1943

In the 1940s and 1950s, movie-goers began to see a shift in the ways Black characters were written and portrayed in mainstream Hollywood films. One factor that contributed to the opening of film roles for African Americans was the involvement of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) within Hollywood itself. In 1942, representatives from the local NAACP Bureau met with executives from several major Hollywood studios and brokered an agreement to improve the portrayals of African Americans in film by decreasing the reliance on traditional stereotypes. The NAACP also worked to increase opportunities for African Americans working behind the scenes, increasing the representation of African Americans throughout the film industry.

Although the range of roles available for African American actors largely remained limited in mixed race films, major motion picture studios began producing films featuring well-known Black entertainers and musicians as leading protagonists in films with all-Black casts. During this time, there was a surge of well-known entertainers, including Louis Armstrong and Duke Ellington (Cabin in the Sky, 1943), and Lena Horne (Stormy Weather, 1942), who took their musical talents to the big screen.