“Cinema is the people who tell the story. Those people have done a lot of damage.” – Spike Lee
Though motion pictures were struggling through their infancy at the end of the 19th century, it wasn’t until the 1910s that cinema became a viable, affordable means of making art. Jumping on this newfound invention and exciting technological advancement were the likes of Georges Méliès, Auguste and Louis Lumière, J. Searle Dawley and D. W. Griffith, filmmakers from across the world who pioneered the artform and also happened to be white men.
Struggling to be seen as anything other than a carnival gimmick in its initial form, cinema soon gained legitimacy thanks to the undeniably revolutionary filmmaking of D. W. Griffith’s Birth of a Nation that introduced the world to cinematic realism and innovative camerawork. Reflecting the racism that remained stagnant in America ever since the civil war of the mid-19th century, despite Birth of a Nation’s technical innovations, in today’s world it is considered a deeply hateful text that reveals the early scars that black people across the remainder of the 20th century had to bear.
Imbued with lies, fiction and injustice, D.W. Griffith created a film that reeked of the hatred and racist propaganda that still finds itself plaguing corners of the American consciousness today. Becoming the first film ever to be shown at the White House in 1915, President Woodrow Wilson legitimised such dangerous attitudes when he remarked: “It’s like writing history with lightning. My only regret is that it is all so terribly true,” upon the film’s conclusion.
Ever since the release of the film in 1915, advocates for black civil rights across America have long experienced a losing battle with Hollywood as they work to change such an endemic view of racial hatred. “Those people have done a lot of damage,” the influential contemporary filmmaker Spike Lee announced in a passionate speech against Hollywood, “We’ve been dying from the get-go and still today we haven’t achieved our rights…Film and TV media have been used to tell lies”.
Such early American films purported the truth of the ‘lost cause’ narrative that attempted to rewrite the atrocities of the nation’s civil war in the period of Reconstruction that occurred in the late 19th century. These narratives turned the brutal truth into something more palatable, attempting to erase the horrors of the past in favour of a ‘heroic’ discourse that framed the war itself as some sort of ‘noble’, patriotic quest as opposed to the battle over the proposed Emancipation Proclamation. This is a truth that’s self-evident in D.W. Griffith’s racist depiction of black thugs in Birth of a Nation, a film that sparked an American cinematic revolution and would forever taint the future of the industry with a venomous seed from which Hollywood would grow.
A descendant of D.W. Griffith’s vision, Victor Fleming’s American classic Gone With the Wind would follow in the ‘lost cause’ narrative 24 years later, a film that remains the highest-grossing films of all time when adjusted for inflation. Set during the civil war and Reconstructive period that followed, Victor Fleming’s film was criticised as historical negationism, glorifying the horrors of slavery in pursuit of a new white-washed romantic truth. Disregarding each of the three black servant characters as caricatures, figuratively erasing their history, the dim-witted Pork (Oscar Polk), irresponsible Prissy (Butterfly McQueen) and nagging Mammy (Hattie McDaniel) became insulting illustrations of the hegemonic white ruling class.
Whilst Birth of a Nation was a vicious film emblazoned with racial hatred, Gone With the Wind was a shrouded attack imbued with a subtle propaganda that at this point in American history had become fact. As the poet and educator Melvin B. Tolson highlighted: “Birth of a Nation was such a barefaced lie that a moron could see through it. Gone with the Wind is such a subtle lie that it will be swallowed as truth by millions of whites and blacks alike”.
Consumed and adored both critically and commercially, Gone With the Wind became a national success and even a symbol of American patriotism, given that the film reflected such a romantic, nostalgic impression of the country’s tumultuous past. Showered with glory at the Academy Awards, Hollywood validated Victor Fleming’s achievement with ten Oscar’s including a historic award for Hattie McDaniel, becoming the first black actor to take home a statuette at the prestigious event. Whilst the success should’ve been celebrated, it was instead shrouded in racial politics when McDaniel was forced to sit at a segregated ‘coloured section’ of the event, away from the white actors and filmmakers and was subsequently barred from the ‘whites only’ after party.
