In today’s culturally diverse, politically correct society, it is hard to believe that at one time racism was not only accepted as the norm, but enjoyed for its entertainment value. Individuals of African descent in North America today take the large, diverse pool of opportunities offered by the film industry for granted. Much like Canadian theatre however, there was a time when a black man in any role, be it servant or slave, was virtually unheard of. It took the blaxpliotation films of the early nineteen seventies to change the stereotypical depiction of Black people in American Cinema, as it took The Farm Story, performed by a small troop of Canadian actors, to create a Canadian theatre industry. To be more specific, it took the release of Melvin Van Peebles, Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song, in 1971, to change the tradition view of Black people in American film.
“Porter’s tom was the first in a long line of socially acceptable Good Negro characters. Always as toms are chased, harassed, hounded, flogged, enslaved, and insulted, they keep the faith, n’er turn against their massas, and remain hearty, submissive, stoic, generous, selfless, and oh-so-very kind.”(Bogle,4)
The early silent period of cinema introduced five basic archetypes for Black characters: the Tom, the Coon, the Tragic Mulatto, the Mammy, and finally, the Brutal Black Buck. America’s first Black character found manifestation as the aforementioned Uncle Tom in Edwin S. Porter’s, Uncle Tom’s Cabin, which was released in 1903. “The paradox was that in actuality Tom wasn’t Black at all. Instead he was portrayed by a nameless, slightly overweight actor made up in blackface.”(Boggle, 4) This was a common practice developed by the theater, and carried over, as were many of the acting techniques, to silent film. Tom’s presence, and the appearance of the four negro archetypes which were to follow, served the same purpose: “to entertain by stressing negro inferiority.”(Boggle, 4)
Although having no positive effect on the status of Black people in America socially, the tom character opened the door for Black actors in cinema. Sam Lucas became the first black man to be cast in a leading role as a tom, and in 1927, Universal Pictures signed James B. Lowe, a handsome black actor, for the lead role in the Universal Pictures production of Uncle Tom’s Cabin. Lowe was chosen to play the part because film director Harry Pollard, a former blackface actor, believed he “fit in with the realistic demands of the times”(Bogle, 6)
Tom was to be followed by the coon, although he remained the cinematic negro character favorite. Where tom was an endearing character, the coon provided audiences an object of amusement. Two variants of the coon soon emerged: the pickaninny and the uncle ramus.(Bogle, 7) The Pickanny was the first coon type to appear in cinemas.
“Generally, he was a harmless, little screwball creation whose eyes popped, whose hair stood on end with the least excitement, and whose antics were pleasant and diverting.”(Bogle, 7)
The Pickaninny provided audiences with an amusing diversion, and soon found his way into the hearts of the mass audience. Next to debut was the pure coon, ‘a no-account nigger’, whose unreliable, crazy, lazy nature was good for nothing but eating and causing trouble. This character found its pinnacle of success in Rastus, a good-for-nothing negro featured in a series of films released between 1910 and 1911. The final coon brother would emerge as the eager to please metaphoric cousin to the tom. Quaint, and naïve, the Uncle Ramus character distinguished himself through his comic philosophizing.(Bogle,8)
In general, the cinematic coon was used to indicate the Black man’s contentment with his submissive position in society. Also emerging around this time period is the tragic mulatto: a negro light enough to pass for white, who must fight against the negro taint to either rise above his colour, or fall victim to it.
Mammy, a character closely related to the comic coon, was the next to emerge. Headstrong and abundantly female, Mammy debuted around 1914. The Mammy role would be perfected by Hattie McDaniel in the 1930’s. From the mammy roles emerged the Aunt Jemima, a male or female character who had a bit more tact and were, for the most part, sweet and congenial.
