African-American Representation in US Cinema, Economy and Politics (1980-2010). Myth or Reality?

Thesis (M.A.), 2010

108 Pages, Grade: 15/20





1.1 Poor Blacks’ Presence on the Screen and Blaxploitation
1.2 The Image of Blacks in Hollywood Films
2.1 The Growing Entrance of Blacks in Films and Hollywood
2.2 Julie Dash and Charles Burnett
3.1 Eddie Murphy
3.2 Spike Lee

1.1 Self-Employed Role Models, Survival Rate and the Lack of Support
1.2 The Problem of Capital and Lending
1.3 The Lack of Education and Business Experience
2.1 Black-Owned Businesses and Johnson Publishing Company
2.2 Oprah Winfrey
3.1 The Situation of Black-Owned Banks and the National Bankers Association
3.2 The Reality of Black-Owned Banks in today’s America

1.1 Members of Congress
1.2 Municipal Officials
1.3 The Bradley Effect
2.1 Participation Rate
2.2 The Support of White Voters
3.1 Reverend Jesse Jackson
3. Barack Obama




This work is the second major research paper I have ever carried out at the master’s level for the reason that this is the second year I conduct research on American history, especially African-American history. So I owe thousands thanks to God our heavenly father for the inspiration he gave me to write this paper.

Furthermore, I would like to thank Dr. Samson AKIEME, my academic supervisor, for the advice and patience he brought to the different stages of this academic achievement. He also taught me the use of Modern Language Association (MLA) writing style, of which I am actually comfortable. In my future academic research papers, possibly at the PhD level, I might use other writing styles such as the American Psychological Association (APA). This will be another way to explore the usage of in-text references.

Besides I would like to thank all the lecturers of the Department of English Studies for their teachings and encouragements.

Lastly special thanks to all the people who have supported me psychologically, materially and financially in the course of this research paper, especially my mother Nzang Angèle.


Whether we are in cinema, economy or politics, there is a great debate concerning the issues of representation in the United States. In fact, it is a permanent debate drawing the attention of people, as it is difficult to assert if a group is well represented. So the question of representation has already and always been debated by university professors and specialists of the issue, and continues to be debated. But some questions are worth asking: at which level can we talk about representation? Or when can we say that a group is actually represented?

These questions lead us to deal with minority representation. Here we want to consider the notion of visibility and invisibility. In the United States there is what we term visible minority and invisible minority. Representation here is not about telling how many African Americans have succeeded in various fields. It is not about the number of Blacks who succeeded in cinema, economy or politics. The issue of representation goes beyond that perception. Of course, it does not imply that the quantity of Blacks advancing socially cannot be taken into account. But the point is that if we look at this, we shall notice that their representation is not that visible. For this reason we find useful to transcend that perception of representation.

Our paper focuses on representation as the fact of being visible in the mainstreams. For instance, concerning minority visibility, can we say that Hispanics and African Americans have the same representation? We do not think so. This is why the notion of visible and invisible minority has to be considered. Representation here is more related to merit. Take for example, the case of the business world, do we know an icon among Hispanics whose visibility is worldwide? Certainly not! However, we have Oprah Winfrey[1] whose fame has reached worldwide as the only Black billionaire. Take also politics with President Obama. And finally, consider American cinema, can we speak about Hispanic or Chinese cinema in the United States today? Certainly not! Yet, we can speak about African American cinema, because it is visible. That is what we have termed as minority visibility.

So we can understand why we refer to merit insofar as it has something to do with public image. We mean that representation involves public image, for this reason we talk about minority visibility. But why is it that all of a sudden African Americans want to be represented? Marginalization has something to do with it. In effect, living in a country that was originally founded for Caucasians has not been easy since they had historically been discriminated against, and therefore marginalized. For instance in politics, Blacks had no voting rights before the passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965. This is a glaring case of marginalization.

When we speak about myth, we refer to any factual blockage that might have prevented the socio-development of African Americans. We talk about reality in referring to any gains by African Americans contributing to their visibility, such as independent moviemaking, entrepreneurship in the business world and their success in politics.

In order to give this work its full academic dimension that transcends common sense, we have opted for a postmodern approach. Indeed, the approach is essential to our paper in the sense that it raises the issue of identity (referring to the existence of Blacks here) and power. We question the status of African Americans in the United States. The postmodern theory obviously shows the game existing between the issue of representation and power.

Some thinkers like Jean François Lyotard[2] have studied the question in an article entitled Postmodernism-Conceptual Postmodernism and Postmodernist Theory”[3]. The author argues against the suppression of minority groups. He argues that the most important determinate of postmodernism is a world of multicentering, as the emergence of many centers and claims upon one or another centrality, including previously marginalized groups. The author means that no group dominates another. He specifies that variety of interests and ways of viewing the world permits the previously marginalized groups (here African Americans) to make claims about justice and upon a position of centrality.

When taking into consideration Lyotard’s terms, we can realize that African Americans, a previously marginalized group, have claims upon a position of centrality. Their greatest challenge is to overcome marginalization, so as to make de-marginalization[4] possible in their lives. We can also notice that for Lyotard, the world has changed and the suppression and the domination of minority groups are over now. In addition, Lyotard considers marginalization as minority invisibility, and de-marginalization as its visibility.

In this paper, the issue of representation brings us not only to put into question what factored the emergence of African Americans, but also whether we are in the cinematic, economic or political arena, to see if the appraisal we make about them has only been positive. Yet, one of the problems of this work is to state if African American people still have a lot to do in order to fulfil their total socialization in the United States. Or better, seemingly, their socialization remains questionable.

