Skip to main content

Blackness in Mainstream Film, TV, and Music

Birth of a Nation

Figure 1

D.W. Griffith's Representations of Black Skin           

Black skin portrayed as a threat has a long history in film and media, not only in terms of stereotypical plots, but also formally, with directors and artists intentionally manipulating the appearance of the black body on stage and screen. Even without much advanced technology, D.W. Griffith’s Birth of a Nation was a controversial and explicitly racist film [Figure 1]. Gus (Ralph Lewis), played by a white man in blackface, acts out the stereotype of the black brute as a threat to white womanhood. He asks Flora (Mae Marsh) for her hand in marriage, apparently intending her no harm. Nevertheless, Flora threatens to jump off a cliff to avoid being touched by black skin, and then either accidentally or intentionally falls to her death. The film was criticized by the newly-founded NAACP because of its negative stereotypes of the black body, heroic portrayal of the Ku Klux Klan, and sympathy for slavery. The film continued to be influential for decades, setting the stage for future media images of blackness.


Unflattering Representations of Black Artists 

Forty years later, film directors had new technologies available to purposefully distort the appearance of black skin to look unflattering and crude. In Imitation of Life, renowned singer Mahalia Jackson sings "Troubles of the World" during Annie’s traditional New Orleans funeral [Figure 2]. In his 1959 film, director Douglas Sirk uses technology to film Jackson differently from the white women at the funeral. In an interview, Sirk said that he knew nothing about Jackson before seeing her perform at UCLA. At that performance, Sirk said that he noticed a difference between the large, homely black woman on stage and the beautiful white women in the audience. Sirk described this experience as strange, funny, and impressive. Sirk deliberately shot Jackson to look grotesque by manipulating the lighting, overexposing her mouth with close-up shots, and using a three-inch camera lens, so that every imperfection in her face stood out. Even though Jackson was an established and successful musician, there was little controversy over how Sirk represented blackness in Imitation of Life. Sirk's film reveals how black Americans' artistry is valued, but black people are not. 

Hattie Mc Daniel as mammy

Figure 3

Photo of Scarlet and Mammy from The Story of Gone With The Wind movie pamphlet.

Figure 4

Representations of Black Mammies 

Hattie McDaniels is the actress who played Mammy in the famous 1939 Hollywood movie of Gone with the Wind [Figure 3]. The second photo features Mammy helping to squeeze Scarlett (Vivian Leigh) into a corset post-partum [Figure4]. Mammy has her hair wrapped up and is donning a formal black uniform with a long skirt and a white apron. As with many depictions of black nannies, Mammy is a heavyset mother figure who speaks grammatically incorrect and heavily accented English: "Effen you don' care 'bout how folks talks 'bout dis family, Ah does!" Such exaggerated dialect emphasizes Mammy as an ignorant, comical figure. McDaniels was the first American black woman to win an Academy Award. Gone with the Wind is widely considered a classic, and McDaniels' mammy has left a lasting impression on viewers.

Since its release, Gone with the Wind has attracted intense criticism for its portrayal of the Civil War and Reconstruction. The film presents the North as overly aggressive, and it presents slaves as loyal and content in their status. Mammy is portrayed as a selfless provider of love and affection for the white children she cares for. McDaniels made the role of the jolly, cheerful, loyal mammy into a career; she appeared in similar roles in films such as Maryland (1940), Margie (1946), and Song of the South (1946). 

When criticized for her stereotypical portrayals, McDaniel pointed out that such a role was quite lucrative. She was well aware that audiences responded to her showmanship and outsized performance.



The Help by Kathryn Stockett  (novel cover)

Figure 5

This book is a fictonal portrayal of black female house maids in the early 1960's. Pictured on the cover are the main characters, Aibileen and Minny [Figure 5]. These women elicit in their readers feelings of admiration and sympathy due to their challenges as black, female housemaids in the segregated South. Aibileen spends the majority of her days and evenings caring for the child of her white employers. The maids of these households would tuck their white charges in to bed at night and then return to their own homes after their own children were asleep. The novel dramatizes segregation's effects within the family home. The white families relinquish the raising of their children to black women, only to forbid them basic courtesies such as sharing the household bathroom. Like Hattie McDaniels' Mammy, these women don uniforms and are presented as matronly and asexual.

This is an audio music recording of Al Jolson singing Sweet Mammy with sheet music to accompany it. The words to the song express the sentiments of one who adores his mammy and wants her constant care and attention [Figure 7 & 8]. The cover of the sheet recording features a stereotypical mammy: a heavyset black woman with her hair tied up, smiling a huge toothy grin [Figure 6]. One can listen to the actual song being sung on the provided link [Figure 9]; it is the second selection in this music clip.

Movie pamphlet cover for Coffy

Figure 10

Black Mother Figures Attaining Civil Rights      

This photo was obtained from a pamphlet advertising the movie Coffy (1973), starring Pam Grier [Figure 10]. Coffy can be described as a nurse by day and a sultry vigilante by night. She is a nurse who has a child-age, younger sister hospitalized as the result of being lured into drug use by a couple of drug lords. Coffy seeks vengeance on these men and shoots them in cold blood. Coffy is attractive, sexually confident, and willing to fight for what she believes. The character Coffy is neither a mammy nor a jezebel; she is powerful, caring, intelligent, and beautiful -- all qualities that challenge stereotypical images of black women.

Photos of Diahann Carroll on the television show Julia from a press kit

Figure 11

Photos of Diahann Carroll on the television show Julia from a press kit

Figure 12

Julia was an American sitcom notable for being one of the first weekly series to depict a black woman in a non-stereotypical role. The show ran for 86 episodes on NBC, from September, 1968 through March, 1971. Julia starred actress and singer Diahann Carroll, who played a widowed single mother and nurse [Figure 11]. Julia son Corey barely knew his father before his death [Figure 12]. The show dealt with issues such as downsizing the work force at the expense of jobs held by minorities, and the role of the Civil Rights Act in protecting black workers.

Julia is remembered as groundbreaking, but it was criticized at the time for being unrealistic. Her plush suburban apartment was far different from the ghettos where many black Americans actually lived. Some African Americans also criticized the show's depiction of a fatherless black family. Nevertheless, the show was innovative for showing white viewers that black Americans should have access to a middle-class lifestyle. Television critics found the light-hearted show a welcome relief during racially troubled times.