Portrayal of Minorities in the Film, Media and Entertainment Industries

Yurii Horton
Raagen Price
Eric Brown
Poverty & Prejudice: Media and Race
June 1, 1999


Throughout the 20th Century, minorities have made significant strides towards autonomy and equality in American society. From the right to own land to the right to vote, and further still, the squelching of Jim Crow era segregation in the South. These advances are part of who we are as Americans, yet it seems they have not fully infiltrated the collective whole of American society. Despite the political rights and power that minorities have obtained, the supremacist ideologies and racist beliefs that were indoctrinated into the American psyche are just recently being reversed. However, these ideas that were ingrained in the mindset of Americans for so long have given way to a less conscious variant of segregation. No longer is it the blatant practice upheld by the law and celebrated with hangings and beatings, but instead it is a subtle practice that is the "crown jewel" of the entertainment, media and film industries. We might not see confederate flags flying in parks or signs relegating colored people to separate facilities, but we do see minorities cast as criminals and leeches to "white upper-class" America. It is the Paramount Pictures, NBC's, ABC's and Universal Studio's of the world that are the propagators of the negative stereotypes and inescapable stigmas that many thought were left behind once the shackles of segregation were broken. Unfortunately, they are resurfacing in our sitcoms, newscasts and big screen movies. Historically, the portrayal of minorities in movies and television is less than ideal. Whether its appearing in disparaging roles or not appearing at all, minorities are the victim of an industry that relies on old ideas to appeal to the "majority" at the expense of the insignificant minority." All blame, however, cannot be placed on the white males who run the industry, for a small number of black entertainers perpetuate these stereotypes as well. Even though they defend their actions as an "insiders look" into the life of a certain minority group, they are guilty of the same offenses that opponents have indicted the media, film and entertainment industries of. We cannot contribute to the viscous cycle that is the unconscious racism of the media, film and entertainment industries; instead we need to break the cycle and formulate a new industry that is more representative of the reality that is American society today.

Chapter 1

"Even today the motion picture has not quite outgrown its immaturity. It still uses talented Negro players to fit into the ~d stereotypes of the loving Mammy and comic servant..."

-Edith J. R. Isaachs in "TheaterArts, "August, 1942

Blacks have been treated as second-class citizens since the inception of this country. Forcibly brought here as slaves to the white man, blacks have never been treated as completely equal to whites. Stereotypes of blacks as lazy, stupid, foolish, cowardly, submissive, irresponsible, childish, violent, sub-human, and animal-like, are rampant in today's society. These degrading stereotypes are reinforced and enhanced by the negative portrayal of blacks in the media. Black characters have appeared in American films since the beginning of the industry in 1 888. But blacks weren't even hired to portray blacks in early works. Instead, white actors and actresses were hired to portray the characters while in "blackface." (http:/www.moderntimes.com/palace/black/open.htm). By refusing to hire black actors to portray black characters, demeaning stereotypes were being created as blacks were presented in an unfavorable light. In addition, blacks were purposely portrayed in films with negative stereotypes that reinforced white supremacy over blacks. This has had a tremendous effect on our society's view of blacks since motion pictures have had more of an impact on the public mind than any other entertainment medium in the last ninety years. (Sampson 1977; 1)

The media sets the tone for the morals, values, and images of our culture. Many people in this country, some of whom have never encountered black people, believe that the degrading stereotypes of blacks are based on reality and not fiction. Everything they believe about blacks is determined by what they see on television. After over a century of movie making, these horrible stereotypes continue to plague us today, and until negative images of blacks are extinguished from the media, blacks will be regarded as second-class citizens.

We have come a long way since 1914, when Sam Lucas was the first black actor to have a lead role in a movie for his performance in Uncle Tom's Cabin. 1915 is a significant date in motion picture history because D.W. Griffith released The Birth of a Nation, which supported the Ku Klux Klan, a white supremacist group based predominately in the southern United States, and is possibly the most anti-black film ever made. The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) worked very hard to try to ban the film due to its vicious portrayal of blacks as subhuman compared to the glorified Ku Klux Klan. The Birth of a Nation was important because it led to the creation of a new industry that produced "race films" for African-Americans. (http://www.moderntimes.com/palace/black/introduction.htm) These portrayed blacks in a positive light and 4'ddressed some social concerns of the community. Before "race films," blacks were nothing more than "shufflin, shiny-faced, head-scratchin' simpletons with bugged out eyes who leaned on brooms and spoke bad English", but after the introduction of "race films," blacks were depicted with more dignity and respect. (http://www.ardmoreite.com/stories/070798/ent_blacks.shtml) In order for blacks to ensure that they would have positive roles and stop reinforcing negative stereotypes through film, they had to make their own movies.