We have chosen the period (1980-2010) because it is intriguing concerning what Blacks have been doing whether in cinema, economy or politics. The 1980s since the achievements of African Americans are visible. For example, the case of Harold Washington who was elected the first black mayor of Chicago is actually illustrative of the entrance of Blacks in the mainstreams politics. But it does not only refer to the achievements of Blacks, given that there have been patent illustrations of how hostile is the American political environment.

In that perspective, we have Tom Bradley, an African American, and mayor of Los Angeles, who ran for governor of California in 1982 and failed simply because he was Black. Another event is Reverend Jesse Jackson who ran for President of the United States both in 1984 and 1988, but who naturally failed as well. Our bounds reach the year 2010 because it coincides with the recent election of America’s first African American president. It is the major reason explaining it, since it has not even lasted two years after his election. Actually, today we are in the era of the Obama Administration. We have now given clarifications about our bounds, concerning the period this work covers.

The scientific interest of this paper lies in the quest for understanding the factual implications of race, color and ethnicity with regard to the socialization of Black Americans

Now, we would like to consider Black Americans and their involvement in American cinema. In the late 1970s, we cannot assert that things were easy for the entrance of Blacks in Hollywood[5]. Blacks in effect suffered from discrimination since Hollywood rejected black actors in the studios. Even when Hollywood accepted to have Blacks on the screen, the presence of Blacks in Hollywood films was still poor.

In effect, according to the article “Black actors in Hollywood”[6] by Golden Touch, Hollywood has never welcomed African-Americans. It seems to be the rule based on discrimination in Hollywood, that an actor who is not White is immediately regarded as unable to perform well as regards his talents. If you pay attention to the screen and performers in Hollywood, he continues, you will notice that the majority of the actors who play the best roles prove to be Caucasians. Actually, if you are careful, you will soon realize that most of the directors and producers of Hollywood are seeking to get white actors, the author concludes.

We consider that the author of this article shows that Hollywood obviously keeps discriminating against black actors. Arguably, it is a problem insofar as it participates in the limitation of African Americans to the movie industry. This discrimination against Blacks, when regarding this article, displays the reality according to which race matters in the recruitment of actors, in the sense that the majority of film directors in Hollywood are only seeking to hire white actors. Is it that black actors are not talented? Of course they are! It is simply because of the factual implication of color when it is about hiring Blacks in Hollywood. Clearly, we mean Hollywood practices such discrimination solely because they are Blacks.

As a response to Hollywood discrimination, they created their cinematic genre known as blaxploitation[7]. This cinematic genre helped African-Americans make their own movies for their community. But blaxploitation was soon going to die because Blacks were going to realize that if they wanted to bear an impact on American cinema, they had not to be limited to do films dedicated only to Black audiences, but they also had to make films for America and the world.

We will witness the growing coming of African-Americans in films. In the 1980s, we will see the appearance of independent black filmmakers like Spike Lee[8] with his movie Do The Right Thing [9] (1989) and Eddie Murphy[10] with his famous movie Coming to America [11] (1988), who impacted the American cinema. Eddie Murphy was actually interesting not only because he was hired by Hollywood, in starring in some hit films like Beverly Hills Cop[12]. But also because he decided to make his own films, we mean that he became an independent moviemaker as he started with the movie aforementioned.

His impact on American cinema is probably the influence he had on some African American comedian actors as we shall see in this paper. As for Spike lee, we might say that his particularity is that he really put an end to blaxploitation. With Spike Lee, we shall see that although his films only address black life-related problems, they find increase success in the audiences. Here we do not only refer to black audiences, even, white audiences as well.

At the same time, we have to note that his films always deal with controversial issues, which often raise the anger of audiences. His Impact can be seen with filmmakers like John Singleton[13], a black filmmaker whose films are similar to Lee. Indeed, they deal with black issues. In addition, whether Spike lee or Eddie Murphy, they made successful films that the public has appreciated; they not only sold these movies to America but also to the world. Here we see the move from the blaxploitation era, where black films were only sold within the Black community. What about what has happened in the US economy?

With regard to the promotion of African-Americans in the economy, we will soon notice that these people have been impacting the economic world since the 1980s. For instance, the Census Bureau[14], in an article entitled “Black-Owned Businesses: Strongest in Services”[15], reports the situation of black businesses between 1987 and 1992. Indeed, the Bureau shows that the receipts of black businesses grew up from $19.8 billion to $32.2 billion, a 63% increase. The number of black businesses grew up from 424,165 to 620,912. They increased more than all American businesses.

When regarding these figures, we can first see to what extent Black-owned businesses create wealth if we consider the 63% increase of their receipts in the period. This displays the fact that African Americans are active in the business world, insomuch as we do not speak about receipts in the millions of dollars; we speak about the billions of dollars. This is not surprising if we take into consideration the growth of these businesses. Arguably, Black entrepreneurs have first sought to acquire enough capital to invest in businesses.

Soon after, Blacks would acquire enough capital and create financial institutions. They would also create big corporations. The situation as presented today reveals Blacks to be chief executive officers (CEOs) of big companies such as Linda Johnson Rice[16], President and CEO of Ebony magazine[17]. In the field of economy, we will discover a host of Black entrepreneurs across America who have become billionaires and millionaires. In fact, Blacks’ participation in the economy has contributed to the growth of the US gross domestic product (GDP), what proves that African-American people are active in the development of the US economy, thanks to their corporations and their businesses which generate billions of dollars.

