Volume 92, Issue 74

Tuesday, February 9, 1999


Changing perceptions: Black stereotypes in television and film

Changing perceptions: Black stereotypes in television and film

By Ciara Rickard
Gazette Staff

The struggle for better and more roles for black characters in mainstream television and film over the last few decades has proven fruitful, but the battle many say, is not yet won.

Hollywood is often accused of indulging in stereotypes; some regarding black roles and all the common cliches which go with them. However, there has been progress.

When black characters first started appearing in mainstream television and film, they were usually cast in the roles of servants or were simply side characters present to provide comic relief, says Neil Brooks, an English professor at Huron College.

"There are two categories," he says. "There was the servant, usually smiling, happy-go-lucky, not very bright and seemed to be born to play this role – or they'd often get the trickster roles."

Brooks also notes another common cliche, that of the black person as a "primitive." The notion of "savages" living in the jungle was intriguing to white North America, but what they didn't realize was there had been complex governing systems for centuries and Africans were no more simplistic than the average North American.

"Those two cliches lasted at least until the 1940s, maybe the '50s, in Hollywood," Brooks says. "There've been black films produced for the black community almost as long as there've been films. There were also important black journals but all this didn't start infiltrating the mainstream until after World War II."

Brooks says although the variety of roles has increased, the stereotypes still persist. Famed actor Sidney Poitier was seen as a turning point for black roles, as the parts he played were intelligent and serious. However, even with Poitier the story was usually focused on the fact the character was a black man doing something outside the norm.

"It's not nearly as exclusive as it was," Brooks says of acting roles in Hollywood. "But black actors can only be cast in roles where blackness is important to the role. The portrayals of African Americans are certainly much more varied and there's been a concerted effort to combat stereotypes, but the fact that there's been a concerted effort shows that there's a problem. In an ideal world, we wouldn't be having this discussion."

If Hollywood neglects the black community in terms of television and film, Canadian TV and film is "10 times worse," according to Sherry Kennedy, the executive director of the Black Film and Video Network. Roles are so limited for black actors in Canada they often are forced to make their way down to the United States to make careers for themselves, she says.

"CBC has only ever had one black show. There's a huge audience that they're not reaching. CityTV really tries to be on the cutting edge – they have a lot of non-white people," Kennedy says. "You can count on one hand the number of black actors working in the city. They go to the U.S. and Vancouver – that's where the work is."

Kennedy cites film festivals as good vehicles for black actors and film makers to infiltrate the mainstream. Festivals are increasing in numbers and volume to include more black films and there are even festivals showcasing only black films.

Brooks notes there have always been African-American productions and publications in film and magazines, but there were obstacles to making them known. Cinemas wouldn't play black films and certain shops wouldn't let black magazines be displayed. Funding has also been a problem on production in the black community, as the costs for making a film or starting a magazine are very expensive.

Anton Allahar, a sociology professor at Western, also cites Hollywood as subscribing to traditional racist stereotypes, pointing out black characters in film and on TV were often criminals, drug dealers or the first to be killed off, as they were deemed more expendable than the other characters.

"Only recently have we been seeing white people kissing black people on TV. Look at The Dating Game – if there is a black girl, there will be a black man matched up with her," he says.

Allahar does acknowledge, though, Hollywood has changed a great deal and there are more roles for black actors. The stereotypes are becoming less and less obvious and the roles are allowing greater breadth for black actors.

"Miami Vice often showed Jamaicans dealing drugs, but recently I find that it's not that blatant," Allahar says. "Don't get me wrong though, it still exists."

Now there are networks featuring shows geared towards the black community, with middle class black families, which can help break down stereotypes and attract wider audiences.

"The show Seinfeld was rated No. 1 in North America, but rated number 30-something in black households," Allahar says. "It's the same with other white shows – it doesn't speak to black people."

According to Karen King, a producer for the National Film Board of Canada and a member of the Special Mandate Team for Cultural Diversity, part of the reason there are so many old stereotypes in TV and film is many of these stereotypes exist in people's subconscious. People make certain assumptions without realizing it and these assumptions make their way into films and shows.

"It's about pointing [stereotypes] out and making people aware that they're there," King says. "I think the key is to have more black people in decision-making positions. It's naive to think people who don't have first hand experience with racism will be able to affect change, so it would help to have people of colour in those positions where they're more visible."

King also points out the balance between portrayals of the black community in the media and the black community in reality is "out of whack." He adds people who get the bulk of their information from television would think most black Americans are poor, whereas only about 30 per cent are.

"In a Canadian context, I'm happy to see what's happening with Traders. They're finally getting people of colour on the show," King says. "In an American context, I'm dismayed that we're still stuck in the world of black sitcoms. We need a drama and more leading black characters in dramas. It would be nice to see an intelligent comedy."

Whether there is the potential for entertainment which appeals to all audiences, apart from the odd film or TV show, is unknown, according to both Allahar and Kennedy. Cultural differences dictate certain preferences, even in a society where blending and conformity are encouraged.

"I would love that to happen," Kennedy says. "But in the States everything is categorized. I don't think art should have limitations.

"Anything that gets away from the stereotypes is wonderful."

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Copyright The Gazette 1999