Readings, Week 5: Hollywood & Racism

Hollywood and Racism

Welcome to Week 5.

Last week we looked at the fundamentals of Hollywood, the meaning of Hollywoodism, the mass media giants and their holdings, the concept of vertical integration,  and the political and corporate purposes of Hollwood blockbuster moviemaking.

I’m very glad you’re here for Week 5, one of the most critical weeks in the course.

This week, we examine how from its beginning, Hollywood (quite unintentionally on the part of the Jewish moguls) evolved into a systemically racist system of stereotypes, icons and iconography.

We will explore the very concept of race. This week, we examine one of the most profound scientific findings of the last century, the assertion that race has no basis in science. We will read about how, according to Human Genome scientists, the notion of race holds almost no biological significance.

While it may be true that certain so-called races have particular genetic predispositions to certain diseases (a truth that is indispensable in healthcare), for the most part ‘race’ is merely an idea, an illusion used expressly for destructive, political purposes. While race is a potent social construct, used by powerful people for millennia to oppress those in less privileged contexts, race is merely a biological myth since all human beings are 99.9% similar. Indeed, we are the most similar, from one individual to the next, of all species on planet Earth.

Finally, we will look at the thesis points of Melvin Van Peebles’ documentary, “Classified X,” a film that provides a very well-researched, often strident history of racism in Hollywood’s portrayals of African-Americans throughout motion picture history. Whatever we thought at first, after we examine Van Peebles’ solid evidence, his argument seems very strong. Hollywood has been racist, using a wide palette of methods, ever since its inception.

Focus on racism against African Americans in Hollywood

While we will examine, in brief, the practice of racism as a whole against a variety of North American minority groups, the main focus of our study will use examples of racism against African Americans in Hollywood pop culture. This is because finding compelling evidence of racism in Hollywood is an easy case to make when we focus our study, as Van Peebles does in the film Classified X, on the most targeted large minority group and its Hollywood depictions. Furthermore, if we were to study racism as it is levied against a variety of so-called minority groups, we could undoubtedly devote an entire course to this effort, rather than limiting our work to this single module, as we must do. As we examine each question, consider how these questions can be applied to an analysis of racism against any number of minority groups in Hollywood mainstream filmmaking: Asians, South Asians, Hispanic people, First Nations People, Iranians, Russians, etc.

  • How is race a biological myth?  How is race a “social construct”?
  • Race: a tool of conquest
  • How did America become so powerful?
  • How is racism manifested in our culture?
  • How is racism manifested in pop culture?
  • Invisibility & marginalization
  • Power dynamics
  • Tokenism
  • Epithets
  • Imitations
  • Stereotypes
  • “Classified X”: Melvin Van Peebles’ two-part theory concerning the impact of Hollywood movies on racism in America

Race: a biological myth

Before we explore the history of racism in Hollywood iconography, it is essential first to look at the general concept of race and what it has come to mean.

As an anti-racist educator,  I talk at the beginning of my courses about creating a safe environment for students. This is why I had you read the page called ‘Safe Environment.’ Sensitive students like yourselves understand why it is offensive to disparage people of any religious group, racial group, gender, or sexual orientation. Most of us are culturally sensitive and ‘politically correct,’ because we know it’s the right thing to do. Nevertheless, even many clever people fail to understand why it is also scientifically incorrect to express racist views.

DNA - the double helix, image from

DNA – the double helix, image from

I take this opportunity to include here the same brief summary of research data that I placed on the ‘Safe Environment’ page. The Human Genome Project‘s findings reveal stunning, often overlooked scientific data that prove that race is a biological mythNew science (of the last twenty years) tells us we must abandon racist practices of old, when we looked for grand differences between the so-called races and attempted to attribute these imagined differences to biology.

According to Alan Goodman

Alan Goodman, image from Hampshire College bio

Alan Goodman, image from Hampshire College bio

“To understand why the idea of race is a biological myth requires a major paradigm shift – an absolutely paradigm shift, a shift in perspective. And for me, it’s like seeing what it must have been like to understand that the world isn’t flat. The world looks flat to our eyes. And perhaps I can invite you to a mountaintop or to a plain, and you can look out the window at the horizon, and see, ‘Oh, what I thought was flat I can see a curve in now.’ And that race is not based on biology, but race is rather an idea that we ascribe to biology. That’s quite shocking to a lot of individuals. When you look and you think you see race, to be told that no, you don’t see race, you just think you see race, you know, it’s based on your cultural lens – that’s extremely challenging. What’s heartening is that so many students love it. They feel liberated by beginning to understand that, in fact, whiteness is a cultural construction, that race is a cultural construction, that we really are fundamentally alike.” (Interview with Alan Goodman, 2003, Race: The Power of an Illusion) (see Alan Goodman bio at Hampshire College)

The scientific research of the Human Genome Project now permits us to refute discriminatory beliefs that target people of certain racial groups, religions, genders, or sexual orientations.

“The Human Genome Project (HGP) is an international scientific research project with a primary goal of determining the sequence of chemical base pairs which make up DNA, and of identifying and mapping the approximately 20,000-25,000 genes of the human genome from both a physical and functional standpoint.” (Human Genome Project, wiki)

The groundbreaking documentary, Race: The Power of an Illusion, uses the findings of the Human Genome Project as its foundations. The film is described in this press release:

“Recent scientific evidence suggests that the idea of race is a biological myth, as outdated as the widely held medieval belief that the sun revolved around the earth. Anthropologists, biologists and geneticists have increasingly found that, biologically speaking; there is no such thing as ‘race.’ Modern science is decoding the genetic puzzle of DNA and human variation – and finding that skin color really is only skin deep. However invalid race is biologically, it has been deeply woven into the fabric of American life.” (California Newsreel, 2003)

Canadians: as different as we may seem, we're almost identical genetically (image from National Post)

Canadians: as different as we may seem, we’re almost identical genetically (image from National Post)

The documentary summarizes some of the main reasons why we  all need to pay attention to the HGP findings.

  • Race has no genetic basis. Not one characteristic, trait or even gene distinguishes all the members of one so-called race from all the members of another so-called race.
  • Human subspecies don’t exist. Unlike many animals, modern humans simply haven’t been around long enough or been isolated enough to evolve into separate subspecies or races. Despite surface appearances, we are one of the most similar of all species.
  • Skin color really is only skin deep. Most traits are inherited independently from one another. The genes influencing skin color have nothing to do with the genes influencing hair form, eye shape, blood type, musical talent, athletic ability or forms of intelligence. Knowing someone’s skin color doesn’t necessarily tell you anything else about him or her.
  • Most variation is within, not between, “races.” Of the small amount of total human variation, 85% exists within any local population, be they Italians, Kurds, Koreans or Cherokees. About 94% can be found within any continent. That means two random Koreans may be as genetically different as a Korean and an Italian. (Race: the Power of an Illusion; see also Wiki, Race: The Power of an Illusion)


Watch these clips from California Newsreel’s Race: The Power of an Illusion.

