From servants to outlaws: 100 years of Black representation in Hollywood films

When The Birth of a Nation was released in 1915, it marked the beginning of a century of deeply racist and damaging representations of Black people on film.

While The Birth of a Nation was heralded as a cinematic masterpiece — and is still regarded to this day as one of the most technologically advanced and sophisticated films of the era — at the time of its release, Black groups openly criticized and protested it. They organized, they pleaded with censor boards to ban the film, and there were riots. 

Actors portraying the Ku Klux Klan ride on horses in a still from the 1915 film The Birth of a Nation. (Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

“One of the illuminating things about studying Hollywood history … is that you realize that representations that seem problematic now … were not fully accepted at the time,” Cameron Bailey, artistic director and co-head of the Toronto International Film Festival, told CBC’s Ideas.

“It’s not that people were different or more ignorant or less progressive 30, 40, 80 years ago.… Those acts of resistance happened at the time…. It’s not new. But sometimes that resistance was forgotten or just disappeared or was erased over time.”

From Hollywood’s beginnings, Black people were mostly given roles as subservient maids, butlers, slaves and sharecroppers in movies with regressive, racist messages. But over the last century, there have also been movements, from the Harlem Renaissance to the L.A. Rebellion, to present Black people as real, nuanced human beings with stories worth telling on film. 

The Harlem Renaissance

During the 1920s and ’30s, the Cotton Club, located in New York City, featured many of the most popular Black entertainers of the era. (Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

In the 1920s, the influential revival of Black arts and culture later known as the Harlem Renaissance was in full swing. Civil rights groups like the National Urban League and the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) were gaining prominence. 

Meanwhile, Black cinema was being advanced by directors like Oscar Micheaux. The son of former slaves, Micheaux made 45 movies over his career and was called the Jackie Robinson of the film world. 

Instead of presenting typical Hollywood images of Black people as slaves, maids and butlers, Micheaux told stories that featured Black teachers, ministers and lawyers.

His 1920 silent film Within Our Gates, the oldest-known surviving feature film made by an African-American director, told the story of a sharecropper and his wife being cheated out of pay by their white boss.

“According to some scholars, he was speaking back to Birth of a Nation, but I frequently urge that people proceed cautiously in making the assumption that every time an African-American made a film, it was always a response to what a white filmmaker had made,” said Charlene Regester, a professor of African-American studies at the University of North Carolina.

“Sometimes they were making films just for the sake of producing art or for self-expression or exposing the Black community to a range of issues.”

In 1929, MGM produced Hallelujah, the first Hollywood film with sound to feature an all-Black cast. 

However, it was helmed by a white Texan filmmaker named King Vidor, who reflected not only typical southern attitudes of the day, but also the so-called “race science” of 1920s America, said Judith Weisenfeld, author of Hollywood Be Thy Name.

Upon its release, white critics loved the film, but reactions among Black audiences were divided. Some praised the film, but other commentators and cultural critics were ultimately disappointed by its messages.

Director King Vidor during location filming of the MGM production Hallelujah. The film featured an all-Black cast. (Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

“It was an argument for a return to the kind of antebellum ideal,” said Weisenfeld. “So in that sense, the film’s argument is that this film will not try and open the way to claims to new rights, but will actually underscore the need for Black people to kind of stay in their place.”

‘The Age of the Negro Servant’

American actress and singer-songwriter Hattie McDaniel, along with Olivia de Havilland and Vivien Leigh, in a publicity still for Gone With the Wind. (Wikimedia/MGM)

In the 1930s, once the novel Gone With the Wind was optioned to be made into a film, the NAACP started pressuring MGM not to make it, because they were fearful that it would just be a repeat of The Birth of a Nation, said Jill Watts, a professor of history at California State University.   

Nevertheless, MGM and studio executive David O. Selznick began making the film, while assuring the NAACP that they would make a better version of Gone With the Wind than the book.

“I can say that Selznick talked a lot about anti-Semitism and he was very defensive about Gone With the Wind, but I don’t see him contributing a lot to Black efforts to strive for racial equality and voting rights,” said Watts.

She thinks Selznick was blind to the idea that, overall, Gone With the Wind would end up, at its core, defending slavery and promoting Black inferiority. 

