Television, Film, and The Souls of Black Folks

Anytime the issue of the portrayal of black life in the media arises, we almost always resort to opening up a discussion about shows like Basketball Wives or Love & Hip Hop. We talk about how black women are devalued and make themselves the subjects of derision. We talk about how the men and women on these shows are portrayed as coons and are willing to take pleasure in self-exploitation for the sake of money. We also often talk about movies that insist on focusing on the “thug life,” honing in on drug-peddling gangstas, sexually provocative women, and the women who support the former and are a part of the latter. Then, of course, we talk about the likes of Don Lemon and Larry Elder (and a good portion of our athletes and entertainers), the group of black folks with class privilege who assume control over Black discourse and inevitably and strategically create a disconnect between them and the rest of Black America.

tvThese privileged blacks are usually not about elevating black culture; rather, they actually only care to succeed within the existing white supremacist capitalist system. They must regurgitate the way the white dominant culture sees black culture in order to keep climbing up that sell-out ladder. They continue to promote individualistic success over communalism, and will do so at the expense of black culture.

These conversations of media manipulation of black life will always be legitimate so long as it continues to happen. But even more is the subtlety of black representation on television and on the big screen. The ones we’ve already mentioned have now been fairly well-documented and discussed; however, those discussions can be driven even further. In my last post, I talked about the media being more culpable for what they don’t say (or portray) than what they do.

As I’ve gotten older, I’ve come to realize that the goal of the media isn’t to demean black life (stay with me here), but rather, it’s to present the facade that we live in a society of racial harmony. And within that, the commodification of black culture is perpetuated, which then points back to the demeaning of black culture. And what’s the name of that whole game? Subtlety. ‘If I act like it doesn’t exist, then it doesn’t exist.’ If you capture the minds of blacks and whites and make them believe racism and white supremacy no longer play a factor in society, then that’s where the subtlety comes into play. Capture their minds without them knowing it’s being captured.

Now we have the co-existence of blacks and whites on television on every interrelational level. We have the crime drama shows that show blacks and whites working together. We have our romantic shows and movies where interracial relationships are commonplace. We have movies like The Blindside that show the benevolence of white people. These Hollywood portrayals of black and white interactions are seemingly harmonious. The message that is sent is that we have evolved passed racial tensions and we all love each other as humans.

But let’s REALLY get down with the get-down. When you break down the interactions between blacks and whites on crime drama shows and movies, blacks are always subordinates. Blacks being presented as criminals is something we talk about ad nauseam. However, even within the ranks of the good guys, blacks are still presented as subordinates. There’s hardly a departmental head or police chief on TV who is black. Shows like Criminal Minds, Law & Order, and Flashpoint all show a white man in charge and the token black man within the group who does everything to remain in the good graces of his white boss. So racial harmony is maintained as long as everyone stays within the bounds of that hierarchy. Even in movies like the Lethal Weapon sequels, the black co-star (Danny Glover) is never allowed to outshine his white co-star (Mel Gibson).

We can’t deny that romantic relationships between blacks and whites on-screen are customary now. But again, let’s look at the subtleties. In The Bodyguard, Kevin Costner and Whitney Houston’s relationship is not made to last. Their love is strong, but at the end of the movie, they are separated. In Jungle Fever, Wesley Snipes has an affair with a white woman while being married to a African-American woman. Even in movies where the interracial relationships have a happy ending, there’s still a hierarchy that the relationship must abide by. In Save The Last Dance, Sean Patrick Thomas and Julia Stiles fall in love, but he’s the product of the hood and she’s the middle-class, Midwestern white girl. And then we have the show that has created a new buzz – Scandal. Yes, Kerry Washington is the undeniable star of the show. But of course, her relationship with Tony Goldwyn is an illegitimate one, an affair with the married fictional president of the United States. In other words, her character, Olivia Pope, is the white man’s whore.

scandal-abc-tv-show-522x348That’s how the cookie seems to crumble when it comes to interracial interactions on-screen. So, on the surface, it seems as if racial tensions are no longer. And it’s true… as long as those interactions remain within a race-sex hierarchy that reinforces white supremacy. Interracial relationships are presented as either not being able to last or created under illegitimate or immoral circumstances. Even the good black characters have to be under the surveillance of a white overseer, which in turns means there’s still racial tension. Thus, when the white audience is watching TV and movies, or even the news, and see a black person being mistreated, they can assume that the black person had to be the one acting out of line because otherwise we interact in racial harmony, according to media. As a friend (@DopeBlackGuy) pointed out to me, Denzel Washington wins an Oscar for Training Day but not one for John Q, furthermore perpetuating the notion that our people are at our best when we’re at our worst. As long as we’re playing the role of crooked cops and maids, we are glorified.