Read this synopsis of the three part series: Race: the Power of an Illusion synopsis

All humans are 99.9% identical, Smithsonian Museum of Natural History, Washington, DC (photo by Reeves Medaglia-Miller)

In the end, the HGP scientists concluded that, for every 1000 nucleotides in the DNA strand, only 1 nucleotide determines difference, one individual human from another. And within that one nucleotide, there are no genetic indicators found for race. In other words, we are all 999/1000 the same, making us the most similar of all species on the planet.

Race, then, is only an incorrect idea used to support land theft, false hierarchies, atrocities, and genocide. It is a social construct designed by powerful people to describe an imagined difference between them and others.

“When the liberal says ‘race is a social construct,’ he is not being a soft-headed dolt; he is speaking an historical truth. …. Andrew Sullivan writes that liberals should stop saying ‘truly stupid things like race has no biological element.’ I agree. Race clearly has a biological element — because we have awarded it one. Race is no more dependent on skin color today than it was on ‘Frankishness’ in Emerson’s day. Over history of race has taken geography, language, and vague impressions as its basis. “‘Race,’ writes the great historian Nell Irvin Painter, ‘is an idea, not a fact.’ Indeed. Race does not need biology. Race only requires some good guys with big guns looking for a reason.” (Coates, 2013)

Even the genetic components that determine what we call ‘gender’ comprise only about 2 percent of human DNA–- women are roughly 98% the same as men.

Thus, since all human beings are practically identical, it follows that it is scientifically incorrect to entertain any prejudice, concept, or conspiracy theory that posits essential differences between any one so-called human group and any other (eg. Jews, Muslims, Arabs, Iranians, gay people, women). As rational analysts of popular culture, we must not fall into the foolish trap of relying on false prejudices. No matter how deeply ingrained in our psyches our gender, race, and class prejudices (if we have them) may be, we must accept now that they are without foundation… wrong–-morally, culturally, academically, and above all, scientifically.

Race: A Tool of Conquest

So now, most of us get that race is merely an idea that exists in order for its privileged users to gain strategic advantage over other less-privileged people.

Yet, there are a few out there (every year it happens) who are still saying, “That can’t be true! I can see the effects of genes on race and racial behaviours!” One year, when we studied the HGP’s findings in class, a young man kept shaking his head and frowning. Finally, he said, “That’s just not true,” and he got up and walked out of class, never to return. It obviously meant that much to him to retain racist beliefs that he would rather drop a class immediately than to entertain what was a drastically new idea for him.

For those who are mired at this point, unable psychically to give up old racial prejudices learned from family or community, all of us understand and want to help. Many people are still stuck with old thinking. Go over Alan Goodman’s words, once again.

“It’s like seeing what it must have been like to understand that the world isn’t flat. The world looks flat to our eyes. And perhaps I can invite you to a mountaintop or to a plain, and you can look out the window at the horizon, and see, ‘Oh, what I thought was flat I can see a curve in now.’ And that race is not based on biology, but race is rather an idea that we ascribe to biology. That’s quite shocking to a lot of individuals. When you look and you think you see race, to be told that no, you don’t see race, you just think you see race, you know, it’s based on your cultural lens – that’s extremely challenging” (Interview with Alan Goodman, 2003, Race: The Power of an Illusion) (see Alan Goodman bio at Hampshire College)

Flat Earth (image from MSN Now)

Flat Earth (image from MSN Now)

Go over these ideas, again and again, until you are completely comfortable in them. This is new science and a new way of thinking, so it’s understandable that a few might need help on this. It is an overwhelming experience when we realize that something with no basis in scientific reality can have so much power as a social construct–the power to enslave millions for centuries, the power to start wars.

While the idea of race ought not to exist, sadly, it does, and its vicious ideology and practices have been used as tools of conquest since the beginning of humanity. It is not surprising that in a world that is also a business (as we discussed last week), racism is an economic device, a belief system that exists to make a privileged dominating culture even more rich at the expense of a less-powerful culture.

Linda Rae Murray, image from

Linda Rae Murray, image from

Dr. Linda Rae Murray, Chief Medical Officer for the Cook County (Illinois) Department of Public Health, explains racism clearly. To Murray, racism is a tool of conquest, used to dehumanize, disenfranchise, and exploit the bodies, lands, and meager assets of the less-privileged.

“Racism was designed to suggest that certain groups of people were inferior, because of their race or ethnicity. This really helped Capitalism, it really helped the ruling class, the bosses…. When you think about it, you have to have a real reason for coming to a new world and exterminating the native people. And that’s hard to do if you really think of them as your equal. So, it really was critical to how Capitalism developed, to how our nations, both Canada and the United States, developed historically,  to be able to place Native Americans, for example, as sub-human, as somehow less than Europeans.” (Murray, 2012)

In Murray’s view, racism came about as a systemic tool of conquest, a social myth based on a warped set of economic values.

Racism might have begun as early as there were organized communities. Picture, if you will, one village or community looking across the river, and seeing a place rich in natural resources, a place of strong, hard workers who have achieved much. In Murray’s view, it becomes so much easier psychically, when the conqueror is able to dehumanize the strangers. If he truly believes that the villagers from the other place are inferior and sub-human,  hence, they are not deserving of the same considerations given to fellow humans.

By revisioning “the other” as an ‘animal,’ as people who are closer biologically to the animals we hunt and kill than they are to us, this offers the conqueror a form of rationalization for heinous acts. It allows a racist to get sleep at night, even as he continues to pillage the neighbouring village and enslave its people.

Balkaran and Reich support the analysis of racism as an economic tool. In Mass Media and Racism (1999), Balkaran cites Reich as follows:

“In the 1980’s, Michael Reich developed the Segmentation Theory or the Divide and Rule, which attempted to explain racism from an economic point of view. In this theory, Reich proposes that the ultimate goal in society is to maximize profits. As a result, the exploiters will attempt to use any means to: (1) suppress higher wages among the exploited class, (2) weaken the bargaining power of the working class, often by attempting to split it along racial lines, (3) promote prejudices, (4) segregate the black community, (5) ensure that the elite benefit from the creation of stereotypes and racial prejudices against the black community. Reich argues that the major corporations in the U.S. (e.g. Time Warner, Coca Cola, General Motors, etc.) all have at least one member on each other’s corporate boards of directors. As a result, it is in the interest of these members to maximize profits while employing the above devices. The mere fact of these corporate executives’ sharing economic corporate power, combined with the quest for economic profit has now paved the way for economic discrimination. But the question still remains, is the media one of the tools used to promote racism? Does the elite use the media to ensure profits are maximized by corporations?” (Balkaran, 1999).

How did America become so powerful?

Many have looked back in shame on the rapid, unethical growth of America. How did such a young country become so powerful in such a short time? We look in shame because we know the answer.

