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A History of Black Stereotypes Onscreen

The grotesque racist caricatures that were used to justify slavery and the systemic mistreatment of black people found their way into our earliest blockbuster movies, and they remained popular onscreen for decades. In large part, this is because—while black characters have always been a part of American films—black filmmakers and performers tended to be excluded from their creation. If we look closer, many caricatures like the Mammy, Uncle Tom, Sapphire, Jezebel, and Magical Negro have persevered, in some form, to this day across our modern films and TV. Here’s our Take on the history of black stereotypes on screen and how they still influence our society—more than you might think.

TRANSCRIPT

Malcolm: “For most of my life I’ve been caught in between who I really am and how I’m perceived.” - Dope

When the #OscarsSoWhite hashtag took off in 2015, it drew attention to the larger conversation around whose stories get told and recognized.

April Reign: “In 2016, the nominations came out, and again there were no people of color in any of the acting categories.” - “#OscarsSoWhite Creator April Reign Explains Why Diversity Isn’t Enough,” TheRoot.com

But it’s equally important to discuss how black stories have long been told.

Pierre Delacroix: “The network does not want to see negroes on television unless they are buffoons” - Bamboozled

There’s a long history of grotesque racist caricatures depicting black people as childlike, animalistic or lazy, in order to justify slavery and the systemic mistreatment of black people.

Samantha White: “When you mock or belittle us, you enforce an existing system.” - Dear White People, 1x1

Versions of these caricatures carried over into our earliest blockbuster movies and remained popular onscreen in large part because, while black characters have always been a part of American films, black filmmakers (and sometimes even performers) tended to be excluded from their creation. If we look closer, numerous anti-black stereotypes persevere in some form to this day across our films, TV shows, and culture.

Here’s our Take on the history of black stereotypes on screen, where they came from, and how they still influence our society today much more pervasively than you might think.

Samantha White: “Cops everywhere staring down the barrel of a gun at a black man don’t see a human being, they see a caricature, a thug, a n—.” - Dear White People, 1x1

Faithful Servant Caricatures

One major category of anti-black stereotypes portrays black people as contented faithful servants. Slavery’s defenders used these depictions to argue that the institution couldn’t be amoral because black people enjoyed serving white families.

Bobby Taylor: “I don’t know why we leaving Massa’s house. He been good to us.” - Hollywood Shuffle

Hard-working and loyal, the “Mammy” figure was painted as deeply devoted to her “white family.”

Delilah Johnson: “How I gonna take care of you and Miss Jessie if I ain’t here… I’se your cook. And I want to stay your cook.” - Imitation of Life

In The Birth of a Nation, D.W. Griffith’s 1915 white supremacist film which is largely credited for the 20th-century resurgence of the KKK, the mammy character (played by a white actor in blackface) defends her master’s home from union soldiers, suggesting that she’s so committed to serving that she would risk her life rather than seek freedom. Proponents of slavery used the Mammy to suggest that, far from being abused, black women were beloved and willing surrogate mothers to the families they served. But historians have found little evidence to substantiate the idea that enslaved black women were even commonly working in the home, as the mammy trope suggests. Due to the high price of slave labor, all but the wealthiest families generally limited their slaves to fieldwork. Those slaves who were assigned to housework were likely to be light-skinned, skinny, and quite young, in contrast to the onscreen mammy who was almost exclusively portrayed as dark-skinned, older, and heavy set. Aggressively desexualizing the Mammy helped to conceal the fact that many ‘house slaves’ (especially women) were frequently sexually abused by their white masters.

Nevertheless, the Mammy figure persisted on film and TV throughout the 20th-century. In 1934’s Imitation of Life, Louise Beavers’ Delilah refuses her boss’s offer to pay her for her pancake recipe, insisting that she would be happier to continue to work for and live with her. In 1940, Hattie McDaniel became the first black woman to win an Oscar for acting for her role as a character named Mammy in Gone With the Wind. Over the years, more films and shows have explored the problems and emotional plights of black women who continued, after the end of slavery, to raise white children as domestic workers.

Carla: “Well, someone has to look after those children.”

Betty Draper: “Really? And where are your kids? Are they all doctors and lawyers?” - Mad Men, 4x13

But even modern films that are sympathetic to black rights can still perpetuate aspects of the Mammy trope in their characters. While the maids of The Help are shown to be unhappy serving white families, they still come across as “noble servants,” mainly celebrated for their selflessness and kindness. Arguably, the modern trope of the “black best friend,” too, can be seen as a partial descendant of the mammy, since this character’s role is to constantly provide support (and sometimes tough love) to the white main character. The Strong Black Woman trope (which we’ve discussed in a separate video) also portrays black women as using their apparently infinite strength primarily to help other (frequently white) characters. Celebrating black women for their selflessness and service creates a bind where black women feel they’re not allowed to be selfish or need help themselves.

