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African Americans and the Arts - Film

by Mary Anderson on 2024-02-19T07:00:00-06:00 | 0 Comments

A collage of images of films with the caption: African Americans and the Arts - Black History Month 2024For almost 50 years, February has been set aside as a time to acknowledge and celebrate the contributions of Arican Americans to US culture, society, and history. This year, the commemoration focuses on the theme “African Americans and the Arts.” While just one aspect, reflecting the importance of Black representation in film is a constructive way to explore this theme.

Black actors have had roles in American cinema nearly from its beginnings. However, these early years, at the turn of the twentieth century, were a time of racial stereotypes and caricatures. Black actors were relegated to marginalized roles and had limited opportunities for authentic portrayals and storytelling.  Despite these obstacles, African American filmmakers, actors, and activists have continually pushed for greater representation and inclusion in the industry. For instance, despite playing one of these stereotypical roles, in 1939 Hattie McDaniel became the first African American actor to win an Oscar for her role in Gone with the Wind.

Others worked outside of Hollywood. The Foster Photoplay Company founded in 1910 in Chicago was one of the earliest studios to feature African Americans. The Lincoln Motion Picture Company was founded a few years later with the mission to “encourage black pride.” They also began an era of “race films” that lasted until the 1950s. These films were made by and about African Americans but did not make their way into mainstream movie culture.

The 1950s and 60s saw shift in the representation of African Americans as Sidney Poitier became Hollywood's first Black movie star and the first Black man to win the best actor Oscar. Despite his success, this was a difficult time. As Poitier later reflected, “[Blacks] were so new in Hollywood. There was almost no frame of reference for us except as stereotypical, one-dimensional characters. Not only was I not going to do that, but I had in mind what was expected of me—not just what other blacks expected but what my mother and father expected. And what I expected of myself.” And what he expected of himself was, “To walk through my life as my own man.”

The 1970s expanded the involvement of African American representation in film telling Black stories and featuring black actors but still with white producers. As a result, this period was known as Blaxploitation. Still, this era allowed African American audiences to see Black people as heroes as well as hear funk and soul music in their soundtracks.

It was not until the late twentieth century that a significant shift occurred in the landscape of Black representation in film. Groundbreaking movies like Do the Right Thing, Boyz n the Hood, and Malcolm X brought nuanced portrayals of Black life to mainstream audiences, challenging stereotypes and offering authentic depictions of the Black experience. In recent years, there also has been a surge in the number of African American filmmakers breaking into the mainstream and telling stories that reflect the richness and diversity of Black culture. Directors like Ava DuVernay, Barry Jenkins, Ryan Coogler, and Jordan Peele have garnered critical acclaim and commercial success, proving that there is a desire for authentic Black narratives in cinema.

Through storytelling, actors and filmmakers have the power to educate, inspire, and empower audiences, while also driving social change and fostering a more inclusive and equitable world. During this Black History Month be sure to check out our DVD display on the 4th floor as well as these films from our Wilkie Classic Film Collection.

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