Negative Black and Brown Images—What You Need to Know

– L. Arthalia Cravin

The other night I happened upon the second half of some TV show, I think it was called, “Private Practice.” TV shows now seem to have several stories unfolding at the same time. One of the stories on this particular show was that of a black woman whose faced had been slashed and she had gone to live with her brother, played by Taye Diggs, in order to recover from the physical and emotional scars of the assault. Within the first five minutes of watching the Diggs character with his sister, the negative black woman imagery moved front and center. It was not long before a white female character told Diggs that he needed to pretty much get away from his troubled sister because she was “going to drag him down with her.” The rest of the story followed this same train of negative black male-black female can’t get along media portrayals, ending with Diggs placing his begging and crying sister, in a psychiatric facility.

There are several things that I know about how movies get made and how character images are created. What everyone in the black and brown community needs to understand is that movies, television series, plays, magazines, videos, whatever the media, don’t just happen—somebody, a person, or a group of people develop these character portrayals. I’ve mentioned on this website before that I’ve written several movie scripts and books. My scripts were rejected by several Hollywood studios and I know why. So let’s start with movie-making 101.

Movies and television shows start with ideas. These shows start in the creative brain of someone as a story or an idea for a story of some sort. These are the scriptwriters or script developers. Scriptwriters and script developers have visions of the main story idea, how the story unfolds, how the plot develop, how issues within a story get resolved, and more importantly who plays the roles of actors in every scene. Beyond the actors, script writers also must “see” all the other incidental things that are part of a scene, including the site location of the primary action, and all the incidental “in the scene” elements such as trees, junk cars, trashy houses, ducks in the background, butterflies, a can of Pepsi on a table, and so forth. Even with commercials, something called a “storyboard” is used to create the entire commercial from start to finish, including who or what is in the commercial, what race, gender, nationality, how they speak, how they dress, their hair style, and all other incidentals in the scene. There is one GEICO commercial that is patently offensive showing guys at a construction site. The commercial has the black construction worker looking stupid and making the totally unnecessary remark about a co-worker with a jack-hammer, ” That is one dumb dude.” This commercial started out with an idea, that proceeded to storyboard, including the development and casting of the character portrayals and their behavior.

With movies, television shows, commercials, and videos, the story ideas are typically hashed out by a group of folks who go over the scenes, both the visuals and the dialogue, with the producers and directors so that they can plan for the actual shooting of each scene with the least amount of wasted effort and money. For example a scene shot in a room may contain shots looking in several different directions in the same room. What the viewer does not know is that movie and television scenes are shot out of sequence to save time and money and editing done to put the whole thing together later on. Many actors are rather surprised by what a final movie looks like given the seemingly disjointed way in which movie scenes are actually shot.

When I see the continuing perpetuation of negative images of black and brown people in all media what I know is that these images came out of the “creative” brain of script writers, script developers and movie directors who have their own idea of how someone in a movie should look and act. Scriptwriters also bring their own set of prejudices and biases into their creative works. And this is what has happened to black and brown images since television began. Starting with white actors in black face, with big eyes and big white lips, black women wearing aprons with their heads tied up like Aunt Jemima, black women as addicts, loose women, or prostitutes, black men in drag, proned to crime, running through streets after a burglary, loud boom boxes, Latinos in low and high riders committing crimes, you name it, the negative imagery that Hollywood has fostered and fed began in the minds and with the built in prejudices and biases of writers and producers who are hell bent not to change the imagery. Even the movie “The Help” followed the same old “black women as maids” script. Octavia Spencer’s Best Supporting Role Oscar is a throw-back to the maid, Hattie McDaniels who won the same award in 1939 for playing Mammy in the movie Gone With The Wind.” Not a stretch for Hollywood to go down the same old mammy road again. Even the book, written by a white female, took liberties that I found objectionable in its portrayal of black women. Still, the story of black women as maids was funded by Hollywood.

What black and brown people need to know about the continuing negative imagery is this. Until we get in positions to develop the scripts, develop the plots, create wholesome and positive story lines, participate in the development of stories and story lines, produce the movies and magazines, get behind the camera, and get into the production business, our images will continue down the same negative path. The movie and magazine production business is difficult to enter and change because of the need to raise so much money. Spite Lee has been an outspoken voice for change of what he called the portrayals of blacks and brown people as basic “coonery and buffoonery.” Spike knows of which he speaks having dealt with the business of trying to sell his wholesome ideas to Hollywood for funding. He’s heard the word “no” too many times.

Beyond getting into the business of controlling imagery there is always the power of the pen to write and complain about negative images. I have not hesitated to contact producers to let them know my disapproval of certain images. Then there is the power of the “pocketbook no.” But this has been a double edged sword with white producers rejecting all black and brown movies on the pretext that “positive movies” are not profitable. But, the negative imagery has to stop. For the sake of our black and brown children for generations to come the negative portrayals of ourselves and our communities must change.

Copyright 2012 – L. Arthalia Cravin. All rights Reserved. No part of this commentary may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system, or transmitted by any means, electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording, or otherwise, without written permission from the author.

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