Reducing Black Actors to Limited Roles Reinforces Negative Stereotypes

Alisha Agard

Illustration by MaryAnne Bowen.

I want to first start off by saying I am so happy to hear about the success films “12 Years a Slave” and “Django Unchained” have received lately. It is nice to see actors and actresses of color receiving recognition for their talents, and I am extremely proud.

That being said, I personally will not be watching either film any time soon. For those who are unaware, “Django Unchained” and “12 Years a Slave” are both films with plots about slavery. In both films, there are scenes that are incredibly graphic that emulate the pain and torture slaves experienced while working on plantations. When both films were released, movie critics described the movies as “too tough to watch” due to the graphics and the realness of the movies. Other critics have claimed the movies were amazing and revolutionary. I think it’s great that the films are able to show people what slavery was like and educate viewers on the history of race relations, but I just cannot bring myself to watch them.

As a black person, I am fully aware of my history. I know about slavery, and I know about the damage slavery has done, so I don’t feel the need to watch the pain and suffering my ancestors experienced. It’s too painful. I do, however, believe that people who are not aware of the damages slavery had on black people should see it, because though I am uncomfortable with them, the films do have educational value. I will never watch them though, because not only are they too painful to watch, but I am also simply tired of slavery being one of very few representations of black people in film.

Over the years, I’ve noticed a trend in film. There are very few movies that do not portray black people in a way that enforces stereotypes. Films like “Friday,” “Hustle and Flow” and many others usually portray black men as the lazy pot smoker, gangster or pimp and usually portray black women as baby mommas, gangsters or promiscuous women. It seems like a lot of the films I usually see released in theaters and played all the time on the television are films like “Django Unchained” and “12 Years a Slave,” which portray black men and women as slaves. Slavery and being a gangster do not encapsulate black history or black culture, and I am tired of the media painting that picture. There are very few films I see that are like “Eat Pray Love,” “Thor” or “The Heat;” the positive representation of black people in these types of films just is not there.

By reducing black actors and actresses to roles of slaves and poor gangsters and drug dealers, the film industry reinforces the stereotypes people hold about black people. People watch these films, and they see black people acting as thugs and slaves, but they don’t see black people in more positive roles. Black people go to see films like “Django Unchained” and “12 Years a Slave” and have to witness a trauma that they never had to experience, but they still see its effects manifested in society. I can’t do it. I want movie-goers, directors and producers to see my people as more than just slaves and thugs. Black people are so much more than that.