Noble Johnson, born April 18, 1881, in Marshall, MO, died January 9, 1978, in Tucaipa (San Bernadino), CA, was an actor and a producer, appearing in numerous films starting in 1916. On May 24, 1916, Johnson was ambitious enough to create his own movie company and became the president of Lincoln Motion Picture Company. This was the first movie company organized by black filmmakers. The first movie produced by Lincoln Motion Picture Company was The Realization of a Negro '5 Ambition and was released in mid 1916. It was the first film produced in America that featured blacks in dramatic non-stereotyped roles. (Sampson 1977; 2) It portrayed a Tuskegee graduate leaving the South and getting an admirable position from a white racist businessman for saving the man's daughter. The second production was titled A Trooper of Troop K and was released in January of 1917. It attempted to build race pride by "showing that Afro-Americans were allied militarily with Anglo-Americans." (Rhines 1996; 21) Lincoln Motion Picture Company was an all-black company and was the first company to produce films portraying blacks as real people with real lives. (http://www.mdle.eom/ClassicFilms/FeaturedStar/perfor39.htm) In the past, B lacks had been relegated to roles of slaves, rapists, and stupid buffoons.

Noble Johnson's brother, George, was responsible for the marketing of Lincoln. The Johnson brothers wanted the films to cater to a wider audience, but they were primarily booked to play in schools, special venues at churches, and the few "colored only" theaters that existed. By 1920, Lincoln had finished five films. Noble Johnson was split between his acting and producing career and was forced to give up the presidency of the company to pursue a career at Universal. Lincoln productions became so popular and had such high demand that Lincoln management decided not to wait for the returns from the films already produced to make additional films, but accepted an offer for financial backing by a white financier, P.H. Updike. Lincoln attempted to target as wide an audience as possible with their brochure, which read, "The Company will not only produce pictures entertaining to Negroes, but to all races. Our market is as large as we make it; the world is our field..." (http://www.mdle.com/ClassicFilms/Guest/lincoln.htm) Although the ambitious company was very talented, white audiences were simply uninterested at the time and the company was doomed to failure.

Another black-owned independent film company that produced "race movies" was the Micheaux Film Corporation. It was founded in 1918 by Oscar Micheaux, in Chicago, as the "Micheaux Film and Book Company Corporation. Oscar Micheaux was born January 2, 1884, in Metropolis, Illinois. In 1908, at the age of 24, Micheaux began writing novels about his life experiences as a homesteader and the few people that he knew. His first book was The Homesteader, and proved to be immensely popular. Noble and George Johnson approached Mieheaux to purchase the film rights to The Homesteader. Micheaux despised films that portrayed blacks negatively and stereotypically. Micheaux offered to direct his adaptation, but the Johnson brothers refused so Micheaux decided to produce the film himself. His first film, The Homesteader was produced in 1919 and was financed by fellow farmers, who were both black and white. Between 1919 and 1940, Micheaux produced over 35 films covering a wide variety of subjects, including the racism of Jim Crow laws, racial solidarity, assimilation, and the politics of skin color. He offered a wide-ranging look at black life in early ~ America by portraying blacks in melodramas, gangster stories, musicals, and dramas about social problems without resorting to stereotypes. (http://www.mdle.com/ClassieFilms/SpecialFeature/feb597.htm)

Micheaux rejected typical Hollywood roles for blacks. He frequently showed blacks in positions of power, authority, and respectability. He offered fully developed black characters as opposed to the simplistic, cruel stereotypes of mainstream film. On many occasions, he presented controversial subjects, such as lynching, in his films. Much like the Johnson brothers' films, blacks would only see Micheaux's films when they were originally released, not society at large. His films were shown in big-city ghetto houses in the North and at segregated theaters in the South as well as black churches, schools, and social organizations. In 1929, "race movies" made by black producers started to die out and Hollywood saw an opportunity. The mainstream movie industry began producing films with black casts for black audiences. The Micheaux Film Corporation ceased operations in the late 1940s, but Micheaux left a legacy - all of his films were independently made and inspired other blacks to be independent. (http://www.mdle.com/ClassicFilms/SpecialFeature/feb597.htm)

