Black Films as a Reflection of the Progress of African-American Culture Essay

Pages: 10 (4019 words)  ·  Bibliography Sources: 1+  ·  Level: College Senior  ·  Topic: Black Studies

Black Films as a Reflection of the Progress of African-American Society

From the first African slave to set foot on American soil, to the election of Barack Obama, there has been a tremendous metamorphosis of the African-American community's stature within the culture of the United States. Where Within Our Gates provided one of the first proverbial dips into the waters of African-American's being able to express their genuine opinions, films such as Do the Right Thing and Shaft were vibrant expressions of passion and rage that pulled no punches. This dramatic change did not happen overnight, and to illustrate this, this paper will utilize films from the black film canon that individually signify the gradual steps African-Americans took to improve their social standing in the U.S. Much to the benefit of this paper, the most drastic social advances blacks have made during their time in the U.S. occurred during the era of film, primarily the Civil Rights era.

In order to fully understand the era of black film, a conceptualization of the African-American condition since 1654 needs to be formed. By understanding the convoluted and wretched history African-Americans have endured, the path that black filmography has taken will be all the more cohesive and logical. I will divide African-American history into three categories: (1) the era of American slavery, (2) the era of state-sanctioned oppression, and (3) the aftermath.

The Era of African Slavery in North America

The era of African slavery in North America started with the first black indentured servants arriving in Rhode Island in 1654 and theoretically ended with the passage of the Thirteenth Amendment to the Constitution of the United States. The evils associated with slavery are ubiquitous: complete control over individual's identities, physical torture, instilment of fear, and relegation to a subhuman social class are but broad classifications of the range of abuses seen under slavery. The suffering felt by physical abuse ends with the life of the person experiencing it. If a slave owner whipped his slave's backside into a mass of scar tissue, that slave's anguish would stop with his death. Conversely, stereotypes and beliefs about an entire race last for generations and become self-evident the more time goes on and the more those stereotypes are propagated. If the American Slave trade lasted for more than two hundred years that is more than enough time for a litany of stereotypes to take root in American culture, no matter how outrageous any one claim may be. To borrow a quite profound observation from Adolf Hitler, "Make the lie big, make it simple, keep saying it, and eventually they will believe it."

After more than three hundred and fifty years, our culture still clings to the stereotypes generated during this timeframe: blacks are inherently gifted in athletics (and thus place less emphasis on being intelligent); blacks are not human beings; and blacks are prone to criminal behavior. This could be seen in early films that used blacks in peripheral roles to emphasize the white culture, especially the white southern culture, like the Civil War epic Gone With the Wind (Fleming (Dir.) 1939). While it is impossible to take credit away from actors like Hatty McDaniel, who played the role of Mammy in the film, or Butterfly McQueen, who played the stereotypical role of Prissy, the house servant; their roles were nonetheless used to create a stereotypical image of slaves in the south. Mammy was closet to the O'Hara family, charged with raising the young white girls of the family, and as such is portrayed as being more intelligent than her lesser compartments, such as Prissy, even though her dialogue consists of lines like, "Yessim, Ms. Scarlet," or "Yessim, Mr. Rhet." Ultimately, Mammy inherits the care of Scarlet's baby girl. Prissy, however, is depicted as lazy, sluggish and resistant of doing her house chores, propagating further the stereotypical image of the slave who without her master's compulsion to direct her movements and work would otherwise linger and waste away in her own laziness. It also furthers the lie that slaves were so happy in their servitude that they would forego freedom when it was available to them, when, in reality, those slaves who remained with their white masters were more the product of their fear about the greater world that was a mystery to them and perhaps seemed more threatening to them than did continued service within the pre-war environments with which they were most familiar with. There is no filmography that explores this kind of struggle in the black slavery culture.

The movies discussed further on in this paper will provide African-Americans a chance to intimately convey the effects of this lineage in a way in which the entire American public can piece together an understanding of how African-Americans came to exist in today's world.

The Era of State Sanctioned Oppression

While the Emancipation Proclamation put an eventual end to slavery, Jim Crow laws extended the history of relegating blacks to a class of inferiority from 1876 to 1965. African-Americans may have gained freedom from the iron chains of white Americans, but what good was that freedom if blacks moved into a state of limbo where the laws of the land kept them trapped in a state of perpetual poverty and social inferiority? This freedom transformed African-Americans from physical property to the lowest class of the human race. When someone or something is viewed as property, the connotation of that property being inferior is a likely assumption given the nature of the owner-slave relationship. A slave is a slave because he or she is thought to be incapable of self-sufficiency without the guidance of a superior intellect that can preserve the slave's existence. No matter how ludicrous this concept may be or sound to us in 2009, this is a very real viewpoint that many Americans shared in the past.

Once African-Americans gained their freedom from slavery, a long journey would begin to reclaim dignity and self-worth destroyed by centuries of external (physical movement) and internal (psychological) domination. That process continues to this day. The intonation of the paper from this point forward revolves around the psychological impetus of the black race in America as a victim recovering from a history of abuses.

To watch Within Our Gates (Micheaux (Dir.), 1920) in 2009 is to watch something foreign and primitive to contemporary senses. The actors make exaggerated facial expressions in order to convey to the viewer the feelings and emotions of the unfolding storyline in way that was necessary to silent films in the 1920s. Yet these conveyances without sound are what make this film especially interesting and valuable in black film history. Within Our Gates represents the first small step African-Americans took in reclaiming their dignity on a national scale. Created as an answer to D.W. Griffith's monstrously degrading Birth of a Nation, Within Our Gates showed the American public an African-American population that was cognitive, rational, and educated. It served as a massive correction of Griffith's portrayal of blacks as sex-crazed rapists and buffoons in Birth of a Nation. A scene depicting the rape of a black woman by a white man was an unheard act of violence in early 20th century film. Violence perpetrated against black women as slaves and as freed women in the post Civil War era remained unaddressed in film until the advent of Within Our Gates, and, except for this film, has largely gone unaddressed since the making of the film. As a filmmaker, it was a bold move for director Oscar Micheaux to assert the notion that white males and not black males have a long and prolific history of interracial sexual oppression is remarkable, especially given the time period of the film's release. The film can easily be interpreted as a victim confronting his or her longtime tormentor and declaring that the suffering being wrought upon them needs to come to an end. Images of docile, innocuous blacks obviously hold no shock factor in 2009, but for a black movie made in the 1920s, just fifty-five years following the end of the American Civil War, was a mighty declaration in a sea of mistruths.

Old Ned, a poor black preacher in Within, visits two white male acquaintances and is asked what he thinks about blacks possibly getting the right to vote. Old Ned replies, "This is a land for the white man and black folk got to know their place." After the two white men have a good laugh and kick Old Ned in his rear-end, he exits the room humiliated. After his exit, the scene becomes a simple emotional expression that poignantly exposes the kind of emotional toll that an Uncle Tom would have endured. The shining smile that hung from Old Ned's face in the presence of the two white men faded away to an expression of defeat and fear, conveying the character's, and probably the actor's too, true feelings as this was no doubt a scene not just on film, but one played… [END OF PREVIEW]

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