The character played by Black actor Hattie McDaniel was an example of one Black caricature permeating cinema at the time: the maid.

McDaniel, who played the role of Mammy, became the first Black Academy Award winner after winning for best supporting actress.

McDaniel’s portrayal of Mammy garnered a mixed response. In some Black circles, she was accused of playing an “Uncle Tom.” Other movie fans and critics, both white and Black, called aspects of her performance “powerful” or even “masterful.” In 1940, McDaniel took home an Academy Award for best supporting actress, making her the first Black person to win an Oscar.

Critic Donald Bogle has called 1930s Hollywood the “Age of the Negro Servant,” while Black filmmaker Julie Dash has said that throughout the period, “We were props in their movies.”

The Negro Soldier

A still from the 1943 war documentary The Negro Soldier, which was distributed by the War Activities Committee of the Motion Pictures Industry. (United States Library of Congress)

When the Second World War began, Hollywood produced feature films appealing to Black people to get behind the war. 

“The one that I find really the most fascinating is the The Negro Soldier, under the the broad umbrella of the the Army films that Frank Capra oversaw,” said Weisenfeld. “And it was meant to raise morale among Black soldiers.”

In We’ve Come a Long, Long Way, by white producer Jack Goldberg, Black people were warned that Hitler would outlaw the NAACP and suppress Black entertainers. In response, the NAACP launched a campaign against the film, calling it propaganda.

However, there was also a belief in the Black community that fighting Hitler on behalf of America would help speed up the fight for their own rights. 

“I think it was a deeply held conviction. The cycles of hope and patriotism are many in African-American history,” said Weisenfeld.

Post-WW II and the ‘passing’ genre

A still from the 1944 film Lost Boundaries, starring Mel Ferrer and Susan Douglas Rubeš. (Warner Archives)

Post-war Hollywood provided a new set of disappointments for Black people, according to Watts. They scrambled for fewer and fewer roles, almost disappearing from the screen. Hollywood also started to make more films for and about white women, like Mildred Pierce starring Joan Crawford.  

Ideas53:59Black Myths on Screen: Hollywood and a Century of Race, Part Two

Some critics wondered whether Hollywood was deliberately focusing on narratives of white women to avoid controversy over how Black people were being portrayed. 

The period from 1946 to 1950 marked a brief and curious moment in Hollywood’s history: an attempt to explore racism and anti-Semitism through the “passing” genre, with whites trying to come to grips with “the other.”   

Hollywood promoted what it called “Negro tolerance movies,” featuring light-skinned Black people who were framed as interlopers who could “pass” and enjoy white privilege while exposing racism.  

In the 1949 film Lost Boundaries, a Black doctor and his family end up in a small town in New Hampshire where they take him to be white.

Critic and novelist Ralph Ellison wrote that “obviously these films are not about Negroes at all; they are about what whites think and feel about Negroes.”

Weisenfeld said: “The moral of these passing stories is for white viewers: ‘You didn’t even know.’ It’s only a problem for you when you found out they were Black. And so, yes, this Black doctor, this Black nurse, this magazine writer, these people are really just like you.'”

The civil rights era

Despite the fight for civil rights taking place in the U.S., Hollywood chose to portray more “palatable” images of Black Americans. (National Archive/Newsmakers/Getty Images)

During the ’60s, as the fight for Black civil rights was raging in America, Hollywood mostly stayed away. 

“Hollywood typically has not been in the business of showing the harsh reality of our lives to us,” said Bailey, the TIFF artistic director.

Buildings were being burned, political leaders such as Martin Luther King Jr. were being assassinated, and protests and uprisings were sweeping through the streets, but representations of this massive change were absent from the screens.

Ideas53:59Black Myths on Screen: Hollywood and a Century of Race, Part Three

“None of it was in the movies because the movies were trying to tell us that everything was going to be OK,” said Bailey. “And so if they were going to address race, it was going to be in a more palatable manner.”

The 1967 film Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner, starring Sydney Poitier, tells the story of a young white woman who brings her Black fiancé home to meet her parents. It was seen as a very liberal film at the time. 