Indeed, according to the article “50 years of progress” [18] , publisher J.H. Johnson created Jet magazine, the world’s leading Black newsweeklies in 1951. Since that time Jet Magazine has been providing information about Blacks’ achievement in businesses, Black entrepreneurs and corporate executives for over 50 years. Johnson is also the founder of Johnson Publishing Company Incorporation, of which he is the former CEO and chairman. Since the time, Jet Magazine and the company have turned to be among the most successful Black businesses in the United States. Thanks to this important position, each week since 1951, Jet has provided information about the success of other black businesses and exposed the achievement of other black businessmen, the author concludes.

The case of Johnson is relevant insomuch as we shall discover in this paper that, he started business at very hostile times. Indeed, at the time he was beginning to engage in the business world, the environment was so discriminated against in a way that it was quite impossible to grant a loan to an African American. Consequently, it was seemingly impossible for Blacks to launch businesses because they did not have any financial capital. It is remarkably that banks were mostly owned by Whites, and they would not lend to Blacks. This might be due to the fact that they did not believe Blacks could pay back their loans. Most importantly, the business world was outnumbered by white business owners, and it seemed that there was no room for Negro Americans as they were calling them at that time. This is what actually displays the hostility of the business environment at the time John Johnson created his company. All things considered, Johnson is a talented Black entrepreneur who survived in harsh times of segregation to build wealth through his company, as we shall see it, that latter owned more than $400, 4 million in the year 2000.

With regard to politics, we might say that the Civil Rights Movement[19] in the ‘60s has helped African Americans acquire basic civil rights. They have had the possibility to vote and hold office thanks to that movement. Author Richard A. Long in his book African Americans[20], shows that the Civil Rights Movement has participated in the advancement of Blacks in politics. For instance, the enactment of the Voting Rights Act in 1965 had helped many Blacks to enter the political mainstreams. Indeed, many Blacks were elected congressional members, state and municipal officials, because of the black vote in black constituencies. This might explain the modest success Blacks have had in politics.

Therefore, we witness a number of African-Americans who had become mayor. In this respect, K.C Minion Morrison, professor at Missouri University since 1988, in the Department of Political Science has written[21]: “Some black mayors in the first generation of black leadership include Coleman Young of Detroit, Wilson Goode of Philadelphia and Harold Washington of Chicago. The first female black mayor of a major American city was Sharon Dixon Kelly, of Washington, D.C, from 1991 to 1995” .

With reference to the success of African-Americans in politics, it seems that their success is not only the result of the Black community support; but their success comes also from a segment of the US population which is often taxed with racism. Indeed, if we have influential black politicians today it is due to the support of white voters. In fact, it is due to their popularity in the white community. We assert that because it came a time where the black vote faced limits because African American politicians could not be elected in white majority districts by solely relying on the black vote. So black politicians had to convince the white electorate to give them their vote. What is interesting is that white voters are increasingly comfortable with African American candidates today.

The reader may know that the US population is composed of many segments among which we have Whites, Hispanics, African-Americans, Asians and Indians. Now, we want to focus on Whites and Blacks. There are over forty million Blacks while Whites are more than two hundred millions. Indeed, according to the article “blueprint of Black America” , on the website, we have the confirmation that the black population is 41.1 million, having a percentage of only 13,5% of the US population, and from the website[22] we have found that Whites constitutes the majority of the US population. For a total of 299 millions, Whites solely represent 74% of the population or 221.3 millions according to the distribution of the American population in 2006.

We come to the realization that if a Black person has been elected as the mayor of a major US city, it is because he really had the support of millions of Whites who gave him their votes. Scientifically, if African-Americans only relied on their own Black community, the achievement in politics as it is today would have been poor. Accordingly, it was important for us to make it clear that Whites played a key role in the rise of Blacks in the political world. An example can be provided with the election of President Obama on November 4th, 2008. His election was a success insomuch as he not only relied on the support of his Black community, but also on that of Whites.

Our research is centered on three parts. The first part will be dealing with the entrance of African-Americans into American cinema. That part will concentrate on what has been happening in Hollywood movies. It will also be a question of talking about black filmmakers and the movies which brought them success; how they have managed to influence American cinema despite the hostility of Hollywood.

The second part will be about the promotion of African-Americans in the economy. Here we will explore the concept of Black capitalism. It will be a way of demonstrating their economic impact within the United States. The third and last part will be concerned with Black Americans breakthroughs in politics. In that part, we want to show the long road followed by black politicians to President Obama today. We also want to explain the support of white voters. To speak about all these issues will be an attempt to answer the question on the factors that participated in the socialization of Black Americans.

The common denominator of these three parts is that they will clearly expose all the reasons for black success and that they will assess black achievement and representation.



To begin with, we are going to define African-American cinema. Indeed, James Murray[23] gives the following definition: '' I call black cinema any cinema in which Blacks have played a decisive role, either directly (as scriptwriters, actors, producers or directors), or indirectly (in accepting roles that do not actually permit any true creation, but in which the black thematic has an essential part'').

According to the article “African American Cinema”[24], African-American directors did not enter Hollywood before the ‘60s. In this regard, we have Melvin Van Peebles[25] whom the late ‘60s took to Hollywood after the release of his movie Story of a Three Day Pass in 1967 in France. That movie would therefore take him back to Hollywood through the San Francisco film festival. But the movie which actually brought Peebles on the stage of African-American cinema is his film production Swee t Sweetback's Baadassss Song[26] in 1971, a film that transformed black cinema. In it , Sweetback, the main character, is accused of a crime that he did not commit. Consequently, he will be obligated to flee away all along the movie and will be supported by various groups of African-American outlaws.