Mass media is one of the most powerful tools of white supremacy. Consequently, to maintain our grip on our true reality, we must challenge that. You may not have money to make alternative films and shows, but you still have power. Boycott. Write letters. Talk about it. We can thus help find ourselves based in our actual reality, one that is humanely mediated.

This guest post is courtesy of Manushka Gracia-Desgage you can hit her up at @drnush.

Chime in what are your thoughts??

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51 responses to “Television, Film, and The Souls of Black Folks

  1. I know of one point that people shouldn’t disagree with: the issue of racial harmony. Many people think we are in a “post racial society”. Weirdly enough, they also work to note that they “aren’t racist”, yet abide by assigning the most harsh and damning racial stereotypes to Black people. I think the Trayvon Martin case made this issue become widely apparent.

  2. Great article but man are you so wrong. It shows in your examples the lack of research you have done because a lot of the shows you’ve mentioned have or have had blacks as the person in charge. Now while I don’t totally disagree with your article. I think you may need to do a little more research

    • I don’t think it’s diligent to say I did no research when I spent so much time on this as well as watched hours of the shows and movies I mentioned in order to write this. But thanks for reading nonetheless. Also, I said ‘hardly’ have Blacks in charge. The instances of blacks in charge are not comparable to the regularity of white people in charge.

      • i’m a Black actor and i 100 percent agree with you. when we are represented, which is ‘hardly’ as you have said the characters in most cases embody a stereotype. it seems like we are unable to please the movie industry without putting on the stigmatization. each character is built upon a foundation of what society thinks a black man should be and not what we actually are. media seems to be trying to erase who we are; our culture, what we have achieved and our ancestors. in this new age, the ‘millennial black man’ fits perfectly in the center of “gangsterism”.

    • This is sounding a bit too much like people pointing to Blade when one talks about a lack of representation. Individual deviations from an overwhelming trend does not invalidate someone’s pointing out said overwhelming trend.

      Re Criminal Minds: Morgan’s situation is complicated. He got into that position as a play by Hotch to remain on the team when he knew his days were numbered. The power dynamic was an issue, and in fact was part of how he got into that position. He was told to, and he initially refused, even though it is established that his personality lends towards liking leadership.

      So I’d hardly call it a counter-example. Especially with Rossi around.

  3. While I do agree with you on multiple points, I would like to first point out that on the ABC show Castle the two police chiefs have both been black and very un-stereotypical. Heck, I’d argue the second captain is one of the most realistic characters on the show, because she shows interests other than being a police captain, such as collectible dolls and a reality TV show.
    Also, if you ever watch British shows like Doctor Who and its spin-offs, you’ll notice some of the most memorable characters have been black, like Mickey Smith, Martha Jones, and River Song. Love those characters.

    • Pssst, River Song is white. The actress (Alex Kingston) at least is and I doubt she was meant to present a WOC…? Not that this is changing much about your argument, I just wanted to let you know…

      • Well. River Song/Melody Pond had 3 incarnations and 2 regenerations, which went white, black, white. She’s also only half human, wasn’t conceived or born on Earth, and has spent most of her life off planet. Her human half is white, given her parent’s heritage (you don’t get much more than ghostly white skin as a gorgeous ginger Scot!). Can’t tell about the Time Lord half, but given their ability to change their entire appearance, I don’t think you can even give a racial background as we understand it.
        Just a bored Whovian providing background information!

  4. Wheeeeeeewwwwwwwwww…. I enjoyed this post. “These conversations of media manipulation of black life will always be legitimate so long as it continues to happen.” Now that’s a quote to remember.

  5. There was a show called Barney Miller. It had a cast of characters on it who represented different groups. But there was one actor, I believe Tim Reid who portrayed a Black detective with class. He dressed in good suits, his language was good, he was educated. I think you have gotten the point. Then one day he was chasing someone in a back alley and another cop sees him and shots at him. He did not see a Black Man in a suit, well dressed, intelligent and above board. He only saw a Black Man and therefore a perp.
    When Miller asked Reid that he understood, Reid said the words that had the most meaning. “You can not understand because you have not walked in my shoes.”
    We can empathize, we can try to understand but we can not walk in the shoes.

