Resisting Racial Stereotypes: The Portrayal of African-Americans in Television and Film


Take a moment to think about the last time you saw an African American character on television or in a movie. How was that character portrayed? More likely than not, the character you saw was a racial stereotype. When looking at the United States through a ‘common sense’ lens it is easy to say that, by and large, racism ceases to exist. However, looking at society through a sociological lens we are better able to see the role that systemic racism plays in The United States today. This page serves the purpose of not only educating you about how African-Americans have been portrayed in television and film throughout history, but also as means to discuss different ways resistance has, and still continues to shape the way in which African-American’s are portrayed in television and film. It is important to realize that continued racial stereotyping of African-Americans in the media only serves to maintain and perpetuate a society in which systemic racism grows and thrives.

A Brief History 

  Long before television and film took over as leading forms of entertainment, African-Americans have been cast in roles that aided in the perpetuation of racialized stereotypes. During the latter half of the 1800’s minstrel shows were a popular form of entertainment among white Americans. These shows portrayed both free and enslaved African-Americans (who were mainly played by whites) in an extremely demoralizing fashion. The minstrel show is the birthplace of “Jim Crow”[1]. Jim Crow is most popularly seen in the context of the Jim Crow Laws, which enabled white Americans to legally separate themselves from African-Americans in nearly every facet of life. However, the character of Jim Crow is the creation of a white man, Thomas “Daddy” Rice. Rice covered his face with black coal and preceded to sing his song “Jump Jim Crow” accompanied by a dance meant to impersonate an old, cripple, African-American slave for whom Rice named his song after.[2]

When talking about the racialized stereotyping of African-Americans in film and resistance of such treatment, we must talk about the movie The Birth Of A Nation.Made in 1915, The Birth Of A Nation openly depicts anti-black sentiment through its glorification and sanctioning of the KKK (Klu Klux Klan). The films representation of African-Americans as second-class citizens, and as deserving of the appalling violence inflicted on them gained the attention of the NAACP (The National Association of the Advancement of Colored People). The NAACP fought adamantly to ban the film. African-Americans (and sympathetic whites) across the nation filed petitions, and appealed to their legislators. However, despite these efforts The Birth Of A Nation played in theaters nation-wide despite pleas from the NAACP that the release of the film had the potential of evoke widespread violence against blacks. Upon its release in Boston, Massachusetts (where the first branch of the NAACP was located) several thousand African-Americans stormed the State House demanding the film be banned.[3]  Even though the film was played, and continued to receive high praise and great success, the efforts executed by the NAACP played a role in one of the first national movements of resistance regarding racial stereotyping of African-Americans in film.  Due to the sheer number of African-American protesters not only did white newspapers cover the story, but this also enabled African-Americans to find a voice when they had previously been ignored.

Contemporary Movements

Looking at the portrayal of African-American characters in the last twenty years we are able to see that progress has been made. However, this is not to say that there is still not more to be done for resisting racial stereotypes. One of the main organizations that provide information about racial stereotyping of African-American’s in the media within the United States is the NAACP. Although the NAACP covers a wide range of issues surrounding the advancement of African-Americans, one of their largest initiatives is the NAACP “Image Awards”. The offical motto of the “Image Awards” is:  “the nation’s premier event celebrating the outstanding achievements and performances of people of color in the arts, as well as those individuals or groups who promote social justice through their creative endeavors”. [4] For the past 43 years the NAACP Image awards has celebrated those in the media and entertainment industry that promote positive portrayals and actively resist negative depictions of African-Americans. The NAACP plays a vital role in the movement against racial stereotyping. As I have mentioned earlier the NAACP has been fighting for equality in the way African-Americans are portrayed in the media since the early twentieth century. Although it may be difficult to find many organizations that explicitly fight the continuance of the racial stereotyping of African-American’s, we are able to see steady movement within the community of African-American entertainers in the United States.

In 2000, African-American filmmaker Spike Lee wrote and directed Bamboozled. Bamboozled is a satire that comments on the struggle African-Americans face because they are rarely shown in a positive and intelligent light. The premise involves an African-American man working for a television network that is constantly denying scripts that shape African-Americans in a positive light. Out of frustration the screenwriter pitches a “new-age minstrel show” which ultimately becomes extremely popular despite its overt use of black-face and racist jokes. In a review of the film by Stephen Holden of the New York Times he states: “The very messiness of ”Bamboozled” lends it an immediacy and heat that a more polished movie couldn’t have generated. Its most obvious target is the predominantly white-run television industry. At the same time, it accuses African-American writers and performers in black-oriented comedies (like ”In Living Color”) of creating work that demeans blacks through caricatures that are not that far removed from ”Amos ‘n’ Andy.”[5] Through his film Spike Lee’s has made a statement about the importance of society resisting the racial stereotypes projected on African-American’s in television. Through his film Lee calls out to other African-American entertainers to take a position of resistance from within the entertainment community. Furthermore, because of Spike Lee’s status as a celebrity, he is able to reach people on a national scale.