Slave Auction Ad (public domain image)

Slave Auction Ad (public domain image)

It is in the history of the American slave trade that we find the main reason for America’s stupendous economic success. To understand just how fresh this brutal period is in North American history, only a century ago in remote parts of the South, some people still lived in slavery–even though American slavery had been abolished fifty years before (1863, see the Emancipation Proclamation; see also Abraham Lincoln), many African Americans who were unable to read still did not know that their families had been freed almost two generations before.

This is how America became so powerful. We find many answers when we  look to the history of the American slave trade.

James Oliver Horton writes…

James Oliver Horton, George Washington University

James Oliver Horton, George Washington University

“Cotton is terribly important, not only to the South, but to the nation.  In fact, by 1815, cotton is the most valuable export of the United States.  By 1840, cotton is more valuable than everything else the United States exports put together, so the value of slaves is tremendous.  By the time of the Civil War, by 1860, the dollar value of slave property is greater than the dollar value of all of America’s railroads, all of America’s banks, all of America’s manufacturing put together.  Slavery is no sideshow in American society.  It is very much the main event, and the cotton crop that slaves produced makes America important to the world. Do you realize that the American South by 1860 produces seven eighths of the world’s cotton.  Now, that’s equivalent of OPEC today and oil.  The fact is that when the Confederacy considers going independent, seceding from the United States, one of the things that encourages those people in the South to believe that a separate independent Confederacy is possible, is the fact that it controls so much of the world’s cotton, and cotton is important, not only to the cotton textile industries of New England, but also to the textile industries of England, of France, of Germany, so that cotton has very important economic and consequently, political power.” (Horton, 2002, Safe Harbor)

America’s power and wealth are direct results of oppression, militarism, racism, and enslavement of other humans. With this kind of systemic horror so recent in time, with its effects experienced even today by many who inherited the legacy of poverty and injustice, it is little wonder that American culture is one in which the tension of race relations lies close to the surface of our narratives and our entertainment experience.

Yet, even a hundred years later, we still haven’t got it right. As we shall explore, racism is alive and well and living in Hollywood.

How is racism manifested in our culture?

I usually find that teaching antiracism with young people is a reasonably easy task. Younger folks ‘get’ the idea that we humans are literally all the same, often so much more than their parents’ generation do. In addition to this, the demographic of George Brown College is diverse, featuring students from all over the world. Indeed, the large majority of my students, this past decade, has consisted either of immigrants or the offspring of immigrants, demographics who by the very nature of their situation must be acutely aware of the problems of discrimination.

Before we go any further, I’d like you to take a moment to ask yourself:

What do you think? Are you a racist? You might be surprised when you perform deep self-reflection around this question. I’ll ask you again later, after we have looked at all the different manifestations of racism.

To understand deeply what racism in North American culture really means, we need to drop our defences a bit and understand all of the ways in which racism manifests itself. Anti-racist educators say that most North Americans do not consider themselves to be racist, either in belief or practice. This is because most people don’t fully understand all of the ways in which racism is manifested. Most people believe that ‘being racist’ consists only of thinking that people of other colours and cultural heritages are inferior to those of our own culture, whichever colour or culture that may be. Yet, racism is much more complex than this, and can show up in many forms.

White Privilege and Power

When we step back and look at the systems we use to function in our everyday lives, we discover that many are actually steeped in discriminatory practices against immigrants, people of colour, people who are ESL, and others.

For example, for years, I worked for the U of T Testing Service. Many of us believed that the way in which questions were phrased and the content of the questions was loaded to give advantages to people born in this culture. We were not at all surprised when studies showed as much, that testing in our academies does advantage some cultural groups over others. (Rooks, 2012)

When members of dominant cultures (like myself, a white Canadian-born male) allow systems and institutions to give us access to certain privilege, while others are denied access for lack of the same attributes, we are participating in racist systems. Many antiracist educators argue that, by doing nothing about the system and by accepting these powerful privileges without question, we are being racist by association.

Even if you don’t agree that this kind of ‘playing along’ with a system is a form of racism (it’s a tough one to accept, for some people), have a look at a variety of other criteria that circumscribe a dominant culture’s potential for racism.

For a little irony, check out this Barry Deutsch cartoon about White Privilege…


Do you ever laugh at jokes about immigrants, refugees, or anyone of another, less socially powerful race?

Do your friends tell jokes about immigrants, refugees, or anyone of another race, and you do nothing to object to these jokes?

Observe yourself and your reactions, the next time somebody tells a racist joke.

Cultural Diversity

When you are in a situation where there is little cultural diversity, are you not at all bothered by the absence of people of colour or people who are different from you?

Do you date only people of your own culture or heritage? If so, then why? Conversely, do you date, or prefer to date, only people of a different, specific culture or cultures? If so, then why?

When you go out to lunch with friends, is the group culturally diverse? Do you find yourself sitting only with people of your colour, culture or heritage?

Is there cultural diversity in your life? If not, then why not? As we live in Toronto, with daily access to one of the richest blends of multiculturalism in the world, these are not foolish or irrelevant questions.

Economics and Real Estate

California Newsreel’s Race: The Power of an Illusion (2003) makes it quite clear, in its final episode, that perhaps the most hidden (to most people) and punitive of all forms of racism in North America is the issue of land. According to the film, the real estate value of Black communities in America is consistently much lower than that of White communities: as much as eight times lower. Few observers talk about the naked truth behind this bizarre, obvious phenomenon, yet the same sized, same decorated house in a poorer Black area of Chicago or Philadelphia is a mere thirty grand while, in a white suburb, it is a quarter million.

Real estate is the hidden,  most profound bastion of racism in America (image from

Real estate is the hidden, most profound bastion of racism in America (image from

Even more conservative studies (Brown, 2012) suggest that “…the median net worth of white households is now 20 times that of black households” and “…even when homeowners had similar incomes, black-owned homes were valued at 18% less than white-owned homes.”

Thus, asserts Race: The Power of an Illusion (2003), the most profound race in North America is really a running race that begins with forever uneven odds. Minority North Americans, as a whole, begin this race far behind their white counterparts. It’s a race that can never be won since the legacy of the American slave trade will forever leave the descendants of slaves in this economically disadvantaged position, far behind the descendants of their ancestors’ owners.

Pop Culture

Do you or people you know enjoy any movies or media where racist jokes are told and racist stereotypes are used?

Do you prefer movies that feature members of your own so-called race and exclude members of other races?

Promo poster for 'The Klumps'

Promo poster for ‘The Klumps’

If you do watch films featuring people-of-colour, do they play dignified non-racialized roles? Or are the roles played by actors-of-colour generally action heroes, sports figures, silly buffoons, drug addicts, pimps, or thugs?

Rather than immersing yourself in a new experience and learning about the cultural mores of another heritage, are you simply uncomfortable watching ‘foreign films’ because you find the cultures depicted to be strange and different?