Sweetback's themes even if they were controversial, were strong enough to attract a huge audience and furthermore made a profit of $10 million for a production on which Peebles spent $500,000. The movie profits were tempting. As a result, Hollywood started to make a series of movies that followed Van Peebles' models to its own ends. This meant that Hollywood was making black films to make a lot of money on their behalf. But by the mid-1970s, Hollywood's investment in films with African-American themes shrank because the industry at that time wanted to make multi-million dollar super-production films. In that new era of Hollywood films, the industry was not willing to spend huge sums of money toward African-American production, but instead it would often feature independent black performers in the movies. Most of the time it was a comedian as Eddie Murphy (48 Hour s, 1982), Trading Places, 1983, and Beverly Hills Cop in 1984.

In fact African-American cinema was slowing down before the arrival in the 1980s of a young film school graduate, who became an independent filmmaker and released a low-budget movie, She Gotta Have It in 1986, his name is Spike Lee. He focused especially on African-American issues in his movies set in a specific area, Brooklyn, New York. At the opposite of blaxploitation or race films, Lee wanted to make known to the world the African-American community of Brooklyn. When Lee's controversial films, like Do the Right Thing depict African-American film production of the ‘80s, there was another group of independent film directors about whom the press did not talk nearly much. Most of them were comedian; in this case we can take Robert Townsend's Hollywood Shuffle film, released in 1987. This was a low-budget satire of Hollywood that limited the roles of African-Americans to pimps, prostitutes and domestics.

The success of these filmmakers was soon noticed by Hollywood. Indeed, what characterized their success was that they made high profits with low-budget movies. Consequently, Hollywood started to hire an important number of filmmakers in the early decade of the 1990s. Perhaps the most important figure is John Singleton[27] with his 1991 movie Boyz N The Hood, which was a very low-budget film that generated a lot of profit. The film focuses on the life of young black men and the setting is an inner city (LA). At the beginning of a new century, African-American cinema is healthier than it has never been before in its history. Of course, there has been a change in the stereotypical image of Blacks in Hollywood, but these stereotypes still exist today. However, independent filmmakers like Spike Lee and Julie Dash were making their own characters and themes regarding African-American filmmaking. They have succeeded in depicting African-American culture and traditions thanks to their movies.

1- Poor Blacks’ Presence on the Screen and Blaxploitation

With regard to the presence of Blacks in films, we may say that it was actually a problem. Of course, the presence of Blacks was limited in Hollywood moviemaking, not because they were not talented actors, on the contrary, they were skilled performers. The problem was at another level; Hollywood was always featuring Caucasian actors instead of black ones. So we come to realize that it is a problem of discrimination or racism, which Hollywood personified. This is what could explain the limitation of African-Americans on the screen during the 1970s and early 1980s by Hollywood.

In effect, in the book[28] of Ploski and Williams, the authors confirm that there were less and less Blacks showcasing in films during the early 1980s. They report that it had drawn the attention of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People[29] (NAACP), which demonstrated against Hollywood in order to have more Blacks in its films. Obviously, it appears to us that if the NAACP demonstrated, it is a proof that the issue was very serious. It also denotes the desire of Hollywood to make a cinema that does not feature a black actor. Therefore, what could Blacks do about it given that the situation had prevailed since the 1970s?

What are the factors that participated in the emergence of African-Americans in American cinema?

Surrounded by such a segregated filmmaking environment, African-Americans have started to make their own films, those films often depicting Blacks as heroes. Indeed, the black audience was tired of watching white actors in films. So, the question was what was the place of African-American cinema? These films were known as blaxploitation films. They really gave pride to the African-American community. In fact, this type of filmmaking was describing the social and economic realities of Blacks, and black audiences did appreciate them. As blaxploitation was successful, Hollywood began to be interested in it. These movies were generally low-budget movies but returning high profits, Hollywood began to explore blaxploitation films in the studios in the very purpose of making a lot of profit out of them.

In the book Le Cinéma Noir Américain [30] , the authors demonstrate that the African-American community did like blaxploitation films since they were presenting another image of Blacks on the television. After all, the movie Shaft[31] by Gordon Parks is a perfect illustration. The authors evoke the fact that the film satisfied a particular need at that time. Indeed, for years, Blacks were used to seeing black actors in defeatist roles, but Shaft was different as long as it presented black actors as heroes and powerful men as Whites had been doing it for years in Hollywood filmmaking. So this movie is one of the few movies which changed the face of African-American cinema in the blaxploitation era.

From this passage, we might say that Black Americans were making their road to independent moviemaking. Well, it seems to us that the strategy worked when considering Gordon Parks' direction of his film Shaft. In effect, Hollywood was the movie industry that limited the presence of Blacks in its films, and was therefore discriminating against black actors. As for Parks, he just succeeded in making a movie that magnified black people on the screen. Indeed, when black actors were performing in Hollywood, the roles they played were stereotypical. The thing was that it was the only image the world had of Black America. However, Parks with Shaft offered a new sort of moviemaking that presented to the world another type of image with respect to Blacks, not that filmmaking that offered an inferior image of Blacks on television.

Regarding Hollywood's implication in blaxploitation films, the book Le Cinéma Noir Américain[32] talks of two films that Hollywood made. These films were Super fly and Slaughter. The films portrayed African-American actors in an extremely authoritative and powerful position. Some organizations such as the NAACP seriously criticized these films, because according to them, the films were not depicting the real Black America's realities. Anyway, it seems that the fact that Hollywood decided to portray Blacks in Affirmative roles was not that due to the critics that Blacks addressed them. But, if they decided to make these movies it was because they were very successful. And they simply wanted to make money out of blaxploitation. Subsequently, we come to notice that we have two kinds of blaxploitation. The first concerns the original one, which is African-American independent filmmaking. The second considers the involvement of Hollywood in making black films in order to get high profits. But, would blaxploitation last long?

