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Racism on the Silver Screen
Critics Say Hollywood Films Still Perpetuate Racial Stereotypes

Start streaming audio Listen to Lynn Neary's report.

Click for photo gallery View a photo gallery of minority images in early American films.

Sept. 6, 2001 -- For millions of people around the globe, Hollywood films are more than just a source of entertainment; they are a window through which to glimpse U.S. life and culture. But as NPR's Lynn Neary reports, many of these movies continue to perpetuate disturbing racial stereotypes.

Promotional poster for Tamango
A promotional poster for Tamango(1957) sells the film's controversial casting of a white master and his black slave.
Photo: Classic Hollywood, Classic Whiteness, published by the Univ. of Minnesota Press
View a photo gallery of minority images in American films during 1920s-1960s.

Neary discussed the powerful messages of Hollywood films with Faith Adiele, a freelance writer. Traveling to Thailand in 1979, Adiele stayed in a small village in the mountains where few people had ever seen an American. Born in the United States of a Swedish mother and a Nigerian father, she says it was refreshing to visit a place with none of the racial baggage that is found in America.

But things were different when Adiele returned five years later. Western movies had become common, and Thai natives now saw her as a black woman and began to form prejudices about her. In 1989, during her visit to Nigeria to meet her father's family, she found that Nigerians also regarded her with suspicion. Drawing from what they saw in the media, she says, many believed that all African-Americans were either criminals, clowns, or wealthy athletes.

Some observers say the lack of minority images in the movies is even more destructive than the stereotypes. When minorities do appear, critics say, they tend to be in the background, or cast as expendable sidekicks to white male star.

But such biased treatment is part of Tinseltown's history, says Daniel Bernardi, who edited Classic Hollywood, Classic Whiteness, a new book that chronicles racial stereotypes in the Hollywood movies from the 1920s to the 1960s. The black-and-white movies of that period were symbolic of Hollywood's racial view: There were no subtleties, everyone was categorized as either black or white and portrayed accordingly, Bernardi says.

Old habits die hard. Although modern films profess to be much more sensitive to race relations, critics say stereotypes are still there. Ariel Dorfman, professor of literature at Duke University, says it's hard to write scripts that accurately reflect all the subtleties of real life. And it's perhaps even harder to sell them, she says, which may be why such movies are rarely made in Hollywood.

Other Resources

• Read an Atlantic Monthly article, "Gone With the Wind and Hollywood's Racial Politics."

• Visit Racial Stereotypes & Images in American Media from the University of Southern California, which provides an extensive list of books on the stereotyping of minorities in American mass media.

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