The male version of the faithful servant caricature was the docile, pious, and extremely subservient Uncle Tom. Ironically, this type originated from Harriet Beecher Stowe’s extremely popular abolitionist novel, Uncle Tom’s Cabin, in which the devout Tom nobly chooses to sacrifice his life rather than sell out other runaway slaves. But Stowe’s abolitionist message was lost in popular pro-slavery minstrel stage adaptations of her novel, which morphed Uncle Tom into a degrading caricature so devoted to serving that he was more than willing to backstab other black people. Films also portrayed Uncle Tom characters as totally subservient.

In 1935’s The Littlest Rebel, Bill ‘Bojangles’ Robinson (who later became famous for playing Tom characters) plays an enslaved man who protects his confederate master from persecution during the civil war.

Union Officer: “Is there a rebel hiding in this house?”

Uncle Billy: “No sir no sir, master general. Nobody at all sir.” - The Littlest Rebel

And in movies like 1936’s Show Boat and 1943’s Heaven Can Wait, Clarence Muse plays amiable black servants to white families.

Over the years, the “Uncle Tom” name evolved into a damning insult in the black community, describing black people who are subservient to white people at the expense of their own communities.

Jesse Wilson: “Only an Uncle Tom would do this shit, they’re just looking for somebody to sell out.” - Hollywood Shuffle

But films continued to feature descendants of this character who was happy to serve white people, treating the Tom as a so-called “positive stereotype. Celebrated black actor Sidney Poitier played modern-day toms in 1957’s Edge of the City, where his character sacrifices his life to save a white man, and in A Patch of Blue, where his character befriends a blind white girl and helps her come into her own. In the 1989 Academy award winner for best picture, Driving Miss Daisy, Morgan Freeman’s Hoke echoes the demeanor of the Toms of the past in his selfless service to Daisy.

Hoke Colburn: “On the trolley? Why don’t you let me carry you Miss Daisy?” - Driving Miss Daisy

One enduring trope that partially descends from the Tom is the Magical Negro — a black character who possesses some special insight or magical-seeming ability and who exists in the story solely to help the white protagonist on a journey of personal self-fulfillment.

Bagger Vance: “I hear you lost your swing. I guess we got to go find it.” - The Legend of Bagger Vance

The enduring popularity of these characters suggests that black men remain most palatable to white audiences when they are submissive, selfless, and always affable.

Another historical legacy of mammies and toms is the enduring idea that black people (and especially black women) are only suited for domestic work. This conception, which severely limited black women’s upward mobility after slavery, is also reinforced by the many American brands that feature mammies and toms on their packaging and who, after decades of criticism, have finally vowed to change their imaging.

Unfit for Society Caricatures

A second category of black stereotypes were crafted to send the message that black people are generally unfit for society.

The Sambo caricature—essentially a slow-witted “happy slave”—sent the message that black people were childlike, lazy, and perpetually smiling.

James Henry: “I thought of it all by myself.”

Herbert Carey: “Well you must be thinking better than you used to, James Henry.”

James Henry: “Yes Massa Carey I even think more often now.” - The Littlest Rebel

This caricature is at least as old as America but was popularized by 19th-century blackface minstrel theater performers with painted-on smiles, and it promoted the idea that black people liked being enslaved—because they were simple-minded, perpetual children unable to care for themselves.

The Coon caricature similarly ridiculed the idea that black people could successfully integrate as free members of American society. Like the sambo, these coons (also called zip-coons and urban coons) were depicted as lazy and unintelligent.

However, while the sambo was content to be a slave, the coon wanted to be free. Minstrel shows and beyond derived their humor from mocking this aspiration as ludicrous, showing the coon trying and failing to assimilate to white society, speaking in malapropisms, dressing flamboyantly, and avoiding work at all costs.

Chick Watts: “Why don’t you get a job and go to work?”

Cotton Watts: “I almost had me a job this morning.” - Yes Sir, Mr. Bones

Stepin Fetchit, one of the first black actors to reach mainstream prominence, became synonymous with this caricature. His slow-talking mannerisms and exaggerated body movements othered his characters to an extent that made his performances almost grotesque.

Though this caricature has been largely condemned, its lasting legacy is evident in the volume of 20th-century films and TV shows in which a black or black-coded character’s slowness is played for laughs.