Elements of Systemic Racism Targeted By Spike Lee’s Bamboozled:

– color blind racisim

– everyday racism

-cultural racism

-internalized racism

 Personal Analysis and Recommendations

As a student studying sociology I sometimes underestimate the seemingly overwhelming power that “common sense” ideals hold within our society. However, no matter how firmly planted these ideals may be, you can see from looking through our nation’s history that we are capable of great change. I believe that it is important to remember that because I feel it is the key to our continued success as a society. Living in the “technological age” enables people to share ideas and feelings freely, quickly, and over widespread areas. However, we cannot forget the double edge sword of technology. We live in a world where we are increasingly dependent on media devices such as televisions.

No longer is the television merely used as a form of entertainment, but increasingly we are seeing it used as a means of education. In a generation where children are spending less time outside and more time in front of the glow of the television screen Because of this, children are also increasingly reliant on the images they see on television and in film to dictate they ways in which they perceive[6] the world. I believe that one of the most important aspects of resisting racial stereotypes in the media is making the cognitive realization that television and movies do play an important role in how young minds are shaped. Once we are able to look at the media and see the ways in which it acts to skew our perceptions we are better equipped to resist what we’re being told is correct.The media is constantly inundating us with images, words, and ideas. As a child (but also as an adult) it can become hard to distinguish between what is perpetuating racial systems and stereotypes and what isn’t. When it comes to resisting media driven racial stereotypes I would recommend that people take a stand. If you find a film or television program that depicts African-Americans (or any other minority group) in a racially demoralizing light do something, even if that just means taking to Facebook ( or another social forum) and stating that it is not okay. Media corporations listen to their viewers, people stop watching a certain program, that corporation is going to do whatever it takes to get viewers back, which means you can be in a position of power.

Scholarly References

– Davis, Ronald F. “Popular Art and Racism: Embedding Racial Stereotypes in the American Mindset– Jim Crow and Popular Culture.” The History of Jim Crow. Web. 11 Dec. 2011. <;.

– Holte, James C. “Unmelting Images: Film, Television, and Ethnic Stereotyping.”JSTOR. The Society for the Study of the Multi-Ethnic Literature of the United States (MELUS). Web. 11 Dec. 2011.

-Issacs, Shannon T. “Portrayal of African Americans in the Media: An Examination of Law and Order.” The Pennsylvania State University Department of Sociology. Web. 11 Dec. 2011. <;.

-Park, Ji Hoon, Nadine G. Gabbadon, and Ariel R. Chernin. “Naturalizing Racial Differences Through Comedy: Asian, Black, and White Views on Racial Stereotypes in Rush Hour 2.” Journal of Communication (2008). Web. 11 Dec. 2011.

-Horton, Yurri, Raagen Price, and Eric Brown. “PORTRAYAL OF MINORITIES IN THE FILM, MEDIA AND ENTERTAINMENT INDUSTRIES.” Stanford University. Web. 11 Dec. 2011. <;.

– “Mass Moments: “The Birth of a Nation” Sparks Protest.” Mass Moments: Fire Destroys Malden Mills. Mass Humanities. Web. 11 Dec. 2011. <;

-“NAACP Image Awards | NAACP.” NAACP | National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. NAACP. Web. 11 Dec. 2011. <;.

Links For Further Reference


-New York Times: “Television; Black Life on TV: Realism or Stereotypes?”

-New York TImes: “Trying on Blackface in a Flirtation With Fire”

-“Media Blackface”

-“Mass Media and Racism”

-“Race Stereotypes Alive and Well”

Relevant Organizations



Other Relevant People, Places, Books, Etc

Blackface Montage from Spike Lee’s Bamboozled

-Book: Minorities and Media: Diversity and the End of Mass Communication by Clint C. Wilson

-Book: African Americans and the Media by Catherine Squires

-Book: The Philosophy of Spike Lee by Mark T. Conrad,or.r_gc.r_pw.r_cp.,cf.osb&biw=1280&bih=597&um=1&ie=UTF-8&tbm=shop&cid=10836224705178054370&sa=X&ei=hFblTqzTEsXX0QGBl9n6BQ&ved=0CGAQ8wIwAA

-Youtube: Bad Ads: Racial Stereotypes

-Youtube: Spike Lee on Tyler Perry’s Movies and Shows

– NAACP Image Awards:







Authored by Sarah Noble-Dziura
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