The Importance of Representation in Media
In the 21st century, the media has become a tool for survival: it feeds us mentally and it's almost as if no one can truly divorce him or herself from it. Mass media gives us information on weather, crime and politics; it makes us cry, smile and clench our fists. These outlets are home to danger and safety all in one.
It’s 1915, and film is the new, hot technology. Theaters are segregated, and streets are lined with white people to attend what would go on to be the industry’s first Blockbuster, Birth of a Nation. Birth of Nation was directed by D. W. Griffith, a developer of many narrative filmmaking techniques, and adapted from Thomas Dixon Jr.’s 1905 novel, The Clansman. The book and film follow two families during the 1860s: a pro-Union family that lives in the North and a pro-Confederacy family that lives in the South. Although the film includes African American characters, its lead “African American” character is a white man with blackface. Birth of a Nation portrays African Americans as simpleminded and African American men as sexually aggressive toward white women who, subsequently, become painted as damsels in distress. These roles enshrined a narrative with heroes and damsels and villains which led to the rise of the Ku Klux Klan. It is not until the 1970s that African Americans really start to be depicted as protagonists in Blaxploitation films, which were marked to black Americans. Though these films show African American characters as heroes, they rely heavily on stereotypes, portraying many African Americans not only as hypersexual, unintelligent and aggressive; they are now pimps, prostitutes, gangsters and drug dealers. Examples of Blaxploitation films include Shaft and Superfly.
Even in the present, black people in movies are often killed off. Although a very good film, in Queen and Slim, directed by Melina Matsoukas, the two black leads are shot to death at the end of the movie. Also, in The Hate U Give, the main character faces discrimination and eventually protests for justice for her friend's death. Here, black people are only seen going through death and other traumatic experiences.
When interviewed about depictions of African Americans in contemporary film, two juniors from APA, both African American, stated, “I’m constantly represented as violent, ‘hood,’ a freak and objectified. It’s sickening…” and “This is not our only reality!”
In order to keep African Americans from internalizing stereotypical depictions of themselves, filmmakers should create African American characters who buck these simplistic representations and show black characters in all of their dynamic glory, as individuals undergoing the obstacles and tribulations of daily life.