Throughout the history of film in the United States, the depiction of race has only changed slightly. Although, the display of various races in film is pertinent to the specific time period in which the film was made, films have, for the most part, always portrayed white superiority over other races. People of color have traditionally been presented in a negative way (if presented at all) that helps to maintain the status quo where whites are at the top of the social hierarchy. A few common methods are used to elicit the issues and depiction of race, in the films, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, Glory, and Bamboozled.
According to Stephanie Larson, the three common methods that are used in film to depict racial minorities in a negative light are exclusion and selective exclusion, stereotypes, and system-supportive themes (15). The entertainment industry, as a whole, uses these methods to reinforce subordination. The principle of exclusion is based on the idea that, “television and films without racial diversity promote an inaccurate picture of American society” (15). In short, exclusion in film means that people of color are completely absent.
Although, exclusion of racial minorities in film is not an overt form of racism, exclusion is harmful because it keeps the focus away from minorities, and away from their cultural practices and issues. Exclusion is also harmful because it “deprives minority viewers of role models and ignores the contributions of people of color” (16). Selective exclusion occurs through the constraining and misrepresentation of racial minorities in film (16). This prevents people from seeing differences between cultures and causes them to form generalizations of entire groups of people based on their appearance.
Another method that reinforces the subordination of racial minorities is stereotypes, which suggests that certain characteristics are universal in all members of a particular racial group (16). Racial stereotypes are used to make decisions about people that possess certain racial attributes and they can be extremely damaging to races. Stereotypes are used to maintain white superiority over all races through the idea that over the course of history, people of color have been seen as inherently inferior.
The last method used in films to reinforce subordination of racial minorities is ystem-supportive themes, which are formulas that dominate Hollywood films. These themes are not intended to harm the racial minorities but they indirectly do so by promoting the status quo. They “celebrate whiteness and deny and obscure white privilege and the systems that maintain it” (18). A common system supportive theme is that whites are noble leaders and that minorities want to follow and serve them. The white is basically seen as a messianic character that rescues, protects, and leads those of racial minorities.
Each of these methods is expressed in the three films of this study in order to reinforce subordination of racial minority groups. The first movie of the study, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (1975), is about a man named R. P. McMurphy, played by Jack Nicholson, who is transferred from jail to a mental institution after pretending to be insane. It is not long after McMurphy is admitted to the asylum that he notices the patients are terrified of the head nurse, Nurse Ratched.
Over the course of the entire film, McMurphy and Nurse Ratched constantly come in conflict as McMurphy tries to change things in the asylum, while Nurse Ratched attempts to control her patients in every way. These two characters embody system-supportive themes common in Hollywood films. Not only is McMurphy the protagonist in this film, but also he is the great leader who tries to free the other patients from the tyrannical Nurse Ratched. He brings happiness to patients and lightens up the mood in the asylum, thus he is the noble leader that the patients of the ward look up to and follow.
Nurse Ratched embodies the themes of the system-supportive message in that she is the other protagonist and also holds a high role in the mental institution. In fact, all but one of the doctors and nurses in the entire mental institution are white, the exception being an Indian doctor (from India). While all of the esteemed employees are white, the workers who have less significant jobs are all black. This presents an imbalance between two races and depicts the whites as having a white privilege.
The inequality between the two races is a system-supportive theme that depicts blacks in a negative way, and promotes the status quo and white superiority over blacks. Blacks are selectively excluded and stereotyped in a negative way throughout the entirety of the film, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. The black workers have very few lines in the movie and their main function is to subdue patients when they get out of control. Since they have a very limited role in the film, it is not possible to recognize any characteristics of these characters. There are acts of violence in most scenes that the blacks are included in.
Therefore, the audience is inclined to make generalizations about blacks as a whole. Also, the black workers take orders from Nurse Ratched and the other white staff members and carry out whatever they are told to do. This represents the superiority of whites. This film is racist towards blacks because they have no major role in the film, are seen as violent, and act solely as the pawns for Nurse Ratched and the rest of the white crew. Native Americans are depicted in the film through the character Chief Bromden. In the first part of the movie, Chief Bromden pretends to be dumb and mute.