Now apply the same question to so-called ‘race movies’ in our culture. How comfortable are you watching one of Spike Lee‘s older films (like ‘Do the Right Thing‘) dealing with questions of race and racism?

When we are dealing with pop culture, there are a number of methodologies by which racism is utilized, whether intentionally or not, by Hollywood filmmakers. In the following sections of the module, we will examine various methods by which racism is manifested in Hollywood motion pictures.

Invisibility & marginalization

I’d like to start this section on invisibility and marginalization with  three quotes that I think will help to demonstrate these two straightforward concepts.

“…still…Hollywood is majorly afraid to put black people on-screen…. What will it take for Hollywood to understand that black actors and actresses can bring in the big bucks at the box office?” (Akil, 2012).

“While African Americans have made inroads into some parts of American society, they are still nearly invisible in many parts of the news media and the entertainment industry, according to an Ohio State University professor. Rudolph Alexander, Jr., professor of social work, argues in a newly revised book that the media often ignores African Americans in stories of both heroes and victims, even when they are an integral part of the narrative.” (Grabmeier, 2005)

Actor Forest Whitaker (image from

Actor Forest Whitaker (image from

“Oscar-winning actor Forest Whitaker, who won in 2007 for his portrayal of Ugandan dictator Idi Amin in The Last King of Scotland, tells Tavis that Blacks in the movie business have ‘moved a long way, but we’re not at a destination point.’ And the numbers back up Whitaker’s argument. ‘In the early 2000s,’ states a piece in The Hollywood Reporter, ‘blacks played 15% of roles in film and TV. Today, it has fallen to 13% … and black directors make up only 4% of the DGA.’” (Thompson, 2011)(see also McClintock, 2011).

Among the most common ways in which racism is implemented in American movies is through invisibility and marginalization (also called social exclusion), the systematic exclusion of minority actors and concepts. This is the idea that, for the most part, people of colour and minority heritage groups are used much less often than their white counterparts as the main focus of narratives in mainstream Hollywood filmmaking.

With stats like those cited above, it is little wonder that African Americans in Hollywood, both actors and filmmakers, have felt that they were invisible or marginalized.

Invisibility or invisibility syndrome, according to Franklin (Franklin, in Greer, 2004), is “the feeling people get when their abilities, personality and worth are disregarded because of others’ prejudice.” (see Franklin & Boyd-Franklin, 2000)

The Business Dictionary defines marginalization as follows:

“The process whereby something or someone is pushed to the edge of a group and accorded lesser importance. This is predominantly a social phenomenon by which a minority or sub-group is excluded, and their needs or desires ignored.”

Only a decade ago, in 2002, Hollywood had reached a threshold. With African American actors Denzel Washington and Halle Berry both up for main actor awards, many African American pundits swore that there would be reprisals if Hollywood did not finally award Black actors in Hollywood.

“An honorary award went to Sidney Poitier (best actor in 1963 for Lilies of the Field), and both best actor and best actress went to African-American performers – Denzel Washington for Training Day and Halle Berry for Monster’s Ball. It is certainly long overdue. In its entire history, the Academy has awarded only six statues to black actors, five for supporting roles – Washington himself won best supporting actor in 1990 for Glory. The near invisibility of black performers, and indeed the near absence of black people from the screen in Hollywood, has long been a scandal.” (Bradshaw, 2002)

Denzel and Halle at the 2002 Oscars (image from BBC UK)

Denzel and Halle at the 2002 Oscars (image from BBC UK)

After the 2002 Oscars, things seemed to pick up a bit for African Americans in Hollywood.

“After Denzel Washington and Halle Berry won Oscars in 2002 for Training Day and Monster’s Ball respectively, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences seemed to have opened its Academy Awards to Black artists. Each year since Washington and Berry received the coveted statuette, Black artists have been nominated or have won in major categories. Jamie Foxx, Morgan Freeman, Jennifer Hudson, Lee Daniels and Mo’Nique are several examples of recent Black recipients of the Oscar.” (Thompson, 2011).

Yet, while things have improved just a little in the past decade, with actors like Jamie Foxx, Forest Whitaker, and Octavia Spencer picking up Oscars, marginalization still remains an issue.

“People in Hollywood do not want, and even fear, a greater presence of black people in cinema.” (Arthur Jafa, in Geddes, 2012)

With the exception of a dozen or so designated African American superstars, Black actors and actresses in Hollywood are usually confined to playing roles where their ‘blackness’ is an important part of the role. Hollywood usually limits Black performers to feats of action, athleticism, militarism, dancing, Hip hop, and slapstick. We’ll talk about this more when we examine stereotypes in greater detail.

Power dynamics

“In the context of media, black people are not able to say what they feel.” (Arthur Jafa, in Geddes, 2012)

“’Cinema is the mechanism for the mediation of reality,’” Jafa said. Motioning with his hands, he spoke of the need to create ‘a space for black people to play’ without limitations. But it is a challenge to sustain black cinema in an environment of capitalism and Hollywood, Jafa said. The constraints of authority figures and power dynamics can negatively affect cinematic freedom, he added.” (Arthur Jafa, in Geddes, 2012)

Related to the ideas of invisibility and marginalization is the notion of power. As we saw when we looked at Paul Simon‘s Graceland, performing an analysis of who is holding the power in a given pop culture context is often a useful, relevant political exercise. Even as we saw a stage filled with African performers and African music, for critics, the so-called elephant in the room was Paul Simon, the White man who was the leader of the Black band.

Power dynamics is an important consideration in any analysis of Hollywood and racism, both on-screen and off-screen. We may count, in a given scene, a dozen actors from different minorities onscreen. Valid questions still arise: Who’s in charge? Who is speaking the most lines? Which characters are speaking lines that actually advance the plot? (Or are they just saying “Aye, aye, captain”?) Who are the good guys (who will triumph in the film’s scenario)? Who are the bad guys? Who are the bosses of both good and bad groups?

Onscreen power dynamics are a critical issue in any analysis of racism in Hollywood depictions of African Americans. How often, except in Denzel Washington-type films, are African Americans masters of their own destiny, at the helm of an ordinary (non-action) scenario or context? Usually, when Black characters are in charge, they are criminals, gang lords, athletes, or crooked politicians.

“When you break down the interactions between blacks and whites on crime drama shows and movies, blacks are always subordinates. Blacks being presented as criminals is something we talk about ad nauseam. However, even within the ranks of the good guys, blacks are still presented as subordinates. There’s hardly a departmental head or police chief on TV who is black. Shows like Criminal MindsLaw & Order, and Flashpoint all show a white man in charge and the token black man within the group who does everything to remain in the good graces of his white boss. So racial harmony is maintained as long as everyone stays within the bounds of that hierarchy. Even in movies like the Lethal Weapon sequels, the black co-star (Danny Glover) is never allowed to outshine his white co-star (Mel Gibson).” (Gracia-Desgage, 2013).

