My brief was to investigate whether the images of black women in film have changed in the last 75 years. This topic is both relevant and controversial due to the latest winnings at the 2002 Academy Awards, in which Halle Berry became the first success actress to win the "Best Actress" category. First let's look at the race movements in the past 20 years to establish how film roles change in accordance with social attitudes.
Through the 1910's through to the 1940's introduced "race films", these films were a direct response to the segregation in mainstream Hollywood film industry, race movies were low budgeted and mostly aimed at black audiences. Oscar Micheaux, the father of Afro-American cinema produced more than 40 race films between the years 1919 to 1940. The most famous race films where produced by Oscar Micheaux. He produced films such as "Within our Gates" (1920), "Body and Soul" (1925) and "The Conjure Woman" (1926).
With these films black audiences were able to see themselves as educated, goal oriented people on screen, rather than the shady or complaisant figures they saw white actors depicting them as in Hollywood. Even though "race films" began to die down in the 1940's they had left their mark on people and influenced black actors to find a way to play themselves in Hollywood. Black actors were slowly being allowed to work in film and in Hollywood. However the roles that were being offered to the actors were often time very stereotypical.
One example of a black actress who made a space for herself in Hollywood is Hattie MacDaniel, who was the first African American actress to win an Oscar for her supporting role as "Mammy" in the 1939 classic "Gone with the wind". The film "Gone with the wind" (1939) was set in the early 1870 and is a wonderful example of how films can be reflective of stereotypes seen in society. Hattie MacDaniel, for her portrayal of the "Mammy" had to maintain over 200 pounds to be cast for the "Mammy" role, portraying a highly stereotypical, de-sexualised character.
Theses roles where perceived through the white societies eyes, as an appropriate description of African American women. The fact that an African American women could play a character that was written as an African American roles must be seen as a step forward in breaking down racial barriers, however many black audiences criticised Hattie MacDaniel's role in "Gone with the wind" for perpetuating stereotypes of black women. Hattie MacDaniel's portrayal of the "Mammy" in "Gone with the wind" is one of the negative roles that Hollywood would offer Black actors.
Even though she did play a stereotype, Hattie MacDaniel's did change things in Hollywood by becoming a prominent black actress in many movies especially because after having received an academy award for her portrayal of Mammy in "Gone with the wind". Even though Hattie MacDaniel received a academy award for her role in "Gone in the wind" Hattie was not allowed to attend the award ceremony. Roles for black women in Hollywood made no great inroads until the 1970's. Blackspoitation introduced a genre of female-based films in which black women dominated.
The blackspoitation genre was created by Hollywood's awakening to the possibility that there might be a new profitable black audience emerging. Theses films often used the same stereotypes created by white Hollywood when depicting black women on screen. Black women were frequently sexualised in these films as objects of black male desire. The film "Cleopatra Jones" (1973) introduced kung-fu elements, with black actress Tamara Dobson in the title role moving with lighting speed from sweet smiles to grimaces and vicious kicks.
Another black actress made her debut in the 1970's was Pam Grier, she was later established as the great female star of the genre and her first two collaborations with director Jack Hill were among the best blackspoitation films. Unlike Tamara Dobson, Pam Grier didn't need to use kung-fu to make her films succeed. In her film "Coffy" (1973) she plays a nurse whose sister, age 12 has been hooked on drugs, Pam Grier's character goes on a rampage to seek revenge on the bad guy's doings to her sister.
In the film "Foxy Brown" (1974) Pam Grier was introduced as a new black heroine, a woman who was both sexy and in full control of her destiny. The eighties saw the beginning of a new era for black women in film. The first film for textual analysis was the film "The Colour Purple" (1985). This film was set in the 1800's and was nominated for 11 academy awards. The film had a predominantly black cast and was about black history and issues of how black women have enlightened views on self perception. The film starred Oprah Winfrey and Whoopi Goldberg.
The film was directed by Steven Spielberg, a white male director. Spielberg introduced a new way of photographing black women so that they stood out against a background. These photographic techniques made black people appear more distinctly on screen than in the cinematic tradition of Hollywood, demonstrating an increasing awareness of the importance of humanising black character portrayals. Director Spielberg believed that before one can change stereotypes they must first be shown. He gave the characters some negative sexual qualities.