The first Hollywood film to feature an all-black cast was Hearts in Dixie, which was produced in 1929 and directed by Paul Sloane for Fox. "This film introduced to wider audiences, one of the film industry's most polemic figures ever -Stepin Fetchit." (http://www.moderntimes.comlpalace/black/introduction.htm) In the film, the audience is introduced to the faithful black plantation workers, toiling hard in the fields all day and relaxing at night by singing and dancing. Stepin Fetchit typifies the lazy, but goodnatured slave, unwilling to work, but forgiven for his errant ways. When the white boss playfully" kicks Fetchit in the rear-end, Fetchit grins broadly and winks slyly at the audience. This is an example of the typical screen 'darkie." Fetchit, a 'black clown," is a 'good nigger," lazy and shiftless, yet "all right at heart. Most importantly, he "knows his place. (Noble 1969 [1948]; 50) Fetchit's depiction of blacks is extremely degrading and demeaning. Blacks across the country were presumed to fit Fetchit's stereotype of being lazy, stupid, foolish, and yet well intentioned. For those who had never encountered black people before, but had seen a Stepin Fetchit film, they were left with a warped, skewed view of blacks by Fetchit's performance.

Stepin Fetchit was born Lincoln Theodore Monroe Perry in Key West, Florida, in 1902. He studied for the priesthood before turning to show business. He acquired his name from a racehorse that he won money on, Step and Fetch it." The first film he appeared in was Show Boat for Universal. Fetchit rocketed to fame with 'his wide-grinned inanity, shuffling and dawdling," eternalizing the American concept of the "darkie." Hearts in Dixie was Fetchit's first starring role. His immense talent was generally used by the majority to reinforce the stereotype of the lazy, stupid, good-for-nothing Negro. (http://www.moderntimes.com/palace/black/introduction.htm) Most black Americans had a love/hate relationship with Stepin Fetchit. While he was an extremely talented entertainer and a pioneer in the film industry for blacks, at the same time, he reinforced horrible stereotypes of blacks as buffoons. In 1952, the Hollywood movie studios announced that they would stop the casting of Stepin Fetchit characters in future films because they did not want to risk offending blacks. (Sampson 1977; 248-250) Although Hollywood stated that they would not cast Stepin Fetchit characters any longer, this was not entirely true. The stereotype of blacks perpetuated by Fetchit would be present in Hollywood in one form or another for many many years to come.

Even the roles that blacks have in films produced today are sometimes reminiscent of those degrading "darkie" roles that Stepin Fetchit played so well. In the recent comedy, Nothing to Lose, starring Tim Robbins and Martin Lawrence, it is abundantly clear that Hollywood has yet to abandon those negative stereotypes of blacks first created in the early 20th century. Robbins plays Nick Beam, a nice ad-executive, who loves his wife dearly. He is "the quintessential white guy, a square straight and narrow, while Lawrence plays the "wise-ass, street-smart black guy." One day, Nick comes home from work to find his wife in bed with another man. Distraught, he drives the streets of LA aimlessly until he finds himself the victim of an attempted carjacking by Lawrence. (http://www.salonmagazine.som/july97/entertainment/nothing970718.html)

In the film, the white guy lectures the black guy about the immorality of armed robbery ("You are a bad person") and the black guy ridicules the white guy for his wimpiness ("You don't have the respect of your woman"). The Hollywood tradeoff is evident. The "white guy gets to be virtuous and the black guy gets to be cool." Throughout the whole movie, Lawrence plays the part of the court jester sidekick to "Robbins' lanky aristocrat, trading full humanity and dignity for sassing rights." Lawrence essentially plays the part of a modern day Stepin Fetchit. In one scene, Lawrence jumps from the car and dances around comically screaming "My ass done fall asleep I dint know an ass could fall asleep!" (http://www.salonmagazine.som/july97/entertainment/nothing970718.html) Lawrence's character perpetuates the existent negative stereotypes of blacks as buffoons and yet no one seems to notice or mind.