“[Sydney Poitier] has to look great, has to be the most handsome person on screen, perfect in every way … to be accepted within white society,” said Bailey.

He adds that Poitier made a career of playing remarkable Black men, and because of that, held a symbolic role for America. 

“That was a part of the civil rights representation as well, because it was seen as, ‘OK, if you’re not threatening to us, then you can be a part of society,'” said Bailey.

Blaxploitation and the L.A. Rebellion

A still from the 1971 film Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song, directed by and starring Melvin Van Peebles. (Cinemation Industries)

When it arrived on the cinematic scene in 1970, the Blaxploitation genre began showing powerful images of Black people who were unapologetically angry, often violent, sometimes even pursuing a goal to “kill whitey.” 

Hundreds of movies were made during the five years that defined the Blaxploitation era, featuring gorgeous soundtracks, evocative clothing, and, some believed, dangerous imagery. 

“There’s going to be sexuality, nudity, violence, drug use directed specifically at a younger Black audience,” says John Terry, a professor of history at South Texas College. 

While Black characters started to be presented with more humanity and depth following World War Two, it wasn’t until Blaxploitation arrived that the early film caricatures of subservient maids and butlers were turned completely on their head. 

A poster for the independent Blaxploitation-era film Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song. (Cinemation Industries)

Now Black characters were often portrayed as criminals, bent on revenge — against each other, but more often against white people. 

“They were kind of superheroes in a way. They had exceptional fighting skills, often fighting against a white-run conglomerate and came out on top,” said Bailey. “And it was incredibly revolutionary at the time for Black audiences to see those films.” 

Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song, which touted the tagline “rated X by an all-white jury,” grossed an unexpected $15 million US, getting a thumbs up from Huey Newton of the Black Panthers.

However, many progressive activists worried that these images harmed the cause.   

In a 1972 editorial in the New York Times, “Black Movie Boom: Good or Bad?” Junius Griffin, president of the Hollywood branch of the NAACP, wrote: “If black movies do not contribute to building constructive, healthy images of black people, we shall have lost our money and our souls. We shall have contributed to our own cultural genocide by only offering our children the models of degradation, destruction and dope.”

Griffin also complained that images of the violent Black outlaw were funded by the “white power structure.” Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song, as well as another well-known Blaxploitation film, Shaft, were made by Black directors but financed by white production companies. Shaft was distributed through Hollywood giant MGM. 

In response to Blaxploitation films and classic Hollywood cinema, a group of young independent filmmakers who trained at the UCLA Film School began to form the L.A. Rebellion film movement. 

Some were Black Panthers, others were not. Many borrowed from liberation struggles in the developing world. Some wanted to reform Hollywood. 

Many L.A. Rebellion filmmakers were interested in producing citizens, rather than consumers, according to Allyson Nadia Field, an associate professor of cinema and media studies at the University of Chicago.

They produced movies that seemed a galaxy away from Hollywood and Blaxploitation imagery. Instead of scenes of guns, drugs and women, a film like Charles Burnett’s Killer of Sheep might explore the consciousness of a Black child or question Black masculinity.   

The blockbuster era

Filmmaker Spike Lee, who directed and starred in Do the Right Thing, shown here taking part in an anti-racism demonstration in New York in May 1989. (AFP/Getty Images)

By the 1980s, a unique era of Black cinema had come to an end. The NAACP had kept up its pressure on Hollywood to abandon Blaxploitation, while the L.A. Rebellion movement languished without the backing of a powerful infrastructure.

Although some L.A. Rebellion and Blaxploitation filmmakers continued working, a moment in cultural history had passed.

A bigger change was also sweeping through Hollywood. The film industry was restructuring and entering the era of the blockbuster — and it was swallowing up independent film.   

Then in 1989, a $6-million film about racial injustice blasted into popular culture: Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing, which reflected a nuanced and loving portrait of a Black community.

Bailey, who was a film reviewer at the time, recalls being the only Black person at the press screening. 

“I remember afterwards that there some people who thought that film was going to cause riots because they saw a Black character played by Spike Lee in the film commit an act of property damage as a result of just the fury he was feeling in response to … the situation in his community and the lack of respect for the Black community,” said Bailey.