In addition, above the consideration of how the on-screen power is arranged, there is also the question of who holds the power off-screen. Who is directing and producing the film? Who are the executive producers, the owners of the film? If the story concerns characters and situations from a minority context, are people of minority groups involved in the making of the picture? As this is so rarely the case, it is a reasonable question.

“Very few people have the power to green-light a picture in Hollywood.  None of them are black.” (Burton, 2011)


“There’s hardly a departmental head or police chief on TV who is black.” (Gracia-Desgage, 2013).

Gracia-Desgage is only partly right. Occasionally, we do see Black people in charge, on network shows and in mainstream movies. Yet, rarely does their presence make a difference in advancing the plot. This is because many African American characters, indeed, characters in Hollywood media belonging to any cultural minority, are often what media people call “token characters.”

“Tokenism is the policy or practice of making a perfunctory gesture toward the inclusion of members of minority groupsThis token effort is usually intended to create a false appearance of inclusiveness and deflect accusations of discrimination. Typical examples include purposely hiring a non-white person in a mainly white occupation or a woman in a traditionally male occupation. Classically, token characters have some reduced capacity compared to the other characters and may have bland or inoffensive personalities so as to not be accused of stereotyping negative traits. Alternatively, their differences may be overemphasized or made “exotic” and glamorous.” (Wiki, tokenism)

Thus, token characters create the illusion that there is a minority presence in a given movie or scene, when in truth, the token minority character is actually doing very little but saying time-filling lines or reciting dialogue bites that are set-ups for main, dominant culture characters.

As the Wiki definition suggests, many parts available to minority actors are ‘token parts,’ intended to give the presence of minority characters. Tokenism occurs most often in order for filmmakers to appear politically correct or to avoid criticism and critique. As Wiki asserts, token efforts are usually “…intended to create a false appearance of inclusiveness and deflect accusations of discrimination.” (Wiki, tokenism)

Hollywood television

Hollywood television bears just as great a problem as Hollywood movies, in this regard.   The truth is, if your minority characters do not fulfil a function that advances the plot, they are token by default. 1960s shows that sincerely attempted to pioneer in race representation, like Gene Roddenberry‘s Star Trek, were accused of tokenism, even as they were doing so much to get minority actors on television at all. Since the show’s producers were prevented (by network bosses) from featuring their minority characters, these now-token characters provided little more than window dressing. Roddenberry responded angrily to restrictions on his characters. In one groundbreaking scene, Roddenberry intentionally shocked America by having lead character Captain Kirk kiss Communications officer Lieutenant Uhura… a black character. Ironically, though the moment was historic, it was still token, since the moment was never repeated and the two characters never fulfilled romantic possibilities.

Incredibly, Star Trek was made in the late 1960s and little has been done since to promote minority Americans beyond tokens in mainstream media. Scandal, starring Kerry Washington, is the first show in 40 years to star an African American female lead.

“…the big deal here is that Ms Washington is the first black female leading a major US network show since Teresa Graves starred in Get Christie Love (about a female police detective) in 1974. And maybe that’s the real scandal; why has it taken so long? Show business is precisely that; a show – business. It’s all about the bottom line for broadcasters, and the perception remains that TV programmes starring minorities will not rate well.” (Cooper, 2013)

As late as the nineties, on how many of our favourite TV shows (Friends, Seinfeld, Frasier) were minority characters all but invisible, the occasional waiters, restaurant owners, cab drivers, or delivery men in a primarily white world?

And on shows and in movies today, the African American characters are still the sassy friends of the lead characters, the sassy woman at the DMV, or the sassy clerk in a clothing store: always playing ‘blackness’ over the top, always sassy and filled with ‘attitude.’

Why tokenism will endure

At least in the past couple of decades, minorities have gotten to play the strong man on a crack team of pros, the genius IT person in an media room or on an FBI squad, and occasionally, the crusty but benign police captain who gets to say, “You’re a loose cannon, __________ !  [fill in white lead character’s name here]).

Unfortunately, this falsely augmented presence has actually succeeded in making many Americans believe that “things have changed.” Like those who say, “Now that Obama’s president, racism is a thing of the past,” many deluded viewers are satisfied that minorities have gained back their rightful ground.

Those who are media literate know the truth.

“What we need now are not white movies with Benetton tokenism (think Harry Potter: Cho Chang and the Patel twins), nor movies that ghettoize racial experience. What we need now, if our movies are to reflect American life as it is lived by more and more of us, is not white or black, but multiracial, biracial—movies whose plots and characters show how people of all races, not just white and black, combine and intersect in more mundane ways (marriage, friendship, work) and how these intersections have their particular, subtle racially-inflected nuances but are also just that—friendships, work, marriages.” (Wilkinson, 2011)


“Russell Simmons said the use of the N-word makes black people ‘special.’ [Richard] Pryor decided 25 years ago that it was stupid.” (Jackson, 2005)

How can you teach about epithets without using epithets? It is difficult to teach about epithets. That is because I refuse to use them or to condone situations in which they are used. My choice. Yours too, while you’re on Blackboard. In your private life, your choice.

Over and above that, we all know it is institutionally forbidden for you and I to learn about ‘epithets’ by actually printing them and using them on this server.

We know they’re wrong, yet we hear people using them all the time, in conversation, on street corners, on media, on social networks.

Let’s try this, shall we? Calling an Asian person the “ch” word, or the “n” word. Calling an Hispanic or Latino person by the “sp” word. Using the “w” word to label Italian Canadian people. Using the “h” word or the “k” word to mock a Jewish person (as Charlie Sheen did with ‘Big Bang Theory‘ series creator Chuck Lorre). Using the “n” word to disparage an African American, Caribbean American or Canadian person (as Seinfeld actor Michael Richards did, many times, at a popular comedy club, The Laugh Factory).

Michael Richards' notorious N-bomb meltdown at The Laugh Factory (image from CNN)

Michael Richards’ notorious N-bomb meltdown at The Laugh Factory (image from CNN)

So, now that we understand what terms we are talking about, why should we have a problem with mere words?

The simple answer is that words hurt. You know it’s true.

There is much political baggage and many personal histories of atrocities and oppression connected to many of these words, these epithets. This is why, in the past few decades, rap artists and Hip hop poets alike have gone to great lengths to reappropriate the “n” word and its political power back from the White status quo, who used the word as part of a complex methodology for justifying horror. Each time the “n” word is used in a meaningful rap song, the African American artist professes that he is taking back the word that has caused his people so much pain.

“Some blacks, mostly young people, argue that their open use of the word will eventually demystify it, strip it of its racist meaning. They liken it to the way some homosexuals have started referring to themselves as ‘queers’ in a defiant slap at an old slur.” (Marriott, 1993).

