The Globalisation Of Black Representation Within The Media

Black representation has been largely hegemonised throughout the history of cinema, creating unrealistic ideologies of race and fueling negative stereotypes within society. In recent years, there have been better representations of the B.A.M.E (Black Asian and Minority Ethnic) community within the media but many of these minorities don’t believe it’s enough to combat racism in cinema or disagree with the unfair representations of their race on screen. In today’s media, black activists are still campaigning for realistic, relatable and positive portrayals of black people & people of colour in this problematic yet ‘post-racial’ industry. Within this essay, I aim to explore how globalisation has impacted black representation in the media and discover how this change may affect our society in the future.

Stereotypically, black representations in the media are depicted as a range of discriminatory portrayals such as poor, uneducated, lazy, antagonistic, less-than, oppressed, dangerous or criminalised denoting the common racial cliche we are familiar with seeing on the big screen. The default reader of cinema is thought to be from the perspective of white privilege, creating a ‘white gaze’ around these narratives ostracising the B.A.M.E community. These depictions have been around since the first-ever black actor, Stepin Fetchit (the stage name of Lincoln Theodore Monroe Andrew Perry), emerged in 1927 due to his controversial interpretation of his ‘Negro’ character. While some see his film persona as uneducated, incapable, unintelligent and lazy to be a discriminatory characterisation of race, many others perceive this delineation as a form of undermining white hegemony by using these stereotypes to his own advantage

He would use this strategy both on and off set in life, playing into the stereotype for his gain rather than fighting it. As controversial as Fetchit was, he has been an undeniable pivotal part in the history of black representation throughout cinema, regardless of whether or not the representation he presented was perceived as positive. Eventually, He was recognised for his contribution to black cinema by The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, which was a revolutionary action at the time. In hindsight, we can see these negative denotations of black people have existed long before Fetchit entered the film scene, but I do believe his involvement in the industry has contributed towards the globalisation of institutionalised racism in our society which still stands today.

Hollywood has often excluded black people and the B.A.M.E community all together in cinema and instead opts to whitewash their casting by using white actors that can ‘pass’ as a person of colour. Whitewashing has been an issue since the beginning of film and can have a massive impact on jobs for the B.A.M.E community by limiting their work. Whitewashing can be seen in many Hollywood films and goes as far back as 1915’s The Birth of a Nation and all the way up to nowadays in such films as; Hud, The Human Stain, The Hunger Games, The Beguiled, Wanted, The Girl With All The Gifts and Stuck. The 2006 film, World Trade Centre, actor William Mapother was cast as a character who was based on a real person who was black. The controversial Netflix series of 2017, Death Note, received backlash online for casting a majority white cast when this adaptation was heavily based on the Japanese manga turn anime series with Japanese main characters. One of Hollywood’s most noticeable whitewashed films of the 21st century is 2010’s The Last Airbender which featured characters of Asian and Native American descent that were inevitably cast as white actors. This led to a lot of online controversies, especially as the only people of colour in the film were cast as the ‘fire nation’, the story’s villains which may be interpreted as racist to many audience members. Blackface and Blackfishing are seen as a racist depiction of white people making themselves appear as a different race, this has always been present in all forms of media making it harder for the B.A.M.E community to be cast in roles. Blackfishing is also often seen on social media, where Instagram models will make themselves appear tanner, ‘black’ or mixed race as this can be considered the standard of beauty online today. Many different films have used blackface or blackfishing in order to cast more white actors instead of non-white as its been shown that white films tend to perform better in the box office compared to black films, maybe due to the fact that the primary target demographic for cinema is white. A few examples of blackface/ blackfishing in cinema history range from older to a surprising number of newer films; A Mighty Heart, West Side Story, The Lone Ranger, Othello (1965), Austin Powers: International Man of Mystery, The Big Wedding and Tropic Thunder.

All of these films depict a white actor portraying a black or minority ethnic character through either blackface or blackfishing, causing controversy over racism. These choices in cinema can make us question, is this cultural appropriation or appreciation? In my personal opinion, these answers can vary depending on the depiction in regards to racism. I believe the 1961 musical West Side Story is a classic depiction of cultural appropriation as marginalised cultures are being used by white actors — e.g Natalie Wood (white) as Maria (Puerto Rican)- for their own personal artistic benefit.

