Written by William Camacho
The prevalence of racist depictions in corporate media continues to influence Americans in subtle ways. Although minstrelsy was the start of misrepresenting African Americans in entertainment, it is important to understand how racist character types are perpetuated in contemporary media. One of the most applicable examples of African American portrayals is John Singleton’s film Baby Boy (2001), which offers the stereotypes of the buck and the coon. Unconsciously, viewers are exposed to these racist tropes through both subtle and blatant forms. Since most audiences rely on the media for credible information and entertainment, the scope and impact of African American stereotypes masks the reality of diverse lived experience, and instead, passes the clichéd portrayal of Blacks as a social norm.
Historically, the misrepresentation of African Americans predates the emergence of mass media. In 1828, Thomas Dartmouth “Daddy” Rice was considered the “father of American minstrelsy.” Minstrelsy was a performance that consisted of various skits, dancing and music usually played by a white person in blackface for the intention of playing the role of a black person. Thomas Rice was well known for his Jim Crow songs and dance, which were based off of a physically disabled African slave. It was not until the 1840s that African Americans began to work as minstrels. Yet by the 1860s, to meet demands of both white and black audiences, minstrel characters were commonplace, and were obligated to wear blackface and perform stereotypical and racist routines.
In 1915, D.W. Griffith released the film Birth of a Nation, which glorifies the KKK and condemns African Americans. Within the storyline, the portrayal of African Americans (played by blacks and some whites in blackface) is sexually aggressive towards white women. Such portrayals led to protests by The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), which led to limited film viewings and the removal of additional disturbing scenes.
In 1916, as a means to challenge misrepresentations of blacks in films, Noble Johnson created his own movie company called Lincoln Motion Picture Company. Although the company only produced five films, Johnson and his team inspired others to create their own companies. In 1918, Oscar Micheaux created another black owned movie company called Micheaux Film Corporation, which produced over 40 films before the Great Depression caused financial difficulty (Horton, Price, Brown, 1999).
Years after the Great depression, a new type of film genre called “blaxploitation” gained popularity in 1970. The films featured black heroes using violence to resolve their issues instead of a legal way. The central theme around this genre was the color of the actors’ skin and the use of stereotypical characteristics, such as aggressiveness, disrespect for authority, and a preference for violence over negotiation.
Since that time, four primary stereotypes of minstrelsy are still used in film and television (Dixon, 2000). First, there is the “Mammy” who is seen as a maternal figure that usually plays the role of a housekeeper or nanny (Pilgrim, 2014). Typically, this character loves her white family and treats her own black family with indifference. For instance, in the 1934 film Imitation of Life, Louise Beavers plays Delilah Johnson, a housekeeper who is taken in by a white widow, Bea Pullman. Although Johnson sleeps in a basement with no windows, she is still happy to be where she is. Her fair skinned daughter runs away from home so she can pass off as white.
Contemporary racial representations continue to juxtapose African American struggles with the cause of enlightened whites who benevolently seek social justice on behalf of disenfranchised blacks.
By the 1960s, the Civil Rights movement picked up momentum, and new images of the “mammy” essentially disappeared. Decades passed until the 2011 film, The Help, reemerged the mammy character. The film followed the lives of three African American maids working for white families in the 1960s. Although the film adapts the historic struggles of black women to offer a more favorable depiction of racial inequity, this film reintroduces the contemporary mammy figure. Yet in this case, it juxtaposes the black struggle with the cause of enlightened whites who benevolently seek social justice on behalf of disenfranchised blacks.
In addition to the ‘Mammy,’ the “Tom” is depicted as a faithfully happy, submissive servant who is eager to work and serve as a docile and non-threatening black man (Pilgrim, 2014). This character is usually dependent on whites for approval. For example, in the 1914 film “Uncle Tom’s Cabin,” Sam Lucas plays Uncle Tom, a cheerful and passive servant who is depicted as old and physically weak, and adoring of his masters. Several years later, the Tom character returned in a 1991 film “Fried Green Tomatoes,” in which Stan Shaw plays Big George, a compliant and one-dimensional servant.
