Cecil White 9/27/11 SWAG 2224 Mid-Term
Like most industries in the United States, the film industry is dominated and controlled by profit. Throughout history, this greed and desire for monetary gain by Hollywood producers, directors, and screenwriters has often come at the expense of African American males, and how they are portrayed and represented in films. One of the earliest examples of this trend was initiated by W.F. Griffith’s A Birth of A Nation. It later perpetuated with films like The Color Purple, She’s Gotta Have It, and Waiting to Exhale. Through these films, the image of black males in the media has been hyper masculated, and in many ways tarnished. A prime example of this may be demonstrated in Byron Hurt’s Beyond Beats and Rhymes.
Birth of A Nation was released in 1915, and became a box office hit. In fact, tickets to the film were marketed at about $2.00, which in today’s economy is equivalent to about $30.00 per ticket! People came in “droves” to witness the film; to many, it was regarded as “the media event of a decade.” The film was a huge success to its viewers, including the 18th President of the United States, Woodrow Wilson, who regarded the film as: “History written in lightening!” However, this success came at a cost, particularly for black men. Throughout the film, African American males, in particular, were made to look like animalistic, lazy, barbaric, rapist savages. Black soldiers in the Civil War were portrayed as violent guerillas, invading peaceful white towns, breaking into quaint southern houses looking for innocent white women and children. Griffith even went so far as to give the soldiers, who were primarily white men with their faces painted black, tattered uniforms. This made them almost look like the “living dead”, haunting the once serene streets of a small southern town. But that was not all! Even the black voters and politicians in the film weren’t spared from Griffith’s racial propaganda. The voters, who certainly fit Bogle’s “Brutal Black Buck” profile, were shown stuffing the ballots with multiple votes. The politicians were portrayed as corrupt, rowdy, classless legislators who only wanted to pass bills that allowed them to sleep with white women and, as one slide in the film stated, “take over the state.” Griffith even added what Bogle would call, “pickaninny slaves.” These individuals danced and sang throughout the plantation, which was a direct attempt to propagate the myth of slave contentment, and made it appear that slavery had elevated the Negro from his beastial instincts.” These images, that are just as malicious as they are inaccurate, truly beg the question: “Why?” Why would a film be so overtly popular? Why would Griffith even record a film with these negative images? But when one takes into consideration the year that the film was released (1915), “political economy”, and the general “audience reception” of the time, the answer is quite clear. Griffith made the film because he knew that his target audience would enjoy it, leaving a nice profit margin for he and the film company that endorsed it. Though it has been said that viewers “stood up and cheered” during the film, it came at a huge expense: the image of the black male.
Perhaps the epitome of Bogle’s “Brutal Black Buck” character type was shown 70 years after Birth of A Nation, in Spielberg’s film version of The Color Purple. Though the image of black women was celebrated through the protagonist characters of Celie, Shug, and Sophia, it came at the expenditure of black males. Whether it was Albert Johnson’s constant brutality towards his wife, or Shug’s father, who shows her little to no compassion the entire...
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