For many black actors, there’s a long history of being unwelcome in mainstream Hollywood. Here’s a breakdown of black cinema history.

Stepin Fetchit, also known as Lincoln Perry, could be considered America’s first black movie star. Although, he didn’t win any theatrical awards, he won Hollywood studios over with his talented skills by perpetuating a black, lazy, irresponsible, mumbling fool in MGM’s 1927 silent drama In Old Kentucky.  

When Fetchit was on the rise, reaching his peak stardom by the mid-1930s, it was then renowned black officials such as W.E.B Du Bois and the NAACP pressured Hollywood to get rid of the on screen stereotypes Fetchit and other actors were creating in studio films. Prominent black leaders of that period believed it was Fetchit’s character who was keeping white America from viewing blacks capable of joining the mainstream, according to NPR.

But that was nearly 90 years ago. Today, culture and film critics continue to criticize Hollywood’s diversity problem with #OscarsSoWhite, in which actors of color continue to struggle to win equal appreciation and representation in the realm of Hollywood studios and entertainment industry.

In films prior to the 1930s, black characters were portrayed by white actors in blackface, or theatrical makeup used by performers to represent black people and illustrate the exaggerated physical features of Africana people. Hearts and Flags (1911) and The Birth of a Nation (1915) were some of the first films to showcase blackface and minstrel depictions of black people. Often, these films gave a sense of nostalgia to the Old South and Civil War period when black characters were portrayed as subservient, villainous, dimwitted, buffoonish or dangerous. The 1920s attempted to move toward a progressive era when studios implemented “all colored cast films,” or “race films,” to showcase black protagonists as positive depictions for black people. Yet, the struggle for on screen actual representation of blacks remained a huge problem for the majority of Hollywood cinema.

via straitjacketmagazine 

Show Boat (1936), Gone With the Wind (1939), Stormy Weather (1943) and other films of the 1930s and early 1940s depicted blacks as butlers, drivers, laborers, maids, and mammies, which reflected the limited occupational opportunities black people had during the time period. Blackface and minstrel performances were also still widely used by Hollywood studios during that time. Though in 1942, representatives from the NAACP Hollywood Bureau met with executives from several major Hollywood studios and arranged an agreement to improve the portrayals of black people in film by decreasing the reliance on traditional stereotypes. The NAACP also worked to increase opportunities for black people working behind the scenes, increasing the representation of black people throughout the film industry.

Although the range of roles available for black actors largely remained limited in mixed race films, major motion picture studios began producing films featuring well-known black entertainers and musicians as leading protagonists in films with all-black casts. Louis Armstrong and Duke Ellington (Cabin in the Sky, 1943) and Lena Horne (Stormy Weather, 1942), became popular stars and figures in the entertainment. By that time, with the NAACP stepping into the executive stems of integrating blacks into film and media, it gave aspirations for black people to be accepted in the realm of entertainment society.

via allmovie.com 

The 1950s and 1960s saw a new era in film, when black actors would receive equal screen time as their white counterparts in films and TV shows. Sidney Poitier emerged as one of the famous actors of the period because of his versatility and engagement with white audiences.

The 1970s presented black audiences with new and multifaceted depictions of black people and black communities. A new genre called Blaxploitation marked a significant change in how black people were presented in films. Blaxploitation films directly confronted the older stereotypes of black people as servants, victims or criminals by envisioning them as avengers. Many of the well-known Blaxploitation films were action thrillers and featured extreme situations of violence, sex and drug-use. Shaft (1971), Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song (1971) and Foxy Brown (1974) were all popular movies of the period. The period is often known as “Hollywood’s experimentation” period, when directors and producers would challenge the old methods of studio cinema.

via loomisonfilm.wordpress.com 

After the quick demise of the Blaxploitation, the 1980s seemed to shift back to the old stereotypes and narratives that were present in the prior decades. Richard Pryor, Whoopi Goldberg, Eddie Murphy and Danny Glover emerged as prominent black actors of the period and were again resembling many of the limited archetypes in films such as Trading Places (1983) and Jumpin’ Jack Flash (1986).

The 1990s and early 2000s pushed a new era of black representation with primetime TV shows, such as The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, In Living Color, Living Single and A Different World. Will Smith and Michael Jordan became some of the celebrities to earn his recognition among academy elites, while still pushing the boundaries for black versatility in mediums such as television, film, music and sports.

For the first time, two black actors won Academy Awards for their lead roles at the 2002 ceremony. Denzel Washington in Training Day (2001) and Halle Berry in Monster’s Ball (2001) would pave the way for new realm of minority actors to emerge and change the diversity issue in Hollywood productions.

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But, Hollywood continues to face criticism with its depiction of blacks in film and television. Since the 2002 ceremony, only two black men have won the award for best leading actor, while three black women and six black males have been nominated for that category, making up four percent of the 13 years’ nominees. Hollywood has a long way to go when it comes to acknowledging its minority problem. Although the Academy of  Motion Picture Arts and Sciences said it would make “radical changes” with its voting requirements and recruiting process to increase membership diversity, it does not make up for 100 years of misrepresentation and oversight of a group of people who have tried to push the agenda for equality.

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