The Afro-American Image in U.S. Film, 1900 to 1945
Robbi Linwood Ewell
Thesis DT 3.5 1984 E945
v, 85 leaves; 29 cm.
1) Statement of Problem
Throughout the history of American cinema, the portrayal of Black Americans in motion pictures reflected a distorted view of the Black Experience in this country. Early film depictions of Afro-Americans yielded an imagery of an alleged inferior people and lowly caste in society. Indeed, the message inherent in such work suggested that America's Black population deserved little if any real respect. The mainstream filmmaker at best, perceived the Afro- American as an 'interesting' primitive slice of Americana. For example, many early filmmakers incorporated a Black presence in their works in a similar fashion to the cinematographer's treatment of America's landscape. An Afro-American presence was exploited to add texture and ornamentation to a given scene. Despite this exposure in early U.S. films, Black Americans were rarely portrayed as a people of character, dignity and integrity. Instead, Black life in America was cast as an assortment of pejorative stereotypes like the "lazy, shiftless, dimwitted and shuffling antics of the "coon" characterization. The misrepresentation of Black life in motion picture is compounded by the influence of films on American culture. The American public has maintained significant interest in this medium from the 1895 Thomas Edison "Kinetoscopes" (early form of motion pictures) to the most recent developments in films. To some degree, American audiences look to motion pictures for realistic accounts of the world around them. Since the potential exists for a viewer to interpret a film as a valid social depiction, actual distortions of a social situation may go unchallenged. For example, the stereotypical imagery of Afro-Americans in U.S. films might become misconstrued as realistic portrayals.
This study is concerned with the motion picture industry's tendency to distort Black people and their real life social conditions through films and the implications of such a practice. From its inception, motion pictures directors and producers sought Black Americans for their appeal as "curious" subject matter. Apparently, such filmmakers found the Black presence in this society as an unavoidable element of American life. However, Afro-Americans rarely found realistic roles designated for them. Instead a Black presence came to the silver screen (cinema) on the terms of the mainstream filmmaker. Films like "Uncle Tom's Cabin" (1903), "The Fights of Nations" (1907), "A Slaves Devotion" (1913) and "His Trust Fulfilled" (1911) exemplify the above condition. In such early works, the filmmakers probably portrayed Black Americans at a level that most white Americans of that era would condone.
One can consider the Afro-American image in American films as a reflection of the predominant attitudes in U. S. culture. Perhaps this contention explains why a more positive perspective of Black life was virtually ignored.
2) Analysis of the Problem
Consequently, the question of "who controls the media and what is their desired impact on Black America" requires the analysis of the following: 1) The "shaping forces" of motion pictures; 2) The motive to propagate distorted Black images; 3) The historical antecedents in media to the distortion of Black life; 4) Black America's response to such portrayals; 5) The impact of developments in the Black community on media images; and 6) a projection of future implications related to the distortions of Black life.