Today on the surface at least it is possible to say that black actors have reached stardom comparable to and in some instances well beyond their white counterparts. Will Smith is the current favourite for the blockbuster action movie moving away from his ethnic buddy movies such as Men in Black and Wild Wild West. There have been Academy awards for actress Halley Berry, nominations for Denzel Washington and there have never been as many African American film makers working within the industry. The man to credit for much of this is of course Spike Lee who revisited black new wave cinema in 1986 with the success of independent feature She’s Gotta Have it launching many of today’s stars with subsequent films and opening the doors for many new African American film makers. Lee however has been quoted recently in saying that “there are more black stars in cinema but I don’t know if there is very much diversity of roles” certainly the age for African American’s in cinema can be described as the best its ever seen however critics would argue that the effect of Hollywood hegemony upon these films have created something far away from what would be described as true ethnic representations.
Historically and predictably the relationship between the industry and African American cinema has been intrinsically linked with the civil rights movement. Certainly it is not a good sign of things to come when one of the industries most influential early national films Griffith’s The Birth of a nation is a controversial promotion of white supremacy and the Ku Klux Klan. Black representation in early Hollywood cinema stemmed around stereotypes and racism, comedy actors such as Stephin Fetchit who although reached high levels of fame did so through his portrayal of a “lazy, slow-witted jive-talkin’ “coon”” which greatly offended the African American community at the time. The early Hollywood studio system however had no place for African American film makers such as Oscar Micheaux mainly because of a perceived lack of a market for such productions and also because of the obvious racial connotations. It wasn’t until the 1950s integrationist films created by white film makers that black identity reached the big screen. Indeed even then it took ten years and the introduction of Sidney Poitier who as Denzin has said “was the first black star who could carry the integrationist films to a mass white audience” did the genre break populist moulds.
Dennis Greene writing in Cineaste 1994 has argued that it is the Hollywood model of a “relationship business” that prevents ethnic representations ever making it into the mainstream.
“The relationship business… is engulfed in a miasma of self-serving and self fulfilling myths based on the unspoken assumption that African-American Films can never be Vehicles of prestige, glamour or celebrity.
Examples of attempts to both harness and ignore African American cinema can be seen throughout the industries history the tail end of blaxploitation and a revisit of integrationist cinema in the early 90s for example. The power of Hollywood if anything, should the international market be any indication is certainly not that of integration but that of hegemony and forced change. I would argue that the unspoken goal of the industry over the years has been a policy of assimilation allowing for the creation of films which appeal to audiences on both sides, integrationist films, and racial male bonding films such as Lethal Weapon for example. What we can see from Hollywood’s offering is Black characters created by white writers and displaying in many ways “white” characteristics in order to promote social change. In relation to such productions Bogle has commented that “Films did all they could to make audiences forget the blackness of the black star”
Looking at it in terms of box...