African-American scriptwriters, producers and directors perceived that if they wanted to make a lot of money, their movie directions had to change. In other words, they decided to opt for filmmaking that not only addressed black audiences, but also created cinema that had a larger scale. In effect, in Le Cinéma Noir Américain[33], the authors show that Blacks stopped making films dedicated to Blacks only, but opted to reach a broader audience. Such movies had black and white actors, although black actors outnumbered white actors. Actually, the authors clarify that the movies no longer dealt with black problems or themes.

From this section, we can state that if black producers and directors made such movies, it was mainly because they thought they had talked enough about Blacks' everyday life. Now, knowing that the world was watching them, these movie makers remarked that if they kept making black-only movies they would not continue to make profit from their films. So, the key was to make films that were not about racial problems, but would instead be films that everybody could appreciate, regardless of any racial background. Therefore, a lot of people could purchase them, and it would give to those black filmmakers high profits. This was what black scriptwriters, producers and directors had on their mind.

Ploski and Williams also dealt with the decline of blaxploitation in their book The Negro Almanac: A reference Work on the African American[34]. As for them, the explanation is that the phenomenon of blaxploitation disappeared as it was developing. Indeed, the authors believe that it was because people were tired of watching extreme violence in blaxploitation films; they needed something new. They argued that black producers wanted to please audiences in general. Another thing was that these black producers realized that producing films intended to meet a black audience was not good enough with regard to their commercial profits.

It seems obvious to us that African-American filmmakers had to change their moviemaking strategy. Therefore, it was decisive to think of other kinds of films even if these films featured many black actors. The most important thing, if we consider the statement of Ploski and Williams, was to make films that drew the attention of wider audiences no matter how many Blacks the film could feature. In these films it would not be accurate that only Blacks identified themselves with them, but anybody who watched them, whether a Black or a White. It appears to us that if, at that time, these criteria were not respected, for sure African-American cinema would have declined appallingly.

To recapitulate this part, we might say that no matter how many movies Hollywood made for black audiences, it was crucial for African-Americans to see their culture and the reality of their life in them. Of course, Hollywood films not always depicted the hard reality of Black America. Conversely, the scriptwriters of blaxploitation operating outside Hollywood simply wanted to bring to the screen what black people demanded. In effect, they just wished to find their own identity on the screens of their televisions.

2- The Image of Blacks in Hollywood Films

We may assert that when we speak of the image of Blacks in Hollywood films, we deal with the image that is visible on the screen when watching Hollywood films. Indeed, Hollywood would stereotype Blacks in showing a bad image of them. Here we refer to the nature of roles assigned to Blacks, as they were given roles that prevented black audiences from identifying themselves with black actors. As long as they were playing roles that shamed Blacks, the Black community rejected that image and these films as well. The community expected them to play good roles such as pilots, professors and even cowboys as stated in Le Cinéma Noir Américain[35].

In that book, the authors specify that the fact that African-Americans started playing such roles, participated in the improvement of America’s image of Blacks, and understanding among races. We might say that for African-Americans to approve Hollywood films showcasing Blacks, these films had to improve the image of African-Americans. But, why was it that important for black audiences to witness a better image of their fellows on the screen? It seems to us that this question raises the issue of identity. Given that Blacks were always playing roles that tarnished their image, black people found it difficult to identify themselves with those black actors.

Here we can apprehend that for Black Americans to identify themselves with black actors, their image on the screen had to be changed systematically. But the problem was that Blacks were in roles that made them inferior to Whites. For example, in some movies, a black actor would be punished by a white man. Obviously, in Le Cinéma Noir Américain[36], the authors display that such movies raised the disapproval of African-Americans, more specifically with the movies Soldier's Story by Norman Jewison[37] (1985) and The Toy by Richard Donner[38] (1982). Basically, we can notice that if black people did not want to identify themselves with their actors, the explanation was that Hollywood presented a defeated black actor. Another problem was Hollywood film directions. In effect, Hollywood would impose certain conformity upon black performers. That conformity required Blacks to play a role that would please white audiences. In the same book Le Cinéma Noir Américain[39], it is said that Hollywood featured black actors according to what Whites wanted. And the authors say that Blacks were not given roles in powerful positions compared to Whites.

Most of the movies in Hollywood uprooted Blacks from their community and put them to an environment that is completely white. Increasingly, Blacks will play roles where for example they learn how to live or behave like Whites, or to follow the rules of the white world. And Sydney Poitier[40] was reproached for projecting an image of the black man that is in compliance with the white man’s ideology. As for the authors, the most illustrative example is Eddie Murphy with the film 48 Hours and Beverly Hills Cop. In these films we can see Murphy taken away from his environment (the black one), and transported into a white environment where the white spectator can better identify himself. In other words, he is transported into another environment for white spectators to better refer themselves.

Therefore, we might say that the conformity Hollywood was imposing is evident from the passage of these authors aforementioned. Here we can view that the black actor is not playing a role that could please his community because he had no choice but to focus on Hollywood conformity. In fact, what is visible is that whatever the black actor would do, he would do it to beautify the image of Whites on the screen while he would dishonor his people. So the question is, what roles did Blacks in fact play on the screen? In the Hollywood circuit, African-Americans were playing prostitutes, pimps, policemen, servants, violent men and housewives. This was the image of Blacks on the screen and this is how America and the world viewed them. It is evident that if people were used to seeing African-Americans in such roles of ridicule, it is because the film industry was describing them that way. However, in reality African-Americans were not as Hollywood was painting them, this is why this image had to be improved. So far, if we pay attention to the kind of roles Blacks played, we will soon realize that it was difficult for these people to play positive roles on the screen. In effect, we are going to consider the following quotation by James Monaco from his book American Film Now[41], he has written:

“It’s now common to hire Blacks for minor, defeatist roles without referring to race, but when a Black gets a major role, race automatically becomes the issue of the film even if it wasn't written on the script. Of course, this prevented Blacks from playing many roles open to them. As a result, they can't play doctors, lawyers and generals, but when they play them, it is specified that they play black doctors, black lawyers and black generals.”