In a similar way, First Nations people here in Canada often use the word “Indian” to label themselves, even though it refers to Columbus and other White explorers’ ignorant usage of the term to name North America’s indigenous population. Why ignorant?Because the first explorers journeyed West to reach the Orient in the East, and wrongfully thought they had discovered India. The name “Indians” endured, ironically.

The reclamation defence is a compelling argument, and for the last decade and a half that I have been teaching, I have supported this reclamation effort. I recognized it as a way of keeping cultural history and launching a political protest. At the height of its reclamation period, it appeared to have had a liberating political effect on many African American artists.

“In a documentary last year on the N-word, actor and rapper Ice Cube claimed the word was a defiant ‘badge of honor.’ Last month, in an interview on NBC’s ‘Today’ show, rapper 50 Cent said of his massive use of the N-word: ”I’m not using it as a racial slur. . . . It’s just slang.’ Talk about reinventing the N-wheel. All these things were precisely what the comedian Pryor claimed at the beginning of the 1970s when he made a conscious decision to splatter his routine with the word. In his autobiography, ‘Pryor Convictions,’ he said, ”N%$#&!. And so this one night I decided to make it my own. N%$#&!. I decided to take the sting out of it. N%$#&!. As if saying it over and over again would numb me and everybody else to its wretchedness. N%$#&!. Said it over and over like a preacher singing hallelujah.” Pryor claimed, ”Saying it changed me, yes it did. It gave me strength . . .” (Jackson, 2005)

Lately, after a thirty year run, the common usage of the “n” word in popular culture has taken many critiques. Most of the critique is in agreement that the word, as a tool of protest in Hip hop culture and music, has been so overused that listeners are now desensitized to it. The Hip hop medium is now over three decades old. How often can you say N&*%$# and expect it to have political impact? Particularly in a pop culture realm where the word is considered ‘funny’ in def jam comedy contexts and used at the climax of punchlines.

It is ludicrous that a mainstream rapper, if he uses the standard iconography of current pop Hip hop trends, would sincerely believe that his dropping of n-bombs could have much political value anymore. On a palette of iconography that includes wall-to-wall-bling, gaudy mansions, red felt pool tables, Grecian statues, booty galore, money flying through the air, and pimped up Escalades, the assertion that any kind of legitimate protest work is being done is specious at best.

“In ‘Pryor Convictions,’ Pryor said that he left Africa ”regretting ever having uttered the word ‘nigger’ on a stage or off it. It was a wretched word. Its connotations weren’t funny, even when people laughed. To this day I wish I’d never said the word. I felt its lameness. It was misunderstood by people. They didn’t get what I was talking about. Neither did I. . . . So I vowed never to say it again.” (Jackson, 2005)


It is often said that imitation is the best form of flattery. Yet, this old proverb may not always be true.

As we did with Paul Simon’s Diamonds on the Soles of Her Shoes, I’d like you to put on your semiotician hat and check out the following YouTube clip:

  • Mammy, Al Jolson from the finale of The Jazz Singer

What is the signifier in the “Mammy” film clip? Describe what you see. Pretty straightforward, I think. Any variation on “a white man singing while wearing charcoal-black makeup on his face” would do the trick as a signifier. If you are astonished and more than just a little bit appalled by this blackface performance by 1927’s biggest star, Al Jolson, good for you– you’re on the right track.

Al Jolson was the biggest movie star in the world, at the time, being paid over a million dollars a picture. Jolson’s “The Jazz Singer” was a remarkably successful motion picture, kept at the top by the novelty fact that it was the first mainstream talking picture, or talkie. Yet, while White audiences cheered, there were African American protesters lined up around the block in most cities.

Al Jolson in "The Jazz Singer" (1927) [public domain photo]

Al Jolson in “The Jazz Singer” (1927) [public domain photo]

The material was objectionable since it continued to use the antiquated pop culture practice of blackface, initiated by actors in traveling minstrel shows of the early 1800s.

“In both the United States and Britain, blackface was most commonly used in the minstrel performance tradition, but it predates that tradition, and it survived long past the heyday of the minstrel show. White blackface performers in the past used burnt cork and later greasepaint or shoe polish to blacken their skin and exaggerate their lips, often wearing woolly wigs, gloves, tailcoats, or ragged clothes to complete the transformation. Later, black artists also performed in blackface. Stereotypes embodied in the stock characters of blackface minstrels not only played a significant role in cementing and proliferating racist images, attitudes and perceptions worldwide, but also in popularizing black culture.” (Wiki, blackface).

Remember when we examined Romanticism? Do you remember the visual image of rich aristocrats picnicking out in the country somewhere, their fine orchestra (playing Beethoven’s Pastorale, probably) and their serving people hidden by a thicket of trees while the nobles pretended to be poor peasants? That was the iconographic epitome of Romanticism, the idea of higher classes romanticizing the nobility of the poor person (“slumming it”), if only for a day, eating foods that the poor person might eat and listening to peasant dances. Misguided and offensive as it was, in essence, the emulation of African Americans found in minstrel shows was yet another example of Romanticism at work, right at the height of the Romantic age. Though there was considerable mockery of a so-called African American set of behaviours and cultural styles, the originators of the minstrel show and blackface tradition would not have seen themselves as racist. Many sincerely believed they were paying ‘loving tribute’ to the hard-working [plural “n”-word] of America.

Superstar Al Jolson repeated the same sentiment often, believing that his ‘race ventiloquism’ work was an artform that he used to support and give dignity to African Americans and their rich entertainment culture. He saw his alleged ability to duplicate behaviours and singing styles of African Americans as a cunning trick, like what a celebrity impressionist does. Apparently, he rarely considered the problematic politics of his ‘artform.’

Promo poster for early blackface act (image from Library of Congress, public domain)

Promo poster for early blackface act (image from Library of Congress, public domain)

“Blackface makeup was largely eliminated even from live film comedy in the U.S. after the end of the 1930s, when public sensibilities regarding race began to change and blackface became increasingly associated with racism and bigotry.” (Wiki, blackface)


“An ethnic stereotype is a simplified and often misleading representation of an ethnic group, composed of what are thought to be typical characteristics of members of a given ethnic group. These images of a particular group are used to communicate underlying messages about status, society and cultural norms.” (Wiki, ethnic stereotype)

When African Americans and other minorities are used, usually the role’s weight has a great deal to do with the actors’ so-called ‘ethnicity’ and how he/she conveys that ‘ethnicity.’

If you can get a hold of Robert Townsend‘s (1987) Hollywood Shuffle, you’ll see immediately what this means. It is a film about a young Black actor trying to get non-stereotypical roles in an industry determined to hire him for being, in some way. “black.”