Negative stereotypes of minorities in film can be found in Hollywood as recently as May 19, 1999, with the release of "Star Wars: Episode I - The Phantom Menace." Many of the extraterrestrial creatures have ethnically tinged caricatures. One character, Jar Jar Binks, has created quite a conflict. An amphibious creature with floppy ears surprisingly similar to Rastafarian dreadlocks, he has a wide nose, bulging eyes, and fat lips, speaks in a Caribbean-style pidgin English and acts as the stupid, bumbling, good-for-nothing sidekick to the Jedi Knights. "Wall Street film critic Joe Morgenstern called Jar Jar 'a Rastafarian Stepin Fetchit on platform hoofs, crossed annoyingly with Butterfly Mequcen,"' a reference to a slave servant in "Gone with the Wind." Additionally, "Los Angeles Times critic Eric Harrison said the primitive tribe that Jar Jar belongs to - the Gungan - is ruled by a fat, buffoonish character, seemingly a caricature of a stereotypical African chieftain."' Media arts professor Daniel Bernadi from the University of Arizona is troubled by the role that Jar Jar plays in the movie. "'He really is sort of your 'Amos 'n' Andy,' Stepin Fetehit, loyal, bumbling colored other???. Even when he saves the day, he does it by accident, so his heroism is sort of a joke, and what makes it more problematic is he does it in the service of 'whiteness."' ( The legacy left by Stepin Fetchit is still evident in movies today. Hollywood loves to employ the stereotype of the lazy, loyal, stupid, bumbling, black buffoon. Sub-consciously obsessed with the reinforcement of negative stereotypes of blacks and positive stereotypes of whites, Hollywood may never abandon the "nigger" role in its films.

Chapter 2: The Recent Progress and its Obstacles in Television

In recent history, progress has been made in the way in which minorities are portrayed on television. The unanimous declaration that television is very influential especially in the adoption of beliefs in children has caused a flurry of changes to take place in the last five years. Despite these changes, however, there are obstacles that must be overcome before everything is the way it should be. These obstacles include ratings and, more importantly, the people at the top who decide on programming. Until this changes, the progress will remain slow and at times non-existent. There are still far too many shows that portray minorities in negative ways and too few that show reality.

Throughout the course of recent history, American popular (pop) culture has been defined and characterized by the innovations surrounding the television. Television has the potential to disseminate information to millions of people in a way that no other medium of exchange can match. As a direct result, mass media has become increasingly entwined with television and less so with newspapers, magazines and other print sources. Television, whether it's the news, sitcoms or dramas often gives people insights into worlds that are unfamiliar and vastly different from their own. In fact television can be the only exposure that some people have to other worlds and/or different parts of society. Consequently, the content and portrayal of people on television becomes extremely important as it is possible to heavily influence the thoughts and beliefs of a large number of impressionable viewers most notably children who most often have no frame of reference. According to MediaScope, a column that monitors diversity in television:

Considerable public concern has arisen over the issue of media diversity, as it is generally accepted that mass media has strong social and psychological effects on viewers. Film and television, for example, provide many children with their first exposure to people of other races, ethnicities, religions and cultures. What they see onscreen, therefore, can impact their attitudes about the treatment of others. One study found, for instance, that two years of viewing Sesame Street by European-American preschoolers was associated with more positive attitudes toward African and Latino Americans. Another study found that white children exposed to a negative television portrayal of African-Americans had a negative change in attitude toward blacks. (Diversity in film and television: MediaScope)

This illustrates the importance of the social responsibility that each and every member of American society has to ensure that television portrays minorities accurately and without bias.

Because television is such an integral part of society it is imperative that the wrong ideas and values do not go across the airwaves and into the homes of unsuspecting young children. According to a report named Reality in Television, "Studies have shown that television teaches stereotypical attitudes and preconceptions about people and lifestyles that they would have no contact with outside of watching the way these people are shown by television" (3). Unfortunately, in a time where children spend more time than ever watching television unsupervised, the television becomes the teacher.

Children of course... are less likely to distinguish a stereotype from reality, and when they watch an ideal family on TV in a perfect home with no money problems they may wonder why they don" have the same. If they see things on TV that they don" have a comparison in real life, the TV image will be the reality to them. When images and ideals presented at a young age take hold, and are reinforced over years of viewing, these images become reality. They may feel inadequate in comparison to the lives some seem to lead, and superior and hateful to those portrayed in a negative way, even though that portrayal is not true. (Reality in Television)

Once these stereotypes and misconceptions become ingrained in the psyche of American children, they become self-perpetuating. Being unable to combat the effects of this phenomenon, we could essentially create an environment that is every bit as hostile as Jim Crow America and the segregated South. Granted these are extremes, but without changes in the media there is the plausibility of such a disaster.

