African American Cinema

Traditional film scholarship has often attributed the emergence of African American cinema to the need for a response to the racial stereotypes prevalent in mainstream films. Indeed, the early representations of African Americans, as in Chick Thieves (1905) and the Edison shorts The Gator and a Pickanninny (1903), in which a fake alligator devours a black child, and The Watermelon Contest (1908), relied on staid and pervasive stereotypes common in literature, vaudeville, minstrel shows, and the culture in general. Though cinema would progress, as an industry and as an art form, the stereotypes of African Americans, rooted in slavery and used to justify racist ideologies and acts of discrimination, remained, though often adapted to fit changing cultural contexts. The most common archetypal forms, as identified by Donald Bogle, include: the mammy (a dark, large-bodied, asexual woman whose role is to provide maternal comfort for whites); the coon (a sexless comic figure, dull-witted, lazy, and cowardly, used for comic relief); the Uncle Tom (servile and overly solicitous to whites); the buck (defined by his physicality, a brutish and hypersexual black man who lusts after white women); the tragic mulatto (a mixed-race woman who, as a symbol against miscegenation, is caught between the races and denied access to the privileges afforded by a white identity), and the jezebel (an amoral temptress, promiscuous and oversexed).

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