We may be seeing Black elves today and Black mermaids in film these days, but Hollywood ‘s past of catering exclusively to a white American market since “Birth of a Nation” promoted the KKK, demonizing Blacks played by white actors in Black face, was just the start of shameful decades of racism fostered by tinsel town. Working in fits and starts, Hollywood has been trying to make up for its sins ever since the 60s Civil Rights Movement.
For decades, Hollywood was dominated by white heroes and heroines, with few exceptions. Whether it’s the “Lord of the Rings” trilogy, the “Harry Potter” series, or “Game of Thrones”, leads were almost exclusively white, with people of color relegated to supporting or background roles. This lack of representation has had a profound impact on white culture which has become increasingly fractured and isolated as a result.
The lack of Black heroes in television and movies contributed to a fractured white culture because it has denied white viewers the opportunity to see themselves in a positive light in relation to people of color. Indeed, in the absence of positive Black role models, white viewers turned to negative stereotypes and caricatures of Black people to define themselves promoted by the white owned news agencies. This has led to a fracture in white culture increasingly defined by fear and hatred of people of color, oblivious to their own white privilege spoon fed under the guise of news on networks like Fox and their imitators. Hate and fear sell soap.
To understand how this has come about, it’s important to look at the history of film and TV. Hollywood has its roots in the mythology and folklore of ancient cultures, where heroes and heroines of all races and ethnicity were celebrated. However, as the genre evolved and became our modern Hollywood system, it became increasingly dominated by white writers and creators, who brought with them their own biases and assumptions about race and culture.
This bias is evident in the way that Black characters are portrayed in many stories. Often, they are relegated to supporting roles, or are portrayed as exotic or mystical figures, rather than as fully-realized everyday individuals with their own agency and motivations. This reinforces the idea that Black people are somehow different or other, and contributes to a culture where white people are taught to fear and mistrust people of color.
In the 50s and 60s, TV shows such as “The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet,” “Leave It to Beaver,” and “The Andy Griffith Show” were extremely popular, and featured all-white casts. While some shows, such as “The Jack Benny Show” and “The Ed Sullivan Show,” did include occasional appearances by Black actors, the vast majority of the characters and story-lines revolved around white perspectives. This lack of Black representation created a gap in reality, as if Black people did not even exist in the world of these TV or film.
The scar impact of this gap in representation left on the American psyche is significant. Boomer white audiences grew up watching these shows and movies, and were taught to see the world through a white lens. Black people were often portrayed as either invisible or as one-dimensional stereotypes, reinforcing harmful and limiting racial stereotypes. This lack of representation and narrow portrayal of Black people contributed to a fractured white culture that lacked empathy and understanding for the experiences and perspectives of people of color that still plagues us today.
In order to break down the illusion of white power and privilege, it is essential that Hollywood and other media outlets prioritize stories and perspectives from people of color, sexual preference and religion no matter how much the white Christian patriarchy might complain about Black elves and mermaids. By featuring ever more diverse casts and stories that reflect the experiences of people from all backgrounds, Hollywood can help create a more equitable and just media landscape that challenges harmful stereotypes and narratives about race. Thus helping put an end the white racism Hollywood once so enthusiastically fostered for far too long.