In my opinion, this constitutes stealing from another culture rather than trying to appreciate these differences and learn. I think the movement #OscarsSoWhite had a great impact on the diversifying of Hollywood as it called for more realistic representation of the B.A.M.E community on screen due to the current lack of non-white actors at the 2015 Oscars. This hashtag was picked up by celebrities and went viral, bringing this lack of representation to the attention of a wide audience and encouraging the creation of diverse films.

One of the more hazardous stereotypes denoted within cinema history is the ever-present criminalisation of black people, usually through poverty. This cliche has been ingrained in our society socially through discriminatory films and racist roles, globalising the ideology that black means dangerous. Black men in cinema are often depicted as violent criminals or simply dismissed. This negative generalisation has existed since the film ‘The Birth of a Nation’, denoting the white woman as the victim and the black man as the predator, globalising the notion that black men are perpetrators. Similar negative portrayals of violence & criminalisation are also showcased in such films as The Colour Purple, Blindspotting & Superfly to name a few. This demonised representation has had a drastically negative impact on our society and how black men are perceived, increasing the likely-hood of police brutality towards black males as well as the B.A.M.E community itself.

There have been many instances of this unjustified police brutality against blacks, primarily black men, that has caught the world’s attention through media broadcasting such as the infamous Rodney King incident of 1991 where King was a victim of police brutality, being severely beaten by four police officers- three of them white. King was on parole at the time for robbery and led police on a high-speed chase after refusing to pull over right away due to speeding allegations. Police then beat and brutally harmed King for his uncooperative attitude- which was captured on camera by a local resident. After the officers involved were found not guilty and acquitted of the chargers, there were shockwaves through L.A leading to mass protests lasting for 6 days that nearly destroyed L.A. Due to the public demand for justice, the officers involved were retired and eventually Two out of the four and served two and a half years for using excessive force and violating king’s civil rights.

The OJ Simpson trials of 1994–1995 were a monumental event for black people as this celebrity case divided the nation, giving society the opportunity to demonise black people through generalised racial stereotypes. This even also embodied what we’ve previously seen depicted in cinema- a white, female victim vs a black male predator.

Another example of this injustice in our society is the black lives matter (BLM) movement and protests stemming from the more recent victims of police brutality of 2020 including the deaths of George Floyd & Breonna Taylor.

Both of these instances were deemed to be unjustified violence. The officers involved used unnecessary force and fatal actions that were not required in either situation, which is thought to be due to racial judgments and prejudices. During this time, there were calls for support to defund the police echoing throughout America and some protesters tore down statues of prominent well-known slave owners they felt stood as a symbol of racism in our society.

Since these inhumane acts of cruelty, The Justice in Policing Act of 2020 has been introduced eliminating unannounced police raids, also known as no-knock warrants as well as the promise for new legislation regarding police reform such as banning chokeholds and ensuring each officer uses a mandatory dash and body cam, making it easier to prosecute officers for misconduct. Despite these horrendous tragedies, the B.A.M.E community and white allies have come together in unity. They have fought for better treatment and justice for the victims of police brutality through BLM movement protests and social media campaigns such as #BlackOutTuesday & #ICantBreathe. These acts have made waves within society by helping to bring these issues to the public’s attention more through peaceful protests and celebrities speaking out about BLM.

These issues have never been more prominent in society than when in contrast with our achievements in globalising racial acceptance. Even today, we face the chance of a life-threatening event due to predisposed discriminatory opinions and the colour of people’s skin. Acceptance may still be a goal to many minorities in this day and age but it is clear race has had a big impact on society, creating more movements, activism and representation than ever seen before.

In my opinion, the election of the first-ever black president of the united states, Barack Obama from 2009–2017, has been a pivotal point in history for the globalisation of black culture and acceptance in society.