Robert Townsend's "Hollywood Shuffle" DVD cover

Robert Townsend’s “Hollywood Shuffle” DVD cover

Hollywood Shuffle is a 1987 comedy film that satirizes the racial stereotypes of African Americans in film and television. The film tracks the attempts of Bobby Taylor to become a successful actor and the mental and external roadblocks he encounters, represented through a series of interspersed vignettes and fantasies. Produced, directed, and co-written by Robert Townsend, the film is semi-autobiographical, reflecting Townsend’s experiences as a black actor when he was told he was not ‘black enough’ for certain roles.” (Wiki, Hollywood Shuffle)

The character of Bobby finds that the only roles that seem to be available for him are ‘black’ roles: soldiers, fighters, butlers, servants, pimps, drug dealers, gang members, and so on. He also finds that the producer and casting director of the film he tries out for already have a firm preconceived notion of how they believe “a black person behaves.”

Townsend and many other filmmakers, actors and actresses in Hollywood often complain that they would like, for a change, to make films in which their colour is irrelevant.

“I get these roles because I can act and that’s it. Hopefully that’s it. The less I talk about being black, the better.” (Idris Elba, in Obenson, 2012)

There are few actors lucky enough to get this kind of a break. More often, when an actor is hired to play a Black president, baseball player, or rapper, the fact that they are people-of-colour figures prominently in the actor’s backstory and motivation, and even in the reason the character exists.

Fallacies of logic

We’ve already established that the act of stereotyping a particular racial group is scientifically incorrect (because the findings of the Human Genome Project show that all humans are 99.9 percent the same genetically).

It turns out that making essentialist generalizations about most groups of things, animals, and especially people is rhetorically incorrect also, a violation of the basic rules of logic. When we make a racist generalization, we are committing two fallacies:

(1) The fallacy of dramatic instance: “tendency to overgeneralize, to use one, two, or three cases to support an entire argument.” This is when we blow up a small anecdote or observation about a sample of people and turn the instance into a large, grand narrative. This large exaggerated story is then used to represent the behaviour of a much larger sample.

(2) The fallacy of composition: “assuming that what is valid for the part is also valid for the whole”; it is similar to the fallacy of dramatic instance, but it is a mathematical error. The error occurs when the small sample that we observed is being falsely used to be an equivalent representative of a mathematically-much-larger group.

Stereotyping Exercise

When I have taught Pop Culture in the classroom over the years, one of the most useful exercises I found for demonstrating the idea of stereotypes is to assign a different blackboard to each of a handful of various so-called races: Arabic people, South Asian people, People of Latino/Latina heritage, Asian people (a combination of Chinese, Japanese, Korean, Vietnamese, and a number of other national groups combined), African Canadian or Caribbean Canadian people, White/British people. Then, I would ask students to call out or to come up to the board themselves and write their stereotypes.

You can try this at home by getting a half dozen loose leaf pages and writing each of the names of the cultural groups at the top of one sheet of paper.

Now, brainstorm to find stereotypes for each cultural group. In other words, what ‘types’ do people who are bigoted use to make generalizations about a given group? I’ll give you an example by starting with my own heritage, British Canadians. As much as for any other racial group, people have made many generalizations about the dominant culture in Canada: all White English folks are arrogant, White folks are rich, White men can’t jump, White English Canadians don’t enjoy dancing or partying, White folks are racist, White English Canadians are so frugal, they’re cheap, and so on.

We must keep in mind that this exercise is about myths, lies within our culture. Racial stereotypes are grand false generalizations we make about the biological makeup of so-called racial groups. None of our stereotypes is generalizable to a given group, for scientific reasons (the HGP) of which you are now acutely aware.

While we know these generalizations are untrue, Asian folks get falsely labeled all the time. People say they’re good at math and martial artistry, but no good at driving. Hispanic folks are stereotyped as hot blooded savage people, with dancing in their blood. While Asian folks are stereotyped as accountants and wise Kung Fu experts, Hispanic people get stereotyped in Hollywood pictures as gangleaders, prisoners, or druglords.

You can see how racism gets way out of hand when we enter the realm of stereotyping. It’s a false cultural exercise we all engage in because, secretly, even many reasonable people believe that this kind of generalizing is in some way valid.

We know now that it is false to make any generalization, rooted in biology, about any cultural group. Keep in mind at all times, as we explore stereotypes, the Human Genome Project’s findings about our human similarity.

Try with your friends this daring cataloguing of stereotypes. It’s good to remind yourself (even by saying aloud throughout the exercise, as I have done here) that these things are inaccurate generalizations, myths, and lies.

What I have found, most often, in doing this exercise in-class was the huge profusion of stereotypes about African American/Canadians and Caribbean American/Canadians. Each year, the blackboard dedicated to Black stereotypes became entirely filled. I believe this is because there have been so many false depictions of Black North Americans in Hollywood motion pictures that we, as media literacy students, have in our brains a huge palette of these stereotypes to choose from. Many of the cultural stereotypes we see in iconographic analyses happen to be actual human roles: African jungle savage,  baseball player, Basketball player, bodyguard, bouncer, butler, cab driver, football player, homeless person, junkie, muscle man, pastor, plump mammy, policeman, preacher, prisoner, servant, track star, train porter, ticket taker, tollbooth operator, thug, waiter.

[Say it again: These are stereotypes, myths, lies!]

Have fun with this exercise, but not too much fun. You don’t want to be, as Dave Chapelle says, that one guy in the corner who’s laughing a little bit too hard.

Classified X

Stewart synopsizes Melvin Van Peebles’ Classified X as follows:

Melvin Van Peebles' "Classified X" (1998) [dir: Mark Daniels]

Melvin Van Peebles’ “Classified X” (1998) [dir: Mark Daniels]

“In this medium-length (53 minutes) French-U.S. documentary made for European television, black filmmaker Melvin Van Peebles examines African-American film history. Narrating while clips, stills, and location shots are seen behind him in a rear projection, Van Peebles’ commentary covers a wide range of racial stereotyping. Beginning with early silent films, even prior to Birth of a Nation, excerpts from more than 70 features are unspooled. At one juncture, Van Peebles departs from mainstream Hollywood films to examine the independent black cinema, made for exhibition in the network of blacks-only theaters. When Van Peebles’ self-produced his innovative and potent Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song (1971), the film was a milestone. Embraced by the Black Panthers, it grossed $10 million in the U.S., grabbing the attention of the film industry — which then used it as a springboard to distort Van Peebles’ themes into the more violent “blaxploitation” genre of the ’70s.” (Stewart, 2013)

  • YouTube: Daniels, Mark, with Van Peebles, Melvin. (1998). “Classified X.”