Following the “Tom” is the “Coon” stereotype—a character depicted as lazy, easily frightened, and clown-like (Pilgrim, 2014). Often, the coon also worked as a servant, unhappy with his status, but too apathetic or doubtful to change anything. For instance in the 1929 film “Hearts in Dixie,” Stepin Fletchit plays Gummy, a lethargic husband with pain in his feet, which prohibits him from being of any use when it comes to work. Fast forward to the 2009 film “Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen,” which takes the coon caricature and transforms him into two robots: Mudflap and Skids. In this case, the robots were depicted as jive talking, quarreling, uneducated robots. They had bulging eyes, big ears, and donned gold teeth. In one of the scenes, the robots were asked to help translate an archaic Cybertronian language, to which they responded, “We don’t do much readin’.”
The last of the stereotypes is the “Buck,” a character portrayed as inherently savage, animalistic, destructive, criminal…a hideously terrifying predator that target helpless victims, especially women (Pilgrim, 2014). For example, in the 1938 cartoon short film Jungle Jitters, African Americans are depicted as big-lipped, savage cannibals. Decades later, the 1995 film Friday continues the “buck” character. In this film, the role of Deebo is played by Tommy “Tiny” Lister, who is presented as a hostile thief. Throughout the movie, he steals from anyone he chooses, taking things like money, jewelry, and even a bike. He goes so far as to inflict violence by hitting two women he believes were set on stealing his money.
Not only do films like Baby Boy fuel the media stereotypes most African Americans try to escape from, but they offer a lack of positive African American lead roles.
In addition to the evolution of these tropes, the 2001 film Baby Boy by John Singleton provides a strong representational depiction of these four aforementioned caricatures, namely the coon and the buck (Thomaesa, 2014). The film revolves around the character Jody (Tyrese Gibson) who goes about his life in the slums of Los Angeles. Throughout the majority of the film, the protagonist fits the coon stereotype. He lives with his mother who infantilizes him, which may be the reason he shirks his responsibilities. Jody makes a living by stealing women’s clothes from drycleaners and selling them. He can’t maintain a real job and drives his girlfriend Yvette’s car, all the while unable to commit to her. In one scene, he is portrayed outside of an abortion clinic eating candy while Yvette is inside by herself. Not only does he shirk his relational responsibilities; he can’t even afford to pay for the consequences of his actions, as he borrows money from his mother for the abortion.
Melvin (Ving Rhames) is the buck stereotype in this film. He is the live-in boyfriend of Jody’s mother, and also happens to be an ex-convict. In addition to these two representational flaws, he has to control his anger before he ends up back in prison. Melvin is highly combative throughout the film, which is one of the reasons why he and Jody are constantly at odds. For example, in one scene, Melvin ends up strangling Jody because of built up jealousy and resentment over the mother (Fuchs).
Another buck stereotype in the film is depicted through the character Rodney (Snoop Dogg), who is Yvette’s ex boyfriend. Within the narrative, Rodney is released from prison and moves in with Yvette without her permission. To make matters worse, Rodney is involved in a gang from South Central L.A., and spends his free contaminating the house marijuana, knowing there’s a child in the house. In the film, Rodney easily demonstrates the buck’s disrespect for women, making him the utmost stereotypical antagonist. In one scene, he steals Yvette’s wallet and her car as a means to find Jody in a fit of jealous rage. He attempts to rape Yvette, but stops only because her son is present.
…despite the film’s resolution, the characterization of blacks through such damaging tropes continues to perpetuate the narrative that people are only defined by their race and environment.
Like other stereotypical films, Baby Boy ends on a good note, with Jody realizing his mother will be okay with Melvin, who finally decides to settle and move in with Yvette. Yet despite the film’s resolution, the characterization of blacks through such damaging tropes continues to perpetuate the narrative that people are only defined by their race and environment. For these reasons, John Singleton has been censured by critics and viewers for the racial stereotypes depicted in the film. Critics have questioned why Singleton, an African American film director, chose to not represent these black characters in a more positive light (Paris, 2001). Not only do films like Baby Boy fuel the media stereotypes most African Americans try to escape from, but they offer a lack of positive African American lead roles. According to the Ralph J. Bunche Center for African American Studies at UCLA (2016), minorities only held lead roles in 12.9 percent of the movies they examined in 2014.