We saw many more positive representations of black culture in cinema and a much better perception of the B.A.M.E community within society during this time overall. Although he was an activist for black rights, his biggest accomplishments while in office were actually for the American Economy. Obama made it a priority to save the country from the worst global financial crisis since The Great Depression and get the economy back on its feet, increasing job creation in the process which therefore lowered unemployment rates throughout the nation. The American recovery and reinvestment act was passed which funded the public sector and went towards those impacted by the 2008 recession. One of Obama’s greatest achievements is Obama Care, also known as the Affordable care act of 2010, allowing 20 million more American citizens to access affordable health care and insurance than ever before. I believe the election of a black president itself is an important milestone in black history as it symbolises just how far we’ve come as well as showing us we, as humanity, can achieve the improbable no matter the challenges. In retrospect, we can see how much we’ve progressed with tackling racial prejudice in our society by looking back at Martin Luther King Jr’s famous speech, ‘I have A Dream’.

This dream has been embodied and put into action through Obama and his family by making the white house an achievable goal for everyone. Whilst these historic and positive strides were made, there are still obvious racial injustices occurring every day that need to be tackled to ensure positive globalisation of race.

When taking a look at the horror slasher genre, we can see it often connotes black men are disposable within the storyline by killing them off first and going on to create this almost cliche stereotype that is now expected from audiences. It’s interesting to think how far we have come through history that nowadays, we no longer lynch black men and hang them from trees. Now, we simply kill them off first in films for entertainment value. These black side characters seem to be used as cannon fodder in this genre by being denoted to be an expendable character and killing them off later, often just for the sake of it rather than to aid the narrative. This is depicted in the classic horror film ‘The Shining’ where the only black character, Hallorann, is killed off first on-screen. Another noteworthy example is Scream 2 as the first two characters to die are both African-American. “Black women are often sexualised in cinema through the male gaze, connoting they are purely included as a voyeuristic character. The ’Jezebel’ stereotype was coined during slavery to explain sexual relations or rape between white men and black women by creating the ideology of a black woman with a promiscuous, insatiable sexual appetite. This characterisation can be seen in films such as; The Big Bird Cage 1972, Coffy 1973, Black Hooker 1973, foxy brown 1974, angel heart 1987 and Harlem Nights 1989.

Another stereotypical depiction is the angry black women characterisation that we often see, connoting black women to be quite angry, bad-tempered, hostile, ‘sassy’ and ‘Ratchet’, ready to fight anyone who asks for it. This portrayal can be quite damaging for black women in both cinema and society as it can force them to be typecast and gives the impression they may be similar to those stereotypes in reality. Lately, these characteristics have been challenged in cinema, in films such as Get Out, Black Panther & Girls Trip making black characters the protagonist in an effort to tackle these stereotypes.

Black Panther, the first majority-black superhero Marvel movie, broke records on its opening weekend in the box office in 2018 and still remains one of the highest-grossing movies ever.

According to Black panther is the second highest-grossing film within the Marvel cinematic universe and is currently ranking number 31 in the ‘Top Lifetime Grosses’. These rankings prove that diversity and race representation is changing in Hollywood for the better thanks to the activists, filmmakers and actors who have fought for their right to be represented in cinema through a variety of ways that depict the black experience.

Enslaved African-Americans and people of colour have been oppressed for centuries in our society and are still experiencing a form of oppression today, especially through the media. Despite slavery officially being abolished in 1865, thanks to Abraham Lincoln’s opposition on the subject, the black experience of enslavement hasn’t been properly portrayed in cinema until quite recently. There have been some enlightening strides in cinema creating impactful, innovative films denoting slavery from the point of view of the black experience in a revolutionary act to educate the ignorant and give black audiences the representation they’ve been craving. A few of these films depicting slavery include; Roots: The Gift, Amistad, Glory, 12 years a slave & Django unchained.

Due to the increased rise in slavery films, many black people have felt their representation in media has put them in a box, labelling them as oppressed by only showcasing black stories through slavery alone. This dangerously implies that black people are only relevant in films about slavery and are defined by it in our society. With this new- yet oppressive- representation looming over black culture, filmmakers, audiences and activists set out to gain more realistic and different depictions of the black experience- whether it’s regarding the story of black slavery or just broadcasting the black experience in everyday life. As of recently, there has been an influential advancement in black cinema giving us the different representations of the B.A.M.E community that have been much needed to imbed these new, humanised and empowering depictions in society. A few examples of these are; Selma, the help, Mississippi burning, Malcolm X, Do the Right Thing, Straight Outta Compton, Blackkklansman, moonlight, See You Yesterday, Black panther, The hate u give, If Beale Street Could Talk & hidden figures. Netflix has been a revolutionary aid in putting the spotlight on black perspectives in both film & TV series. Netflix has created a collection specifically regarding the black experience called ’Black Stories’ which includes categories such as; Black British stories, Black superheroes, Black comedy icons, Black behind the camera and more.

