History of Black Actors in the Film Industry

When asked about the role of Film in society, Tom Sherak, president of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, He answered that it is a reflection of society both past and present, sometimes even future. A film is a form of expression as well as storytelling. The ideas and stories it conveys are often significant in the context of the time in which it was created. Although the meaning of a movie will differ from person to person, Movies in a broad sense have the ability to inspire as well as spark conversation with their content. Therefore an analysis of the movies, from its creation to its content to its reception, is not only meaningful but also provides insight to society that it is received in. The nature of Media is a mass form of communication. Because the film is both expresses ideas and is influenced by society, it is a form of media, and its broad reach makes it a very powerful tool. It is only natural for the film to reflect no only the good but also the bad parts of society, and the influence of society becomes imbedded into its history. The creation and casting of a film as well as when and where it occurs are significant. So a film cast and filmed in 1960 America is inevitably going to be influenced and shaped by race and racism. The ramifications of the racial dominance of the industry persist in modern film.

Historically, white male actors dominate the film industry. White producers and directors would rarely cast black actors by avoiding the role in film or theatre and their portrayal was often only in the form of minstrel shows and blackface. These shows typically stereotyped the black experience and black characters. The first black actor in the film was Lincoln Perry and the character he portrays is a blubbering fool. The black community did not receive Perry with praise although he was the first Black film star because his roles reflected them so poorly. He had no choice but to take those roles because those are the only ones the film industry would offer to people of color.  Black characters, whether, portrayed by a white man in blackface or a black actor, were not painted in a good light and were often not lead characters that you are able to admire or relate to. Blackface was used to avoid having to cast people of color in films when the role was necessary, and when they did cast them it was in stereotypical demeaning roles. Films reflected a white-dominated world where the main characters were white and black actors did not get the opportunity nor the representation in the Movie industry. This whitewashing of the industry is significant as Film not only reflects but also affects society. Black bodies did not have characters to idolize or be inspired by that looked like them, while white people had a plethora of actors and characters to look to.

In the so-called “post-civil rights” era black actors had begun to emerge in the industry and were provided with more opportunities to showcase their talents without being forced into demeaning roles. The advancement of black rights and the attempt to have more diversity in the industry lead to the emergence of Black superstars such as Tyler Perry, Halle Berry, and Will Smith. But after decades of white dominance in the industry, the shift in tides was not sufficient to create a balance in the number of lead People of Color actors in the industry, compared to the vast white majority. While there were more idols who POC could look to on the silver screen bearing their resemblance, the film industry was still predominately white, especially in terms of success,  and it white-washed characters that were traditionally POC. While it was no longer the wholesale avoidance of black actors like in the early 20th century, characters like Tony Mendes in Argo (2012) are portrayed by white actors, in this case, Ben Affleck. The true story it was based on revolves around Mendes, the protagonist of Mexican descent. The decision to instead cast a white actor minimized what is an inspiring story of an intelligent POC and instead progress the “white savior” narrative. The backlash to white-washing and the persistent inequality in the industry lead to “color-blind casting” an effort to try and disregard race when choosing actors. This was essentially the same as equal opportunity employment but specified for film, since the characteristics of an actor are even more important for the job. The basis of color-blind casting argues that race is not one of these characteristics. In an ideal world, such a call to action would remedy the inequality, but although progress has been made, we do not live in such a world.

 In response to the casting of more black actors in typically white roles, some accused the industry of now “black-washing” the characters. Their argument was essentially that the race of these classic characters was a fundamental part of their portrayal and by the producers choosing a black actor, they were sullying the character and failing to properly portray their story, regardless of the actors or actress’s talents. One instance where the producers were accused of “black washing” was the casting of Zendaya as Mary Jane in Spider-Man: Homecoming (2017). Some fans quibbled that she is supposed to have red hair and proclaimed she can’t be black. Not only does her race not affect the character of Mary Jane and her portrayal, but the casting of a black woman in the role of Mary Jane also allows for yet another character who POC could look to. Mary Jane is a classic role that epitomized beauty, as she is the love interest of the main character. So a POC portraying her further empowers the young black women who watch the film. By choosing to ignore the race of the original white character, some fans argued they are doing the exact opposite of white-washing, therefore it was equally wrong. But the shift in the race of the character does not affect white people because they are not underrepresented in the industry or oppressed in society. While white-washing is a form of systematic racism, using the industry to minimize the image of POC, there is no reverse racism that applies to white people.


Goddess, Yarn. “Comic Heroes and Racism.” Geeks, 2017. https://vocal.media/geeks/comic-heroes-and-racism.

Nordqvist, Christian. “What Is Media? Definition and Meaning.” Market Business News. Market Business News, February 13, 2019. https://marketbusinessnews.com/financial-glossary/media-definition-meaning/.

Ruimy, Jordan. “11 Worst Examples of Whitewashing in Movies.” ScreenRant. Screen Rant, September 22, 2015. https://screenrant.com/worst-examples-whitewashing-movies/.

Shah, Vikas. “The Role of Film in Society.” Thought Economics, June 3, 2015. https://thoughteconomics.com/the-role-of-film-in-society/.

2 thoughts on “History of Black Actors in the Film Industry”

  1. Alvin, in such a short space I thought you did a good job of covering the different aspects of the film industry and how it has been affected by race. I agree that film is extremely important in introducing and shaping society’s popular beliefs. I appreciate how in discussing colorblind casting you gave examples of both a white actor in playing the role of a POC and vice versa. I thought that this was important in ensuring an even-handed argument. One thing that I still wonder is if there is still a disproportionate amount of black women who are cast in films compared to men?

  2. Alvin,
    This post, very eloquently, discusses white-washing in the entertainment industry and some of the hypocrisy surrounding the representation of race in the industry. In this modern era, where Black actors are fighting more and more to be cast as regularly as their white counterparts, we are seeing more and more white people openly express their desire for the so-called preservation of the racial authenticity of films. Another film you could look at that has already received backlash before it has been produced is the Live Action of The Little Mermaid where Halle Bailey, a Black woman was cast for the role of Ariel. White boycotters have compared this casting to a scenario of a white woman playing Tiana in The Princess and the Frog, and I would be interested to see your take on it.

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