This month marks the 52nd annual Black History Month in the United States. For over half a century, an entire month has been devoted to the celebration of African American culture, extensive history, and their impact on the world. While they have most notably led the United States in its struggle to enact the Civil Rights Movement in the 1950s and ‘60s, the Black community has had a major effect on the entertainment industry. Since the beginning of the 19th century, the influence of African Americans on today’s movies is too great of an achievement to be ignored.
In 1914, actor and singer Sam Lucas became the first Black man to have a leading role, starring in the film Uncle Tom’s Cabin. Previous to 1914 African Americans were portrayed by white actors through the offensive use of blackface, the act of a non-Black portraying a caricature of a Black person. The release of the film resulted in an era of Hollywood where production studios would feature Black actors, which was also an outcome of the controversial and openly racist yet renowned film The Birth of a Nation. The movie sparked strife among African Americans and carved the pathway to the “race film” era.
“Race films” were orchestrated by African American companies with all-Black casts and were aimed toward audiences in the southern states. These movies allowed for a substantial African American presence in the film industry, a presence that was only heightened by the civil rights era. In 1964, Bahamian American actor Sidney Poitier became the first Black actor to win an academy award, which he received for his work in the film Lilies of the Field. Poitier also portrayed Black icons Thurgood Marshall and Nelson Mandela in films and eventually received the U.S. Presidential Medal of Freedom from President Barack Obama in 2009.
In today’s world of cinema and television, African American representation is stronger than ever. As the nation still feels the effects of the Civil Rights Movement and the climax of the Black Lives Matter movement in 2020, it has been critical for Hollywood to allow African American filmmakers to showcase their artistic abilities, such as with projects like Moonlight, BlacKkKlansman, and many others. In 2019, Black Panther, led by African American icon Chadwick Boseman, became the first superhero film to receive a nomination for Best Picture at the 91st Academy Awards, a monumental achievement for the Black community. The Falcon and the Winter Soldier also challenged the country’s representation of African Americans by introducing Black actor Anthony Mackie as the new Captain America.
Although the world still has many steps to accurately represent Black culture in cinema, the steps that have already been taken are significant for the African American community.
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