From this quotation, we can undoubtedly observe that Hollywood was willing to hire black actors on condition that they accepted to play the roles that were given to them. And the author makes clear that it was not shocking for Whites to see a Black playing a defeatist role; it seems that it was logical because they were inferior people and that inferiority had to be visible on the screen. For this reason when a Black would play a prominent role, the attention of the film was immediately directed to him as long as it was not normal to see a Black playing such a role. It could reveal the superiority of Blacks. In other words, the superiority of the Whites could be jeopardized on the television.

This shows that white audiences would not be willing to accept a potentially strong black image on television. Secondly, we can observe that, when Blacks were assigned to playing roles such as lawyers, doctors and generals, the setting in the film would not be a white environment. This is the reason for the precision of playing black doctors, lawyers and generals in a black-only setting. However, when a Black played a defeatist role it was for both Whites and Blacks if not only for Whites. Therefore, Hollywood's discrimination against Blacks was as tangible as ever.

In Le Cinéma Noir Américain[42], as for the roles of pimps, we have Morgan Freeman in the film Street Smar t (1986). He portrays one of the most horrifying characterizations of pimp the American cinema had never known in its history. After all, we can notice that things were very complicated for African-Americans within the framework of Hollywood. Taking into account the above-mentioned movie, it is obvious to us that this was how Black Americans were regarded, that is, as violent people. Indeed, Freeman personifies terror and violence in the film. Accordingly, this kind of role was imposing some clichés on the Black community.

To summarize this section, we are going to borrow James Murray[43] ’s statement, from the book, American Film Now[44], of James Monaco. Murray has declared:'' the three goals of black cinema are the correction of white distortions, the reflection of Black reality and the creation of a positive Black image''. We can clearly remark that there was a profound need for improving the conditions of black actors on the screen; to get Hollywood to make films that depict the social and economic realities of Blacks. As there was a concern compared with the Black image that was projected in Hollywood films, there was a serious need to better that image as well. What is pertinent here is the fact that this quotation is not from a black man, Murray is White. Therefore, even Whites involved in the cinematic world knew that the Black image on television was too stereotypical and that it had to be improved.

CHAPTER 2: THE 1980s AND 1990s ERAS OF


In comparison with the first chapter, this chapter will be concerned with the improvement and the progress African-Americans have made so far with regard to the discrimination they encountered in American cinema. We will soon discover that these people will be given major roles in Hollywood films. There were actually signs of progress. These signs included independent filmmaking productions. In effect, this period (1980-2010) had been determinant for African-American cinema in a sense that many Blacks, who did not work in the Hollywood circuit, became independent filmmakers, and of course, they were successful with their movie productions. Most notably were Spike Lee, Robert Townsend[45], Julie Dash, Eddie Murphy and John Singleton.

From the book[46] of Ploski and Williams we have found that in the 1980s, we witness a greater number of Blacks who played major roles in films than ever before. For example, at the end of the 1980s Lou Grossett Jr was granted an Academy Award for the role he played in the movie An Officer and a Gentlemen; we also have the case of Danny Glover[47] who was honored with a Golden Globe, thanks to his performance. The authors clarify that although the majority of the films hardly dealt with black themes, exceptional actors drew the attention of considerable audiences. The perfect illustration is Eddie Murphy in the film Beverly Hills Cops. Many actors were cast in temporary roles in this famous series like the Police Academy[48] films. The authors concluded that there was a new type of moviemaking, especially by independent filmmakers, such as Spike Lee and Robert Townsend, which demonstrated a motivating trend for newcomers in the American cinema having skills as directors, producers and writers.

It seems to us that the authors have examined closely the major change that had been operated in African-American cinema and American cinema as a whole. Here, we witness a certain improvement in the entrance of Blacks in films. This shows the commitment of African-Americans in doing their best so that they can have an impact on American cinema. For instance, we have academy award nominations in favor of black actors. So the decade of the 1980s marked a notable distortion from Hollywood’s conformity in comparison with black roles. Regarding independent filmmaking, exemplified by Spike Lee and Robert Townsend, we think it is proof of the major advancements African-American cinema had made. The explanation is that these independent filmmakers would produce films freely as they wanted and viewed them. They would make those films according to their own vision, without any interference of Hollywood. And we will soon discover that this independence proved to be productive and successful in terms of the commercial and cultural impact with reference to African-American people.

1- The Growing Entrance of Blacks in Films and Hollywood

In this part, concerning the great participation of Blacks in the movie industry, we are going to focus on two black film directors. These Blacks are Robert Townsend and John Singleton. For the time being, let us focus on Townsend. Townsend is an example of audacity in African-American cinema. At the time he entered American cinema, he was one of the few Blacks who transformed the face of black cinema. Indeed, his film Hollywood Shuffl e is the illustration of his boldness in depicting and criticizing Hollywood's directions on black roles. It was very courageous for a Black to attack Hollywood openly this way, even if it was a satire. In fact, Townsend portrayed Hollywood racial stereotypes in the movie.