The final archetype emerged in D.W. Griffith’s The Birth of a Nation (1915). Depicting life before and after the civil war, all four archetypes are present in this film. It depicts renegade negroes who overpower the good-hearted, white southerners and impart on a path of lechery, vulgarity and crime. The ultimate goal of these wild beast-men is sexual dominance of the pure, innocent white women. At the films conclusion, the white men of the ‘invisible empire’ ride in to save the day and restore white supremacy in the South. Proudly discriminating, D. W. Griffith, touted as one of the fore-fathers of cinema, uses his film mastery to show audiences what happens when ‘slaves get uppity’.
The five archetypes would rule in black cinema for the next 50 years. Although Black films did emerge, it was for the most part produced by white production companies for a black audiences. Black Independent production companies such as the Ebony Motion Picture Company began to emerge in the 20’s, but the stereotypes and subject matter stayed the same. A common theme of social climbing, the ultimate goal of the negro being suburban living, dominating Black theatres.(Cham, 20) Throughout the 30’s and 40’s the gangster films rose to the fore, usually depicting gun-totting, slick-talking negros, entent on making it big. Despite the presence of Black independent filmmakers such as George Randall, African American issues were essentially ignored.
The 50’s and 60’s brought social unrest and the Civil Rights Movement brought a need for films with a stronger message. The archetypes of the 20’s and thirties were no longer acceptable, and the few Hollywood “race films” (which usually starred Sidney Poitier), were no longer adequate. “Hollywood was still unable to discern or depict the full spectrum of Black American life and culture.”(Cham, 21)
In 1971, Black film experienced an epiphany. It came in the form of a low-budget, badly made French film by the name of Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song. It was created almost entirely by one Black man- Melvin Van Peebles. This marked a radical change in Black cinema.
“In 1971, Melvin van Peebles dropped a bomb. Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song was not polite. It raged, it screamed, it provoked. It’s reverberations were felt throughout the country. In the Black community it was both hailed and denounced for it’s sexual rawness, its macho hero, and its depiction of the community as downpressed and in need of rescue.”(Diawara, 118)
Van Peebles film sparked an explosion of what would become known as
blaxploitation films. What Sweet Sweetback Baadassss Song did was interpret Black Stereotypes differently. He, and other Black directors of the time, took the Black Buck, Coon, and Mammy stereotypes of the era before and modernized them. ‘Mammy’ lost weight and grew an afro, becoming the ultra-stylish diva which was personified best by actress Pam Grier. The Black Buck emerged dominant, ready to fight his historical oppressors.
Blaxploitation films acted as a cleansing process, through which black films were eventually able to accurately depict the African American experience. Directors such as Spike Lee and Jon Singleton were able to create ‘race films’ which confronted the serious urban issues of the time, without using old stereotypes. It is important to note, however, that Sweet Sweetback is not considered a blaxpoitation film, as it is too artistic to be considered such. Rather, Melvin Van Peebles first film was the catalyst for the cleansing blast.
“The Farm story” marked a point in time- before it there was no Canadian identity in theatre, after it there was. In the same fashion, Melvin Van Peebles’ movie marked the moment when African Americans reclaimed their identity. They were no longer content with the cinematic roles offered to them, and so they began to create their own. Although blaxploitation films were later commercialized, their intent and result stayed consistent, and have created the ethno-conscious cinema industry we find today.
Bogle, Donald. Toms, Coons, Mulattoes, Mammies, and Bucks. New York: Viking
Cham, Mbye B. Blackframes. Cambridge: The Mit Press, 1988.
Cripps, Thomas. Making Movies Black. New York: Oxford University Press, 1993.
Diawara, Manthia. Black American Cinema. New York: Routledge, 1993.
Lead, Daniel J. From Sambo to Superspade. Boston: Houghton Mifflin
Morton, Jim. Am I Black Enough for You? Blaxploitation. 20 Sept. 1998. 22 Nov. 1998.
Patterson, Lindsay. Black Films and Film-Makers. New York: Dodd, Mead &
Sampson, Henry T. Blacks in Black and White: A Source Book on Black Films.
New Jersey: The Scarecrow Press Inc., 1977.
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