“At the heart of ‘Classified X’ is this paradox posed by Van Peebles: ‘How could America set itself up as a bastion of liberty and equality on one hand and treat its colored citizens so shabbily on the silver screen and get away with it?’ Van Peebles sets the scene with a montage of comic scenes: a black bartender caught in the cross-fire of the drunken members of the Ale & Quail Club in Preston Sturges’ ‘The Palm Beach Story,’ Shirley Temple rebuking Stepin Fetchit, Adolphe Menjou directing shuffling black bumpkins toward the watermelon and ‘the chicken house.’ All in fun? ‘Maybe-kinda-sorta if you are white,’ Van Peebles states in the film. ‘What some folks find funny, other folks find tragic.'” (Liebenson, 1998)

I strongly recommend you try to get a hold of this fascinating documentary and see it for yourself. When the evidence is neatly stacked up, as it is with Van Peebles’ rich archive film clips, we get the big picture on the depth of racism in which Hollywood indulged for many decades. Van Peebles’ theory functions in the same way as in the 2-part theory of Hollywoodism we studied last week–when Hollywood taught America the American Dream and its icons; yet, ironically, it was an America in which Jews were marginalized and disparaged by antisemites and antisemitic institutions.

Similarly, it seems also to be true that the specific visual icons, roles, and iconography of racism (ie. watermelons, chicken eating, shuffling, etc.) weren’t universally disseminated to all Americans until the 20th century and the movie age. While violent racism in America existed long before Hollywood did, it was racism’s articulation and distribution through Hollywood movies and later, television, that achieved the assembly of the iconography of everyday racism– this is the stuff with which we fill an entire blackboard. Being a powerful communications medium, the movies managed to spread the new lexicon of racism across the ‘civilized’ world.

Just as Hollywoodism had a grand irony, so does the ‘Classified X’ Theory. Over generations of seeing demeaning images and stereotypes, African American viewers were not immune to the media effects McLuhan said were inevitable and largely hidden from view. Van Peebles asserts that African American viewers reached out to a silver screen in an effort to see reflections of themselves and, instead found images that made them feel shame.

“Through clips spanning Thomas Edison’s first images nearly a century ago to “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner,” he illustrates the sense of shame he felt from watching movies whose images of African Americans were at gross variance with his experience growing up in Chicago. “Colored folks in the movies were always quakin’, ‘Yassah boss’-in’ and shufflin’,” he notes in the film.” (Liebenson, 1998)

Yet, because the impact of media is so great, we are often impacted, on an unconscious level, by what we see onscreen. Whole generations of African American viewers were made to feel this shame, over and over again, as they went to the pictures each weekend. Van Peebles argues that even when the blatantly shameful iconography of fearful quaking slaves was diminished, it was replaced by yet another set of racist images, this time in the disguise of reform and equality.

“More insidious than the blatant racism of what he calls “the old Negro films” were the “new Negro films” of the 1940s and ’50s. Blacks were allowed to portray more three-dimensional characters, Van Peebles states, “but they became a vehicle for moral lessons about justice and tolerance, always with a sympathetic white character to mediate the experience [such as James Whitmore in “Black Like Me”]. The white character carried the same paternalistic attitude that the kindly old slave owners became famous for in the old Negro movies.” (Liebenson, 1998)

According to Van Peebles, the overall effect of the internalization of disempowering images is that many African American viewers internalized racism. This is evident in a number of rare films cited by Van Peebles. Though these films were made by African American filmmakers, they maintained the myth of white supremacy by making the bad guys a darker shade of black than that of the white, mixed race characters. Still, Van Peebles gives them kudos for making the effort.

“Tired of being portrayed on screen as slaves, servants or loafers, and desperate to see themselves as heroic, African Americans could find some justice in films made by black independent filmmakers such as Oscar Micheaux and Spencer Williams. But this era of segregated cinema was anything but golden. The story of these artists, Van Peebles states, ‘is one of struggle, stuttered starts and stunted careers, a courageous file of brothers and sisters who sacrificed to bring a few precious seconds of black humanity to the silver screen.’ Most of these performers, who were never given the opportunity to cross over to studio films, are largely forgotten today. ‘All that talent wasted,’ he ruefully mourns.” (Liebenson, 1998).

Ultimately, Van Peebles tells the story of how he made Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song (1971) in order to kick Hollywood’s ass. And when it came time to rate the film, the jury was all white, so he refused to go. Hence, they gave him an automatic X rating. But that was okay, he says sardonically. After all, says Van Peebles, he’d been seeing X rated films his whole life.

The film Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song was commercially successful. It was a “take no prisoners manifesto,” says Van Peebles, and became required viewing by the Black Panther Party.

Yet, according to Van Peebles, the greater impact of the film was that White producers in Hollywood co-opted/appropriated the flashier, more violent aspects of his work and mashed them into cheap action thrillers featuring Black actors. Voila, says Van Peebles. The blaxploitation film was born.

“Blaxploitation or blacksploitation is a film genre that emerged in the United States in the 1970s. It is considered an ethnic subgenre of the general category of exploitation films. Blaxploitation films were originally made specifically for an urban black audience, although the genre’s audience appeal soon broadened across racial and ethnic lines… Variety credited Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song, released in 1971, with the invention of the blaxploitation genre while others argue that the Hollywood-financed film Shaft, also released in 1971, is closer to being a blaxploitation piece and thus is more likely to have begun the trend.” (Wiki, Blaxploitation)

Van Peebles expressed his disappointment that his film, he believed, had a direct link to the dawn of the blaxploitation film. When we studied Pop Music, we noted how the essential message of Hip hop (a genre that began as an expression of civil rights claims and African American pride) has been diluted over time by commercial pressures. Van Peebles suggests that the blaxploitation film was a similarly diluted product, completely depoliticized for a commercial mainstream audience.


So after all of this, ask yourself again: am I a racist? Do I have racist views on some issues we’ve discussed? On many issues?

The good news is that we can all do something about racism, each and every day. Remember the questions we asked earlier?

  • Do you ever laugh at jokes about immigrants, refugees, or anyone of another, less socially powerful race?
  • Do your friends tell jokes about immigrants, refugees, or anyone of another race, and you do nothing to object to these jokes?
  • When you are in a situation where there is little cultural diversity, are you not at all bothered by the absence of people of colour or people who are different from you?
  • Do you date only people of your own culture or heritage? If so, then why?
  • Conversely, do you date, or prefer to date, only people of a different, specific culture or cultures? If so, then why?
  • When you go out to lunch with friends, is the group culturally diverse?
  • Do you find yourself sitting only with people of your colour, culture or heritage?

I think all of us can find ways in which to address these issues and to think about how we might be more sensitive to them in the future.

As consumers of pop culture, we can respond to these challenges as well:

  • Do you or people you know enjoy any movies or media where racist jokes are told and racist stereotypes are used?
  • Do you prefer movies that feature members of your own so-called race and exclude members of other races?
  • If you do watch films featuring people-of-colour, do they play dignified non-racialized roles? Or are the roles played by actors-of-colour generally action heroes, sports figures, silly buffoons, drug addicts, pimps, or thugs?

We can be more discerning in choosing the content of the pop we consume. Once we truly get the huge scope of racism and how it is manifested in our daily pop, it’s hard to just look away and not do our part.


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