September 30, 2016

Opinion: New Webster class teaches the history of race in film

By Jazmine O. Jones

Recently, in my “Topics in African-American Film” class, we watched a minstrel show performance from the early days of film in which a white actor played the part of a black character by acting like a hyperactive, dancing fool. It hurt to watch people laughing seeing African-Americans portrayed in this light – and to realize that elements of these stereotypes remain today.

During the class, I learned a lot about the negative and positive portrayals of black people in film, and how the long history of negative portrayals continues today. African-American film has grown since its first appearance on camera. However, stereotypes of African-Americans still linger.

The first time black people came to film, they were not even black. They were Caucasians in “blackface” portraying African-Americans. The website black-face.com discusses the history of these performances, known as minstrel shows. Performers painted their faces coal black, except for the lips. The lips would be outlined with white paint and red in the middle, but they painted them wide to mock black people’s supposed larger lips.

Minstrel shows soon fell out of style and black people were allowed to portray black characters, but they were still seen in a negative light. They played stereotypes: “mammies,” “Uncle Toms,” “jezebels,” and ”savages.”

I feel these images gave black people a negative image, an image that most of the country believed to be reality. They believed that people looked and behaved the ways media showcased them, that affected their negative reaction to black people in real life.

Throughout history, African-Americans have been given negative roles. In today’s world we have better roles than in the past, and some black actors even hold lead roles.

Black people have been able to greatly improve our own portrayals in film. However, it sometimes goes unnoticed. The 2016 Oscars is a prime example of how these positive portrayals are overlooked. Filmmakers Spike Lee and Jada Pinkett-Smith were at the forefront on boycotting the Oscars because they felt that not enough African-American films were up for nominations.

Many actor, actresses and directors feel the film industry is still unfair. Because of this, black people have created their own networks, film productions and award shows in order to get the credit they deserve.

I agree with those who say the film industry is still racist. However, I feel that there is hope for African-American film in the future. Progress takes time, but looking back to the early days of film, black people have come a long way and are still making strides.

Taking an African-American film course helped open my eyes to the struggles black people have faced in the film industry and the strides that they’ve made. Film students should be exposed to this kind of course so that hopefully, when we become part of the film industry, we can become part of the solution.

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