Why Hollywood needs Help

Guest post by Aphrodite Kocieda

Aphrodite is a radical feminist majoring in Women’s and Gender Studies with a minor in Communication at the University of West Florida. Aphrodite is also a reporter and contributor for the newspaper, The Pensacola Voice.

Plato once stated, “The mask which the actor wears is apt to become his face.”(Black-face.com). America has a soiled history of racism and oppression, and this has been continuously reflected through the evolution of entertainment. Beginning in the 19th century, a new form of entertainment became dominant throughout the nation. It was referred to as a “minstrel show.”

According to the website Blackface!, Minstrel show entertainment included imitating black music and dance and speaking in a ‘plantation’ dialect. The shows featured a variety of jokes, songs, dances and skits that were based on the ugliest stereotypes of African American slaves. From 1840 to 1890, minstrel shows were the most popular form of entertainment in America. White audiences in the 19th Century wouldn’t accept real black entertainers on stage unless they performed in blackface makeup.

These shows and films depicted African Americans as uneducated primitive-like species who had a strong inclination for fried chicken and watermelon. Black actors had to perform offensive roles that provided racist stereotypical imagery and narratives. Many of their actions and facial expressions were exaggerated to make them appear “buffoon-like.” White actors would apply burnt cork to their own faces to look like dark skinned African Americans, and they too, would use racism as fuel to bring their character to life. Although minstrel shows have officially ended, many argue that this form of entertainment has not ceased to exist- it has merely reemerged in a slightly different form: mainstream film.

After examining several top rated films recently released and awarded in the sphere of Hollywood, it is evident that Hollywood still suffers from a problematic understanding of the African American experience and range of African American stories. From the recent film Precious, to the newest film, The Help, it appears to be true that African American faces are only seen in mainstream films when they conform to racist plots and characters that either induce sympathy from the white audience, or confirm some racist notion that black people are criminals or drug addicts. According to Anthony Kaufman’s blog article, “How Racist is ‘The Help?’” he states, “Despite Hollywood’s best intentions and well-meaning saccharine storytelling, it gets race wrong, repeatedly. From ‘Driving Miss Daisy’ to ‘Crash’ to ‘The Blind Side’ to ‘Avatar,’ whiteness remains Hollywood’s dominant force, and its stories of racial redemption continually fail to grapple with the realities of America’s horrible racism, past and present.”

After attempting to watch mainstream films’ manifestation of America’s racial history, I am deeply concerned that African American voices and stories are still framed by white voices that dominate Hollywood. Additionally, it is unsurprising to learn that these films that contain trite depictions of African Americans are constantly praised and awarded, further brainwashing audiences to hail these films as testaments of true American talent and truth. According to Bob Tourtellotte’s article, The Help’ Tops List of SAG Nominees, “The actors of civil rights drama ‘The Help’ topped Screen Actors Guild Award nominations on Wednesday with four nods including best film cast, leading a list of nominees that saw many surprises in Hollywood’s current awards season.”  The films that are awarded by Hollywood contain tired depictions of black people nibbling on fried chicken, and characters that are zealously religious, overly attitudinal, and highly uneducated. Additionally, most mainstream films that cast African American leads perpetuate stereotypes by focusing only on plots that deal with racial barriers and struggles, blatantly leaving out creative plots that truly depict the range of the African American experience today.

Films like The Help perpetuate the incorrect myth that racism comes in one blatant form, ignoring subtle systemic features of racism that permeate almost all institutions of America. Films that demonstrate blatant racism are oftentimes strategically cast in an era of the 60’s civil rights struggle, blocking discourse and dialogue about contemporary racism.

Additionally, The Help fulfills the stereotype that African American liberation comes in the form of white characters who are privileged and sympathetic enough to provide help and relief, demonstrating that the white character is the help. The lack of African American faces and unique voices in mainstream Hollywood demonstrates the continuing struggle that black actors/actresses, writers, and directors face in an era that inaccurately claims to be “equal.”

African American movie-goers are thirsty for a film that accurately demonstrates their experiences, and furthermore, reflects some form of their reality.

Rarely do mainstream Hollywood films cast African American leads as romantic characters, educated individuals, or leads that have different ethnic friends and partners. Too often African Americans are cast as supporting roles, like the best friend that helps the white lead character through a difficult period or through a conflict with their partner.  Our faces are literally on the margins of almost every mainstream film. If we do acquire a lead role, the film tends to focus on racial struggles, and is marketed towards African Americans only.

African Americans overwhelmingly accept almost any film that contains a black lead due to the lack of their faces on the screen.  This becomes problematic when many of the films we accept embed racist ideologies and themes that develop into skewed personal internalizations of truths. As an audience, African Americans have become accustomed to seeing films that only cast them as maids, nannies, slaves, drug addicts, or criminals. Although these roles are available and employ African Americans, they perpetuate negative stereotypes that our culture accepts as reality.

There are mainstream films that cast African American leads in important positions; however, this trend rarely catches on in Hollywood.  It appears as if the only mainstream filmmaker that consistently employs African Americans for a range of roles is Tyler Perry, who is overwhelmingly applauded by African American communities. However, these communities are not given much of a choice. Though Tyler Perry casts the most African American characters, his plots are still saturated with racist stereotypes and negative depictions of black people.  Former CNN correspondent, Tourē states, “He’s celebrating a certain victimhood and telling Black women that it’s okay to feel like a victim and to wallow in the pain of your life…It’s like cinematic malt liquor for the masses.”He continues to state that just because Perry’s films are popular does not make them good. He parallels this ideology to McDonalds when he states that hamburgers are popular for the masses, but essentially, they are not good for you.

