Bursting Through the Black Box

Of course you’d have to be living under a rock to not have known that Viola Davis made history a few weeks ago. The American actress has been in the business for many years—although some may have overlooked her. Since the late 90’s, Davis has created a wave of her own in Hollywood. Her now infamous Emmys speech helped to dust the cobwebs off a problem that’s been prevalent for decades.

The only thing that separates women of color from anyone else is opportunity. You cannot win an Emmy for roles that are simply not there…

Davis is not the first African American woman to face adversity in the business. There’s a long line of oppressed women ahead of her; but the fact that she’s using her platform to make a difference is powerful and inspiring.

The movies that I’ve included below have similar themes and scripting techniques. Many of these roles offered to Black women perpetuated stereotypes and sent us back to a place we’ll never forget. If we weren’t mammies, maids, or slaves—then we were welfare queens with multiple children and little to no education. But let us not forget the “Angry Black Woman” roles or the promiscuous eye-candy, the tragic mulatto and other ridiculous narratives. These movies were supposed to be accurate representations of Black culture. Go figure!

For instance, Imitation of Life (1959) was a film mainly about a biracial woman who disowned her African American ancestry and passed for white. By the end of the movie, the death of her mother caused her to regret her decisions; but of course it was too late. Now in Claudine (1974), the lead character had six children, no husband, and depended on the government for money. The movie ends with the entire family in the back of a police truck on Claudine’s wedding day. Great story, right?

Then, of course, there’s Mahogany (1975). It explored the life of an aspiring fashion designer turned model who got her big break after meeting a famous white photographer. It’s the old “Great White Hope” story that Hollywood loves so much. Just when you think you’ve had enough of it- here comes The Long Walk Home (1990). It was set to take place during the Montgomery Bus Boycott. Basically, it was the era where Black women could only be around white women to clean their homes and tend to their children. After a race-war broke out, the white employer of the leading lady joined forces with the other Blacks. I suppose she made a difference in history. See? It’s beyond exhausting, I know.

You’d think, by now, we would’ve gotten away from such roles (since those movies were made 20+ years ago). However, five years ago- a Black woman won her first Oscar for playing a …*drum roll*… MAID people! How ironic is it that the first African American woman to win an Academy Award (Hattie McDaniel) played a servant as well? Of the estimated 2,500 Academy Awards received since the 1929 premiere ceremony—less than ten of those belong to African American women. About 20 of those awards were received by Black men. This means less than two percent of Oscars have gone to people of color. Why is that, you ask?  According to Hollywood, movies with predominantly Black actors just don’t sell. Ooooh but I’ve noticed quite the opposite…

Older Movies

  • Imitation of Life (1959)
    • grossed $6.4 million
  • Claudine (1974)
    • grossed $6 million
  • Mahogany (1975)
    • grossed $5 million
  • The Long Walk Home (1990)
    • grossed 4 million (est)

Newer Movies

  • Ray (2004)
    • grossed > $124 million
  • Dreamgirls (2006)
    • grossed > $154 million
  • The Butler (2013)
    • grossed > $176 million
  • Straight Outta Compton (2015)
    • grossed > $193 million

Although these are only a few examples- I’m curious to know what you all think.

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