Movie Industry Builds, Challenges Black Stereotypes From mammies and bucks to pimps and gangsters, we continue our monthlong look at African Americans in film with a focus on the subject of stereotypes. How have stereotypes shifted, and how is the audience impacted?
NPR logo

Movie Industry Builds, Challenges Black Stereotypes

  • Download
  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript
Movie Industry Builds, Challenges Black Stereotypes

Movie Industry Builds, Challenges Black Stereotypes

  • Download
  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript


I'm Farai Chideya, and this is NEWS & NOTES.

(Soundbite of "12th Annual Academy Awards")

Ms. FAY BAINTER (Actress): I present the Academy Award for the Best Performance of an Actress in Supporting Role during 1939 to Hattie McDaniel.

(Soundbite of applause)

CHIDEYA: Hattie McDaniel broke ground as the first African-American performer to win an Oscar.

(Soundbite of "12th Annual Academy Awards")

Ms. HATTIE McDANIEL (Actress): Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, fellow members of the motion picture industry and honored guests. This is one of the happiest moments of my life. I sincerely hope I shall always be a credit to my race and to the motion picture industry. My heart is too full to tell you just how I feel, and may I say thank you and God bless you.

(Soundbite of applause)

CHIDEYA: She won the statue for playing Mammy in "Gone with the Wind." That's a role a lot of people, both now and then, thought of as a stereotype. We continue our series on African-Americans in film today with a look at stereotypes. How the played out historically and how they've evolved over the years.

Anna Everett is a professor and chair of film and media studies at the University of California at Santa Barbara. She's here to help us unpack some of this cultural baggage.

Anna, welcome.

Professor ANNA EVERETT (Chairperson, Film and Media Studies, University of California-Santa Barbara): Thank you, Farai.

CHIDEYA: So Anna, let's hear a little bit of Hattie McDaniel as Mammy when Scarlett O'Hara asks her a question.

(Soundbite of movie "Gone with the Wind")

Ms. VIVIEN LEIGH (Actress): (As Scarlett O'Hara) What trouble are you talking about?

Ms. McDANIEL: (As Mammy) You know what trouble I's talkin' 'bout. I's talkin' Mr. Ashley Wilkes. He'd be comin' to Atlanta when he get's his leave, and you sittin' there waitin' for him, just like a spider. He belong to Ms. Melanie…

Ms. LEIGH: (As Scarlett O'Hara): You go pack my things like mother said.

CHIDEYA: Now, Anna, was this the only kind of role that 1930s Hollywood could even envision rewarding a black woman for playing?

Prof. EVERETT: I think that's about right to say. Because this was one of the familiar roles that African-Americans were cast in. And Hattie McDaniel actually did the role with such a plum and such facility that - I think there were a couple of issues that surround McDaniel's performance in the first place. I mean, number one is that she was clearly excellent at the delivery of the lines and inhabiting the persona. But on the other hand, there was concern about the limitations on her talents. And so she clearly made the best of what was available for her at the time.

And the second issue is the Black Press, as you may be aware, Farai, had a campaign against stereotypes in films, because they recognized what we called the documentary effect of fiction films. And what that means is that even though we know that films and these films were fictionalized tales or treatments, the - if you don't have the direct exposure experiences with someone, those representations have a reality effect for you. So you tend to believe them.

So the problem for the Black Press was twofold. On the one hand, they delighted in her performances, but they recoiled at the stereotypes that were, you know, certainly confounding the new negro idea that black people had of themselves at this time.

CHIDEYA: Let's talk a little bit about gender because there is one set of stereotypes that often go with female characters and then there's men. And this is in the present movie era. I want to play a clip from Michael Clarke Duncan's performance as John Coffey, a condemned prisoner in "The Green Mile." Now, Coffey, a death row inmate, is explaining to Tom Hanks' prison guard character why he wants his life not to be spared.

(Soundbite of movie "The Green Mile")

MR. MICHAEL CLARKE DUNCAN (Actor): (As John Coffey) I'm tired, boss. I'm tired of being on the road, lonely as a sparrow in the rain. I'm tired of never having me a buddy to be with, to tell me where we's going to, or coming from, or why.

CHIDEYA: Now, Michael Clarke Duncan won an Oscar for Best Supporting Actor for that role. His Oscar came 60 years after Hattie McDaniel got hers. So was his role a stereotype as well?

Prof. EVERETT: Oh, I think absolutely. And I think there are differences in the levels of stereotypes, as you pointed out, in terms of gender. In the case of Michael Clarke Duncan, I mean he clearly does inhabit that trajectory that Donald Bogle kind of identifies as, you know, Toms, Coons, Mammies, Bucks and Mulattoes. This limited range of roles that are available. And so, clearly, Michael Clarke Duncan's character recalls somewhat the Gus character in "Birth of a Nation" - I know we're not going to discuss it, but it's this archetype of, you know, of the giant - you know, the menacing black male brute.