To this day, Do the Right Thing is considered a landmark film, prescient in its narrative of Black America, but Bailey says these films are few and far between.  

What Hollywood gives us more of, he says, are films that feature the “white saviour complex,” a cinematic trope where white characters rescue people of colour — films like Mississippi Burning, The Help, Green Book or Hidden Figures

“One of the common things in Hollywood for years, and it still exists to a degree, is that if there’s not a white person at the centre of a story, the people who finance films, produce them, distribute them, sell them, believes that that film has less commercial value,” said Bailey.

#OscarsSoWhite

Actor Chris Pine and Academy president Cheryl Boone Isaacs announce the Academy Awards nominations on Jan. 15, 2015. All 20 acting nominations went to white actors. (Mark Ralston/AFP/Getty Images)

When the 2015 Academy Award nominations were announced, it triggered a public identity crisis for Hollywood. That year, only two people of colour were nominated in major categories.

In response, activist April Reign created the social media hashtag #OscarsSoWhite to call out the lack of diversity in the awards, as well as the lack of diversity in Hollywood in general.

Diversity advocate April Reign created the #OscarsSoWhite movement following the announcement of the 2015 Academy Awards nominations. (Valerie Macon/AFP/Getty Images)

Before #OscarsSoWhite, 92 per cent of top film directors were men and 86 per cent of top films featured white actors, according to a study by the University of Southern California. 

“I guess it starts with the narrative or the ideology that Black films are unbankable or even films that are nonwhite-directed films are unbankable,” said Maryann Erigha, author of The Hollywood Jim Crow: The Racial Politics of the Movie Industry.

Erigha argues that these days the colour-blind language of economics lets Hollywood hide its racial biases. Instead, Hollywood executives like to locate inequality in the past. 

Even films featuring Black talent, such as Black Panther and 12 Years a Slave, may be cases where the exception proves the rule, says Erigha. Although one or two films may find success, Hollywood’s overall structure remains the same, and pointing to a few examples keeps people from looking at the bigger picture.

“There is a loose quote from Malcolm X where he talks about sticking a knife in someone’s back eight inches and pulling it out five inches,” said Erigha. “And the question is: Is that progress?” 

“Black Myths on Screen: Hollywood and a Century of Race” is a three-part documentary series produced by CBC Radio’s Ideas. Listen to Part One here. Listen to Part Two here and Part Three here. 

Documentary participants

Resources: 

  • Hattie McDaniel: Black Ambition, White Hollywood by Jill Watts. Amistad; illustrated edition; 2007
  • Hollywood Be Thy Name: African American Religion in American Film, 1929-1949 by Judith Weisenfeld. University of California Press; 2007
  • African American Actresses: The Struggle for Visibility, 1900-1960 by Charlene Regester. Indiana University Press; 2010
  • The Hollywood Jim Crow: The Racial Politics of the Movie Industry by Maryann Erigha.  New York University Press; 2019
  • The Devil Finds Work by James Baldwin. Vintage Intl ed.; 2011
  • Toms, Coons, Mulattoes, Mammies, and Bucks:  An Interpretive History of Blacks in American Film by Donald Bogle. Bloomsbury Academic Fourth Edition; 2001. 
  • Bright Boulevards, Bold Dreams: The Story of Black Hollywood by Donald Bogle. One World; reprint edition; 2009.  
  • Framing Blackness: The African American Image in Film (Culture and The Moving Image) by Ed Guerrero. Temple University Press; illustrated edition; 1993.  
  • Reel to Real: Race, class and sex at the movies by bell hooks. Routledge; 1st edition; 2012
  • White Rage: The Unspoken Truth of Our Racial Divide by Carol Anderson. Bloomsbury USA; reprint edition; 2017 
  • Operation Hollywood: How the Pentagon Shapes and Censors Movies by David L. Robb. Prometheus; 2004
  • L.A. Rebellion: Creating a New Black Cinema by Allyson Field (editor), Jan-Christopher Horak (editor) and Jacqueline Najuma Stewart (editor) 

Written by Althea Manasan and Mary O’Connell. Documentary series produced by Mary O’Connell.