UF professors: Hollywood changes roles of minorities, but not whites

Published: January 14 2003

Category:Arts, Black, Hispanic, Research

GAINESVILLE, Fla. — The Hollywood lens has shifted stereotypes of blacks from the shiftless or brutal characters of yesteryear to that of second-string players whose roles only boost those of whites in modern movies, a new book by University of Florida researchers finds.

Unchanged are portrayals of white characters, who are depicted as noble, wise or heroic folks no matter whether they encounter rampaging blacks in old, silent flicks or oppressed blacks in color features almost a century later, said Andrew Gordon, a UF professor of English and one of the authors of the book published this month.

The book, “Screen Saviors: Hollywood Fictions of Whiteness,” co-written by UF sociology Professor Hernan Vera, analyzes the images of white protagonists interacting with people of another race or ethnicity in American movies from 1915’s “Birth of a Nation” to “Black Hawk Down” in 2001. The authors see the portrayals of whites in movies as “sincere fiction” fed to society through means such as the media, with minorities assigned secondary roles to advance the fictions of the white self.

Gordon said there have been many studies of minority images in film – African Americans, Asian Americans and Latinos – but most ignore the obvious: About 95 percent of Hollywood movies are made by, for and about white people.

The portrayal of leader-like whites and backup blacks has a powerful influence on the world’s image of the United States, Gordon said. “We tend to dismiss cinema as mere entertainment, yet it has profound effects in shaping our thinking and behavior,” he said.

Early films portrayed blacks as vicious upstarts, such as the black soldier who tries to rape a white aristocrat’s daughter in “Birth of a Nation,” or as faithful servants, such as Mammy, the motherly maid in 1939’s “Gone with the Wind,” Gordon said. Today it is not uncommon to see movies like “Save the Last Dance,” in which a black teenager not only teaches a white girl he romances how to hip hop but also straightens out her life, he said.

“On the surface it seems to be a role reversal – a kid from the ghetto who incorporates middle-class values and upward mobility more so than the white characters,” he said. “But it’s a substitution of one set of stereotypes for another: that is, the minority figure is still functioning to prop up the white identity.”

The same is true in the “Lethal Weapon” movies, in which a black Los Angeles cop, played by Danny Glover, is an older, wiser middle-class family man who rescues a reckless and suicidal white cop, played by Mel Gibson, Gordon said.

“Even though white characters no longer automatically demand black characters be subordinate and faithful followers, they nonetheless still expect them to prop them up psychically,” he said. “(Director) Spike Lee objected to what he saw as a proliferation of recent movie characters he called ‘magical Negroes,’ who seemed to exist only to serve the white heroes.”

Whites are persistently represented across time as brave, kind, firm and generous; natural leaders worthy of the loyalty of slaves or subordinates of color, Gordon said.

“We can say minorities today are portrayed through a far greater range of characters than the obnoxious stereotypes of such early movies as ‘Birth of a Nation,’ a hymn of praise to the Ku Klux Klan,” he said. “But the portrayal of whites doesn’t change much despite all the gains of the civil rights movement, which seems to fly in the face of common sense.”

Even well-intentioned films considered progressive for their time fuel these stereotypes in their magnanimous treatment of whites, Gordon said. “Amistad” (1997), for example, affirms the fundamental goodness of white American civilization by romanticizing the institutions that made it legal and possible for slavery to exist, he said.

Another example is “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner” (1967), the story of a white patriarch coming to terms with his daughter’s intention to marry a black man, which ends with a long speech reaffirming the father’s wisdom and tolerance, Gordon said. As it appears a newly integrated American family is about to form, its members continue to be served by a black maid, he said.

“The more things change, the more they remain the same,” he said.

Blacks remain secondary characters even when they are the center of a story, Gordon said. In “Mississippi Burning” (1988), which looks back to the Civil Rights Movement of the mid-1960s, blacks are primarily passive, suffering victims incapable of fighting without the help of whites, he said, while in “Glory” (1990), which dramatizes black soldiers’ service to the Union Army, the hero is a white abolitionist – the only actual historical figure among the principal characters – who controls the film’s narrative in the form of letters home.

The work already has received praise. “This book reveals the diverse, often disturbing ways in which movies manufacture the ‘white self’ – the image and story of whiteness articulated by white filmmakers,” said Daniel Bernardi, a University of Arizona media arts professor and an expert on race.


Cathy Keen, ckeen@ufl.edu, (352) 392-0186
Andrew Gordon

Category:Arts, Black, Hispanic, Research