This “degraded Indian stereotype shows Indians as weak, unsuccessful, mentally deficient, or chemically dependent” (50). Chief Bromden embodies almost all of these characteristics, and while he is not physically weak, he appears mentally weak. McMurphy attempts to teach him how to play basketball but struggles mightily because the Chief seems incapable of learning. This stereotypical portrayal is degrading towards Native Americans and makes them seem intellectually inferior as a whole. However, the audience sees a major transformation in Chief Bromden as the film goes on.
While the Chief and McMurphy are sitting on a bench awaiting shock therapy, the Chief utters a few words revealing to us that he is not deaf or dumb. In fact, he is very wise because he had been playing dumb in order to protect himself from the evil practices of the mental asylum, such as shock therapy and lobotomy. The Chief’s character shifts from one stereotype of Native Americans to another. In this part of the film, he is stereotyped as the good Indian, “a peace-loving man portrayed as isolated from other Indians and helpful to whites that seek spiritual redemption and truth” (49).
At the end of the movie, McMurphy is lobotomized. This once colorful individual who brought so much life to the asylum is reduced to a vegetable. Chief Bromden, being the honorable Indian that he is, puts McMurphy out of his misery by smothering him with a pillow. He then fulfills McMurphy’s dream of escaping to Canada by pulling the fountain out of the ground and throwing it through the window. Chief Bromden embodies two stereotypes of Native Americans in the film One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. Unlike One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, the film Glory (1989) treats the issues of race in a completely different way.
This film is centered on a black regiment of the Union army, so not only are blacks included in the film, but also a few of the main characters are black. Glory uses the subservient stereotypes of toms and coons, as well as a traditional stereotype of assimilated blacks to represent the black soldiers in this film. In short, Glory is based on the true story of a young man named Robert Shaw, played by Matthew Broderick, who is promoted to Colonel and given command of the first all black regiment, the 54th Infantry.
Black people from all over the country volunteer to be a part of this infantry in hopes of defeating the Confederates and ending slavery once and for all. One of these volunteers is John Rawlins who is played by Morgan Freeman. Rawlins epitomizes the stereotypical Tom in this film. Larson characterizes Toms as socially acceptable good Negro character that remains generous, selfless, kind, and faithful, even though he is enslaved and treated poorly by whites (27). Before joining the 54th Infantry, Rawlins is a gravedigger that buries the dead from battle.
Even though he is a wise man he is still a Negro, so he must hold degrading jobs that no white man wants, such as being a gravedigger. Once Rawlins joins the Infantry, he immediately gains the respect of the members of the 54th. He is constantly breaking up fights such as when he restrains Private Trip from getting in a fight with an officer. Rawlins also takes care of his fellow soldiers. After months of intense training, most of the men’s feet become infected, so Rawlins goes to Colonel Shaw and informs him of the situation. He politely asks Colonel Shaw on many occasions for new boots for the soldiers, and eventually his prayers are heard.
Rawlins gains the respect of Colonel Shaw and the other officers because of his selfless and generous acts, and as a result, Colonel Shaw promotes him to the ranking of Sergeant Major. This proves that whites socially accept Rawlins, further proving his character as the stereotypical Tom. Private Trip, who is played by Denzel Washington, embodies the characteristics of a pure coon. According to Larson, the pure coon is the most degrading of all black stereotypes (28). She goes on to describe a pure coon as someone who is “lazy, good-for-nothing, forever-in-hot-water” (28).
For a majority of the film, Private Trip is stirring up conflict for no real reason. In one of Private Trip’s rants he tells the intelligent black soldier, Thomas Searles: “You can march like the white man, you can talk like him. You can sing his songs, you can even wear his suits. But, you ain't never gonna be nothing to him, than an ugly ass chimp... in a blue suit. ” He constantly picks on Thomas Searles for trying to act white even though he is black. Private Trip removes himself from the rest of the infantry because he only wants to fight for himself and not for the 54th.