Jar Jar Binks: “Mesa called Jar Jar Binks, mesa your humble servant!” - Star Wars: The Phantom Menace

It can be seen in classic Disney animations, from Dumbo (whose crows are coded as black) to The Jungle Book, whose King Louie (referencing Louis Armstrong) and his black-coded monkey followers are characterized as dirty, amoral, and uncivilized. When Louie sings about wanting to be like a man, this can be read as expressing his desire to be white (and therefore treated as human). He wants to possess fire — a longstanding symbol of what elevates humans above the animals, ever since the Ancient Greek myth of Prometheus stealing it from the Gods to give to mankind. But the other Jungle Book characters view Louie’s goal of being human (i.e., white) as depraved and unrealistic, and when Louie and his monkeys realize they won’t get what they want, they quickly descend into brutish violence and destroy their own home in the jungle’s ancient ruins, which scholar Greg Metcalf reads as representing the “slums,” in a scene that he sees as an allusion to the 1965 Watts Riots.

The coon caricature resulted in widespread stereotyping of black people as lazy, unintelligent tricksters, even influencing American social policy. In the 1980s and ‘90s, these negative caricatures evolved into the myth of the welfare-queen, who would rather live off of state money than work—a stereotype that can still be seen in modern entertainment.

Mary: “School ain’t gon help none! Take your ass down to the welfare!” - Precious

While the “coon” caricature led to black men being portrayed as lazy and unintelligent, black women tended to be characterized as domineering, sassy, and downright angry. The pervasive Angry Black Woman stereotype is also known as the ‘Sapphire,’ after the domineering character in Amos and Andy, the 1950s radio show voiced by mostly white actors which became a TV show with an all-black cast. This show depicted Sapphire as constantly scolding her lazy husband for being irresponsible and unemployed.

Sapphire: “It’s about time you met some decent people instead of that horrible uncouth group you associate with” - Amos and Andy, 3x8

The idea that black women are inherently sassy has much earlier roots, in a subsection of the mammy trope known as the ‘sassy mammy.’ Popularized by actress Hattie McDaniel, in films like Judge Priest in addition to Gone With the Wind, the trope of the sassy housekeeper who still ultimately loves the family she serves was another way that the mammy was painted as “part of the family,” comfortable enough to give them a hard time—and versions of this sassy housekeeper type still live on today. But in the 20th century, sassy mammies working in white homes evolved into characterizations of black wives and mothers who chastised their own families.

Rochelle: “Michael, get your feet off my damn couch before I slap the jam out of your toes.” - Everybody Hates Chris, 1x17

Like the coon caricature, the sapphire pathologizes any black woman who wants to exist outside of the white domestic structure, by suggesting she’s unfit for traditionally feminine duties like marriage or mothering her own children. The prevalence of these characterizations helped solidify enduring, damaging assumptions that black families are more likely to be broken or dysfunctional, defined by an absent black father and an overbearing black mother.

In more recent years, black women’s perceived anger has shifted from being focused at their families to being directed at society. Today the Sapphire remains a fixture of Reality TV. And the angry black woman trope has been weaponized against any black woman who dares to speak out against the systemic oppression and injustice perpetrated against her—even being leveled at accomplished professional women like Michelle Obama and Serena Williams.

Animalistic Caricatures

Finally, a third category of pervasive stereotypes paints black people as animalistic.

Whereas the mammy and Tom caricatures were purposefully desexualized, certain caricatures portrayed black people as wild or animalistic by hyper sexualizing them.

Coffy: “I know I’m not good enough for you but let me have your precious white body just once.” - Coffy

The jezebel caricature portrays a black woman who is lascivious and insatiable by nature. During slavery, this caricature was commonly utilized to justify the common sexual abuse of black women by white men. The jezebel became popularized on screen in the 1970s during the rise of ‘blaxploitation’ movies. And, to this day, black women face a double standard that judges them as being “too sexual” even when they make the same clothing choices that are accepted for white women.

For black men, hypersexualization took the shape of the aggressive amoral buck or brute caricature, also known as the Mandingo. To this day, it is not unusual for black male characters to be described as more virile, naturally strong, or athletic.

Going back to Birth of a Nation and 1933’s King Kong—which can be read as a racist allegory about a black man stealing a white woman before she’s rescued by heroic white men—movies have helped propagate the dangerous lie that hypersexual black men are a danger to white women. This myth has had devastating real-world consequences, as it was used to justify the practice of lynching and to shoot down the 1922 anti-lynching bill in the US Senate. The weaponizing of the animalistic brute and jezebel caricatures against black people, who are overrepresented as violent criminals and sex workers in the media, has fueled long-standing assumptions that black communities must be overpoliced and brutalized. So this ingrained misrepresentation has led directly to the systemic police brutality and abuses of power driving the 2020 global Black Lives Matter protests.