Minorities, more specifically African-Americans and Latino-Americans are the casualty of a media that perpetuates social stereotypes and ethnic homogeneity. Television continues to promote social stereotypes even in this age of multiculturalism and diversity. In Christopher Campbell's Race Myth and the News Mr. Campbell points to the report published by the Kerner Commission in 1968 as the starting point in the research of race and the media.

The media had too long basked in a white world, looking out of it, if at all, with white men's eyes and a white perspective. Researchers consistently point to a pattern of news selection and coverage that represents the views and values of the homogenous world of journalists. In his study of TV network news and weekly news magazine coverage, Gans observed, 'News supports the social order of public, business, and professional, upper-middle-class, middle-aged, and white male sectors of society.' He cites the 'enduring values' of this social c1ass-ethnocentrism, responsible capitalism, small-town pastoralism, moderatism-as the values that are propagated through news coverage. (28)

Essentially, what is going on is that news coverage is portraying a biased view of society. It is not promoting the aims of presenting the public with an objective coverage of the news, instead the bottom line is ratings. Therefore the objectives of a network is to cater to an audience....this results in a newscast that is geared towards the majority. This leads to the inherent racism that has been found to exist in newscasts across the country. This same problem occurs in the sitcoms and other shows that fall into the realm of entertainment. The only way to make money in this industry is to ensure that people watch the shows. The critical equation for any segment of this industry is ratings = earnings. Like the news telecasts, these other shows cater towards the majority at the expense of the minorities. According to MediaScope's column on the Diversity in film and television:

The United States is one of the most culturally diverse nations in the world, but the media and entertainment industries tell a different story. While improvements have been made over the last several decades in the way race, ethnicity, gender and other social issues are portrayed in the media, the entertainment industry still has far to go in its attempt to reflect society's changing demographics. For instance, a 1997 study discovered that ethnic minority groups make up 15.7% of prime time drama casts, even though they represent 25.4% of the population; 26% of major characters in movies are women, although they comprise 51% of the population... When people of color, women, seniors and other social groups are portrayed, activist groups contend, these images are often stereotypical, inaccurate and not reflective of the individual diversity that exists in real life. An American Psychological Association task force concluded that minorities are not only underrepresented on television, but are 'segregated in specific types of content, and rarely engage in cross-ethnic interactions.' (1-2)

For every Cosby Show or Fresh Prince of Bel Aire there is a Good Times, Sanford and Son or Cops to cancel out the positive effect that the show may have. The Cosby Show clearly had the effect of broadening the American television publics perception of black family and black economic status. "Shows like 'Sanford and Son' and 'Good Times' showed a lot of different stereotypes with Fred Sanford always having crazy schemes and being presented as lazy and J.J. from "Good Times" as a cartoony street wise jivetalker" (Reality in Television). Until we successfully decrease the number of "bad" shows that airs for every "good" show, we aren't really making any progress.

Television, in the past two decades, has made major gains in terms of casting diversity and the portrayal of minorities in differing roles. From being scarcely visible in the 1950's to being portrayed as wealthy Attorney's and doctors in the 1990's, television has taken great strides to change the way it portrays minorities. Despite these exceptions to the rules, there still remain a plethora of shows and newscasts that shine a negative light on minorities in this country. Found in the text of a column entitled "Distorted Reality," we are able to see that the gains are not all that significant. S. Lichter and Daniel Amundson proclaim:

In studies of prime time entertainment reaching from the 1950's to the 1990's, we found that black representation has gradually increased and negative stereotypes have decreased. Blacks are more likely to be portrayed positively than are whites, and they engage in proportionately less violent and criminal behavior. An exception to this general pattern is the newly popular genre of reality based programming, which frequently casts minorities in criminal roles. Latinos are less visible in prime time television than they were in the 1950's. Their portrayals have not improved markedly since the days of Jose Jimenez and Frito Bandito. (Distorted Reality)

It seems as though the media industry is more concerned with humoring opponents with token changes and superficial modifications, but in reality substantial change is not the terminology that comes to mind when referring to the places minorities hold in television. If certain minority groups are less visible today than they were 40 years ago, how does that bode for the future? Do we continue on the same path that we have paved for ourselves, or do we take a more pro-active role and diverge from the established path and pave a new road? In light of the industry's sloth-like movements, these are questions that must be presented to society.

