Film and Television
Produced and directed by D.W. Griffith, “The Birth of a Nation” was released in 1915. Originally released in Los Angeles under the title “The Clansmen” (the name of the staged play it was based on), it was later retitled for its premiere in New York. “The Birth of a Nation” is considered the first true blockbuster in the history of American cinema with it being the most profitable film for over two decades after its release. The film revolutionized the film industry, especially in terms of camera work and action/battle scenes. The film is still considered, technically and cinematically, as iconic.
However, despite exquisite craftsmanship and revolutionary techniques, “The Birth of a Nation” will forever live on in infamy. The film is utterly racist from beginning to end. The entire plot of the film is centered on the Ku Klux Klan being seen as the heroes of a nation struggling to maintain control over African Americans who, as the film claims, are trying to create somewhat of a Black-run United States. The film glorifies lynching and sets the basis for stereotypes that are still held over the heads of Blacks today. “The Birth of a Nation” is, arguably, the most racist film of all time.
The struggle of the Black woman is completely ignored throughout the film. White women are depicted as pure objects who must be protected from the Black brutes whose only intention is to rape and corrupt the White women. For instance, there is the infamous scene where Black men were seen gawking at white women in the gallery of the state house. However, the fact of the matter is, Black women were the ones who needed to be protected from White, tyrannical men who continuously raped Black women.
The film Uncle Tom’s Cabin was made based off of a novel by Harriet Beecher Stowe. The film that premiered in 1987 had popular African American actors such as Samuel L. Jackson (George Harris), Phylicia Rashad (Eliza), Avery Brooks (Uncle Tom), and Paula Kelly (Cassy). The book was originally written to show unfair treatment and stereotypes of African Americans and raise tension between the North and South before the Civil War. The creation of this story was a key element in literature that led to the end of slavery which is why this great piece of literature later made into a film. Throughout the entire film Tom has an unconditional passion to help people, especially women.
In the beginning of the film Tom is to be sold and all that he cares about is that his wife and children are safe. After Tom is taken from his family, he is on a boat talking to a young girl named Eve. The girl falls off of the second level of the boat and Tom breaks his shackles to jump in the water and save the little girl. Eve’s father purchased Tom after he saved the little girl’s life and Tom and Eve had a wonderful friendship with each other until the little girl got sick and dies. Tom then gets sold again to a very angry man that does not care at all about the lives of his slaves. Tom dies at the end of the movie after being beaten because he saved two women that were in danger from the same owner as himself. The movie ends with the narrator stating “the battle for true freedom still continues”. One thing is interesting about the story Uncle Tom’s Cabin this story was one of things that truly started the Civil War and for a woman author to have that kind of power mid 1800s is absolutely incredible.
The Jeffersons were an African American family that lived in New York City. The show was a sitcom that aired for 11 seasons producing 253 episodes. This show focused more on character interaction rather than political issues. However, in a couple of episodes, they get into topics such as racism, gun control, adult illiteracy, and suicide. The purpose behind the theme song Movin’ On Up which was played at the beginning of every episode, was to show how the Jeffersons were moving on up in the world and were finally getting somewhere. There are key lyrics in the song that express their joy, when Ja'net Dubois (the song's co-writer) sings “We finally got a piece of the pie”. You can really get a sense of their excitement from this phrase in the song. I also feel like in the video when they sing this theme song you can feel all the emotion and effort they put into it, to make it as special as it is. Another important part to this song I thought was the lyrics, “Took a whole lotta tryin’, just to get up that hill now we’re up in the big leagues gonna get my turn at bat”. These lyrics also provide a good understanding of the trials they had to go to and how they were finally getting their chance.
When thinking about African American women and their history, contributions, and perceptions, specifically in the film and television industry, The Color Purple comes to mind because the movie’s focus is exclusively black feminism (or womanism). In this movie and novel, several demonstrations of how black women were viewed as and treated are presented. The main character, Celie, is a poor, uneducated, African American woman who has an extremely controlling and abusive husband, Albert. Throughout the film, Albert talks down to Celie many times, abuses her, and tries dismissing her completely. Then, Celie meets Shug Avery, a blues singer, who teaches Celie to stand up for herself and to find her voice. Celie becomes more confident as the storyline progresses, takes Shug’s advice, and finally stands up against Albert and announces that his abusive behavior towards her is over.
Celie’s character is an example of how an African American woman was portrayed during that time. This film’s main focus was to show that African American women were trying to battle the patriarchal society, stop the men who were enabling the discrimination, educate themselves, and determine and choose their own sexuality. The Color Purple is a step taken by the film industry that intended to make a statement about black feminism and how women were perceived at one time, and what African American women have accomplished since.
The Cosby Show was a show from the mid eighties that focused on the black family. It was the first show of its kind and was seen as revolutionary to a lot of people. It was the first show to display a black family with both parents having professional careers. But at the same time it was resented for the same reasons it was praised for. With it being the first show to have a mother and father with professional careers, people said that it did not accurately portray how it was in the African American household. Even though people did not think it accurately portray the African American family, Bill Cosby wanted to show the family in a more positive light than other shows.
Looking at the Cosby show from a feminine prospective, Claire Huxtable's character contributed very much for black females in television. At the time she was the only strong black female character in television to have a professional career. There are a couple scenes in the show where the daughters bring home their boyfriends and they express that they think that she is a bad mother because she is not performing her household duties. But that is what is great about her, she defies what was seen as the typical black mother in television up until 1984. Her character also made way for other characters like Aunt Vivian on The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air.
Though reviewed harshly by white critics, The Wiz was nominated for four (4) Oscars and seven (7) Saturn Awards. This re-adaptation of the classic The Wizard of Oz was meant to relate more to African Americans and audiences of color. It includes many alterations from the original, and was intended to speak directly to African American culture and the crisis of broken spirits and disenfranchisement that permeated the Black community during the 1970’s. Many white critics were quick to dismiss the show as amusing but not really entertaining, at which point critics of color pointed out that the references made throughout the show were not intended for white audiences to easily understand. The Wiz demonstrates the power of community, and how coming together can make each member stronger. The lead role (Dorothy), a female lead, was played by Diana Ross, lead singer of the musical group The Supremes. Dorothy, as a character, embodies the hidden power of women as great leaders. Almost single-handedly, Dorothy is able to build up each of the men in the story, helping them to achieve a greater sense of confidence and purpose. This is symbolic of the Black Feminist Movement’s agenda to teach women--or provide them with a role model for--how to remake Black families and Black communities. This Broadway musical helped to bring the issues of people of color and the Black Feminist Movement into the entertainment industry.