Gone With the Wind later became a prominent example of Hollywood’s systemic racism that would pervade every aspect of the industry in the remainder of the 20th century, even infecting the likes of Disney whose animations were peppered with racial stereotypes and other offensive characters. Such became infamous in the 1946 film Song of the South, a live-action animation hybrid based on Joel Chandler Harris’s collection of Uncle Remus stories that followed a black storyteller who detailed several fantastical tales. Deploying racist archetypes whilst romanticising the atrocities of the civil war and the activity on Southern plantations, history has demonstrated Song of the South was merely another Hollywood film shrouded in innocence that still bared the mark of racism.
These attitudes created a stagnant Hollywood attitude for several decades, where white male filmmakers achieved off the success of one another as the racist attitudes of the past became embedded in the very identity of the industry. As societal attitudes towards such issues began to change toward the end of the 20th century, the industry appeared to follow suit. Gaining momentum due to the leadership of Martin Luther King and Malcolm X among others, the Civil Rights movement was integral to such a change in public perception, with the American people witnessing first-hand the brutality of white police officers against peaceful black protestors.
Such led to the signing of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 by President Lyndon Johnson, with the dramatic passing of the document making discrimination based on race, colour, religion, sex or national origin, illegal. The very same year as this historic political decision, Sidney Poitier became the first black man to win the Leading Actor Oscar at the Academy Awards, taking home the statuette for his performance in Lilies Of The Field in 1964, 35 years after the awards show began.
This societal shift allowed a plethora of black voices and actors to enter the industry, as the Blaxploitation genre arose from the success of the Civil Rights movement, portraying violent, powerful, unapologetically angry black characters as a response to decades of systemic racism in the industry. Seen as ‘dangerous’ by popular society, such notions only fed into the veiled racism of an American society that had become so used to the safety of their own homogenous voice that they feared the views of the ‘other’. The L.A. Rebellion movement would follow in the 1980s, with Spike Lee leading the charge with films such as Do the Right Thing that featured vibrant soundtracks, vibrant clothing and free-spirited characters.
Though black actors and filmmakers saw greater representation throughout the remainder of the 20th century in the Hollywood mainstream, with the likes of Denzel Washington and Cuba Gooding Jr. both taking home Oscar’s for their contributions to cinema, a considerably unjust system that favoured white creatives both in front of and behind the camera remained in place by the turn of the new millennium. Shrouded in an illusion of ‘progress’ in the mid-2000s, 86% of top films featured white actors and by 2015 only 5.2% of directors in the industry were black, according to a report by the University of Southern California.
Whilst Hollywood continued with its illusion of progress, the pattern of change began to emerge in 2013 following the tragic death of Trayvon Martin, when, subsequently, the Black Lives Matter movement was formed and the industry would soon be forced to listen. Demanding true equality for black people in modern society, the movement galvanised itself by insisting on better standards from old establishments such as the movie industry, coming down on Hollywood in 2015 for their overwhelmingly white list of award nominees.
The hashtag #OscarsSoWhite was born and Hollywood was forced to bear the brunt of social media anger, triggering an identity crisis for the industry in a year where only two people of colour were nominated in a major category. In panicked reaction to such a dismal commercial year, the Academy Awards announced several significant changes that would look to make the Oscars more diverse and more inclusive for black creatives and female filmmakers alike.
Rolling out the ‘lost cause’ narrative once more that celebrated the arrival of the ‘white saviour,’ Hollywood purported change by awarding the likes of films such as Green Book, with the award for Best Picture in 2019. Though, such stories had never really left, with Green Book only following in a long line of similar films that included 2011’s The Help which swept systemic racism under the rug in favour of a predominantly white focus. In films that are born out of black stories, Hollywood has long found a way of belittling the efforts of the actual heroes, demoting them as mere racial props in their heroic tales of white saviours.
Seven years after the brutal murder of Trayvon Martin and the killing of George Floyd at the hands of shocking police violence was about the shake the foundations of society even further, as Black Lives Matter and its thousands of new supporters demanded structural and institutional change. Everything from corporations to professional sports to big brands to Hollywood became the focus of such long-standing racism, and the modern, socially-aware populus demanded change.
