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The African Americans have been assumed as the second-class citizens in America since 17th century. The blacks were forcefully brought to America as slaves and they never been treated as equals to whites. The stereotypes of African Americans as lazy, cowardly, irresponsible, and submissive, are rampant in today’s American society. These stereotypes are supported and developed by the negative depiction of blacks in the media. African Americans characters have appeared in the American film industry since 1888. However, African American was not necessary hired to portray the black in early films. Instead, white actors were hired to represent the blacks while using make-up. By refusing to hire African Americans to represent black characters, degrading stereotypes were created as African Americans were portrayed in an inauspicious light. Besides, African Americans were purposely represented in films with unconstructive stereotypes, which supported white supremacy over the African Americans. This has had a tremendous influence on the American society's perception of African Americans since films have impacted more profoundly the mind of people than any other medium of communication in the last century (Marsha J. Hamilton).
The media is believed to set the tone for the values, morals, and images of the society. Many people in America believe that the demeaning stereotypes of African Americans are justified. Since most of these people have never encountered blacks, all they believe about the African American is only what they see on television. After one century of movie making, these demeaning stereotypes have continued to plague the Americans, and until these negative images of the blacks are eliminated from the media, African Americans will continue to be graded as second-class citizens.
Americans have achieved an impressive deal in film industry since early 1914, when S. Lucas became the first African American film actor to play a significant role in a movie after his show in Uncle Tom’s Cabin. The year 1915 marked a significant turn of events in the film industry when D. Griffith produced The Birth of a Nation that enhanced the Ku Klux Klan, a group of white supremacists that was based in the Southern US, and was the most significant anti-black movie ever produced. The National Association for Advancement of the Colored People tried exceptionally hard to stop the production of this film because of the degrading portrayal of blacks as compared to the representation of Ku Klux Klan. The production and release of this film was crucial because it enhanced the conception of a new industry that produced the race films for the African Americans. These represented African Americans in a positive light, handling some of the cultural concerns of the Black community. It is until the inception of the race films that blacks were portrayed with dignity and respect. In order for the African Americans to guarantee that they would play significant roles and stop enhancing negative stereotypes in films, they produced their own films. Noble Johnson was a producer and actor who appeared in several films since 1916. In early 1916, Johnson was motivated enough to develop a movie company that supported black filmmakers. Realization of a Negro was the first film that was produced by the company. The film was the first to feature blacks playing significant non-stereotype roles. Realization of a Negro portrayed a Tuskegee getting a significant position from a white racist businessman when he saved the man’s young daughter. This was followed by the production of another film titled A Trooper of Troop K, which was released early 1917. The Jackson’s film company was as all-black firm that first produced and represented African Americans as real people (Couvares).
Prior to Jackson’s initiative, African Americans were assigned the negative roles of rapists, slaves and many other.
The other African American film making company that enhanced the production of race movies was the Micheaux Film Corporation. Between 1920 and 1940, the company produced approximately 35 films that covered a variety of the topic including racial solidarity, politics of races, and assimilation. Most of these films offered a wide range of perspectives at the African Americans. Micheaux rejected the usual Hollywood roles for the African Americans. These films showed African Americans taking powerful political positions, authority and other respectable roles. The black characters were fully developed as opposed to the cruel, simplistic stereotypes that were developed in the mainstream films. There was a significant presentation of controversial topics, such as lynching, in Micheaux films. Once these films were released, they were shown in city ghettos and segregated theaters. At the beginning of 1929, the race-based films produced by the black producers started to decline, giving Hollywood an opportunity. It is at this point that the mainstream film industry showed interest in African Americans both as audience and actors (Gates).
The first mainstream film from Hollywood that featured African American cast was The Hearts in Dixie, which was released in the beginning of 1929. In the film, the audience is introduced to submissive black plantation workers, working hard in the field throughout the day and relaxing at night by dancing. Most African Americans had a hate/love relationship with Stepin Fetchit (an actor in The Hearts in Dixie). While he was a talented entertainer in the film industry for African Americans, he supported horrible stereotypes of African Americans. In the beginning of 1952, the Hollywood studios wanted to stop casting Stepin Fetchit since it was offensive to blacks. However, this embargo was never enacted.
Even today, the roles for blacks in film production are reminiscent of the degrading roles that were played by the likes of Stepin Fetchit. In recent comedy, titled Nothing to Lose, featuring Tim Robins and Martin Lawrence, it is clear that Hollywood has not abandoned the negative stereotypes of African Americans that were first introduced in the early 20th century. In this comedy, Robins plays Nick Beam, an ad-executive, who dearly loves his family. While Lawrence plays the role of a street-smart black guy. The white man in the film lectures the black about immorality associated with the armed gangs and the black man ridicules him for his lack of respect for women. This Hollywood attempt to trade off is evident (Couvares).
The negative portrayal of African Americans in the film can still be found in Hollywood film studios as lately as 1999; in Star Wars: Phantom Menace, most of the extraterrestrial creatures have racially tinged caricaturistic features. The character Jar Jar Binks has raised a lot of controversy. He is a creature with extended ears that are similar to the dreadlocks worn by the Rastafarians, and speaks Pidgin English and act stupidly. Los Angeles Times critic E. Harrison made a comment on the film; he said that the primitive tribe from which Jar Jar comes from is governed by a fat buffoonish character, which seems to depict African chieftain. The heroism of Jar Jar in this movie is ridiculous since it seems he attained it by accident. The legacy left by Stepin Fetchit is evident in the 21st century movies. Hollywood continues to portray stereotypes of the loyal, lazy, and bumbling buffoons. Consciously or sub-consciously preoccupied with the enhancement of negative labels of African Americans and positive casting of whites, Hollywood will not abandon the black roles in its films productions (Gates).