If there ever was a year for black voices to be heard it would be this one. Racial relations in America are dismal. Mistrust of our governing officials is at an all-time high. And the media are disenfranchising the country with scare tactics and biased news. Yet, through all this, there is a silver lining. More black representation in Hollywood; and this year belongs to black male actors.
Media representation is no small matter. Our media represents how society values its cultures. Black people, however, for the longest time received the short end of the stick.
Black male actors had limited options in movies and television before the 1970s. They were either servants, villains, thieves, or stupid. Adrien Sebro, a professor and researcher in the Department of Radio-Television-Film who teaches on U.S. black television sitcoms at the University of Texas at Austin, elaborates more on the issue.
“It wasn’t until the 1970s where you see television come to fruition talking about real social issues, and particularly it comes to black television shows in the 70s. Sitcoms like Sanford and Son, Good Times, and The Jeffersons look at black communities and do a better job of showing them in a realer light. These are shows about families trying to run a business and trying to make ends meet.”
Professor Sebro continued: “These actors had their lives threatened and put their lives on the line because they realized something larger than themselves, and because of their sacrifices we have this history of how we see and enjoy television today.”
Black actors, however, had a long fight ahead in the ’70s. One that continues today. That being said, with better representation in 2020, it seems this could be the year that sparks a renaissance for black representation in film and television.
Black Male Actors: Representation Matters
Last month a salient study was published regarding America’s perception of black people in media.
The #RepresentationMatters report by the National Research Group showed that 2 in 3 Black Americans say they don’t see themselves or their culture represented in movies or television, with 86% of Black Americans wanting to see more of these representative stories on screens.
Moreover, the study found that 91% of the Americans surveyed believe that media has the power to influence society. And 3 in 4 of all people surveyed (and 87% of Black Americans surveyed), believe the way Black Americans are portrayed in the media influences perceptions of them in the real world.
Lastly, 83% of Black Americans (and 66% the total surveyed) believe that the media perpetuates negative stereotypes of Black people.
“The high level of consumer interest in diverse stories and voices surfaced very strongly in this research,” said Cindi Smith, vice president of diversity, equity and inclusion practice for the National Research Group, in a statement with the report.
Smith continued and stated she hopes the report will “inspire creators and marketers to get behind stories that offer a fresh point of view and bring to light more multi-faceted identities.”
Black Actors: A Year in Review
Unfortunately, in 2020 we lost Chadwick Boseman — a rising star who showed black kids that anything is possible. However, his loss brought communities from all backgrounds together. Boseman’s untimely death hurts, but his legacy will never die.
Boseman joins a legendary group of black male actors who stole the show in 2020:
- Jon David Washington: The former NFL running back stared in one of the biggest movies of 2020, Tenent. Washington has such a unique background of starting off as an athlete and switching gears to work in major motion pictures. However, he’s working on real movies with all-time great directors like Christopher Nolan and Spike Lee. Washington is somebody to keep an eye on in the future.
- Michael K. Williams: While Williams is taking a backseat role in Lovecraft Country to fellow black actor Jonathan Majors, it must be said: Williams is killing it. In the last decade, the actor received three primetime Emmy awards. This year, he’s putting in a lifetime performance on HBO’s biggest show.
- Morgan Freeman: Freeman’s biggest role this year was helping the Scooby-Doo gang in their 2020 cartoon. Seriously though — it was a great episode. However, he also joined rappers Metro Booming and 21 Savage on one of the biggest hip-hop projects of the year, “Savage Mode II.” Freeman bridges gaps like no one else.
African Americans have come a long way. We used to have no voice; no platform to express said voice; and no ways of criticizing and dismantling unjust systems. That all is changing.
One of the ways to implement long-lasting, permanent change in our systems is through the media we consume. After all, sometimes we are barely cognizant of the shows and movies that we’re exposed to. Movies, television, and media are on 24 hours a day and we always risk being influenced by them.
This is all fine if however, we see a more balanced portrayal of our society. One where Asian people aren’t always the nerd or conversely, a kung-fu master. One where Native Americans aren’t always the spiritual sage. One where black people aren’t always gangsters, janitors, or servants.
But times are changing.
Netflix Vice President of original content, Channing Dungey summed up 2020 best in her inveriew with Variety.
“Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, George Floyd, all those deaths coming in quick succession — I think it’s opened up an entirely different conversation that particularly in Hollywood, coming in the wake of #MeToo, I think everyone is realizing that the business has been built on some systemic wrongs that need to be righted.”
It’s a crime that it took so many martyrs to make it to this moment in 2020. So, we mustn’t let their sacrifices go in vain.