By Mary Ellen Dowd
“Representation in the fictional world signifies social existence. Absence means symbolic annihilation.”
Representation is a key aspect of individual empowerment in a society that so highly values media as a forecaster of culture. It becomes increasingly more difficult for an individual or group of individuals to find value in their differences when they are constantly ignored or, worse, alienated for those differences by popular media.
In terms of race and film, this process of ignoration and alienation began with the inception of the moving picture and continues to some extent today.
In 1891, the Edison Company created the Kinetoscope, which would become the very first machine to deliver the moving picture. A century and a half later, the moving picture, which would evolve into television and film, has become an integral part of popular culture.
Early film could be defined as short, colourless, and without synchronised dialogue. Still, even at the beginning of its long and complicated life, film was a uniting medium that was often situated at the centre of culture. These early films were often accompanied by music, lectures and audience participation. Like most other things during this period of history, mainstream film primarily highlighted white narratives often featuring blackface or “token” Black characters.
As film began to include colour and dialogue, and otherwise began to progress as a medium, the power held by the industry grew. The public looked to the film industry as it began to produce works like The Birth of a Nation (1915), one of the first full-length feature films ever made.
The irony of this piece is its undeniable significance to film as a medium. It has been described as a landmark achievement for cinema with its employment of formal techniques ahead of their time. It made history as the first film to ever be shown at the White House and attracted complete mainstream success. The problem? The film was viciously racist in its depictions of African Americans.
The film depicted a post-Civil War society in which giving African Americans the right to vote ended in utter chaos and disaster. African Americans were illustrated in an extremely negative light by white actors wearing blackface while members of the Klu Klux Klan were celebrated as heroes.
“Almost worse than the film itself, is the fact that it was so hugely popular”, writes Russell Sharman in his book Moving Pictures. “Because it reaffirmed the contemporary, hegemonic idea of race in America. It presented the subjugation of Black people to white people as the “natural order of things” by showing audiences the danger of upending that order. And by fabricating a narrative of the KKK as the (white) saviors of democracy in the south, it wrapped a lie in the persuasive power of mass media. It made it feel true.”
Sharman argues that this film, as well as many others like it, are evidence that cinema exists in society as a tool of hegemony, in the case of The Birth of a Nation, white hegemony. Stereotypes of African Americans consistently employed in film during these early years, like the hyper-masculine and dangerous Black man used in this particular film, shaped the way the audience would perceive racial difference, which effectively allowed for white supremacist mindsets to prevail.
Although these issues have improved over time, racism and underrepresentation in film continue a century later. What was once an exaggerated caricature of race has transitioned to lingering stereotypes.
“As Hollywood has featured more black characters and cast more black actors, it has also emphasised other stereotypes”, reads a data analysis by dw.com. “To this day, black men are often portrayed as scary or angry and black women as loudmouthed and sassy. If a movie features one token black character, it’s likely to be the black best friend. And, if people die in a movie, the black character is still likely to go first. Even with awareness of racial stereotypes rising, Hollywood persists with these tropes.”
Underrepresentation of people of colour continues and in some cases, actors still do not share a racial likeness with the character they were cast to play.
Contemporary films like Nina (2016), a biopic of Nina Simone, an acclaimed Black singer, songwriter, musician and civil rights activist who lived during the 20th century, have received significant criticism for their casting of actors that lack racial likeness with the character being portrayed. In Nina, actress Zoe Saldana, who identifies as Latina and black, allegedly wore a prosthetic nose and skin darkening makeup for her role as Nina Simone.
Sam Waymon, one of Simone’s brothers, compared the performance to blackface in an interview with NPR, and Ta-Nehisi Coates wrote an article for The Atlantic condemning Saldana as well as the producers.
“Doubtless, these are good, non-racist people—but not good enough. No one on the team seems to understand the absurdity at hand—making a movie about Nina Simone while operating within the very same machinery that caused Simone so much agony in the first place”, writes Coates. “But there is something deeply shameful—and hurtful—in the fact that even today a young Nina Simone would have a hard time being cast in her own biopic. In this sense, the creation of Nina is not a neutral act. It is part of the problem.”
Coates cites the irony of casting a fairer-skinned actress to play Simone in her biopic when the musician had spent much of her career struggling with beauty standards in the entertainment industry. He describes how this experience is consistent with his own as a young Black man and with the experiences of Black women across America. He accuses the creators of the film of appropriating Simone by profiting from her music while reinforcing a system that consistently brought her pain and obstacles.
All arguments by Coates point to the overarching issue that still exists in the entertainment industry and beyond, which is a general disregard or ignorance of the real, and often traumatic, experiences of people of colour in a society rooting against them.
This is all not to discount the significant improvement in representation in other areas of the film industry during the 21st century. For example, Black Panther (2018), was a milestone in Black representation as it made a blockbuster film from the first black comic book superhero, a concept first drawn in 1966.
“Those of us who are not white have considerably more trouble not only finding representation of ourselves in mass media and other arenas of public life, but also finding representation that indicates that our humanity is multifaceted,” writes Jamil Smith for Time. “Relating to characters onscreen is necessary not merely for us to feel seen and understood, but also for others who need to see and understand us. When it doesn’t happen, we are all the poorer for it. This is one of the many reasons Black Panther is significant.”
Racial equity will never be achieved when elevated, mainstream media is not only exclusionary but slyly reinforces racial stereotypes. Popular media dictates what will be normalised and accepted in our culture; which means if representation of people of colour is negative or nonexistent, the general public will perceive racial differences in the same ways. In the pursuit of racial equity, the authentic voices of people of colour should be included in all content produced by the entertainment industry, mainstream or otherwise.