Example research essay topic: Representations Of The Black Male In Film – 1,150 words

A systematic exclusion of black people from the
production, distribution, and exhibition of film
exists in Hollywood. This “system” is white
America’s continuing subversion of a whole race
that has existed since the first slave was dragged
from African soil and put to work on an American
plantation. In these “politically correct” times
the system is not an overt racist activity.
Rather, it is more of a hidden political agenda
that does not appear to exist when looked for. But
the system operates in all aspects of commercial
American cinema and, thus, defines how blacks are
portrayed on the screen which, in turn, defines
how black audiences define themselves. Hollywood
has traditionally portrayed the black male
negatively, providing inappropriate role models
for young black males. Although the influence of
independent filmmakers is changing the way
commercial films depict black men, real change
will only come when audiences demand it.

essay looks at why and how the “system” excludes
black people, and examines several films to show
how the image of the black male is changing.
American media representations of black men not
only serve the interests of the dominant white
class and help maintain existing institutions, but
they also keep black people from positions of
power and stature in American society.
Historically, black males have been characterized
only in terms of society’s own political agenda
and its own economic gain. D. W. Griffith’s Birth
of a Nation (1915), for example, was a blatantly
racist attack on blacks, portraying black men as a
sexual threat to the purity of white women and a
biological threat to the purity of the white race.
Films such as Hallelujah (1929) sentimentalized
the plantation myth to keep black people in “their
place.” The film capitalized upon the loss of the
supportive extended family of the rural Southern
communities after black migration to large cities
such as New York, Chicago, and Los Angeles (Jones
23). The scenes of the sharecroppers on Zeke’s
farm smiling, laughing, and singing as they pick
cotton are blatantly reminiscent of the
popularized myth of happy slaves on the
plantation. Things were better back then, these
scenes suggest; life was good.

When Zeke goes into
town to sell the year’s crop, he falls prey to the
evils of city life–gambling, loose women, and
drinking– which results in the death of his
brother. The message is clear: black people only
get into trouble when they fail to stay in their
place. Using the images of black people to promote
a racist political agenda is not a relic of the
past, however. It is the legacy handed down to
contemporary film and other media. The lives of
black Americans are portrayed with off-balance
images that totally ignore the complexity of black
experience (Johnson 13; Spigner 40). The images in
film and other media only offer extremes of bad
and good, of sexually threatening and sterile.
Hollywood gives black audiences images of black
men positioned at two extremes–criminals and drug
dealers at one end or sexually (and thus
politically) sterile beings on the other, as many
of Sidney Poitier’s characters are (Guerrero,
Framing 72).

A recent exhibition at the Whitney
Museum of American Art, Black Male: Representation
of Masculinity in Contemporary American Art, drew
some negative criticism about how black men were
portrayed. Adger Cowars, a Manhattan painter and
photographer said, “This is a show about white
people’s fears. It’s about sex, violence, and
sports. There’s no picture of a black man with a
child, his daughter or his son. Think of all the
great black men. There are none in this show”

in Richardson C13). In the show’s exhibition
catalogue, Herman Gray explains how these negative
images of black men are used by the dominant white
class to shift attention away from the problems
inherent in the system and, at the same time,
garner support for its institutions: Discursively
located outside of the “normal conceptions,”
mainstream moral and class structure, media
representations of poor black males (e.g., Rodney
King and Willie Horton) served as the symbolic
basis for fueling and sustaining panics about
crime, the nuclear family, and middle-class
security while they displaced attention from the
economy, racism, sexism, and homophobia. This
figure of black masculinity consistently appears
in the popular imagination as the logical and
legitimate object of surveillance and policing,
containment, and punishment. Discursively this
black male body brings together the dominate
institutions of (white) masculine power and
authority–criminal justice system, the police,
and the news media–to protect (white) Americans
from harm. (402) Opposite the black threat extreme
are the “shallow implausible characters” with “a
neutered or counterfeit sexuality,” as seen in
many of the “buddy” movies and the roles of Sidney
Poitier (Guerrero, Framing 72). Ed Guerrero,
Rockefeller Fellow in the Residence at the
University of Pennsylvania and Professor of Black
film and literature at the University of Delaware,
calls these representations, “sterile paragons of
virtue completely devoid of mature
characterization or of any political or social
reality .

. . condemned on the screen to reassure
white people of their innocence and superiority”
(Framing 72-73). Guerrero explains what is missing
between the two extremes: Sadly, and dangerously
for us all as a diverse, multiracial society, we
have constructed in our films and in our media in
general . . .

a vast, empty space in
representation. What is missing from Hollywood’s
flat, binary construction of black manhood is the
intellectual, cultural, and political depth and
humanity of black men, as well as their very
significant contribution to the culture and
progress of this nation. (“Black” 397) It is not
just white people’s perceptions of blacks,
however, that is affected by negative images of
the black male. Black community and the black
family suffer from how black men grow up
perceiving who they are (Greene 29). Young,
impressionable black males construct their own
reality from the images they see in American
media. Gray tells of the dual effects of these
negative images: These very same images of black
manhood as threat and dread not only work to
disturb dominant white representations of black
manhood, they also stand in a conflicted
relationship with definitions and images of
masculinity within blackness.

(403) The effect of
these negative images is devastating to the
structure of the black family and society: only
about 40% of black children born in the U.S. are
born to married parents; far fewer have a father
consistently at home during the first 16 years of
their lives (Novack). Murder of blacks by other
blacks is the leading cause of death among young
blacks (“Reagonite”). Many black communities
suffer from poverty. Independent filmmaker Charles
Burnett describes the poverty he saw while
shooting a film in a North Philadelphia black
neighborhood: It’s amazing how this country can
let people live like that. How can America have a
community completely blinded? There’s graffiti
everywhere, and people don’t even see them,
they’re so immune to it.

Crack and poverty have
destroyed a lot of young people, taken away their

Research essay sample on Representations Of The Black Male In Film