But Duncan's character kind of refines that a bit. He's this gentle giant, but he's a simpleton, you know, he's infantilized. Bu the interesting thing, too, about his character is that he's (unintelligible) contextualized from any kind of black family, so he's singular black figure, which is, you know, kind of (unintelligible) most of these stereotypes, and he finds his value in servicing and helping white society and culture. And his misunderstood in his efforts to do well or, as he says in the film, to - I just want to help, you know. And so when his help is met with this resistance and incarceration and ultimately, you know, death, you can see him anticipating that. And the idea is that it's better to die than to inhabit this black body.

CHIDEYA: Well, when you mention that, I mean, is there a certain fatalism that underlies these stereotypes? I mean, is it really a situation - you talk about the documentary effect, which you called the documentary effect, where we take fiction in as reality, at least emotional reality. Is there fatalism in these depictions of black life through stereotypes?

Prof. EVERETT: That's really an interesting question. And I want to respond in this way. There are two approaches. In some of the research that I've done in black people's relationships to stereotypes - to black stereotypes, in particular are often quite different from black reactions. And what I had read in the Black Press about the time of let's say, "Gone with the Wind," was that, you know, black people would go to these movies and really enjoy aspects of them, because they didn't recognize these as true representations of themselves. So they were comedies to them; they could laugh, you know, at the representations, right?

Whereas for whites who would see like a similar film there would be this kind of different relationship. Again, this kind of documentary effect where they think, well, that's how black people are. So I think that on the one hand we have to recognize that audiences decode images differently based on their location within a group. But I think the other thing that's important to note is that stereotypes aren't always or inherently negative or, you know, mendacious or mean. There are heroic stereotypes. And the problem we get into, what we see so often with blacks stereotypes is that we don't get the heroic stereotypes that we see in some of the other communities.

And so it becomes a problem for not only black actors but also black filmmakers who like black actors have to do with the burden of representation, you know.

CHIDEYA: Well, let me just jump in because there's the question of the positive and negative stereotypes, but then there's also a question of, you know, can you use the master's tools to tear down the master's house?

Prof. EVERETT: Ooh.

CHIDEYA: And there are some black actors and filmmakers who've tried to combat stereotypes by using satire. Let's hear a clip from Robert Townsend's "Hollywood Shuffle."

(Soundbite of movie "Hollywood Shuffle")

Mr. ROBERT TOWNSEND (Actor): (As character) I don't know why we're leaving (unintelligible) house. He'd been good to us. He sees us on Saturday. Closes on Sunday, and then beat us on Monday - or was it Tuesday. I don't know.

Mr. EUGENE ROBERT GLAZER (Actor): (As the director) And cut.

Mr. TOWNSEND: (As Bobby Taylor) Hi. My name is Robert Taylor and I'm a black actor. I had to learn to play these leg parts, and now, you can, too at Hollywood's first black acting school.

(Soundbite of chorus)

Unidentified Group: (Singing) Black acting school.

Mr. TOWNSEND: (As Bobby Taylor) Let's talk to a graduate. This is Ricky Taylor. Ricky graduated from our class three years ago. Ricky can you tell us what you've been doing since you've graduated.

Mr. GRAND L. BUSH (Actor): (As Ricky Taylor) Well, Robert, I've played nine crooks, four gang leaders, two dope dealers. I played a rapist twice.

Mr. TOWNSEND: (As Bobby Taylor): Whoa.

Mr. BUSH (Actor): (As Ricky Taylor) That was fun.

CHIDEYA: Now, that may be clearly…

(Soundbite of laughter)

CHIDEYA: …did a lot to bring out the frustrations. I mean, is that kind of satire effective at bubbling up these larger issues?

Prof. EVERETT: I think so. I mean, I think on a one hand, they do point some at the absurdity of stereotypes. But they also kind of indict Hollywood for its limited vision of what black actors can be. And so you get, you know, confronted with the idea of overt and covert stereotypes. But what I think is effective about that piece is not only is it a black actor, you know, commenting on, you know, the reality of what it means to work in Hollywood, but it also allows him to kind of show the range of black folks whose desire and eagerness to break through as well as to show the levels of critique that black filmmakers have.

I do want to make another, too, about the (unintelligible) representation and the role that something like "Hollywood Shuffle" does is that - I mean, I think it points to the fact that black people understand the stages of the evolution in the industry. So, for example, Sidney Poitier makes, you know, someone like Will Smith today. Like…

CHIDEYA: Well, Anna, we're going to have to wrap up. But I want to thank you very much for leading us through an interesting discussion of how African-American lives are portrayed on the screen.

Prof. EVERETT: Well, thank you so much for having me.

CHIDEYA: Anna Everett is a professor and chair of film and media studies at the University of California at Santa Barbara.

