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Film is one of the significant ways we experience culture. We learn how society is supposed to work, and how it actually works via stories laid out on the silver screen. The ideas and concepted presented through plot and dialogue are the “masterpieces” created by the filmmaker. Stereotypes and misrepresentations have riddled film since the beginning, and unfortunately continue to do so. In the history of film, these ideas and representations have not always been accurate reflections of reality, especially in regards to minorities. African and Native American filmmakers have worked to curb this issue and provide an accurate representation of our society and culturethrough the stories and images they present in film.
Stereotypes are generalized statements or ideas about a group of people. They may be in regard to race, gender, religion, orientation, or several other concepts. Stereotypes can refer to behavior or appearances or other factors. For example, it is a common stereotype that Asian people are bad drivers. Because stereotypes are generalizations about a whole group, they are often not accurately representative. This is due to the fact that people are diverse, even within a general group such as within a specific race.
The way a character speaks, dresses, behaves are all influenced by the desire of the filmmaker. Stereotypes are integrated into film, both purposefully and inadvertently, because the filmmaker’s vision of the character may be a generalized representation based loosely on certain aspects of culture. For example, a movie about basketball may feature several African American characters as athletics are considered a significant part of Black American culture.
Because film (as well as all other media) presents ideas as common concepts regarding society, the effect is that representations of characters translate to being reality. Unfortunately, these ideas are frequently misrepresented as they are derived from the mind of the filmmaker. When a filmmaker envisions a character, they may inject certain traits into that character that align with their personal ideas about how that specific character should look or act. When these representations are presented to the general public via the film, they are accepted as common truths. This perpetuates stereotypes.
Native and African American representations in film have historically been inaccurate and riddled with stereotypes. These stereotypes have contributed to generalized negative ideas about both cultures. Some common stereotypes regarding Native Americans are that they are distrusting of outsiders and that they are alcoholics. Common stereotypes regarding African American are that they are criminals, unintelligent, and possess a litany of other negative qualities.
While these concepts are not representative of these races as a whole, they are frequently the representations presented in film with modern storylines. In mainstream Hollywood films currently, it is not uncommon for African American characters, designed to be the hero, to be nefarious and unethical. For example, one of the main characters of Fist Fight played by Ice Cube engages in extremely unethical behavior and excessive aggression towards everyone around him, echoing the “black Rambo” stereotype (Levy et al. & Keen, 2017). Even the representations of Native Americans in modern films such as the Twilight Saga shows Native Americans as being closed off from mainstream society and overly distrusting of outsiders. These present-day representations show the audience that “this is how this group behaves”.
Historical depictions are often inherently inaccurate as they are from the prospective of a different race. These representations show Natives as gullible or perhaps the stoic brave, or even as hostiles. African Americans have been shown as gleeful, comical slaves such as in ‘sambo’ and ‘mammy’ depictions. Other representations of African American women that have transpired through time include the ‘jezebel’ stereotype- depicting an overly sexual and/or promiscuous woman. The ‘jezebel’ stereotype rose significantly during the 70s but can be seen in films as early as Birth of A Nation (Pilgrim, 2012). While as modern viewers, we know that some of these depictions are inherently inaccurate, some depictions strongly influence our current view points
One of the main ways we see the combating of stereotypes in film is through the concepts presented by African and Native American filmmakers. Through confronting, challenging and exposing stereotyping, they are making headway in changing perceptions.
One way African and Native American filmmakers are challenging stereotypes in film is by confronting stereotypical behavior. An example of this can be seen in Spike Lee’s 2000 film Bamboozled. The plot of the film follows a black TV writer and the production of a show he creates that is excessively racist in its representation of essentially plantation era characters on a minstrel show. The film not only highlights how ridiculous these representations are but how well it is received- tipping a hat to the concept that successful television caters to the majority not the minority. The ending of the film leaves the audience with the concept that selling out and misrepresenting culture for entertainment leads to a variety of negative consequences.
Another manner of confronting stereotypes is by showing that while a certain type of behavior may exist in a portion of the group, it is not systemic. In the film Smoke Signals, the father of a main character (Victor) is portrayed as an abusive alcoholic (Eyre et al., 1998). While this stereotype is common of Native American males in film, this particular film moves beyond that concept to show that this behavior is not commonplace nor condoned. This type of confronting works to disband the stereotype by presenting a more accurate depiction of the majority of the group.
Challenging stereotypes is arguably one of the most effective ways of combating stereotypes. This is because it not only negates inaccurate stereotypes about a certain group, but also negates the positive ones regarding the majority. The majority of media presents white males as the protagonist or heroic character, even in journalism (Owens, 2008). When minority filmmakers choose to present their protagonist as a minority (or female or alternative gender) there are many positive effects. First, this challenges the stereotype that white men are the heroes. This is critically important because this ushers in a new common concept that anyone, regardless of race or gender, can be the “hero”. In turn this, creates positive role models for minorities and females. Second, challenging the realism of a stereotype by showing it is not “the standard” helps stop perpetuation. For example, more frequently showing black females as independent business women instead of “hoochie” stereotypes insinuated the latter is not the desired or common behavior.
While most attempts at challenging stereotypes are in a positive direction, some unfortunately create setbacks. In some cases, the way the stereotype is challenged perpetuates other stereotypes. For example, blaxploitation films were initially designed to empower black Americans by showing strong, protagonist males. However, the films instead featured characters that were not necessarily people to be looked up to, such as in Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song (Gross, Van Peebles & Van Peebles, 1971). In this film, Sweet Sweetback was intended to be a strong, hero, black man; a character for the black community to admire. However, the character was a pimp, who murdered cops. Additionally, representations of females in the film contributed to the “jezebel” stereotype, which eventually became the ‘standard’ for black women (Pilgrim, 2012). Modern filmmakers must be cautious not to make similar errors in challenging stereotypes, as the goal is not to legitimize stereotypes but disband them.
Exposing stereotypes is a more direct approach to moving away from the use and acceptance of stereotypes. This is done through the presentation of a stereotype in the dialogue of the movie and a rebuttal response to it. This can be seen very directly in Jordan Peele’s Get Out (2017). In the film, an exchange occurs regarding why it is “popular to be black”, in which the main character Christopher contradicts the statements made stating he doesn’t really like sports or many current trends. The exchange is a pointed dig to the fact that belonging to a certain race does not necessarily dictate a person’s preferences and that people (albeit, accepting in the film) should not simply make assumptions based upon appearances.
There is an age-old adage- “Don’t judge a book by its cover”. Essentially that is exactly what stereotypes do- generalize based upon outward characteristics. Our media and film contribute heavily to the perpetuation of stereotypes. By showcasing generalizations and presenting them as common concepts, they become mainstream ideas. Minority filmmakers aid viewers in combating this through challenging, confronting, and exposing stereotypes in film. As modern viewers, we must be vigilant to not be swayed into this type of thinking.
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