Despite the gains and changes that the television industry has strived to achieve, the results are few and far between. Barriers, such as the homogeneity of the industry and the "bottom line," all create a complexity of situation that is not conducive to altering an entire industry. If there aren't people from the top of the ladder pushing rigorously for changes, the probability of successfully regulating the media and entertainment industries are rather slight. The winds of change must start up top and work their way down in order for there to be a visible difference in the composition of casts and portrayal of minorities. So, who is actually in charge of putting on the shows that we watch??? We'll use NBC as a typical network and it will be representative of the other major networks. According to recent figures from the "Reality in Television" report:

A breakdown of the senior staff of NBC is probably typical of other networks. At NBC's New York Headquarters in the network news division, of 645 employees, 96% were white. In that department, which monitors, writes about and broadcasts news across the globe, only 16 were African-American, 8 were Latino and 6 were Asian. As we know these percentages do not represent the actual "key employees" position, 270 jobs in all, can be broken down as follows: 142 white males, 121 white females, 3 black males, 2 black females, 2 Latinos and one Asian female. (1)

This proves to be a very difficult environment to introduce multi-cultural programming in. People inherently cast people who look like them in professional roles and roles that are looked upon positively. And of course, when it comes time to cast a role that is looked upon negatively, people tend to cast it with people who don't look like themselves. Is this a conscious behavior probably not, but it will take a conscious effort to reverse this trend that lends itself to stereotyping and racism.

To say that the problem of portraying minorities negatively is as bad now as it was in the past would be inaccurate, but to say that the situation was good would be just as grossly inaccurate. We must recognize that there are changes and that there are barriers that stand in the way of change. The only way to remove these barriers is to have patience and persistence in what you believe is right. Until more people of color make it up the ranks of the media and entertainment industries, it will be very difficult to enact drastic changes. Yeah, there are shows that portray minorities positively, but there are still far too many that place minorities into inferior roles. Until television represents reality, it will be a threat to those who are uninformed and impressionable. But for now, change is occurring and hopefully it will pick up the pace in the future.

Chapter 3: Black Entertainers

During the early years of film and television, blacks struggled to be able to tell their own stories because whites controlled the entertainment industry and chose what images of blacks to portray. Blacks finally gained a voice in the industry with the advent of the blaxpolitation films of the 1970s. These films targeted young, urban blacks and encouraged them to stand up against their white oppressors during the Civil Rights Movement by depicting acts of racism against them. As more and more black filmmakers emerged, though, the tide shifted to films that focussed less on enraging the black against their oppressors, and to those that simply glorified violence. This change occurred simultaneously with the increased audience for these films. The movies have become more appealing to a broader audience because they depict the stereotypes that most non-blacks believe. These stereotypes of blacks that the movies affirm include those that black people are either lazy or violent. The black filmmakers often think that their actions are helping the black community by exposing their faults and showing them a better way, but because of the large crossover audience, they only contribute to the dominant negative stereotypes. Black filmmakers and entertainers must be mindful that the messages of their movies are not lost in these stereotypes. John Singleton's Boyz N the Hood and Eddie Murphy's Life are examples of movies that depict positive images as opposed to the Hughes brothers' Menace II Society and Chris Rock's comic CD Bring on the Pain.

As one of the most popular black comedians today, Chris Rock is in a position to dispel many stereotypes through humor. Chris Rock seems to make an effort to build bridges between the white and black communities through his comedy. The problem is that his means of connecting whites and blacks only contributes to more negative stereotypes of Blacks. The most glaring example of this is his comparison between blacks and niggers, which he directs at the non-black members of his audience. Rock defines niggers as those black people who cause problems in the black community and in society as a whole through committing crimes and not taking care of their children. While Rock's intentions may be to explain that not all Blacks fit the stereotype, he only really succeeds in strengthening the stereotypes. Most white people understand that not all blacks are ignorant and violent because almost every white person knows at least one black person who is an upstanding citizen, but that still believe that the majority of blacks fit the stereotypes. Rock even rejects the popular black sentiment that that the media is to blame for many of the negative stereotypes associated with black people. He says that he is not afraid of being robbed by the media, but by niggers. By doing this, he becomes part of the mass media that perpetuates these negative images of black people. If Chris Rock's audience were stricHy black, there would not be as much of a problem with his comedy because his could be taken all in jest. The vast majority of black people realize that those blacks who commit crimes and thus represent these stereotypes are in the minority of the black community. Unfortunately many of the white members of his audience only know of black culture through what they see in the media and comedians like Rock. While Chris Rock is trying to eradicate certain stereotypes, he only seems to validate them through his ill-conceived humor..

