A driving question in Africana Studies is, what does it mean to be a problem? This abstract question might be difficult to answer in a brief blog post, but narrowing the topic of focus onto identity fabricated in film might provide a clearer picture. Scott Poulson-Bryant’s work, “Put Some Bass in Your Walk” tackles the ins and outs of performance theory. Performance theory concerns itself with how identity is created or performed. Film is a very powerful space in which identity can be created and represented. Films can positively create and reinforce an identity or it can negatively create and reinforce an identity. When movies produce an identity that is faulty or destructive, it becomes a problem. Film, identity, and Africana studies intersect quite often, and this intersection can produce an example of what it means to be a problem. Throughout the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, there have been many major motion picture films that have created and reinforced a stereotypical identity for people of African descent. These films have portrayed black characters as infantile and incapable, and simultaneously preserved an unjust narrative of white supremacy. By highlighting three very different films from the past century, it will become very clear how the creation of a stereotypical and false identity is a problem that translates from the screen to the real world.
The Civil War is a topic that has been taken up several times by Hollywood. Although it is a historical event, the narrative has been changed to fit the big screen. One of the first popular films regarding the Civil War was entitled The Birth of A Nation. This silent film was produced in 1915 by D.W. Griffith. The storyline follows two families, one from the North and one from the South. The important takeaway from this film is how incredibly racist it was. The film glorified the white supremisist group known as the Klu Klux Klan. Every major part depicting black people was played by a white actor in blackface. (Source one) And, most importantly in regards to identity, black people were stereotypically portrayed as infantile and incapable. One particular scene depicts a fictional Congress almost entirely run by black men. These men are portrayed as acting wild, silly, and disorderly. All characteristics of men incapable of leading a government. This scene creates an identity for the audience to take back to the real world and impose on other black people. Now is a good time to point out that generalizing the actions of one person, or the identity of one person, and assigning it to an entire demographic is flawed and unjust. This does not negate the fact that it does happen. It especially happens with film. People assume what is being portrayed on screen is an accurate representation of that type of character in real life. With all of this said, The Birth of A Nation presented its audience with a fabricated identity for the black people in the film. This is a problem. First, it is a false identity that negatively characterizes a demographic of people. Second, this identity is taken from the film and applied to other people of African descent. Uneducated people would take this fabricated identity and assume that it applies to all black people. The Birth of A Nation exemplifies the problem of film and the fabrication of identities.
Fourteen years later, Gone With The Wind was adapted from the book to a movie. This story focuses on the the South during the Civil War and promotes the trope that the Civil War was less about slavery and more about states’ rights. Although this film was less overt in its racist production, it still produced a negative image of the black characters. Big Sam and Prissy, two major characters who were slaves to the main family in the film, are depicted as uneducated, child-like, and emotionally unstable. This film, again, created a false identity for these characters that could easily be taken from the theaters and into the real world.
Some might think this problem is strictly a historical one, but this is a contemporary issue as well. In 2016, the Civil War movie entitled Free State of Jones was released. This film follows Newt Knight, a white man in the Confederate Army who is opposed to slavery. Knight was forced to flee the army and ended up finding refuge with a group of runaway slaves. The movie comes to a climax when Knight heroically leads a successful rebellion. (Source two) This movie was noticeably less racist than The Birth of a Nation or Gone With the Wind, but it does perpetuate the harmful narrative of white supremacy. At its core, this movie supports the narrative that people of African descent need the help of a white man. Although history proves that groups of runaway slaves successfully organized revolts throughout the Civil War, this film chose to depict a narrative in which the white man is still the savior. Although perhaps less intentional, this movie fabricated an identity of a black person being unable to help themselves. This creation of identity reinforces a problematic power dynamic that still plagues the world today. Identity is a precarious topic because it is constantly in fluctuation and varies from person to person. Speaking about the identity of an entire group is even more complex. While acknowledging this complexity, it is important to recognize the fabrication and misrepresentation of identity within films as a problem for people of African descent. Films, such as The Birth of a Nation, Gone With the Wind, and The Free State of Jones, portray black people as infantile and incapable, while simultaneously reproducing the narrative of white supremacy. This representation can be, and oftentimes is actually, applied to people of that particular demographic in the real world. This is a problem because it can cause disadvantages and unjust roadblocks within society.
Source One https://www.history.com/this-day-in-history/birth-of-a-nation-opens
Source Two: https://www.smithsonianmag.com/history/true-story-free-state-jones-180958111/