Scrambling to remove every mention, subtitle and suggestion of racism from their media, the likes of HBO Max, Netflix, Disney and more worked to sweep their historic wrongdoings under the rug, with Hollywood suggesting that by simply removing the abundant evidence all knowledge of systemic racism in the industry would merely evaporate. Once celebrated industry darlings like Gone With the Wind and Song of the South, as well as episodes (and in some cases entire series’) of celebrated TV shows like Little Britain, The Mighty Boosh and South Park were also removed, with the industry now forced to face up to its racist past.
Quick, simple and easy, removing such films and episodes became common practice, at least for half a year or so, with the manic scramble seeming a little bizarre as although the prior mistakes were swept aside, it didn’t seem as though the respective companies were attempting to learn from or understand such wrongdoings. Burying the issue time and time again in order to never really deal with the problem, the actions of such major companies reflected that of the American psyche that preferred to ignore the true heart of the issue.
This period of time purported change, though as Alfred Martin, the assistant professor of communications at the University of Iowa states, “Since 1939, Black folks were saying that Gone With the Wind was a harmful depiction of Black folks, and nobody wanted to listen to us”. Continuing, the professor adds, “All of a sudden, in 2020, when this movie is almost 100 years old, now you want to pretend like it’s a problem?”.
Such reflects the nature of the problem as these efforts to eradicate racism in the industry simply rub off as corporate self-preservation. They may represent a starting point of transparency, though preventing such films and attitudes from breeding once again the future requires constant attention and proactivity from the industry. It’s right that the likes of Gone With the Wind are being held accountable for such racist attitudes, though the core issue is why it was able to get away with its existence for so long.
As a historic institution that has long paraded Hollywood’s ‘glorious’ superiority, it is the Academy Awards that stands for the principles of the industry on the whole and has long fostered the systemic racism of American cinema itself. For the Academy, handing out an award is effectively choosing who gains an elevated platform in the future of the industry and with black creatives constantly being omitted from the award show, they have long suffered as a result.
With 89% of Oscar nominations from 2010 – 2020 being awarded to white people, only 74 nominations in total were awarded to people of colour in this same period of time, a statistic made all the more shocking when in 2011 alone the Academy gave 72 nominations to white creatives. Looking back further than the contemporary history of the awards show, the statistics are only more appalling, with only 40 people from ethnically diverse backgrounds having ever won an Oscar in all four acting categories, plus directing and screenwriting, as reported by Sky News. Becoming the first black woman to ever win an Oscar for Best Leading Actress, Halle Berry’s Oscar victory in 2002 shows just how far the Academy Awards have yet to go, as 20 years later she remains the first and only one.
Illustrating a century of system racism, the Academy Awards, and indeed Hollywood in general, has a lot to prove to show that it has learnt, and is continuing to educate itself, about the horrors of its past. Announcing in 2020 that they have doubled the number of female members from 1,446 to 3,179 and has tripled their members of colour from 554 to 1,787, the Academy is striving to pioneer such industrial change, with the likes of Moonlight, Get Out, BlacKkKlansman and Judas and the Black Messiah having been honoured in the past five years. Such films promote some of the most exciting voices of black cinema including Barry Jenkins, Jordan Peele and Shaka King and move away from the regressive representation of the likes of Green Book and The Help that the Oscar’s once adored.
Suggesting a new, robust and diverse Academy Awards, if the awards show is indeed a reflection of the contemporary industry, it appears as though Hollywood may be moving in the right direction of history. Having long been rooted in the racism of D. W. Griffith, Walt Disney and the unrest of a nation still bearing the scars of the civil war, the path for Hollywood to embody a truly equitable and diverse industry remains a challenge, with the fruits of their efforts still yet to be consistently seen.
As the Academy’s chief operating officer, Christine Simmons rightly observes, “We’re trying to undo centuries of societal oppression,” before adding that the best way to elevate such voices is by “empowering that individual and then enlightening the others to what is outside of their experience”. Though Hollywood is still fighting a racism problem, it no longer seems like an uphill struggle.