Birth of a Nation to Green Book: the film industry’s problem with racism

Film’s history of anti-Black racist stereotypes and lack of representation.

By Elizabeth Van Oorschot

Though applicable to art of any form, the idea that life imitates art rings particularly true in the way stereotypes and representation in films have the ability to shape public perception. Without racial diversity in the film industry, the same white-centric narratives are told over and over again, with the few portrayals of people of colour often being reduced to harmful stereotypes and underdeveloped side characters. Since those who benefit from our society’s current power hierarchy – and therefore have little vested interest in changing it – are the same ones who control the financial power to produce big-budget movies, it’s hard for racial minorities to break into the white-dominated film industry.

The 1915 silent epic Birth of a Nation presents a window into the film industry’s racist history. Blatantly bigotted in its portrayal of the Klu Klux Klan as heroic, the picture also reduces its black characters to offensive caricatures. One example is the portrayal of Black men as sexually aggressive and dangerous, particularly towards white women. The harmful legacy of this stereotype lives on today, with Black people, and men in particular, being perceived as more aggressive – one of many factors that contributes to the horrific rates of police brutality – while Black women are depicted as angry or loud. White people, often women known as the infamous “Karens,” weaponize this prejudice to paint themselves as the victim in an altercation with a Black person, even if they were the one to instigate it. They use the knowledge that other white people, the media and the police will be prone to view Black people as inherently more aggressive and therefore take their side.

Most of the Black characters in Birth of a Nation were played by white actors in blackface, the practice of using makeup to darken one’s face. It was far from an isolated incident; blackface minstrel shows were at their peak of popularity during the early 20th century, perpetuating a slew of false and harmful stereotypes in an attempt to garner a cheap laugh. With actors assuming an exaggerated childlike and ignorant manner, these shows falsely perpetuated the idea that Blacks were lazy and unintelligent. Another common theme was the implication that Black people were happy as, and in fact wanted to be, slaves; this was used as justification of bigoted views and policies.

Though the media today is less overtly racist than what we see in Birth of a Nation , much of it still contains harmful tropes and a general lack of Black representation. Back in 2015, there was the OscarsSoWhite scandal, where it was noted that all of the 20 acting nominees for Academy Awards were white. Since then, the Academy has promised to diversify its membership, which has predominately been older white men. They have also set new criteria for best-picture nominees. The Academy said the new criteria are “designed to encourage equitable representation on and off screen” and will take effect for the 2024-25 Oscar season.

While the Academy’s intentions may be good, the new criteria have faced criticism on both sides of the debate. In particular, there is concern that they will not be effective in ensuring quality representation, with the best-picture-winning Green Book held up as an example. The film tells the story of Black queer pianist Doctor Shirley, but it is framed through the lens of the white saviour trope. This trope has a lot to unpack, but in short it makes a white character the centre of a story about Black liberation. Movies featuring white saviours often lack depth in the development of their Black characters, focusing instead on the impact that those characters have on a white protagonist. They also tend to misrepresent and minimize racism as an individual issue instead of a systemic one, to appeal to white audiences and allow them to pat themselves on the back for not being as bad as the antagonist.

In cases like this, it’s not just a matter of whose stories get told – though a general lack of Black characters, especially beyond the role of best friend or tokenism, is still a prevalent issue – but a matter of who tells the story. With very few non-white people in influencial creative positions in the film industry, it’s not surprising that movies lack nuanced portrayals of Black experiences. As such, it is vital to have diversity both in the cast and in the production of movies.

Recognizing stereotypes in the media is crucial in the process of unlearning the biases they have taught us. The root of why these stereotypes are so pervasive must be examined and addressed, not just with lip-service promises from the Academy but with a systemic solution for what is ultimately a systemic issue.

Elizabeth Van Oorschot is a Grade 12 Glebe Collegiate student and an editor of the school’s publication, the Glebe Gazette.

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