In addition to filmic stereotypes, African Americans are also caricatured in everyday media, namely the news. Today, news is primarily designed to create drama and biases that favor startling and clashing quotes instead of telling two or more sides of the story (Campbell, Jensen, Gomery, Fabos, & Frechette, 2014, p. 112). In the news, African Americans are demonized for the same crimes committed by whites (Jasmine, 2015). For example, a black man who burglarizes a store is considered a thug, while a white man guilty of the same crime is considered misguided. Malcolm X once said, “The media’s the most powerful entity on earth. They have the power to make the innocent guilty and to make the guilty innocent, and that’s power. Because they control the minds of the masses” (Kulaszewicz, 2015). Roughly 80 percent of newsrooms are white according to the Radio and Television News Directors Association. In fact, a primary factor for why African American stereotypes prevail in contemporary media is because the owners of film and Hollywood industries are wealthy whites who wield social, political, and economic power. At the top of the media ownership echelon is Jeff Bewkes, CEO and Chairman of Time Warner, who has a net worth of $32.5M a fiscal year and manages channels such as CNN and truTV. Next is Robert Iger, CEO and Chairman of Walt Disney Company, whose net worth is $30M. Third is Ronald Meyer, CEO of Universal Studios, whose net worth is not disclosed to the public. Fourth is Sumner Redstone, Chairman and CEO of Viacom with a net worth of $5 billion. Fifth would be Jeffrey Immelt, Chairman and CEO of General Electric with a net worth of $600M. Immelt oversees channels such as NBC, the History channel, and HULU. Lastly is Rupert Murdoch. Executive CO-Chairman of News Corporation, his net worth sits at $12B. Murdoch owns all FOX programs (Santoso, 2007).
To combat the archetype and depict a more “relatable” portrayal of African Americans, corporate media must figure out how to approach diverse representations of race.
Ever since the birth of minstrelsy, African Americans have been wrongfully portrayed in the entertainment industry. The film Baby Boy demonstrates the stereotypes most African Americans viewers and critics oppose. Moreover, such films continue decades of misrepresentations of African Americans, which unfortunately influence “white” Americans’ views of them. News bias also continues to reinforce the idea of African Americans as the “bucks” or criminals of society. When African American youth criminals are presented in the news, mug shots are usually used to depict their image in contrast to white youth criminals, whose images are usually displayed through a child or school photo. Most of the people that own most programs and media corporations today are rich white men, which invariably influences racial representation.
In order to stop the misrepresentation of African Americans, the most discernable solution is that African Americans should be employed throughout the whole production process—from being media owners to writers and producers (Berry, 2009, p. 16). Stereotypes would have a better chance at being extinguished if a more concise image of a black man was portrayed. According to Media Representations and Impact on the Lives of Black Men and Boys, pressure needs to be applied externally and through education (The Opportunity Agenda, 2011, p. 47). To combat the archetype and depict a more “relatable” portrayal of African Americans, corporate media must figure out how to approach diverse representations of race. For example, a black writer might be better equipped to discuss stereotypes, but they also may have no concise idea about the best narratives for making fundamental forces more apparent, or how to evade miscellaneous “blame the victim” dynamics (Dubriel, 2006).
If African Americans were more employed in the production process, statistics would change drastically. In February of 2016, Nielsen conducted research and found that white people spent an average of 5 hours a day watching T.V., while African Americans spent around 7 hours a day (Statistic Brain, 2016). One would think since African Americans spend more time watching TV, they would turn it off and reject any programming with stereotypical roles. Unfortunately, viewers don’t always realize they have the power to try and put an end to media stereotypes. In order to change the media landscape, viewers must take a stand against films or programs that degrade African Americans or other minority groups. Something as simple as using social media to expose racial bias in corporate media makes a difference.
Student Author: William Camacho, Worcester State University
Faculty Evaluator: Dr. Julie Frechette, Professor and Chair, Dept. of Communication, Worcester State University
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