This helps highlight the hard work of black actors, directors and writers and gives them the recognition they deserve. Marginalised communities have never had the amount of representation we are now seeing on Tv & streaming platforms as it appears there is more demand for diversity on the small screen compared to cinema. Since this realisation, more and more B.A.M.E representation has been featured in TV shows & movies are being produced on different stream services such as; How to get away with murder, Black Lightning, Orange is the new black, On My Block, Greenleaf, Luke Cage, Power, Luther, Twenties, The umbrella academy, 13th, See You Yesterday, The Holiday Calendar and Black-ish.Due to this increase in diversity and audience request for minority representation, series such as Dear White People, Chewing Gum, Black AF, Self Made & Pose have had the opportunity to flourish and become some of the most successful black TV shows Netflix has created.

2018 saw the rise of Ryan Murphy’s POSE, a series witnessing the evolution of New York’s Ball culture, drag queens and trans issues in the 1980’s Trump-era.

POSE set records for trans-racial representation on screen and has received praise for its portrayal of ball, house and ‘found-family’ culture in the black & LGBTQ+ community. It explores the dangers of identifying as part of the LGBTQ+ community, the racial issues faced at the time, the pitfalls of living in a Marxist society and the AIDs/HIV crisis in 80’s America. While this narrative examines these prominent issues, it also provides a strong array of protagonists allowing this series to go down in history as the largest ensemble cast of transgender and black actors ever to appear. “

In my opinion, this series borders on cultural appreciation as often in their ball culture, the characters will take aspects of white culture that they like, usually female, and model it during their balls to showcase they can fit in with white society and even pass as female.

Dear White People has been another monumental piece of narrative that relates to the black experience and expresses the perspective of black people by addressing the issues caused by white people in our society today, through a comedic series.

Blackface is denoted in the series when a few of the white students at the school throw a blackface party despite claims of racism from black students. Within the series, the main character talks to her fellow students and the audience through a school radio show titles ‘Dear white people’, expressing black opinions on casual racism, discrimination and helping to educate white people on ‘what not to do’ when interacting with a black person. This show takes on these heavy issues through lighthearted comedy in a way that manages to talk about important subjects and injects comedic moments into them, slightly lightening the situation. Marxism is denoted in this narrative through poverty in black culture and white privileged rich families who attend the school, creating binary opposites such as rich vs poor and black vs white to aid in driving the storyline. This series even takes on the controversial concept of police brutality against blacks by having a black character be held at gunpoint by a white officer when he asks to see his student ID at a party. Online, the show received backlash with people calling it out for ‘reverse racism’- where black people discriminate against white people. The show also covers this topic in an episode, addressing by explaining ( Since watching Dear White People I’ve realised, as a white person myself, I wasn’t aware of many of the issues stated throughout this story and noticed myself learning, growing and evolving with each episode to better understand the black experience depicted.

I believe throughout history societal pressures, racism and activist movements have had the biggest impact on the globalisation of black representation and culture in media that we know today. It is evident that we have evolved over time when it comes to racist stereotypes and the segregation of minorities in media but I can see we have a lot of progress to make for the future in regards to these important yet underestimated issues. I feel representation is important both in media and society as this deems how people perceive different races, disabilities and genders that they see as different to them. This xenophobia has been engraved in our society’s history, pushing people to have negative perceptions of what they don’t understand. The change in diversity through media and movements has brought about a change in perceptions meaning people are now learning about what they do not understand, taking away the default white gaze and exploring different points of view from cultures they wouldn’t usually consider. Overall, the globalisation of black representation has been a challenge and tackled many obstacles, showcasing the resilience of people to feel spoken for. Continuing this progressive change in representation, the future of our society & media is destined to become a more acceptable, hybridised place for all races to feel seen in this world.

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EmilieShoots

EmilieShoots

Photographer, blogger & filmmaker