In contrast to Chris Rocks humor which often demeans blacks, Eddie Murphy uses his position as a comedian and entertainer to erase certain stereotypes and expose social problems. The movie Life which Eddie Murphy produces and stars in with Martin Lawrence, while it is not exclusively a Black movie, subtly exposes how racism and drug arrests are related. The movie takes place during Prohibition, which acts as the parallel for the drug crisis of today. Lawrences and Murphy's characters are arrested for the murder of another black man, a murder which was actually committed by the local police. Because the police suspect the two men of trafficking alcohol, they become easy villains to the judge who quickly proceeds to sentence the two men to life in prison. As the police chief mentioned in one of the EDGE lectures, drug dealers are often easy targets for corrupt police in our society because they have been villainized as the cause of all crime and problems within society. The media depicts the stereotypical drug dealers of today as Black or Latino thugs who are ready to kill at any moment. Because they are depicetd as villains, it is very easy for people to believe them to be killers in the same way that it is easy for the characters in Life to believe that the Nack men are murderers. By setting the film during Prohibition instead of modern times, the filmmakers are able to make their point without attacking anyone who can really fight back. This wonderful comedy therefore serves a social purpose by explaining how innocent people can get in trouble very easily, and by contradicting the images of drug dealers that many people believe to be true. Eddie Murphy therefore chose a great film to make and be a part of, and he should be commended for doing so.

The blaxploitation films of the 1970s provided the Civil Rights movement with a great medium for sending its message. These films targeted black inner-city youth and were meant to inspire these youth to fight the white system that oppressed them. These films served their social purpose well, and seemed to become obsolete by the early 1 980s. There have been a few good blaxploitation movies since then, but the ones of the 990s seem to glorify violence more than they cause awareness in blacks. Such glorification is a huge part of Menace H Society, which was made in 1993 by two black filmmakers known as the Hughes brothers. The protagonist of this movie, Cain, lives in a world of violence and cannot understand why he needs to get out of it. One of his closest friends is O-Dog, is a ruthless homicidal thug who first appears in the movie when he kills two Asian shop owners. The situation gets even worse when O-Dog is so proud of the murders that steals the surveillance video and plays it for all of his friends. O-Dog, unfortunately is the image that many non-blacks have of black males. O-Dog is a man without any compassion for his fellow man and who holds nothing sacred, least of all life. Blacks cannot really blame the media for enforcing such a stereotypical image when the creators of the film are blacks themselves who claim that this is an accurate portrayal of urban life. The Hughes brothers and their supporters would claim that the movie is written for a specific target audience, urban youth, and that only they understand the true message of the film. The message is that those young men who are in circumstances such as Cain's should get out as quickly as possible in order to prevent becoming like their crazy friends or getting killed because of them as Cain does. It is very similar to the cliche', "birds of a feather flock together." If Cain does not leave the ghetto and all of his crazy friends behind, his destiny will become the same as theirs: death or prison. The problem with all of this is that the gangster culture has become so popular through such media as gangster rap that many of the blaxploitation movies of the 1 990s have huge crossover audiences, composed primarily of young people. The only true exposure that many of these young people get to blacks is through these movies and the music. Therefore, their view of black culture and black people is skewed by such movies. Filmmakers are left with a huge dilemma, then, about how to reach their target audience of inner-city youth without giving credence to stereotypes.

John Singleton has had a great amount of success in depicting inner-city life in a manner that does not glorify violence or reinforce negative stereotypes. In his critically-acclaimed film Boyz N the Hood, Singleton depicts the lives of several men at a pivotal points in their lives. Tre, the protagonist, has the best family situation of all of the characters in the movie. His parents are separated, but his father still plays an active role in his life. This contradicts the common stereotype that black fathers are deadbeats who do not support their children financially or emotionally. The other character in the movie with a bright future is Ricky, who earns a scholarship to go to college through football. Both hope to escape the dangers of the ghetto to become successful members of society. Ricky's brother, Doughboy, is a more stereotypical black urban character because of his criminal history, but he redeems himself through his devotion to his brother and his future. The audience sympathizes with Doughboy because of his mother's obvious favoritism of his brother. While Doughboy and some of the other characters in this movie seem to fit certain stereotypes of young black males as thugs, they solicit the sympathy of the audience in such a way that the audience cannot hate them. The villains in the film are those who try to hurt the main characters by almost forcing them to turn to violence as a means of defending themselves and their families. A white audience can then see that the black males that they fear are only a minority within the black community. Blacks also benefit from this portrayal of urban life because although Ricky dies at the hands of the gang-bangers, Tre makes the right decision and sticks to the morals that his parents have instilled in him. He does not avenge the death of his friend, and he is able to continue with his life instead of ruining his future by committing a criminal act that would land him in prison for the rest of his life. This movie empowers youth who feel like they are stuck in the same situation as Cain and Tre, where many of their friends are criminals and they feel like they are being sucked into that same life. Tre sets a good example for these young men to follow because he does not give into the pressure to become a criminal. John Singleton's successful attempt to portray life in the ghetto accurately and without stereotypes is the best way of showing urban youth how to fight the negative influences that surround them in order to rise above their circumstances.

