How Hollywood Provokes Racism and Injustice in Society

This is a list of the names of black people who died as a result of police brutality in the U.S. since July 2014. Photo taken from LA Johnson/NPR

Let’s get one thing straight: film is and always has been political. Just take a look at one of the nation’s first big blockbuster films, The Birth of a Nation (1915). The Birth of a Nation was a three-hour film full of racist propaganda that is acknowledged to have contributed to the resurgence of the Ku Klux Klan.

Over one hundred years later, we’re still living in the same broken world. The way that film, to this day, portrays black people and other people of color directly impacts how our society treats and thinks about these communities.

Black Americans account for less than 13% of the U.S. population yet the rate at which they are killed by police is more than twice as high as the rate for white Americans. There is no sufficient way to begin to describe how black people have been used, oppressed, and silenced in this country. It is our responsibility at Equal Footing to address the displays of racism and power taking place outside of our homes right now, and to highlight the ways in which black people have been characterized and treated in the entertainment industry.

Film reflects politics. Politics and social movements are, in turn, influenced by film. Just as the concepts and events in film inspire and influence us, so do the ways in which we see people of color on the screen.

In a 2016 article, producer and director Dan Schoenbrun writes, “Every film is a political film. When you’re making a film, every creative and business decision you make is a political decision. Who’s directing. Where your film is set…the emotions that you hope to elicit in your audience. Whether you want people to feel satisfied or provoked, jolted out of their comfort zones or cleansed.”

Not only is there an underrepresentation of black people in Hollywood, but there is far too much misrepresentation. Sociologist Nancy Wang Yuen, writing about this very problem in her book Reel Inequality: Hollywood Actors and Racism, wrote, “Racism, in the form of job exclusion and racially stereotyped roles, has defined the Hollywood film industry since its birth in the early 1900s.” Take a look at any old Hollywood film and you’ll be hard-pressed to find a single black person — instead, white actors wearing black face are seen depicting a caricature of a black person. White people would cover their faces in blackface using burnt cork, grease paint, or shoe polish, paint exaggerated lips, and perform in minstrel shows. These were popular throughout the 1800s and created racist stereotypes that lasted well over a century. Washington State University Professor David Leonard describes it as “an assertion of power and control. It allows a society to routinely and historically imagine African Americans as not fully human. It serves to rationalize violence and Jim Crow segregation.”

In the 1970s, blaxploitation films were created to provide a place for black people to see their race in leading roles. They had an undeniable impact on black youth but became obsolete by the early 1980s. After that, though some more blaxploitation films were made, they were generally critiqued as glorifying violence rather than promoting black culture.

Noble Johnson was an actor and producer who co-created the Lincoln Motion Picture Company, the first movie company organized by black filmmakers, with his brother. The first movie they produced was The Realization of a Negro ‘5 Ambition (1916). It was one of the first American films that featured blacks in dramatic non-stereotyped roles.

Another black-owned independent film company was the Micheaux Film Corporation, founded in 1918 by Oscar Micheaux. He produced and directed 44 films, covering everything from the racism of Jim Crow laws, to racial solidarity, and assimilation. Micheaux rejected stereotypical roles for black people, putting them in positions of authority. But like the Johnson brothers’ films, the audience for the films were generally only black.

Today, black actors are often still unrepresented, misrepresented, or given limited roles. Too often black actors — and actors of color — are cast solely as one-dimensional sidekicks, villains, or the character that is killed off first. They serve as a narrative device, not a fully developed character. More troubling is the recurring instance of the “magical negro” trope, in which a black character shows up simply to help the protagonist and then disappears.

Sure, blackface is pretty much gone in Hollywood. But covert racism still exists in dangerous ways. Seeing black people as second-class citizens repeatedly on the screen, through two-dimensional roles and walking stereotypes, embeds in our minds that this is all black people are in reality. It’s pervasive and we allow it because the actors don’t have shoe polish on their face.

We need black voices creating stories just like we need black characters. 2018 was a banner year, with 16 black directors working across the 100 top-grossing films, according to a report released in 2019 by the USC Annenberg Inclusion Initiative. In 2017, the number was 6. That’s a step in the right direction.

The fact that people are angry right now is good. It’s also long overdue. The pain, frustration, and anger we are feeling right now is the pain, frustration, and anger that the black community has felt for centuries and continue to experience every single day.

“We are all complicit,” Schoenbrun writes. “Today we need to acknowledge and understand that our individual professional decisions have massive political and moral implications… We as individuals — especially those of us in the film industry who hold some level of sway over what gets made and seen — we set the tone. We each have the power to enact cultural change.”

Four years later, these words still ring true. We must do better. #BlackLivesMatter

Equal Footing is serving a diverse group of women and people of color who have been left out of the entertainment industry’s boys’ club for too long.