African American Representation in Film

Representation in Silent Films

For African Americans of the Silent Film era representation looked a lot like what is seen in D.W. Griffith’s The Birth of a Nation from 1915. According to African American Film professor, Jacqueline Stewart, “early films frequently conceal and reveal Black figures, creating discomfort and disorder, intended to amuse, fascinate, and/or alarm white viewers.”  This can be seen in The Birth of a Nation, where white actors in blackface, portray minstrel-style characters and perceived stereotypes of African Americans: the mammy, the Uncle Remus, and the criminals are all prevalent in this film. While this film primarily depicts African Americans as criminals, other films of the era, such as A Nigger in the Woodpile (1904) portray African Americans as the comic relief character. 2


Gus, portrayed by a white man in blackface, is the antagonist in D.W. Griffith’s The Birth of a Nation from 1915. 3

What is race film?

There is no one universally used definition of race film. Some scholars believe that to be considered a true race film, a film must be produced by an African American owned company, and have a cast mostly consisting of African American actors. Others have a more broad definition, which includes many great films that would be otherwise left out with a more narrow definition, but could also include films that harm the image of African Americans. For the purposes of this project, and the data set used within this project, I will use the more broad definition. According to the creators of the data set, a race film is a film that fulfills one or more of the following criteria: “it has an African American cast, is produced by an African American-owned company, is in tended for exhibition to African American audiences, is produced outside of the Hollywood system, and/or is designed to counter prevailing stereotypes of African Americans on film.” 4

The Great Migration

What is the Great Migration?

The Great Migration is the mass movement of African Americans from the southern states to northern cities, which occurred from 1910-1970. During this time, around 6 million African Americans migrated west and to urban areas of the north.

The Great Migration is sometimes split into two parts. The first Great Migration, which I focus on for this project, takes place between 1910-1940.

Professor Stewart E. Tolnay describes the Great Migration as, “one of the most significant demographic events to occur in the United States during the twentieth century.” 5This period impacted every sphere of society from political and economic spheres to social and cultural spheres.