Black Characters in Search of Reality

Prompted by The Help, New York Times writer Brent Staples checks in on persistent stereotypes of African Americans in film.

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Touchstone Pictures

Moved by depictions of blacks in The Help, New York Times journalist and author Brent Staples takes a look at dogged stereotypes of African Americans in film over the years.

Through most of the 20th century, images of African-Americans in advertising were mainly limited to servants like the pancake-mammy Aunt Jemima and Rastus, the chef on the Cream of Wheat box. Imagine a Rip Van Winkle who fell asleep during the era of the Negro as household retainer and woke up in 2012. He would be struck speechless by billboards and commercials featuring affluent black people advising consumers on pharmaceuticals, real estate, financial services and the virtues of owning expensive cars. This kind of transformation has yet to take hold in the dramatic arts.

Advertisers, who must create the world anew every day, have to keep close tabs on changing social and cultural realities. The industry began to normalize images of black affluence in response to the civil rights revolution, and embraced those images as it became clear that they were good for selling breakfast cereal and mutual funds, too.

The dramatic arts are less nimble, partly because they draw on material that is rarely written by people of color and often firmly rooted in a past that allowed for only a narrow, impoverished view of African-American life. The black middle and upper classes have long fumed that stage and film have rendered them largely invisible -- and are hungry for serious works with rounded characterizations of themselves.

Read Brent Staples' entire column at the New York Times.

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