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Race in American Cinema

American cinema has a contentious history of on-screen representations of race, with issues of segregation, discrimination, and derogatory stereotypes recurring in movies since the industry’s inception. At the same time, Black filmmakers, actors, and production personnel have played a significant, if sometimes unrecognized role, within American cultural history.

Explore the history of race and representation in American cinema through this new short essay and linked free-to-view content.

Early Hollywood Representations

Still from Gone with the Wind
Gone with the Wind, 1939 (Silver Screen Collection / Contributor / Getty)

D. W. Griffith’s The Birth of a Nation (1915) occupies a fraught position in the history of American cinema: it has been lauded for its technical accomplishments, pioneering close-ups, fade-outs, and the use of an orchestral musical score, while also being one of the most racist films in Hollywood history. In the introduction to his BFI Film Classic, Paul McEwan writes that there is little place in our understanding of art for a film that exalts ideals we find repulsive, and there are very few historical works that fall into this category. McEwan argues that an acknowledgment of the film’s power allows us to confront its ideology directly.

Gone with the Wind (1939), which followed Griffith’s The Birth of a Nation, is another film that grapples with the art-or-racism dilemma. In this chapter from her BFI Film Classic, Helen Taylor analyses the film’s racial politics and the historical implications for modern viewers. She writes that Gone with the Wind gave the white conservative version of the Civil War a mythic status throughout a century that saw bitter struggles for progress in civil rights and relations between the races. Pro-South films were far more numerous than pro-North, so from 1911 onwards the ‘public memory of the Civil War’ was controlled by a southern bias that argued the War was about states’ sovereignty rather than slavery, and that the gracious and successful character of the Old South – the ‘Lost Cause’ – was violently shattered by a brutal, vindictive North. The film established a pattern of Civil War films that concentrated on the home front (and thus primarily on women) and ignored or sidelined issues of race – from Tap Roots (1948) and Shenandoah (1965) to Cold Mountain (2003). Only in 1989 with Glory was there a focus on actively resistant African Americans fighting in the War on the Union side.

Despite stereotypical race representations being rife in Hollywood during this period, Black directors were already working to push back against harmful tropes. One of the most prominent was Oscar Micheaux, the country’s first major Black filmmaker, who began making films in the 1910s and went on to direct 44 films over the course of his career. He skilfully depicted contemporary Black life, and his film Within Our Gates (1920) strongly challenged the racist stereotypes of The Birth of a Nation, delving into topics such as lynching, job discrimination, and mob violence. In this chapter from 100 Silent Films, Bryony Dixon analyses Micheaux’s Body and Soul (1925), detailing how, in order to produce films with an all-Black cast, Micheaux had to set up his own production company. Micheaux and the Black filmmakers who followed him were themselves subject to the challenges of racial discrimination, be it in the difficulties of securing funding for their films or of finding an audience, despite being shut out of the studio system and mainstream distribution.

Civil Rights and Blaxploitation

Still from Carmen Jones
Carmen Jones, 1954 (Silver Screen Collection / Contributor / Getty)

By the mid-1950s, the growing momentum of the civil rights movement began to be reflected in Hollywood’s output. In this chapter from 100 Film Musicals, Douglas Pye analyses Otto Preminger's Carmen Jones (1954), one of the earliest musical films that featured a full Black cast and secured Dorothy Dandridge an Oscar nomination for Best Actress – the first ever for a Black woman in a leading role.

The 1960s witnessed a seminal shift in the portrayal of Black people in Hollywood cinema, away from stereotypical representations and towards more relatable and even admirable characters. Sidney Poitier won an Oscar for his role in Lillies of the Field (1963), and went on to star in Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner? (1967), which offered the first positive cinematic look at interracial marriage.

With the release of films like Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song (1971) and Shaft (1971) emerged Blaxploitation, an ethnic subgenre of the exploitation film. In this chapter from The Cinema Book, Linda Ruth Williams contextualises the distinctive characteristics of Blaxploitation, tracing its origins and contending with its controversial generic conventions. While some hailed the genre as the first to incorporate Black Power ideology and permit Black actors to be the stars of their own narratives, others felt that it was merely a perpetuation of white stereotypes about Black people. Films such as Superfly (1972) and Mack (1973) were both criticised for representing Black men as criminals, gang-members, pimps, and drug dealers and for advancing exaggerated, hypermasculine depictions.