  6. Good article. I never really realised the underlying relationships before. :? However we can always strive towards the ideal. Whether we make it is the question.

  7. Excellent article! Again, congrats on this article being featured by WordPress on Freshly Pressed. I have been constantly after them to feature more Black and minority bloggers, including Darryl, and I’m glad to see this article and this site featured.

  8. I really appreciate and am humbled by all the love! Writing is my passion and so is the progress of my people, so merging the two is second to none for me. Thanks again for the love and support!

    • I really appreciate and am humbled by all the love! Writing is my passion and so is the progress of my people, so merging the two is second to none for me. Thanks again for the love and support!

  9. @..” Subtlety. ‘If I act like it doesn’t exist, then it doesn’t exist.’ If you capture the minds of blacks and whites and make them believe racism and white supremacy no longer play a factor in society, then that’s where the subtlety comes into play. Capture their minds without them knowing it’s being captured….”>>Just this morning I wrote about a SUPERB article I recently read in Essence magazine..Authored by Dr. David R. Williams (Harvard Sociologist & Professor of African & African-American studies) titled ‘Confronting Unconscious Bias’..It was actually a sub-article within an interview of Dr . Williams; regarding the deep-seated bias against African-Americans..It is not imagined. Nor are we living in a post-racial America..Actually its quite the opposite..I daresay that even the highest ranked Blacks in Hollywood doubt that racism is dead..They just choose to ignore it..Until it almost drives then out of their natural-born minds, like Dave Chapelle(who I’ve a TON of respect for..) , and they decide to walk away rather than continue to sell their souls..

    Your post is timely indeed! Or least in my opinion..What I honestly hope folks begin to do is NOT spend money watching movies in which POC are stereotyped…Money talks! And as a “group” there is a progressive power that POC don’t use often enough…I enjoyed reflecting as I read your write..2 thumbs UP

  10. And there’s some folks like myself who haven’t had a tv at home for lasts few years. I see a movie, um, maybe twice a year at the theatre. I don’t read entertainment, movie gossip magazines.

  11. I realise the point you’re making is that the majority of black roles in television and film are portrayed negatively, but there are many examples of great black lead characters that do not portray a negative or stereotypical role.
    Luther, for example, is a black lead, and that show is fantastic.
    House Of Lies might not be the most positive portrayal of humanity, but not in a way that is specific against any one race.

  12. One of my two favourite characters in NYPD Blue were Leut. Fancy who would verbally stomp on Sipowicz when he was being a racist and Bobby Simone, the latino detective that on his worst day was smarter and more morally upright than Sipowicz on his best day. Both of these characters were ‘minority’ races who disprove your point and highlight why this show was such good television, even so long ago. Nonetheless, I see where you are going with your argument and really enjoyed reading it. Food for thought.

  13. While I was reading this article I was recalling in my mind all the black-white movies that I watched in my life, and I must say that every single one of them has the same problem that you stated. Mass media has always played a major role in “shaping” our thinking and Hollywood still has a leading role when it comes to that. The other problem is on a reality basis, where even today in a “modern” place like New York we face ghettos of black people, where the government tries to sell them cheap departments just so they can put them in one part of the town and make them less of a “problem.”

    At the beginning of this year I had a chance to live with eight amazing people from Afrika, all different countries, and I must say that I found those people warm, helping and in so many cases more intelligent and smart. But I am glad to say that at some parts of the world the thing is changing, and that on my Literature and Film classes we discussed movies made in Afrika (since by inertia when we say movie we think Hollywood) and I was flummoxed by the fact how little we have known about some of the pearls of their cinematography. I hope one day we will see on big screens real representation of this.

    Check out my site: http://myluggwhere.wordpress.com/

  14. I have been wondering about this of late. From a writer’s perspective, I have noticed that if there is a non-white in charge, he or she seems to be nearly totally reliant on the smarts of one or two white subordinates.

    Also, there may be, but I have never seen a non-white top commander and non-white second in command in charge over subordinate whites. Not in television, movies or in any book. I could be wrong. But it would be an interesting avenue to explore.

  15. I do appreciate your post. But, I do agree that there are some factors missing. Hollywood may produce movies based on stereotypes of black culture. Our duty as black people is to properly represent ourselves. Take Tyler Perry movies, his representation of black culture is appalling. What I’ve learned is to not watch movies, but when I do, definitely don’t read too much into them.

