Black Drama - Stereotypical roles of Blacks in media

Michael Dawkins
African American Drama
Final Essay

                        The “Toms, Coons, Mulattoes, Mammies, and Bucks”, are Black actors and actresses still fulfilling these roles in present times? The roles that I just mention are stereotypical roles popularized in Uncle Tom’s Cabin and Birth of a Nation. These are degrading and inaccurate depictions of Black people in theater and film. Since film is a widely spread medium, these stereotypical roles are the images of Blacks, that people see and believe are true. The theater is also a channel in which the audience experiences more in depth few of these roles as they were portrayed in minstrelsy following the release of Harriet Beecher Stowe’s “Uncle Tom’s Cabin”.  Using Donald Bogle’s “Black Beginnings: from Uncle Tom’s Cabin to The Birth of a Nation’, Ed Guerrero’s “Black Film in the 1990s: The New Black Movie Boom and Its Portents” and Sarah Meer’s “Uncle Tom Mania: Slavery, Minstrelsy and Transatlantic Culture in the 1850s”, I will identify the issues of Blacks in theater and film and the effect of the roles they portray.  
                        Stowe’s “Uncle Tom Cabin” was meant to show the shows the horrors of slavery for African Americans in the United States however the spread of minstrelsy in culture led to a misinterpretation of Stowe’s novel. “Stowe herself almost certainly never saw a minstrelsy show. She famously disapproved of the theater and cautioned against even the sympathetic dramatization of Uncle Tom’s Cabin, as it might give the form an unwarranted imprimatur of gentility. (Meer pg 23)”,  despite Stowe’s disapproval of theatrical performances, minstrelsy had taken a hold of Stowe’s work and twisted it in a demeaning way to once again  profit  off of tragedy and cruelty. Minstrelsy was at its peak in the 1850s and minstrel tunes gained widespread popularity due to the distribution of sheet music to the public. Although “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” was a very serious depiction of slavery that was intended to protest and support abolitionist movements, there were ambiguities in the characters that were eventually changed in minstrelsy to make them humorous, “Uncle Tom’s Cabin thus emerged as the minstrel show itself was being adapted by the very classes for whom Stowe’s novel was designed (Meer pg 25)”. There were many minstrel versions of Uncle Tom’s Cabin such as: “Uncle Dad’s Cabin”, “Old Dad’s Cabin”, “Aunt Dinah’s Cabin” and “My Aunt’s Cabin” and “Happy Uncle Tom: A Celebrated Plantation Scene (Meer pg 61)”, these versions of the novel turned the Uncle Tom character into in end man who was a “…dull-witted, self-interested, and perhaps a little criminal, almost the opposite of Stowe’s model Christian. (Meer pg 61)”.  