Trevor Noah: “You cannot deny we live in a world where people see a black man and they think oh, I’m more likely to get robbed.” - The Daily Show

Subverting the Stereotypes

Speaking of Hattie McDaniel’s performance in Gone with the Wind, film historian Donald Bogle said, “she’s got a hostile edge and there’s something she’s angry about. Of course Gone With the Wind won’t tell us that she’s angry about having always to work for Miss Scarlett.” In the earliest mainstream films, the majority of black characters were portrayed by white actors in blackface. But, as Bogle argues, once black performers got in front of the camera, they could bring their lived experiences and imply three-dimensionality in their characters beyond what was in the script: “I knew that there were things they weren’t telling us. I said you know, where does Mammy live?”

Some performers like McDaniel have argued the negative effects of caricatures they’ve played were overshadowed by the positives, as their success opened doors for other black actors and creators to go on to more complex roles. Fetchit is quoted as saying “It was Step, who elevated the Negro to the dignity of a Hollywood star.” Ultimately, though, this subversion was limited. McDaniel wasn’t allowed to attend her movie’s whites-only Atlanta premiere, had to sit at a segregated table at the Oscars, and was honored for a film that civil rights groups protested for romanticizing slavery.

Dre Johnson: “All I’m saying is that without Lincoln Perry paving the way, we might not have a Denzel.”

Ruby: “And all I’m saying is that without Stepin Fetchit, I might be comfortable napping in front of white folk.” - Black-ish, 3x19

Meanwhile, black playwrights and filmmakers have used satire to undermine popular stereotypical depictions and give audiences the tools to critically evaluate portrayals of black people onscreen. Films like Spike Lee’s Bamboozled and Robert Townsend’s Hollywood Shuffle use satire to critique the processes in Hollywood that value caricatures over authentic black storytelling.

Casting director: “I need, uh, a little more black, you know what I’m saying? Uh like, stick your ass out, bug the eyes?” - Hollywood Shuffle

Works like George C. Wolfe’s 1986 play The Colored Museum and Keenen Wayans’ I’m Gonna Git You Sucka take historical caricatures to grotesque extremes in order to expose the dark messages that underlie them, while 1996’s Don’t Be A Menace To South Central While Drinking Your Juice in the Hood skewers the “gangsta” stereotypes of those ‘90s “coming of age-in-the-hood” films. More recently, nuanced, realistic shows like Insecure and Dear White People utilize show-within-a-show formats to highlight how one-dimensional and ridiculous long-standing black stereotypes really are.

In Jordan Peele’s 2017 satirical horror movie Get Out, the white characters baselessly hypersexualize the black male protagonist, while the stereotypical black maid and groundskeeper are revealed to be literally controlled by white people, symbolically getting at how these one-dimensional characters are really white props.

Georgina: “The Armitages are so good to us.” - Get Out

Donald Glover’s Atlanta explores how insidious many of these stereotypes remain through characters who are highly conscious of being perceived through the lens of caricatures like the Sapphire and the dead-beat father:

Vanessa “Van” Keefer: “Why are you always turning me into the angry black woman?”

Earnest “Earn” Marks: “‘Cause you are.”

Van: “I’m the stereotype?”

Earn: “Mm-hmm.”

Van: “While your ass, you can’t even take care of your own goddamn kid?”

Earn: “I’m fine with being a stereotype.” - Atlanta, 1x3

Despite being highly intelligent and complex people with strong professional potential, Earn and Van both frequently feel trapped by these damaging and reductive stereotypes, which their situations and their society’s preconceptions make it almost impossible to escape.

Earn: “I’m not asking for money.”

Alfred “Paper Boi” Miles: “You should be. Ain’t you homeless?”

Earn: “Not real homeless. I’m not using a rat as a phone or something.” - Atlanta, 1x1

Once we become aware of how these negative caricatures were crafted to uphold slavery and segregation, we start to see how deeply ingrained they still are, both in our stories and in our culture at large. It can be very hard to escape these stereotypes precisely because they’ve shaped our cultural views so deeply and for so long. Numerous contemporary examples, to varying degrees, still play into these stereotypes or bear subtle hallmarks of them. As modern viewers we must do all we can to critically interrogate the stories we watch, to avoid slipping into assumptions, and to seek out thoughtful, nuanced depictions of black people and others who have marginalized throughout film and TV history. Only through this mindfulness can we unravel and start to counteract the insidious effects of centuries of misrepresentation.

James Baldwin: “If I’m not the n— here and if you invented him, if you the white people invented him, then you got to find out why.” - I Am Not Your Negro