To continue our conversation, we're now joined by director, Bill Duke. Bill Duke's career is as diverse as it is long. The 6-fout-4 renaissance man has directed films including "A Rage in Harlem" plus a recent project for PBS. He's also been in music videos for Busta Rhymes and played the recently converted black Muslim, Abdullah, in the film "Car Wash."

Bill, welcome.

Mr. BILL DUKE (Actor/Director): Thank you for having me.

CHIDEYA: So you have had quite a career and continue to - we'll talk a little bit more about some of your upcoming projects. But on this issue of stereotyping, do African-American actors feel a responsibility to break stereotypes and how does that affect the bottom line? I mean, you know, there's so many questions about what roles you really can get if you're an actor.

Mr. DUKE: I think not only black actors but all actors are always confronted between the (unintelligible) - render to Caesar that which is Caesar's and to God that which is God's. You got to pay the bills and the same time, you want to make sure that you're true to your craft and your values as possible.

For black actors, the opportunities are very limited, for women and men. And so, in terms of making choices, if you're offered a role there's always that dilemma, and you try to make the best choice you can based upon, you know, what your situation is financially and also, what your situation is in terms of who you as a person.

CHIDEYA: Now, you are someone who has a very imposing presence. Though people - everybody looks different, sounds different, but people get cast in types, you know, the light-skinned lady or the, you know, tall, imposing black man. When you think about your type as someone who is tall, who is - has physical half to - has a very dramatic face, what did that do you as an actor, pro and con?

Mr. DUKE: Well, it usually made me a bad guy. I'm not a person that's smiles a lot. I mean, I have a good sense of humor and I laugh at jokes that are funny, but I don't laugh at jokes that are not funny. And I think that sometimes I'm seen as threatening.

CHIDEYA: So let's talk about how people react to performances. There has been a lot of criticism of any number of Africa-Americans for taking any number of acting jobs. I am thinking in one way of Halle Berry in "Monster's Ball." How could you take that role that's not good for the black community? And you can extrapolate that to many different instances. Should actors be judged on the basis of roles they take? Is that fair?

Mr. DUKE: That's a very, very good question. Is it fair? No. Is it something we must take into consideration? Yes. Because we don't have the same opportunities of the same breath of roles that others have. I mean, the roles just are not there. So people are doing the best many times with what they're given. And so, yes, I think people who are outside the industry can be judgmental and say, well, you shouldn't have taken that role because, you know, he got killed, or you had sex with somebody or whatever it is.

But, you know, what you're really asking people to do is to get out of the business to a certain extent because those are the things that are offered. But there's also hypocrisy. When people are given films that are wonderful, you know, sometimes black people - "The Great Debaters," people didn't show up. There was no out - strange sex or anything in that, but black folks didn't come to the box office, why?

If they don't want, you know, Halle Berry to do something sexual on the film and they're saying, okay, do something that's, you know, moral, et cetera, than support it. But there's a lot of hypocrisy in the black community because they want to go to heaven, but they don't want a bat.

(Soundbite of laughter)

CHIDEYA: What about flipping the side of the lens that you're on. You're someone who has been very strategic in doing projects for television, projects for film as a director. What is it do when you, as someone who has creative control, takes a look at what options you can offer the actors. How do you then present what you want as a director to the people you're working with.

Mr. DUKE: Well, you know for me acting is a sacred art, you know, it's like - I don't think people really understand - you know, everybody thinks they can do it and the truth of the matter is is it's a real sacred craft. If takes a lob of courage. I mean, you have to really be a person who really is willing to be fearless. And so when I chose an actor to work with an actor, I try to let that person know that they're in a safe environment, they're totally supported. I know the journey they have to go through to get to the essence of this character, et cetera.

So I try my best as an actor to understand what actors, who are really going to do it, go through and give them as much support as I possibly can.

CHIDEYA: Tell us, just briefly, about a couple of the things that you've got coming up.

Mr. DUKE: Well, three things. One, I just finished a documentary called "The Faces of HIV," which documents the peril of us as a culture in terms of the AIDS pandemic. One out of seven men in D.C. is infected. Out of all the reported cases of AIDS with women in this nation, 70 percent are black women, and 85 percent of those women are infected by men who know they have a disease. And when I did this research, I really felt that, you know, the community should know about it, and so there's a documentary called "The Faces of HIV," which is coming out very soon.

Also, a feature film being released February 22nd in theaters called "Cover," C-O-V-E-R, and it's a murder mystery but also deals with AIDS in our community, et cetera. Then, later on in the year, I directed a film for Sony Screen Gems called "Not Easily Broken" for producer T.D. Jakes, and that comes out later this year. So it's been a good year, and luckily, I've been able to - in my films - talk about things that are meaningful because that's the way I want to use the rest of career.

CHIDEYA: Well, Bill, thanks so much.

Mr. DUKE: God bless you, and thank you so much for your support.

CHIDEYA: Bill Duke is an acclaimed actor and filmmaker. He currently has his hands in several works. And he spoke with me from his home in Los Angeles.

Copyright © 2008 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.