For decades, America has found entertainment from many media sources. As the country adapted socially to monumental events like the Civil Rights movement in the 1960s, film and television followed suit.
African-American representation in film has made strides, especially in recent years with films like “Black Panther” (2018) and “The Hate U Give” (2018) or even television series like “Raising Dion” (2019-22).
However, even with this increase in representation, there is still room to improve by representing the many aspects of the Black community. Representation of Black characters was 65.8% in TV series pre-pandemic and 70.5% post-pandemic, according to diversityinc.com. Roles for Black actors in films also increased from 56.1% to 58.7%.
Black representation in the media is integral for the youth of the community as young minds may struggle to relate to characters portrayed on screen. It was rare to see a television series or film with a Black actor in a lead role instead of the supporting sidekick for much of cinematic history. For Dr. Kenya Davis-Hayes, professor of history, that all changed for her in the 1980s.
“My first, if not the strongest, would be ‘The Cosby Show,’ coming out in the ’80s,” Davis-Hayes said. “It was the idea of a well-off Black family. When ‘The Cosby Show’ came out, I think their youngest, Rudy, and I were the same age. It was interesting to watch a show with someone who I felt looked like me as a small child. Growing up alongside her for so many seasons is my first strong memory.”
Growing up watching blockbuster films made it apparent that, for a long time, Hollywood was not always for everyone. As the industry has progressed, we have seen more representation emerging in various ways. At the same time, there are still “Black films,” as Davis-Hayes refers to them, like “Think Like A Man” (2012) and “The Color Purple” (1985), which are geared toward a specific audience. The industry has transitioned from placing Black actors in these categorical roles outside the Black film industry.
There has been a rise of Black actors taking to the screen in films produced by companies like Marvel or Disney. It seems as though it is no longer a question of whether this role can be played by a Black actor, but will it?
TV shows with Black actors as the lead–without the plot’s main focus being their racial struggle– can be rare.
One of the most recent and shocking castings to the Black community in memory is the casting of Halle Bailey as Ariel in the not yet released live-action “Little Mermaid” (2023). There was much controversy surrounding the casting choice of this role, considering that Ariel is portrayed as Caucasian in the animated film.
“I feel that Hollywood hasn’t done the best job in representing Black actors in film and TV,” said Jasmine Burks, freshman business major. “I do think that as time progresses, there are a good amount of Black actors, but the representation is not at yet at the highest standard.”
Another avenue that films tend to take when casting Black actors is, of course, in movies about African-American history. Films like “12 Years A Slave” (2013) and “Harriet” (2019) highlight and tell the story of slavery, and “Hidden Figures” (2016) shows the struggle that women in the workplace faced during segregation. These films are considered to be under the umbrella of Black film since, more often than not, they are created from the visions of Black folk.
“We have the Black historical drama — so ‘12 Years A Slave,’ ‘Glory,’ ‘Harriet’ — you know, all of these movies that I would argue probably go back to ‘Roots’ in the 1970s, and then all of a sudden, there is this market for a Black historical film,” Davis-Hayes said. “So when we look at those films, I think about them in two ways. On the one hand, I think that a lot of people behind those projects are Black, at least to a certain degree. And so you’ve got Black folks saying this is a part of our history, this is a part of our national legacy and people need to be reminded of that.”
Although representation in Hollywood has increased over time, there are still gaps where parts of the community are not being represented to the fullest extent.
Even now, a majority of lead roles for Black women are fulfilled by light-skinned Black actresses.
While that does represent an aspect of the community, Black actresses of a darker skin tone are often less represented. Davis-Hayes said it is rare to see actresses such as Regina King or Viola Davis play the softer roles of a princess or main love interest in a romance film.
Instead, Black female actresses of darker skin are often categorized as “strong Black women.”
“Even though there are a good amount of Black actors and actresses, the representation is not necessarily to the standard to which it should be,” Burks said. “For example, Zendaya is one of the main [source of] Black representation in Hollywood, but she does not carry all of the traits that represent the Black community.”
As the media continues to learn and adapt alongside the Black community, there is a plethora of content to be produced.