There have been tons of stereotyping, tropes, and terrible jokes in Hollywood used to create an image of Blackness that isn’t true. But there are some films that go beyond the pale in terms of just how racist they are. Here five of the most racist movies in Hollywood.
'The Birth of a Nation'
Hollywood’s first blockbuster is 1915’s The Birth of a Nation. Directed by D.W. Griffith, the film literally tells a romanticized history of the Ku Klux Klan, turning them from the domestic terrorist group they actually are into saviors of a white America besieged by lawless Black people.
The film was unsuccessfully boycotted by the NAACP, which tried to get the film taken out of theaters at the time. But a lot of the techniques used in the film, plus its box office popularity, laid the groundwork that future blockbusters would follow.
'Song of the South'
Disney’s long-lost 1941 film Song of the South is only available in small quantities overseas, as the film is indefinitely out of print in America because of its racist depictions of Black people during the Reconstruction era.
Between the childlike tropes of Blackness in the characters of Uncle Remus (James Baskett) and Aunt Tempe (Hattie McDaniel), the animated scenes with Br’er Rabbit, Br’er Fox and Br’er Bear, and that song “Zip-a-Dee-Doo-Dah,” the film became hated over the years as a horrible stain on Disney’s legacy. Interestingly enough, Black critics at the time were split on the film, with some hating it for its evident racism and others feeling like the friendly relationships between Black and white characters could prove helpful in easing racial tensions.
'The Jazz Singer'
Al Jolson, who had long made a career on racially appropriating Black performances by using blackface, starred in the 1927 musical as a young man who wants to become a jazz singer despite his Jewish family’s wishes. In the film, Jolson does don blackface to horrific effect, but interestingly enough, Jewish and Black writers at the time gave it good reviews. However, as racial discussions evolved over time, Jolson’s career has become more and more contentious.
Jolson himself is an interesting case study, since it has been theorized that he utilized his blackface performances as a way to mesh Jewish and Black suffering throughout history and Jolson himself talked about the similarities between Jewish and Black suffering in the film Big Boy. Jolson also had several Black friends in entertainment, including legendary performer Bill “Bojangles” Robinson, and fought against racial discrimination in the entertainment industry. A complex man to be sure, but nowadays, The Jazz Singer is quite abhorrent, even if Jolson’s heart was in the right place.
A film with blackface that wasn’t well-received was 1986 film Soul Man. Starring C. Thomas Howell and Rae Dawn Chong, the film follows a privileged white boy who uses affirmative action (i.e. a scholarship meant only for Black students) to get into college. To turn black, he overdoses on tanning pills and believes that as a Black man, he’ll have no problems navigating the world. It’s only when he “becomes” Black that he learns about racism.
It’s a ridiculous premise to be sure, and its idiocy alone is offensive. But racist ideas about affirmative action, naivete about prejudice and racism, and, of course, the blackface, made the film hated by critics. The NAACP and the UCLA railed against the film, with the UCLA actually picketing a movie theater. Critically, the film was torn apart for its stylistic and writing choices.
'Where Hands Touch'
Amma Asante was usually well-regarded in cinema circles, but she released a huge bomb with her 2018 film Where Hands Touch. Starring Amandla Stenberg and George MacKay, the film follows a biracial Black girl growing up in Nazi Germany as she finds love–with a Nazi youth–and learns about racism. Again, this girl falls in love with a Nazi with the idea being that love conquers all.
This film takes that idea of love conquering racism to its most ridiculous, offensive, and colorstruck extreme, while negating the actual histories of Black people and other people of color who experienced Nazi Germany. The film quickly became fodder for Twitter memes and roasting as social media users tore the film apart for its offensiveness.
Which films should be added to the list?
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