According to the book Le Cinéma Noir Américain[49] , Robert Townsend is an isolated case in the African-American Scriptwriters world. As an actor in the film Soldier's Story by Norman Jewison[50] (1984), Street of Fire by Walter Hill[51] (1984), he became a scriptwriter because he disagreed with the image Hollywood was displaying vis-à-vis Blacks in films. He believed Blacks were playing roles that were too stereotypical. The authors clarify that it is through a satire that Townsend had attacked the film industry. He took this chance to paint the cinematic world of Blacks world in Hollywood, which limited the roles of Blacks to gangsters, prostitutes and pimps.

On the word of the authors, both Hollywood and many Blacks did not welcome the movie, as long as they had been accepting secondary and defeatist roles that the studios had been proposing to them for years. Of course, it was a low-budget film that cost $100,000, but it came to gross a profit of $5,228,617. Townsend budgeted his film thanks to the money he earned as actor and thanks to a clever use of his credit card. To conclude, the authors say that Hollywood Shuffle had been very successful in the United States, especially for the black audience. Basically, we can see that Townsend’s goal was to tell Hollywood to stop stereotyping Blacks. It seems to us that as an actor, he might have witnessed these stereotypical roles in Hollywood studios. What could he do to prevent the movie industry from doing so?

The response was to make a film that the world and America would watch, and show the effective practices of Hollywood apropos negative stereotypes on African-American actors, and Hollywood Shuffle was that response. Here we can witness the proof of African-American filmmakers’ determination, which got Townsend to make that movie. The purpose of the film, according to us, was to help Blacks no longer accept roles that ridiculed them on the screen, that is, stereotypical roles. The other purpose as aforementioned was to tell Hollywood that black actors would no longer accept to star in stereotypical roles.

With regard to John Singleton, we might say that it was another example of African-American independent filmmaking. At the opposite of Robert Townsend, Singleton focuses not on Hollywood stereotypes, but rather on Blacks' own films and stories. The explanation was that he wanted to make films that depicted African-American male realities including himself when he was a young man and how he grew up. His most successful films in this sense is his 1991 film Boyz N the Hood in which he describes the life that he lived when he was a boy. Hollywood hired Singleton because of that movie insofar as Hollywood was interested in the script he sent to the film industry. To better understand it let us consider the magazine “American Film”[52], the article “A Black Perspective” by Karen Grigsby Bakes[53]. The author has shown that it was when Singleton was still a student at the Film Writing Program at the University of Southern California that he sent his script for Boyz N the Hood to Columbia Pictures.

Consequently, the Columbia CEO, Frank Price[54] accepted to develop his script and it was actually unbelievable on the part of Hollywood. Singleton was willing but made it clear that he would be his own movie director. For Singleton, it was his story and it was exactly what happened to him when he was young; therefore it could not be acceptable that the characters in the films be played by white boys, for the reason that they could not interpret his experience as black boys could.

After all, Columbia offered to budget the film with $6 million, it also made Singleton sign a three year contract. During that period Singleton could make as many films as he could. According to the author, this was Hollywood’s sudden open-door toward black moviemakers, the fact of hiring them and especially those having black themes. And many Studios in Hollywood, including Warner Brothers, Columbia Pictures, the Samuel Goldwyn Company, New Line Cinema and Island World, had a project to budget black films. In comparison with opportunities offered to Black film directors, the author wondered if Hollywood would promote their films appropriately and if those Blacks would be able to pocket the profits of their films.


[1] An American television host, actress and producer, best known for her talk show which has become the highest program of its kind in history.

[2] A French philosopher and literary theorist. He is well known for his articulation of postmodernism after the late 1970s and the analysis of the impact of postmodernity on the human condition.

[3] “Postmodernism-Conceptual Postmodernism and Postmodernist Theory”

<>, April 24, 2010.

[4] Process or the progressive improvement of conditions in the marginalized groups and areas, in a sustainable manner.

[5] Hollywood is a district of Los Angeles, situated West-northwest of downtown Los Angeles. Due to its fame and cultural identity as a historical center of movie studios and movie stars, the word Hollywood is used as a metonymy of American cinema. In other words, the term refers to the movie industry.

[6] “Black actors in Hollywood”, <Http:>, December 18, 2008 by Golden Touch.

[7] Blaxploitation is a social and cultural ideal in the US cinema during the 1970s, which valorized the image of African-Americans by presenting them in good and first-class roles and not only secondary roles. The term is the blending between “black” and “exploitation”. Blaxploitation films were especially dedicated to Blacks and only addressed to the black community dealing with black themes and problems.

[8] Spike Lee is an African-American film director, producer, writer and actor. He also teaches cinematography at New York and Columbia University.

[9] “Do The Right Thing” (1989) is an American ensemble film produced, written and directed by Spike Lee. The film deals with issues of racial conflicts in the multi-ethnic community of Bedford- Stuyvesant, a neighborhood in Brooklyn, New York, during the hottest day of the summer.

[10] Eddie Murphy is an academy award- nominated American actor, voice actor, film director, producer, comedian and singer.

[11] After several years in action comedy, Eddie Murphy gets a chance to deliver a more restrained performance with this film and he manages to do very well. Murphy plays an African prince (Akeem) who is forced to marry a woman that his parents have chosen for him. But that one only considers him for his royalty and consequently does not really love him. So he decides to go to America with his loyal servant (Semi) to find a woman that will love him for what he really is and not for his royalty.

[12] A 1984 American film directed by Martin Brest and starring Eddie. The film was very successful commercially.