Though Perry serves an audience that is underrepresented on the screen, his depictions are damaging. He allows an audience to internalize his skewed representation of black people. From Madea, who embodies a desexualized “mammy-like” figure, to a plethora of drug jokes and references, Tyler Perry constructs a reality for African Americans that is steeped in racial stereotypes, similar to minstrel shows. Even American film director and writer, Spike Lee, takes issue with Perry’s film work stating, “Each artist should be allowed to pursue their artistic endeavors, but I still think there is a lot of stuff out today that is coonery and buffoonery.”

According to the website Blackface! which delves into the history of minstrel shows, “Movies have always been a powerful medium for the propagation of racial stereotypes.” From minstrel shows of the past, to movies like The Help, African Americans are accustomed to an incorrect representation of their history and their culture. These inaccurate depictions on the screen demonstrates an even larger racial problem that Hollywood and our culture seems to communicate. This predicament illustrates the discomfort our culture appears to have when African Americans are in positions of importance, and are the central focus of any artistic or intellectual endeavor. This discomfort translates an unfortunate social message on behalf of our culture reflected through Hollywood: race is still an issue. Although times have changed, and technology has advanced, one thing remains the same: Hollywood needs help.

5 Comments on “Why Hollywood needs Help”

  • Definitely noticed this trend with the clips featured on the Golden Globes last night. Honestly, I didn’t know exactly what the Help was about until last night’s awards, when I did realize it, i was pretty baffled. Wasn’t it only last year we had the “white savior” story with the blind side? As if that wasn’t bad enough…ugh

    Anyway…great post…so very accurate and honest, it has educated me very much and i’m sure it will educate others, too…

    • Aphrodite

      Hey-
      Thanks for your comment :) It literally feels as if Hollywood is completely running out of original stories to tell; therefore, they keep regurgitating the SAME plots over and over again. I completely agree with your analysis of the Blind Side..it’s like..seriously……how many more white characters are going to save us uneducated, chicken eating, sports playing black people?? I think many women relate to this argument when it comes to mainstream media broadcasting their character in ONE light: the sex object. There are such a wide variety of roles to create and cast,however, Hollywood fails time and time again to construct these on a mainstream level. You should check out this web show: http://awkwardblackgirl.com/ . It has a female African american lead who actually plays a unique character that isn’t a slave. Also, here is a pretty good independent short film with lead black characters in San Francisco: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CDSJF-yPFd4 (It’s called “Medicine for Melancholy.” It’s great. Once again, thanks for your comment.

  • Nah, I don’t think they need help… I think they know exactly what they’re doing.

  • Brenda Coleman

    Aphrodite

    Great article! I am not up to date on all the films you mentionned, however I totally agree with your assessment. How then, do Blacks or African Americans solve this issue? Do desiring actors or actresses walk away from the roles they are offered? Is this the anwser? I am reminded of a saying, “I may lose the battle but I will not lose the war.” It seems to me when desiring to escape typical roles offered to them, money becomes an issue and when this occurs, I wonder if they become “forced” to accept the “Black” ideology that I find collectively is still struggling to find an identity without holding onto racism. In other words, are film makers such as Spike Lee also keeping the discourse of racism alive, even though his goal, I think, is to generate awareness and exploit racism from every angle. In his film,Jungle Fever racism is alive in both White and Black characters.Okay, I am done babbling. I just wanted to know your thoughts should you have time. Thanks again, I enjoyed your work.

  • Aphrodite

    Hey Brenda-
    Thanks for leaving a comment :) I definitely believe the solution has to begin on a systemic level. If Hollywood broadcasts a wider range of African American stories, I don’t think so many people would be angry about their trite depictions. Hollywood’s limited depictions of marginalized groups is upsetting. Many women in general are upset when they Hollywood only broadcasts roles like the “Meghan Fox” sexy role. There’s nothing really wrong with her role-it becomes problematic when that is the ONLY role provided for women. It merely generates more stereotypes. The solution can also start on an individual level. As I mentioned earlier in some responses, some African Americans are starting to act on their frustration. Some individuals are creating their own shows guerrilla style…with their own cameras. Some examples are ,”The Mis-Adventures of Awkward Black Girl” as well as another mini web-series, “The Number.” It’s unfortunate that some oppressed peoples have to go out of their way to be represented, but sometimes if you don’t make action, nothing will happen.

    I don’t really blame individual actors and actresses for taking on stereotypical roles. What other options are given to them on a mainstream level? I blame the films and companies that are producing films that make many African American actors and actresses feel shame when they take these roles.

    I think it’s great that directors like Spike Lee continue the racial discourse through film; however, I am waiting for the day that black people can be in a film that is not directly about racism or racial tensions. Black people live normal lives as well… Imagine if EVERY film that contained white people in it was about some internal personal struggle to overcome the fact that their past families kept slaves. That would be random and not relevant.

    To overcome this form of systemic racism produced through Hollywood, it would be best if they offered as large a variety of roles for black people as they did for white people. OR we can pick up the cameras ourselves…as we are currently doing :)

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