The films audience was quite unanimously impressed in the way which the characters were portrayed on screen, the film black female spectators as the film revolved around the growing independence of the female characters. When Whoopi Goldberg's character, Celie, in the film leaves her abusive husband, he berates her, Whoopi's response to the belittling "I'm poor, black and may be ugly, but, dear God, I'm here" is the films moment of inspiration for women in the audience. The quote also encompassed not only the movement of black women during the 80's, but more importantly it parallels the dynamics of black women's foray on the film industry.
Even though the black female audiences found the film empowering, the black press attacked the film for being a stereotypical white male director's negative depiction of black women. Prior to staring in the film "The colour purple" Whoopi Goldberg had only starred in one film as a minor black actress. After starring in the film "The colour purple," Whoopi has gone onto star in 150 films and has been nominated for several academy awards. This rise in her career shows that playing the stereotypical negative black women can lead to stardom.
The next film that Whoopi would star in "Jack Flash" (1986), raised studio concerns as the believed that American audience could not cope with inter-racial sex scenes on screen. A similar scenario occurred with Whitney Houston and Kevin Costner in "The Bodyguard," it took 15 years for the script to be accepted by a Hollywood studio. Despite being one of the most successful films in the 90's, the intimate sex scenes between Houston and Costner are suggested rather than played out in order not to offend mainstream audiences.
The film "Daughters of the Dust" (1991) was a film to address black women, the black community. "Daughters of the Dust" (1991) is important not only because it was directed by a black woman, Julie dash. The film used the setting of an island in the sea for symbolic space outside of the white community, forcing black women to look at themselves as a whole, rather than a reflection of whit society. Rather than exploiting black women's sexuality, the film celebrated black women as beautiful, intelligent and elf-loving, but most of all human.
This film changed black women's views of themselves by "breaking the stereotypes of African American women. " The making of the film also helped to change minds of Hollywood investors. Some actresses that have turned down roles which they fell would portray them in a negative light or as a stereotype in Hollywood. An example of someone who decided she didn't want to play a negative role on film is Angela Bassett, who originally was asked to do the film, "Monster's Ball" (2002). Angela turned down the role because of how the movie portrayed African American women.
She said of turning the role down. I wasn't going to be a prostitute of film.... it's such a stereotype about black women and sexuality" (Newsweek June 23, 2002). After having read the script she realized that this is not a role she wanted to play, the role was offered to Halle Berry. The character played by Berry was an oversexed woman named Letticia who had extremely racy scenes with Billy Bob Thorton's character. For this role, Berry received an Oscar, the first for an African American leading actress in a film. While this should be a positive thing it has also been seen a negative achievement.
This is because similarly to Hattie MacDaniel's Oscar win for best supporting actress in "Gone with the wind", Berry has been awarded an Oscar for playing a negative stereotype of African American women. However the character that Berry plays, celebrates black female sexuality. Even though Halle Berry is the only leading African American actress, she herself has had many struggles to gain her status. Berry lobbied for the role of "Sharon Stone" in the "Flintstones" (1994), originally an all white cast. Berry forced the producers to accept that it was both appropriate and acceptable to have a black woman in this role.
From this Berry went on to produce a TV film based on the singer/actor, Dorothy Dandridge, who was the first black actress to be nominated for the Best Actress Academy Award. Berry had many struggles making this TV film, many studios were dubious about the audience reception. Berry felt that this TV film was a symbolic importance to black women that she agreed to pay for keeping scene's, that she felt was vital. The most importance scene that Berry saved was the scene showing Dorothy Dandridge as the first black actress to be allowed down the red carpet.
Berry felt that this scene showed acceptable of black women at award ceremonies reflected a public acceptance of black women, which ultimately reflected in the roles made available to them. Halle Berry has broken through stereotypes prompting others to give more chances to black actress, by providing a sexual and intelligent black female role model. Her status within Hollywood can be seen through her films but also through magazines such as People and FHM when they voted Halle Berry as the world's most beautiful woman.
Black actresses are changing largely stereotypical roles by portraying their characters as more real than ever before. Through these films and characters, society sees black women as more human, and is more understanding of the problems that face them. Many of the films that have starred black actresses have faced criticism from both Hollywood producers and society, for raising issues within the films that have shown a stereotypical negative role of a black actress and there characters. Each risk that a black actress takes break down stereotypes.