This Sunday marks an important day for the Black Lives Matter movement. August 23 is annually reserved to honour the people in Saint-Domingue who revolted against slavery in 1791 and paved the way for the abolition of this humiliating practice that reduces human beings to minions. It’s a major event in Haiti and the Dominican Republic, where the event took place.
What is International Day for Remembrance of the Slave Trade and its Abolition?
International Day for Remembrance of the Slave Trade and its Abolition says that irrespective of which race and nation we belong to, no one must forget the tragedy of the slave trade that a handful of entitled people inflicted on fellow humans. It calls for collective consideration of the inhuman methods of torture and subjugation, and the results of this tragic practice. The Slave Route Project launched by UNESCO in 1994 is a step in that direction.
Racial stereotyping in films
Have you stopped to notice how German characters in Hollywood movies are almost always Nazis? Or Spanish women are always buxom bombshells? Racial stereotyping is entrenched in American and British cinema. In the early days, white actors played black characters, on stage first and then in films. Worse, they played African-Americans as caricatures to be laughed at rather than people.
White actors and actresses would paint their faces black and lips red, and act over-the-top to portray an African-American servant or sidekick. This practice came to be known as “blackface” and was a direct insult to the dignity of the race. Blackface was heavily criticised during the civil rights movement. It’s much less frequent in movies now.
However, there were some characters who came to symbolise the black race, the Mammy for example. In old Hollywood films, you will notice that the motherly nanny or maid is almost always a black woman. This is the Mammy trope. In fact, the first black actress to win an Oscar was Hattie McDaniel who won the Best Supporting Actress award for playing the maid whose name was literally Mammy in ‘Gone with the Wind’! Other famous films like D W Griffith’s ‘Birth of a Nation’ and ‘The Jazz Singer’ features portrayed black people in either a comical or starkly sinister way.
If you thought this doesn’t happen anymore, watch the critically acclaimed film, ‘The Help’ about a bunch of gutsy maids. Rather than subverting black stereotypes, the 2011 film was accused of racial profiteering. It trivialises the plight of black domestic workers. It was a resurrection of the Mammy rather than a subversion.
Today, black roles are essayed by black actors, yet there are so few black characters. Diversity is a buzzword precisely because movies need more of it. Black men in movies are either gangsters or thugs, drug addicts, entitled rappers or sidekicks. They are prone to violent outbursts and use curse words in every second sentence. Black female roles are reserved for the leading lady’s sassy best friend who’s always there to listen to her relationship woes. When people die in action movies, the first to go down is the black character.
Can the entertainment industry stop reinforcing racial stereotypes that hark back to the slave trade? Can writers create African-American characters with more depth and film producers hire more black talent? We would like to hope so.