Private Trip is depicted as a pure coon because he is always making a fool of himself by appearing dumb, violent, and ignorant. Lastly, we see the Corporal Thomas Searles depicted as the assimilated black man. Thomas is an educated man who acts, dresses, and sounds like a white man. Before joining the 54th Infantry, Thomas was a freedman who worked for Colonel Shaw’s family. He serves as a representation for the blacks that are able to assimilate into society. He seemed to fit right in with the educated, wealthy people of Boston, Massachusetts.
However, when Thomas joined the 54th he was immediately an outcast. Thomas is kicked around by the drill sergeant for being a bad soldier, and picked on by Private Trip for being “too white. ” Overall, the film Glory depicts race by presenting three black characters that each represent a different stereotype of blacks. Although much of the film focuses on the courage of the soldiers, there is a racist system-supportive theme in that the white Colonel Shaw is the hero and protagonist. Much of the heroism in the movie is focused on the brave Colonel Shaw and his leading the troops into battle.
Being the commander of the 54th, he is above the all-black regiment and they look up to him. This represents the superiority of whites over blacks in turn promoting the status quo. Similarly to the previous two movies, Bamboozled (2000) contains racial depictions that are harmful to blacks, however the depictions of race are even more stereotypical. This film is about a struggling TV show writer named Pierre Delacroix, played by Damon Wayans, who creates a show that is so offensive and racist, it proves his point that the network only wants to see black buffoons on the air.
The main characters of the show are two impoverished black men that Delacroix pulled off the street. They wear blackface and changed their names to Mantan and Sleep ‘n Eat. These two characters are portrayed as the stereotypical pure coons. The two characters make a complete mockery out of black people by portraying blacks as loud, goofy, lazy, and existing only for comic purposes. The antics of these pure coons reinforce the status quo by labeling blacks as incompetent, goofy people whose existence amuses whites.
Also, the black people in the audience are amused by the show and the ridiculous antics of the coons, which shows that blacks are satisfied with the status quo and their position in society (29). The stereotyping doesn’t end with Mantan and Sleep ‘n Eat, the character Julius Hopkins and his gang called the Mau Maus are also depicted as pure coons in the movie. Although not as ridiculous, they are displayed as unintelligent people who are good for nothing. Julius, the leader who is played by Mos Def, asks his sister Sloan, who works for Delacroix, if she can introduce him to her boss.
Julius and his gang are a failing hip-hop group and they want to take the easy road out because they are lazy. To further prove the Mau Maus role as pure coons, they resort to violence when they are displeased with the content of the show. The group had tried out for the show previously but failed miserably. The show angers the group so much that they kidnap Mantan and execute him on a live web cast. All in all, the purpose of using blatant racism in this film is to evoke strong emotions from the audience. It creates strong negative depictions of blacks that leave the audience with an even more stereotypical opinion of blacks.
In my opinion, the film Glory is most effective in treating racial issues. This is because it isn’t focused on one stereotype of person, but instead shows a broader range of stereotypes. For instance, it shows three stereotypes of blacks, a Tom, a Coon, and an assimilated man. This prevents the audience from forming stereotypes of all blacks based on one type of character. Although Glory obviously doesn’t account for all black people in society, it accounts for many more types of blacks than just the stereotypical coon as presented in Bamboozled.
The film also shows a more positive aspect of blacks. In a letter to his parents, Colonel Shaw proclaims that the black soldiers learn faster than white soldiers. Also, the black soldiers are presented as being very courageous on the battlefield. For example, they lead the attack on Fort Wagner knowing their infantry would sustain heavy casualties. The 54th held the flag with pride as they lead the attack and the soldiers died a valiant, honorable death. In contrast, the black characters in the other two films are anything but honorable.
The black characters in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest are violent, and the black characters in Bamboozled are comical and some are violent. In conclusion, exclusion and selective exclusion, stereotypes, and system-supportive themes, which are present in the films in this study, are used as methods of reinforcing the subordination of racial minorities. The depiction of race really has not changed that much over time, as the same methods that were used over 40 years ago are still in place today. Despite the change that our society has experienced in that time period, whites have always been depicted as superior to other races in film.