In the earliest days of cinema, the image of the African American on screen matched the off-screen image. When a 12-minute version of Uncle Tom's Cabin (1903) was filmed, "Tom" shows were the most popular stage shows, the Stowe novel was still a top-seller, and the notion that white southerners were the real victims of the peculiar institution was gaining increasing acceptance in academic circles. When D.W. Griffith's epic and revolutionary Birth of a Nation (1915) depicted a set of stock African-American movie characters — the subservient overweight domestic servant; the indifferent, coquettish mulatto; the savage, sexually driven buck; and the marauding bands of black men with weapons — these images were being promoted in other arenas as well. Woodrow Wilson had refused to integrate the federal work places, and Jim Crow segregation was prevalent throughout the South.

Time and space don't permit me to review the entire history of African Americans on screen. As distorted as we know these images to be, we cannot truly indict Hollywood unless we also condemn society at large. In relying on caricatures of African Americans, filmmakers were merely echoing the prevailing sentiments and attitudes about race.


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