Looking at modern day cinema, Blacks are seen playing the same roles in movies, mainly roles in comedy. Black actors are rarely casts in serious roles in movies. When Blacks are casts in serious roles, they are usually the supporting actors and hardly ever in a leading character. While a few Blacks such as Denzel Washington, Morgan Freeman, and Angela Bassett have managed to participate in serious roles or drama they are usually the only actors that are called to perform those roles. Although Black actors excel in comedic roles, they are frequently playing stereotypical roles that date back to the 1920s.
                        “…a variety of black presences bearing the fanciful names of the coon, the tragic mulatto, the mammy, and the brutal black buck. All were character types used for the same effect: to entertain by stressing Negro inferiority. (Bogle pg3)”, these were representations of Black stereotypes that existed during slavery that are being characterized in film. Films such as Uncle Tom’s Cabin and Birth of a Nation (played by white actors in black face) popularized these roles due to the stereotypical Black characters that were portrayed. These roles were meant to keep Blacks in a subservient position such as the Uncle Tom character who were “…socially acceptable Good Negro characters. Always as Toms are chased, harassed, flogged, enslaved, and insulted, they keep the faith…and remain hearty, submissive… (Bogle pg4)”. The coon was one the most demeaning characters because Blacks were portrayed as being “…unreliable, crazy, lazy, subhuman creatures good for nothing… (Bogle pg5)”, this role translated into reality when whites and even some Blacks viewed uneducated Blacks (especially those in the South) as coons. The Buck character has wrecked havoc on Black men since its inception because it depicted Black males as “…big, baadddd niggers, over-sexed and savage, violent and frenzied as they lust white flesh. (Bogle pg7-8)”, that in turn has made Black males targets for the prime suspect in almost any crime in an urban environment and elsewhere. Birth of a Nation included all of these characters and caused such a controversy that “…no studio dared risk it again. Consequently, black males in Hollywood films were cast almost always in comic roles. (Bogle pg9)”, resulting in a rarity of Blacks in serious roles for over fifty years.
In movies such as Soul Plane, Blacks are still seen shookin’ and jivin’, fulfilling stereotypical roles of being loud and foul mouthed, eating fried chicken and drinking alcohol all the time fulfilling the role of the “coon”. Another example of a movie is, State Property, where the typical drug dealing gangster character is portrayed without any depth besides their goal of money and killing that fulfills the role of the “brute”. The “mammy” character is portrayed by Tyler Perry in Madea’s Family Reunion, where he is playing the no-nonsense, and “say what comes to my mind” elder woman role. Joseph C. Phillips revives the “Uncle Tom” in Strictly Business where he is a mild mannered, pompous, corporate pawn in a company. The “tragic mulatto” character is played by Dorothy Dandridge in Carmen Jones where she uses her overt sexuality to ruin the lives of others and she has an internal conflict due to her race mixture. With the exception of Carmen Jones, these are all present day movies that still employ these stereotypical elements.
Although some people can argue that the depiction of these stereotypical characters is entertainment, these roles have had an effect on the way Blacks are viewed in society.  These images have allowed society to use Black people has scapegoats for the ills in society such an example is displayed when “…a white Boston ‘Yuppie’ murdering his pregnant wife and blaming the crime on the mythical black scapegoat and thus provoking a reflex wave of police terror in the black community…(Guerrero pg3)”. Profit is the main reason that these images have been in film for over 70 years. Filmmakers and movie production studios have made millions from films that include these images. When movie ticket sales were slow, Blacks were used as a “…reserve audience… (Guerrero pg5)” to drive profit up therefore resulting in the Blaxpolitation films of the 1970s and the Black Gangsta and Romantic comedy films of 1990s. Films intended for Black audiences such as House Party, “…which cost $2.5 million to make and earned more than $25 million. (Guerrero pg6)”, reveals the profitability of the Black audience and of Black characters in film.
Reading the Bogle article, I realized how prevalent these roles are today in media. I found the Bogle article to be informative in his descriptions of the cast types and effects of Birth of a Nation. I feel that Bogle intended his article for a Black audience however his article should be read by all peoples to show how deep racism is rooted in American culture. I really find it ironic that the white actors in minstrel shows and early films put on black face to portray these Black people whom they felt were beneath them yet there is a cultural fascination with Black people (why would they want to look like people that they despise?).
Guerrero’s article brought up several key points about the Black movie audience (how they are used by filmmakers) and how movies such as New Jack City have an effect on Blacks in society. He describes the plots to movies such as Juice and Boyz N the Hood to the reader and points out that through the vivid violence in the films, that some of the characters lack depth. He uses the character of Bishop in Juice in saying that “…Juice tends to reduce pressing collective issues to drama of individual weakness and victimization. (Guerrero pg17)”, which I think may be the main flaws in some of these films, is that they show characters in a one dimensional manner without any real reason behind their actions. Blacks were the intended audience for Guerrero, even though he summarizes the plot; the reader would need to see the film to get a full understanding of what his argument.
It is clear to the viewer that the “Toms, Coons, Mulattoes, Mammies, and Bucks” characters are still around in theater, movies, and television sitcoms. A change can only be made if Black actors and actresses refuse to play these roles and Black audiences refuse to support the viewing of these roles. Only then can these racists’ images in film be erased in a new generation of theater and film.

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