The violence that erupted during the summer in Charlottesville, Virginia, caused some Americans to rethink how the nation should publicly represent the Confederacy, slavery, segregation and the civil-rights era into the future.
Several contemporary filmmakers already started the process of moving black characters away from old stereotypes and into more multidimensional portrayals when trying to depict those times.
Three movies serve as a model of how Southern black people were portrayed historically in film during most of the past century: “The Birth of a Nation,” “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” and “Gone With the Wind.”
“The stereotypes and archetypes that Europeans created in the films indicated above were just justifications for white supremacy and racism, hatred upon African people and a way to mentally control the way African people look at themselves and think about themselves,” said Garrison Paige, who taught the African Americans in Film course in the fall at Stockton University in Pomona.
“The Birth of a Nation” from 1915 was the country’s first feature-length motion picture, a box-office smash and the first movie to be shown in the White House, by President Woodrow Wilson.
In the movie, black people are portrayed as dangerous, lazy and morally degenerate. The Ku Klux Klan comes in to save the South at the film’s end.
“Uncle Tom’s Cabin,” the best-selling novel of the 19th century, was originally an anti-slavery tale written by Harriet Beecher Stowe and published in 1852.
The dramatizations of the characters of “Uncle Tom’s Cabin,” which was the most filmed story of the silent-movie era, were more stereotypical than in the book.
The most ambitious film adaptation was the 1927 version. A black actor played Uncle Tom, but all the other slave characters were white actors in blackface.
The domestic movie box-office king is still “Gone With the Wind,” when ticket-price inflation is taken into account. According to the website boxofficemojo.com, 202 million tickets have been sold for the 1939 adaptation of Margaret Mitchell’s sweeping romance novel set during the Civil War and Reconstruction period — more than any Hollywood movie ever.
“‘Gone With the Wind’ was one of the first blockbusters. It formed the template,” said Keith Forrest, an associate professor of communications at Atlantic Cape Community College in Mays Landing, who teaches a course geared toward the film industry’s history and development.
But “Gone With the Wind” continued the “mammy” stereotype, making life as a slave on a plantation look pleasant and supporting the argument that Confederates seceded to preserve states’ right rather than slavery itself.
These Hollywood movie images of pre-1970 black people in the South were dominant for most of the last century until the releases of “Mississippi Burning” in 1988, “Glory” in 1989 and “Rosewood” in 1997.
But each of these films came with or ran into its own problems.
“Mississippi Burning” told the black struggle of the civil-rights movement from an all-white perspective.
“Glory” is the story of an all-black military unit in the Civil War, but it follows the point of view of the white commanding officer.
“Rosewood,” based on the 1923 massacre in Florida when a white mob killed black residents and destroyed their town, was not a financial success.
The past five years have seen more three-dimensional movie portrayals of historical Southern black people as the number of black film directors has increased.
Films released in recent years include “The Butler” in 2013, directed by Lee Daniels; “Selma” in 2014, directed by Ana DuVernay; “The Birth of a Nation” in 2016, directed by and starring Nate Parker; and the Netflix movie “Mudbound,” released in November and directed by Dee Rees.
The most successful of the recent films is “12 Years a Slave” from 2013, which was directed by Steve McQueen and written by John Ridley. It won the Academy Award for best picture and grossed $187 million worldwide.
Stockton communications Professor Donnetrice Allison, who taught the African Americans in Film course in the fall of 2016, said she appreciates the more nuanced black characters in the historical films released during this century.
With “Selma,” some were a little concerned by the movie’s suggestion of possible infidelity by the late Martin Luther King Jr., but Allison appreciated the effort to add some complexity to the character as opposed to only being shown as a source of inspiration.
This deepening of what is seen from Southern black historical characters on the big screen also was demonstrated in the portrayal of the enslaved black woman, Patsey, by Lupita Nyong’o in “12 Years a Slave,” which earned her the Academy Award for best performance by an actress in a supporting role.
“You could see what she was going through. You could see the issues of her being targeted by her master. She was someone who had no control or agency over her own body. He watched her every move,” Allison said.
The movie showed how the mistress of the house could be jealous of the attention the master paid to one of his female black slaves, Allison said.
“She (Patsey) is not just this happy-to-serve type of character. But, the reality is a lot of children were born out of enslavement, so I appreciated that this movie showed how this was happening at that time,” Allison said.