As more and more black entertainers come to the forefront of the American industry, black films are becoming more and more popular with non-black audiences. It is becoming more important than ever for black entertainers to be responsible to the black community in the images that they choose to portray. Even when they think that they are helping to eliminate stereotypes, they must be mindful of the fact that many whites might not understand the context in which their social commentaries are made, as is the case with Chris Rock's comedy and some of the Hughes' brothers works. When dealing with race relations in America, they must concentrate their efforts of emphasizing the positive aspects of black culture and properly identifying black criminals as the minority within the black community, while also showing the causes of these social problems as Eddie Murphy and John Singleton do in their movies. In order for blacks to make progress in breaking down stereotypes, they must all work together to ensure that they do not commit the exact same errors in depicting stereotypes as white entertainers do.


Movies, television and the news are all guilty of what most people would consider racist beliefs and acts. Despite the progress that has been made in the industry, three decades of reforms should produce results significantly more substantial than those that we have witnessed. When Homeboysfrom Outer Space can air on the television, it is apparent that networks are not heeding the objections, cries and protests from our combined communities. Instead, they are glaring at the "bottom line" which is whether or not the show runs in the red or black. It is extremely difficult to apply pressure to the major networks and film producers when their shows, newscasts and movies continue to make money. This, of course, can be attributed to the positive portrayal of the majority and the negative portrayal of the minority. The majority population is so large that it can sustain its own market niche, thus enabling the industry to post profits even without the support of the minority coalition. As in any industry, the bottom line is money.

Although we would like to see quicker and more significant changes and reforms in these industries, one cannot but think of the fable of "The Tortoise and the Hare." Though the rabbit was speedy and conniving, the slow and steady tortoise eventually proved to be more successful in its endeavors. Patience is a virtue and this remains true for the changes that will eventually encompass the entire industry. However, these changes will not be effective if we, as minorities, cannot refrain from perpetuating and utilizing the same stereotypes that our opponents have made famous. We need to take an introspective look at ourselves and realize that in order for us to achieve our eventual aims, we must not give in to the monetary benefits of producing self-disparaging movies and television shows. Only when we have accomplished this, will our status as second class citizens begin to evaporate.

Works Cited

Chapter 1 Bibliography

Noble, Peter. The Negro in Films Kennikat Press: New York. 1969 { 1948]

Rhines, Jesse Algeron. Black Film White Monev Rutgers University Press: New Jersey. 1996

Sampson, Henry T. Blacks in Black and White: A source Book on Black Films The Scarecrow Press, Inc.: Metuchen, New Jersey. 1977










Chapter 2 Bibliography

1. Lichter, S; Amundson, Daniel. Center for Media and Public Affairs, Don't Blink:

Hispanics in Television Entertainment. April, 1996.

2. Lichter, S; Amundson, Daniel. Center for Media and Public Affairs, Distorted

Reality: Hispanic Characters in TV Entertainment. June, 1997.

3. Solomon, Norman. Media Beat, A Media Malady: Image Distortion Disorder. January, 1995.

4. Media Scope, Diversity in Film and Television. November, 1998.

5. Campbell, Christopher. Race Myth and the News. Sage Publications; London. 1995.

  1. Wayne, Ray. Reality in Television. June, 1998.


Chapter 3 Bibliography





Boyz N the Hood. Produced by John Singleton

Life', starring Eddie Murphy and Martin Lawrence

Menace II Society. Produced by the Albert and Allen Hughes

Compact Disc:

Bring on the Pain. The comedy of Chris Rock

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