Entertaining While Black: The Depiction of Black Males in Popular Media ~EXISTING WHILE BLACK IN AMERICA series~

By Dr. Darron T. Smith

Virtually every major white institution and its stakeholders are well aware of the multiple stereotypes regarding Black males, and much of that information is gleaned largely from popular media. No other medium has the ability to reach so many American homes influencing personal opinion, ideas, and racial attitudes than news, film, music videos, reality television, and other programming. It is within the mass media, then, that historical representations of black males are re-inscribed for proceeding generations of Americans to consume. And these pervasive stereotypes have resulted in exclusion, alienation, joblessness, fear, ostracism and intense punitive treatment in U.S. public schools and the criminal justice system.

African American males are typically cast in specific roles in American film. The usual suspects include the black sidekick of a white protagonist, the token black person, the comedic relief, the athlete, the ladies’ man, and most damaging, the violent black man. These stereotypical one-dimensional characters in film negate the broader and deeper experience of Black life. Images generated by mass media outlets are significant because they reflect and profoundly influence the operative values of American society. More specifically, the images of the dominant culture in the popular media have force because its messages and values seem normal and ordinary since they are constantly repeated in public spaces. As Dates and Barlow stated, “Images in the mass media are infused with color-coded positive and negative moralistic features. Once these symbols become familiar and accepted, they fuel misperceptions and perpetuate misunderstandings among the races.” Film best captures our imagination, often over reality; thus, it grasps our societal perceptions of black men through misrepresentations of them on the big screen. These inaccuracies are but a glimpse of systemic racism in American life.

This is not to say that some African Americans don’t participate in their own marginalization, from music videos and reality TV to roles on the big screen. Yet, the parts they are offered leave black actors with limited options. Conventionally white screenwriters, who view the world through the prism of a white lens, write about subject matters that reflect their own narrow experiences living and existing in a highly racialized society. As a result, the predominately white film industry (from producers to screenwriters to directors), in the market of pleasing their predominately white consumer base, lacks diversity in the depth of their characters. This would explain why most popular shows or cinematic themes of American life reflect the interest of white people with strong white themes and often very little representation of difference with respects to writing and casting. Based on past and current Nielsen ratings, the most popular shows consist of the likes of The Bachelor/Bachelorette, The Big Bang Theory, CSI, Friends, and Seinfeld. In efforts to be politically correct, black characters are regularly inserted as what black analysts often consider a “token” role seen in stereotypical ways. Although on the surface these roles seem varied, many fall into similar overarching themes; therefore, causing black actors to select parts that contribute to and reinforce black stereotypes. As Depok Chopra said, we as humans would rather see ourselves in negative light than to not be seen at all.

Certainly, the characterizations of Black males in the mass media seen as rising sports stars is cause for concern as it allows for little or no attention to be given to their academic and intellectual development, goals, and pursuits in public life. Yet, the most enduring and threatening depiction to the life of black males is the violent caricature. Denzel Washington’s role as Alonzo Harris in the 2001 film, Training Day, was the apotheosis of the media portrayals of black males as criminal. These media images of violence and aggression are linked to discipline and control of black male bodies in today’s U.S. public school and criminal justice system. Taking it one step further, the antithesis of his character was Ethan Hawke’s role as the good cop, appearing as moral and righteous. And subsequently (although likely unintentional), a subtheme of the film emerged in protecting and maintaining white innocence. Will Smith, in successfully becoming one of film’s leading men, has strategically flipped Hollywood’s stereotypical white perceptions of blacks in the media. He is often seen starring as a protagonist as opposed to taking roles that show him as villainous. Although applauded for seeking and earning leading male roles in Hollywood, his often heroic and hyper-masculine characters play into the theme of protecting whiteness and its virtuous subthemes of justice and freedom such as in Independence Day and I Am Legend. In fact, in extreme attempts to avoid the villain prototype, Smith plays the role of the “Magic Negro” archetype in The Legend of Bagger Vance and Hitch, for example, where his efforts to save and teach whites about what it means to be good facilitates a mystical theme in the mind of white people.

News media has the same effect on white consciousness as popular media. News, then, reflects film because the purportedly unbiased and objective reporters are influenced by the perception of blacks in the larger society as seen in popular American film. The Internet sports blog site Deadspin broke a story in April of 2011 that illustrated how news media representations of black male athletes reinforce the mythology of them as oversexed and rule-breakers. The story centers on a private confessional of a young black man that was leaked to the public. A basketball player at Brigham Young University, a predominately white Christian school, Brandon Davies was suspended for breaking the honor code by having premarital sex. The elements were present that would make for a sensational story: race, religion, sex and sports. The news of his suspension came about in the midst of the NCAA tournament, and the school was heralded in Sports Illustrated as  “America’s University” for upholding its values and standards in suspending him due to an honor code violation. However, the news media, in its stereotypical portrayal of this young man, failed to report an important aspect of the story. As Deadspin noted upon closer examination of the honor code office at BYU, a troubling pattern emerged for athletes of color, especially African American men, going back to 1993 . Athletes of color are more likely to be disciplined than white athletes despite their significantly lower numbers on campus and in the sporting arena. This creates the impression that only black men engage in illicit sex or other honor code violations while white men rarely, if ever, violate these standards, which holds a glaring resemblance to the criminal justice system where black males are convicted and locked up at much higher rates than their white male counterparts for similar crimes committed. As this story highlights, this trend is in part a direct result of media representations influencing white perceptions.

The social control and physical discipline of Black males in contemporary U.S. prisons, public schools, and other social institutions is a reality made possible through the language and reasoning of pseudoscientific theories of race and masculinity perpetuated through mass media. The dominant ideologies of Black males labeled as sub-human, violent, criminal, and “bad” are deeply rooted within U.S. society (and, hence, in our perceptions, attitudes, beliefs, reactions, and language). Media representations are yet another form of institutionalized racism that contributes to the current state of our school and prison system. The anger boiling in many Black males is warranted and originates from a deep historical context and sustained confrontation with White supremacy. This anger is real, producing self-doubt, alienation and general disenfranchisement, which begins to play out from the time young men of color enter the public school system.

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