While black male caricatures have vacillated heavily over the years, some have stuck more than others. The most prevalent ones refer to black men’s “badassery” (I missed out on that gene). This has roots in the slave trade where “big black bucks” often got attention from slave owners due to their strength and stamina. In the same way a pet owner can feel a sense of pride in a pet’s prowess, slave owners were able to feel a sense of pride in what their slaves did. It didn’t help that blacks were also bred as chattel by forced mating, which caused whites to associate them with “bestial” sexuality. While these attributes furthered the separation of slaves and owners (and thus lessened slaves’ humanity), it also created an odd sort of respect towards the slaves. Everyone wants physical and sexual prowess, even if it is due to circumstance. As I mentioned in my reflections on Calvin Candie in Django Unchained, black male fetishism exists because of these perceived strengths. And it actually makes a lot of sense: the often-invoked narrative of the “negro’s journey” is a more “American” tale than actual white Americans; a group of people under the thumb of an oppressive government eventually break free and forge their own identity. Sounds familiar?
Americans’ collective pride is commonly attributed to our perserverance, adaptability, and boldness. We frame our progenitors as romantic warrior-kings, not politicians or ambassadors. America LOVES tough rebels, it’s how we were born. Once African-Americans became more prevalent in media, they became perfect racial shorthand for badass rebels due to their history.
Most attribute the first “badass” portrayals of African-Americans to 70’s “blaxpoitation” films. These films were defined by the presence of all black casts in mostly action or crime dramas. Most of these protagonists were anti-heroes (due to their propensity for violence and promiscuity), but also could be considered “noble savages” which (according to Wikipedia) “expresses the concept of an idealized indigene, outsider, or “other”. The most common target of this trope has been Native Americans, who’s virtues were praised by Benjamin Franklin and have been romanticized in films such as Dancing With Wolves (1990)and The Last of the Mohicans (1992). Unlike Native Americans , modern African Americans’ are romanticized for their urban prowess: in the same way that the traditional “noble savage” embodies an earthy power, the black equivalent has adapted to the urban jungle; thus developing street smarts, comfort with violence, and sexual bravado. As such, many of these films established the locale before anything else, examples including Super Fly (1972), Black Caesar (1973), and of course, Shaft (1971).
Even films that didn’t place in the city ( or even the appropriate time period ) had a modern funk soundtrack to generate the “urban” miasma anyway, like the film Boss Nigger (1974) which is a western.
Probably the biggest element of this archetype is it’s intense sexual power. Before blaxpoitation films, the only times mainstream media alluded to black male’s sexuality was to demonize it, most horrifically shown in D.W. Griffith’s Birth of A Nation (1915) where a black Union soldier attempt at raping a white woman leads to her jumping off a cliff. If that were Shaft, the only place that white woman would have jumped into was his leopard printed bed. The ultimate threat of black male autonomy that Birth of A Nation alluded to was the corruption of the white race by black rapists. Black male sexuality was a threat to whites, which helped create a mystique among some women about what’s so “wrong” about it. This was helped by more attractive black figures in mainstream media like athletes and actors. This made viable the “romantic” black heroes we see in blaxpoitation films, who had the “terrifying” sexual aspects of previous characters, but in a more attractive way. The film considered the first blaxpoitation film is Sweet Sweetback’s Badassssss Song (1971) (and yes,that’s spelled right), which centers on the titular sex performer Sweetback attempting to go to Mexico after interfering with police brutality. Or at least that’s what Peebles claims it’s about; i’d call it an overly long porn movie.
The character of Sweetback is such a sexual dynamo that his first sexual experience is as a fourteen year old boy being propositioned by a hooker (for FREE,mind you) and his large penis and prowess leads her to dub him “Sweetback”. As you can see in the picture above, even white women aren’t immune to his charms. What’s funny is that he has sex with the white woman to actually gain the support of the biker gang surrounding them. One could argue that the spectacle he creates for the audience in-universe represents the spectacle blacks in this genre created for the American audience. Of course blacks were happy to see romantic protagonists, but it’s important to remember that these were mainstream films that whites saw as well (not to mention these films were almost entirely directed by whites). Why these audiences enjoyed these portrayals has been controversial for years: was black masculinity being celebrated or, as the genre’s title insinuates, being exploited in the same way it was during slavery? Was Sweetback a performer or a prostitute?
The notion of “exploitation” has always been a bit murky. Romanticizing a race puts them in a positive light but also caricaturizes them. Portraying East Asians as skilled in math turns them into two-dimensional cartoons and ignores the nuances of their culture. But at the same time, aren’t we supposed to celebrate these differences? It is an important part of East Asian culture to be skilled in math so shouldn’t that be acknowledged?
In the 19th century, the theatrical tradition of “blackface” (where white men made up their faces to appear African American) was at it’s highest.
Blackface performances went beyond just make up and involved vaudevillian comedy and upbeat singing and dancing (as seen here). This popularized the “ever-jovial shine” stereotype which persisted until guys like Malcolm X started scaring white people. This form of art is almost unanimously denounced by the African American community, to the point where any white man who puts on brown makeup is immediately given negative attention, as actor Ted Danson found out in regards to his controversial award show outfit at the roast of Whoopi Goldberg.
One of the most famous practitioners of this art was Al Jolson (pictured above). One would assume Jolson would have no respect for African Americans due to his routines, but reality suggests the opposite. In Al Jolson: A Biography (2003), he describes his love of blackface was because it “gave [him] a sense of freedom and spontaneity he had never known“. He was also one of the first non-black civil rights supporters back in 1911, openly fighting theater restrictions against black attendance. Even if it was an affectation for the sake of whites, much of early African American culture was shaped by enthusiastic song and dance. The slaves often enjoyed it as much as the owners, hence why it was adapted into art forms like jazz and ragtime. Jolson, a Russian Jew who knew the hardships of discrimination, took solace in the exuberant method of coping that blacks developed. Film historian Eric Lott feels as if this attitude pertained to other blackface performers as well:
“For the white minstrel man to put on the cultural forms of ‘blackness’ was to engage in a complex affair of manly mimicry…. To wear or even enjoy blackface was literally, for a time, to become black, to inherit the cool, virility, humility, abandon, or gaité de coeur that were the prime components of white ideologies of black manhood.”
Like blackface performances, blaxpoitation films allowed for an audience to “put on the face” of black manhood Lott alludes to. The strengths and struggles of the heroes become our own and we immediately recognize them. Who doesn’t want to “stick it to the man”? Who doesn’t want women to lust after them? This sentiment carries over to modern media as well, primarily in hip hop music. Just as whites reveled in the abandon of blackface, suburban whites get the chance to revel in a world they fear yet wish they were “strong” enough to live in. Does this kind of art pander to the lowest common denominator? Pretty much. But what is art if not a way to connect people together? Is it the best thing in the world that the first black person people think of is 50 Cent? No, but at least it’s something that brings African Americans into the mainstream. At one point blacks weren’t even hired to be in film (Birth of A Nation had whites play blacks, for example). As much as I bristle at filmmakers like Tyler Perry and Spike Lee, they are at least getting some amazing black actors a chance to become household names. And this was partially due to the “big black bucks” and “ever-jovial shines” of Hollywood’s past.
For most posts on Afro American History in Media:
For those who would care enough to buy it, there’s a great documentary titled White Scripts and Black Supermen: Black Masculinities in Comic Books which inspired some of this post and the previous one. You can find it here: