Films like “Selma” are rare. Few movies further the ideals of racial equality in terms of casting and production. “Selma” is an anomaly in a time when the film industry infrequently creates African-American stories that explore their perspectives.
While the depiction of blacks in film has significantly improved over the past century,a strong black voice is the exception, not the rule, for the film industry.
Since its inception, the film industry has had trouble fairly portraying African-Americans in their stories. “The Birth of a Nation,” which D.W. Griffith directed and released in 1915, depicted African-Americans as violent sexual predators and the Klu Klux Klan as heroes.
Radio-television-film associate professor Mary Beltrán, who specializes in the connection between film and race studies, said African-Americans at the time vehemently protested the movie.
“Some of the chapters of the NAACP were [made] in order to fight ‘The Birth of a Nation,’” Beltrán said.
In spite of efforts to ban the picture, “The Birth of a Nation” became a commercial success.
Other films, such as “The Littlest Rebel” and “Gone with the Wind,” portrayed African-Americans in subservient roles. Black actors often appeared as servants who rarely questioned their position in society such as Hattie McDaniel, who played Mammy, the family maid in “Gone with the Wind.”
McDaniel’s role — as problematic of a character as it may have been — earned her an Oscar for Best Actress in a Supporting Role in 1940, making her the first African-American to win an Academy Award.
It wasn’t until the 1950s and the 1960s that African-Americans’ representation in film began to improve. African-American film stars appeared after the Civil Rights Movement raised awareness of racial discrimination.
Performers such as Eartha Kitt and Harry Belafonte rose to prominence and captured public affection. In 1964, Sidney Poitier became the first black actor to win the Academy Award for Best Actor for his performance in “Lilies of the Field.”
“Sidney Poitier [was] really important,” Beltrán said. “His stardom [was] in some ways a turning point in Hollywood.”
In spite of African-Americans’ gains in films, many black movie stars often ended up playing supporting roles or sidekicks. Film studios feared movies with African-Americans in the lead roles would not be financially successful overseas and cast whites as the main characters instead.
“Just a few stars have broken through: Eddie Murphy, Whoopi Goldberg, Denzel Washington and, more recently, Will Smith,” Beltrán said. “But that’s pretty much it.”
Blacks are not as heavily involved in the creative side of filmmaking as whites, according to Beltrán. As a result, it is less common for black perspectives to be represented in movies.
“If we look at issues of employment — issues of writers and producers and directors — the number of African-Americans working in executive and creative capacities is still extremely low,” Beltrán said.
Beltrán said studios have become more inclined to greenlight films with ethnically varied casts because of the increasing diversity of audiences. She said we can expect to see more films with minorities in the leads. Major films with black leads are now in the works, including “Star Wars: The Force Awakens,” starring John Boyega, and the superhero film “Cyborg,” starring Ray Fisher.
Although a century has passed since “The Birth of a Nation,” blacks are still underrepresented in today’s films. But movies such as “Selma,” however, offer hope that the film industry is progressing in the right direction.