New Black Cinema since the 1980s

Ava DuVernay
Ava DuVernay (Mary Evans / AF Archive / Pathe)

The start of the 1980s crystallised the New Black Cinema movement, which had had several separate beginnings in the late sixties. What gave this movement its particular and unifying character was its determined resistance to Hollywood’s formulaic film ideology. In this chapter of Bringing Up Daddy: Fatherhood and Masculinity in Post-War Hollywood, in which Stella Bruzzi discusses fatherhood in New Black Cinema, she characterises films from the movement as not merely rite-of-passage movies, but also social realist texts that engage overtly with contemporary social issues of Black masculinity.

Films such as John Singleton’s Boyz n the Hood (1991) and Julie Dash’s Daughters of the Dust (1991) are credited as groundbreaking works for their ambition and diversity of genre and style. Dash, a prominent part of the L.A. Rebellion film movement, was the first Black woman to direct a feature-length film that was distributed nationwide. In this chapter from Women, Artists, Feminism and the Moving Image, So Mayer discusses Dash’s 1975 short Four Women as expressing ‘the complex struggle to negotiate racist stereotypes; the necessity of code-switching within a racist culture; the imperative of internal decolonization; all while refusing to adhere to a European Enlightenment concept of the stable, unitary self.’

In 1985, Spike Lee began work on his first feature film, She’s Gotta Have It. With a budget of only $115,000, the entirety of the film was shot over twelve days. In this chapter from Spike Lee: That’s My Story and I’m Sticking to It, Lee discusses the difficulties in securing funding for the film: ‘We had to put the money together nickel by nickel, it was one of the hardest things I’ve ever had to do. But I’m glad that it got made the way that it did.’ The film went on to gross $8 million at the U.S. box office and Lee was awarded the Prix de la Jeunesse at the 1986 Cannes Film Festival.

In this chapter from 100 American Independent Films, Jason Wood highlights the significance of She’s Gotta Have It, not only to Lee’s oeuvre, but to Black filmmaking in general, while acknowledging feminist criticism of the film’s misogynistic overtones. Lee, whose Do the Right Thing three years later fully established the notion of a commercially viable Black cinema, helped create an environment in which other African American film-makers, including John Singleton, Leslie Harris, and Matty Rich, were able to find funding for their pictures. In this chapter from Studying American Independent Cinema, Rona Murray considers the politics and aesthetics of race in Lee’s cinema from Do the Right Thing of 1989 to his 2006 TV documentary series When the Levees Broke, in which Lee visited New Orleans in the wake of the devastation wrought by Hurricane Katrina.

More than a century has passed since the release of The Birth of a Nation, during which time several generations of Black filmmakers have explored wide-ranging possibilities for authentic and nuanced representations of race on film. The modern era of Black cinema has seen directors such as Ava DuVernay, Radha Blank, Dee Rees, Barry Jenkins, and Jordan Peele tackle the complexities of representation, with both auteurist style and commercial appeal. Films such as Moonlight (2016) and Get Out (2017) have cemented both the cultural cache and financial viability of Black cinema. Ryan Coogler’s Black Panther (2018) grossed over $1.3 billion globally, making him the first millennial Black director to have made a billion-dollar film. The success of the film eschews Hollywood’s long-held practice of keeping Black cinema deliberately underdeveloped, underfunded, and apart from mainstream distribution.

Homepage banner image: Still from Boyz N The Hood, 1991 (Image courtesy COLUMBIA TRISTAR FILMS / Ronald Grant Archive / Mary Evans)

Visit our Previously Featured Content page to view other topics including Queer Cinema, Horror Cinema, Filmmaking, Citizen Kane, World Cinema, Cinema of Japan, Peter Wollen, Thomas Elsaesser, Film Festivals and The Work of Stanley Kubrick.