Thursday, February 10, 2005

Things To Do For Black History Month Day 10

Things To Do For Black History Month Day 10: Watch A Racially Insensitive Portrayal of African-Americans

In my first post for this series, I mentioned that some of the things I would put "will be pretty obvious, but others will differ from the norm." Well, here is one that probably differs from the norm. I think I might get some flak for suggesting this, but I am going to anyway.

One of the worst things that any culture can do is to forget their past. When you forget your past, you don't learn from it and you are doomed to repeat it. Thus, we shouldn't forget how far African-Americans have come in the way they are portrayed in popular culture. Seeing these portrayals allow us to determine the way the creators and American culture at large felt about African-Americans. Take, for example, the granddaddy of all negative portrayals of African-Americans, D.W. Griffith's Birth Of A Nation. History is completely rewritten in this film to show whites at the mercy of blacks, something that was far from reality. Through this film's vile content, you can see just how out of touch white culture as a whole was out of touch in understanding the suffering and plight of African-Americans. As Roger Ebert says in his Great Movies essay on the film: "The film represents how racist a white American could be in 1915 without realizing he was racist at all."

Apart from understanding historical context, another reason to view a racially insensitive portrayal is to honor and respect the work of the many African-American actors and actresses that played those roles. I think so many people are disgusted by various portrayals, they fail to see the work and artistry that went into them. Also, our own culturally aware perception makes us forget that some portrayals that are horribly stereotypical now were actually considered steps forward back when they were made. Amos 'N' Andy is a good example of this. The original radio show was performed entirely by white actors. However, when it went to TV, the roles were played by black actors, making it the first TV show with an all-black cast. My parents (who grew up watching Amos 'N' Andy) have fond memories of the show. I watched a show on Trio about it and my dad cracked up at the clips they showed, remembering how much he enjoyed the show. My parents actually liked the show and my mom summed it up when she said that "it was the only thing we had."

I want to make clear that I am not condoning these portrayals of African-Americans. I am extremely thankful that our popular culture has moved beyond the days when white people were the only ones playing black characters. However, even the worst and most vile elements of our culture can be put to good use, and that is the spirit behind my suggestion.

Supplements: has posted another article from Floyd Norman, who wrote the black animator piece I talked about in an earlier post. This article deals with Norman's attempt to write a comic based on Song of The South, the controversial Disney movie. It also gives his views on the movie itself.

Also, there are a couple of films that may be of interest. First up is Stormy Weather, a wonderful all-black musical that is the fictionalized story of Bill "Bojangles" Robinson. The performances are great, but there are some interesting observations about being a black entertainer during that time hidden within as well. Unfortunately, the film is not available on DVD yet, but you might find a VHS copy. Here is the link to its entry on the Internet Movie Database. The other film that may be of interest is Spike Lee's controversial satire Bamboozled. An all-star cast populates this film about a modern-day minstrel show. You may agree or disagree with the way Lee deals with these ideas (I had issues myself), but it is certainly an eyeopener. The ending montage of old movie clips of African-Americans is almost heartbreaking.

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