[13] An American film director, screenwriter and producer. Many of his films consider the implications of inner-city violence like the critically acclaimed and popular Boyz N the Hood, Poetic Justice, Higher Learning and baby Boy.

[14] The government agency that is responsible for the United States Census. It also gathers national economic. The Census Bureau serves as a leading source of data about America’s people and economy.

[15] “Black-Owned Businesses: Strongest in Services”, <Http: //www.census.go/population/www/socdemo/race/black-html>, April 25, 2010.

[16] Linda Johnson Rice is chairman and CEO of Johnson Publishing Company Incorporation, publisher of Ebony and Jet magazine. In addition to being the number one of African-American publishing companies in the world, J.P.C. owns Fashion Fair Cosmetics.

[17] Ebony Magazine is one the oldest African-American magazines and most successful. It provides business, health, fashion, sport and entertainment information.

[18] “50 years of progress: Blacks in Business and politics”, <http:>, January, 28, 2010.

[19] A movement whose leader was Martin Luther King. King also focused on economic issues, particularly black poverty, and also he advocated income redistribution.

[20] Richard A. Long , African Americans (NY: Outlet Book Co., 1993,) 182.

[21] KC Minion Morrison, African Americans and Political Participation, ABC-CLIO Incorporated ISBN 15760783X, JULY 2003.

[22] <Http://>, May 27, 2010.

[23] An American actor and comedian. He first gained national exposure on the film Saturday Night Live and went on to star in a number of critically and commercially successful comedic films including Caddyshach (1980), Ghostbusters( 1984) and Groundhog (1993).

[24] “African-American Cinema”, <Http:>, June, 24, 2009.

[25] An American actor, screenwriter, playwright, novelist and composer. He is most famous for creating the acclaimed film, Sweet Sweetback's Baadasssss Song, which heralded a new era of African-American focused films.

[26] A young African American orphan is taken in by the proprietor of a Los Angeles brothel in the 1940s. while working there as a towel boy, he looses his virginity at a young age to a prostitute who names him ‘‘Sweet Sweetback’’ in honor of his large penis. As a result, Sweetback works as a performer in the whorehouse, entertaining customers by performing in sex show. A Black had been murdered and there is pressure from Blacks to bring in a suspect. The police want to convict him of a crime he did not do.

[27] John Singleton (born on Jin. 6, 1968) is an American film director, screenwriter and producer. A native of South Los Angeles, many of his films consider the implications of inner-city violence like the critically acclaimed popular Boyz N the Hood, Poetry Justice, Higher Learning and Baby Boy.

[28] Harry Ploski and James Williams, The Negro Almanac: A reference Work on the African American (Detroit: Gale Research Inc., 1989) 1229.

[29] Founded in 1909, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, abbreviated NAACP, is the nation’s oldest and largest civil rights organization. The focus of the organization is to ensure the political, educational, social and economic equality of rights of all persons and to eliminate racial hatred and racial discrimination.

[30] Mark Reid, Janine Euvrard, Francis Bordat and Raphael Bassan , Le Cinéma Noir Américain (Nouveau Horizons, Le Cerf, Paris, 1988)124-125.

[31] Shaft tells the story of John Shaft, a black private detective who travels through Harlem and to the Italian mob neighborhods in order to find the missing daughter of a black mobster. The film portrays Blacks in strong images. For example, some are Lieutenants.

[32] Ibid 128.

[33] Op.cit.128.

[34] Op.cit.1232-1233.

[35] op.cit.59.

[36] Ibid 96.

[37] A Canadian film director, producer, actor and founder of the Canadian film center.

[38] An American film director, film producer and comic book writer. He was nominated for best Director for his film Superman.

[39] Op.cit.97.

[40] An American actor, film director, author and diplomat. He booked through as a star in acclaimed performances in American films and plays, which by consciously defying racial stereotypes gave a new dramatic credibility for black actors to mainstream film audiences in the Western world. In 1963, Poitier became the first black person to win an Academy Award for Best Actor for his role in Lilies of the Field.

[41] James Monaco, American Film Now (NY: Oxford University Press, 1979)190.

[42] Op.cit.120.

[43] An American actor and comedian. He first gained national exposure on the film Saturday Night Live.

[44] Op.cit.187.

[45] An American actor, comedian, film director and writer. Townsend established himself when he wrote, directed, produced and starred in the comedy Hollywood Shuffle his 1987 film about struggling Blacks in Hollywood.

[46] Op.cit.1229.

[47] An American actor, film director and political activist. Glover is well known for his roles as Michael Harrigan in the film Predactor 2.

[48] The Police Academy film is a 1984 comedy film directed by Hugh Wilson.

[49] Op.cit.141.

[50] A Canadian film director, producer, actor and founder of the Canadian film center.

[51] Walter Hill is an American actor, screenwriter and producer. He is known for male-dominated action films and revival of the Western.

[52] Karen Grigsby Bates, “A Black Perspective” in American Film (United states Information Agency, 1992). N.94, 68, 70.

[53] Karen Grigsby Bates is the Los Angeles-based correspondent for NPR's news magazine Day to Day.

[54] Franc Price is CEO and Chairman of Price Entertainment Inc., an independent producer of motion pictures and television. In 1973, he was appointed President of Universal Television. Five years later he became chairman and CEO of the motion picture division of Columbia Pictures Industry.

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African-American Representation in US Cinema, Economy and Politics (1980-2010). Myth or Reality?
Omar Bongo University
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african-american, representation, cinema, economy, politics, myth, reality
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Dr. Jean Cédric Obame Emane (Author), 2010, African-American Representation in US Cinema, Economy and Politics (1980-2010). Myth or Reality?, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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