  16. A good, positive example of a strong black, male lead is Captain Sisko in Star Trek:DS9 portrayed by Avery Brooks. He is deeply moral and loves his son while celebrating his New Orleans heritage. His second in command is a white (Bajoran) woman. Race, gender, and the politics of war are explored on this show. I mention him, not to counter your argument – because an exception does not prove the rule – but to celebrate this character.

  17. While I almost completely agree with you, there are some shows that don’t follow your outlines. Rookie Blue, while Canadian, is also broadcast in America. The chief of police and one of the lead detectives are black. Also, on the show New Girl one of the roommates is black. While the character, Winston, is not the main lead, he still plays a big part. He is smart and successful, and his character is the most stable of all the roommates. Those are just two off the top of my head :)

  18. I believe more and more racial barriers are coming down…no, they are not eliminated…but they are coming down.

    The most visible one in everyday life is the great numbers of people marrying people of color…like me.. Marriages do not happen unless we begin to look closely at what makes the other person wonderful…their insides..their character, their joys..their experiences.

    I remember with fondness the ‘mixed marriage’ of my wonderful grandparents..My grandma was Norwegian and my grandfather was German.. They had the nerve to marry each other for they saw beyond the stereotypical German and Norwegian to the people inside those labels. My great grandparents were shocked, but these barriers will begin to come down once we look beyond our appearances…and start staring at our hearts.

    Love has everything to do with it.

  19. Mass Media is indeed a powerful tool for white supremacy and a host of other negative agendas. The influence begins at very early ages; but I don’t see a growing insistance that children are being taught to form opinions about critical issues that will lead them to make better choices about what images and information they will allow to influence them. They are simply placed in front of a screen and told to “watch”. Often, it is the same shows that we watch and make excuses about (e.g. It’s my guilty pleasure). This won’t change until there is a cognitive and cultural shift that has caregivers from the stereotypees and the stereotypers saying, “everything you see is not meant for your good,now let’s talk about why.” Perceived power is useless unless you know what to do with it and you won’t know what kind of power you can wield if nobody teaches you to recognize those opportunities.

  20. We may be angry about the system du jour but if we start making things up to express and project our frustrations that just detracts credibility from our efforts to change things.

    1. “privileged blacks are usually not about elevating black culture” begs the question: what is black culture? Is there such a thing? As an educated black man if there is such a thing as black culture outside of the music world i.e. R&B, hip-hop (as opposed to say African culture) then I am yet to come across it and I would guess ditto for most, if not all, white folks.
    2. “When you break down the interactions between blacks and whites on crime drama shows and movies, blacks are always subordinates.”. Obviously this is hyperbole. There have been black US presidents (Jamie Foxx, 24), black senators (24), black police chiefs (Homicide and many others), black City leaders, black lead investigators (MiB, Sidney Poitier In The Heat Of The Night, etc). As to being subordinates, everyone is someone else’s subordinate. Even white actors have white superiors.

    We can sit about and moan all day or we can get our act together (for those who can) and create our own films and TV series and communication vehicles. We can create black movies and art houses and art venues and publications and tech companies etc etc. Berry Gordy didn’t sit around and moan about white record companies. He created Motown. Don Cornelius didn’t sit around and moan about 1960s TV. He created Soul Train. Same goes for the good people who created BET or Ebony or black pop magazines (I remember Right On!) or the Alvin Ailey Theatre or …. Waiting for white people to champion us is going to win us zero respect. If we want to step into the front ranks and be taken seriously as equals then we have to put our backs into it and prove ourselves against the odds. All this waiting around for white people to give us “something” or do “something for us” is doing my head in. After all, we are not that special.

  21. Pingback: Preachers of LA: Saving Souls or Saving Paper | From Ashy to Classy·

  22. Waiting to Exhale (Angela Bassett, Loretta Devine, Lila Rochon, and Whitney Houston) by Forest Whitaker set the stage for television’s Sex and the City, and dollars to donuts Waiting was a template for television’s Girlfriends (Tracy Ross).

    I am pleased to be in the minority opinion that Denzel Washington in Training Day was as far from a worthy character as Halle Berry’s was in Monster’s Ball. Ms. Berry’s role was what? Female empowerment by racist male proxy? If those roles were personal bests…well horrors!!

    As for Ms. Washington in Scandal I am incapable of so much suspension of disbelief plotted as the greatest love story of the 21st century…”if only I was not married”. Please, let somebody slip-up in at least one episode and call her Sally.

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