Incorrect portrayal of Black people in movies


Lizzie Kristal

Much of the so-called Black ‘representation’ in film in the past century can more accurately be described as tokenization, with Black characters often being based on tropes.

When consuming media, it is always important to think critically about not only what is overtly stated, but also about subtext and indirect messages being conveyed. This becomes even more vital in the context of dismantling institutional racism in entertainment media. Movies and television have become a conversation-starter about the history and present of anti-Black racism in the United States, which makes it all the more important for audiences to think critically about what is being conveyed to them in portrayals of Black life on screen.

However, part of thinking critically about what is presented on screen involves consideration of factors at work offscreen. Black representation in Hollywood goes beyond what is visible on screen. Due to limited Black representation in movie production, positions such as writer, director, and casting agent, it is important to remember that the presence of a Black actor on screen, or a plot that includes themes of anti-Black racism, does not make a movie or television show representative of Black life. Accurate, multifaceted representations of Black life in the media are up against many things, including the tokenization of Black actors through the use of racial stereotypes and tropes, the prevalence of the white savior narrative, and colorism. And many of these stem from the fact that Black stories have historically often been told inaccurately and harmfully by white people, who at best have failed to capture the varied lived experiences of Black people in the United States, and at worst have perpetuated anti-Black narratives.

In a 2020 article for Glamour magazine, writer Jenny Singer stressed the importance of distinguishing between movies with themes of anti-Black racism and movies that are actively anti-racist. Singer highlights examples of movies that are commonly treated as antiracist, that are in reality incredibly problematic in their portrayal of Black characters. This can look different from movie to movie, but the commonality between these problematic movies is that they perpetuate a white savior narrative, where Black characters are shown as unintelligent and incompetent, needing to be ‘saved’ by white characters. This narrative, and these movies, are directly tied to white paternalistic colonial narratives, as well as racist stereotypes portraying Black people as childlike and inferior to white people. Singer also points out the distortion of reality that occurs in service of the white savior narrative, for example, in movies based off of historical events, when vital contributions made by Black people are minimized, erased, or attributed to white people.

Much of the so-called Black ‘representation’ in film in the past century can more accurately be described as tokenization, with Black characters often being based on tropes. One common trope for Black female characters is the ‘Mammy’ trope, named for Hattie McDaniel’s character in the 1939 Gone With The Wind. In a 2019 article for BBC, Ellen E. Jones described this trope as, “Traditionally depicted as a dark-skinned, overweight woman, wearing a headwrap and shawl, the mammy is employed by a white family to care for their children and is utterly devoted to her charges.” This trope is still used, for example in the 2011 film, The Help, starring Viola Davis and Octavia Spencer, about Black women working as maids for white families in 1960s Mississippi. Jones stresses the fact that this trope is not only inaccurate, quoting psychologist Chanequa Walker Barnes’ saying, “Mammy was a largely mythical figure with little basis in the lived experiences of Black women,” but it was conceived to serve white supremacy and the ‘Lost Cause’ narrative glorifying the Antebellum South.

In a guest piece for Wear Your Voice magazine, writer Sydneysky G. identifies the character Kim Parker from the sitcom Moesha as the ‘sassy, fat Black friend’ trope, calling that trope “a very updated version of the ‘Mammy’ trope.” She writes that, “Fat Black women are overwhelmingly made to be the sidekick, caregiver, protector, jezebel, and/or comedic relief to the thinner and/or lighter-skinned people around us, on and off the screen.” She also notes that the ‘fat Black friend’ trope tends to be played by actors with darker skin than actors playing the main character, connecting to the colorism that is common practice in Hollywood, and American culture more generally.

One element present in both the ‘Mammy’ and the ‘fat Black friend’ tropes is colorism that plays a significant role in Black representation, particularly for Black women, in Hollywood. Colorism, a term credited to author Alice Walker in 1982, is defined by Robert L. Reece in a 2020 study as, “the process by which people of color with phenotypic features more closely associated with whiteness—such as lighter eyes, thinner noses and lips, straighter hair, and particularly lighter skin tones—are offered social and economic advantages relative to their counterparts with more ‘ethnic’ phenotypic features—darker eyes, thicker noses and lips, curly hair, and darker skin.” In this study, Reece noted that past research on ‘color stratification’ in wages and income show “considerable advantages for lighter skinned Black Americans.” Furthermore, he notes that lighter-skinned Black Americans tend to receive more lenient disciplinary action in schools, have more favorable encounters with the criminal justice system, be in better health, physically and mentally, and be considered more attractive than darker-skinned Black Americans.
In a 2017 article for Teen Vogue, Tiffany Onyejiaka writes, “Colorism created the belief that lighter-skinned black people are better, smarter, and more attractive than their darker-skinned counterparts because they have a closer proximity to whiteness.”

Onyejiaka notes that colorism is especially prevalent in how Black women in Hollywood are treated, which looks like many darker-skinned actresses being unable to land big roles, or not landing those roles until late in their careers. She points to how casting agents and producers perpetuate colorism in Hollywood, writing that “The fault lies with Hollywood producers and casting agents who refuse to push the boundaries and cast young, dark Black women in important movie roles — including roles that were made specifically for them. They choose to endorse an incredibly narrow selection of Black women, yet at the same time, want to get accolades for achieving diversity and representation on-screen.” Within this, she mentions the problematic practice of casting biracial or lighter-skinned Black actresses to play characters or historical figures who are in reality darker-skinned. For example, when Zoe Saldana, who is Afro-Latinx, played the darker-skinned singer Nina Simone in the 2016 film Nina, even wearing makeup to darken her skin and a prosthetic nose.

Another common element of the portrayal of Black people in television and the media is writing Black characters as embodiments of racial stereotypes, as opposed to multifaceted people. For example, a 2011 study conducted by The Opportunity Agenda on the impact of media portrayals of Black men and boys on their lived experiences found that Black men have ‘distorted representation’ in the media that perpetuates racial stereotypes against them. The study found that in both entertainment and general media, Black men tend to be underrepresented as intellectually accomplished and competent, with physical strength or athletic prowess more often emphasized, and are often portrayed as having a persona that is threatening or violent.